Gamesmasterclass: assembling the cast

by Chris Cunliffe

Gamesmasterclass: assembling the cast
June 23, 2020 Chris Cunliffe

Continuing our guide for gamesmasters, this month, Chris Cunliffe walks us through creating a party.

At their centre, most roleplaying campaigns are about a story. Some may focus more on the combat mechanics or exploring a particular setting, but the action will generate story. And the most important part of any story are the characters, because without characters there can’t be conflict.

For those games that are heavily focused on combat, this may be simple — just roll some stats and pick a class. The character is just an extension of the player’s will, but even here, where a distinct personality and history aren’t required, there are still some things to consider — such as party balance. A party of bards may make an interesting experiment, but it might not be the most effective (assuming that’s a consideration, of course).

In fact, there are two elements to creating characters that run parallel: character creation, and party creation. You may be familiar with spending a lot of time on the first and the second simply emerges from that. Similarly, many players simply take the book away and return with their character. 

There can be advantages to this approach; you may end up with an organic party, and it keeps some mystery about your character from other players. If you are going to play in a game heavily focused on player versus player conflict, then this may be quite important as you may not want other players to know everything that your character can do. Even without that aspect, some surprise in backstory can make for fun and interesting revelations during the game.

However, I would argue that it is better to start with creation of the party, and then create the characters — reversing the more ‘traditional’ method. I’ve mentioned already the idea that you want to maintain an effective party balance in a more combat-focused game, but this idea of balance in the party extends to more narrative aspects as well. 

From a mechanical perspective, unless you are deliberately running a game aiming to subvert the concept (like the example of an all-bard party mentioned earlier), then you want every character to be able to do different things. Think of the party like being a crew from a heist story: each character has their own niche or expertise that they bring to the team. In fact they’re often hired specifically for that expertise. While a little overlap can be a benefit, the heist analogy is a useful guide.

Players need to ensure that all the necessary roles are fulfilled in the party and that there isn’t too much similarity. Of these, the second is the more important. Normally, missing out on some skills or abilities just means you have to play a little differently; a party without a dedicated healer may need to find other ways to get themselves going after a fight, or one without a hacker may need to hire a non-player character to do some work for them. However, too much overlap inevitably leads to a lack of spotlight for some players, which can be frustrating for them.

‘Spotlight’ (also sometimes referred to as ‘screen time’) means that each character needs to have a chance to contribute to the story. A skilled gamesmaster (GM) can make this work even if there is significant overlap between the characters’ abilities, but it’s much easier if each character has their own niche. The idea is that it doesn’t matter how powerful one character is compared to another if they both get the same amount of spotlight and opportunity to affect the story. 

This is what creates many of the arguments you’ll see about game balance. To take an example from Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), wizards are often considered unbalanced. Why? Is it because they have special powers that others don’t have? Not really, though this feeds into it. Because they can do more damage in a fight? Perhaps, but not entirely. It’s because they can do it all: they can throw out more damage than the fighter, get around traps better than the rogue, and solve problems that nobody else can outside the dungeon as well. Handled badly, they are likely to get far more spotlight than other characters.

Spotlight is important beyond mechanics. It also feeds into the more narrative parts of the wider campaign story and so is important right from character and party creation, because a story-based campaign will consider a character’s background, description, and personality as well as what they can do. It’s all very well having each character have different skills, but if (for example), none of the characters comes from a noble background, that may limit options in how players interact with the story. At the same time, if everybody is a noble, nobody gets a chance to shine during the ball where their refined upbringing really counts.

Again, the second problem is bigger than the first. If you have no nobles, perhaps you must steal invitations and sneak in, which could be a fun story itself — the lack can be worked round. But if everybody can do it, you end up with one or two people leading, and the other players watching. However, if you have a party of a couple of nobles and some servants, that may open out the opportunities for everybody to do their own thing and have an awesome moment — or it may split the party. It depends on your story and play style.

Naturally, sometimes the theme of the game will be at odds with this advice. Perhaps the concept that the group has come up with for the campaign is a bunch of nobles who are trying to make their own way in the world. If so, fair enough — that sounds fun. However, for those aspects that are locked down and constant, you need to find other ways to differentiate. Perhaps the characters come from different nations or cultures, or each has a different attitude to various in-setting issues.

Speaking of attitudes, there are some elements of this that the group should discuss together, because if a player unexpectedly ends up being the only one who would prefer bloodless solutions in a party that otherwise doesn’t care about the body count, that can spoil the fun (of course, some players will love this tension — there are very few hard and fast rules). To return to D&D, a paladin isn’t going to fit into a mostly chaotic evil party. That’s unlikely to be fun for anybody. 

Further to this, ideally, each character will have a reason to want to be in the party, and whilst the GM can be involved in planning this, the responsibility shouldn’t entirely rest there. You should discourage your players from planning a character who doesn’t want to be in the party — at least not without a plan for this to change! It might be fun for a few sessions to be the pirate that is afraid of water and gets seasick, but if they’re always looking for an excuse to leave the crew, that’s going to get old very fast. 

It’s wonderful if these reasons for being in the party involve the other characters; perhaps they are all members of the same family, or old friends that have been together for a long time. Alternatively there is nothing wrong with an external impetus to remain together — perhaps all the characters are criminals being forced to work together to avoid a death sentence. However, each player should be willing to buy into whatever concept the group comes up with, or at the very least have their own reason for sticking with the party, and plan their character accordingly.

Some might call this ‘meta-gaming’ — to design a character or make decisions based on out-of-character considerations. Personally, I feel that meta-gaming, as a concept, is criticised far more than it deserves. There are obviously areas where it can be a problem (such as using information you gleaned from reading a sourcebook that there is no way your character could know), but when it makes for a more enjoyable game for everyone playing, then I’ve never seen the harm. 

Creating a good, well-balanced party is a more important consideration than concerns about individual characters, and doing so doesn’t stop each player from creating an interesting and deep character. However, doing this in reverse may not work; once players have put some effort into creating their character, many are reluctant to change or are disappointed at the need to. So party creation, then, must be a group activity.

Some games insist on this as part of character creation anyway. Spirit of the Century, for example, requires each player to come up with a narrative link (which informs a mechanical choice) to two other characters as part of character creation. I think this is great and it’s one of the best character creation systems I’ve come across. Whilst you don’t necessarily get a coherent party out of it automatically, you at least get characters that know and, hopefully, care about each other.

Other systems don’t and their character creation rules may be so complex that it makes it very difficult to do as a group (Ars Magica and Anima come to mind). There are so many decisions to make, and so many options to look through, that you need several copies of each book, and a lot of time, to try to create characters together. Remember as well that some players may simply prefer to be able to take their time and don’t like the pressure of making character decisions with an audience. This isn’t ideal, but if you recognise that this is the case for one of your players, the worst thing you can do is pressure them into making those decisions anyway. Depending on the game you may need to reschedule after giving them a chance to think about it more, or perhaps hold a solo character creation session for them in which you can act as a proxy for the rest of the group.

However, even if you don’t iron out every detail (such as exact numbers to write on character sheets) it is still worth doing the bulk of the character design work as a group. You can work on game themes and discuss character attitudes and tolerances without needing to read the list of advantages available. Similarly, you can talk about areas of expertise without knowing exactly what level you can afford of each skill in the game. If the characters know each other well, they should have an idea of what they can each do. 

To me, the more you can do together as a group, the better. And as the game goes on, it becomes even more important.

Because character creation doesn’t stop when the campaign starts. Most games involve character progression, and this can (and I think should) also be done as a group. A player doesn’t know what feat to buy? Perhaps the person next to them has an idea that would fit how they’ve started to take their character. They’re not sure which skill to improve? If somebody else has the same quandary, they can pick different things. 

You may also find that a character doesn’t work — best laid plans and all that. Maybe they don’t fit as well as you all thought, or they just aren’t fun when you get to playing. Again, the group can help. Perhaps they can suggest the change that sparks the imagination and makes it fun again, or they can warn the group off an idea that the player thinks will work but might spoil things in a different way. Even if it means changing character completely, it helps to ensure that the new character is somebody they want to hang around with.

And that is really the whole point. Not only does each character need a reason to stay in the party, but there ought to be a reason for the rest of the party to want them around. And that is easier to achieve as a group.