Herding the Cats

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.

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9 thoughts on “Herding the Cats

  1. 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

    “Don’t let your players pat your butt.”

    Truly, words to GM by.

    It strikes me that another important way to make sure everybody is on the same page is to make sure that you yourself have coherent ideas about what the game is going to be about. If I pitch a game of political intrigue but run a game of fast-paced action, it’s very likely that half my players will get confused and keep trying to intrigue their way out of gunfights while the other half roll with it and just enjoy the mayhem.

    1. Yeah, I don’t get the impression that Shannon specifically has that issue based on her campaign writeups but I have seen it happen. The classic example, of course, is Vampire, where the setting information and mystique around the game says “politics and intrigue and swooning about in the moony twilight” but the system keeps pushing you towards superheroes with fangs, and the eternal tension between people who are 100% fine with the game turning into superheroes with fangs and those who find superheroism with fangs detracts too much from their swoony-moonery.

      Also I have had good (or at least memorable) results from players patting my butt before but you don’t want to make it a standard operating procedure.

    2. My experience of group chargen has been that it’s both successful and fun, so I agree entirely here. I’ve only had a couple of occasions where people brought their own characters. One was my very first run of Call of Cthulhu, where it made for some logistical issues (why are this toff, this sociopathic urchin, this circus dwarf, this loony colonel and this nightclub singer exploring a haunted house?) but mostly just made for an entertainingly silly game. Obviously some GMs or games would be less suited to that. The other is D&D, but the player had obviously done her homework and brought someone entirely appropriate.

      Another version of this is, it’s possible for players to be on a similar page but not quite the same one you’re one. We had some of this with the Cthulhu Los Diablos game, where you lot moved straight onto night-time B&E when I expecting you to still be asking questions and maybe doing some research. Just about managed to cope with it, but it was a tricky night of wild improvisation. But all that was, as far as I can tell, was a difference of tone between shades of noir.

      Lone wolf PCs without prior connections to anyone else in the party can fuck right off.

      I’ve got to admit, I’m entertained by the idea of a party of PCs loudly insisting that they’re solitary lone wolves who don’t need any help from anyone, all of them ineffectual and codependent.

      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.

      I feel like this is a slightly tricky one. It seems like a good idea if you have easygoing players, but on the other hand I can see that a GM who needs to be really enthusiastic about a campaign concept might find that flexibility awkward. It seems like it would work best with an established group that’s willing to either try just about anything, or sign up to a very general premise.

      1. I feel like this is a slightly tricky one. It seems like a good idea if you have easygoing players, but on the other hand I can see that a GM who needs to be really enthusiastic about a campaign concept might find that flexibility awkward. It seems like it would work best with an established group that’s willing to either try just about anything, or sign up to a very general premise.

        I was throwing in a fairly extreme level of flexibility to make a point there, but I get your meaning.

        There’s a bit in the Unknown Armies core book where it talks about doing character gen and having the players suddenly get really animated about the idea of running with a campaign concept the referee hadn’t considered, and where it urges people to be willing to drop their plans in order to go with the idea that has actually inspired the players. I don’t think everyone has quite that level of flexibility and I also think the referees should be able to say “this does/doesn’t enthuse me” to exactly the same extent as the players, but at the same time I think referees should be willing to stop for a second and think “hmm, can I make this work for me?”

        I think the referee should decide in advance what aspects of the campaign they really, really want to be present, and construct whatever pitch they give to be around those. Everything else can be up for grabs. How extensive the pitch does depend, I agree, on how willing the group is to try your ideas or how much detail on the premise they need before signing up. If you’ve got an established group it’d be worth making the initial pitch whilst everyone is together – perhaps after the end of the previous campaign; in my Monday evening group we tend to discuss what’s coming up in the next campaign block twoards the end of the current block, if it’s going to be a new thing.

  2. Rereading my comment, it’s not quite as clear as I thought over breakfast. I definitely agree with the spirit, it’s only the execution that seems potentially tricky. It presumably depends to some extent on how you come up with ideas, because if you generally get them in conversation rather than solitary rambles in the countryside, then riffing on ideas is going to come more naturally.

    I suppose it’s also going to depend whether people tend to approach things from “I want to run this ruleset” or “I want to run this kind of game”, with particular quirks to each approach.

    I think the referee should decide in advance what aspects of the campaign they really, really want to be present, and construct whatever pitch they give to be around those.

    Sounds like good advice. Actually this sounds like a pretty sensible idea even if the group’s so chilled there’s no need for an actual pitch. It’s going to be easier seeming coherent if you know what you care about first.

  3. I think in my rather extreme example, I’d be better off not mentioning anything and being all mysterious until everyone arrives. I wouldn’t even mention genre or book or anything. I could go “World of Darkness – genre to be revealed” but that’d be all.

    Yes, my players are *that* bad.

    Threatening to disallow any character not generated in that session may be necessary as well. My players are quite protective of their intellectual and creative freedom which would be fine if it worked but thus far it’s been somewhat dysfunctional.

    Not too bad, in truth. It’s more that I’d like to run a game where the PCs liked each other and enjoyed working together for a change.

    I’m in the unusual position where the players trust me (and my NPCs) more than each other even though none of the players have done any of the taboos (i.e. thieving from the party and other assorted betrayals).

    1. Need to add a disclaimer: “My players are quite protective of their intellectual and creative freedom” but would agree with my rough tactics because they are all aware of their territorial habits and seem pretty keen on having a more functional team dynamic. So before any of you worry about their freedoms being curtailed, believe me that this is something my players would agree to me doing once I explained my rationale.

      My players have some bad habits, but they mean well, and want the best and trust me so as long as I explain my rationale they’re generally pretty good.

      1. Trying not to be trite, if you want to run a game where the PCs like each other and work together willingly, maybe you should design your next game around that concept?

        I agree about doing group chargen, and since the players seem to struggle with group coherence through fluff, I’d be inclined to suggest trying a system (or houserule) that bakes it in somehow. Something with a group mechanic is one good starting point: you are all X and get X (on a very basic level, Pathfinder has tribal feats that everyone could get). There are mechanics for picking your Favourite Thing about other characters, or why you admire them, or that time when they saved your neck and won your eternal loyalty. I’ve seen one somewhere that lets you tie characters together X number of times and get a bonus for each connection. Even give them a set of pregens for a session who are very specifically friends and work together, and see what happens.

        The other thing I might suggest is maybe try reskinning your premise. “You’re a group of loyal friends who…” might get the players to come in with a more cooperative mindset. Heck, play Deathwatch and have them all be loyal battle-brothers working together in the Emperor’s name to thwart alien monstrosities, with a much more limited (better: “challenging”) pool of ways to differentiate themselves. Even better if they’re from the same Chapter.

        I suppose one more thing is, if your players are aware of the issue, maybe try having a discussion about why it happens to get a better handle on it. Is it that they just all want different things out of the game, and keep trying to push things their own way? Do they actually prefer their characters to be working against each other? If so, why? Are they buying heavily into a specific character concept and unwilling to compromise for the same of the group? Is there some tension between players that’s spilling over into the game?

    2. Hmm, interesting, I wonder if the distrust between the players is a driving factor here; it almost sounds, on the limited information I have, like they all have rather different things they want out of a game and they create characters designed to carve out that niche and protect it against the other players diluting it.

      That being the case I’d reiterate the idea of having group generation be a prerequisite before character generation. Not only will it let you knock people’s own character gen processes on the head before they begin (“Don’t bother coming up with character concepts yet, you won’t be able to until the group concept’s worked out”), it’ll also make it clear that at least a baseline level of co-operation and trust between players is going to be expected and you’re not going to bear the exclusive responsibility for keeping the group together.

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