A friend asked:

I wonder how hard it would be to manufacture a character-first campaign. Like “Write up whatever kind of character you want to play, with whatever tropes or abilities or background you like. I’ll design a world and classes for it when you are done” sort of thing.

And I replied:

Probably implausibly hard unless everyone happens to be on a wavelength you’re into, though it might be workable with some kind of hybrid between Microscope and the group pathways thing I do, such that the players are setting rules for each other to conform to as they go by detailing out the setting.

And this is a lightweight suggestion for how to do exactly that. (If it wasn’t obvious from the quotes and the tags, this is borrowed heavily from both Microscope and the Smallville pathways creation).

Big Picture

All players settle on an overall idea for the campaign space. This can be as specific as everyone is comfortable with, and might include a Microscope-style bounding timeline (e.g., from “Fantasy” to “Heroic Fantasy” to “Mercedes-Lackey-Style Heroic Fantasy” to “The Saga of the Bard-Mages of the Court of Light” to “The Canticle of the Time of Long Shadows and the Birth of the Star Prince”). It can also include space for intentions to mash things up (e.g., “Phase-Style Sci-Fi/Fantasy Dimensional Crossover” or “Modern Occult with Cyborgs” or “Dieselpunk Sailor Scouts vs. Cthulu” or I don’t know what you’re into, okay?).

If everyone can nail down a fairly specific framework here, great. If all you can agree on is the broadest strokes, that’s fine too (you’ll nail it down further with the palette). The important thing is to rein in the possibility space to give you some initial tropes to consider/delete and have some limitations to push off of with your characters.

The GM, despite the insanity of trying this experiment in the first place, does have veto power here if the suggestion is absolutely not in her wheelhouse as a storyteller. (“I don’t care how funny you think it sounds, I’m not running Anthropomorphic Animal Sex-Mages.”)

Palette and Pathways

Each player goes around the table in the following rounds (do each substep of the round for everyone before moving onto the next; e.g., everyone puts down an Add before connecting their character to an Add). This is done on a big blank sheet of paper (click the Smallville tag above to see more explanation about this if you haven’t read my other posts on the subject).

Round 0

  • Place your Player Character (inside a double circle). You just need a name or general concept at this point (e.g., “Liam of the Red Branch”, “Midnight Jenny,” “Song Mage,” and “Ambassador from a Foreign Court”).

Round 1

  • Place an Add (inside a star). This is a trope that isn’t excluded by the Big Picture, but isn’t outright guaranteed by it either. For example, if your Big Picture is Heroic Fantasy, then your Adds might be “The Monarchy is Generally Good and Just,” “Some Magic is Corrupting by Its Nature,” “Song Magic is Non-Corrupting,” and “There are Anthropomorphic Races” (there’s always one guy). Anyone’s Add can be vetoed by a unanimous vote and the player has to pick one that doesn’t annoy the rest of the table.
  • Draw a line from your Player Character to any Add except your own. Define how something about your character supports this trope. For example, (in the same order as the Adds above) “Loyal Bodyguard of the Princess,” “Witch Hunter,” “Court Bard,” and “Homonid Wolf.”

Round 2

  • Place a Ban (inside an octogon). This is a trope that might be implied by the Big Picture, but isn’t guaranteed by it, and you want to make sure it doesn’t show up in the campaign. For example (continuing the same example), your Bans might be “No Proof of the Divine,” “No Races that are Always Evil,” “No Meddling Old Mages Distributing Quests,” and “No Magical Technology.” Like Adds, Bans can be vetoed by a unanimous vote.
  • Draw a line from your Player Character to any Ban except your own. Define how something about your character subverts this trope. For example, “Recent Convert to the Cult of the Dawn,” “Donates to the Goblin Orphanage,” “Spymaster Gathering the Latest Threats,” and “Fears Magic, Uses Guns.”

If all the players still have ideas to Add and Ban, you can repeat rounds 1 and 2 again. You probably shouldn’t repeat them a third time unless you want players with very busy character concepts.

Round 3

  • Add an Element: an NPC (inside a circle), a location (inside a square), or a McGuffin (inside a pentagon).
  • Connect the Element you just created to any of the Tropes (Add or Ban) and define how it supports the Add or subverts the Ban.
  • Connect your PC to one of the Elements someone else created and define the relationship.
  • Connect an Element that you didn’t create to any other Element or Trope and define the relationship.

Repeat round 3 until you feel you have enough campaign background and character concept and connections.

The GM then goes away to pick a system and write the campaign, hopefully happy at the inspiration that has been gained rather than terrified at the prospect of turning all of that into a game. Players try to realize their characters (as defined on the map) as completely as possible within the system selected (and can hopefully argue politely with the GM if the system or character creation method chosen doesn’t make it possible to create the concept to the player’s satisfaction).