Character Creation

Group character creation is now clearly a thing. Pretty much every system that’s been informed by indie gaming these days actually makes it impossible to fully (or even partially) create a character without being at the table with the rest of the party. Given loads of previous games where everyone made their characters independently and then discovered the party refused to gel at the table, I tend to support this evolution. I’ve played a lot of games lately that include elements to create characters that are linked together and have a pre-established position in the game world, and Smallville probably does it the best, or at least the most thoroughly, of any of them.

If you’ve read my Camarillaville or Dresdenville posts (accessible via the Smallville tag), you’ve seen the context for the system. Character creation is broken down into distinct phases (theoretically correlated with the aging of a character from childhood, but it can be more abstract than that if desired). In each phase, you get to spend some points and, more importantly, you get to add elements to the relationship map.

Spending points is interesting in itself: rather than giving everyone the same options at each phase, players instead select a particular package (representing an archetype like Jock, Outsider, or Geek) from those available at that phase. Each package has limited choices: one might offer you more Distinctions or Abilities (superpowers), while another might offer you better Relationships. And the packages flow between each phase to create a natural progression: for example, if your previous phase was Geek, you can jump to Technology in your next phase, but if you were a Jock, you can’t (but you have access to options that a Geek doesn’t). So even before considering that your available traits were different, the high level description of your character is generated out of your path through the phases. For example, in my game Colossus had Ordinary > Jock > Paranormal > Ethical while Shadowcat had Rich > Paragon > Paranormal > Ethical, arriving at the same package through different paths.

The meat of the system, however, is in generating the relationship map. Throughout character creation, the group is sitting around a big sheet of paper (or looking at a flowchart software screen for those with a high tech gaming room). At each phase, before you assign points, the players get the opportunity to add elements (generally NPCs and important locations) to the map and/or connect them to other specific elements and describe the relationship. Effectively, the players generate the primary NPCs and settings for the campaign for the GM, just as a consequence of character creation. Before you’ve even sat down at your first session, you have a whole list of people and places that the PCs care about (and are actually important resources on their character sheet to make sure they care). This is solid gold for a GM: the players can’t make characters without also giving them story hooks.

This process is additionally integrated into the actually points-spending creation elements by making Relationships, Extras, and Locations largely dependent on this map. When you add or connect yourself to an NPC or Location on the map, you generally get them as a resource on your sheet. When you get points to increase extras or locations, you have to spend them on ones already connected to you on the map (and, therefore, added to your sheet). When two players both connect to an Extra, it’s automatically upgraded to a Feature and the points spent on it convert to Relationships (effectively, the NPC becomes more important to the game and is reflected in it becoming a core stat rather than a limited-use accessory stat). A quarter or more of the stats on your sheet will generally emerge from creativity on the map.

Once everyone has made their characters, there’s one last really important step: value and relationship statements. In and of themselves, the Values and Relationships are a little bland. They’re things like “I have a d12 in Justice and a d6 with Shadowcat, what does that even mean?” So once you’ve gotten the stat numbers finished, it’s up to the player to qualify them in a way that makes sense for that character.  A character with Justice: ” We need to make our own rules” and one with Justice: ” It’s not that hard to know right from wrong” are very different, and not just in how that statement informs the GM about the character. The first character will roll Justice when committing crimes, rather than trying to stop them (unless he challenges the Value, as described next week).

But that’s not to discount how useful those statements are to the GM. You not only start play with a detailed list of useful NPCs and locations, but also a player-generated explanation of the PC’s moral code and feelings about others. Further, when statting out NPC features, adding these statements basically gives you enough detail to roleplay the NPC without any extra background text.

Character creation for Smallville basically takes up a whole session’s worth of time, but it’s entirely worth it. Once my players realized how much narrative control they had in setting up the map, they started having a great time and didn’t really want to stop.

Part 3