Progressive Character Generation
by Tod Foley
It has become popular in modern RPGs for GMs to accept all sorts of creative input from Players. In some games, even details of the gameworld - like the town they grew up in or NPCs they happen to know - have become part of CharDev territory, a place for Players to flex their creative muscles during the character development phase which happens before play. Player-generated content is great, when it works, but this approach can make the CharGen process even more daunting and drawn-out than it already is. Some people don't improvise that quickly, and the additional creative freedom can feel like added responsibility. For others, getting to know a brand-new character just doesn't come so easily. It takes time. Well, why wouldn't it? How well do you know the hero at the beginning of the book?
It’s all well and good to allow your Players to create the important aspects of their own characters’ pasts, but it’s entirely another thing to put them on the spot, forcing them to marry themselves to a character concept they haven’t spent any time playing yet.
This is a perennial problem in roleplaying games, and one that I faced while writing DayTrippers. The solution I hit upon is what I call "Progressive Character Generation" or "PCG".
In books and movies, it’s rare to know the entire history of a character before the actual plot begins. In fact, in many books and movies, the only backstory you ever get occurs in flashbacks, after you’re familiar with the character on a more pedestrian level. Likewise it's not uncommon to be several seasons into a TV series, or several books into a paperback series, before learning something totally new about a character you thought you knew inside and out. These are literary examples of Progressive Character Generation.
In a PCG game, the Players get to “wear” their characters for a while before determining a lot of details about their history, psychology or values. In the early days of a character’s career it's easier to work this sort of content in, but it's not too hard to fit backstory into a veteran character's past. After all, no one follows a perfectly straight line in life, people are multi-faceted. They change over time, and they often put away things from their past, never mentioning those things until one day they become important again. Learning a whole new angle on someone? Happens all the time.
Traditional fiction writers are able to go back and forth while writing, adding backstory and exposition to early chapters later, as it occurs to them. As GMs we should try to make our Players' jobs less difficult than that of the professional writer, not more difficult. That's why DayTrippers uses PCG as a play technique, and rewards Players for Character Development Scenes.
The PCG approach gives the Player time to think about their character and see them in action a bit before committing to details that may or may not turn out to be important or useful. Instead, the Player learns about their own character just as we do when we're reading a book or watching a movie - or when we're writing one. In addition, it gives the Player an opportunity in every session to link their character's backstory to the current plot, as commonly seen in well-written stories and filmed entertainments.
A good example of a Character Development scene appears in every episode of "Kung Fu". Sometimes these flashbacks allow Caine to overcome a difficulty he is in, by reminding him of something or keeping his energy focused, avoiding negative emotions, etc.
Here's how that might work in a game: The Character finds themselves in a tough situation. The Player has a sudden moment of inspiration about their character's past, and says "I'd like to do a Flashback". The flashback may involve remembering training the character underwent early in life, or reliving the loss of a loved one that set them on the path of adventuring, recalling a life lesson learned or a promise made to a family member, etc. Depending on how you run your game, it may add a bonus or pick up a skill that wasn't on the character sheet before. It may give the character an idea for solving their current problem, which can be a neat way of bringing "meta" information into a character's head.
As a Player, calling for a Character Development Scene is just a matter of remembering that it's an option. You could do it at any time. The GM would play any NPCs necessary for your scene, but that may not be necessary at all since it's just you making up a flashback, basically.
As a GM, of course, the mechanics would differ from game to game. If you'd like to experiment with PCG in your own games, here are some of the things you'll want to consider.
- Value to Player: Does the Player get any points or bonuses for doing a Character Development Scene?
- Value to Character: Can a Character Development Scene grant a bonus? Does it allow point-spends on stats, skills or gear?
- Cost of Scene: Does it cost any type of points to do a Character Development Scene?
- Limits of Scene: Is there a limit to the number of Character Development Scenes a Player can do? Per Session? Per Career?
In DayTrippers, the answers to those questions are:
- Value to Player: You can get XP at the GM's discretion if the scene is used to solve a problem, spark an idea, etc
- Value to Character: Point-spends on skills, 1 bonus die if the scene provides information that affects a roll
- Cost of Scene: It doesn't cost anything but does allow you to spend unspent CP on skills
- Limits of Scene: Players are limited to one CharDev scene per session, and only 11 slots on the PC Sheet
There are a few other games that make use of the PCG approach. Otherworld is one of them. I've been told that a variant of the original FUDGE rules included an option for beginning play with a completely blank character sheet! I'm not going quite that far, but I am giving my Players more time to settle into their characters by using a PCG approach from now on. Watching their characters develop both forward and backward in time is a cool experience, and even more dramatic, since the scenes tend to be whipped out when the PCs are in trouble.
GM: "Ok, so you've fallen into a gigantic trash compactor. The great iron walls begin closing slowly. What do you do?"
Player: "Oh man... I want to do a flashback!"
GM: (grinning) "This is gonna be good..."
Tod Foley is an interactive developer and game designer, lead developer of "DayTrippers" and author of the "CyberSpace" RPG, designer of the collaborative apocalypse game "Watch the World Die", writer/producer of the theatrical LARP "Ghosts in the Machine", and a contributor to numerous RPGs and interactive properties. He's also a programmer, an activist, a musician, and has done some crazy shit in his time.
The DayTrippers Core Rules book is available in PDF format at RPGnow.com: