How to Train your Warjack: Avengers! Ensemble!

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Session One of most RPGs is Character Creation. From my experience, 90% of groups approach this as an individual sport, rather than a team one. Players come to the table with an idea formed in their mind about what they want to play – a combination of careers that can do some cool stuff (“I want to be a gun mage/ mage hunter”), or a personality (“I want to play an ex-solidier embittered by the war”, or a (narrative) archetype (“I want to be the heroic leader”)

However, I like to bring my groups down a different path – I like to do character creation with an eye towards creating an ensemble, instead of a collection of characters. I’m not saying that this is the “right” way to do things (RPGs are for each group to create in their own desired image), but I find that this approach leads to better stories (of the type I like to tell) that take best advantage of the RPG medium’s particular quirks.

Disclaimer: To avoid writing “in my opinion” and “in my mind” and a hundred other synonyms throughout the next several articles, please just assume they’re there.

The GM takes on a strong guiding role to character creation in this approach. If nothing else, they present a single rule/theme to players that tells them the parameters of their characters.

“You are all police officers in (the Ravenloft equivalent of) Victorian London”

“You are all dwarves who are brothers”

“You are all officers of the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service”

Sometimes this is enough in itself. In the “Dwarven Brothers” example, those two words are plenty to define the characters, as the group must figure out birth order from the outset, which begins to help define characters with barely any extra effort. Since we were building a D&D party for a dungeon based campaign, we wanted a wizard, a cleric, and a rogue as well as the fighty guys. So it all fell into place very quickly  – the two eldest were the fighter/ranger. The middle children (twins) were the wizard (the weird brother who didn’t fit in) and the cleric (the kinda superfluous brother who got sent off to priest school), while the much-younger-than-the-others-youngest was mother’s darling who got away with all sorts on unDwarven behaviour the rest of us never would – a natural rogue. One sentence of a guideline and a whole group fell together with an inbuilt dynamic. And it’s been fantastic.

That inbuilt dynamic is the best reason to try to build as an ensemble. Often, a party of independently built characters lacks cohesion – they lack an answer to the question “why are we all working together on this?” Personally, I’m (generally) not a fan of the (often popular) character who is the outcast who really doesn’t fit in or who works against the party in some way. An ensemble guideline helps put everyone on the same page with regard to their general goals.

Another advantage to this kind of approach is that it often involves a command structure. Not always a formal one like a Merc company with its captain or the coppers with the chain of command – but it tends to suggest a leader and specific roles within the group beyond the mechanics of the careers and archetypes involved. It is, by nature, slightly restrictive, but restrictions are the soul of creativity. To paraphrase Alan Moore, I like to put straightjackets on my players and watch as they perform a narrative Houdini act and create some magic.
Writing all the characters as part of a given group also places the notion of the “personality of the group” in the players’ minds. This is where the narrative dynamite can come from. For my current IKRPG game, I decided to go for the simple “Merc company” approach, so that I as a GM had the freedom to do all sorts of stuff as far as antagonists went. But I didn’t want a “collection of people who fight for money” merc company, especially since we were looking at a whopping seven players. So I asked the players to come up with some ideas for companies/captains and then we chose which one we liked best.

This is the one that jumped out (the others, which were awesome, now live in my “NPC” file, and will in no way come back to bite their creators in their posteriors, oh no.)

It’s been a long time since the Right Honourable Men of Merin actually set foot on Ordic soil, but being put on the Royal Charter of the Unwelcome will have that effect. True Ordic men one and all, the Right Honourable are proficient sailors, fighters, conmen and drinkers, and there’s not a job in all of Immoren too big, nor too dangerous for them. Need a Desert Hydra’s head to mount over your bar? A rogue Khard, fancying himself a Horselord, knocked down a peg or two, or even six foot below the lowest peg you can find? Need someone to slip a love letter under the pillow of Leto’s wife? Jannyth Carhannon and The Right Honourable Men of Merin can get it done, don’t you worry about that

That little blurb evoked an immediate image of the company for me. It had shades of the A-Team, shades of the Gentlemen Bastards, shades of Leverage. Also, I loved the way “Right Honourable” sounds when said out loud in a slightly cockney accent. And it gave the ensemble a centrepoint – Jannyth Carhannon.

And so became the ensemble-building process. The group wasn’t building their characters, so much as building the “inner circle” of the Right Honourable Men, which led to the emergence of a number of things that I love about this group.

The first axiom to emerge was that each member of the inner circle was fiercely loyal to Jannyth. Which of course led to the question of “Why?” One of the players then suggested that his character was loyal due to Jannyth saving his life – another had the same idea at the same time. Then we all asked “what if the “requirement” for being in the inner circle was that Jannyth had in some way saved you from something?” He lets you onto the big kids table not when you prove yourself, but when he knows you’re loyal. This gave every character a little story to tell – what did Jannyth do to earn your loyalty? How did he save you? What did he save you from?
This also added a slightly darker layer to things in my mind, as I now wonder if Jannyth is a cold, calculating bastard who saves people that are useful, or if he’s a white hat hero who just tends to save people. (I honestly don’t know the answer to that, that’s up to the player. GM’s need some mystery too).

And the best bit (for a narrative minded gent like myself) was that it suggested a core theme for the game – loyalty. Any good story has some core themes that the protagonists are involved in advancing, and the ensemble approach really adds to that. It’s hard to unify a group in terms of theme and tone when they’re  a bunch of people who happen to work together. Not so when they’ve built a group together. Themes naturally emerge that work for every character at once.

As a final metaphor, think about superhero team books. The most enduring and consistently good ones are ones like the X-Men or Green Lantern Corps, who were built as a team, with a unifying theme. By contrast, I find that Avengers books and JLA books are very hit and miss, because the core idea behind them was “lets put all the big names in one place”. The characters were never written to interact, so it’s often jarring. But the X-Men is always going to be about a marginalized group fighting for acceptance. The GLC is always going to be about Space Cops being Space Cops. Fantastic Four is always going to be about family and exploration.

I_Avian

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