(This is the twenty-sixth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
I’ve been talking about character creation as if it’s a solo task, something you do in a vacuum. But unless you’re playing a two-person game, with one GM and one player — which can be done, but it’s rare — there will be other characters in the “party,” the group of PCs who are collectively the protagonists of the story. And you want to make sure that whoever you’re making up with mesh with the rest of the group.
This is codified to a particularly high degree in D&D, because that game is designed so heavily for combat. As any player of a MMORPG knows, there are certain combat roles you need to fill for a well-balanced party: tank, DPS, healer, etc. If you send four bards and a rogue into a typical D&D fight, you’re going to have problems. So when it comes time to make characters for a D&D game, you need the players to talk to one another and negotiate who’s going to play what part, to make sure all the necessary bases are covered. There’s wiggle room within that, because of the role overlap between classes, but you still want to make sure you have a well-balanced group.
To a lesser extent, this applies to other kinds of games as well. Some players will talk about “niches,” designating one PC the party’s “face” (responsible for talking to important NPCs), another as the party “perceiver” (responsible for noticing clues and ambushes), a third as the one who buys lore-type skills and will supply information as needed, etc. I personally don’t like that approach, because it’s very artificial: it assumes the party loremaster will a) succeed at their rolls, b) always be present when other PCs need to know stuff, and c) have the opportunity to share what they know. How often is that true in realistic behavior? How often can you delegate your important conversations to someone else speaking on your behalf? I prefer characters who are either well-rounded, or deficient on the social or perceptive or lore fronts because the player consciously wants that to be part of the concept.
But I do think there’s some value to the niche idea, because if two people are playing very similar types of characters, they wind up stepping on each other’s toes. All too often, this results in one person feeling unsatisfied, like they don’t get many opportunities to shine, to have their character step up and say, “this is what I do.” And as with D&D combat, it’s often good to make sure that somebody in the group is good at the various things that might be needed. (Though there can also be entertainment in running a game for a party that couldn’t defend themselves from a troupe of gerbils, or talk their way out of a wet paper bag.)
Some game systems actually build group character creation into their design. Even if it isn’t a formal thing, having the players talk to each other (and the GM) is a good idea, for a whole host of reasons.
For starters, you want the players to make characters that fit the plot: for an Unhallowed Metropolis game, taking place in a futuristic neo-Victorian post-zombie-apocalyptic world, the GM told us to make characters who had a reason to join the army. Since joining the army meant leaving the relative safety of London to go out into the zombie-infested countryside, he wound up with a pack of the most illiterate, amoral, criminal, disease-ridden neo-Victorian street rats imaginable. I ran a Scion campaign that focused on challenges to the white dominance of American history; I asked the players to make a racially diverse group of characters, so we could see the context from a variety of different antles. A Mummy game my friend ran needed each PC to be psychologically broken in a specific fashion, so that we could each join with different facets of a soul that had been split apart. Things like that can only happen if the GM communicates the story’s basic needs before the campaign even gets started.
Building together also lets you dodge one of the big problems with starting a game, which is the perennial question: “why are these characters working together?” Maybe they know each other already; that has the merit of giving the PCs temporal depth, so they have history rather than springing into being the second the campaign begins. If the PCs aren’t directly connected, they may have friends or enemies or family in common — and NPCs with connections to more than one PC are more likely to play an interesting role in the story, because they’re interesting to more than one player. Even if there’s no linkage of an overt sort, the players can still build their PCs to interlock once they get together: give PC #1 a problem that PC #2 can help with, or a set of beliefs that will give her interesting (but not too contentious) arguments with PC #3.
Having this kind of setup built in from the start aids immensely in getting the group together. I always find this to be one of the most difficult parts of a campaign, because I’m allergic to the stereotypical brick-bat approaches: “you’re all in a tavern when somebody runs in shouting that orcs are attacking the caravans!” or “some unknown force marks you all with a special destiny.” I prefer the breadcrumb approach, even though it’s harder: in the first session I lay trails of breadcrumbs designed to lead the characters toward one another and give them a reason to engage with the plot. If you have cooperative players, that can work very well; in the very first campaign I ran, the PCs actually got together even faster than I expected, because my players were so eager to chase down those leads. But if you have a player who gets stuck on “I don’t see why my PC would do this” . . . well, they need to find a reason. As I said when talking about angsty loner PCs, a character who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the plot is not generally a good fit for an RPG.
But then, that’s the underlying theme of a game, isn’t it? Cooperation. It’s a collaborative, friendly activity, not a competition. Which doesn’t mean there’s never any conflict between the characters, or that such a thing is undesirable — so we’ll talk about PvP next week.