Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

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Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Omnifray » 4:46pm on 12 Aug 13

So this morning I have been musing on the topic of party-gen (i.e. character generation for the entire group of PCs) and what Leo has broadly termed "player-generated content".

This takes me back to some advice I read from an Indie-with-a-capital-I game-designer about getting everyone involved in genning up the party together. At first this seemed like one of those tidbits of storygaming insight that could be ported over to even the traddest RPG without problems, and I even included advice along those lines in the currently free-to-download beta playtest edition of my forthcoming game Soul's Calling.

When I actually tried to do this in practice for a game of Soul's Calling, the results were... discouraging. Not in any sense from the point of view of the wealth of ideas generated or the general flavour of what people came up with; albeit a few minor elements sat uneasily with the game-world, it was nothing my inner pedant truly couldn't handle. No, the problem was far more basic:- insofar as the players entered into this endeavour with enthusiasm (some more than others, and one head and shoulders beyond the rest), the project became massively unwieldy and cumbersome to the point of being utterly unmanageable.

You see, characters in the sorts of games I prefer can't be summarised on the back of a postage stamp. They don't have four stats. They might have forty stats (if you include skills and weapon stats). They need a wealth of background information. Some of that background information may well preferably be secret from other characters, and thus, in an immersive paradigm of the style I favour, from other players, and this aspect has to be handled by the ref and/or player concerned privately. Had we begun this process on the day of play and carried it out as a group, it is quite evident that the first day could have been spent on it. So we tried to get it done by e-mail beforehand.

The results were so many e-mails flying back and forth about matters of backstory that one player effectively called time on the group e-mails having not been able to open them all let alone absorb their contents fully and reply. I continued seeking as much player input as I could from the players who were enthusiastic about giving it, but as game-day approached, time was growing shorter, backgrounds were growing longer and there was no sign of let up. The (absolutely well-intentioned) "problem player" (whose enthusiasm is and was much appreciated) came up with about 8 different NPCs in the misguided expectation of being able to play them. (As the player was designated an ordinary player and not an a-ref, there was no possibility of that under the rules.) The real problem, though, wasn't the volume of NPCs so much as the incessant discourse generated by things like fitting the players' concepts in with the existing game-world and getting them to gel with other players' concepts as well as mismatched player expectations created by the very idea of player-generated content. The "problem player" had failed to appreciate the significance of the eldritch powers their character was going to have, which did not gel with their character concept, and then on realising that fact wanted to change those eldritch powers (in fact get rid of them) at a time when I had already done a lot of work creating behind-the-scenes secret links between the characters' backgrounds. Accommodating various changes either caused work to be wasted, or required a great deal of effort to ensure that work did not have to be re-done from scratch.

To fully apply the indie paradigm of collaborative party-gen to my trad game, with fully fleshed out character backgrounds, player/GM secrets and complex stats, we would have needed a simply unfeasible amount of face-to-face time as a group, with private mini-discussions and computers/printer to hand; to do it adequately by e-mail contact in advance takes if anything even longer. In the end, in order to be ready for game-day, it was in practical terms inevitable that shortcuts be taken, and I as ref had to squeeze char-gen info from the players in like square pegs in round holes and hammer everything into shape for sheer lack of time.

I felt quite discouraged by this, but then I cast my mind back to one of the most epic games I have ever played, and one of my top two roleplaying experiences of all time. Both of my (joint) top two were three-day foam-sword live roleplay events where I was a player [and neither had anything to do with Soul's Calling, which is a tabletop game]. One of them was an adrenaline-stoked combat affair where players had independently generated their characters though the fact that the ref-team had specifically targetted individual characters with particular bits of "plot" made it feel a bit more special. The other, and the one I want to talk about now, was a game where the ref-team had generated all the characters and backstory in advance, and I had been utterly screwed over (in-character) from before the game even began. Discovering all the threads of intrigue hidden in the backstories (some of this discovery taking place in the post-game debrief), and seeing how the game took shape against such a complex overall backstory, was a thing of pure joy. This was something absolutely capable of being applied in a tabletop environment and did not depend on the live roleplay aspect in any major way (albeit that it may help somewhat to have a large group of players and crew, which is unlikely in a tabletop game).

In that game, one of my top roleplay experiences ever, it was utterly down to the ref-team to generate the characters beforehand, with at most a few lines of input from each player as to vaguely what sorts of characters they would like to play. (I mean, it was entirely open to us to bung in more suggestions if we wanted before the ref-team got started [there was no real opportunity for discourse after that point], but I doubt I did more than tick the box that said that I wanted to be screwed over by the plot. And boy was I.)

In the months since the Soul's Calling [tabletop] experience that I've described above, reflecting on the applicability or otherwise of the indie party-gen advice to my style of game, I think I've gradually become more comfortable with reverting to my tried and tested formula. RPGs are often complex, and not for no reason, but for all sorts of reasons I could wax lyrical about in another thread. Many a group encountering a new RPG for the first time will consist in the main of individuals with the barest understanding of the rules. Writing complex backstory is time-consuming; writing it as a group takes two or three times the effort from the ref, as well as considerable effort from each player, and adds relatively little value to the experience; doing it by e-mail before meeting up, as a way of freeing up face-to-face time for gaming, makes the whole thing so utterly cumbersome as to be not really worth considering.

I am tending more and more to the view that the sensible, efficient way forward for my style of game is to do what I always used to do by instinct:- the ref asks the players for general input as to the sorts of character they are interested in playing; the players may come up with stats or the ref can; the ref then puts together everyone's complex backstory, which links the PCs together in ways that one or more PCs/players may not at first have a clue about; the ref then presents each player with a complete character, and is willing to make changes if the player feels strongly about it, but for the sake of sheer lack of time, there will be some things the ref can't change at the drop of a hat.

Of course, I would rather the players had as much input as possible into their characters, and their backstories. But to preserve player secrets, as well as GM secrets, the ref has to be a potential filter between the players in this process, and that just makes the whole thing impossibly time-consuming. It's bad enough having a back-and-forth between the ref and the players as a whole about the fit between a particular character and the setting or rules system, but when the back-and-forth is between a ref and one player, and has implications for and depends on the backstories of other players' characters which are connected with the first player's character's backstory in intricate and complex ways... nightmare.

I can fully appreciate the indie mindset of players wanting to hop on the creative bandwagon with the ref and have their say in the backstory and even the setting. I can empathise with players who prefer their characters to reflect their own particular enthusiasms and their own views of what is most interesting, or even effective, within the setting/rules. But reconciling that with my ideal paradigm (of complex, interwoven backstories for the PCs with secrets for players and their PCs to discover) is simply impracticable as a matter of time management and logistics. Given that I scarcely have time to perform the basic prep I like to do as ref, it is out of the question that I would repeat the experience of attempting to reconcile PartyGen-by-committee with complex, interwoven backstories and player/GM secrets. [As a sidenote, I like PCs' abilities and stats and so forth to be reflected in / reflections of their backstories.]

Thus I am faced with a straight choice:- simply let the ref get on with the lion's share of PartyGen and backstory as I have always done, or drop either the idea of player/GM secrets (thus, in some aspects, undermining immersion) or that of complex pre-established backstories (thus impoverishing the game, unless I'm willing to sacrifice immersive possibilities for general shared narrative authority). These latter alternatives are utterly unacceptable to me. Indeed, even dropping the idea of player/GM secrets would still mean spending several hours of face-to-face time on PartyGen as a group (if you still want complex pre-established backstories), which the groups I tend to play with would rarely tolerate.

If I'm missing an obvious solution to this conundrum, please let me know.

I wonder whether the more indie-minded gamers on this site can get their heads around my logic here.

Anyway, for now, it's back to the ref doing the lion's share of the work. And I'm feeling more and more comfortable with that. It's tried and tested, and it works - to produce the sort of immersive experience and world-exploration game of intrigue, suspense, discovery, mystery and revelation that I value. People may feel deprived of creative input... these are not the people who are the primary target audience of my game. They do not get out of gaming what I do.

It would be utterly misconceived to imagine that as ref I like hogging the creative limelight. If I could find the time, and the enthusiastic players, to get Party-Gen done on the basis of full player input into more or less everything, with my role being that of coordinating and facilitating their efforts, and adding salt and pepper here and there to link backstories together in secret ways and to secretly link backstories to my general global backstory, sure, I would do it, so that everyone felt as much ownership of their characters as possible from the very beginning. But the time is not there, and the players are a variable quantity. What's more, in the reverse situation, where I'm a player, I'm often more than happy for the ref or ref-team to do all the work on CharGen, and most of the rest of the time all I want is some basic input into character concept and the chance to look at the final product before play starts in case something unexpected is offputting. So I'll tell the ref that I want to play a halpfae warrior-sorcerer, and then if the ref hands me a character write-up that suggests that my halpfae warrior-sorcerer is a meek, mild-mannered, excessively polite, hyper-organised team-player obsessed with gardening and cake-baking, I might want to object, but short of that, I'll probably be super-happy to take whatever I'm given. In fact, to make sure there are no disasters, I'll probably specify from the very first opportunity that I want to play someone who's a bit wild or crazy or at least some kind of a maverick.

So this design choice is basically for practical reasons and fits the quasi-Kantian categorical imperative that I do as ref only as I would have my refs do unto me. Anyway, for those who have survived my wall of text, any thoughts?
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Neil Gow » 10:45pm on 12 Aug 13

tl;dr - Matt tried a new technique. It didn't work for him.

I wonder whether the more indie-minded gamers on this site can get their heads around my logic here.


Yes. Absolutely.

In many ways I have been doing the opposite with my AGOT game. Its about as 'trad' a game as I have ran in years. That said, the group-char-gen took all of about ten minutes and everyone was on the same page. You DO have a very particular way you like to play and there are going to be some techniques that don't work for you - this looks like its one of them. Kudos for trying out the new sexiness though. Better to have tried and decided its not for you than blindly disregarding it without licking it first.

If I was to suggest an answer to your conundrum, you might want to look at the character generation in Cortex+ Drama (aka Smallville). I can absolutely guarantee that you will not like it as it is BUT it offers a very structured way of creating links between characters, setting and NPCs with proper relationships etc. and an artifact that can be referenced at the table later in the game. There are even ways that you could preserve secrets as well with some minimal off-table discussion.

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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby catty_big » 1:25pm on 13 Aug 13

Neil Gow wrote: Kudos for trying out the new sexiness though. Better to have tried and decided it’s not for you than blindly disregarding it without licking it first.

Agree. Matt sometimes gets stick for liking a particular type of game and playstyle (characterised by a high degree of immersion). Big deal. So he likes playstyle x and a lot of folks prefer playstyle y or z- so what? Although a pretty trad gamer, Matt's actually more prepared than probably any gamer I know to try out new ideas and go massively outside his comfort zone in so doing. So yeah, kudos :).

So Matt, to your conundrum. First, I have to say that I really, really like player-generated characters, but I’ll go you one better: I actually like games where the entire player party is collectively genned by the whole player group (see my game Where The Heart Is for an example of my own foray into this technique). I like this for two reasons: 1) it invests all the players in all the characters, not just their own ‘my guy’. 2) It means that right from the start, all the players know stuff about all the characters.

Now, admittedly you may prefer games where the characters reveal things about themselves gradually, and via roleplaying- and I’d agree that quite often this is desirable and adds interest to the characters; plus it makes them more like real life, but there’s a problem with the traditional model that I think the player-genned approach solves: I’ve frequently been in games where one or more players, because they’re only invested in ‘their guy’ and know little and care less about the other characters, between turns spend their time doodling, chatting to each other, staring into space and ordering pizza etc. I think player group-genned player parties can or might go at least some of the way towards dealing with this kind of behaviour.

However, I agree with Neil in that I don’t think it suits your preferred game and playstyle. I'm afraid don’t have any easy answers to give you, but I’ll give the matter some thought and if I come up with anything remotely useable I’ll post it in this thread :D.

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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Omnifray » 9:29pm on 13 Aug 13

Neil Gow wrote:Kudos for trying out the new sexiness though. Better to have tried and decided its not for you than blindly disregarding it without licking it first.


I'm forever trying new ways of doing things [of a non-sexual nature!]. My preferences are reactionary [in relation to RPGs, of a non-sexual nature!], but my methods are radical. Some people find that hard to grok!

Neil Gow wrote:If I was to suggest an answer to your conundrum, you might want to look at the character generation in Cortex+ Drama (aka Smallville).


I will add it to my "to-play" list for further investigation.

catty_big wrote:Matt sometimes gets stick for liking a particular type of game and playstyle (characterised by a high degree of immersion).


Mostly on this site and at Indiecon. Elsewhere I get my flack for all sorts of other things!

catty_big wrote:So Matt, to your conundrum. First, I have to say that I really, really like player-generated characters, but I’ll go you one better: I actually like games where the entire player party is collectively genned by the whole player group (see my game Where The Heart Is for an example of my own foray into this technique).


Player-generated PCs are trad as *%$@. To clarify the OP, even after my mini-Counter-Reformation, I'm still into getting players to gen up the stats for their characters, and preliminary background info if they wish, as long as they understand that it's subject to change. What creates the difficulty is precisely the foray into player input into Party-Gen. Basically I was trying to get as close to "the entire player party is collectively genned by the whole player group" as my preference for player/GM secrets and complex interlocking backstories would permit.

catty_big wrote:1) it invests all the players in all the characters, not just their own ‘my guy’.


Precisely the reason why it seemed worthwhile to try it out. A booster for immersion.

catty_big wrote:2) It means that right from the start, all the players know stuff about all the characters.


Disadvantage, IMHO - well, in context anyway. I mean, taken literally, the point you list is in fact an advantage... I do generally expect (maybe want) all the players to "know stuff" about all the characters. But the difference is that I don't want all the players to know everything about all the characters - I'd rather their knowledge were incomplete. Interlocking backstories can provide that. Your backstory provides you with a limited introduction to each of the other players' PCs - tells you what you know/believe in character about each of their characters. And that's all you know.

catty_big wrote:I’ve frequently been in games where one or more players, because they’re only invested in ‘their guy’ and know little and care less about the other characters, between turns spend their time doodling, chatting to each other, staring into space and ordering pizza etc.


I think it's accurate to say that I've never seen that in games of my preferred style that were done well.

Even in games of 3rd edition D&D, which I loathe and detest, I've probably only seen it very rarely, and the culprit, you know, "that guy" who was doodling and staring into space, was likely as not yours truly. Those may well have been mostly games where I'd genned up my own character, I just didn't like the game. Did my best not to be anti-social but may have struggled.

catty_big wrote:See you at Indiecon?


Me, Giles and Dana!
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Neil Gow » 9:47pm on 13 Aug 13

Here's a thought Matt - is there a halfway house that could be had here?

Lets say, for want of argument that your campaign was based around a band of mercenaries who plied their trade in a dusty corrupt city on the borders of a human-greenskin warzone. That's the pithy one-liner of the campaign.

So, the players start my creating their character concepts BUT they do this together. So they start by saying 'In this sort of story, what sort of characters do you think you might see?'

- The rugged mercenary captain.
- His doughty second in command
- The disgraced battle mage forced to slum it with the proles
- The half-orc warrior, split between loyalty and heritage
- The veteran of the first greenskin wars
etc.

The trick being that all of these characters could be in the mercenary company and, because they are spitballed bu the players, they have a sense that these are the RIGHT charatcers for the game. OK, so from the list the players begin to generate their characters.

Now, they create their characters but they have certain 'fixed point in time' that they all share? They were all recruited into the mercenary company, one way or another. That's one point of commonality between them. They have all seen at least one combat with another character - that's another.

Now ask the players what their characters thinks about the other characters and WHY. Note the whys - they will generally contain little snippets of backstory

Finally ask each of the players to generate two 'sets' for their characters - two places that are the initial backdrops to their characters lives. So, the half-orc might have the sparring yard where she has to prove her worth against other mercenaries and a hidden shrine to the Orc Gods that she worships at.

STOP.

NOW break into your usual round of player secrets and GM secrets.

Look what has happened? The players have a self-generated 'reality' that forms the first level of your game. Then, the players individually have a second layer of secrets that can be revealed (or not) as the game progresses and CAN RUN COUNTER TO THE CREATED REALITY. So our orc warrior is .... a traitor! Who knew? And then the GM has HIS SECRETS, and these can run COUNTER TO ALL OTHER LAYERS. So the Orc Warrior is being played by the bloody Mind Flayer masters of the Greenskin invasion! Its all suggestion! She's a sleeper agent of doom.

The players have a shared world with enough detail to start their juices plus a shared imagery of the setting (I know you like to be in control of the imagery but you can take a boss hand here shaping that at the start). The players then know 'the real world' underneath this facade but only YOU know the 'real real world'

I think you might have been stretching the player generated thing a little too much. Start small and onionskin that bad boy.

Hope that helps

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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Omnifray » 9:57pm on 13 Aug 13

I dunno; in a way it makes more sense to me for appearances to grow out of reality, rather than for reality to be moulded to fit appearances. Start with the core of the onion, then add the skins.

I also like the basic idea that players can play whatever characters they like - not being restricted to picking from a pre-determined list chosen by committee. At most I would have the group (or ref) pre-establish the general kind of group of player characters, and the players then choose anything that fits that. More often, I would just let them play anything that exists in the world. Then I find a way to make it work.

I'll give it thought.
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Omnifray » 11:48am on 14 Aug 13

[MINOR SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE INVOLVED IN THE GAME]

Neil Gow wrote:Here's a thought Matt - is there a halfway house that could be had here?


I have given this some further thought overnight as to how this gels with what I actually tried. What follows is, I'm afraid, another wall of text, but the thing is that I'm struggling to convey the magnitude of the difficulty I've experienced in reconciling group party-gen with my preferred playstyle. And it seems fine in theory, but the devil is in the details. Until you actually start trying to apply this approach to the very specific sort of playstyle I favour, it's hard to imagine how it could become so difficult. I don't know if what follows really pins it down, but it might at least assist helpful people in getting inside my head, as it were, so I hope it's taken in that spirit, rather than as a knocking down of kind and thoughtful suggestions. To some extent, it's also me simply thinking things through out loud, as it were.

Neil Gow wrote:So, the players start my creating their character concepts BUT they do this together. So they start by saying 'In this sort of story, what sort of characters do you think you might see?'


We didn't do this, as such. The thing is that I had three very particular players out of my group of four (not counting me). One (player A) wanted to play an adaption of a specific, existing character. Another (player B) wanted to play a very specific classic archetype. The third, my "problem player", always plays variants on a theme, but, having read the rules, wanted to try one of the character templates set out in Chapter 1 (only to have a change of heart later on realising how impactful eldritch powers can be) --- and moreover was never going to tolerate a game where the Holy Faith or the Unholy Faith took centre stage, or where direct religious conflict was a major theme, or where there was a marked absence of feel-good factor. All in all, this somewhat narrowed the options, and even coming up with a way to satisfy everyone was hard enough. As for my fourth player (player D) - player number 4 was willing to play anything, but is not able or willing to put a huge effort into CharGen / PartyGen. And everyone wanted CharGen to be sorted before the game - before our face-to-face time. To add to that, Player B was happier relying on me to do most of the donkey-work for CharGen (though did give a fair amount of input). It was only Problem Player and Player A who really wanted to invest a lot of time in CharGen before the game.

Having said all that, my "problem player" devised an NPC who eventually became my fourth player's PC. So there was an element of player involvement in other players' CharGen there. Moreover, Player B's character was introduced as part of the same societal niche. Player A's character was an outsider brought in as a hireling, but that was because of the very specific character that Player A wanted to play.

Problem Player and Player A then basically agreed a provisional plan for an adventure, which at first the entire party were on board with, but I fed a lot of plot and motives to Player A which then led to a lot of debate among the PCs and eventually they changed direction. Player A later basically diverted the game in a wholly different direction that I hadn't foreseen, assisted in so doing by the loose and careless talk of two other PCs.

Did my players "have a sense that these are the RIGHT characters for the game"? That's an odd question for me. I'm virtually never in a game where I am conscious of whether a character does or doesn't "fit the game", probably because I'm virtually never in a game where to my mind a character doesn't "fit the game". That might be because I don't approach the game as a "story", and I literally don't care about the "conventions" of particular types of "story", so there is no "right" or "wrong" character for the party, as long as (1) the character is a believable inhabitant of the game-setting; (2) the character has believable reasons for associating with and being in the same place as the other characters and for getting involved in the adventure. It scarcely bothers me if (2) gets a little bit stretched on occasion. Anyway I never had the sense that any of the players felt that another character was out-of-place; Player A's character would have felt himself to be out-of-place in one of the adventuring locations, but it ended up being appropriate for him to be there in the circumstances.

Neil Gow wrote:Now, they create their characters but they have certain 'fixed point in time' that they all share? They were all recruited into the mercenary company, one way or another. That's one point of commonality between them. They have all seen at least one combat with another character - that's another.


As I have recounted, Player A's PC was a challenge to integrate with the group because Player A had a very specific character in mind (and even a name). Problem Player and Player D started the game as closely linked characters with a lot of shared backstory, although the players then managed to screw that up slightly by adding an even closer link which was at best scarcely consistent with Problem Player not knowing certain fairly trivial background secrets of Player D's character. This came down to Player D's choice; I coped (!). As for Player C, well, there were some links in the background to one or more of the other characters, which I had secretly developed, and on the surface the links were fairly superficial, but nobody had an issue with this. The party started out with the common mission that Player A and Problem Player had together devised, and everybody was happy to be on board.

Neil Gow wrote:Now ask the players what their characters thinks about the other characters and WHY. Note the whys - they will generally contain little snippets of backstory


See, here I would have been asking players to supplement each other's backgrounds, in circumstances where:-
(1) Player A comes to the game with a fully-formed character concept, so if anyone else ignorant of the finer details of that concept starts supplementing it, reconciling the new details with the fundamental concept is problematic;
(2) Player B's core character concept is mired in secret complications, so if anyone else ignorant of the finer details starts supplementing it, reconciling the new details with the fundamental concept is problematic;
(3) Problem Player is defensive about even the ref making the most minimal of alterations to the character - because having begun creating the character, Problem Player now feels a sense of creative ownership of everything even vaguely connected to the character; moreover, a core part of the original concept for Problem Player's character (the eldritch powers and the reason for them) was meant to be secret from the other players - so we get the same difficulty of reconciling details added by people who are never meant to know that secret core;
(4) Player D's character grew out of an NPC concept devised by Problem Player, supplemented and adapted by me.

I think this takes us to the real heart of the matter. In a game with player/GM secrets, frequently a character's whole raison d'être can be utterly mired in secrecy. Their public face might be nothing more than a deception, and their deceptive capabilities might be rationalised in a certain way consistent with their secret reality. Letting people tamper with that in ignorance is a recipe for confusion, wasted effort and brain-pain. There's even the risk that you have to reject people's suggestions outright. For instance, if Problem Player had suggested being impressed with what a great swimmer Player B's character was, I would have had to say - "no way". Can you think why? You surely have no idea why. The character is quite athletic and outwardly someone who would be entirely likely to be a great swimmer. Why on earth would Problem Player have never even seen Player B's character approach a river? Would I want to draw attention to that?

Neil Gow wrote:Finally ask each of the players to generate two 'sets' for their characters - two places that are the initial backdrops to their characters lives. So, the half-orc might have the sparring yard where she has to prove her worth against other mercenaries and a hidden shrine to the Orc Gods that she worships at.


Player A was an itinerant character, and I devised local places of interest known to Player A as part of setting-creation, which had a bearing on my fundamental ideas for keeping the players occupied / "plot-seeds". Player A did come up with an initial place of origin and some vague ideas about the character's contacts though.

I believe Player B came up with one of the character's two locations, though it could have been me who did both.

Problem Player came up with two solid locations.

Player D preferred to leave CharGen entirely to me.

Neil Gow wrote:STOP.

NOW break into your usual round of player secrets and GM secrets.


See, this is the thing. At this point it's too late. The secrets are going to be integral to the characters. Speaking hypothetically now, one might actually be a demonically tainted shapeshifter who is merely masquerading as human; one might be secretly an acolyte of an ancient sect whose very existence is unknown to the other characters; a third might have emotional issues from a traumatic childhood and severe psychological inhibitions which mean that it would be inappropriate for anyone unaware of those issues to be suggesting things about that character. (To exaggerate slightly - "I love the way he's kind to horses" - "er, no, you've never seen me go near a horse - one of them broke my rib when I was a child, and I'm scared of them but embarrassed about it, and that was meant to be something you could discover during the game, thanks for screwing my whole character concept up, ****hole"). If you want people's character secrets to be integral to their character concepts, it's extremely difficult to achieve that if you have to fit their character secrets and character concepts around lots of trivial surface details. It's too much to manage and to reconcile.

Neil Gow wrote:Look what has happened? The players have a self-generated 'reality' that forms the first level of your game. Then, the players individually have a second layer of secrets that can be revealed (or not) as the game progresses and CAN RUN COUNTER TO THE CREATED REALITY. So our orc warrior is .... a traitor! Who knew? And then the GM has HIS SECRETS, and these can run COUNTER TO ALL OTHER LAYERS. So the Orc Warrior is being played by the bloody Mind Flayer masters of the Greenskin invasion! Its all suggestion! She's a sleeper agent of doom.


The second layer can run counter to the first layer, but it has to be consistent with the appearance of the first layer. This may make it more difficult to incorporate and justify all the elements of the second layer that you would wish for. For instance, suppose another player has already stated that my character bravely risked his life without expectation of reward, and was only seen doing this by unexpected chance - that makes it far harder to justify how my character could be secretly a cowardly traitor.
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby catty_big » 1:17pm on 14 Aug 13

Omnifray wrote:
catty_big wrote:Matt sometimes gets stick for liking a particular type of game and playstyle (characterised by a high degree of immersion).

Mostly on this site and at Indiecon. Elsewhere I get my flack for all sorts of other things!

Yeah, you can't win can you?

Omnifray wrote:Player-generated PCs are trad as *%$@. To clarify the OP, even after my mini-Counter-Reformation, I'm still into getting players to gen up the stats for their characters, and preliminary background info if they wish, as long as they understand that it's subject to change. What creates the difficulty is precisely the foray into player input into Party-Gen. Basically I was trying to get as close to "the entire player party is collectively genned by the whole player group" as my preference for player/GM secrets and complex interlocking backstories would permit.

Just in case there's any confusion among other folks reading this, when I talk about 'the whole player group genning the entire player party' what I mean is instead of Player A genning Character X, Player B genning Character Y and Player C genning Character Z, Players A, B and C collectively genning characters X, Y and Z.

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catty_big wrote:See you at Indiecon?

Me, Giles and Dana!

Fantastic :D. I look forward to seeing all three of you there, especially Dana, as it was proving difficult for us to meet up in Kent.
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Omnifray » 2:39pm on 14 Aug 13

Another thought. Trying to put my "Empath" Hat on now and fathom out a bit about the alien motivations of these strange creatures who play RPGs for the sake of creativity. As I have observed in practice, give them an inch, and they take a mile. No, OK, that's not quite fair. Give them an inch, and they become attached to it, and hang onto it, like a bulldog gripping onto a bone with all 42 of its teeth. [I Googled that, and 42 was what I got; I hope it wasn't an AHGTTG joke.] Once you say to these strange storygamer folk, OK, gen me up a character, and I want backstory, and I want you to participate in setting creation, and I'm going to share out narrative authority like candy - this tends to build up expectations. People develop a sense of creative ownership.

OK. We're talking about cognitive empathy here, because there's no way I can develop affective empathy for this. You see, I just don't care about any of that stuff, unless we're talking intellectual property rights, in which case you can bet your last cent I will look them up in Halsbury's Laws of England if need be. But never mind about that. Cognitive empathy, trying to work out what these story-creatures need and want and what makes them tick - not affective empathy, trying to actually feel how they feel; when it comes to this need for creative input, I just don't think I can.

Anyway, so back to the practical exercise in cognition. The Gow-Bear's suggestion of participative first-layer creation, then secret second-layer creation, then GM-only ultra-secret third-layer creation, is a funny onion. Because it reminds me of Edwards' fixation with "illusionism" - railroading that players are unaware of.

You see, to my simple, experiential tastes, an unperceived railroad is basically an irrelevance. The danger in a railroad is not that it will take the players along the tracks, but that they will notice it, or suspect its presence, when the ref didn't want them to. My hostility to railroading in general grows out of the unreliability of any attempts at keeping a railroad reliably covered up, and on reflection the lack of enjoyment for the GM when things are excessively predictable. If the GM liked his railroad and could be sure the players would never spot it, I wouldn't care about it being there. Don't get me wrong - this is a railroad-free zone. But mainly because railroads bore me as a GM and my players would inevitably spot them. (In fact they've in the distant past occasionally suspected them when they weren't there anyway!)

But to a certain kind of storyfolk (let's call them the Sidhe), this is Abuse. Deceitful GMing is at odds with the sacred Social Contract. If everyone is fully on board with the railroad, that's OK ("Participationism"), but if it's the Evil Viking Hat GM performing his insidious Illusionism, we might as well just pass him the sex offenders' register to sign right now. And for me, reading stuff like that is a big WTF moment. I mean, why do these people actually care about this stuff? Obviously the GM is going to deceive and manipulate the players; that's what makes the game fun - in fact, it's positively what his job is. (OK, he has other jobs too, but even so.)

But connecting the dots here, there's a common thread of player agency. I think this is the big thing that underlies storygamers' common preference for collaborative, collective creativity and their hatred of illusionism. It's not just that the Sidhe are desirous of having that "creative buzz" whereby they feel that they are being trusted with creative responsibility for the game and that their contributions are appreciated; they want their creative role to be actual, not just make-believe. They don't want to be tricked into thinking that they are giving it large on the story front - they want to be actually giving it large on the story front. If they were told later on that it was all a trick, they would feel dirty, and used. (Me, I wouldn't feel any of that stuff. At worst I might feel that the GM was less skilled than I had imagined, because he'd only managed to construct this whole gaming experience through deliberate railroading and GM-intervention, rather than by skilful facilitation. So it feels a bit cheap, but it's not a big deal.)

Now, how is this massive splurge of waffle relevant to Neil's suggestion? Well, imagine this. You're one of the Sidhe, playing this game where you're invited to have input into everyone's characters. But then, secretly, Player X is supplementing the character concept behind Player X's PC to distort your creative input so that the truth of the character (PC X) bears only the faintest semblance of what you thought you had managed to put into them. Worse still, the GM is at it too, behind the scenes!

In other words, by inviting the Sidhe to participate in group party-gen, then secretly screwing up what they've come up with by means of distortions and player/GM secrets, you're tricking them. You're giving with one hand, then snatching it away secretly with the other.

In fact, Problem Player (from my earlier example) made a complaint with echoes of this. Problem Player gave the example that, for instance, Player B might gen up a demon-spawn character with sinister magic, and, behind the scenes, I as ref might "screw [Player B] over" by secretly ruling that Player B's PC (PC B) is in fact not demon-spawn but angelkin, but is unaware of this fact, and may discover it at some point during the adventure if the party does enough digging. In other words, I as ref would trick Player B into thinking that Player B had genned up a demon-spawn, whereas in fact the character is (without the character or player realising it) an angelkin. Now to my mind this trickery is not "dishonest" because everyone knows from the get-go that the game is what the ref says it is, and you are all pawns in my evil game, and if I want to screw you over, it's not so much a case of tough bananas, as more like "you'd better love it because I know if I were in your shoes I'd think it was frickin' awesome, and see the effort I've gone to for you!". So my response was - yes, I could do exactly that, and Player B would suck it up and roll with it, so what's the big deal? To which the answer may be, see above.

This leads me to think that there are three classes of people relevant to this exercise:-
(1) the true target audience of my game, who literally don't care about "creative ownership", for whom group party-gen is, in my experience, only going to add to the logistical difficulties of setting up a game;
(2) the Sidhe, who are going to hate me for "tricking" them and "screwing them over";
(3) other folk, who might enjoy the exercise of getting everyone onto the same page and not mind being slightly screwed over.

Are there enough people in category (3) to balance out the sense of betrayal of the people in category (2)?

And a much simpler but related point is this:-

====== if the point of group Party-Gen is to ensure that the characters are the "RIGHT" characters for
====== the "story", does it not wholly undermine that when I then let individual players change their
====== core character concepts to be something different than the group had pre-determined?

For instance, suppose the group determines that the "right" characters to be part of a dungeoneering party are a warrior, a priest, a mage and a roguish character with a penchant for picking locks, picking pockets and picking his nose. Now let's suppose that the player of the priest decides that he is not a true priest at all, but a spy who has inflitrated the local temple, and that when he pretends to use divine magic to heal people, he is instead using a secret talisman given to him by the unseelie fae in return for "services rendered"; moreover, he is a low-ranking hireling of a vampire count, has been drinking the vampire's blood and is slowly becoming mittelcuick (neither fully living nor fully undead). The warrior's player, meanwhile, by independent coincidence (suspend your disbelief, please!) decides that the warrior is a vampire, and then I as referee intervene to decide that the warrior (unbeknownst to the spy) is in fact the vampire whose hireling the spy is, disguised by strange necromancy to appear fully human. His purpose in tagging along is to test his spy's loyalty, and keep his own (awesome) abilities hidden. (Thus it is I who reveal to the warrior/vampire's player that the spy is in fact a spy and not a priest.) The mage decides his character is actually a jack-in-the-green with a fae disguise (and I intervene to rule that the jack-in-the-green gave the spy his talisman because the fae can scry upon whoever has it, and the jack-in-the-green is actually here to keep tabs on the vampire, so I reveal these facts to the mage's player, but not to any other players). The roguish character, finally, is in truth (the player decides) secretly a cultist of the goddess of the winter dawn, so I intervene to rule that this character has had various visions relating to a rogue jack-in-the-green and a vampire, with clues as to what to watch out for. Meanwhile the player playing the spy could be forgiven for imagining that he's the "sinister" member of the group...

This is exactly the sort of game-scenario that I would set up. I invited all the players to be part of PartyGen according to the Gow-Bear's oniony approach, but what is the result? Are these the "RIGHT" characters for the "story"? The "story" isn't even likely to resemble what any of the players initially imagined it might be, and all really because of player choices (to play a spy with a fae talisman in the employ of a vampire; to play a vampire; to play a jack-in-the-green; to play a secret cultist of a basically goodly goddess). In fact, even without any malevolent refereeing at all, take four characters of the kinds the players secretly came up with without my input, send them down a dungeon and if they are actually roleplaying, you will NOT get a typical dungeoncrawl. I guess it might look like one outwardly for a while, but each player's experience of it will be anything but. And even before my input, these are not the "RIGHT" characters for a typical dungeoncrawl. They're not the "RIGHT" characters for any "story" that the vampire's player or the spy's player might imagine to be in the offing. The cultist obviously has a more realistic sense of what's going on but no hard knowledge, and the jack-in-the-green is my man on the inside (might be my a-ref).

So even if the oniony approach seems sound in principle, the fact is that when you add my hardcore love of secrets into the mix, that screws it up completely, and all the objectives that the oniony approach is meant to achieve are trampled underfoot by my rabid immersive-explorational-revelatory gaming style.

There is no answer!

catty_big wrote:Just in case there's any confusion among other folks reading this, when I talk about 'the whole player group genning the entire player party' what I mean is instead of Player A genning Character X, Player B genning Character Y and Player C genning Character Z, Players A, B and C collectively genning characters X, Y and Z.


That's the meaning I had ascribed to what you said, yes.


PS all please understand that the polemic in this post is just for amusement value, although the underlying points are genuine.
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Neil Gow » 3:45pm on 14 Aug 13

So much to say - so little time (literally, I'm at work)

I will say this though Matt. My suggested method wasn't a definitive treatise of how to do it, nor was the language meant to be sacrasanct and admissable in court. I will, later, do something a little more detailed because I feel that I may have taken you up a linguistic back alley instead of showing you the One True Way :lol:

However I will also say that with your cabal of very different players, very set desires on when and how things are done and penchant for secrets, this method may not be for you.

Me? The idea of players NOT wanting to work together with the GM to create a game situation that they all (a) understood, (b) had a degree of attachment to and (c) was prime with gaming mojo .... seems as alien as your tongue-in-cheek outlook on story gamers! :lol: :lol:

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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Omnifray » 4:32pm on 14 Aug 13

Neil, your language definitely is admissible in court if it be relevant to proceedings; fortunately for you I'm not sitting in judgment on you here (!) but I have to say that the thought of you taking me up any kind of back alley, whether as a cunning linguist or otherwise, is one capable of keeping me away from the factory where biscuits are made!! Fragile mind duly warped.
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby MrLloyd » 10:26pm on 28 Aug 13

Um, you asked for my thoughts on this. I'll do my best, but I have to confess, that's a lot of text to wade through.

A lot of your problems seem to come down to wanting a particular style of play to occur. That's fine, but I guess it's going to kick up against methods that don't support that. In this case, a chunk of the problem seems to lie in the sheer volume of material and its complexity. One person can, with effort, conceive of a whole load of stuff, join it up and make it tick like clockwork. Five people can come up with a shed load more, to the point where I might suggest borrowing tools from software engineering to keep it all straight. Or at least a very big wall covered in post it notes. If you want that level of detail then there's going to be a cost, and that cost could well be spending several sessions working it all out.

My preferred solution to all this is not to bother. As a wise friend of mine said recently the only reason to have back story is to put it in the foreground. I've gamed with people who like to write 10-12 pages of backstory for their characters and it just doesn't work for me. As a GM it's a chore to keep up with and you struggle to use most of it. As another player in the game it's frustrating, because sooner or later player x will do something weird and inexplicable, and eventually you'll learn that this is because of the thing they wrote on page 7.

I'd much sooner keep things simple. Not least because just a handful of connections between players can rapidly become big and complex. Add in some NPCs and you're good to go.

In my nascent Delta Green game I asked for brief character descriptions to fit the criteria 'It's 1946 and you're about to get on a plane from Berlin to Russia. Tell me your reasons for leaving Germany and heading to Moscow. Tell me what you did in the war....' there were some other pointers, but the guidance wasn't more than a paragraph. I hadn't even said it was CoC at this point.

I got back four characters neatly described in a few hundred words each, all with enough detail to flesh out a campaign. I got one character described in four or five pages and to be honest he's not notably more detailed than the rest in play. They've got some secrets. They've got families and other ties which will slowly become relevant. And they've got back-story that can be easily foregrounded (missing / lost relatives, shadowy pasts etc.)

At the end of the second session they were in character committed to working as a team, and they were given training to help them. So they had a joint discussion about their skills, where they might need to improve and so on. And I gave them a massive dollop of character points to use on their character sheets. So in character group character generation - don't know how interesting that is, but it was fun.

Don't know how helpful that is. I think a lot of it comes down to if you want lots of detail it's going to take time. If I stumble across a magic bullet I'll pass it your way.
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Omnifray » 3:24pm on 05 Sep 13

MrLloyd wrote:As a wise friend of mine said recently the only reason to have back story is to put it in the foreground.


I have to say that there's room for disagreement over that. Backstory can help you form a concept of your character and their motivations which may make it easier to roleplay them consistently, naturally and perhaps even entertainingly (for you or for others) and may help you stay interested in your character and by extension the game. Of course there is no single right or wrong approach to this - what works for some, will not work for others.
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby decfeeney » 9:04pm on 05 Sep 13

You clearly want

A) Detailed backgrounds - not something I personally would want in a campaign (Im of the background which cannot be brought into the foreground is dead weight school) but I can work with it.
B) player involvement in the creation of that background.

I would suggest quickly identifying the aspects of background which need agreement from the players - and doing these as a group. This will include:

- Who the group are
- What motivates them as a group (may conflict with personal motivation)
- Roles within the group and who is going to fill them (e.g. we need a mechanic, a pilot, a xenobiologist and an acrobat. At least one of them should be our Faceman and one of them needs to be good in a fight)
- How each character first met the others.
- if they all met at the same time you can work out the details of the first meeting.
- Any hatreds, dislikes, one-upmanship, crushes, relationships in the group. You could actually handle this as a set of loaded questions:
E.g. Who is the leader? Who wants to be leader? Which two of you were once married?Amember of the team died on the first mission. who's brother was he? Who do you blame for his death?


Okay. At this point break from group work. You have enough to work out who needs to talk to who (eg player A and player C knew each other before the group came together. They need to talk to each other and work out details). Everything else can be done by individuals on their own...

From this point on handle background gen as an individual thing.
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Re: Party-Gen and Player-Generated Content

Postby Omnifray » 9:44pm on 05 Sep 13

Trouble is, we hit the "onion problem" again. It's easier to build an onion from the inside out than from the outside in, and my onions have lots of layers. (See Neil Gow's post about an onion and my reply exploring that metaphor further, upthread.)

Here's where I am at the moment, taken from an RPG.net thread/poll inspired by this thread:-

I want to combine immersive possibilities with secrets kept from players, even relating to what lies behind their own characters' backstories.

At present, the structure in the current draft of my rules is that people gen up their characters individually, then when it comes to the backstory, the ref can tinker with that.

What I am thinking of as a replacement is this:-

1. You gen up your character, with basic stats and as much or as little backstory as you desire.
=== in my system this includes getting a Fate value, which the ref can use to help you with re-rolls, and which is an expendable resource (once used, gone forever) ===
2. You specify how much leeway you're willing to give the ref-team to tinker with your character, from none to total.
3. The more leeway you give the ref-team, the more additional Fate you get, in a relatively modest amount (say, up to +20, on a score that might already be as much as 80).
4. The ref-team then tinker away mainly with the backstory but potentially also with the stats, within the constraints of the leeway you've allowed them.

There isn't currently much room for a stage zero, where everyone pitches in with ideas for group CharGen, but I'm really trying to speed up CharGen by having as much of it randomised as possible*, and the poll so far indicates that lack of group involvement in CharGen isn't likely to be an issue for large numbers of players [interjection on UKRP - in context, this means from the point of view strictly of producing an immersive experience]. An assistant GM, being part of the ref-team, could help with the tinkering with ordinary players' characters within the leeway the respective players allow.

* because I use detailed stats and rules, and experience suggests that leaving it to a purely non-random points-buy approach is a recipe for frustration, as players try to min-max their way through an almost un-min-maxable system.


Now if I try to add in a stage zero, there could be a "loose non-binding chat" among the players to throw up "vague ideas for... what sort of group do the player characters constitute, and what key roles are there to be filled? - all as a matter of outward appearances - and what are some possibilities for how the characters could be / outwardly seem to be connected to each other?". But this would have to produce no more than a rough list of ideas for each of the named character-roles and how the characters might be connected as a group. Individual players would be able to deviate from this. Would that be frustrating for other players who had participated in the group discussion process?

Link to TBP thread:- http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?701307-Immersion-PreGens-versus-Solo-CharGen-versus-Group-CharGen
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