Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Sandbox and Player Character Backgrounds

My post yesterday on structuring your sandbox has been making the rounds of other blogs. Like this one at Trollsmyth. This caught my eye.

There’s been some talk about getting players “plugged in” to the campaign. Most of it has focused on front-loading character involvement in the campaign. I’m going to respectfully disagree. While I certainly enjoy working with a well-detailed character history, my players will report that it’s more a toy for them to play with than for me these days. I’m much more about giving the players all the rope they need to hang their characters.
It is hard to explain all the assumptions you have when you write about something. And I don't feel I did that when I talked about character backgrounds. The traditional view of character backgrounds is that the player writes a paragraph, one page, or god forbid ten pages of material that the GM weaves into the campaign.

That not what I do.

My method is more akin to the Traveller method of character generation but without the tables. It is replaced by a mini session or an exchange of email between me and the player. From that comes the player's background. The "context" in which he exists in my Majestic Wilderlands.

This system evolved because only I know all the details and choices of my setting. It is unfair and impractical to require a player in my game to just come up with a background that works in all aspects.

So what I do is sit down and ask them for a rough idea of what they want to play. Then I give some details and choices with the pros and cons. After a half dozen or so rounds of this the result is the character winds up with some allies, some responsibilities, and yes a background.

At no point I am requiring the player to do anything. Most of the time I am giving benefits in the form of resources and allies that the freebooter adventurer would not have. The players realizes they have much to gain so they start to think carefully of their choices. The few times that doesn't result in a benefit is because the player wants to have a challenging role. The player chooses to exist in difficult circumstances.

There is a very practical reason I go this length. Because I found that players get more adventures this way. They wind up caring more about the adventure they choose to go on beyond the loot and gold. There is more at stake, their reputation, prestige, or losing valuable resources and allies. As a result they are more immersed in the campaign.

Another reason to do this that it makes roleplaying easier. I am capable of coming up with quirky personalities coupled with voicework to make a memorable character. But it is far easier to roleplay when I am drawing inspiration from what motivates my character than trying to act out a role. And I find this helps other roleplayers regardless of what their skill level is.

Finally I find this is what you have to do for the long haul. If you want a campaign that last 30 years or even just stick to the same genre. You need to go beyond the tabula rosa.

If you want to see what this looks like from a player's point of view I refer you to these three posts at the Rusty Battle Axe.

Character Creation Part 1
Character Creation Part 2
Character Creation Part 3

And how this impacts the initial sessions of a game read these posts

Majestic Wilderlands Session #1 Part I

Majestic Wilderlands Session #2, Part II

Majestic Wilderlands Players Log

5 comments:

trollsmyth said...

Ah, ok, yeah, so very much based on the deeper hook of kinda-sorta-in-game pre-game choices. Very neat idea. I may steal this for my own games.

Badmike said...

Rob your method sounds very similar to mine. As does your reasoning:

"There is a very practical reason I go this length. Because I found that players get more adventures this way. They wind up caring more about the adventure they choose to go on beyond the loot and gold. There is more at stake, their reputation, prestige, or losing valuable resources and allies. As a result they are more immersed in the campaign."

I find there is a huge difference in play quality when the players have an investment, no matter how small, in their character creation and history. I usually attach a small adventure hook to each character's background; they are free to ignore or pursue it as they wish. In all it seems the players I have are usually pretty well motivated and interested, much more so than in the very few campaigns I've run where characters are rolled up from "scratch" and not given any sort of background or motivation.

LordVreeg said...

Oh, hell, I actually do have some charts that help frontload the setting immersion, and like a lot of other people, i can say what I do works for me and has for decades.
I've had nearly every player I've every had say up front they didn't like the idea, and only 100% say they loved it afterwards (to the point that my online IRC players all ahve made an additonal 20+ characters apiece).

Investiture is huge in terms of motivation. Sure, a blank slate is fun once in a while, but I find starting the PCs with some structure and asking for more gets them (sometimes too) involved in their characters.

The Rusty Battle Axe said...

As the beneficiary of Rob's approach I can say that it has definitely strengthened the role-playing and immersion aspect of the game which has actually increased my ability as a player to determine my own course of action rather than decreasing it.

Justin Alexander said...

I think it's foolish NOT to use character creation as a chance for creative collaboration: It enriches the campaign to follow and it's a great opportunity to get the players to actually pay attention to the world.

My own version of the process is:

(1) I give the players a relatively short pamphlet-size briefing of the campaign setting/concept. (5-10 minutes of reading or less is the goal.)

(2) The player pitches a character concept.

(3) I use my knowledge of the campaign setting to flesh out that concept (or give them options for fleshing it out).

And then we go back-and-forth as much as the player wants. The result is usually a 2-4 page character background with large chunks of setting material embedded in it.

(3)