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Campaigning at the Con

The Balance of Power

by Mike DeSanto
Dec 26,2002

 

Campaigning at the Con: The Balance of Power

This month Campaigning at the Con deals with Player Characters and their players. First, character creation and other options for industrious players. Then some notes for writing adventures when you have no idea what sort of characters will be in it, and last hints for dealing with problem character types.

Character Creation

I detail three methods of character creation here: Player & Rules, Player & GM and Character pool, but there are a thousand variations you can use. The choice of a method must balance GM Control with Player Control and GM Effort with Player Effort.

-GM Control: The amount of input the GM has on the character. Too little GM control opens the door to severely min/maxed characters and out of scope characters. Tool much and players do not feel that the character is their own.

-Player Control: The amount of input the Player has on the character. To a player, there is no such thing as too much player control; though the GM may disagree. Too little player control and players will look for another game.

-GM Effort: The amount of time a GM must spend making the character. Higher GM effort means lost game time while characters are finalized. Wasted time never attracts players.

-Player Effort: The amount of time the Player must spend making the character. Many players do not mind a significant Player Effort, as long as it comes with Player Control. Player Effort is a tricky balance; casual players will be turned off by a level of effort hard core gamers find insufficient.

Method 1: Player & Rules

This is the easiest method for GMs. The players are given a set of rules for creating characters, and the rest is up to them. Usually a GM must approve the character before play. Player & Rules gives high Player Effort and high Player Control. It is best to attract dedicated players of a detailed game like GURPS or Hackmaster. If using this method, brush up on your technical writing skills. The character creation rules must be clear and concise while conveying the intended flavor of the campaign. The complexity and lack of GM support may drive off casual gamers or those unfamiliar with the system being used.

Method 2: Player & GM

With this method the Player and GM sit down and work together to create the character. The player describes the character in non-game terms: background, motivation, etc. The GM guides the process to make sure the character fits in with the tone of the campaign. Together they determine the statistics and skills of the character. Player & GM requires high Player Effort and extreme GM Effort. The benefit is a good balance of GM Control and Player Control. It ensures that the character integrates well into the world, while letting the player have the character they want to play. Casual players or those unfamiliar with the system get the help they need. The cost is time, both for the GM and the player.

If using the Player & GM method, you should probably schedule an event just for new character creation. Even with a special event to create characters, new characters will tend to eat up time during regular events. You must be very careful not to work on new characters during events, or players who made up characters when they were supposed to may be offended and leave the campaign.

Method 3: Character Pool

This method does not let players create their own characters. Instead the GMs make a large pool of characters, and players pick one to play. Once a player adopts a character, nobody else can play that character. To give the players enough information to play the characters, they must include background, history and motivations. A character pool requires a huge amount of GM effort before the convention, but very little during the convention. It also gives complete GM control. Player effort is minimal, since all they have to do is look at the characters in the pool and pick one. Casual players and those unfamiliar with the system tend to like this system, because it does not require too much of them. More hard core gamers are generally hostile to Character Pools, because they want more control. I do not suggest that Character Pool be the primary method of character generation, but I do recommend it as a backup to whatever system you use.

Davenford used Rules & Player character creation with a small pool of backup characters. Anyone who did not want to make a character could use one from the pool, though pool characters did not gain experience. This worked well for those familiar with GURPS, but our crossover rate was low, and virtually disappeared by the time Davenford ended. I attribute this to the perception, undeserved to my mind, that Davenford was only for hard-core GURPS players.

Options for Industrious Players

You can give your players a larger stake in the campaign by giving them more than just a character to work with. Let them make their mark on the world with a house, a starship or a family. Make it clear that what they design will be part of the world, and will appear in future adventures.

The adventure hook in Davenford was that the adventurers were working off there property taxes. Therefore, every character owned property in the city of Davenford. Rules were developed for character property, with the size of the plot depending on the wealth of the character and the location in the city. Unfortunately, it was not very popular and I never figured out the reason. Either the guidelines were too vague or they were confusing or it simply is not as cool and idea as I think it is. (I had two characters and both had property defined, a tailor shop and an inn.)

Designing Adventures for Unknown Characters

The goal of convention games is for all the players to have fun. I interpret this to mean that every character contributes significantly to the achievment of a goal. This is difficult when you have no idea what sort of abilities the characters will have. The solution to this problem is flexible adventure design and improvisation.

Flexible adventure design means having more than one way to overcome every obstacle. Once you see the characters at the beginning of an event you can tailor the obstacles to the party. Not that you have to plan all the possible ways to overcome every obstacle. Make judgement calls as you go, and keep in mind the skills of characters whose players are having trouble getting involved. This is where improvisation comes into play. If one player is having trouble getting involved, try to insert an obstacle only their character can overcome. The most important thing in a convention game is to keep everyone involved.

I rarely entered a Davenford game with more than two pages of notes. I outlined the adventure using the steps I found in a book about writing screenplays. It broke any story into five parts: Introduction, build-up, climax, confrontation and conclusion. By defining those five parts, writing up the necessary NPCs and improvising I had everything I needed to run a six-player game for 4 hours. I know some GMs worked with much less.

Problem character Types

Finally, a few notes on some difficult to handle characters; Combat Monsters and Esoteric Specialists. One or both of these will appear in every game, so it is important to be prepared.

Combat Monsters are characters optimized for combat. The player who makes a combat monster wants one thing - to fight powerful enemies. So, make sure you have some particularly tough bad guys ready, just in case you need them. If the party includes a combat monster, increase the strength of some of the enemies and have them 'happen' to attack the Combat Monster. The player will be happy that they fought the biggest bad guys, and they will generally be content to let the rest of the players handle the rest of the adventure. You may want to get help from a good min/maxer if you (like me) have trouble designing Combat monsters yourself.

Esoteric Specialists can also be called useless characters. Like Combat Monsters, they are generally very good at one thing. However, it is a skill that will almost never come into play. They may be the best brewer in the land, or have unequaled knowledge of Southern Hemisphere marsupials. While very handy skills, these are not generally suited to an action/adventure. Luckily, players that make Esoteric Specialists usually realize that their characters are not standard heroes, and are willing to live with that fact. Try to give them something to do and let them play the character. Just make sure that nothing depends too heavily on them.

Several players in Davenford played combat monsters, and I must admit that I never really did a god job of dealing with them. I would introduce enemies that I thought would present a challenge, but they failed completely. I have a tendency to play esoteric specialists, so I had no trouble dealing with them. (I still get flack about the one eyed fencer. I figured losing eyes would be pretty common for fencers!)

Conclusion

So now you have decided how to make characters. You have the rules written down, and plenty of blank character sheets handy. Now all you have to do is attract some players. Next month we will talk about Getting the Word Out - Attracting Players to Your Campaign.

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