Casting characters as a whole

August 20, 2009

For a couple of months I’ve also had a mini-rpg, along the lines of Lady Blackbird in mind. I managed to put together a lot of ideas this week, and ended up working on characters, which made me really re-think a bit about how we design characters in rpgs.

Even when you have one person designing the characters, I started to realize that there’s a lot of subtle art to making a full cast- not so much balancing stats as much as balancing incentives, motivations, strengths and weaknesses of personality- characters who will have interesting times challenging and supporting each other, without making any direction a foregone possibility.

How much -more- difficult this actually is when we’re talking about multiple people, each making their own characters, possibly without an idea of the situation, possibly for the first time together, possibly without unity of vision/concept?

I expect this is why more games are successful when the system causes the characters to form/grow as a part of play rather than trying to set this all up before play. (That’s also discounting the fact that for many games, character generation plays a significant part of play, often requiring long term choices and system mastery…)

More to think on this.


  1. Yes! It’s a very tricky alchemy. I think the trend in indie games of the 03-04 generation towards very constrained situations (My Life with Master) was partially an attempt to make “successful” chargen (ready to explode into exciting play) more likely.

    Lady Blackbird is of course my own attempt. I consider it a kind of tutorial on making an effective ensemble cast for the new gamer who has enough other stuff to learn already.

    I’m urging Matt Wilson to do something similar for PTA 3.0. — some pregen shows and casts to use for quickplay situations and also as examples for how to do chargen successfully.

    • I think we’ve got the immediate exploding situations down- Burning Wheel’s The Sword or In a Wicked Age are pretty well set up for that. It’s the question of what makes a good ensemble over 6 sessions? 12? 60? Obviously, the further out you go, the more you’re projecting, but I think a strong foundation can lead a long way.

      (Flip side, I see a lot of games have ways of bringing situations to a close- MLWM, Carry, Grey Ranks to ending a situation so you don’t have to project beyond a point…)

  2. Hey, Chris. It’s a big problem. A solution that I like, and have been increasingly using, is to simply have less main characters than the number of players, and shy away from the ensemble cast concept entirely. In Drifter’s Escape you have the Drifter, who is basically the viewpoint character, and then you have everyone else, who might be protagonists or might be antagonists or might be just folks. The Drifter might be a protagonist, too.

    In Clover, there’s Clover, who’s the viewpoint character, and then Clover’s Dad, who’s decidedly non protagonistic, and then Clover’s friends. Again, there’s a similar dynamic about who’s really at the heart of the story: the story might be able Clover learning to draw, or it might be able Rose and her relationship to her absentee husband.

    • That’s a good point. (I’m also thinking about the ways in which rpg culture ties entitlement to personalized character creation to wish-fulfillment as well, but that’s later posting).

      Sort of the opposite end of the spectrum is the Universalis buckshot approach- let people make a bucket of characters and the characters they actually give a damn about/who fit together with interesting chemistry will get the spotlight and the rest will fall away.

      • (I’m also thinking about the ways in which rpg culture ties entitlement to personalized character creation to wish-fulfillment as well, but that’s later posting).

        This is absolutely the biggest pitfall of the type of design I’m talking about. One of the really crappy framings I’ve seen is to see it as some sort of “competition to have your guy be the protagonist” as if, somehow, being the protagonist was the narrativist equivalent of a win condition. It was only once I could get my head out of that framing that I could start being able to design this sort of game.

        • This is probably why it’s easier to design giant versus scenarios where all the characters are at each other’s throats (BW’s The Sword, IAWA, Houses of the Blooded) because the fictional competition effectively mirrors that process of “who gets to be the protagonist” whereas fictional cooperation doesn’t.

          I think that’s also one of the strengths to PTA: everyone can be the protagonist, just not all at once, and since it’s already clearly marked for the group who’s going to be the protagonist and when, everyone can coordinate on making that happen, including foreshadowing ahead.

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