Progressive Character Generation (PCG)

edited February 2015 in Story Games
In books and movies, it’s rare to know the entire history of a character before the actual plot begins. In fact, in many books and movies, the only backstory you ever get occurs in flashbacks, after you’re familiar with the character on a more pedestrian level.

It’s all well and good to expect the Players to create the important aspects of their own characters’ pasts, but it’s entirely another thing to put them on the spot, forcing them to marry themselves to a character concept they haven’t even spent any time playing yet.

In a game with Progressive Character Generation, or PCG, the Players “wear” their characters for a while before determining a lot of details about their history, psychology or values. In the early days of a character’s career it will be easier and more fitting to produce this sort of content, but no one follows a perfectly straight line in life, and everyone is multi-faceted. Learning a whole new angle on someone? Happens all the time.

Traditional fiction writers are able to go back and forth while writing, adding backstory and exposition to early chapters later, as it occurs to them. GMs should try to make their Players' jobs less difficult than that of the professional writer, not more difficult. This is why my approach to running "DayTrippers" includes PCG as a play technique, and if a Character Development Scene (flashback or whatever) is used to connect a character's background to their current situation, I reward it mechanically with XP.

The PCG approach gives the Player time to think about their character and see them in action a bit before committing to details that may or may not turn out to be important or useful. Instead, the Player learns about their own character just as we do when we're reading a book or watching a movie - or when we're writing one. In addition, if rewarded mechanically, it gives the Player an opportunity in every session to link their character's backstory to the current plot, as commonly seen in well-written stories and filmed entertainments.

Let's talk about all that.


  • This is a specific example of what used to be called design-in-play.

    The biggest example of this type of character generation is EPICS, in which you don't put anything on your sheet except the basics, then spend resources in order to develop the character's capabilities when in a crisis (or obtain them by establishing character weaknesses in the same crisis.)

    Universalis has a similar approach.

    Ummm, let's see. I prefer in Fate to just have a basic, short set of Aspects and then add more as we go.

    With Great Power can be handled this way; you pull the immediately relevant stuff off a description of your character that is constantly being expanded. But you can also write 40 pages before play starts if you want.
  • The Apocalypse World engine's "ask questions" thing is largely about this. There's no mechanical reward for it though—might be interesting design space to explore, but then again, it also might be too much of a "breadcrumb trail".
  • Leverage did this, as I recall. You could use The Recruitment Job to get a game up and running, figuring out characters as you go along. I think Fate has this option, too?

    The weakness, of course, is that you can run into "how come you didn't use that skill earlier?" moments, and it doesn't work so well if you want to have a game where character mechanics synergize, but I think it's a great style to do.
  • edited February 2015
    Hm, might be an interesting exercise; start with a blank character. Whenever they succeed at a challenge, ask them why they succeeded. If the reason reveals a physical, mental, emotional or social characteristics, record it. When they fail at a task, ask them why they failed, and why they attempted that approach in the first place. Record any answers that reveals an aspect of their physical, mental, emotional or social traits.
  • I think this is a sort of Holy Grail of RPGs (although not in the "impossible challenge" sense - it's very much worth pursuing).

    Apocalypse World does this quite nicely, but in a "soft" way, as Deliverator points out.

    There are lots of other games (e.g. A Penny for Your Thoughts) which do this kind of thing very specifically. "Showdown" has a fascinating take on it, as well: you write four Traits for your character, but you won't know until the game is over if they are true or not. (For example, you might say you're a Brilliant Strategist, but in the course of play find out that you're useless, and your success is due to a spy on the other side giving your assistant all of the enemy's plots.)

    I'm thinking of any game where you find out a bit more about a character at each "turn". Almost none of these are traditional GMed RPGs, though, to the best of my knowledge.

    There was a popular version of Fudge called "Fudge on the Fly", and I think it made its way into some version of Fate. That's the only example I can think of right now.

    Here are two thoughts I've had along these lines:

    1. I used to play GURPS, and find the lengthy character generation process quite annoying and pointless (we often had to then re-adjust the characters later in play because something didn't add up).

    I thought it would be interesting, as an experiment, to make character generation into an in-game gambling game:

    * The first time a skill or statistic is needed in play, decide which level you'd like to have. ("I hope I'm an amazing shot. Skill level 16!")

    * Roll; if you roll below your desired skill level, it means you do not have this skill; you're no good at it (and you should write that down). If you roll above it, you have this skill, and can write it down on your character sheet.

    Over time, your character sheet would get filled out. You can go for "safe" skill levels and likely have a lot of skills, or you can gamble and try to have amazing abilities (but probably end up with very few of them).

    2. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you get your last Trait by playing out an accomplishment scene/initiation scene. You say, "I hope I [did something]", and then you play out a conflict. At the end, you write a Trait based on how the scene turned out.

    I always thought it would be great to generate ALL your Traits this way (except that it would probably just take too long for a normal Dogs game). Still, it would be a wonderful way to create characters for that game.

    Here are some other games you might want to check out:

    1. Snowball (a Pool variant, which progresses in reverse chronological order, and has you add a Trait to your character each scene)

    2. Roll for Shoes (you'll find it here on Story Games)

    3. Blackout (also has you add a Trait every scene, but you can lose them in conflicts)
  • I'd like to see more games which deal with this in flashbacks (although I'm sure I've seen a few, can't remember titles right now).
  • I forgot about Snowball, that was a really cool design.
  • I think the key is constructing appropriate fictional scenarios for concept-developing.

    Ideally you want a scene or series of scenes which will:
    - Provide a good sampling of the types of things the characters will likely wind up doing in the game.
    - Be somehow "set off" from the main flow of play such that players can try things out without any "it really happened in this persistent fiction, so now I'm wedded to it" issues.
    - Engage all system bits relevant to the various character options being considered.
    - Inspire the players at least as much as a book full of cool options.
    - Have a clear stopping point and not take forever to get there.

    Personally, I don't think "let's just start playing, and figure out who we are as we go" provides any added value. You can already do that with every game if you want to.
  • Personally, I don't think "let's just start playing, and figure out who we are as we go" provides any added value. You can already do that with every game if you want to.
    I agree, it's not about adding value so much as reducing unvalue.

    The way I'm doing it right now, once per session, each Player may request a Character Development Scene. Some examples:
    Flashback Scene – flashing back to an important lesson or pivotal moment in the character’s life
    Relationship Scene – showing the character in a relationship of some kind, either currently or in the past
    Training Scene – demonstrating some aspect of the character’s training, capabilitiy or personal ethic
    Ah-ha Scene – a sudden realization helps the character to suddenly understand whatever they’re facing

  • edited February 2015
    @Paul_T - total flashback to constant math-re-checking, for me that system was a jumble of BRP-based rules from various Chaosium games :-)

    Oddly enough, Iron Crown games never gave us much trouble. I think PCs in ICE games took longer to create but were less flexible once created, than BRP characters.

    Yeah, Roll for Shoes is one of my favorite systems evarr! I thought of that, but for DayTrippers I wanted something a little less flexible but still pretty loose, allowing (encouraging) surprising character developments to occur within the course of a session.

    @David_Berg your post also reminded me of a Chaosium game (as well as a Holodeck). When I was running SuperWorld back in the day, I lived in a commune arrangement with a bunch of other roleplayers. We decided our superheros' HQ was the actual house we were renting, except that we turned our evil landlady's part of the house into our characters' secret holodeck-slash-martial arts training room. In there my Players would often run through elaborate "downtime" training for the next adventure.

  • It's soft in AW except for the Quarantine, for whom it's hard coded into the Past move. Probably worth a look as a model.
  • edited February 2015
    Whoa. Yeah, @AsIf, if I ever live in a gaming commune, I am totally lobbying for a Dreamatorium.

    Those 4 scene types you listed all sound handy if the goal is to start actual play with vague characters and then gradually flesh out who they already were. That doesn't sound very appealing to me, though -- I'd rather know my guy as well as I can before I start using him to do anything I care about. If meaning and context are desirable in a given game, then every scene I play without them is kind of a waste, to me (unless it's a scene engineered specifically to create meaning and context, which was my proposal).

    So perhaps I'd want to play only Flashback, Relationship, Training and Ah-ha scenes at the get-go.

    On the other hand, if I do come up with all the really important stuff first, and then subsequent special scenes (e.g. your 4 types) just embellish, then I'm totally down with that. I assume that's not what this thread is about, though, right?
  • Well there's a spectrum, of course. FUDGE had an optional rule about starting with a blank character sheet (back in 1992!), and "Just in Time" chardev is part of Persona as well as a common thing in Otherworlds, I'm told. Roll for Shoes is similar - starting with basically a blank character sheet, and you could buy stats, skills, etc as you go along.

    In DayTrippers I'm doing Stats and Skills purchased with Character Points during Build (but ALSO allowing additional CP or XP to be spent on them during play, gametime permitting), that's basically all mechanical; while the "Progressively Generated" stuff is the more "backstory" stuff: relationships, training, childhood, etc - stuff that could conceivably indicate a Skill purchase but more often illuminates past chardev or sets us up for coming chardev in the narrative (rather than mechanical) sense.

  • (Yeah, great call on the Quarantine's move!)
  • I made a pair of short games based heavily on Progressive Character Generation (didn't know this was a thing until now!)

    I implemented it through a list of questions: "What was the most important lesson from your master?" "What makes you different from other people?" etc. Each question you answer, is set and stone, and gives you mechanical benefits each time you "trigger it".

    In this one, the number of questions you could answer was limited per level.

    In this one (being a combat game) is limited per combat.

    Please excuse the typos in this drafts! any feedback on them would be welcomed!
  • I used World of Darkness in this fashion for what was supposed to be a 1-3 session game.
    The players woke up on a hillside near a city, they had no memory and the only choice they made at that point was, "Physical, Mental or Social," for their attributes. That would dictate their best set of attributes and a random item I would start them off with.
    On a nearby whiteboard I had the list of merits and they were versed enough in it to know the skills.
    They described their characters and for the next few sessions they assigned points to skills as and when their characters 'remembered' who they were. By the end of the first session the players guessed what their characters were and started to fill in skills & merits according to their behaviours and the knowledge they now had. The characters never gained their memories. Over time we had seven sessions and a second season which cut along the same time period. The system was simple enough to let this kind of thing happen.
    My only notes to start off with were, "A city of a million people, none of whom remember anything," and, "At night monsters come out and take away unnecessary people." It went down amazingly with the group and will hopefully have a threequel this year combining the survivors from both seasons.
  • So I've thought about this too, but have been unable to get around some challenges.

    - How to make this work without the weird situation of "Oh, it turns out I have lightning reflexes. Why didn't I act differently in that previous situation?"
    - ... without making every character an amnesiac
    - And in a game where PCs often die, and new ones are often introduced mid-adventure

    Ironically, my main reason for looking into such a design is to shorten character creation even more because of the frequency of PC death.
  • edited March 2015
    It's definitely easier to get away with major adds in the early days of a character's career, when we don't know them well yet. But note that many TV shows do skill adds, even with characters who are long-established. A good writer will not only explain what the new capability is and where it came from, but also give a reason why it hasn't appeared before ("I left that life behind - but it keeps trying to drag me back in!"). A bad writer will simply toss it in there without explaining it - that happens too.

    If playing a campaign, there's an innate reason for Players to want their overarching story to make sense. This provides an incentive to be logical about adds. If the add seems major, I ask the Player to explain why we haven't seen it before. They have to come up with something.

    Finally, another option is to rely on the group's judgment. Someone says something that makes you doubt it? Ask the whole group to take a vote.

  • I think my challenge may also lie in the type of adds I was expecting. Not skills, but inherent and fundamental attributes of the charaacter.

    Suddenly your character is very strong, fast or wise, etc.
  • Ah yes. I think when it comes to changing the Stats you need to explain it with a major LifeShaping Event. Then it becomes a case of "unlocking hidden potential" or "mind over matter" etc. Point is, the mechanical shift needs to be fictized.

  • Why? Why not assume that the character has been like that all along, and it just hasn't mattered mechanically u ntil now?
  • It looks like a good functional solution for shortening character creation, I think I'm going to implement it on my next game. Procedure should be somewhat like this:

    -Players create their characters stating 3 concepts, determine their stats and the GM assigns accordingly to the concepts 5 tags and three mechanics to build the character in terms of game mechanics.

    -Once on play, players can further add tags only on the first two game sessions (it can be more if the players agree but it shouldn't be more than 5 sessions), based on their concepts and according to the situation. Only one more tag per concept. It should either make sense or there should be a good excuse of why hasn't the PC used it before. Players can vote or it can be left to the GM, depending on the group playstyle.

    -After the second session (or the amount of sessions chosen), check who added the most tags and how many. Players who haven't added any tags yet get other players to add that amount of tags to their characters (GM can ask the party what do they know -or think they know- about the character in question, giving the player ideas for tags to pick up from) . And that's it. No more new tags are allowed, unless the characters get them by themselves in the game.

    As for why it could work, the truth is that a group never really cares too much about the details of each others characters until these come into play. Probably nobody knows the wizard had that spell until she uses it, except the player. It could probably even be something unexpected for the GM.

    Of course, having this surprise prepared in advance makes this feeling different, but I'm okey if all the preparation for this surprise is that everybody on the table knows that each one has 3 aces up their sleeve for the first couple of sessions, where survivability counts the most and everyone is still getting to know what each other's character can do, even if the fiction may state that they have known each other for years.
  • Why? Why not assume that the character has been like that all along, and it just hasn't mattered mechanically u ntil now?
    That works fine IF it hasn't come into play until now.

  • I've been using this for my recent designs. I've been referring to it as "In Media Res." The character begins as little more than a two-dimensional stereotype, and their details are discovered as play progresses.
  • edited March 2015
    Why? Why not assume that the character has been like that all along, and it just hasn't mattered mechanically u ntil now?
    I should be willing to give it a shot; that's a good point. On paper it seems sketchy to me, but maybe in play it would work just fine.

  • edited March 2015
    I think it really depends on the playstyle.

    It works fine in Apocalypse World, for example.

    If a character takes the "Daredevil" move, there are roughly two possibilities:

    * Hey! This person has been kind of wild and reckless all along. It fits! They just never got a bonus for it before. Adding the move now feels more like a *recognition* of their abilities.

    * Oh! They've never been a daredevil before. This is character growth, a fun character discovery/revelation! The character has grown a spine.

    Character change is fun and excellent (and, according to some, what stories are all about).

    In games where your mechanical details concern fundamental characteristics (like a Strength score in D&D), though, you'd need to establish those scores immediately, the first time they come up, I think (since they affect everything in the game).

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