The Games Master’s Toolkit – Using Character Creation in RPG to ramp up suspense

Hello everyone, welcome to you.  Today I was wanting to share an idea that has been generated by discussion with one of my oldest friends.  I have mentioned Barry many times on this site, however if you are new then allow me to give some brief background.  Barry was my GM for 2.5 years playing Moon Knight in a Marvel Campaign (this was awesome as at the end I became the God Khonshu, the Guardian of those who Walk at Night, Pathfinder, Healer and Devourer of Hearts…)  He currently runs  an open ended D&D 5e game where I play a dwarven fighter called Hadrin, and in his work time he is working on his business Random Monster Table Art.  Last year I ran a short Vampire: The Masquerade game for him and three others which he thoroughly enjoyed, and recently he mentioned to me he missed playing in games.  He enjoys running them, but it is nice to play in one for a change. As fortune would have it I was in the middle of writing an introductory scenario for the game Vampire: The Dark Ages, a scenario that starts the moment the players wake up for the first time as a vampire and a scenario that was intended to help players learn the game by play.  That was the point I offered to run this adventure for him, which he was quite enthusiastic about.  The last time I was his GM (The Vampire Game) he was a psychotic gangster, which was quite dark and very funny.  Particularly when he smuggled a grenade into a rival base of operations in a receptacle on a human male not intended to act as the receptacle for explosives.   He had a lot of fun in that game, and I had fun running it.  He liked the idea of playing in the Dark Ages era, and he liked the idea of waking up for the first time as a vampire, and he really liked the idea of building the discipline activation into the game (Sorta like Clark learning he has Heat Vision in Smallville…) and then he said something that is the purpose of this post.

“I don’t want to know what type of Vampire I am when I create the character.  I trust you to find a clan that matches the sort of character I come up with and the sort of game that I want to play.”

Aside from being very flattered by the comment, it got me thinking about the start of some roleplay games.  Now, I will state that this will probably not work for games like DnD which are very prescriptive in character creation.  You are a Dwarf, and a fighter and you get a whole bunch of stuff related to that each level.  However, there are games out there where you don’t have classes, and race isn’t always obvious.  This works in Vampire Games, Werewolf, Changeling, Probably Mage and I daresay any other games where experience points are applied to specific abilities, attributes or powers rather than level.

NOTE – This approach is possible in a Dungeons & Dragons game up to a point, if you create a character first before ever looking at a character sheet.  However that does not seem to be the norm.

I started thinking about the start of games where the character doesn’t know what they are, or what they can do and I started thinking about a collaboration between player and Games Master, adding to the element of mystery, discovery and understanding of abilities.  I will use Vampire: the Dark Ages as an example as it is the one I am most familiar with.

In this game, players create a character by choosing a nature and demeanor (to describe who they are and how they present themselves, which I feel is better than the DnD alignment system), and then they build their character sheet based on a point allocation system.  So, every character has three sets of Attributes (Physical, Mental, Social) each with three different sub attributes in them.  Each one gets one point free.  Then they choose which is primary, secondary and tertiary.  In their primary stat, they get 7 dots to allocate between the three sub attributes, in the secondary priority they get 5 and in tertiary they get 3.

Then they look at abilities which is split into talents (things that are natural), skills (Things that are trained) , and knowledges (Things that are learned).  Players choose a primary, secondary and tertiary again, which equates to 13, 9 and 5 respectively.  They start with no free points, and players should allocate priority based on the things the character they have designed would have the most of.  The character gets 5 background points, 7 virtues and 4 points in disciplines.  Aside from disciplines, which are predicated by the clan chosen, everything else is universal to characters created in Vampire: The Dark Ages.  I am not going to go into disciplines, Virtues or Backgrounds at this point.  Disciplines, will be touched on later but Virtues and Backgrounds are not necessary for this example.  So, the player decides on a character they want to play and allocates attributes and abilities, chooses a nature and demeanour and gives a brief outline of who their character is and what their goal is in life.

They then have 15 freebie Points to spend bolstering areas that they want to improve.  And they can take up to 7 points of “Flaws”.  Flaws are things that hamper a character.  Such as a wound that opens leaking blood every time they wake up, a phobia, or even an enemy.  And, normally, historically, players choose all of these themselves.  However after Barry’s comment I started thinking, “What if in a game where players start off at the moment of embrace, what if they didn’t choose their clan and they didn’t choose their flaws, and what if they didn’t spend all their freebie points?”

So, I came up with the idea.  A player creates the human, but doesn’t choose their clan or disciplines.  They get 10 freebie points to spend boosting their stuff.  They take no flaws (unless they really want one specific one).  Then they give the flaws and remaining freebie points to the GM to allocate in ways that are balanced and appropriate.  As a GM I would look at what sort of person the character is, what their skills are and what their personality is and I would try and give a clan based on that, allocating merits to enhance what they are good at, whilst giving story appropriate flaws.  So, if the character did something awful in a church/graveyard, or was even created in one such place I may give them the flaw “Repelled by Crosses”.  If the player told me that the character nearly drowned as child then maybe they get the flaw “Can’t cross running water”.

I wouldn’t max out the flaws, but the players would get maximum benefit – basically give the players a bit of a bonus on the flaw to freebie point exchange rate.  Normally it is one for one.  I’d probably give 5 points flaws for 7 freebie points as the player is trusting the GM, and they are at a slight disadvantage (technically) early on until they learn all their abilities.  So, the player has one sheet, absent flaws, probably absent merits (they are the opposite of flaws, such as “Darksight” or “Literate”, both of which my character, Ethan has) and there are probably three rows for the disciplines, but with only 4 dots allocated to those rows, but they aren’t named.  The GM has a copy with everything.  And then the game starts.

There are a number of caveats to doing this.  The players must consent, fully understanding what they are agreeing to prior to doing this.  If the players consent to this, the GM must put things in the story that will give the players opportunity to spontaneously trigger their abilities.  I think it would also be a good idea to let the players have a look at the flaws to see if there are any they definitely don’t want.  And they can always ask for a merit that suits their character, perhaps something about their physical body or their social ability or mental aptitude.  So for instance, if the player chose their starting character to be a Monk, they could rightly request the merit literate.  But then the GM has to decide about flaws for a monk turned vampire.  Are they so devout, their own faith makes them ill when they step on sanctified ground?  Or, do they accept their new condition as God’s will and become a wielder of True Faith?  The choice there comes from the sort of game the player wants to play and the character they created.

I would say this is probably not something to try lightly, the players do need to trust that their GM is not going to take advantage to “Win”, and the GM needs to be worthy of that trust.  However, one of the most appealing things about roleplay games is discovery.  This often equates to uncovering hidden truths to solve puzzles and problems in the game, but it can also mean self discovery.  For a game like Vampire, I think it also adds to the realism of the game whilst also reinforcing right from game one the overarching theme that things are unfair in the World of Darkness.  As a fledgling vampire, you are easily a match for most mortals.  However, without knowledge of all the things you are capable of there are plenty of dangers in the dark.  So, not only do we get discovery and realism, we also add to a bit of the tension.

UPDATE – How it worked

So that was the idea.  I revised it so that for every point the player allowed me to allocate, I allocated 1.5 back.  For trusting me with their disciplines I gave one rank of a power free.  Barry created a character, a Monk who was obsessed with death and the occult.  (There is a full character history justifying this, including a woman who was apparently dead waking up just before his character buried her…)  All of his thoughts were written in a grimoire, which he told me he wanted to be part of the game so I adapted a background to meet that need.  I then thought about clans.  A death obsessed monk character screamed Cappadocian Clan of Vampires, but that felt too obvious.  Malkavian Vampire was also a possibility, as was Lasombra (these are all different bloodlines), however I decided that Nosferatu would be the clan of choice for a number of reasons.  I personally think they are interesting and fun to play, and I know that Barry likes to go for the non obvious choices.  I discussed with him if he wanted to veto any clan, he said no and Nosferatu it was.  (This did require me to move some points around as Nosferatu do not have an Appearance stat – they are monstrous).  I gave him 3 ranks in Potence (Super strength) and 2 ranks in Obfuscate (The ability to pass unnoticed).  I then didn’t tell him what he had, nor that he was starting game looking like a monster.  I added a couple of flaws and a merit, and boosted a couple of abilities he was good at and that was that.  Game started.

In the first game he triggered obfuscate quite by accident by telling me he was trying to be sneaky, keeping to the shadows and trying to be unnoticed.  That was enough to trigger both powers but he didn’t realise he had done this.  It wasn’t until game 5 or 6 when he had spoken to older vampires and learned of his abilities that he was able to test what he could do.  He now runs around invisibly like a pro.

He discovered he had super strength when he strike a viking warrior in the face with a jug  (it was full of blood, though he thought it was full of wine).  The jug smashed in the face of the warrior and he was flung across a clearing.  That was how he learned he had super strength.  He didn’t learn he was monstrous until someone told him to look in a puddle at his reflection.  This freaked the character out which was fun, however it also led to a few interesting conversations where the character was treated as a spy (Nosferatu are often spies – they are good at it), but the character had no clue what was going on.  It was a lot of fun!

If you find a way to create characters in your game where they don’t know all of their abilities before game start, and a group of players that can make it work, then I seriously urge you to give it a try!

All the best!

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4 thoughts on “The Games Master’s Toolkit – Using Character Creation in RPG to ramp up suspense

    1. Some yes, and some more planned. I am using elements of your combination discipline guide (The Mytherica/Daimonian Stuff and Fog Stuff) in the game, and will be using elements of Analects of the Third Garden as fragments to be found in the world. I also drew some inspiration from your Occult Tome freebie you shared (The game I mentioned here centres on the character’s grimoire and his quest to add to it). I loved clanbook Chupacabra and am going to use that in some form too. I am tempted to use the Bad Blood story as a plug and play, and quite probably the Curse Pole jumpstart. Some of the stuff I have read doesn’t really fit, but there is plenty that does and it is just a matter of working it in. Why do you ask?

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