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Take another look at your group

Posted By Scott Martin On May 6, 2009 @ 3:27 am In GMing Advice | 18 Comments

Our group just launched a parallel game of Serenity (using the Cortex System), and some interesting choices and responses have come out of the new game setup and character creation. Along the way I realized that the group I was playing with wasn’t the group I imagine when I’m prepping for the week’s session.

Our Previous Game

In our current 3.5E D&D game, we play with everything on the table. Character backgrounds were relatively short, but more concrete than our prior game. We started the game by creating the campaign world using Dawn of Worlds, so we all knew the true history and past of the game. We’re playing 3.5 with just about every book allowed and most of the player options used. Character effectiveness has been an issue at several points, as characters drift into each others’ specialties and steal the limelight, or as different players find effective combinations that allow their character to most impressively deal with the foes without assistance of other characters. Pretty much everything on a character’s sheet is known to the other players.

The New Game

For a week or so prior to character creation, the GM of the new game talked with many players at one point or another– when I was present, I was often surprised at the enthusiasm some of his suggestions raised. The following ideas were enthusiastically embraced.

  • More complete character backgrounds
  • Secrets: Characters with flaws and abilities known only to the GM and that player.
  • A system that the players haven’t mastered
  • Less metagaming overall

Many of these suggestions matched up with occasional grousing that’s cropped up around the D&D game. That enthusiasm was very useful in knocking me out of some of the misconceptions I’d been clinging to. I realized I’ve been running the game for an idealized group, not the group around my table.

More complete character backgrounds

In the past, I’ve had trouble with “play before you play”– where I’ve worked up a character background that crashes during the first session. Sometimes it is just a little wasted work (extensive background that never comes into the game), while other times the character’s history doesn’t make any sense after the first session because the world isn’t at all as I imagined. Our last couple of campaigns have reflected this– one started In Media Res with backgrounds to come later (they never really did), and our current campaign, which has struggled to incorporate more than a one paragraph sketch from each character.

I’m still leery about spending pages of ink on a character that’s going to change with play around the table, but more extensive backgrounds appeal to me this time. Part of it is the tools: I like the 3x3x3 as a concrete way to introduce NPCs. So far, the extra effort on character background really improved the opening scene of the game. (Set in a hiring hall).

Secrets

I’m a firm believer in group character creation. Characters made apart often form groups that fall apart– because they unintentionally build characters at cross purposes, that wrestle for each other’s spotlight, or other well intentioned but deadly flaws. I firmly believed that the group could deal with openly known secrets in a mature way, subtly pressuring a character’s flaw to lend drama to a moment of decision, or increasing the dramatic tension of an action.

Despite that, I was excited about creating a character with flaws that were unknown. I realized that while in my head we’d use group knowledge of secrets only dramatically, in practice they were openly discussed as resources (out of character, but still openly and as resources), or used to taunt a player about his character’s flaws. While I appreciate humor, character secrets that won’t be mocked are very attractive to me.

A system that the players haven’t mastered, and
Less metagaming overall

In my head, metagame knowledge provides additional fun options to the players. In recent play, though, I haven’t seen the players use metagame knowledge to make their lives more complex or get themselves into trouble. We still often play where character success = player success, and the incentives all run toward defeating foes and overcoming obstacles. Characters often buy the most effective items to aid their mission, not the most flavorful. One player is avoiding some items because they don’t match her character concept, and it’s costing her the damage dealing and survivability that’s so prized by the remainder of the group.

A lack of system mastery levels the playing field; ideally, everyone will do what makes sense for their character, and the optimal path will remain unknown. During character creation, I know that I picked skills and stats based more on character concept, rather than guessing what will prove effective. That might lead to pain down the road– if one stat turns out to dominate everything, I may regret being sidelined by my uninformed choices.

Less metagaming overall sounds interesting. I felt that a group could make good use of metagame knowledge to enhance their fellow players’ game, but haven’t seen much of it in practice. I ignored the contrary evidence in our current game, trusting that our group was mature enough to embrace OOC information and skilled enough to use it to the story’s advantage. I forgot that I’m running a game that assumes and rewards victory, not heroic speeches during a retreat against overwhelming odds.

Lessons Learned

As John pointed out, sitting on the other side of the screen can teach you quite a bit. It is proving useful to me in a couple of different ways.

  • I’d forgotten that rush of possibility when you’re considering a whole new character, particularly in a whole new system. The world is wide and the possibilities seem endless. Thinking about your new character and toying with background isn’t work at all. (Though writing it down can be.)

  • I realized that I’ve been GMing for an ideal group as much as for the players at the table. Making GMing decisions with the wrong group in mind means that you’re not going to get the responses you anticipate.
  • Secrets are cool. Every time a secret comes up (or could come out), it’s a spotlight on the character.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Take another look at your group"

#1 Comment By Cole On May 6, 2009 @ 7:15 am

In my newest campaign, the players put together a group concept for their characters. That simple little step eliminated a lot of problems during play.

Suddenly the group was very cohesive, the characters were joking with one another since they were already acquainted. They were from the get go trusting in their comrades.

With that approach, there was no period of acclimation, were they get to know their adventuring buddies, or the necessity of forcing the group together.

#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 6, 2009 @ 8:19 am

“The world is wide and the possibilities seem endless.”

So very, very true.

But what’s silver for PCs is gold for GMs.

But that’s exactly what I love about GMing, is that same sense of endless possibilities. Each NPC I create, each monster I portray, is something different. Plus it’s fun to see the variety and interesting combinations that the players present.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 6, 2009 @ 8:24 am

Thanks for this article; these are some of the very issues I’m dealing with as I prep my next campaign.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On May 6, 2009 @ 9:30 am

@Cole – The group concept is largely done for us by the setting; we’re the crew of a ship. It was an interesting balance: making sure we’d get hired and be seen useful, while concealing our flaws.

@Troy E. Taylor – I need to reclaim that viewpoint for my NPCs; too often lately, they’ve been somewhat interesting but doomed to die by the end of the encounter. Hard to get attached, you know?

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Is there anything specific that the commenters or I can do to help?

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 6, 2009 @ 10:00 am

@Scott Martin – Nothing specific, but I am trying to find the sweet spot where character secrets, metagame knowledge, and character efficacy can all get along gracefully.

Which probably leads to a low-mortality setting, where sub-optimal decisions won’t necessarily get you killed. OTOH, low mortality seems to conflict with my “risk = reward” instinct.

Wow, I think I just found my next article…

#6 Comment By tman On May 6, 2009 @ 10:48 am

Great article. I’d never heard of the 3x3x3 method, but I love it. I really wish I’d known about that when I started my current campaign.

I’m having a lot of trouble with the same stuff Telas is mentioning. Telas! Please put some thoughts on pixels with your idea.

#7 Comment By LesInk On May 6, 2009 @ 11:15 am

I’m thinking out loud here (and probably a bit off track), but it almost sounds like it would be neat to have a group of 3×5 cards that provide background elements for characters which work out to game mechanics with the GM. For example, “Friend of Sam” gives you a +5 bonus to your gather information ability when you are in the town of X. It would give the players technical incentives to get to use their link to Sam. GM would just request the player to role play the scenario instead of “gimme by +5 since I’m in town X”. In the same way, a secret could be a penalty instead of a bonus. Only the player and the GM need to know what’s on the 3×5 cards. Course, if NPC Sam is an enemy of the party, that becomes a secret pretty quick too.
Sorry if I’m thinking out loud. And I figure this ruins the whole metagaming part too.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On May 6, 2009 @ 11:36 am

@tman – Glad you like the method–I’ve used its like before, but I really like formalizing it as presented. I’m also interested in seeing what Telas’s musings result in as a post…

@LesInk – That’s very much how we did it; we filled out our character sheets minus advantages and complications. Those we wrote on a matched set of color coded 3×5 cards– one for the player, one for the GM.

#9 Comment By Lee Hanna On May 6, 2009 @ 11:45 am

@Scott: I’ve done Serenity before, and used 3x3x3, but the idea of matched cards for complications & the like– that was worth the price of admission today!!

#10 Comment By DrOct On May 6, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

This post, specifically the bits about meta-game knowledge crashed into some other thoughts I’ve been having about the idea of amnesia in games and I came up with some interesting ideas about character backgrounds.

I’ve posted in a bit more detail at my blog: http://droct.vox.com/library/post/amnesiac-rpg-characters.html (and cross posted to my other one: http://droct.livejournal.com/140784.html where there might be a little more discussion (and where people can comment with openID names))

But it boils down to this: What if you had a group start with with amnesia, and they had to figure out their backgrounds, how they got to where they are, and why they’re together, as they went forward. Further, what if players wrote backgrounds for other players so they wouldn’t know their own background?

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On May 6, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

@DrOct – Have you ever heard of PsiRun? I believe the default setting is almost exactly what you list.

#12 Comment By DrOct On May 6, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

@Scott Martin

I have not! I’ll have to check that out!

#13 Comment By DrOct On May 6, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

@Scott Martin

PsiRun looks pretty interesting, though it sounds like it’s more of an improvised or writing of your background by the other players than I what I was talking about, though that’s a similar and equally good idea!

#14 Comment By DrOct On May 6, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

Er “more of an improvised approach to writing your background” is what that was supposed to say, kinda got ruined because I rewrote that a couple times and a few different versions got mixed up…

#15 Comment By Tony Graham On May 6, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

Love the 3x3x3 system. Strikes me as a simplified version of the Cyberpunk life-experience tables of which I was a big fan.

I started a group in the past by having an evening of play before the play for character creation, talking about the setting, voicing ideas, mild role-playing, and basic set-up for the first night of adventure.

The day after that evening, when everything was supposedly in place, I sent out individual emails to the players asking them to tell me one dirty little secret in their character’s background. I was surprised by the range of responses – all of which eventually came into play during the campaign.

The interesting thing is that as far as I know, it was a long time before the players talked about it with each other. The secrets only came out when they began to have repercussions in-game, emerging naturally within the story, and forcing someone to ‘fes up – or not – while everyone else was in the dark trying to figure out what was going on. Two of the players had even assumed they were the only ones I’d sent the email to.

On metagaming:
I’m a big proponent of the theory that metagaming = less interesting role-playing but better wargaming. The trick is always finding the right balance for the players & campaign.

I’m currently finding 4E D&D frustrating because the combat rules, while excellent for a miniature game, are structured to the point of stifling creativity in the action scenes of the game.

For whatever reason, when a player isn’t completely familiar with the rules they are much more likely to blurt out what they want to do or how they choose to respond instead of thinking inside a box, min/maxing, or always doing the most tactically sound thing.

I confess, I’m a fan of all the possibilities that open when creating new characters, regardless of whether or not it’s a new world. Sometimes, creating a new set of characters within the same campaign setting for a one-shot adventure lets the players and the GM rediscover a freshness to the game.

#16 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 6, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

See, this is what happens when you do a top 30 — this article would have been one of my picks, Scott. It’s fantastic!

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On May 6, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

@DrOct – I’ve done the same thing (mistyping and combining stray versions) many times. I was surprised at how close the setting of psi-run looked, though I suspect there are some big differences too.

@Tony Graham – I love that freeform world and character discussion time. It usually doesn’t work for us if there are character sheets and books at hand– they draw our attention too strongly.

The “one dirty little secret” fits cyberpunk perfectly– it sounds like a great twist to fit the genre.

@Martin Ralya – Thanks!

#18 Comment By whodo_voodoo On May 14, 2009 @ 11:28 am

I’ve just recently started using the 3x3x3 method, by chance it also happens to be a Serenity campaign as well. While I eventually got short backgrounds for each of the characters I was amazed by the sheer number of doors the 3x3x3s opened as most read as basic notes for both an NPC and potential plot hook.

Never thought of using cards for the assets and complications though think I have the perfect one off to give that a try with.


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