Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Building Your Past

I thought I had posted about this, but I guess not.

Some time ago, I ran a Jedi game. This was not a polite "we buy the rules from the licensed sort of folks" Jedi game. This was one of my "Bastard Jedi" games, which generally share a few keywords with the Star Wars RPG and not much else.

My previous Bastard Jedi games were built on the words "Jedi", "Sith", "Force", and "Droid". Otherwise, they were made from whole cloth. This time I went the opposite direction, gathering in staggeringly huge amounts of canon and picking the lamest parts. To the point where the game could not be played without a laptop constantly connected to Wookieepedia. (Notice, it contains spoilers!...)

Still, the game mechanics were very, very unusual and interesting. It would take a long time to cover them all, so I'll simply cover the character creation system, which is really the only one that has any bearing on anything I've posted recently.

First, a note on setting: this was after "all" the Jedi were killed by Clone Troopers, but I varied the setting a bit as to exactly what had gone down with the whole Darth-Emperor-Mace Windu thing.

Now, the character creation.

I got myself a hundred blank index cards and split them into four vaguely equal piles, each of which was marked with a suit. The suits stood for real concepts: race, tendency, experience, and survival (all the Jedi are supposed to be dead, remember?). A character was made of one of each.

For example, your race might be Bith, your tendency might be that you've always been especially good with a saber, your experience might be that you spent several years on a diplomatic voyage, and you might have survived by having been cut up quite a bit by a dark Jedi and left for dead (but you recovered and now have some cybernetic bits).

That's not a terribly coherent character, but even with this kind of nonsense you can see that you could connect the dots. You could build a fairly interesting character by filling in the holes: maybe you were sent on the diplomatic mission by your master, who thought you were too physical. Maybe you were attacked by a dark Jedi while on that mission.

Anyway, all of the things on the cards were things that could be. There was no danger of someone going "off course" and inventing a backstory that didn't fit into the universe and, more importantly, no chance of players just staring blankly at an infinite canvas of options. If I wanted, I could have just as easily swapped out the deck for a non-Jedi deck set in the same universe, or a Sith deck, or even a lost-little-droid deck.

All of the cards were more or less balanced. Even the races, which I thought would be hard to balance, were easy. I mean, a Bith? The cantina guys? Who wants to be a Bith? They suck!

Except it turns out that they don't. They've got all sorts of wickedly advanced senses and technological aptitudes. They don't need sleep, either.

It seems that I could not find a race that hadn't been made cool at some point. Welcome to Star Wars.

Anyhow, picking four cards at random doesn't leave you with a whole lot of choice, does it? You end up with something like the character above. While he might grow on you, chances are good that he's not who you would pick for yourself if given the choice.

Even increasing the number of cards to choose from isn't ideal: I let people draw six cards (and spend a character point to draw more cards if they wanted). Even that wasn't going to be enough.

So the real solution was to get your players into a group - five, six people - and have them all draw cards. Then they can freely trade with each other.

This Bith guy would be happy to trade his diplomatic mission to someone in exchange for, say, advanced saber training or a mission to a doomed world. He's also probably happy to trade his race off for something a bit more combat-happy. Someone else might have the "forbidden love" experience card, and they might try to get that "maimed by a dark Jedi" card, so they can have their forbidden love fall and maim them...

This also lets the players fit their characters together interplayer. Not just in terms of "we should have a warrior, a healer..." but in terms of "oh, look, we both switched masters! What if we swapped masters?"

I had two teams of five, and until I moved to Seattle, the game was going pretty well. The characters were deeply interesting, their interactions very slick. More importantly for a Star Wars game, their detailed backstories gave me great hooks to tempt them towards the dark side.

Anyway, this is to show that this kind of partially-generative backstory system is perfectly plausible. Obviously, if you're going to do it on a computer, you need to change it a bit... but, fundamentally, this is not a difficult way to do things and it can serve to introduce your players to the setting in a completely painless way.


Manojalpa said...

Having just spent fifteen minutes in geek-stricken horror surfing Wookieepedia, I made it to the actual point of the post, which is very cool. Despite how my tweeting may have sounded, I do believe that randomness is the way of the future, controlled perhaps by whatever algorithms or funnels we run it through but randomness, at the core, all the same.

What I like about your example is using randomness to foster interpersonal interaction. In this case, randomness acts as a cage, an obstacle almost that the players can only overcome by working together (trading their cards to get out of not-quite-perfect character assignments). Very cool, very cool.

Using randomness as an antagonist is something I'll definitely continue pondering...

Craig Perko said...

Yes, it's kind of a complicated situation. After all, the idea of rolling dice to determine the outcome of a fight is, in many ways, generative content.

So randomness isn't just an antagonist. You can drop the "ant" and it's still valid: randomness is an agonist.

It can keep things from settling, and give the players just enough churn to put pieces together in new and interesting ways. :)