The first topic of discussion I participated in at NELCO 2018 was Creating, Customizing, and Integrating Co-Created Characters. The intention was to focus on character creation for live action campaigns. This is a topic I was particularly interested in and excited to brainstorm over, because I feel I’ve been struggling with character creation for the last few campaigns I’ve PCed.
Generally, the character creation process for the local Accelerant community (the live action campaign community most people present were familiar with, though there was also a writer for NERO at the discussion) involves the staff putting forth setting and mechanical information for the campaign. Then players read through it and individually design character histories and stats according to the staff’s guidelines, submit it to the staff, and receive approval. Sometimes there are minor variations — a staff member might suggest an edit or two (and occasionally, rejections happen if the proposed concept doesn’t fit in with the staff’s vision for the campaign.) But often there is little to no back and forth with the staff (or between players) unless a player takes the initiative to send a specific question or request to the staff.
During the discussion at NELCO, we talked a lot about additional information that could be provided by staff to help guide character creation. Players are often offered descriptions of elements of the setting — species characters could be, nationalities they could have, career paths they might follow, institutions they might belong to, etc. — but the written materials often don’t go into detail about what kind of experiences players might expect to get out of selecting options from these categories. For example, if I sign up to play a priest, in one campaign this might mean uncovering cosmological secrets, because the priests are often in contact with the divine elements of the setting. In another campaign, this might mean dealing with the bureaucratic or political inner workings of the church.
If that kind of information — what sorts of plots one might expect depending on the various selection one makes off the creation menu is available — were made available, it might be very helpful to players, though it’s entirely understandable if it isn’t available at the start of a campaign. Writers may not have all of the specifics planned out in advance, and the writers assigned to different parts of a setting may change over the course of a campaign. Additionally, staff may not want to spoil players on potential content, but some staff might be comfortable with allowing players to opt-in to additional information that might otherwise be hidden from players before a campaign begins.
We also discussed ways in which character creation need not be completed before a campaign’s first event. (Or rather, the first event any given player plays, as it’s not uncommon for new players to join in the middle of campaigns.) I suspect a lot of staff members of the various local campaigns are open to the idea of players adjusting to their backgrounds mid-game, but it might help to provide an explicit channel for it if staff are supportive of the idea, or even make it a standard part of the process. We often have avenues for building an entirely new character should a player decide mid-way through a campaign that the setting elements connected to their character creation choices aren’t working out for them, but I haven’t yet seen much in the way of enabling official ret-cons. (Threshold has something similar — not quite a ret-con, but an option that essentially allows for a diagetic resetting of stats.)
Obviously, there might be some downsides to allowing ret-cons for characters, but I think there are benefits that might be worth exploring. For example, a staff might have players deliberately leave blanks in their character creation process, and have players fill it out a year into the campaign, once they’ve had a chance to get a glimpse at some of the options. Say academic type characters have a choice of which in-game universities they might have attended, but players are welcome to retroactively choose after having met a few of the alumni in-game. This might require a bit of steering to avoid in-game contradictions (PCs and NPCs alike might need to know not to ask “where did you go to school?” until after players have decided.) But it would also allow for players to make informed decisions about which NPCs they’re most interested in interacting with in-game.
Much of the NELCO discussion focused on integration along the course of the campaign. We talked about feedback forms (such as Post Event Letters, or PELs) as the primary means of communication between players and staff, and how flexibility and enabling players different options for structuring feedback could be helpful. Allowing players to respond in short answer surveys, long answer surveys, or maybe even in-person dialogs if possible, could be useful in producing more actionable feedback, as everyone has different preferences for communication styles.
I do wish we’d had a bit more time to brainstorm different ways to involve additional people in the character creation process, which is what I was most excited to discuss. I think there’s an assumption that players want complete control over their character creation, within the bounds of the setting and mechanics the staff presents, but I’d be very open to allowing staff more control over my character creation.
Some options might be:
— Players create basic frameworks for characters and allow staff to fill in the details, some of which could be kept secret to discover in game
— staff creates frameworks for characters and players fill in the details (New World Magischola does something like this)
— staff creates the entire characters and casts players the way many one-shot LARPs do (possibly allowing for minor tweaks, just in case some aspects really don’t suit a player)
— staff creates an opt-in system for players to create connections with one another, including secrets (for example, “click here if you’d like to discover a long lost sibling among the other PCs during the campaign”, with staff secretly assigning two players to be long-lost siblings.)
Some of these things do happen to a certain extent already (common examples include characters with amnesia in their backstories) but I would jump at the chance to play a campaign where it was officially built into the character creation process. Some of these ideas also necessarily involve more work on the part of staff upfront, which is a hard thing to justify encouraging, but maybe it could make writing easier in the long run. What if it ensures all plots will have at least some characters interested, so that no plot writing goes to waste? Or perhaps it might go a long way towards ensuring an even division of players get involved with each of the in-game institutions, preventing issues of different institutions getting disproportionate “screen-time” in game?
We also ran out of time before I had a chance to mention the workshop from Unheroes, a Golden Cobra game in which players create a shared backstory thanks to a series of prompts about their relationships and a shared mission that went wrong. Prompts include things like, “one other player is angry with you, what did you do and why?” or “you gave the order that caused things to go wrong. What order did you give?” In Fifth Gate, one member of my warband lead the others through a similar series of prompts, and together we created a shared piece of backstory about an attack on an enemy stronghold, during which the warband’s previous leader was lost, and a couple new members were gained. We ended up referencing this story throughout the campaign, and I often wished we had gone through the process a few more times together, to develop our in-character relationships and create more shared memories to reference and inform roleplay.
I’d love to see a campaign include something like this as a, perhaps optional, part of character creation, especially if the campaign encourages players to form groups like the warbands in Fifth Gate. (Even better if some of the prompts encouraged players to involve characters in other groups.) Co-created content between players also need not be restricted to the beginning of campaigns. I think players can actually be a really great writing resource for a campaign LARP. For example, my favorite personal moments in Cottington Woods came from content created and introduced by one of my fellow players. PCs often have connections with one another and insight into one another’s characters that staff may not have, so why not enable and encourage them to create content for one another?