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Don’t Skimp On The Characters
Posted By Phil Vecchione On July 20, 2012 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 16 Comments
I made a mistake and it killed a campaign. It was avoidable, and had I been more patient when I started the campaign, I may have avoided it; but I didn’t. In hindsight it seems so obvious what I did and why it lead to the premature end of the campaign. I forgot an essential element of the game: character formation.
Ok. Enough being mysterious. Here is what I was trying to do…
I wanted to run a Corporation game using the Japanese Corporation, Shi Yukiro, with a plot based on the 47 Ronin. The concept was that the Division’s (player’s) VP was tricked into embarrassing herself and had to commit seppuku. The Division would then have to find out what happened and avenge their fallen master from the one who tricked her.
We were anxious to get playing, and most of the players had played Corporation before. So, we rolled up some characters and talked briefly about them on Hangout. Then on the first session, we lead with the seppuku of the VP. The Agents were on their own to find out what happened and to eventually avenge her death.
There were a few disconnects during the sessions. First, the characters had an uneven mix of detail and background. Some characters had full backgrounds and motivations for their characters, others had very little. Second, there was no team unity. There was an understanding that that players were part of a team, but there was little in the way of teamwork, camaraderie, etc. Third, there was an emotional disconnect from the main theme of the VP and avenging her; no one had strong feelings about it. Combined, the three issues made for some very bland sessions. It just wasn’t there.
While this game was floundering, I had some work trips and a family vacation to take, so the game was on hiatus. I had a lot of time to think while away from the table, and I began to realize that there was a root cause to all the symptoms I was seeing at the table. There was too little time spent on character development and group formation.
As a Project Manager you learn that planning is the key factor to the success of a project. You plan so that you know what you are doing, why you are doing it, how it’s going to get done, and who will do it. You short circuit planning and your project will fail in some aspect, if not all of them.
The same was true about this game. Character creation and group formation should be major parts of campaign planning. Character creation, aside from your stats, is about coming up with a personality and background for a character. Its about creating the detail that a player will use to portray the character; to make them real at the table. Group formation is the combined effort of everyone to create a functional and cohesive group. Without those elements, the player side of the game will suffer; no amount of awesome GMing is going to save it.
In my haste to exit my All For One game and get another game running, I tried to push all of the character side efforts off on the players so that I could focus on getting the initial story arc thought out and the first session prepped. The pitfall in that, is that not all players are equally creative and motivated away from the table.
When you have character generation at the table, the players are all engaged and focused on the game. They are receiving stimulation and inspiration from their fellow players. They can ask questions and they can answer questions during the character creation process. When players are away from the table they are isolated, they come up with things on their own. They are also at the mercy of their own internal motivation and the multitude of other commitments in their lives, and in some cases cannot dedicate the same level of effort away from the table.
Spending time working on Group formation is equally critical. Every playing group needs to develop a group dynamic, understanding their roles, discovering and developing intra-party relationships and tensions. In a game like Corporation, that is even more true because the group is a mission-based fighting unit. In other games it may not be quite as important, but it plays a role in any game. By investing time in letting the players explore the group dynamic, discover the things they have in common, and the things they don’t see eye to eye on, it helps to anchor the team and the individual characters.
Aside from giving the players time to develop their characters and to come together as a group, the other mistake that I made was to not invest each of them in a personal relationship with the VP who would eventually take her own life. Rather, I tried to rely on having the players make a leap of faith to make that connection. In the absence of investing some time and story into this, the effect can be uneven.
What I should have done was take a few sessions and have each player have one or more meaningful scenes with the VP. Things that would have come up from their developed character backgrounds. Those scenes would have created player investment, and then when she is ordered to take her life, they would have felt the loss, and would have had the motivation for revenge.
Having learned from my mistakes, for my next game I will be more diligent in setting up the campaign for success. Here are the things I will plan on doing:
Could I have saved my campaign? Possibly, but it was going to require a lot of work, some retconning, and some flashbacks. It did not seem worth the effort; after all there is always another game to play. What is important is that I have learned the penalty for rushing the launch of a campaign, and will slow things down and make sure that the characters and the group form before running the first session.
Have you ever experienced a game where the characters were underdeveloped, or had no connection to the campaign world? How did it turn out? Were you able to turn it around? What do you do in your campaigns to make sure that the players have rich characters, good group dynamics, and ties to the campaign world?
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