I’m Lawful Evil Now – Emergent Character

I’ve recently started playing an online game of The One Ring. It’s a sort of short-form campaign, and we’ve just finished the second session. We’re playing over hangouts, which requires focus during the 2.5 hours we have, so the sessions feel tight and intense, and it’s great. The system really drives the setting and the narrative – but that’s for a future post. I’m playing a Ranger of the North – like Aragorn, but not quite as badass. I thought it would be cool to play a dishevelled, down-on-his luck wandered, like Strider at the start of the Lord of the Rings if that was what he actually was. And I designed him like that – oh, and to be lethal with a bow.

And that was the extent of my character development pre-play. In just two sessions, he’s already got a murky past that’s beginning to show – we’ve just rescued another ranger who we’ve decided I turned my back on – I’m even wearing the cloak I took from him when I left him for dead – and although we’ve made up now with the rescue (and sharing a hobbit-pipe – judicious use of my “Smoking” trait – did I mention how much the system embeds the setting?) – I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of it. I also seem to not really know my way around the area of Middle Earth we’re exploring; most of my rolls to navigate for the party seem to fail…

This is one of my favourite things that can happen at the table; a bare-bones PC becomes a character with depth and history, sometimes just as a result of at-table banter. It’s great when it emerges in one-shot play, too… so how can we encourage it?

Don’t Give Pregens Any Background

There’s no need for more than 3 sentences of background for a pregenned character. The setting and expectations can be communicated beforehand, and the rest can be up to the player. A page of background information is unnecessary and actively unhelpful; the character belongs to the player now – just give them enough to push them into an outline of a personality and let them run with it. And for goodness sake don’t give players a sheet telling them what they think of the other PCs – tell them if they have history with them, yes, if you have to (if you’re prepping a heavily PvP game you might have to) – but not how they feel.

Ask Questions

“So, most dwarves have a problem with elves. How does Balin feel about them, now that they are your only way across the Silken Sea?” Questions like that. Nothing too special, or edgy.

“When was the last time you were underground?” can be good too. Use what they answer, and if you can replace any of your prep with any of their answers, do so.

One massively adaptable technique from Dungeon World is to give the PCs bonds – tell them how they feel about their fellow PCs, but not which ones. Go through these with the players at the start of the game, and let them change them half way through if they want to.

Give NPCs multiple relationships

One-shots usually need fewer, better NPCs. Make them people that 2 or more of your PCs know, and let them work out how they know them. If you’re not running a game with explicit PvP focus, the main way the PCs will disagree and develop by is through how they respond to NPCs. I’d say that your absolute maximum number of NPCs for a one-shot is the same as the number of players – and you can easily have less than that. The other people they encounter are extras; they might have names, but they aren’t going to interact with the PCs in important ways – they have no agency to really change the protagonists.

Offer moral dilemmas

Again, don’t over-think this. “Do you let the villain get away so you can save the bystanders?” is absolutely as complex as it needs to be; these are the choices that can define a character, if you place it naturally towards the end of the session.

Use the same pregens

If you’re running the same system multiple times, there’s no shame at all in using the same pregens; I used the same Mouse Guard party about 6 times when I was running it at every con I went to, and plenty of players came back to the same character when they signed up again – sometimes referencing previous games. It’s important that you don’t put too much of previous games in the actual plot of the game, mind – or you’ll just turn off players who’ve just joined for this episode.

What are your best examples of emergent character, and are there any more ways to encourage it?

Review: Fate Worlds – Sails Full Of Stars

Steampunk planetary romance / naval adventure across the solar system that doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be, Sails Full Of Stars is one of the Fate Worlds series of short settings for the Fate RPG, and is available here, and in print in the Worlds Take Flight anthology. It takes a neat, grabby setting and paints it in broad brush strokes, before adding in some complex and not-always-clear ship combat rules.

The Fluff

It’s 1850. The world, and indeed the Solar System, is dominated by three great powers – Napoleon’s France, the Ottoman Empire, and China, who first discovered how to travel between planets using handwavy rheosilk that catch currents between planets. Navigators read the vibrations of these currents by ‘sounding’ glass spheres and so the solar system is now full of massive rheoships hauling cargo, being pirates, and smuggling goods. Oh, and dragons. They were there before, though.

The presentation of the setting is great, but I can see how it might frustrate some. What is given is very broad-brush, with all the detail left for GMs (and players) to fill in. For instance, it doesn’t mention whether each empire has a base on every planet, so you have to sort of infer this from an idea of the tropes the designer is trying to pull in (and from some extra detail in the starting adventure). It gives a paragraph for each planet, so we know that Venus is full of dangerous jungle – but no clues as to what animals might live there. Mars is full of Martian ruins, naturally, and the promise of ancient tech / alchemy – again, all left up to be filled in. And there are the dragons, who allegedly gave the gifts of sailing the cosmos to the Chinese around 1200, but they are left similarly vague.

It’s an interesting technique, but compared to the other Fate Worlds it can feel a little sparse. This is clearly an epic setting with lots of moving parts, and a conscious decision by the designer to show the overall picture and leave the minutiae to the GM, but it feels … unfinished. Where some of the other Fate Worlds get round this with random tables and an explicit permission to make it up as you go along, this feels altogether more serious, which makes it feel more constrained. Perhaps it’s because there isn’t as tight an idea for what the PCs actually do in SFOS – in the sample adventure, they’re Traveller-style edge of the law merchants, but you could just as well be spies, explorers, privateers or mercenaries based on the implied rules and settings here.

The Crunch

There are a few variations from Fate Core here – two new skills; Alchemy lets you craft compounds – left a bit handwavy even for me, and perhaps more concrete examples of constructions would have helped. Sail is much more clearly defined, as a lot of ship combat rotates around its use. Also, around twenty new stunts – an excellent way for settings for Fate Core to define themselves and give the flavour of their genre – which is useful.

There are detailed – and tactical-feeling – rules for Rheoship combat which look like they capture an age-of-sail style ship combat with vast crafts trying to outmaneuvre each other using only the rheospace winds. There are a few bits that I’m not sure I can get my head around – such as how many actions you actually get to take in a round (I’d assume one per PC) and an absence of difficulties for most of the tasks (my usual Fate approach of Fair (+2) or Good (+3) difficulty probably applies here). There are also some variant rules for mass combat, which need the Fate System Toolkit – to account for crew actions like boarding and capturing a ship – again, very age of sail.

I’d need to see these in action, but I suspect they are very good – they are just sometimes a little hard to parse, but I’ll put faith in Fate’s resilience against any rules shonkiness. The ship combat would definitely work for an age-of-sail conflict, and as we’re not exactly overwhelmed with games to play 19th century naval adventures (except for the excellent Beat to Quarters) there’s probably a niche for them.

The One-Shot

I can see this being a great setting for one-shot play, providing the GM is fine with filling in plenty of the setting blanks. There are lots of ideas for satisfying one-shot adventures that leap out, and as usual it comes with an adventure as well.

If I’m honest, though, the adventure, Secrets of the Red Planet, feels a little flat. It’s not quite as clearly presented for running as I’m used to (I’d need to make some bullet-points of scenes to run it, as they are often long paragraphs with plenty of options) and it has some twists for the PCs that might lead to disgruntlement from players. It feels a little like an example of the setting and what PCs might do rather than an adventure to play for. In fact, I’d write my own.

It also doesn’t have any pregen PCs, which is a shame as they would’ve been a great chance to show some points of detail about the setting. Again, there’s enough promise here for me to want to make my own, but it’s a shame there aren’t ones supplied, though I guess word count was an issue.

Overall, an intriguing setting, and a shame it’s not as immediately usable as some of the other Worlds of Adventure supplements. I will definitely give it more thought though, and it’s on my convention / one-shot prep list to do some work on it – I’ll try and remember to share it here too.

Pregen Priorities: Crafting a Party

For most games I run as a one-shot, I provide pregenerated player characters (pregens). There are a few games, like Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games, and really rules-light systems, where character generation is either a big part of the game or very quick and easy, but even for simple systems I like to give players a ready-made character. Partly this is just to get going quickly – I think you should get into the action as soon as possible, and partly because character generation is never a level playing field. Players that are more experienced will take to it more, and new players are likely to find it daunting. In fact, I think character generation is pretty overrated all the time, but I’m sure I’ll talk about that in a later post.

When creating pregens, I have a few maxims I stick to. Creating 4 or 5 PCs can be a bit of a chore (and it’s often the most time-consuming part of my prep for a con game), and it makes it less of one if I put some effort into doing it well. When I do it, these are my priorities, in no particular order:

Niche Protection

In PBTA games, each player only gets one playset – once somebody bagsies the Vampire, nobody else can – and this is worth sticking to, whether you’re running a class-based game or in a looser game. In a D&D game, for instance, I’d never have two fighters in the same groups – a fighter and a ranger, for instance, or even a barbarian and a paladin (especially in 13th Age, where the fighter is one of the most mechanically complex classes for players, where the other combat-heavy classes are some of the easiest).

Every PC should be the best in the party at something, and something useful to the scenario at that. That said, you can use wedges if you have to duplicate (in Fantasy Age, say, where there are only three classes – just make sure that one Fighter is melee-based and the other is mostly ranged; I’d also make sure they were different races).

In games without classes, you should still niche as much as you can – when I run Eclipse Phase, for instance, everyone will have a different morph – never two uplifted octopi in the same party – and different factions and skill sets. That said…

2. General Non-Incompetence

You want to make your pregens enjoyable to play, even for players who don’t know the system. To do that make them not be incompetent at anything. Having your PC be rubbish at something is annoying, even when you consciously sacrificed that skill in order to maximise other cool stuff, and even more so when that decision has been made for you.

I have learned my lesson from building pregens with limited combat ability. A couple of years ago at Go Play Leeds, I ran a Star Wars Age of Rebellion game (arctic Tauntaun chases across Hoth – it was great!) featuring a tech specialist with limited combat ability. The player, despite his experience, complained bitterly. My thinking was that techie PCs get lots of opportunities to shine in science fiction games anyway, and he had a bellow ability that could stun opponents in combat, but I realise now that having a rebel fighter on Hoth who just couldn’t shoot a blaster made for poor fun levels for that player – and didn’t sit with the genre either. Lesson learned.

3. Laced for Conflict / Rivalry

Even in an explicitly non-PVP game, I try to give the players reasons to disagree and argue. In some games this is achieved by different factional alignments, and in the best games these can be tied to the scenario the players face (I ran a one-shot Burning Wheel game several years ago where one of the all-dwarf party had an entire subplot around freeing the elves his party had captive).

I used to use Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters to pick archetypes for my pregens – giving them the best chances of interaction and growth – and I still turn to it every so often, but usually I just go with my gut and try to make the PCs as distinct as possible.

It’s best to make these sources of disagreement outward-facing to avoid the players going full-out PVP. For instance, have one player who thinks that orcs are inherently evil and must be exterminated, and one who thinks they can be educated / civilised. This is richer, and safer, than having one player who thinks that orcs are inherently evil and must be exterminated, and another player who is an orc.

4. General Competence

Even in the lowest of low fantasy settings, PCs should feel like they can achieve something. This doesn’t mean then need to be powerful, but it does mean that the opposition they encounter should leave them feeling they can achieve something.

This isn’t the same as opposition being a pushover; opposition should be hard, require a herculean expenditure of effort to overcome, and nevertheless be overcome. 1st level D&D characters can have this experience (and, by the way, I’d never put an encounter at lower than “Difficult” for D&D – you’re not going to have enough fights to wear them down like in traditional play) if the opposition is right, and as long as they don’t meet any other competent adventurers – they should be the heroes of their stories. Mouse Guard is a great example of how PCs can be weak and fragile and yet still epicly heroic (and it’s a great example of lots of other things too!).

So, they tend to be my pregen priorities. Also, I like to make my own sheets (with any relevant rules information on them). Character portraits and standees I can live without, but I may try them out soon as they become more ubiquitous in convention play.