Leading Chargen, an underrated GM skill

In the realm of GM skills, facilitating character creation is the most under-rated. That is what I’m looking for when folks are making characters, that moment when their eyes light up because we’ve figured out together a way for the person at the table to put on that character’s clothes, something has made a connection. The next important step for me, something done right there at the table is making damn sure that character is as hooked in to the campaign as the player is hooked in to the character.

Like a fighter wins the fight through the hard work of their training camp, or a strong weight lifter lifts the weight based on how well they set up their mind, feet and posture before the lift, as a GM, the strength of the campaign is based on how well I lead that character generation. Leadership, to me, isn’t being overbearing but being a strong and fun hand in making the foundation of our gaming.

Important Parts of Chargen

  • Questions – asking players questions about their character, players asking the GM questions about the world, everyone getting a feel for the game.
  • Concept – everyone has to be bought in, excited about the idea that is bringing you all together every week.
  • Firm and Clear – if something feels odd, say so, voice your fears clearly, always with everyone’s fun in mind and never with keeping some kind of lame-ass patriarchal control of the table at stake. “I’m worried that this character has no motivation to do anything exciting.” “I’m worried that this is another bad-ass ninja-wolverine who is going to sit with his back to the wall growling all game.” “I’m worried that this character isn’t combat capable enough to survive.”

I’ve talked, e-mailed, IMed and skyped with tons of gamers who are having campaign trouble and every time it is linked to either some kind of real life power discrepancy at the table (“I can’t kick him out of the group; he’s our landlord/boss/whatever”) or something that went wrong or showed its face during character creation.

My friend, Anthony, taught me this and he taught it to me by making characters that he wouldn’t have any fun playing but more importantly, he made characters that made it impossible for us to enjoy his presence at the table.  We were playtesting Houses of the Blooded and in a game we had decided was friendly, he made a bastard/jerk of a sorcerer.

Me: What are you doing during the opera?

Anthony: My character is going into an alley, trying to dig up secrets about the other characters, hating the world, hating himself, hating and hating.

Me: Okay, what do you do after that is done, man? Are you interested in playing this game?

He insisted that he was and when scenes would pop up where his character was off, bathing in hate, he’d gleefully take up roles as NPC servants or children or peasants or whatever. When he was given space to contribute to the game he was great but his character wasn’t helping.

Some folks would recommend going after the sorcerer with in-game but I have found that responding to a real world problem with fictional consequences is a terrible way of dealing with a problem. Harsh in-game consequences to crazy amazing crap your players do (pulling dragon’s tail, so to speak) is great. Harsh in-game consequences because someone is having trouble or being a jerk, not so great.

I wrestled with how to approach him. I imagined myself saying, “Your character sucks! What the eff, man?!” or “Bring that character in the game or make a new one.”

I find a nicer and more true way to articulate my thoughts, “Anthony, I like playing with you and this character is standing between you and the rest of the table because of the way you see him acting. Let’s make a character that let’s us play Houses of the Blooded with my good friend, Anthony.”

He smiled, his eyes lit up and we made up a new character. His evil sorcerer had a son, already established in game, and he made up that character. We decided the son had killed the father. All around, it was a fitting metaphor and best of all, we had Anthony back at the table, contributing and playing hard.

10 thoughts on “Leading Chargen, an underrated GM skill

  1. Pretty much every single time I’ve had problems with a game, especially as a GM, I’ve been able to trace it back to character creation. Its importance cannot be overstated, but your advice here for dealing with the problem and re-engaging the player(s) is invaluable.

  2. I can definitely trace a lot of problems back to chargen. I wonder how often though chargen problems are actually because the GM has made a weak situation pitch to the group? I suspect that has been the case for me in the past.


  3. Glad that your game-fasting hasn’t kept you from the blog. It’s very, very good stuff you’re writing here.

    Your insight to not confront real world problems with in-game fictional solutions is spot-on. It’s an interesting contrast between this piece of cautionary advice and the other advice you’ve mentioned* about juicing up the game by bringing real world problems *to* the table wrapped in fictional robes. It seems as if the line is: “If I (the GM) have problems with you (a fellow player), we need to sort that out like grown-ups” but “If you have problems in your life away from the table, I can maybe help you get some perspective or catharsis.” What do you think?

    *I can’t recall whether you talked about it on your blog, or back on Sons of Kryos, so I can’t link it.

    • Thanks, Michael, I appreciate you saying so.

      Huh, Michael, that is really interesting, too interesting to reply to fully now. I’m posting this so you know that I am digesting what you wrote and will reply this weekend when things are less busy.

      Great comment, thanks.

  4. I find very often it’s useful to have:
    a) a common media example to point to for feel/tone of the game
    b) a conflict-heavy situation presented
    c) a loaded question that gives everyone motivation and momentum

    Without this, the game has no wheels and you end up dragging the cart full of players along the ground, until the bottom scrapes off. (or, after 6+ sessions, people finally figure out some direction and conflict they’re interested in, and weld on some wheels… maybe).

  5. Pingback: Weekly Assembly: Free Games Improve Morale | The Gamer Assembly

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