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Winging It

Character Creation

by Ian Sokoliwski
Dec 27,2004


Character Creation

Welcome to the second installment of the column 'Winging It'. This column will primarily be about the first game session of a new 'Hunter: The Reckoning' Campaign, mostly centering on character creation, the free-form GM'ing approach to running this particular Campaign, and how the two intersected and influenced each other.

In the past, to break away from the standard tradition of having all the players determine who and what their characters are in game terms (a Fighter, a Veritech pilot, a Lasombra/Shadow Lord Fomori Abomination, that sort of thing), I've tried starting games with the players creating their characters prior to when they ended up changing into whatever their 'class/role/tribe/clan/whatever' would end up being, leaving their ultimate 'character type' to be determined by the actions of the character and how I interpreted them (with some input by the players obviously).

The restriction to that, however, was that ultimately the player would still know more or less what their character would end up being. Certainly, a quick game of 'Dungeons and Dragons' playing 0-level humans could be played, but it would be clear that the more religious/healing minded characters would end up as clerics, the big brawny guys who hit things a lot would be fighters of one sort or another, and the bookish guy with the taste for relics and wierd talismans would probably be a magic-user of some sort. In that game, where a character ends up (at least to the start of first level) is pretty clear from well before they actually join a Magical College or join the Thieves' Guild (with some wiggle room between fighters and thieves, perhaps).

However, with class-less systems ('Wraith: the Oblivion' and 'Cyberpunk' as examples; they both can easily be viewed from the perspective of not having any sort of classes, just a few abilities that characters only share with a few other characters), this idea works much better. Which brings me to the current Campaign.

The players were asked to create everyday human characters, set in modern day (November 2004, here in Winnipeg). I encouraged them to create people they would think would be interesting, but discouraged them from playing 'combat gods' (ex-Navy SEALS, martial arts instructors, things like that) mostly to have them concentrate on 'who' the character was rather than 'what' the character could do. I also made it clear that they could have as much 'fake' knowledge of the occult as they wanted (hey, anybody can buy H.P. Lovecrafts' complete work in any major bookstore), but no 'real' knowledge of the supernatural.

Also, I did not want to have them think about characters along the line of which 'Creed' they were. Instead, I wanted their reaction to the supernatural to determine that for them (an idea that is, I will admit, presented in the 'H:tR' books, but one I think is a very interesting idea). More on this later in the column.

They came up with Izzy and Daniella. Both young single women (the players are also both women, just as an aside), Izzy being a mechanic with a goth streak and Daniella a student, neither of whom had anything to do with each other. We all talked briefly about these characters' lives, about any possible commonalities they would have, about their differences, things like that.

Out of this conversation, I determined that their first encounter with the supernatural would take place as each of them was going for a walk through Assiniboine Park, in front of the Pavilion (a popular spot in the park). Thus began the Prelude.

I really do like the concept of the Prelude, both in heavily-scripted games and in free-form games. I've used it quite a few times (and in quite a few game systems outside of the White Wolf games, which is where I first discovered the idea), as a great way to introduce the characters in the game, prior to their gaining any sort of understanding about their 'real' world, into the main focus or conflict of the eventual game.

For instance, going back to the idea of the 0-level human 'Dungeons and Dragons' game, it could be something as simple as a group of friends from a small village, still living on the farm or attending school or something, outside playing and happen to encounter a monster, a group of weak brigands, something like that. Running a quick encounter where the players have no real 'powers' as such, but would show how their interest was eventually sparked into leaving their village and taking on their eventual roles as adventurers.

(I realize most Preludes don't actually involve all the players characters' at the same time, as they usually meet each other after deciding what kind of Adventurer they will end up being. Most are run individually for each player. However, I am just opening up the concept of perhaps some of them knowing each other before leaving for Magical College or some sort of Military Academy, to meet again later to begin the 'real' adventuring.)

These Preludes are great way for a GM, one familiar only with heavily-scripted games, to experiment with the free-form concept. Because they don't last very long (due to it being during the Prelude that the character must end up making their life-decision, about which Role to take on), and generally won't involve major characters from later plotlines (as they will generally be considerably too powerful for unpowered, ignorant characters to survive, let alone defeat), your imagination can be given free rein; you don't necessarily have to worry about what is in a treasure horde (even if they found one, they are probably physically too weak to lift it anyway), what the map of the dungeon is (they are too weak to survive anything deeper than a damp basement, anyway), or all the stats of the brigands, pirates, and highwaymen (all likely 0 level or 1st level characters themselves, with very simple weapons and no armour). Rather than worrying about all the various equipment or statistics a given enemy will have, you (the GM) can instead have fun coming up with fun descriptions of how they look (drool-covered tunics are an interesting place to start) and talk (the dumber the dialogue, the better - these are supposed to be pretty moronic enemies, after all). Figuring out complex traps, developing intricate plot points, complications and developments like that are generally beyond the scope of most Preludes, so you do not need to worry about them right away.

Back to the Prelude at hand. Izzy and Daniella were both walking, from two separate directions, toward the Pavilion. Getting to the building, they heard some screaming and yelling, mostly from what sounded like children. Running to the sound, they came across four people attacking children and teachers around two school buses. Now that they were within eyesight of a supernatural attack, their embryonic Hunter abilities began to manifest, and they both saw the four attackers as both normal men and as shuffling zombie figures. True to the game, each of the characters then heard 'the Call', their first contact with the otherworldly powers that then informed them that these zombie-like attackers were 'wrong', 'corrupt', things like that.

Izzy grabbed a broken tree branch and attacked one of the zombies, while Daniella grabbed some of the children that were being attacked. And thus they began manifesting their 'Edges', or powers, in the game.

About all I knew prior to this Prelude was that the game would be set in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and that the first encounter would involve the Walking Dead in some way. That was it. Everything else was dictated to me by the actions and interactions of the players themselves. In no way did I even want to tell them what kind of powers would possibly be available to them, or even that they could manifest powers (well, they knew something like that was bound to happen, as the players did know of the game, and one of them had played 'H:tR' before), but instead I wanted to have their powers manifest according to their actions. The only restriction I gave them was that they had to do something (as opposed to just standing their watching children get eaten).

Thus, Izzy manifested the 'Cleave' power, her stick catching on fire and bashing in a zombie skull (lucky hit), while Daniella manifested the 'Ward' power, basically creating a defensive shield between her and the attacking zombies.

Now, dice-rolling was kept to a minimum, just enough to indicate things like 'did you hit the zombie' or 'did the zombie get through the shield', but mostly what happened was I just followed the lead of the players and their actions. As a consequence, Izzy wound up with a serious concussion.

What had happened was, after dispatching one zombie, she saw another climb onto one of the school buses, trapping a child onboard. She ran onboard to attack this critter. Now, her 'Cleave' power had not only killed the first zombie, but had also destroyed the stick she used, so she had to grab another weapon. And the only thing nearby that was more-or-less weapon-shaped was a fire extinguisher.

So, grabbing that, she took a swing at the zombie. The 'flame' manifested around the fire extinguisher, and, as it hit the zombie, the extinguisher was partially destroyed (both by the impact and by the supernatural 'flame' that 'Cleave' produces).

Hence, the fire extinguisher exploded.

Now, this finished off the zombie quite nicely. However, it did drive some shrapnel into the child while also launching Izzy toward the front of the bus. She bounced down the stairs and hit her head on the pavement outside.

At this point, I decide that fun is fun, but the characters will die soon if events are left unchecked. So, a previously-unknown fellow, a janitor from inside the Pavilion, has at this point run out toward them and begins yelling 'Leave!' at the surviving zombies. His variation of the use of the 'Bluster' ability (I tend to encourage reinterpreting abilities such as this in my players, so I feel free to do it quite a bit myself) compelled the zombies to run away.

This new character, deciding to get his 'fellow hunters' out of this mess, suggests they flee to help Izzy and her head wound. Panicked and confused, Izzy and Daniella agree. They end up piling into the janitors' car and driving out to his house.

At this point, it would be generally assumed that this would now become the core group for the ongoing 'H:tR' game. However, as I am not locked down to any particular storyline, and freely willing to adapt what is happening to the decisions that the players make, I end up getting a very big surprise.

Out at the house, Frank (the janitor) puts Izzy up on a makeshift table (a sheet of oil-soaked plywood on two saw-horses in his garage) and grabs his various first-aid kits and sundry medical supplies. To further the notion that they are no longer the same people they used to be, however, I plant the notion in Daniella's head (another message from the otherworldly powers) that she can do something to help Izzy. Thus, she ends up manifesting another of her powers, this of 'Rejuvenate', and much of Izzy's wound is healed up (although she is still very dizzy from loss of blood).

This leads what would normally be the standard scene of the two new 'Hunters', without any knowledge of what their situation is, looking to the older more experienced character to tell them what is going on. However, never underestimate your players, fellow GM's.

Going inside the main house (well, tar paper shanty is more like it), they begin to see what is referred to as 'Hunters Code', the strange symbols that seem to form a language only 'Hunters' can read (more or less). They indicate 'Sanctuary' over the door to the house and even inside the walls of the house. However, as they listen to Franks story about monsters coming to life all around them, I also, just because it would be interesting, drop a few other words in this code on the walls.

Rather than talking about the 'official' backstory, Frank starts going on about how this is all the result of alien invasions and infestations, about how those weren't zombies but aliens in human form. He believes that they (the Hunters) are modified agents for another alien species, and they are all in the middle of a war.

Now, I did this primarily to show how each 'Hunter' interprets what has happened differently, how they each view the world around them and what is happening to them through their own mindset and history. Thus, this was mostly just to show that, if someone was a paranoid conspiracy theorist before becoming Imbued, they would probably just have those opinions reinforced by the process.

I also wanted to not make this first 'explanation' religiously-based. I think it is far too easy to view what happens in the game from a religious point of view (which, to a great extent, is supported by the game books themselves); rather, I thought it would be interesting to start with a more secular explanation (perhaps going more into other secular ideas as Izzy and Daniella interact with other 'Hunters' as the game goes along).

So, in the middle of all this, as Frank goes into another room to check his (far far too expensive for this house) computer equipment, Izzy and Daniella see, in the midst of clippings from conspiracy and alien-based newspaper and magazine clippings on the walls, more 'Hunter Code' with terms like 'obsession' and 'misinformation' scrawled in amongst them.

Thus, as Frank is in the back, Izzy and Daniella decide to run away from this 'nutcase'. Slipping away, they quickly head out to the main road and walk down the street back toward the city.

If the game had been more structured, this would have been a major blow. Sure, I could still use Frank later, but there would probably never be any real level of trust between the player characters and Frank, so any carefully-developed plans I might have made would now lie in ruins, or at least require serious repair.

Fortunately, Frank was something of an afterthought, and all the alien-agenda material just thrown in for spice. The result was the players reacting (quite rationally, I think) in a particular manner that I had not anticipated. At the same time, this has bonded the characters of Izzy and Daniella together even more (not only has the world around them gone crazy, but it seems that even the other people in it who should be able to help them are also crazy - at this point, the only people they think are not crazy are each other).

So, there we ended it. We had characters, the basics of the world laid out (from an admittedly skewed point of view, something I intend to do more of later), and introduced two different types of antagonists (zombie 'aliens' and 'crazy' Hunters). The players were happy, I was happy, everyone had fun, which ultimately is the most important part of any game.

All this with no notes, some vague ideas, and the benefit of the experience of having listened to a lot of 'Coast to Coast AM' in the past (and I cannot think of a better way to generate conspiracy theories and the characters who believe in them than listening to that radio program).

- Ian Sokoliwski

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