From Character Generation to Exposition

For almost 15 years, I’ve been working hard to eliminate the device of “character generation” from my roleplaying games. The tradition, like an awful lot in RPGs, comes from wargames, where your choices about your character at the outset are strategic decisions that affect the outcome of your tactical decisions in play. But if our play is not about optimal tactical decisions, surely those initial choices can be something other than optimizing resource allocation.

By contrast, in fiction, the process of establishing the “normal” for the character, as well as what they want and why, is called “character exposition.” With fiction once again as our model, let me explain where I’ve gone and where I want to be for A Traveler, Alone and Shock:2.

My process has proceeded through several experiments:

  • Under the Bed (2005): Your character is a random draw of three cards, each describing a feature of a personality. Some of the combinations are illegal because they’re explicitly incompatible (Violent vs. Passive, for instance), but you can also just shuffle one back in a redraw when a combination doesn’t make sense to you. It wants you to usually have a reason to use them all at once, so playing to your own sensibilities will allow the imagination to flow more easily in play.
    • In play, you have a choice to draw face-up personality traits as you succeed. The intention here is that, as the personality of a child, you’re developing and maturing, so you gain new qualities.
  • Shock:Social Science Fiction (2006): Your Protagonist comes about as an extension of your world. As one of the first RPGs to completely proceduralize world creation, it first established the sociopolitical dynamic environment. That environment’s change is exemplified by Protagonists, who are affected by and affecting that change in dynamic tension with each other.
    • Characters would establish what they wanted to make happen in the world, setting stakes for the story that would emerge, giving every player some context for what was liable to happen in the course of play.
    • The “stats,” called “Praxis”, are the moral dimensions of the universe in question. They are the ways that, objectively, the characters can resolve their dynamic situations, whatever the outcomes.
    • Players choose according to their intentions, how successful they want to be in those moral dimensions. A lack of success on the part of the character gives the player resources, so they can opt to make their character likely to fail at the things they do the most, if they like.
    • Players also choose a set of three low-rules-contact “Features” that are a description of their character. The rules only care about how many Features a character has, but they are objectively true.
    • Links, which I divided into People and Identity in Human Contact, were opportunities to reroll your dice. The mechanic is flawed because rerolls are rarely valuable when you need them, but their function in play is central. In Human Contact, I gave some requirements for what these described while giving the players opportunities to assign them by context, and I noticed that it gave players a more concrete vision of the fictional elements. That meant that you could have Features like “Broken leg” or “Jabiz Fajumal (a character)” that you’d remember, and could have an effect.
  • Beowulf (2008): Because Beowulf was effectively a reskinning of Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age…, it used the Oracle for character generation. In that game, you agree on a loose context for the game as players, then draw characters from a deck of cards. Players then choose which they, themselves want to play, and which are secondary characters. Because the combination of characters is unlikely to arise again, and the Oracle invites you to draw connections between them, the characters themselves will fall out differently in different instances of play.
    • However, the Oracle then feeds into a more traditional character creation system in which you can see the origins of much of Apocalypse World’s elements, like Hx and highlighting of stats.
  • Shock:Human Contact (2010): was, at its heart, an example of what could be done creatively with Shock:Social Science Fiction. Its initial specification was to encourage players to hack at it and figure out how to bring it down from the “orbital view” that it preferred, into a more personal, purpose-built expression of a set of science fiction ideas through characters, relationships, and environmental details.
    • The primary difference at character creation was to split “Links” into “People” and “Identity”
      • People is defined as anyone whose opinion of your actions you care about (rivals, lovers, friends, opponents…)
      • Identity is defined is anything about a character’s beliefs about themselves, including philosophical assertions, abilities and disabilities, wounds, physical presentation, and so forth.
    • Features now explicitly included your appearance and your social position, as well as an open-ended one.
  • The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze (2014, ongoing): (with its developmental designs, Lover of Jet & Gold, Heart of Bronze, and  The Name of Bronze) I could tell that the Shock: system of character creation, with its up-front establishment of all the elements of a character, was not getting at what I wanted to get at. In the Bronze games, my design assertion was that the sole function of a character creation phase was to give each other enough context and description that everyone could start converging on a shared vision. The game repeatedly asks players to describe in detail and with all the senses (a rule drawn from Meguey Baker’s Thousand and One Nights), and so we need to give players the situation in which they’ll need that description. The games asks you:
    • Who are you running from and what do they want? Or, who has the authority to issue you orders, and what have they told you to do? What do they want from you?
    • Who (for the very broad definitions of a “person” in the animist context of the game) helped you get away? Or, what awesome thing do you have with you?
    • And that is it! Everything else comes out in play. 
  • A Traveler, Alone: Where The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze needs to express things to another player, Traveler does not. That means that the game can ask questions of you that you can immediately answer for yourself. And this is what’s exciting about this game to me: it can ask questions like, “When Anashut turns to look at you, you are stunned by their attractiveness. Imagine how they are attractive to you. Their face, their expression, their body.” The rules can just ask you, as a player, to give them characteristics. I don’t have to know, as a designer, that you still have a thing for a particular ex. Hell, you don’t have to know! You’re not answering to anyone but yourself.
    • That also means that the game can ask questions like, “If you are afraid of them, add a red card to your hand. If you recognize them from before, add a yellow card.”
    • It also means, that the game can say, “Lashu is a stout woman with a broad back, a long-ago-broken nose, braided black hair, and wearing greaves and a stiff linen skirt. Her torso is detailed in indigo with pictures of monsters and armies she has defeated. Upon her back is slung a bow as thick as your wrist, and from her waist hangs a quiver of akum-feathered arrows. If you are afraid of her, take a grey card. If you are attracted to her, take a red card. If you would like to test yourself against her, take a grey card.”
    • That way, the rules can alter the course of events by stacking the deck in certain ways that are determined by your character’s internal state.

I’m pretty excited to try this out. I’m hoping I have a tiny, playable example of this in the next month!

What are heroes like in The Fifth World? Absent sedentary, agrarian life, how do their culture heroes demonstrate the values of their society?
What are the rituals of death in The Fifth World? Four centuries after the fall of industrialized society, where you are right now, what do they say about death?

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