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Do You Do It Alone Or In A Group?

Posted By Phil Vecchione On October 15, 2009 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

One of the keys to the success of any campaign is the party of characters. The party, using the classical term, is the group of characters who are working together (for the most part) to advance the plot within the campaign. Who those characters are, what talents and skills that they bring, and how they react to one another, can propel your campaign into a Tolkien-like greatness, or have it end like Hamlet. The most critical moment for the success of the party lies in character creation. Different groups have different approaches to this important activity, and today we are going to discuss what is the role of the gaming group in character creation.

Character creation is the ultimate player expression within the game. The character is the player’s interface to the game world, and in many ways is an extension of that player. That makes character creation in one light, a very player-centric activity. On the other hand, that character has to be part of the party, and the party needs to not only accept the character, but also have a useful role for that character, so that there is something fun for the player to do during the game. That makes character creation a group-centric activity. So which one is it? We’ll get back to that later.

Let’s look at three common methods to creating characters for a game, and then I will share with you my experiences in the games that I have run and the ones that I have played.

Individual Endeavor

On the one side of the spectrum, is the player-centric side of character creation. In this case, the GM informs the players of a new game, and tells the players to show up with a character ready to play. Unless your group really knows each other well, this can end in disaster. Without group input, players will create the character they want, and may not take into consideration the needs of the party.  This pitfall can be summed up a bit by one of my favorite quotes from Reservoir Dogs:

Mr. Pink: Why can’t we pick our own colors?

Joe: No way, no way. Tried it once, doesn’t work. You got four guys all fighting over who’s gonna be Mr. Black, but they don’t know each other, so nobody wants to back down. No way. I pick.

Point is that you run the risk of all your players showing up playing the same character class, or neglecting one class (A 4e party of 4 Rogues and no Cleric). Thus, there is no guarantee that the players will have all the roles needed for a viable party for the game. At best, this group may be playable but, it will present the GM some challenges in the execution of the game. In the worst case, the group is lacking critical abilities that the designers of the game expected all groups to have, and the party will not survive very long.

Another potential pitfall is that all but one of the players decides on good aligned characters, and someone shows up with a chaotic evil character. While this may seem like fun on the surface, it is only time before a confrontation between the Paladin and the Destroyer is going to happen. When it does, you can expect that the story will come to a screeching halt, and either the other characters will sit back and watch, or the party will take sides, in which case you are nearing your Hamlet-like ending.

GM Directed Development

A step towards coordination, this method is where the individual players create their characters but the GM acts as an advisor, offering advice and redirecting any potential problems that a player’s choice may create. In most cases the GM is only handling the really big issues, such as filling the requisite roles in the party. They may suggest that a player make up a cleric, since no one else in the group has mentioned it. Or they may suggest a less disharmonious alignment, knowing that the other players have expressed picking good alignments.

This method can be pretty successful. The GM can avoid large issues, by steering players away from any poor choices. Though there is a risk is that GM may not be good at keeping all the other player options straight in his head, and could let something slip, or potentially mislead a player. A potential side effect is that this method may create an element of surprise, where only the GM is aware of the full builds for each character, before play starts. Depending on your group is may be a good or bad thing.

Group Activity

On the way other side of the spectrum, is the group-centric process of building characters. In this case the group builds the characters together, having input into every aspect of every character. They review what races and classes people are going to play, and as a group select the optimal mix so that the party has everything represented. They then review skill choices together, to make sure that there is someone in the party who has every critical skill (Joe has lock picking, Brian has healing, Carl has arcana…). The process moves on to make sure that feats/powers/spells are coordinated, and in the most extreme case, that equipment selections are done so that there is no duplication, and that everyone is carrying something for the party.

What’s the problem with this? In the most pure version of this technique, it completely saps any individual creativity from the process. In essence the character is playing what the group has created for them, and that may create problems for the player to get into character, since they were not integral to the creation of the character. If that happens, the game will suffer from players who have great playable characters, but no connection to them, thus preventing them from creating the real drama to the game.

How I Do It

Over the years I have run the spectrum for character creation in my games. The most common method I have used would be GM Directed Development, with varying degrees of success, often less success than more. The problem often being that the lack of communication between players about build choices, often leads to confusion about who has what abilities, and creates anxiety as the player tries to figure out their role in the party.

Lately the two 4e groups I play in, we started using a hybrid of group and individual techniques. From the group activity we take the coordination of classes, making sure that the party has all the necessary classes/roles met, and we talk about character personalities to make sure that the party is not going to crumble under any intra-party conflict. Then we switch gears and we go off and make the characters on our own; picking attributes, skills, powers, etc. Though it is not uncommon for someone to ask for the others players input.

The hybrid method works well for games where a tight knit party is needed, like 4e. It ensures that the group needs are met, in this case that we have all the major roles represented, while giving each player room to create their own character. In games where the party strength is not so paramount, this hybrid method may seem overkill.

How Do You Do It?

In the games you run and the games you play in, what methods are you using to create characters? What methods have worked for you? What methods have not?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Do You Do It Alone Or In A Group?"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 15, 2009 @ 4:27 am

To top it all off, you’ve got the issue where two or more players may come to the table with near identical concepts and end up stepping on each other’s toes and fighting for concept and spotlight time incessantly.
http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/without-which-not

Also, don’t forget the grandaddy of character creation: You roll random stats and play whatever makes a reasonable amount of sense. ie: I play the cleric cause I have a 16 wis. the guy with the high dex is a rogue. And dude with the shitty scores all around? Well, he’s going to die pretty quick anyway so it doesn’t matter. :p

#2 Comment By Swordgleam On October 15, 2009 @ 7:28 am

What’s worked best for me is to rely on half my players being procrastinators. The first ones in get to do whatever they want; the ones who don’t start thinking about it until later get to hear, “That’s cool, but it’s really similar to what another guy’s playing, so try to be less healer-y” or “We really need a fighter. Do you mind being a fighter?”

So halfway between the first two methods, depending on whether you’re punctual or not.

#3 Comment By BladeMaster0182 On October 15, 2009 @ 9:07 am

The way I do it is get my players together and figure out what each of them would want to play. I alternate between crunchy bits and fluff to keep players interested (surprisingly my players find tracking weight and encumbrance as boring as I do.) I just make sure the basic roles are filled (healer, trapfinder, etc.) After that my players can do what ever.

#4 Comment By Brent On October 15, 2009 @ 9:20 am

I’m very leery of suggesting things to players, for a couple of reasons.

1. When I play, I don’t want the DM telling me what I can or can’t play (besides the boundaries of the setting; if we’re in a low-magic setting and I can’t play a powerful wizard, that’s fine). I want the freedom to play something oddball. I want the freedom to play with a bunch of other oddballs.

2. I’m suspicious of theories about “balancing the party.” In my (very limited) experience, GM opinions about which classes/races are “needed” often come from problems with very specific party mixes in the past. In other words, just because one party really needed a heavy-hitter doesn’t mean that this party needs one.

3. I’ve never (in my very limited experience) had all my players show up with characters of the same class.

But that’s probably just me. In future, I plan to use the group technique.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On October 15, 2009 @ 9:33 am

It all depends on the game. When we played PTA, making sure the characters all had interesting roles was an important part of the overall series creation process– almost pure group creation, though without the fiddly bits of games like D&D.

When we made up characters for Serenity, we discussed general roles, but built characters individually and in secret. It was a great change and really flavored the sessions– there were secrets and hidden capacities that were interesting to experience in character.

As Matthew brought up, I’ve run games with unfettered character creation… which occasionally works, but has been responsible for the worst crash and burns ever. I’ve stricken “Make any character you want, I’ll join you up” from my vocabulary.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 15, 2009 @ 10:08 am

@Brent – I understand where you’re coming from, but my position is a bit different.

The GM has information about the campaign that the players don’t, and may also be the only person who knows what the other players are planning. His or her input can be pretty important to the process, even if it’s just sharing information about the other player’s choices.

Also, they’re just suggestions. If the party insists on playing a bunch of halfling rogues, the GM can still forgo that cool all-skeleton ambush.

I do see the temptation of trying to control the process. Self-control is a very important GM skill.

#7 Comment By Clawfoot On October 15, 2009 @ 11:24 am

Hmm. Generally, we go for the group character creation sessions, but I in no way find that “it completely saps any individual creativity from the process.” Maybe I’ve just lucked out with a group of gaming friends that work together really well, but when we all bounce ideas off each other, more often than not we come up with stuff far more interesting and exciting than had we made characters separately.

The only DM-Directing I do is to request that everyone have a reason to stay in the group, be it loyalty to friends or family, payment or blackmail. It’s frustrating when you have a party of strangers who all decide to go off adventuring together, and at one point someone just throws up her hands and says, “I can’t think of a single reason why my character wouldn’t just say ‘screw you all’ and go home.” So now I like people to keep their motivations for staying with the group in mind when they’re making their characters. What that motivation is is entirely up to them, of course, but I do request that there is one.

#8 Comment By LordVreeg On October 15, 2009 @ 11:35 am

I don’t have time for this. I’m at work. And I thought I could avoid posting, but the comments are too good.

GM question #1—What is the expected term for this campaign, and what is the ‘replacement level’ (i.e., the Kill rate) of the PCs?

I run long-ass campaigns, and a longer-ass setting. And it has this old-school tendencies, like ‘within-setting logic’ instead of proper Encounter or challenge levels, and minimal roll fudging.

PC death is a growing experience, and I tell myself it is good for the soul of the GM and player both.

So to some degree, I let them go with what they want. Character creation is something of a joy for my people, and I figure there is a good chance of them having to roll up a new one anyways…

There have been some rousing succeses with unexpected choices. The 2 bards in the group of 4? Classic, especially onstage.

Downside? My online group’s tracker got wasted by imitating a scabbard. Too bad tracking is a big part of that group…

Not to mention that my Igbar group has the ‘drummer in SpinalTap’ syndrome with their healers….

#9 Comment By Sarlax On October 15, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

I think the discussion is about how players should be managed so that their characters to meet two criteria: working with each other and working within the setting.

For me, I’m most concerned that the players end up with PCs that they enjoy playing and that can play well with others. EG, that we don’t have a reckless Chaotic Evil priest of Tharizdun among Lawful Good devotees Bahamut. In this kind of instance, each player might have a lot of fun playing their particular PC, but in the course acting out their roles, they naturally come to disagree.

In my current group, we’ve seen the latter problem several times. A game of Ghouls I briefly ran had a team including two cops, a high-class escort, and a small-time gangster. The gangster, acting like a gangster would, found it hard to get along with the others.

In a game of Mage, I and the other players all had characters we seemed to really love roleplaying, but occasionaly our… philosophical differences led to arguments. I say “occasionally,” but it was pretty much every session. My reckless-with-vulgar-magic-Free-Council-fighter-pilot would bump heads with the cautious-and-conservative-Guardians-stage-magician, for instance.

There are more examples, but the take-home point from them is simple: Try to engender a party of mostly-compatible personalities.

***

As for mechanics, I have never cared much about how the players choose to spend creation points, race/class choices, etc. except to encourage world-appropriate choices (no cyborgs in D&D, for instance). Like Brent, I don’t accept the balance myth that you need to fill slots A, B, C, and D to have a functioning party. Everyone’s a hacker-turned vampire? Awesome. No pilots in the space game? No problem. Nothing but gnome strikers? Sweet.

As a GM, I can make the game wrap to the party in whatever manner makes the PCs shine the most. If I’m running a Star Wars game and no one knows how to fly a ship, I can just throw in an NPC who does. If a game of D&D has nothing but face hitters, the challenges will be appropriate to that.

#10 Comment By Lee Hanna On October 15, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

I’m open to trying the last method, Individual Endeavor hasn’t had a great success rate. Group Activity has been my favorite so far, leading to two great groups and campaigns.

#11 Comment By Nojo On October 15, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

For my next campaign (Rogue Trader), I’m telling my players they can create as many practice characters as they want, but we’re going to create the group and the starship together around the table. As we go around the table, I’ll sit those with complete concepts one one side, and the procrastinators on the other, and go around the table.
Rogue Trader includes the “Origin Path” which is a web based tool for creating a past character history. Many games have similar tools. Each player will have a different colored pencil, and they will circle their choices.
When two or more choose the same choice, say “war veterans,” I’ll have them come up with a shared past history. If more players jump on the same event later as we move around the table, they can use that history or negotiate changes. “Can we say we fought against Chaos instead of the Dark Eldar?” I won’t force them to always share a history, but I’ll require them to have a good reason why they don’t.
My eager beavers are already chatting in email and on our Yahoo group site about who wants to play what. They don’t want to duplicate careers, but I’m going to leave party balance in their hands. If they get really stupid I’ll say something, but I’ll just try to work with whatever they come up with.

#12 Comment By ptevis On October 15, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

“Character creation is the ultimate player expression within the game.”

I would hope that actual-at-the-table-during-the-session-play would be the ultimate player expression with in the game.

#13 Comment By BryanB On October 16, 2009 @ 9:58 am

I like a mixed method. I like people to come up with character concepts and ideas on their own with some openings left for the meshing with a group. I then have them polish the characters in group discussion (via e-mail or in person).

There really is nothing like having a connection between the characters, no matter how minor or major. It gives the group motivation and staying power. It also avoids the “polar opposite PCs” effect that can wreck any chance of group cohesion and teamwork.

#14 Comment By Scott Martin On October 16, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

@ptevis – I suspect it’s the ultimate in the sense of unfettered– during character creation you can imagine several different paths, entire lifetimes for widely different characters. Once you pick a character, all of the other options are set aside, never to be traveled in this campaign.

#15 Pingback By Moral and Ethical Ambiguity, Part 1 of 4 – Intro | Moebius Adventures On October 17, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

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#16 Comment By DrSteve On October 18, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

As A GM I set Guidelines like, Will be part of a team, no evil characters, should have a practical profession. also i set Campaign Averages for combat powers (when using hero 4E) Stressing the setting is also important.

As A player, Im a Niche filler. I like to see what others are playing and fill that hole in some way. Usually ends up I play a support type character. but thats fine with me.

#17 Pingback By Moral and Ethical Ambiguity, Part 4 of 4 – Conclusions | Moebius Adventures On October 22, 2009 @ 7:04 am

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