First thing’s first: Our new owl mascot needs a name, and we need your help naming him! If you haven’t had a chance to vote yet, please do so now.
What should we name the owl? (Choose your top 2!)
- Archimedes (73%, 8 Votes)
- Athena (36%, 4 Votes)
- Bubo (18%, 2 Votes)
- Cha-Cha (18%, 2 Votes)
- Whisker (18%, 2 Votes)
- Enyo (18%, 2 Votes)
- Dutch (18%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 11
Now, unto the far less important content of today’s article. I’ve often heard it argued that story concepts like tone and style are the provenience of the GM, and all issues of character are the sole domain of the player.
This is, of course, total bullshit.
Storytelling is inherently collaborative and, at its minimum, it requires a sender and a receiver. Roleplaying games up this collaboration by an order of magnitude by removing the notion of single authorship. While it is true that roleplaying games seem to maximize the fun factor when one person is responsible for shepherding the story based on the input of other players, the concept of giving one set of story elements to this player is too neat.
Put another way: Does the tone of your fantasy epic change if you add a court jester to the character lineup? Then tone is not the sole domain of the GM. In the same way, are the other players around the table who have spent months tweaking their warriors, rogues, and mages going to balk when your ne’er-do-well bard starts spinning ballads about sexual abuse of nostrils? Assuming you’re with me on the rhetorical nature of that question, this demonstrates that characters are not the unique creation of their player.
Fear the Boot’s group template (which we’ve beaten into the dust maybe more than they have!) provides a phenomenal way to address the character half of this equation by allowing players to form a framework from which characters may be drawn. The group template asks players to define what their group is about, what shared experiences they’ve had, and what they’ve done recently. If you’ve not heard of it before, read more about it at Fear the Boot. In previous articles, I’ve suggested ideas on how a GM can extend some of these concepts to help intentionally draw the other players into setting tone and style for a story. I’ve had a chance to put some of these in practice recently.
Today, we’ll look at a method for groups to collaboratively generate expectations for tone and style of a game. We’ll also re-emphasize the importance of the group template even in the case of one-off games. Finally, we’ll talk about moving from group to character.
Collaboratively Generating Expectations
The group template (possibly) excepted, I’m not a fan of “mandatory lists of questions.” Heck, as an improv GM, I’m not a fan of anything that requires me to remember one more thing at the table. So, the examples I’m about to give are just that.
That behind us, the easiest way to collaboratively generate expectations is with a series of questions. While there are many opportunities for these to be asked and answered, there is only one time where this matters: before the game starts, or more specifically before characters are generated. Again, the exact nature of the questions doesn’t matter as much, but the fact that they are asked, and that the answers given matter, is vital.
If the broad strokes of a game, such as rule set, genre, and setting are not yet defined, those are great questions to start with. This may well look like a GM saying, “I want to run a game about redemption. Do any of you players have a game you’ve been wanting to try that we can run this in?” or equally well, “I want to run a FATE spy game. I’ve got some ideas about it, but the setting could be wide open.” Do this early on, if these details aren’t defined and also aren’t definitional to the game you’re pitching; giving players the opportunity to be part of creating the world can be a key step to buy-in.
The game I recently ran was predetermined (through a number of factors, input of others, and personal decision) to be a superhero game with “golden age” style characters, set in or around WWII, and using the Spirit of the Century rules. Since all these factors were already determined at the outset of the game, I used another set of questions focused far less on setting and genre and more on tone and style. These questions included:
- Tone: Will this game be satirical, dark, hopeful, etc… ?
- Lethality: Do you fight bad guys to the death, or to they surrender? What about heroes? What about other NPCs?
- Nature of Conflict: Is the core conflict physical, social, or otherwise? Is it against a scientific, mysterious, mundane, or other kind of power?
- Patron of Heroes: Are the heroes free agents, or supported by the Army, or supported by some third party?
- Realism: What level of supernatural or hi-tech is “normal” for your heroes? What level is unexpected but not impossible?
- Power Level: How far back do people fly when you punch them? Do warlocks summon damned souls, demons, princes of Hell, or Satan himself? Can Superman jump really high or actually fly?
- Party Cohesion: Three Musketeers, Superfriends, the Avengers, Hobbits + Gollum, or that one awkward episode when He-Man had to team up with Skeletor?
Group Templates: Now for One-Offs Too!
This game represented the first time I’ve asked for a group template in a one-off. My main motive was that we were introducing a new gamer, and I wanted to start him off on the right path. However, on the other side of the template, I’ve decided that group templates of one form or another should be used for any multiplayer roleplaying game, whether it lasts two hours or two years.
I had to put my toddler to bed before the game got started, and this became a great time for the players to chew through the group template. What was very interesting to me was that the concept of the group seemed very much informed by the “tone” questions that had come before. I was also exceptionally pleased to walk away from the table for a bit, and come back to hear “This is who we’re going to be.” Again, as an ad-lib GM, I didn’t have too much of an idea yet for what the adventure would look like, so it was really cool to hear a clear representation of what the super team would be beforehand.
Characters and the Star of the Show
Players engaged in all these activities before a single character was generated. Of course, some players had come with some idea of what they’d like to play, but it was very interesting to see how these ideas got executed in light of the tone and style questions and the group template.
Character generation took about five minutes for each character; I ran through the steps of the MUST method for game generation and we focused on high level concept, key powers, key skills, and trouble–with a little bit of origin tossed in, courtesy of the group template.
Our final step was a new one for me, and one I’ve been wanting to try for a while. We designated a “star of the show.” In the parlance of the superhero game we were playing, this step was about deciding whose “issue” we’d be running the game in. We house-ruled an always-available advantage for characters taking actions to help the “star of the show” take center stage. For those curious, this was a Fate game. The rule created a sticky aspect that could be tagged by everyone once for free per conflict, and thereafter, tagged at the cost of a Fate point.
The bittersweet irony was that the only player around the table who dissed the star of the show was me, the GM. I stupidly cast a social scene that didn’t play to his strengths, which he had the insight to sit out of. I should have had to empty my coffers of Fate points for that move!