The Cells Part Two: Chargen and Worldgen

Prime Time Adventures takes a collegial and co-operative approach to character generation. After everyone agrees on the show you’re making – the setting, the tone, the audience – you all go around and suggest at least two character ideas. Then from the pool of ideas, people take the characters they want. Sometimes characters get combined or altered. For example, there were a lot of ideas thrown around about secretaries and major-domo type characters, including by me. Then somebody said a seer, someone who knew what was coming and my character fell into place. Having just watched the British House of Cards series and loving the character of Stamper I wanted a similarly Dickensian name and chose Quiver –  the nervous, helpful person who also knows more than he can ever say.

What’s interesting though is that I, the player, have no idea what Quiver knows. I gave him a contact, the knowingly-named Mr Grey, the Man Who Knows More But Won’t Let Me Tell, but I don’t know what Mr Grey knows either. We just know there are secrets. And we intend to answer these questions through play, not beforehand.

Similar things happened with other characters. We quickly decided that religion had to have played a role in the war, because it always does. Two players leapt onto religious roles: one chosing a hardened war-vet who served in a religious battle-regiment, with the title of Knight-Father. Another decided to be a man who had lost his faith, and was previously perhaps quite high in the ranks of that faith in some way – and through that had access to intimate details of people’s lives through some kind of confessional role. A third player decided that he was the bad seed of a man seen to be above suspicion, a high-ranked priest known to the prodigal priest. I decided that person would be called a Cardinal. But what was the religion? What were its tenets? We didn’t know.

The good thing about this is understanding that the world building does not have to happen pre-facto. Roleplaying makes us lazy in that regard; we like to think that it is vital for everyone to be on the same page and therefore there must be some sort of universal codex of what is and isn’t true and it must exist before choices are made to be fair. But writing almost never works like that – at least, outside of Tolkein and his emulators. Worlds are built to satisfy the needs of character and plot as those needs emerge. And the work is NOT the world-building, as Brian Clevinger recently said about his marvellous Atomic Robo. Too much world building, however enjoyable, can murder your story before you begin. That’s much more true in writing than in rpgs, but it’s worth remembering also.

More and more games are experimenting with this – with “fate points” and such wired into the game that give equal provenance to creating facts about the scenario and beating the scenario, but it’s rare that lets you define something globally about the setting as a whole (I first saw that kind of equality of mechanics in Mortal Coil). Lots of RPGs do setting creation at the start of the game (like in Fiasco and Durance, for example, and in Gaean Reach where you each list a reason why you hate the central bad guy) but we often then leave it be. Of course, the concept of a published game is to give you all the tools, not expect you to build them as you go, but that is a concept we can also play with. Legacy games like Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy and wacky changing games like 504 have the tools to become different games as they go or each time. The upcoming Shadow of the Demon Lord has modular Demon Lords to choose from, and stages of Demon Lord progression. So it’s something to think about.

We also left a few other blanks – we knew there would be some kind of alien tech because one player chose the Edge (a character power) of “The alien tech that doesn’t work for almost everyone works on me”. Our GM ended up choosing that: a miracle new plant colloquially called “youngberries” that could stop aging permanently, until it turned out that without a regular supply you get cancer and die in days – and after 20 years of the new youngberry economy, the plant died out almost everywhere – and that caused the war. But as for the religion, we went back to the round-robin, with each of us throwing in an element we wanted to be true about it, which gave us a list like this:

  • temporal power in the Citadel (where we live) and the world is not the same as but unavoidably enmeshed with the religious power of the faith
  • the religion is fundamentally slow to change and resistant to change within itself
  • the central teaching of the religion is to seek understanding and acceptance as the path to enlightenment
  • the faith is split informally between those who consider this enlightenment a physical/supernatural one and those who consider it a philosophical one
  • the faith has four concepts or pillars, which are Self and Tribe (opposing each other) and Passion and Reason (opposing each other), but these are not antagonistic oppositions
  • the faith is split formally between the pantheists who consider the four pillars to represent four separate entities who created a world divided by these concepts, and the transcendents who consider the division to be part of the universal laws that apply upwards into how we perceive the god-entity and/or higher spiritual essence.

But before any of that actually hit paper in the second session, before the church had a name or the alien tech had a nature, the characters were formed and fleshed and cast. You can see how that came out in this pdf. I came up with the quotes and most of the casting because for once I’m not the GM so I have free time to do my favourite part of things. Mechanically, in PTA characters have Edges and Contacts that earn them cards, and also an Issue (their central hang-up that causes their drama) and their Instinct (what they do when facing their issue and failing to fight their weaknesses). Both of those ideas are – like so much of PTA – worth adding to any RPG. One or two issues help you know what will squeeze your character and what won’t, and go-to moves help you roleplay and make decisions on the fly. Even in D&D.

So that’s the cast and the world – the willing from the cells, in a world coming out of a war over immortality but still ruled by old religion and distant masters. Next up – episode one.

EDIT: The GM also added his own character, the antagonist, a general who has been running the Citadel while we’ve been in the Cells, and we finally got an actor for the PC we were missing, so there is this addendum to the cast list.

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