[Death Takes a Holiday] Help me see if character creation actually works

edited April 2011 in Game Design Help
Inspired by an entry in the Choose a Photo, Pitch your Game thread, I'm working on writing a roleplaying game, wherein you play Death's substitutes while he is on vacation. It's like Dead Like Me, but with the aesthetic style of the Professor Layton games or The Triplets of Belleville. I want some other people to try out the character creation rules to see if they work for anyone other than me. I'm wondering how much variety you can get out of the initial seed content, and whether the initial statements are effective for creating new characters. So if you could help me out a bit, try the process and provide some feedback, then that would be great.


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You play one of the Boxmullers, a family of distant relatives, who died in a boat crash en route to Perdido Island. Instead of passing on to the afterlife, though, your characters are offered a deal by the Grim Reaper Himself. Death is tired, and would desperately like to take a vacation from His job. If you'll cover for Him while He is away, Death will let you live. We'll assume you took the deal (this isn't Traveller or anything.) So now the Boxmullers will act as substitute Reapers for Perdido Island while Death is away.

Each of your characters is made by going down a list of statements, and responding to each with a specific response. Each statement needs a response, and each response can only be used once. Several responses ("Yes and…", "Yes, but…", "No and…", and "No, but…") just list the start of a statement. You'll need to fill in additional detail after these. "But only if…" means that another player gets to suggest a detail there, which you can accept as true or reject the entire statement. "That's a funny story actually" means that it will be a plotline developed in play. "Let's try that a different way" means that the basic idea is true, but the specific details are different.



Your starting Boxmuller:
  • has been granted the ability to know how someone will die, just by looking at them
  • has been granted the ability to see spirits and ghosts
  • has fond childhood memories of vacationing on Perdido Island
  • has few ties back to the mainland
  • has difficulty expressing their emotions
  • cares deeply about the Boxmuller to their left
  • did something shameful in their past that they now wish to hide


Responses:
  • “Yes, and...”
  • “Yes, but...”
  • “But only if...”
  • “No, but...”
  • “No, and...”
  • “That’s a funny story actually...”
  • “Let's try that a different way.”

Comments

  • edited April 2011
    OK, let's try this...

    Francois Boxmuller...
    ◦has been granted the ability to know how someone will die, just by looking at them.
    No, and he is actually very short sighted, so he can't recognise anyone by sight alone.

    ◦has been granted the ability to see spirits and ghosts
    Yes, and the dead are the only things he can see clearly.

    ◦has fond childhood memories of vacationing on Perdido Island
    No, but he did get into trouble with the Law here in his youth.

    ◦has few ties back to the mainland
    That's a funny story actually, because the police are after him on the mainland as well...

    ◦has difficulty expressing their emotions
    Yes, but he has no trouble expressing his anger.

    ◦cares deeply about the Boxmuller to their left
    But only if...

    ◦did something shameful in their past that they now wish to hide
    Let's try that a different way: it's no secret that Francois is the black sheep of the family and his cousins often have to cover up for indiscretions that he is not even aware of committing!

    Right... the first thing that occurs to me is that your responses to some statements will constrain how you respond to others, e.g. in my first response, I made Francois short-sighted, then realised how that might constrain my response to the second statement. How do you envisage character creation taking place? Should players start with one statement, respond to it, then go on to the next one, in whatever order? Or should they look at both lists silmultaneously and start matching up statements to responses? Maybe a chart, with the statements on one side and the responses on the other, with the player drawing lines between them? (Yes, like in "It's Complicated")

    With That's a funny story actually, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to provide further details or not; is it meant to be a storyline that is only developed in play, or am I meant to seed it when I create my character?

    Let's try that a different way is much easier to match to some statements than others and I can see a lot more GM guidance being required on the subject; for instance, if I matched it to has few ties back to the mainland, what does it mean if the basic idea is true, but the specific details are different? The statement looks like a basic idea with no specific details, so I'm not sure what is supposed to be 'different'.

    How much 'impact' and 'steering' do I have the right to when creating my character? Can I make declarations that involve the other PCs, as when I responded that the rest of the family have to cover up for Francois all the time, who is oblivious to the harm he causes? Can I create a future plot line for my PC right now, as with all the responses relatinbg to his shady past?

    I like this way of creating characters, its quite novel and it provokes interesting responses, but what was the thinking behind the statements given? For instance, I find has difficulty expressing their emotions to be an interesting choice for one of only seven questions you get to answer; with such a limited range, why have these particular statements been chosen? With every PC having an answer of some kind to all of them, what do they drive the game towards?

    I really want to see more of this!
  • Are the same phrases actually used in the game later? If so, this is a very neat example of the pedagogy of play. I like.
  • Posted By: WilhelmAre the same phrases actually used in the game later? If so, this is a very neat example of the pedagogy of play. I like.
    The responses are the sum total of the system, really. Everything works by modifying statements either made by the text or by other players.

    It is indeed an attempt to make character creation into a tutorial for the rest of the game.
  • James: Thank you. Your example character and feedback are very useful. I had a long response explaining my thinking and answering each question individually, but it got eaten by the website. I'll try to write it up again if I get the chance. Until then, the gist of it is "Knowing that you have these questions helps tell me what issues need clearly addressed in the text".
  • edited April 2011
    Well, my go at it. I assigned the responses randomly, which made for some difficult parsing, particularly on the "ties to the mainland question."

    Francesca Boxmuller...

    ...has been granted the ability to know how someone will die, just by looking at them.
    "No, and...is extremely jealous that she has been passed over in getting that ability."

    ...has been granted the ability to see spirits and ghosts.
    “Yes, and...can even communicate with them by hand signals, gestures, and body language."

    ...has fond childhood memories of vacationing on Perdido Island
    “No, but...quite fond memories of the last few trips she's taken there as an adult."

    ...has few ties back to the mainland.
    “But only if...they contact her first will she talk with them."

    ...has difficulty expressing their emotions.
    “Let's try that a different way. She doesn't talk much about her feelings, but her body language usually does the talking."

    ...cares deeply about the Boxmuller to their left.
    “Yes, but...is still upset by the way he backstabbed her many years ago."

    ...did something shameful in their past that they now wish to hide.
    “That’s a funny story actually...It was the night of Ralphael’s wedding, and Francesca had a bit too much to drink. One thing led to another, and she left with Mason, the village mason with the idea to go back to his workshop for a little tomfoolery. Unfortunately, he has a bit drunk, too, and a few wrong left turns led them to the fish hatchery. Well, their instincts of a most basic nature took over while walking in the night along the catwalks between hatching pods..and they fell in to the sea bass younglings pod. And well, you'd think that a slimy pod over-filled with fish would've stopped them. But it didn't."
  • Posted By: James MullenRight… the first thing that occurs to me is that your responses to some statements will constrain how you respond to others, e.g. in my first response, I made Francois short-sighted, then realised how that might constrain my response to the second statement. How do you envisage character creation taking place? Should players start with one statement, respond to it, then go on to the next one, in whatever order? Or should they look at both lists silmultaneously and start matching up statements to responses? Maybe a chart, with the statements on one side and the responses on the other, with the player drawing lines between them? (Yes, like in "It's Complicated")
    The dwindling of options as you progress is deliberate, as it forces you to make new choices that you might not have chosen otherwise. But I expect the players to read over both lists, then proceed from there in whatever way seems most appropriate to them personally. As long as they are aware of the consequences of their decisions, they can respond however they choose. Maybe even go back and change their previous answers as they realize how something will be changed by their choices.
    With That's a funny story actually, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to provide further details or not; is it meant to be a storyline that isonly developed in play, or am I meant to seed it when I create my character?
    I'm still working on what the best practices are for this sort of thing, but I think it's a good idea to give a single sentence of why the statement is more complicated than it seems at first. Then it will get further developed as its own storyline in play.
    Let's try that a different way is much easier to match to some statements than others and I can see a lot more GM guidance being required on the subject; for instance, if I matched it to has few ties back to the mainland, what does it mean if the basic idea is true, but the specific details are different? The statement looks like a basic idea with no specific details, so I'm not sure what is supposed to be 'different'.
    Some responses will be easier to apply to some statements to others. And sometimes what seems obvious to one player won't be apparent at all to another one. I can think of several ways to apply that response to that statement, for example. (It does seem like I'd need to give some additional guidance on "Try it a different way", as well as "But only if" and "that's a funny story".)
    How much 'impact' and 'steering' do I have the right to when creating my character? Can I make declarations that involve the other PCs, as when I responded that the rest of the family have to cover up for Francois all the time, who is oblivious to the harm he causes? Can I create a future plot line for my PC right now, as with all the responses relating to his shady past?
    In general, if the narrative addition only affects your PC, then you're fine. If you're involving another PC, then you need to talk with the other player and get his/her permission. So you might want to discuss an option like this with other players. If they accept the idea, then cool. If not, you might find a way to do the idea without impacting other PCs (make up an NPC who does or did the same basic thing), or abandon that plan and come up with something else.
    I like this way of creating characters, its quite novel and it provokes interesting responses, but what was the thinking behind the statements given? For instance, I find has difficulty expressing their emotions to be an interesting choice for one of only seven questions you get to answer; with such a limited range, why have these particular statements been chosen? With every PC having an answer of some kind to all of them, what do they drive the game towards?
    The first couple statements are to tie the PCs into the basic premise and setting of the game. The last couple are to make the feelings and internal life of the characters relevant, or at least make a player think about how the PC feels about their new life as a Reaper. I'm still uncertain if any of these statements are fulfilling their job (hence the thread). But this is all giving me useful info to think about.
  • Jolly Good!

    A subsidiary thought I had while looking over the thread so far was to do with the 'polarity' of the statements and responses: there are 7 of each, but of the statements, 3 seem positive, 3 seem negative and one is neutral, like so:

    +has been granted the ability to know how someone will die, just by looking at them
    +has been granted the ability to see spirits and ghosts
    +has fond childhood memories of vacationing on Perdido Island

    -has few ties back to the mainland
    -has difficulty expressing their emotions
    -did something shameful in their past that they now wish to hide

    cares deeply about the Boxmuller to their left

    The responses consist of 2 positives, 2 negatives and 3 neutrals:

    +Yes, and...
    +Yes, but...

    -No, but...
    -No, and...

    But only if...
    That’s a funny story actually...
    Let's try that a different way.

    So, it is actually impossible to confirm all the positive statements and deny all the negative statements about your character, which is good and rather clever, but also creates situations where some characters are very capable and unhindered (because they matched polarities like to like) whilst some lack advantages and are weighed down with problems (because they matched polarities unlike to unlike). I might ask, if I was suitably munchkinly, what's my incentive to use negative responses on positive statements and vice versa?
  • I don't know yet if that is a problem that needs solving. But if it is, I might just change each statement to be of a positive bent by its nature (or each being negative by nature, not sure). Then everyone can accept a few positive statements, but must negate one or two statements and make them negative. How they negate such things would be a matter beyond my control, though, so there will always be some potential imbalances. I still don't know if potential imbalances are a major problem, though.
  • I think this is a great idea! There are dozens of Boxmullers orbiting the stereotype, but none of them ever collide with it.

    Richard "Joey" Boxmuller...

    ...has been granted the ability to know how someone will die, just by looking at them.
    "YES BUT ... he's also looked in a mirror."

    ...has been granted the ability to see spirits and ghosts.
    “BUT ONLY IF ... he wears his grandfather's thick glasses."

    ...has fond childhood memories of vacationing on Perdido Island
    “YES AND ... he has a cubby house hidden somewhere on it."

    ...has few ties back to the mainland.
    “NO BUT ... the many ties he has are all criminals."

    ...has difficulty expressing their emotions.
    “NO AND ... he often expresses them too emphatically."

    ...cares deeply about the Boxmuller to their left.
    “LET'S TRY THAT A DIFFERENT WAY ... he hates their guts."

    ...did something shameful in their past that they now wish to hide.
    “THAT'S A FUNNY STORY, ACTUALLY"
  • Check out the completed version, if you're curious what this was building up to.
  • This looks quite interesting! And I dig the cover. I'm going to print out a copy and read it tonight instead of the household chores I should be doing normally. Dishes can wait!
  • Awesome. Let me know if you like it.
  • Posted By: Mr. TeapotAwesome. Let me know if you like it.
    Oh, this scratched sooooo many itches. It is, in a way, everything I wanted to make my old Quite, Indubitably so-called attempt at a parlor game from last year, but so much more. I like the way everything is handled with the seven responses, and how they refresh.
    A few notes/questions/comments:
    While there were a few typos in the document (and an instance of what looks like missing text at the end of the third paragraph on page 15), it was easy and entertaining to read. Major issue though would be the story sheets for Perdido Island and the Bone Orchard, which seem to have many of their statements erroneously meshed together (the Bone Orchard is fundamentally a modern American city? Perdido Island is made of bones and skeletons?).

    When it comes to detailing NPCs, I'm assuming, like with anything else, when someone describes them and someone else uses a response, that detail and response would then be added to the story sheet for the character, yeah? Would we be whipping out a story sheet for every NPC that pops up? Or just the ones where details end up getting added? I think it might help if there had been an example how that works, like there was for character creation and running the game.

    And to end with more praise, I love how you incorporated the vintage imagery into this game. While visually pretty busy, it feels like it fits just right.

    In any case, I want to run this at the soonest opportunity. Maybe I can sucker some of my gaming buddies to give it a run through before our main game next Monday. I'm thinking of making some tables to allow random creation of Death Postcards. I'm also thinking that this would make a great start for a Monty Python-esque storytelling game.
  • I'm glad that you liked it. I'll have to do another read-through to catch typos and fix those mistakes.


    For detailing NPCs: I was thinking that any NPC who becomes important gets a sheet. Minor characters that you briefly deal with but don't get a name or much personality don't need a sheet. But once people become interested in them or start making declarations about facts of a character, you make a sheet to keep track of everything.

    If you do play the game, please let me know how it goes.
  • Posted By: Mr. TeapotI was thinking that any NPC who becomes important gets a sheet. Minor characters that you briefly deal with but don't get a name or much personality don't need a sheet. But once people become interested in them or start making declarations about facts of a character, you make a sheet to keep track of everything.
    That makes sense. Kinda what I was thinking, but just needed to be sure.
    But yeah, if I get a chance to play this, I will definitely write out an AP report. If I can't get some of my regular group to try it, I'll bring it along to the next west-side GoPlay PDX meetup, and try to grab some volunteers there. Consider me the Mort to your Death (...without the whole stealing your daughter away from you thing...)
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