Abruptly ceased playing tog42‘s Dresden Files game yesterday after something like 12 sessions plus character creation; it was a game which never really found its feet and I’ve been thinking about what could have gone differently.
Dresden Files uses a collaborative world-building tool, where the players and GM decide not only on a range of NPCs but on explicit themes for locations and for the game as a whole. The characters are then created in a manner similar to Spirit of the Century: in novel form, with cross-over novels intended to cement the working relationships of the characters. The GM takes all of this material, plus the character concepts, and crafts a narrative.
Just as with the quick-play advice for Spirit of the Century, I think that the intent is that the amount of front-loaded material should make the life of the GM easy. Instead of having to create a plot from whole cloth and sell it to the players, they should be given all the key points of interest up front, and the tagging and compelling of aspects should do the bulk of the grunt work on a scene-by-scene level.
I’ve played around with the concept of player-lead stories a couple of times as a GM, and once as a player when play-testing Smallville.
Firstly, designing the city up-front was a really big challenge. Acting alone, I would have found this difficult, because you’re essentially creating a bunch of moving parts without much concept of what kind of mechanism they’ll be used to create. I suppose the comparison would be if I gave you a pile of Lego and said: make something using these and only these parts. See usually when I make something with Lego I start off with an idea and then go scrounging for parts, I don’t usually start with the blocks I need to use and find a shape they can be used for. I’m not saying one way is easier than the other, but that’s not how my specific brain works.
When this process is then fed through an open collaborative process, I found it got exponentially more difficult. Each person wants to contribute something that is cool from their perspective, often because it is a piece of a whole-world conception that isn’t shared by the rest of the group. I found it extremely difficult to try and navigate the process, both in terms of adding material myself, and in terms of trying to understand what the other parts were doing.
Just as with Smallville, I think that we created a world with lots of parts whose relationships and purposes were not clear. The addition “themes” for all these things was just more of a headache as far as I was concerned: vague emotive terms arbitrarily tacked onto story entities clouding the intrinsic possibilities, limiting them even.
For Smallville at least all of the story entities are described in the context of a specific relationship to the player characters. In Dresden Files, they rapidly became impersonal and distant.
eyes_of_winter did great job of subsequently integrating his character into parts of the setting and seeing in advance what kind of character would need what kind of story elements. I personally failed miserably at doing this, ending up with a character that I think was very interesting and fun in isolation. “In isolation” being the key words there – unattached to the setting in any purposeful way. The rest of the group were arrayed between my isolation and his integration.
When it came time to create the characters, I found that once again, without a specific directive of “form an active and purposeful group”, the characters ended up with divergent talents and interests. The old faithful “thrown together by circumstances” may have a certain nostalgia value, but the mere thought of starting off a game like that now fills me utterly with dread. Within a scant couple of sessions it started to become obvious that significant meta-game effort was being required to align the characters inside the story, a problem which had moments of genuine solution, but which seemed to generally grow as the game wore on.
At the end of the experience then, I feel extremely disappointed. Not so much with the details of the game, but that this group and myself in particular, did not really learn from the equally luke-warm Smallville experiment. All of the mistakes I lamented for that game recurred in this game. So a handy summary so that I don’t do this a third time.
1. The GM needs to provide a story spine before starting up on the “pre-game creation”
This does not need to be extensive, but it provides some kind of context for making the initial game design decisions. I think that this makes it dramatically more likely for a strong game to emerge.
Positive example: My Werewolf game where the official game line was “you are the heirs-apparent to your father’s kingdom”. This gave people enough information to make good decisions about their NPCs and circumstances without telling them what to do in the game.
2. The characters must be an identifiable group, or be strongly tied to a shared nucleus
For each player character, their default group of contact and assistance should be the other player characters. That does not mean they need to always agree or get on, or have the same objectives, but if the default set of people that a characters sees is the set of player characters, the game is far less likely to fragment.
Positive example: The characters in Gaslight, who were all strongly and closely tied together. They disagreed on a lot of things, fuelling great stories, but when things were going on, they were going on for everyone.
3. The NPCs and locations must be in media res and specifically related to the player characters
Too often you start off with a giant list of NPCs and locations and have no idea what any of them are doing, or what they’ll bring to the story. At worst, this can result in them becoming inert flavourless background material rather than fuel for story.
Positive example: In my Deadlands game, the characters arrived in the town with its descent into Hell already underway, and with various factions already working towards either accelerating or escaping. There was no period of waiting for something to happen: everyone had an agenda already, and there was a need both to get on top of past events and try and direct future events.
The Best Bit Of Gaming Advice Ever. Characters are only as good as their stories: I don’t care how “cool” your character is, if they’re not telling a story, they are not fulfilling their destiny.