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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

[AFTHOTWTTGS] Character Generation: the First Hurdle

I want you to imagine something for me, dear readers (both of you).

I want you to imagine, if you can, that you have no passionate interest in pretending to be an elf, or a vampire, or a space mercenary, or - le sigh - a squeaky cartoon pony. You're sort of aware that these things exist - you've seen The Hobbit or Only Lovers Left Alive or Guardians of the Galaxy (and as an aside, doesn't that look like a lovely little palate-cleanser? Also insert obvious commentary on bald blue space pirate Karen Gillan, "another sensual massage, Pirate Queen?", yadda yadda yah) or some resurrected apparently-for-children show which I honestly did try to watch once but didn't gel with me in the slightest.

(I'm not even joking. I'm sure that Friendship is, indeed, Magic, but when I say 'it physically hurt me to watch it', that's not fanboy rhetoric; I found the animation style and the sound of the theme music and the voices viscerally off in the same way that I find spoiled chicken not only inedible but repulsive - "do not put this in you, get this out of your environment". It's nothing personal, I swear. Anyway, back to RPGs.)

You might be interested in roleplaying because you have a slightly geekier friend who's into it, and you sort of like board games, and you figure it might or might not pass a few wet weekends in November, and so you agree to sit down and play for a bit - and someone hands you this piece of paper and the first thing you have to do when playing a game is, effectively, fill out an application form.

Think about it. You must fill in these boxes, declare these aspects of your 'self', complete the paperwork in order to start playing a game. I know board games have set-up time, some more so than others, but come on - filling out forms?

If I weren't already predisposed to roleplaying from having started shortly after my age hit double figures, i.e. before filling in application forms and doing sums and documenting my use of resources became the blight on my life that it is today, I wouldn't touch that shit with a standard-issue ten-foot pole. The first stage in playing an RPG is something which, to 'straight' adults, to adults not already locked into this stuff, is associated with work - often busywork, or the soul-sapping state of unemployment.

Over the years I've seen several ways of working around this big stick-in-the-craw opening... thing.

With my old Vampire group (which had a gamer or two, but where the common interest was 'theatre and art and stories and stuff about vampires' rather than 'playing games'), the workaround was to sell it as part of a theatrical process - you workshop the characters before you get into devising the story, and part of that is deciding what sort of person they are and what they can and can't do.

Quite often, the two-part nature of New World of Darkness gaming comes to my aid. Devise a human first, get a feel on a person you want to be, then play them for a bit, then apply your supernatural template. Yes, I'm aware that that might mean you don't get the full range of choice about where your Merits and freebie points and suchlike go, but we're talking about new players, and 'straights' to boot. I don't think optimisation is half the issue that entitlement and 'following the rules' are - again, the idea that the rules are guidelines and it's OK for only one person to know what's going on and you have to trust that person not to fuck you over just because are often quite challenging to people who are coming to these games in adulthood.

Sometimes, character generation is super-streamlined. Fighting Fantasy and Backsword and Buckler (my favourite of the OSR systems largely because its magic is elegant and low level and also because that whole Elizabethan-Lovecraft thing is very much my jam) both have character creation that can be over and done with in a few minutes per person. I like that.

What my mate Chris (who's a very good GM for someone who isn't me) does is to start you off in media res - you pick things like Nature/Demeanour, Virtue/Vice, race/class/alignment, and then accumulate your stats based on the choices you make during the first session. He drops you into a situation - someone's following you home - and if you whip round with a weapon in hand, he quietly assumes that combat will be your first recourse and advises you to put some points into combat stats and skills. If you turn and challenge them verbally, social stuff. If you try to lose them in the maze of streets, intellectual stuff. You get the idea. It works quite well, and it's my standard choice for experienced groups of roleplayers who know each other quite well...

... but right now, I'm gearing up to run Mage for a couple of journeyman tabletoppers, an experienced MMO-roleplayer who's never touched a d10 in her life, and a full-bore geek who, while roleplay-positive, is also quite difficult to focus and about as disinclined to paperwork as I am. Two pairs of players know each other well; I know all the players (one pair less well); we have no idea if we're going to get on as people who do a thing together.

For once, I'm feeling like the paperwork might be a blessing. It gives us a chance to sit around a table and get a feeling for the other players in the prospective group, become used to each other and comfortable with each other or at least over the initial awkwardness. And I suppose it gives me an idea for who their characters are, and what they're capable of, and what will be appropriate challenges for them (very important, I think, with Mage, where lacklustre adversary design results in something that can almost be handwaved away). Yet it still feels... dull, this asking people to fill out forms before they can play a game. You'd have trouble selling me on that, these days.

I'll let you know how it works out.

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