Making the Party: Instant Consensus
Having players like their own characters is critical to enjoying the game. But if the party is going to click, it is just as important for the players to like each others' characters as well.
So as a GM, we want that good party, because it leads to a good game. How do we accomplish it?
Some parties gel over time. The players develop a dynamic between their characters, learn to appreciate each other's interesting quirks, etc. Parties that start off with problems can self-correct. Characters who rub the wrong way can be replaced, refined, retooled or reconceived. The fire mage is more powerful than everyone else in the party, so he gets nerfed. The psychotic droid just doesn't fit in with the other more nuanced characters, so it gets replaced with a more compatible character. Sometimes it is the players themselves who turn out to be incompatible.
This does not help us. Apply time to any group and they will either bond or break up. The parties that did not gel probably stopped playing already.
Let's assume we don't want to adopt the “wait and see” approach. We are only planning a one-shot or short series of games and don't have time for the party to bond slowly. Or we think life is just too short to have a bunch of bumpy games while the party gets settled. We want success now, an interesting but bonded party right at the start.
Note that the goal is not to have characters who like each other, but players who like each other's characters. Important distinction. Players who like each other's characters can play out internal conflict and have a good time. The thief hates the priest who scolds him about his moral failings, but the player running the thief loves that the player running the priest gives him all this good fodder for role-playing. If you want to create a bond between the characters within the game world, that's a different issue entirely.
So how do we create a party from scratch and make sure they bond? And do it reasonably quickly so you don't completely hold up the game?
Here's the procedure: at each stage in the character creation process, each player has to get approval from all the other players. If someone objects or thinks it's a bad idea, negotiation ensues. Until everyone approves each character, the process doesn't continue. It's a party by consensus, or more pessimistically a party by veto.
Players create characters for themselves that they like all the time. The idea is to extend that process and involve each player in the creation of the other players' characters.
To make this run more smoothly, break up character creation into these steps:
step 1 Concept sans Rules — Each player comes up with the fundamental idea of their character, without any mention of rules or game stats. He's an irascible wizard, she's a barnstorming biplane pilot, etc. Some terms may seem to indicate certain rules (e.g. you'd guess a wizard was a wizard in d20 class system, wouldn't you?) but it's important to agree that you are not making those decisions yet. A wizard character could turn out to have all levels in wizard, or could be a wizard/sorcerer, etc. At this point we don't know.
step 2 Basic Stats — Skeleton of how you'll make that character in the rules. In a class system this will usually be a class and level decision. In a system like M&M you could specify what your major powers were going to be. In a point-based system it might be more general still (I'm taking a high Dex and focusing my points in scholar and fencing). Either way it should just be a sentence or two, a declaration of intention rather than a finished or even started character.
step 3 Complete Stats — A mostly finished character sheet, almost all details filled in.
So at step 1, everyone sits down and says what their concept is going to be, and everyone else either agrees or disagrees with each one. Once everyone has agreed to each other's concepts, people are ready to go to step 2 and figure out what the stats would be for those characters. Then they tell each other how they are going to do it and everyone either approves or disapproves again, and so on.
Between steps 2 and 3 things will start to get more chaotic. Players may shout out every time they decide to change a stat, basically asking for approval from the other players. That's good, that's how it's supposed to work.
As a GM the odd part of this process will be how little you do. You're used to being the center of attention and approving characters at every stage, but now the players are going to do it for each other. You should still keep an eye out for wackiness, but assuming the character concepts from the first step fit your game, you'll find that the players do a remarkably good job of keeping themselves balanced power-wise. After all, none of them want any of the other characters to overshadow them or throw off the game.
Even though creation is a group process, each player is still the definitive owner of their own character, not group ownership. It isn't intended to be creation by committee, because other players are not supposed to be coming up with ideas for you, just approving what you come up with.
So now you should have a party of characters that everyone is happy with. Even if the characters happened to be identical to what the players would have made separately, the mere fact that the other players were involved in the decision making process will make them more accepting of the other characters, not to mention better informed.
Is this process quick? Of course not. It's much slower than each person just creating their own character. But at the beginning I said “reasonably” quickly and that's what I meant. The character creation process will be much longer but it pays off. As soon as you start playing you'll see it will take the players a lot less time to ramp up and start role-playing. Since they already know each other's characters quite well they can leap right in. Character creation becomes the warm-up of actual play.
Other side effects of the process:
– Because the players know what role-playing concepts are critical to each character, they are in a better position to play to those ideas.
– On a tactical level, players can make better combat decisions because they know the abilities of the other characters. It's always embarrassing to think the elf is a decent fighter and can guard your flank, and then discover he doesn't carry any weapons. A downside is that players may be more tempted to coach since they know what the other characters could do.