Building Parties, Cities, Histories, and more

A widget that I’ve noticed in games for a while now (and maybe it’s been around longer but it seems a fairly recent invention to me) is a desire to create mechanics which allow/encourage/force a group to come together at the beginning of a game. I use the word “force” in the previous sentence (along with less forceful words) but ultimately, I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. These changes/innovations are something which intrigues me though and I like to explore them sometimes.

What really brings this up for me is the fact that I’ve been reading the Dresden Files RPG (based on FATE) because I’ve been experiencing a softening in my overall distrust of FATE style systems lately (I think being first exposed to FATE-style play through Houses of the Blooded is where it all went wrong). I also happen to love the Dresden Files and recently came into quite a bit of Amazon credit through birthday bounty. Dresden Files RPG uses a version of the mechanic from Spirit of the Century where you build your character’s aspects through a process of exploring back story in discrete chunks (early influences, first adventure, etc.) and at a certain point in the process you include the other PCs in your background allowing you to build some related history. I really like this part of the process of character creation and it was originally one of the parts of Spirit of the Century that got me most excited about the prospect of FATE as a system. I often find though that I get really excited when I read character creation rules and then tend to get frustrated when I read the rest of a system… what can I say, I’m a sucker for PC-making.

Other fairly recent games have their own versions of this. Rogue Trader from Fantasy Flight has this fantastic chart in the book where PCs build a crew together for their crazy merchant ship and it works in a similar, if less mechanical, fashion. A lot of games now have “Party Sheets” which reflect the group as a whole and another Fantasy Flight game, Edge of the Empire, has this concept of Obligation and the party choosing a “home base” (likely their ship) together. Obviously, these mechanics seem to be in place to create a sense of party unity that many games lack. When I think about my favorite game of all time, Amber Diceless RPG, I can reflect on how useful and wonderfully insidious the initial auction mechanic is to allow players to establish a pecking order of sorts right out the gate which may create rivalries, powerful emotions, and even secrets right out of the gate. Really, does anyone trust the guy who doesn’t bid at all in the attribute auction? And how do we feel about the girl who opens the Psyche bidding with an initial bid of 110? The family mechanic of Amber is also a powerful connector as players are forced to decide how to respond to the existing relationships between their parents.

The FATE version of the party-building “lifepath” is such an interesting little change though as it really does reflect a focus on group-centered play. Games like Traveller and Mechwarrior, 3rd Edition with their focus on individual lifepath options often created oddities during character creation which made it harder to square the party rather than easier. Heck, sometimes they wrecked whole character concepts (or whole characters) but mainly, it was the focus on building your character in a vacuum that seemed most problematic.

That said, the one potential weakness of this focus on group-focused character creation is that you can’t do it alone – not effectively anyway. I know so many players who deeply prefer to make their characters alone or before they come to the session. They don’t dislike everyone else and they are more than willing to be good group players, they just like having a system to get all their x’s and o’s squared away on their own and don’t see a need to have “past adventures” with the initial group of players.

Something the Dresden Files RPG does seem to do very well though is combining this group-centered character creation with collaboratively creating the “home base” of the party (building a city). What really inspires me about this combination of creation ideas is that it allows you to have a more ensemble cast feeling without everyone needing to share crew quarters or some such “enforced” connection. We didn’t get shoved into the same adventure because we were mechanically required to come up with a shared backstory – our paths crossed because we call the same place home. That’s an idea I can easily wrap my head around as a gamer and really enjoy digging into. Again, it probably isn’t for everyone but I find it compelling.

My take away from this is that I see potential here to adapt these tools to other systems and other gaming experiences. The Pathfinder Adventure Paths actually attempt this to a small extent (for example) by providing “players’ guides” with basic information and campaign specific traits which tie the PCs to the events/locations of that particular campaign (some do it far more effectively than others). I’ve written about this before but the problem a well-done set of group mechanics solve for me is the “why would the party stay together after we resolve the initial crisis” issue. I mean, it’s great that we saved the townsfolk from the poison well but now we really need to know why we’re all going on the next adventure together when it turns out that Savris really needs to get back to his monastery and Arion wants to go hunt vampires… (I suppose the good news is that Arion probably won’t last long in that line of work so he’ll need a new character soon anyway).

But I am – again – always skeptical of creating mechanical solutions to issues which are primarily about motivation and engagement. Dresden Files RPG does it extremely well but I for one boggle at the idea of having five aspects (plus concept and trouble and…) coming right out of the gate. That just feels weighty and difficult to manage to me (though I admit I could be wrong – maybe it works out just fine). More than that, I think that for some players these connections may just become a box to check to get through the process and add whatever aspect they write down at that stage and then they are ready to play and “why are we still doing all this touchy-feely party-building stuff already?” How frustrating is it as a game master when you have described an area and the PCs have “lived” there for weeks and then someone asks right in the middle of a game session, “wait, there’s a lake here?” Now imagine how you feel as a player when you start talking about that one time when you and so-and-so were on an adventure together and they just sit there giving you a blank look because, “so what?” I mean, you were invested in the process, they… weren’t. Adding mechanics gives a reason to do it but doesn’t help with the investment issue (not really a complaint against the system – more a “it can’t solve the underlying problem” point. I think Dresden/SotC actually are on to something fantastic with they way they do this). I suppose at least that you can point disdainfully at the other players’ sheet at this point and give them a rousing, “Come on, man!” when you realize they’ve just blanked out everything you decided at character creation.

And is it necessary to hand out cookies at every step of the process? Some of my favorite characters have come about by the simple expedient of looking across the table at another player and saying, “Hey, you want to be cousins?” I’ve gotten so much mileage out of simply asking another player to connect their character with mine and this approach has created not only meaningful relationships but also meaningful mechanical benefits – in the form of allowing us to still make our characters independently but to always have each other’s back and to shore up each other’s weaknesses. My Shadowrun face (RIP Anniversary Edition) and her troll bodyguard/best friend were a compelling pair that have shown up in at least one other GM’s game as NPCs. And it all came from just saying, “Hey, you wanna work together?” I suppose it comes back to intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. I am very poor with extrinsic motivation systems. They rarely “work” on/for me except in the most base ways. Knowing this helps me navigate those situations but I am still confused when extrinsic motivations win out in our discourse and then leave us somewhat empty down the line.

Just something to think about.

Anyway, as always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.

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4 responses

  1. >>> But I am – again – always skeptical of creating mechanical solutions to issues which are primarily about motivation and engagement. <<>> More than that, I think that for some players these connections may just become a box to check to get through the process <<>> “why would the party stay together after we resolve the initial crisis” issue. <<<

    Players, because of. The answer must come from the players themselves rather than from some rulebook dictation. If they want to continue to play together, they will justify and reason abstractly why the vampire hunter diverges from his or her path. Player investment in abstraction is what a system of social skill rolls trades off, IMHO. Why should I ever bother to speak in character at the table when I can default to reported speech and declare any action (attack, bluff, come on to the barmaid, etc.) and roll for success?

    The value of an attack or a verbal spell component or climbing the Burj Khalifa and player social interaction is not the same but it certainly can be learnt to be of equal value through a system of play that makes them all subject to the same arbitrary dice mechanic. See. You’re not playing with a bunch of douchebags who make you feel uncomfortable because the dice say so (and I have seen new players run from this because they realise something those within the system do not.)

    Attack rolls mean there is damage to be done. But, really, who dies from a social skill roll, ever? Show me this player who takes wandering damage from social interaction with his or her player group, and I believe I can show you a shitty GM/group. People defend these roll-play systems the just as easily as the Player Characters can abstractly reason why his or her monk does not return to the monastery.

    I will posit that if someone needs an arbitrary number rolled in such cases they are not interested (to invest him or herself) in role-playing.

    You can choose to disagree with my opinions – not something you can do were we discussing a board game – and I can hardly knock the inspiration we receive from other sources to broaden our GM’s mind to the art (not science) of role-playing.

    In terms of games, IMHO, role-playing is much more a subjective art within its collective play group than it is an objectified science among its collaborative players.

  2. [something screwy happened with my post above – below is the full post in response]

    “But I am – again – always skeptical of creating mechanical solutions to issues which are primarily about motivation and engagement.”

    And quite rightly so!

    In my opinion, this is a player issue not a system issue. I see more and more player issues getting hard coded into systems design so that the group dynamic inherent in role-playing ultimately becomes a board game. My baggage includes a career in corporate communications insights focused on manipulating culture in groups.

    Once we “drink from the Kool Aid,” is there really any going back? For us who have (and can recall) the taste of pure spring water, maybe; but what about those who have never had the taste to distinguish the fluoride from the chlorine in their tap water? Some people like to raise a hullabaloo about nostalgia but if this is all you know, then that is all you’ll get.

    “More than that, I think that for some players these connections may just become a box to check to get through the process”

    Yep. I do not feel the backlash needs to be as extreme as a complaint. It can be even more detrimental to a game the GM wants to run at his or her table to have an apathetic response of “so?”

    ” “why would the party stay together after we resolve the initial crisis” issue. ”

    Players, because of. The answer must come from the players themselves rather than from some rulebook dictation. If they want to continue to play together, they will justify and reason abstractly why the vampire hunter diverges from his or her path. Player investment in abstraction is what a system of social skill rolls trades off, IMHO. Why should I ever bother to speak in character at the table when I can default to reported speech and declare any action (attack, bluff, come on to the barmaid, etc.) and roll for success?

    The value of an attack or a verbal spell component or climbing the Burj Khalifa and player social interaction is not the same but it certainly can be learnt to be of equal value through a system of play that makes them all subject to the same arbitrary dice mechanic. See. You’re not playing with a bunch of douchebags who make you feel uncomfortable because the dice say so (and I have seen new players run from this because they realise something those within the system do not.)

    Attack rolls mean there is damage to be done. But, really, who dies from a social skill roll, ever? Show me this player who takes wandering damage from social interaction with his or her player group, and I believe I can show you a shitty GM/group. People defend these roll-play systems the just as easily as the Player Characters can abstractly reason why his or her monk does not return to the monastery.

    I will posit that if someone needs an arbitrary number rolled in such cases they are not interested (to invest him or herself) in role-playing.

    You can choose to disagree with my opinions – not something you can do were we discussing a board game – and I can hardly knock the inspiration we receive from other sources to broaden our GM’s mind to the art (not science) of role-playing.

    In terms of games, IMHO, role-playing is much more a subjective art within its collective play group than it is an objectified science among its collaborative players.

  3. I certainly agree – and you are expressing in a very open way my general feeling about the changes to the way we simulate at the table. That said, I’ve always remembered that social skills in game and social skills out of game don’t necessarily equate – just as knowledge in game and knowledge out don’t either. In other words, I don’t have a problem with social skill systems existing just with the idea that they can completely replace the need to put any effort into roleplaying the scene.

    I don’t let fighters just say, “I hit ’em” most of the time and strive to narrate combat to some extent (as a player and GM) so I tend to expect the same of social situations. When a players says to me, “I roll Fast Talk” (or some such), I alway swant to hear the words too.

    Ah well.

  4. >>> I don’t have a problem with social skill systems existing just with the idea that they can completely replace the need to put any effort into roleplaying the scene. <<<

    Our experiences differ here. Attack actions (Thief skills, sword skills, archery, etc.) tend to be abstractions in my games. They fail or succeed at the risk (dice) of chance mediated by some empirical skill. Empirical skill dissolves in my games in the face of (player) story knowledge (interaction). Players get this skill knowledge by interacting with the game itself rather than the mechanics (or published canon).

    This means at the very beginning of the game, the GM is 100% ahead of the players in social skills because of their low world/story knowledge. For example, the player giving a grand oratory worthy of Shakespeare in the King’s court seeking favour isn’t going to go over well (even with a critical success roll) if it suits the King to have the player’s character dead. Why would the king sacrifice his power to achieve what he wants, assuming the role is inhabited by a real character and not merely a cardboard cutout? “But I rolled social combat success” gets met in my game with “Player, you haven’t a clue what’s going on around you.”

    I have options should this occur: dungeon penitence or death. If the player is an unrepentant munchkin, my choice is obvious: death by flaying. Likewise for his or her character.

    It is my job, in-game, to make sure the player’s character has all the data necessary to come to the conclusion the king wants him dead. Where social skills are empirical on a character sheet and not anecdotal within the group, a munchkin is going to be a munchkin (typically it’s an individual who has more answers than any other player).

    That is a representative expression of my game, my gaming table and my group as a (largely) diceless system of play. I can use a table of reactions to determine a baseline, serendipitous reaction towards players and it is my role to convey that initial reaction to the player either through appropriate narrative description or dialogue; same as describing the dungeon is this GM’s role rather than just taking the map /out of the hands of the player/ and drawing it out all nice and neat for them. Taking my players out from the game with interaction results determined by dice rolls is the equal of thumb twiddling in RPGs to me. Social interaction is where role-playing engrosses all players and I do not choose to equate it to actions otherwise abstract.

    Frankly, on a slight tangent, one of the failings of modern D&D is its 6-second equation of both turn-based violence and manual skills to a player’s social interaction (more rules in the name of controlling douchebag behaviour just gives rise to individuals being called a group where no real group exists).

    It must equally be said that the GM must defend himself against his own metagame where social interaction is concerned. Whereas a super-genius adversary WILL out-plan and out-smart a group of players, this is not to say Charismatic flattery fails (back to the importance story and the GM’s role there). And a player of a super-genius PC will inform the GM of his NPC’s plans 9/10 – taking back one kadam to honor the Hebrew God, whose Ark this is; and to keep it interesting.

    Do not fight your opponent on a ground of his choosing harkens all the way back to Sun Tzu, and he was not a genius but observant. Players of a game so social as RPGs should be likewise, in my honest opinion.

    In other situations where a metagame can arise, it would be less confusing for the GM to decide what actions to take if he or she would have written down specific goals for major NPCs all the way down to how they manipulate their lower level minions. This is even beneficial in terms of overall storytelling.

    Deciding a simple target number of X must be rolled by players engaging in role-play interactions not only obviates the GM’s attentiveness to the process of story but also creates lazy GMs and a game that, again in my opinion, is nothing more than a solo adventure for its players.

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