Over on ST Wild Shannon asked about the tricky process of getting all the players on the same page; I was going to comment but my comment rapidly bloated, so I’m posting my thoughts here instead.
Shannon was specifically talking about a situation where all the players in her Flashpoint campaign seemed to have very mildly different takes on the game’s concept. I’ve been there before. The most trouble I’ve had with this in a campaign wasn’t one I was refereeing, in fact, but one I was playing in: it was pitched as an X-Filesy sort of paranormal-investigation-and-espionage game, in which the PCs were operatives of an obscure, underfunded, and politically unpopular arm of the British intelligence apparatus – a spy agency which most of the major agencies had basically forgotten about and which spent its time chasing up cases the other outfits wouldn’t touch.
In this case, half the players took that brief as a cue to create characters who were rubbish spies, though they had competencies in other areas, and who’d been shuffled into this department because it was the only one which would take them (I exaggerate a little, but not a lot), whilst the other half generated characters who were entirely competent spies who had been justly or otherwise cast into this bureaucratic black hole for perceived infractions by their superiors. This caused a number of issues (not least being that, once the campaign began focusing more tightly on espionage skills and occult terrorism, the bumbling cardigan-wearing contingent of the PCs ended up feeling a little useless), and in retrospect the referee in question did say that they regretted not doing better expectations management at the start of the campaign.
So, we have a real issue on our hands, and Shannon specifically asks how to get everyone on the same page at the start of the campaign. My knee-jerk response is to say “get them together for a group character generation session rather than having them go off on their ownsome to do it”, because I genuinely believe that is the best and most efficient way of getting a quick read on what people’s expectations of the game are, as well as giving you a chance to either say “uh, the game isn’t actually about that” or “well, the game wasn’t actually about that when I first planned it, but it can be” when people start going down tangents you hadn’t envisaged.
However, Shannon also says that group character generation hasn’t worked for her players before because they tend to arrive with character concepts they are already attached to and don’t want to let go of, or just make characters in their own little bubble during the session without really collaborating, or straight up ignoring the fact that a character gen session is happening and doing it on their own later on. This is a problem in coming up with an answer to Shannon’s query because it takes away what I think is genuinely the best and most natural solution.
(Shannon also details behaviour from players which would make me absolutely livid – if I ran a character gen session and a player was overtly “ignoring the whole thing in favour of out-of-character chit-chat so that they can sit down later on and develop their characters in peace” I’d be directly asking them whether they really wanted to participate in the game at all. If I’m running a character generation session for you and you don’t actually have a character at the end of it then I’m sorry, you’re not going to be in the campaign, because if you’re not going to respect the time I’ve set aside for the character gen session I don’t see how I can trust you to respect people’s time in the session itself. I consider myself to be reasonably tolerant of OOC asides during games, and am responsible for a fair many myself, but if you spend an entire session on OOC chatter and never engage with actual game business then I’m going question your reasons for showing up. Not sure where I’m going with this tangent save to note that Shannon’s players have the good fortune to have a more patient referee than me running games for them…)
So I guess that, unless Shannon is willing to get out a squirt gun and her your players like badly behaved cats when they break away from the group gen session, it’s probably time to brainstorm ways to either make group character generation more appealing or at least encourage people to collaborate more on character generation before game start. Here’s my strategies.
1: Lone Wolf Go Home
Emphasise tighter, more compact character backgrounds, both individually and in terms of intra-party connections. If you need to go away and write up your full character background at home there’s a natural scope to drift there. I tend to take the stance that whilst character background is useful for context and occasional plot ideas, at the same time the most interesting thing about your PC should be what they’re doing now, in the actual campaign, not what they did before the campaign started, though if your players balk at going that far you might again want to consider at least working in incentives for tying in backgrounds together – which would, naturally, tend to make it advantageous to do character generation collectively for that precise purpose. I find that groups whose character backgrounds are tied in together tend to be more cohesive both IC and OOC – it helps set everyone on a comparatively similar trajectory, and even if that isn’t quite the trajectory you envisaged, provided it’s a trajectory you’re interested in and is broadly appropriate for the campaign it’s all good, right. Lone wolf PCs without prior connections to anyone else in the party can fuck right off.
2: Background Mechanics
Find game mechanics which support or incentivise #1 and swipe them. For instance, FATE has specific steps in character generation where you dream up past adventures you had with the other PCs, and Mongoose Traveller gives you bonus skills for tying your background in with the other PCs. (Mongoose Traveller is also really fun for group character generation because you get to watch people’s crazy career progressions.) If you can’t finish character generation on your own then suddenly participating in group character generation makes a lot more sense.
3: One For All and All For One!
To further reiterate that character generation should be a group process, incorporate aspects of group generation. If you’re running a game where the PCs are literally a bunch of friends thrown together by blind chance, then disparate PCs who don’t necessarily fit sensibly together might support the concept; conversely, if they are an established cell of a secret society, or the leaders of an organised band of mercenaries, or the masters of an enclave of magicians, or whatever then before gameplay begins they don’t just need to come up with a character – they also need to come up with the details of their specific group. This could just be flavour stuff (“So, how did you guys get together and start investigating paranormal mysteries?”), or it could involve actual game mechanics which determine group resources and characteristics. Reign is built around this concept, as was Ars Magica, the Song of Ice and Fire RPG had nice rules for House creation. I’m sure you can think of other examples. If you end up doing group generation after character generation, then it’ll rapidly highlight which characters don’t belong with the others, if you do it before character generation it’ll prompt the players to make characters that fit the group ethos, but more importantly than either of those considerations is the fact that a group creation process prompts the players to sit down and talk about what they expect the group to be like and what they expect it to do, and if you can get them doing that then that’s half the battle.
Again, if you tie in group generation to character generation thematically and mechanically, so that you can’t complete (or maybe even can’t begin) character generation without group generation, then a character generation session becomes much more attractive.
4: Don’t Feed Their Imagination Until You’re Ready To Harvest It
Separately from the rest, limit the extent to which players can get ahead of themselves and dream up character concepts they get attached to by limiting the extent of the information you give out about the campaign concept. Go with system, broad themes, general focus of play (“It’s Vampire: the Requiem set during a historical period of tumultuous social change, with characters manipulating mortal politics in order to protect their positions of entrenched privilege from the ravages of the mob”), underscore the point that the fine details will be hammered out collectively as a group (“I’ve not yet firmly decided on which historical period and which city to go for, so I’ll want people’s input on that at the first session”), and handle the detailed nitty-gritty at a campaign planning session which can also include character gen – and go into it with some areas of flexibility yourself, so if the player group decide that it’d be more interesting to play such a game set against the backdrop of the French Revolution as opposed to the Bolshevik Revolution then you can compromise there and the players feel that there’s some give and take going on. The more specific you get with the details, the more specific a character concept the players can dream up before they sit down with everyone else – and the further down their particular rabbit hole they can go – whereas if you don’t actually have the campaign premise solid until the players are all together then you can get a consensus at that point and then people’s character concepts will grow out of that consensus.
5: Don’t Give Sneak Previews
On a related note, don’t get into extended discussions with players about the campaign before the campaign planning meetup, if you go for such a thing. One of the best ways to make sure people have differing expectations of your campaign is to tell people different things about it, and one of the best ways to do that is to let individual players interrogate you. Don’t put your players in the position of those blind fellows in that parable about the elephant where one of them is groping its trunk and one of it is patting its butt and so on; if you make sure you’re telling everyone the same stuff about the campaign, at least when they’re going into it, then you’re not going to have them coming in already on slightly differing pages.