Questionnaires for Character Creation

I have been experimenting with using questionnaires as an integral part of character creation. This is an idea that I got from the horror roleplaying game Dread, and have seen used fairly successfully with that game.

I ran two Dread games at Buckets of Dice. As a general comment, I found that players shied away from leading questions: anything that might make their character a not-nice person or lead to intra-party conflict troubled them. Most people were very satisfied to write a short answer to any question: questions that are obviously leading and inviting some detail. But, the games ran smoothly because however spineless you might be at character generation, there’s really no way of pacifying the tower. Either you let horrible things happen, or you pull. There is no escape in the scenarios I ran at Buckets of Dice – they’re both effectively lock-boxes.

At KapCon this year I ran two games which rely more heavily on player initiative sparked by responses to questionnaires. This is more in line with the excellent experience I had when Luke ran Beneath the Mask at KapCon. My Succession and Trail of Blood groups all exhibited the tendencies I’ve noted above: there wasn’t the willingness to go dark that made ‘s run of Beneath the Mask so spine-chilling 2 years ago. In addition, they introduced a major problem that I hadn’t encountered before: just understanding the answers! Let me quote a few selections for your amusement and derision:

Why did you agree to guide the others and return to Morse after all these years?
Because I have something I do not want and wish to sacrifice

Just how the GM is supposed to do anything useful with this, or how this is supposed to inform how you roleplay the character is a mystery to me.

What are you afraid the Diplomat knows about you?
Nothing – my heart is completely pure.

I guess this is a legitimate answer that makes sense, but this is a pretty much blatant refusal to engage with the character or the story. It’s not even a deflection. How about an answer “Some unfortunate timing may have given him the impression I’m sleeping with his daughter even thought I’m actually not.” You’re still a squeaky-clean dullard, but at least you’ve got something to roleplay against.

Most of the answers, particularly for KapCon’s Trail of Blood ran like that: tepid. One player even wrote his mono-syllabic responses in a giant script so from a distance it looked like he’d had a legitimate go at answering the questions. But the prize goes to one of my Succession players who managed to spend the whole half-hour I allowed without actually even ending up coherent:

Who do you plan to kill now that Vito is dead and his protection meaningless?
one more big score, get enough money to flee with Jenny

I realize my standards are somewhat higher than most people’s, but I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will agree this is actually an answer to the question on the sheet, or one that makes a huge amount of sense. Instead, the player has answered their own question entirely, and in this instance, not one that’s easy to do much about because of the main plot centres around revenge against a person. Unless I want to spontaneously invent a caper sub-plot, I can’t really make use of this answer.

I now understand that there’s actually quite a bit of skill involved in devising useful answers. A lot of answers that look useful just really aren’t. Answers need to be detailed, and they need to point towards a conflict of some kind, otherwise they’re just not going to make any useful impact on the game.

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8 Responses to Questionnaires for Character Creation

  1. exiledinpn says:

    I think on the whole I enjoyed this year more than last year, mostly because I GMed less, did my GMing on Day 1, and GMed less demanding scenarios.

    So, less GMing equals happier GMs. Who’d have thunk it?

    I’m glad the timetable worked out the way it did, with more people running fewer games each.

  2. Well, I for one, am sorry that Trail of Blood didn’t work out. I was trying to up the ante by pulling often, but it wasn’t a good strategy.

    I will offer one piece of feedback for Dread: I don’t think you should make people pull for the same thing twice. Even if time has passed. Making me pull lots of different times to not be tired was perhaps realistic, but it was also unengaging. I felt like I’d had that conflict and resolved it, but then I had to keep doing it. I think you could have phrased it differently.

    For example: Despite the lack of sleep Fraser, you’re feeling quite good, however as the night slips on, you realise that one of the guards has slipped behind, if you want to go find him make a pull. Similar conflict, perhaps, we need to resolve the lack of sleep, but in a different manner, rather than, you’re still really tired and will need to make another pull to be alert.

    Does that help? It’s not a major issue, but I think it would help us pick our battles. Part of the reason I kept pulling was because I didn’t want my previous pulls to be well-rested to be lost. Bad strategy, I know, but I think it’s fairly natural for people to want to throw good money after bad. If each pull is distinct and separate, that wouldn’t happen so much.

    • mashugenah says:

      I’ll accept that, up to a point. However, the second pull was after another 6 hours of marching; so it wasn’t exactly the same. You’ve been tramping: you know how hard it is to push on from dusk till dawn then another 6 hours.

      Could I have phrased it differently though? Well, possibly. I didn’t think of it because it’s the same basic event. Could I have thought of a different conflict altogehter? Yes; I wasn’t on peak form. But it was so early in the adventure that I didn’t want to escalate just yet. 😦 With only 20 pulls done (11 really, because of the pre-pulls), and still in the forest, you’re pretty much still in the first paragraph of the game.

      But could your interaction with the environment have been more dynamic? It’s hard to get to grips with a party that hunkers down for survival. How about “we’ve got 10 soldiers, a hunter, and three magic users: let’s kill us a snake”? – Don’t get me wrong, I’ve run Dread enough that I should have been able to think my way around the “hunkering down” approach – I’ve seen it before.

      • Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know I had a bad strategy and I admit that I wasn’t being particularly imaginative, so yeah, you’re right.

        I guess my point is that, it’s fair to ask us to need another pull after 6 hours of tramping in the darkness, but my bloody-mindedness wouldn’t let me have those pulls for nothing. It hadn’t felt like I’d gotten much benefit out of the previous pull, so I didn’t want to have made that pull in vain. I know it’s stupid, but looking at my actions in hindsight that was what I did.

        It’s fair for you to expect us to be smarter than that. However, what if we’re not? Then we have a crap time. I’m just giving you feedback on how I think you could steer the party out of a similar trap in the future, so that everyone has more fun. 🙂

      • mashugenah says:

        Thanks.

        In this specific instance, while you were marching on in Darkess, I should have had the magic box that the priest and hunter were transporting posess someone – they didn’t do the ritual the previous night. If I’d spent a bit longer on the day thinking through things I would have thought of it then. It would have been a massive escalation a bit earlier than I liked, but would also have provided the needed impetus to play smarter not just attack the tower harder.

    • mashugenah says:

      The mistake I made was not spending enough time thinking about the questionaires. But aside from you and Hamish (whose answers were singularly monosyllabic), people used a whole half-hour to answer them and it was so hard to read or understand most of the responses that I thought if I took the 15 minutes or so it really takes, that there’d be no chance of finishing on time.

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