Stranger Chargen

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(This shouldn’t contain any particular spoilers for Stranger Things 2.)

Watching Stranger Things, like with many large-ensemble sci-fi shows, the first place my brain goes is, if this was an RPG, how are the PCs distributed? That is, traditional ensembles work like traditional RPGs, in that there is a smallish group that often gets together, and even when they split up you feel like it’s one protagonist per player. However, in large ensembles, it can be vanishingly rare for the whole group to do anything together. Instead, the action is constantly flipping between different groups, and you can begin to wonder whether, modeled in an RPG, this would be each player portraying more than one protagonist, with each player swapping PCs as the scene demands it. Why do two protagonists rarely get screen time together? Because they’re being played by the same player, and the GM tries to keep doubling up your own PCs in a scene from happening.

So this is a method for generating a Stranger Things-esque set of PC concepts for troupe-style play. Each player winds up making three PCs from different age brackets, with the intention that the GM will be running several events concurrently that will be handled by different sets of PCs. When something comes up, you play the PC that’s most appropriate or, if that PC is already busy, whichever PC you have remaining that could conceivably participate.

This is purely a character concept-generation method. You can use any system desired once you’ve settled on concepts.

The Brackets and Archetypes

There are four age brackets:

  • Youngest: Adolescent of 11-13
  • Younger: Young teen of 13-15
  • Older: Teen of 15-19
  • Oldest: Grownup of 20+

In the course of concept generation, you’ll pitch a concept for each bracket and then lose one of them, so the age range allows you to adjust the character’s final age to fit in better with the other PCs in the same tier. For example, if two players keep their Youngest and two players only have a Younger character, the middle school characters are probably all around 13.

This should make more sense in a minute.

There are also four archetypes:

  • Charismatic: If you’re still in school, you’re a popular kid. If you’re an adult, you’re socially adept.
  • Athletic: If you’re still in school, you’re a jock. If you’re an adult, you have physical (likely including combat) competence.
  • Smart: If you’re still in school, you’re a nerd. If you’re an adult, you have mental advantages.
  • Talented: If you’re still in school, you’re an arty kid or other performer. If you’re an adult, you have some kind of interesting skill specialty.

As with the brackets, you’ll pitch a concept for each archetype, then lose one of them.

You’ll wind up mixing and matching the brackets and archetypes. For example, you might initially pitch a popular adolescent (Charismatic/Youngest), a jock teen (Athletic/Younger), a nerdy older teen (Smart/Older), and an interestingly-skilled adult (Talented/Oldest).

You can obviously change out the brackets and archetypes to make more sense for your game, but these seem appropriate to me for a directly Stranger Things-inspired game.

The Special Character

You can skip this step if you don’t want to have any of the players with a powered character.

This step is the most significant chance for the players to have input on what type of weirdness is going to be present in the game, as the GM will have to adapt to the final special character chosen.

Each player picks one bracket and archetype combo (if you have four players, you can randomly distribute them if desired), then details a supernatural character concept for that combo. This should be an extremely high concept of around a sentence, just enough to give the other players an idea of what kind of powers and attitude you’d be bringing if you get to play the special character.

For example:

  • Charismatic/Youngest: A young, sidhe-like being that has wandered into the school and quickly used her glamour to become incredibly popular, but who is still learning what it means to be human
  • Athletic/Younger: A mutant that’s gaining strength, invulnerability, and all of that with puberty, and is trying to keep his abilities under wraps while the school sports team increasingly relies on him
  • Smart/Older: A picked-on girl that has been developing psychic powers and is fighting the temptation to use them to punish all the other kids in high school that have done her wrong over the years
  • Talented/Oldest: Despite his business card, nobody really believes that the new private investigator in town is a wizard, but he totally is

Each player votes privately to the GM, ranking the choices starting at 1 (favorite) and going up in order to least favorite. Players should skip their own characters when voting. Total up the numbers for each concept. The one with the lowest total gets to be the Special Character for the game.

The Troupe

Each* player comes up with four non-supernatural concepts, once for each bracket and archetype (combine them however you want).

* The player that got to keep the Special Character uses that character for that bracket/archetype combo.

Your pitch for each character concept should include one sentence each for:

  • Why is this character cool?
  • What’s a rumor going around about this character?
  • What’s the character’s biggest problem?

If you’re playing the Special Character, include it and expand it with the same questions.

For example, one player’s pitches might look like:

  • Charismatic/Older: He’s the nicest guy in school, and one of the best looking, so he’s very popular despite being from a low income family. There are always at least half a dozen girls that people think he’s sleeping with. Secretly, though, he’s gay and trying to figure out how to come out.
  • Athletic/Oldest: She’s a former Olympic triathlete that’s in the National Guard, and is also the gym coach. Obviously, the rumor is that she’s a lesbian. Her problem is really, though, that it’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a woman in this small 80s town anyway that she’s worried dating openly would ruin what cred she’s assembled.
  • Smart/Youngest: He’s a child savant who’s extremely gifted with math. Everyone thinks his parents are some kind of cult, or government agents, or eugenicists that did something weird to get a kid this smart. He’s in a huge fight with his parents where they want him to keep going to school with kids his own age and get socialized properly, and he just wants to skip some grades.
  • Talented/Younger: He’s a comic artist that’s talented beyond his young years, and is just counting the days before he can run off to illustrate for Marvel or DC. Everyone at school calls him Pirate, because the rumor is that he has a wooden leg. Actually, he just has reduced mobility and keeps it covered because of all the nasty scars from the terrible abuse his bio-dad put him through; he lives in constant dread of his father’s return.

As with the Special Character, the other players vote. Rank each other player’s pitches from 1-4 from the one you’re most interested in seeing that player portray to the one that you’re the least interested in. Turn your votes in to the GM, who will add up the totals.

Each player should now have his or her pitches ranked from low to high, based on how the other players ranked the concepts. Discard the one with the most points (most of the other players ranked that one as least interesting). The one with the least points (most interesting) is now your focal character (the one that will get the most initial plots, and which will be called out by later stages in the process). If somehow the Special Character got voted out, vote out that player’s third concept instead.

Linking Characters

Arrange your concepts from youngest remaining to oldest remaining. The youngest you have is your Middle School character. The middle one is your High School character. The oldest is your Adult character.

Compare all the Middle School characters. Are they friends? Just acquaintances? Figure out their ages and relationships to one another. If anyone is outright antagonistic, it should be a superficial problem that can be overcome/put aside as an icebreaker in the first session. These characters will wind up adventuring together a lot early on.

Repeat that process for the High School and Adult characters.

Now go around the table and make ties to each player’s focal character. The first player picks another player’s non-focal character from a different age group (e.g., if your focal character is in Middle School, pick another player’s non-focal character from High School or Adult). Work together to establish a strong tie (probably siblings or parent/child) between the characters. Repeat this for each player around the table.

Go around again, and each player should suggest a concept for an antagonist NPC for his or her focal character. This should be a sentence or two describing why the characters don’t get along and broadly sketching the antagonist. The GM will further flesh this antagonist out (and come up with ways that that character might have further positive or negative relationships to the rest of the group).

The players should have one more general discussion to decide whether any more links make sense (all the characters shouldn’t be incredibly tightly linked, but there might be a couple more family relationships or weird connections that the group wants to establish).

Now work on actually fleshing out each character’s stats and expanded background (as desired). Players should collaborate on anything that reflects their closely linked characters (e.g., if you’re siblings or parent/child, you should work together on last name and home situation).

Running the Game

Overall, the GM should be working to have a lot going on at any one time. Especially early on in a scenario, it should be disconnected enough that the different groups don’t necessarily think to loop the other groups in on it. At other times, it’s obviously all connected, but the whole group needs to split up to tackle multiple problems at once. The natural distrust/dismissal between age groups should serve to keep things naturally firewalled as well (the adults aren’t going to believe the kids about something, and the kids don’t want to have their cool thing taken from them even if they did).

Play should alternate between active groupings with frequent “Meanwhile…” scene changes at good moments (cliffhangers preferred). Players should try to keep good track of what each of their characters knows, and avoid metagaming. Part of the fun of this kind of game is the dramatic irony of feeling like you, as a player, have a better view of the big picture than any of your characters do. Keep in mind, if one of your characters gets screwed, or even killed, by being uninformed, you still have two others to play.

Speaking of which, death can be even more on the table for this type of game than for one-PC-per-player games in the same genre. Killing off or otherwise sidelining a PC leaves the player with plenty of ability to continue to roleplay. The player can look into taking over an NPC or introducing an entirely new character to replace the lost PC at the beginning of the next scenario.

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Pathways Fantasy World Creation

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This is kind of the opposite of my previous Pathways World Creation idea: rather than making characters first and the world to suit, this is an experiment in doing pathways creation without player characters involved. See the linked Smallville tag on this post for more information about doing Pathways creation, if you haven’t played Smallville or previously read my other posts on this topic.

As usual, start with a big blank sheet of paper for drawing nodes and connecting lines. Unlike usual, do not add the player characters to the map initially (you’re developing a world for the players to eventually create characters to fit). The goal of this is ultimately to create a world-first setting, where the player characters aren’t necessarily attached to anything from the start, but to still give the players buy-in to all the primary elements.

For every step in this process, I’d advise that the GM should be treated as a player (i.e., getting to add and connect things at least as often as the players do). Traditionally, the GM does not participate in the Pathways process, but that process is often in a framework of a greater setting that the GM has already bought into. Since this is generating so much about the world, giving the GM the ability to poke at the process to highlight ideas he or she likes makes it easier to roll with the game indefinitely.

Step 0: Theme and Conflict

This step is special: it may be done normally, with the players going around the table, or may be entirely pre-seeded by the GM to get some initial core input into the important elements of the world (i.e., this is set up so, if the GM already has some seed ideas for the campaign, it’s possible to just put them as the core for the whole framework).

  • Add a short theme (triangle) to the map. This should ideally be a single word, and certainly not more than a very short sentence: it will gain more definition as other elements link to it.
  • Add an antagonist (hexagon) or macguffin (pentagon) to the map. This should be a short but evocative name; the actual details of it will be generated from linking to other elements.
  • Draw an arrow from an antagonist or macguffin to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.

Step 1: Peoples and Places

  • Add a location (box) to the map. This should be a whole country or region. As usual, give it an evocative, short name, and allow details to come out from connections.
  • Add a race (double-ringed circle) to the map. The GM may veto any races from the rules that he or she doesn’t want to deal with, but this is otherwise a way to say that that race is important to the setting in some way. If your game system doesn’t have mechanical races, give a short, evocative name for a culture instead.
  • Draw an arrow from an antagonist or macguffin to a location or race and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from a location or race to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.
  • Draw an arrow from a race to a location and give it one of three types of label: “homeland” (where the race is from), “Stronghold” (the race is politically dominant in that location), or a negative label (such as the race being banned, enslaved, or otherwise mistreated in that location). These can double or even triple-up if it makes sense logically (e.g., the elves are politically dominant in their own homeland, but are also widely feared by all other races in that land).

Step 2: Politics

  • Add an NPC (circle) to the map. This should be someone very politically important to the setting, but not directly villainous (that would be an antagonist). As usual, give the NPC a short evocative name and wait for details to fall out of connections.
  • Add an organization (star or double-ringed pentagon) to the map. This will become a politically important secret society, knightly order, wizard cabal, thieves’ guild, etc. As usual, a short, evocative name is important.
  • Draw an arrow from an NPC to an antagonist or macguffin and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from an antagonist or macguffin to an organization and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from an NPC or organization to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.

Step 3: Further Linkages

  • Draw an arrow from any (non-theme) element that is not currently connected to a theme to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb. (If all elements are tied to a theme, tie one to a second theme.)
  • Draw an arrow from whichever (non-theme) element currently has the least connections to any other element, and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any (non-theme) element to any other element and define the relationship.

Step 4: Secondary Elements

  • Add your choice of another one of the following: antagonist, macguffin, location, race, NPC, or organization.
  • Draw an arrow from any element with no connections to any other element (except themes), and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any element (that is not currently connected to a theme) to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.
  • Draw an arrow from whichever (non-theme) element currently has the least connections to any other element, and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any (non-theme) element to any other element and define the relationship.

If your map is still sparse for your group’s tastes, repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’re satisfied with the map.

Disaster as Random Chargen Filter

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One of the problems with holding onto a love of random character generation is that it originally went hand in hand with another major facet of D&D: if you rolled poorly on your character, that character would probably die quickly and you’d get to try again. Conversely, it’s probably likely that players that rolled really exceptional characters had a decent chance of getting overconfident and losing them. Ultimately, that meant that the dungeon was serving as a filter: weak characters tended to die (or be lucky enough to be very interesting to roleplay), and, in the long term, it was hard to get stuck with a character meaningfully weaker than other PCs for the campaign.

Meanwhile, in modern games, most tables that I’m aware of don’t really have a high PC body count. If you use random chargen and roll poorly, you could be stuck as the effective sidekick to the more powerful characters in the party for the whole campaign.

I had an idea while attending the Horror in Gaming panel at Dragon*Con this year that would allow you to reintroduce the filter in a specific circumstance. My original idea was for something I’ve seen in modern action horror movies like Freddy vs. Jason and House of the Dead: dozens of teens at a rave in a dangerous location, suddenly fleeing when monsters attack. It also works for disaster-movie scenarios. But the idea possibly best in that old D&D trope: survivors of the big bad wiping out a village.

I may expand this idea to a loose module in the future, but the basic idea is:

  • The GM (with the help of the players, if they’re interested) generates a bunch of extremely rough character descriptions and puts them on notecards. This would be the kind of details you’d notice in a crowd scene of a disaster or horror movie: race, sex, hair color, age, and a significant item of clothing (possibly just using something like the Pathfinder Face Cards instead). It’s enough to give the players some idea of whether they’d like to play the character long term.
  • The players take turns claiming cards (or get them randomly) until they have an equal number of characters.
  • The GM sets the stage for what’s going on. Players used to games where they improvisationally portray characters with no stats might pick a character or two to do a bit of ad libbling.
  • Something awful starts killing everyone, and the crowd scatters to escape. The PC cards might represent the whole crowd, or be surrounded by NPCs also getting slaughtered.
  • The GM puts obstacles in the way of escaping: dodging monsters and explosions, having to scale walls and fences, stumbling lost in the dark, remembering how to bypass something, soldiering on through choking smoke or light injuries, and begging others for help.
  • Each of these obstacles is an attribute challenge (e.g., in D&D 5e, an ability check for skill or save). When characters get to it, roll up their applicable stat and make the test. Characters that make it through might, if the context makes sense, help those that failed (but not all of them). The goal is to have pretty heavy carnage of characters that fail challenges.
  • After every such obstacle, give the survivors a new character trait (possibly also randomly chosen) like name and other personality highlights (e.g., again for 5e, background, then personality, ideal, flaw, and bond). Allow a little time for roleplaying if the players want to: they should be figuring out which characters they might want to play.
  • Also after every obstacle (or round of obstacles, if the characters split up into different mobs), have the players hang on to one or two characters they like the most right now, put the rest back in the middle, and then redraw until everyone has an even number. This is just in case players have a different rate of attrition.
  • You might also give the players a small set of rerolls to use across all their characters, to get characters they’re growing attached to through a poor roll or two.
  • Repeat obstacles until the character pool has been whittled down to one PC per player (possibly with a few left over to be backup characters/friendly NPCs). If attrition was high enough that not all the necessary attributes and personality traits are chosen, roll those now.
  • Narrate the last of the PCs escaping to a moment of safety long enough to catch their breaths… and worry what they’re going to do about the thing that just wiped out everyone around them. Finish generating the characters (such as picking a class and everything that goes with it).

Ultimately, this method should wind up with PCs that are above average and more-or-less on par with one another, but that still feel random. And you’ve also got a nice baked-in traumatic experience and plot hook to motivate roleplay from there on out.

Pathfinder: Card Draft Chargen

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Harbinger had a really cool idea about drafting from custom cards to make a character for an RPG. Go read it for the explanations, as I’m just going to riff on it here for Pathfinder.

Under this version:

  • For each player, pull 11 cards plus one per player (so if you have four players, pull 15 per player or 60 total). Keep the extra to the side in a blind-draw pile for players that get stuck with only cards they can’t choose (certain cards prohibit keeping further cards of the same type). 11 cards results in 21-point-buy characters, so increase or decrease the number of cards (at 3 points per card) if you want stronger or weaker PCs.
  • Shuffle them thoroughly and then distribute to the players to draft per Harbinger’s guidelines. There are two options
    • Give them all the cards at once, evenly distributed. This gives the players maximum control over their characters but they’re going to see the same cards over and over.
    • Separate them into smaller pods of as few as one more than the number of players (so every set of cards goes around once and leaves one discard). This makes character creation far more random, but makes it far more likely that you’re going to feel like the hand of cards you get at the start is full of possibilities for you.
  • Every player should ultimately keep 11 cards, which should leave a discard pile of unchosen cards.
    • The player gains the listed KEEP effect of every card in his or her hand. If the player kept a DISCARD card, only the listed ability score matters.
    • The GM should look at the remaining cards not held by any players. Any DISCARD effect on those cards now applies to the campaign. The ability score and any KEEP effects on the cards are ignored.
  • Every player should total up the number of cards of each ability score, and raise the ability score from 8 using those points (e.g., if you have three cards in Strength, you have a Strength 15, because it takes 9 points to go from 8 to 15 using point buy).
    • Once all scores are assigned, take the remainder points and distribute them freely (e.g., if you have two cards in Dexterity, you have 13 with one point left over, because it would take seven points to get to 14; you can move that extra point to push something else up to the next level, or find another point somewhere else to raise Dex to 14). Scores cannot go above 18 (which would require at least seven cards of the same ability).
    • If you want more integration of PCs, you can have each card be worth 2 points to the player that kept it and 1 point to the player to his or her right. This will likely result in PCs with scores closer to the average.
  • If a player did not keep any cards that assign a race, he or she may choose Human, Half-Elf, or Half-Orc. If a player did not keep any cards that allow access to a class, he or she may choose Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard (and must justify later multiclasses into a class not among those four with in-game training with a member of the class).
  • Players should now know their race, scores, class options, relationships, quests, and secrets. They will also know if their discards created ramifications for them in the campaign world. They should start discussing character backgrounds to fulfill all these details and the other stated goals of the campaign.

I’ve made printable cards for the examples listed below. You can download the PDF here or the editable DOC here.

Example cards:

STRENGTH

  • CLASS – KEEP: Barbarian; You may start play as a Barbarian, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Druid; You may start play as a Druid, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Monk; You may start play as a Monk, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Paladin; You may start play as a Paladin, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Cavalier; You may start play as a Cavalier, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the local captain of the city/town guard
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the local leader’s personal bodyguard
  • QUEST – KEEP: Heirloom Weapon; One of the weapons you purchased at creation is your family weapon; it is automatically masterwork and has hidden magic potential unlocked via quests
  • QUEST – KEEP: The Dragon; You know the exact location of a dragon’s hoard… now you just have to take care of the dragon
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sporting Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Str- or Dex-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sibling/True Friend; You are the sibling (or lifelong friend if different race/also lovers) of the PC* with the matching card; Aid Another to help sibling/friend is +3 instead of +2; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Built like a Bull; You are massively built and able to exert surprising strength; you gain +4 to all Strength-based rolls to open, break, or move inanimate objects, but you’re automatically as tall and heavy as possible for your race and gender (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Halflings; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Halflings start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Gnomes; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Gnomes start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • CLASS – DISCARD: Arcane Fear; Recent unexplained phenomena cause fear of Arcane spellcasters; all characters revealed to have this ability start at one disposition step lower with most locals

DEXTERITY

  • RACE – KEEP: Elf; You are an Elf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • RACE – KEEP: Halfling; You are a Halfling (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Ranger; You may start play as a Ranger, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Sorcerer; You may start play as a Sorcerer, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Gunslinger; You may start play as a Gunslinger, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the leader of the local Thieves’ Guild
  • SECRET – KEEP: Secret Passage; You know a secret route past the nearest city wall and a secret route into the nearest fortress/castle
  • QUEST – KEEP: Heirloom Weapon; One of the weapons you purchased at creation is your family weapon; it is automatically masterwork and has hidden magic potential unlocked via quests
  • QUEST – KEEP: Pirate Treasure; You have a treasure map to a lost island and a pirate’s long buried treasure… but the island is now infested with monsters
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sporting Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Str- or Dex-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Classmate; You went to school with the PC* with the matching card; When you both roll a skill you have ranks in for the same challenge, you both get to use the higher d20 result (plus your own skill bonus); *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Flexible as a Cat; You are little, double jointed, and extremely flexible; you can squeeze through any opening big enough for your head, but you’re automatically as short and light as possible for your race and gender (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Eyes on the City; Due to better trained and positioned guards and a strong neighborhood watch, +2 DC all Bluff, Disguise, and Stealth checks in local cities and towns
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Crime Wave; Due to an ongoing crime wave, there is a 20% chance of a pickpocket attempt on the PCs during every scene set in the streets of local cities and towns
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Rats!; An infestation of plague rats means that any time the PCs visit the local slums or sewers, there is a 10% chance each visit of encountering a Rat Swarm at some point

CONSTITUTION

  • RACE – KEEP: Dwarf; You are a Dwarf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • RACE – KEEP: Gnome; You are a Gnome (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Barbarian; You may start play as a Barbarian, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the General of the nearest army
  • SECRET – KEEP: Parentage; You know the identity of one of the local leader’s bastards and have proof of parentage
  • SECRET – KEEP: Immunity; The first time you fail a save vs. Poison, you’d secretly been building up an immunity to that toxin, and get to reroll the save (and subsequently get to keep the best of two saves whenever you’re affected by that toxin again)
  • QUEST – KEEP: Heirloom Armor; The armor you purchased at creation is your family armor it is automatically masterwork and has hidden magic potential unlocked via quests
  • QUEST – KEEP: Key in the Blood; Your family has passed on a blood-based immunity to the deadly magical defenses of an ancient fortress, which might be a powerful retreat or hold wondrous riches, if only you could get through the surrounding guardians
  • QUEST – KEEP: Unpetrified; For some reason you’re immune to the petrifying gaze of a Medusa; how you found that out is a story for another time, but there are rumors of just such a creature terrorizing the wilderness a few weeks’ ride from here
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Lover; You are in love with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale to Attack and Damage against any enemy that attacked your lover on its last action; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Classmate; You went to school with the PC* with the matching card; When you both roll a skill you have ranks in for the same challenge, you both get to use the higher d20 result (plus your own skill bonus); *An NPC if there is no match(pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Healthy as a Bear; Your natural healing of hit points and nonlethal damage is doubled, you need to make half as many saves to end a disease or poison effect, and alchemical effects with a duration (even beneficial ones) only last half as long for you (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Elves; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Elves start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Half-Elves; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Half-Elves start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • CLASS – DISCARD: War Weariness; A recent, damaging war causes a pacifistic dislike of soldiers; all characters revealed to be Fighters, Barbarians, Cavaliers, or Gunslingers start at one disposition step lower with most locals

INTELLIGENCE

  • RACE – KEEP: Elf; You are an Elf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Bard; You may start play as a Bard, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Alchemist; You may start play as an Alchemist, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Magus; You may start play as a Magus, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Witch; You may start play as a Witch, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Cipher; You know the cipher for the local leadership’s favorite secret code
  • SECRET – KEEP: Convergence; You found a place of powerful magical convergence, and sleeping on it gives you an additional spell slot of your highest arcane spell level the next day; trouble is, the spot is on grounds owned by a local noble
  • QUEST – KEEP: Break the Curse; The ruler of these lands has promised a great reward to whoever can destroy a cursed artifact, and you just happen to know a legend about where and how that might be accomplished
  • QUEST – KEEP: Riddling Rhyme; Your parents used to put you to sleep with an elaborate rhyming song, that you’ve never heard anyone else repeat, and you recently a rumor that’s right out of the song… maybe it was secret instructions or prophecy?
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Intellectual Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Int- or Wis-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Business Partner; You work well with the PC* with the matching card; Double downtime income when you and your partner both use the same Craft or Profession skill to earn money; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Memory like a Fox; You have an eidetic memory, and recall the details of anything you have witnessed (+4 on any relevant rolls), but you cannot easily forget your fears: take one point of Charisma damage any time you fail a Will save vs. a Fear-based effect (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • CLASS – DISCARD: Sectarian Violence; A recent religious conflict causes intolerance among the various religions; displaying religious symbols or divine casting abilities causes the PCs to start at one disposition step lower with all locals not of the same religion
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: No Funding; Due to lack of public scholarly funding, there are steep fees to use the local libraries and PCs pay double to make use of scholarly NPCs like Sages or to borrow spellbooks to copy spells
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Poor Item Trade; The limited local magic item trade means that there is half the expected chance of any given item being for sale in the local shops

WISDOM

  • RACE – KEEP: Dwarf; You are a Dwarf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Druid; You may start play as a Druid, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Monk; You may start play as a Monk, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Ranger; You may start play as a Ranger, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Inquisitor; You may start play as an Inquisitor, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Infiltrating Aide; You appear to be the only one who’s noticed that one of the local leader’s top aides is constantly wearing a disguise
  • SECRET – KEEP: Illness Charm; The first time you fail a save vs. Disease, you’d secretly been taught a charm for that illness, and get to reroll the save (and subsequently get to keep the best of two saves whenever you’re affected by that toxin again); gain +4 to Heal checks to treat others for it
  • QUEST – KEEP: The Secret Master; Your village was insidiously taken over by a powerful mind-controlling creature; you barely resisted its domination and fled, hoping to become skilled enough to return some day soon and save the town
  • QUEST – KEEP: Illusory Hillside; A hillside you frequently travel past always struck you as strange; recently, you managed to disbelieve the illusory wall and see that it protects a dungeon full of elaborate illusions and traps
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Intellectual Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Int- or Wis-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Business Partner; You work well with the PC* with the matching card; Double downtime income when you and your partner both use the same Craft or Profession skill to earn money; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Empathy of the Owl; Lies make you physically ill; gain +4 to Sense Motive to detect lies, take one point of damage whenever someone lies in direct answer to a question you asked, and take 1d6 points of damage whenever YOU knowingly tell a lie (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • CLASS – DISCARD: Crime Wave; A recent crime wave causes distrust of anyone with criminal sympathies; all characters revealed to be Rogues or Bards start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: The Big Store; A grifting syndicate has come to town; in each scenario, there is a 50% chance of adding a “helpful NPC” that is actually a con artist looking to scam PCs
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Alignment Static; Recent planar events have caused alignment static in the local area; Protection from Alignment spells do not prevent mind control and all Detect Alignment spells treat targets as 5 HD lower for determining aura strength

CHARISMA

  • RACE – KEEP: Halfling; You are a Halfling (pass all further RACE cards)
  • RACE – KEEP: Gnome; You are a Gnome (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Bard; You may start play as a Bard, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Paladin; You may start play as a Paladin, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Sorcerer; You may start play as a Sorcerer, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Oracle; You may start play as an Oracle, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Summoner; You may start play as a Summoner, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Performing Partners; You are part of an entertaining group with the PC* with the matching card; +2 to all Perform checks when your partner is performing with you; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Performing Partners; You are part of an entertaining group with the PC* with the matching card;
  • +2 to all Perform checks when your partner is performing with you; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Lover; You are in love with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale to Attack and Damage against any enemy that attacked your lover on its last action; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sibling/True Friend; You are the sibling (or lifelong friend if different race/also lovers) of the PC* with the matching card; Aid Another to help sibling/friend is +3 instead of +2; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Grandeur of an Eagle; You are strikingly attractive, probably outshining all locals in your good looks, but this makes you unforgettable and instantly recognizable to those that have seen you before without a disguise (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Dwarves; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Dwarves start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Half-Orcs; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Half-Orcs start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Class Warfare; The social status levels in the local area are highly stratified; start at one disposition step lower with most locals unless you are dressed in the same style and properly introduced (and even then, take the penalty if they “know” you aren’t their status level)

Ballast: Modern Group Chargen

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This is yet another riff on group background generation, intended for a modern, single-city-based setting (but potentially useful in others). It’s a little lighter weight than my normal Smallville pathways riffs. The main intention is to get players to give you significant background details, motivations, and ties to places and NPCs in as concise a manner as possible. The details are probably most useful to a Fringe or Butterfly Effect style of game, where alternate presents are in the offing, but is useful just for its prelude-generating effect.

One: Reflect on a Choice

Pick a choice, explicit or implicit, you made in the past that resulted in your current circumstances. This can be something:

  • As thought out as which college you attended or which career you pursued
  • As spur of the moment as picking a fight that led to a catastrophe or jail time
  • That you could have had no inkling of the ramifications of when you made the choice like a call you didn’t make that might have delayed a loved one long enough to not get in an accident

The important thing about it is that you often reflect on how your life would be different if you had made a different decision. Maybe it’s something you’d change if you could, or maybe you’re happy that you dodged a metaphorical or literal bullet.

Two: Pick a Location

What location was central to the results of the choice? This is your chance to add significant places to the setting; either inventing them wholesale or ascribing plot significance to a location in the real city where your game is set. Expect to see this location come up in game and remind you of your choices. Err on the side of places you’d want to have as scene backdrops in game.

Is it the school you attended, the bar where you got in a fight, or the intersection downtown where the crash happened?

Three: Put a Face on It

Invent a (still living and active) NPC that was involved in or that you met as a direct result of the choice. This is a character you should have strong feelings about and expect to see come up regularly in the game.

Is it one of your family members or a favorite teacher at college, the opponent you maimed in the bar fight or the lawyer that got you through the trial, the cop who delivered the bad news or the friend who you were with when you forgot to call?

You can only pick the same face once, but the other players can choose that NPC as the face of one of their own choices (as long as he or she makes sense based on the inventing player’s description). Total up the number of players who picked each NPC at the end of the cycle, and that NPC becomes a free background/merit of that level for each player. For example, if three players picked the same NPC, she might be a Mentor 3 for her college student, a Contact 3 for her friend, and an Ally 3 for her sibling. (Obviously adjust these options for the traits available in your game system.)

Four: Choose a Symbolic Item

For each choice, invent an item that you can touch to remind yourself of your choice and sense of self. This should usually be something you own and can carry, because it may take on mystical significance in any kind of occult game. You can describe holding it or using it when you want to bring the background it represents to the forefront of the game.

Is it your class ring, your sobriety chip, or a keepsake from your dead loved one?

Repeat

Have each player go through this cycle for his or her character multiple times until you feel the background is rich enough and the players have enough “free” NPC relationship stats. All these steps are meant to be discussed with the group at the table, even if they aren’t necessarily common knowledge in game.

Further cycles don’t have to come from different time periods (e.g., teenagers make a lot of choices that will define their futures) or be in any kind of sequential order, but they do have to define the play space (e.g., if you didn’t go to school anywhere near the setting city, it’s probably not a relevant choice for the game).

Group Random D&D Chargen

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A bit of a simple idea this week as I recover from GenCon and gear up for PAX.

As a GM, I tend to favor point buy over randomly rolled D&D/Pathfinder character creation primarily because it leads to imbalance among the PCs. Inevitably, someone’s going to roll a character with stats much lower than someone else’s (and even lower than he could have gotten in point buy) and resent either his character or the player with the best rolls. Since I don’t run games with much lethality, getting stuck with a subpar character has enduring ramifications over the course of a whole campaign.

This system is designed to allow players the thrill of random rolls, but to distribute those rolls among the party so everyone comes out at a similar point buy total. However, rather than rolling them and distributing them totally equitably, there’s an element of strategy involved that may result in players putting higher or lower scores in different abilities than they would have if they got all six rolls up front…

The process is:

  1. Have each of your players roll two sets of 4d6 (drop lowest) and put the results in the middle of the table (either just leave the dice there, or write down the result if you don’t have enough sets of d6s). If you have four players, there should be eight ability scores on the table.
  2. Randomly decide an order among the players for the first turn.
  3. The players each pick one number from the table in their sorted order (which will leave a number of sets on the table equal to the number of players once they’ve all taken one).
  4. Each player goes ahead and assigns the chosen number to an ability score (this is where the strategy comes in; if you grabbed a 16, do you go ahead and assign it to your prime requisite, or do you put it somewhere else and hope that a 17 or 18 comes around for you on a later turn?).
  5. Once everyone has picked and assigned a score, have each player roll another 4d6 (drop lowest) and place it in the middle of the table (returning the number of sets back to where it started).
  6. Have each player total up what their current set of ability scores would be worth in point buy (e.g., someone that currently has an 18 and a 13 has 20 points).
  7. Change the player sort order from lowest point buy total to highest (this is another point of strategy; a player might deliberately take a low number rather than the highest one available hoping to get first pick on a later round with better rolls).
    1. Break ties based on who has the smallest big number (e.g., an 18 + 13 goes after a 16 + 16, even though they both have 20 points).
    2. If that’s still tied, break based on who has the smallest low number (e.g., 13 + 15 + 16 goes after 10 + 16 + 16).
    3. If they’re still tied, just go in the original sort order for the first round.
  8. Repeat steps 3-7 until everyone has five scores and there is only one set per player left on the table.
  9. For the last round, simply repeat steps 3 and 4 (i.e., don’t roll another set; on the last round, the players have to fill in their last score from the leavings of the whole process).
  10. Continue with the normal process of making a character.

For example:

Turn Pool Amy Brad Cora Dan
1 8, 9, 12, 12,
12, 13, 13, 16
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT –
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 10)
STR –
DEX –
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA –
(Point Buy 3)
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT –
WIS 9
CHA –
(Point Buy -1)
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT 13
WIS –
CHA –
(Point Buy 3)
2 8, 9, 10, 12,
12, 12, 15, 17
STR –
DEX 15
CON –
INT –
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 17)
STR –
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA –
(Point Buy 3)
STR –
DEX 17
CON –
INT –
WIS 9
CHA –
(Point Buy 12)
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 2)
3 6, 8, 11, 12,
12, 12, 14, 14
STR –
DEX 15
CON 12
INT –
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 19)
STR –
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA 14
(Point Buy 8)
STR –
DEX 17
CON –
INT –
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 14)
STR 14
DEX –
CON –
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 7)
4 6, 7, 8, 10,
11, 12, 12, 15
STR –
DEX 15
CON 12
INT 11
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 20)
STR 12
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA 14
(Point Buy 10)
STR –
DEX 17
CON –
INT 12
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 16)
STR 14
DEX –
CON 15
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 14)
5 6, 7, 8, 9,
10, 12, 14, 15
STR –
DEX 15
CON 12
INT 11
WIS 10
CHA 16
(Point Buy 20)
STR 12
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS 15
CHA 14
(Point Buy 17)
STR 12
DEX 17
CON –
INT 12
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 18)
STR 14
DEX 14
CON 15
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 19)
6 6, 7, 8, 9 STR 6
DEX 15
CON 12
INT 11
WIS 10
CHA 16
(Point Buy 14)
STR 12
DEX 10
CON 13
INT 9
WIS 15
CHA 14
(Point Buy 16)
STR 12
DEX 17
CON 8
INT 12
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 16)
STR 14
DEX 14
CON 15
INT 13
WIS 7
CHA 9
(Point Buy 15)

Amy wants to play a Sorcerer, Brad wants a Cleric, Cora wants a Rogue, and Dan wants a Fighter. For the example, their initial sorting winds up in alphabetical order.

In turn:

  1. Amy goes ahead and assumes 16 is good enough to put in her Charisma. Brad grabs a 13 and puts it in Constitution, hoping for higher scores later. Cora doesn’t like what’s left, so goes ahead and puts a 9 into Wisdom, assuming that will give her first choice once some better options show up. Dan goes ahead and grabs the last 13 and puts it into Intelligence, knowing that at least he’s covered for the Combat Expertise feats.
  2. Cora’s choice last round immediately pays off, and she puts the new 17 into Dexterity. Dan and Brad are tied, so Brad goes first according to the initial order and takes Cora’s strategy; he grabs the 10 and dumps it into Dex, hoping for better rolls later where he gets first pick. Not to be outdone, Dan grabs the 9; now he gets to go first next turn. Amy shrugs at the guys leaving her a nice 15 and puts it into Dex.
  3. Halfway through, suddenly it’s starting to look like it might be dangerous to count on some more 17s and 18s showing up, and nobody wants to be the one stuck with that 6. Dan goes ahead and grudgingly puts a 14 into Strength, starting to plan for being a generalist Fighter rather than a big pile of Strength. Brad goes ahead and grabs the 14 for his Cha, but is still holding out hope for something better to put into Wisdom. Cora grabs the 12 to put into Cha. Amy puts another 12 into Con.
  4. This is starting to be a pretty bad set of rolls; the whole group starts to wonder whether they should have insisted on point buy as a 7 comes up to add to the 6 and the 8. Dan goes ahead and grabs the 15 for his Con. Brad grabs the 12 for his Str. Cora takes the other 12 for her Int. Finally, Amy’s left with an 11 and also throws it into Int.
  5. The last round of rolls comes up and the best results are a 14 and 15; at least the lowest was only a 9 this time. Brad very grudgingly puts the 15 into his Wisdom. Dan puts the 14 into Dex and starts thinking seriously about a two weapon fighting Rogue multiclass or Whirlwind build. Cora drops the 12 into Strength. Amy agonizes about Strength vs. Wisdom, and finally decides to be weak rather than blind, putting the 10 into Wis.
  6. With only the sub-10 stats left, the table completely agrees that next time they need to totally roll better, but at least they’re in this mess together. Brad gets the 9 for his Int. Cora gets the 8 for her Con. Dan gets the 7 for his Wis. And Amy is, indeed, stuck with the 6 for her Str.

Overall, the whole group wound up within 2 point buy points of one another. Given that the same set of rolls reserved to individual players could have had one player with a character worth well over 20 while another was worth zero or less, at least everyone’s in the sub-standard boat together. And the uncertain placement of scores resulted in some interesting choices that the players might not have made if they’d known in advance exactly what their numbers were.

Pathways Chain

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On the whole, my Online Pathways system didn’t work out quite as well as I had hoped, and this had a lot to do with trying to coordinate over 20 players, most of whom had never tried Smallville-style creation before.  The web had a tendency to go wide, and without table banter it was hard for everyone to figure out what additions to nodes other players would like and what contradicted their original intentions in non-fun ways. But we did still wind up with a pretty nice web when all was said and done, with some really neat plots put into motion. A good part of this came from THE LIGHTNING ROUND that I set up to keep players busy while I was without internet access. And that system is further expanded below…

Making the Chain

  • Seed the map with nodes for player characters and at least one type of significant other node (I’d go with themes, but you could pick NPCs, locations, etc.). You can do a bit of standard Pathways creation first, or just put down the nodes with no connections.
  • If you’re in person, go around the table normally. Online, each player can go whenever they want, but they can’t go again until all other players have gone. You might also set a time period (e.g., make one connection a day).
  • The GM picks a node to start.
  • The next player then chooses a node on the map, draws an arrow from it to the previously selected node, and describes the connection.
  • The following player does the same, drawing an arrow and describing the connection to the node chosen by the preceding player.
  • And so on.
  • There are only a few rules:
    • You can’t pick another player’s character as your node choice. You can pick your own player character (and then the next player will draw an arrow from something to your PC, describing how it feels about you).
    • Pick a certain (limited) type of node (I recommend Themes). Each node can connect to a maximum of two of these. When one player picks one of these elements, you can invent a new node and immediately connect it. Otherwise, you can’t invent a new node (to keep the number of nodes manageable).
    • You can’t make a connection that already exists (though if there’s an arrow from one element to another, you can generally make the connection the other way).
    • If the map is being drawn live, the GM may request that you limit the distance and crossover of other lines made by your connections (i.e., limit yourself to connecting nodes that are nearby), as this will make the map easier to read.

Example

  • The GM starts the process by picking the Theme, “Knowledge.”
  • Player 1 chooses to invent a new Location, “43rd Precinct” and draws an arrow to Knowledge, “The best detectives in the city.”
  • Player 2 has to connect something to the Location, and chooses his own PC, Max, drawing an arrow from Max to the location, “Works here as a detective.”
  • Player 3 has to connect to Max, and decides to connect her own PC, Lucy, drawing an arrow from Lucy to Max, “Friends before they were on opposite sides of the law.”
  • Player 4 can’t resist the urge to bring this full circle, and draws an arrow from 43rd Precinct to Lucy, “Collecting evidence to arrest.”
  • The next player can now hook something else to the 43rd precinct, and might choose a second Theme so the next step is to invent another new node and keep the process going…

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