Tuesday, 18 November 2014

And On The Seventh Day, They Rolled The Dice...

This past weekend, I sat down to the first session with a new group of players, and we collectively created a setting for a game. The experience was very good, as it usually is, with all the players bringing a lot of fresh ideas to the table and the final game product feeling very charged with imagination and energy. I think we're all going to have a good time with this game, if the first session (which was brief, outside the discussions about setting and character creation, which always takes more time than you'd hope) is any indication.

Yesterday I was transcribing some of the material we developed into a more formal document for my own benefit, so that I could keep a lot of the details straight -- that can be tricky, if the GM isn't actually the expert on the setting that they might be in a more traditional model, or drawing from something published. You gotta keep the canonical stuff straight.

It made me reflect on the process of collective setting / character creation, which has been an important part of the HTHD style for the past few years. It has a lot of virtues to recommend it, and a few pitfalls, and it's worth being aware of them all before you dive face-first into a problem if you've never tried this.

The first, and maybe most important virtue to this sort of thing is that players will invariably bring a lot of wild and interesting ideas to the table if they're allowed to. The characters and world that emerged from our discussions yesterday was unusual and flavourful, full of weird, cool stuff such as fishlike humanoids who "swim" the spaceways and mine the sun, and living starships shaped like trees. There are strengths to playing games that constrain the kinds of character types that are available, limiting choices or arranging them by theme, but without someone to hold their hand and tell them that a setting is such-and-such, players bring the Flava.

Unusual settings are super-cool, because if there's one thing the world doesn't need, it's another vanilla fantasy game or Star Wars clone. This can be a fun journey of discovery for the GM, if they're willing to hold their contributions to the game very lightly and go with the flow of the discussion. It's a recipe for frustration if you've brought a bunch of your own ideas, or perhaps ideas that are too developed or structured, to a creation session like this -- you need to recognize that once you're into an open discussion of what the game is going to be, things will change and you may not get everything you wanted or imagined would be in it. And that's okay, as long as you get a few things you like. Everybody should get to contribute something, and the final result should be something that speaks to everyone. For myself, I didn't bring a whole lot to the table except a few loose story structures that might work for an SF game: Funky Space Gods. Space Rangers. Galactic Outlaws. The players liked Cosmic Rebellion.

The result of trusting your players enough to let them contribute fully to the creative end of game preparation is that you get yourself instant buy-in. Everyone should have roughly equal shares of investment in what you end up playing. This requires every player to share and be honest with each other, and hold their own ideas lightly (just as the GM does), so that everyone gets that sense of buy-in. Some players also fare less well than others at coming up with ideas out of the blue, so it may take a bit of gentle discussion to get them feeling comfortable and creative. Megan is rarely good at that sort of thing, but once she figures out a context for something she's good. She had an idea for a Star Dance-esque spacegoing humanoid, and I tossed her the idea of having tropical fish-like camouflage (which I borrowed from a recent viewing of Jodorowsky's Dune). Once she had that idea, the Sun Miners came together pretty neatly.

Another important pitfall to remember, and this goes for everyone but might have the largest importance from the GM's perspective, is that you need to be honest if things are moving in a direction you're not interested in. A friend tried to get a superhero game going last year and found herself in a tight spot when a major theme / story element of the game that emerged was something that she had no interest or investment in. GMs especially need to feel like the finished game is something they can run, so they need to make sure they're either getting stuff they connect with or steering discussion in productive directions (rather than saying No to specific ideas or shutting them down, which can kill the creativity).

I also think it's true that GMs need to be working with a rule system that supports what they're trying to do, and the more wide-open the discussion is going to be, the lighter and more flexible system you need to aim for. I was using Fate Accelerated, the lightest version of Fate I've got, which was just about in the sweet spot for rules weight. Collective creation would work fine for rules-almost-nonexistent games like Primetime Adventures or DramaSystem, or games whose rules model story without specific reference to setting requirements (like a lot of particular skills and trappings). You might be in for headaches if you were using a big toolkit like GURPS for something like this, if you left the gates wide open to different genre trappings (rather than limiting it to a sourcebook or two on hand).

Collective creation also feels like a great thing to do for a group that's still getting to know one another. It's a good trust builder, and lets everyone know implicitly that the table is going to share and value each other's ideas.


  1. I find this session's setting creation a wonderful contrast to my other gaming group's setup.

    This session used cue cards to summarize the Big Idea we wanted to touch on and any important artifacts, events or themes we wanted to see in conjunction to the theme. In collaborating on what we wanted, we could zero in on the sort of character concepts we'd want. (The Evil Empire uses complex machinery and computers for everything? Maybe the Resistance relies on biotechnology and trained animals for a similar effect! Hey, that makes Spaceship Enginering/Breeding a thing!) Taking our first mission to stop the Evil Empire was fun, in that we were defining our living space, vessel, and even interpersonal relationships on the fly. FATE helped to make this work more easily, too - much more room to make stuff up on the spot and have a given power or skillset "work".The fact that players get input on the fly as well as at generation adds to the fun.

    In contrast, my other group used Dawn of Worlds to cook up a setting with a complex history complete with land masses, climate, races, politics and divine beings. It was incredibly fun working with (and against!) other players in building a world which made sense, but once we hammered out the racial mechanics and wen from character creation to play, it was far less engaging - we took a mission for a noble, fought off assailants, investigated a crypt, and while it wasn't unenjoyable, it seemed like we could have set this in Vanilla Fantasy World #23 rater than our homebrew world and still had a fun time.

    I guess it's a mixture of inputs vs outputs- what sort of commitment of time are we putting into the setup and what kinds of rewards to we expect to yield from the results.

    1. I've played in and run games with more than one session of pre-game planning and building before we actually roll dice, and although it's generally true that investing time up front can lead to rewarding play, it has to be focused work. You need to get something out of it for that investment to make sense. That's generally my thought re: character backstory these days too -- if you want to do that, make sure it's backstory that's designed to get on the table, not backstory for its own sake. The more useful it is In Game, the more satisfying it is in my experience.