Tales from the Gazebo – Character Creation Session Dictators and Democracy

Character Creation Session Dictators and Democracy
By Cape Rust

Now that we have dealt with the Character Creation Session (CCS) haters, it is time to prepare and execute the actual CCS. Depending on your game creation process, a majority of your planning for the CCS might already be done. However, if you have not been keeping notes or are just really tired of preparing for a game and want to get started, here are a few tips and suggestions to prepare for and execute the CCS.

I have found the most success when I decide if I want to be democratic or a dictator. There are other options, but these two seem to work the best. As you can guess, not only are there several other options, but there are several subsets within these two categories. Let’s start with the dictator. To put it bluntly, what I say goes. If I say you get X amount of points to build your character, that’s exactly what you get. If I say you can only play one of 3 races, then there are your three choices. This approach, while harsh sounding, actually works well with large groups, gaming groups full of players that can never make up their minds, and if you have a storyline that might require specific conditions (races, classes or archetypes). It would be hard to play a Reaver in a Serenity game. The dictator method allows for more control on the GM’s part. Fewer races and a unified point buy can help to create a sense of character equality, which is important to some players.

The dictator approach has the added effect of taking away a few of the variables that players always introduce. If all of your characters are humans then, as a GM, you don’t have to worry about one of your players getting a wild hair up their 4th point of contact and deciding to play an elf who’s lands were destroyed by humans, mother was raped by a human, and father was killed by those very same humans. You can see where this character concept would not work well if all of the other players were playing humans. There is a good chance that the person playing the angry emo elf would like to make his character’s only goal in life to kill as many humans as possible. Sure, there are some great plot hooks and room for some great gaming fun, but how long, realistically, would that character or even that game last without a huge suspension of disbelief?

The drawbacks to the dictator method are numerous. Most players want options and gone are the days when tyrannical GMs hid behind their screens with their only goal being the total party kill, or TPK. Yes, there are still GMs like that out there, but most players will get out of that group as soon as they can. If you have a group of players who want to play those “special” characters (and when I say special, I’m not talking little wagon/starship special), your dictator method will get overthrown really quickly. The dictator method reeks of railroadism, and when I run into the strict dictators, that is always my first fear. The Dictator method tends to facilitate roll players rather than role players. By keeping all of the players on a narrow path, I have often seen stat monkeys and power gamers flourish in this environment. The major drawback comes from the fact that those two categories compose a small percentage of gamers.

Power to the player! Rejoice, oh lowly player! I, the duly elected GM, am here to give you choice and options! Democracy at its finest! I like to think of myself as a player-centric GM (Wait… don’t most dictators think they are doing what is best for the people?) and as such, I try to do as much as I can to make games fun.

Predictably, I lean towards the democracy method for the flexibility it gives the players and challenges it confronts me, the GM, with. I figure that no matter what I plan for, my players will always do the exact opposite, so why worry? Now, even though I’m advocating democracy, I am opposed to anarchy. You have to find that fine line between the two to create controlled coolness. When I run a CCS, I like to ask each of the players what type of game they want to play. I ask if they are interested in a high or low starting level and I ask if they want a higher amount of character point buys. Even if I end up choosing a few of the rules, the players still have a say in the game and most of all, you help to create player buy-in. In the early stages of any game, player buy-in is important!

I treat the CCS and the options I gave my players the same way I do with most choices: limit the choices, but still give options. Sure, there is risk involved, but if you have done your preparation and if you know your characters, the risk factor is greatly decreased. Another way to democratically run the CCS is to give all players their choice (with GM approval) and have them roll to see who gets their way. You can have each player roll a percentile or even a D20. The highest roll wins and if you have a player who always rolls low, change things up to let them get their way every now and then. The players might not get exactly what they want, but they get to throw polys and the addition of a game of chance is always interesting.

The democratic method allows the GM to reward players who have filled out questionnaires or character histories. Sure, the slackers might complain, but then again, they might think twice about actually doing a bit of homework before the next game if the GM asks nicely. Some characters might come out of this process slightly more powerful than the rest of the characters, but hard work should be rewarded.

I have just touched on CCS concepts and a few of their subsets. In the end, how you run your CCS should be dictated by your players’ wants and needs, and realistic perimeters that they can live with. GMs have to remember that whatever they let their players do during CCS will affect the game. Whichever method you decide to use, plan it out, and always keep fun in mind. I always harp on players having fun, but if the GM (like momma) isn’t happy, then no one is happy. Find your sweet spot, have fun, and create cool!

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