Rearranging Roleplaying Character Creation

victorian criminals scheming

Art by Symatt

Over the course of a half hour or so your friends gather at your house. Everyone sits themselves down at the dining room table, get out their dice, fix drinks and snacks. The chit-chat centres around what everyone has been doing at work, with their family, over the weekend. Slowly, after the last person blusters through the door, superfluously apologising for the family issues which have made him late, the talk comes around to the game. We’re starting a new one tonight – a game which the GM has had in mind for a few weeks or a few months. It’s going to be a short campaign. It might take around 5 to 8 sessions to run, depending on how many family issues take up your precious session time, depending on how focussed the party might be, how many jokes get said.

Everyone is excited to try out the game. It’s going to be a Heist game. The GM briefly explains to you the basic concept of the game. It’s 1879, you’re in London, and you’re all playing criminal types. You’re going to pull a heist. Okay, now to create characters…

The usual thing that happens at this point is that everyone thinks of different types of criminal, focuses on different specialities, and makes sure they cover all the different skills which they might need. The only problem is that they’re not sure exactly what skills might be needed. Perhaps you have 5 players. One decides to be a safe-cracker and security specialist. Another decides to be a confidence trickster. One is deft at sneaking and stealth. Yet another is a brutal thug. The fifth specialises in fraudulent documentation.

Character creation takes all evening, and you perhaps have half an hour to an hour to actually have an introduction to the game. At this stage everyone is quite happy with their characters – they all look like fun to play, decently skilled in their own way and ready to take on the world.

Well, it turns out that the heist involves a convention of jewellers being held in Alexandra Palace in London. The GM’s idea was to sketch out the important people and places and just let the players decide on the plan. He’s going to ad-lib his way through the majority of the game, thinking about how the resources and security provided by the jeweller’s association and the Palace might react to the moves of the characters.

As it pans out, the players decide on what they see as the best course of action – and it doesn’t include either confidence tricking or sneaking. The two players playing these characters see their grip on the story slipping away, their ability to contribute relegated to “assisting” other people to do their actions. The believability of the scenario suffers – why would these people even be hired for such a job? – and you suddenly have 2 members of the group who aren’t invested in the game. Now, you might be one of those lucky groups who are all invested in the game no matter how small your role, and where no-one minds spending a few months on the sidelines, but let me suggest a different approach just in case.

Consider the following. Instead of briefly explaining the concept and letting the players get on with making their characters, consider allowing them to plan the heist beforehand. I can see this happening in either of two ways. Either the leader of the group, the person pulling the strings and making the plan is considered an NPC, or perhaps one or two of the players might take the role of the leader of the gang. Some groups have problems with players playing a leading role. Personally, my experiences have (so far) been entirely positive when another character – or my own – have been the leader of the group. So long as the player understands that it’s the character leading the other characters and not the player leading the group then everything else is just roleplaying. I’ve played incredibly obsequious characters to great effect (and with a heck of a lot of fun.) Given my experience, my gaming group could quite easily have a player character in the role of chief schemer. If your group suffers from power hungry players or issues with clashing egos then definitely go for the NPC ubervillain.

The main “schemer” should be created first. The character must exist in the first place. But only this character. Next, present the setup to the group. Perhaps someone approaches them, asking them to acquire a particular item and offering an immense sum as recompense. Alternatively (and perhaps more fun) would be to give the character a personal stake in the matter. Perhaps they have a long-running feud with a particular immensely rich gentleman. They have an item they value above all others – a rare gem wrested at great expense from the Orient. Give it an interesting back-story. Have them display it in a public place to great public acclaim.

And then let the players scheme. At this point the other characters don’t yet exist. They have not even been created yet. They have not been imagined. Once the plan has been formulated in a broad sense then the players will understand what skills will be required, what sort of people they will need to play – and which ones will be the most fun to play.

This method, creating the characters after the main plan has been formulated, allows for different parts of the scenario to be played through with more meaning. Consider heist movies you’ve seen before – quite frequently an early part of the movie centres around building the team. Members are approached one by one, the pitch delivered. If the characters were created before the heist initially planned you may have had to assume that the characters were already part of a “team”. There may be other benefits I haven’t thought of.

Speaking of which – I haven’t tried this out. I don’t know of anyone who has tried this out. If you have, or if you have been persuaded by my magnificent idea and simply must rush back to your gaming group eager, nay, driven to make it happen in your game, let us know how it goes.

For Science.

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About Paul

Cuchulain (otherwise known as Paul) has been playing roleplaying games since he was 10 years old. Although he'll play any game under the sun, he prefers characterisation and plot over tactics and mechanics. He is never happier than when playing in or mastering a horror campaign - preferably with heavy Cthulhu Mythos overtones or theme.
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  • sy matt

    Giving an overview of what could be is a clever idea. Why haven’t we done this before. I allow players to make the character they want and fit the gameplay around them. But as you say about those movies Do find the team they need before the story starts clever.
    Nice one.

  • http://diceofdoom.com RupertG

    This is something I am really keen to try out in the future. I can see it giving the campaign a bit more meaning, or at least, more meaning to the characters. It makes it more personal, so to speak.

    • sy matt

      cooperative character creation as well can be fun. mouse guard does that. loved the way the characters worked with and for each other