Progressive Character Generation (PCG)

Tod's picture

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.

Aik's picture

Yes please. My big ideas for character backstory happen between sessions, and I end up with a big headcanon of who they are that doesn't get a good chance to enter the fiction. In a just-started game of Spire I'm in, my character has apparently known another player's character for a long time and I'm concerned we might end up on different pages with our character's shared past. I guess there's a good argument for not pinning things down so it can stay flexible, but equally, what my character does is going to be driven by my headcanon of why they are the way they are.

Besides flashbacks, the only relevant mechanic I've seen that I can think of is The Pool's 'add 15 words to your character's story after every session' mechanic - though I don't think I've ever used it to flesh out backstory stuff that wasn't already introduced within the game.

Neurotrash's picture

First, if someone hasn't read this, it's a blog post that I've seen making the rounds lately and covers the same topic.

But yeah, I think this is a great idea and the game I'm working on right now is going to incorporate it. Right now I'm basing characters around a few basic questions, only one of which has to be answered before play begins (the player chooses which).

I'm the best at...
People think I am...
I come from...
I always...
I never...
I know all about...

The answers can give characters bonuses to rolls where those answers apply. As characters come up against obstacles and aspects of the world, they'd be able to define their relationship to those things through their answers and even introduce aspects to the setting based on their answers. Very improv and no-myth.

I feel like having the GM be able to go no-prep and make things up about the world on the fly and ask for player input has been a thing for a while now in lots of games (PbtA, and others) but I don't know of any actual games that don't expect the players to define all their abilities and overall concept before play begins.

I'm very intrigued about where this discussion goes...

Tod's picture

I don't know of any actual games that don't expect the players to define all their abilities and overall concept before play begins.

Well, now you do: DayTrippers does this - or at least advises it. The OP was actually a first draft of what eventually found its way into the GM's Guide. Here is that excerpt...

A DayTrippers character begins the game in a fairly "generic" state. Sure, each PC is individuated by stats and skill choices, but the real character of the character is something we don't know yet. In many cases, not even their Player knows them yet, and that's fine! How well do you know the hero at the beginning of the book? Specific traits can come up at any time in play; no one is forced to create them until it feels appropriate to do so.

Likewise there's no requirement for Players to spend all their Character Points prior to the beginning of play; in fact it's smart to withhold a few and allow for Character Development to progress over the first few adventures.

This solves a perennial problem in roleplaying games: It's all well and good to have Players create the important aspects of their own characters' pasts -- perhaps even neighboring details, like mentors, family and associated characters -- but it's entirely another thing to put them on the spot before play, forcing them to marry themselves to a character concept they haven't even spent any quality time with yet.

We'll get to know this character in their present-day context, from the outside in, the same way we get to know real people. We'll learn more about their past as it is revealed to us.

As the game progresses, ask about "mundane" details, helping Players to imagine their morning routine, walking through their house, hanging with their friends, firing up the SlipShip's engines, etc. Be descriptive and suggestive. Ask what their stuff looks like. Ask what they look like, when they catch themselves reflected in a shop window. Ask what they keep in their bunk onboard, or what mementos they keep in a secret place. Players will soon grow accustomed to describing the parts of the world their characters are familiar with.

Every time you do this, you're helping the Player build "memories" of the fictional world, just like a method actor rehearsing for a role. To the subconscious, a memory is a memory -- they're equally accessible, whether real or imagined, as long as they're connected to other memories. As these memories grow stronger and more detailed, it becomes easier for the Player to enter deeply into the character and identify with their character's world. This will soon lead to ideas for "LifeShaping" events.

Neurotrash's picture


I think this whole method is still vastly under-represented in the hobby as a whole though. I'm sure there are lots of unexplored strategies and mechanics we can come up with to incorporate this philosophy...

Tod's picture

For sure.

TBH, the PCG concept was something that evolved from my fondness for an abstract game idea called "Roll to see if you have shoes," which you can find on S-G. Mechanically, the two approaches have very little in common. But playtesting that system with my group led me to the above conclusions about PCG that I eventually incorporated into the DayTrippers rules.

Arkades's picture

Do you consider Blades' or The Sprawl's flashback system to constitute PCG? Theoretically, there's no backward time limit on the flashback, and it gives mechanical bonuses, though not of the permanent "traditional char gen" variety.

Tod's picture

We're stepping into a possible semantic/ontological area here, because it depends what we take to be part of "character generation" as opposed to simply in-game "character development." For DayTrippers, it was totally my intention to blur that line ("generation vs development"), so personally I'd probably say yes, but I can understand someone wanting to make a distinction between them.

Ultimately, it depends on the experiences - and even the genres - that your game is trying to emulate/enable. DayTrippers wants to create an episodic series of procedural adventures similar to a heroic TV series, and PCG is a logical way to emulate the developmental tropes of that genre. As the OP points out, it's something that happens commonly in TV shows, and even in literary fiction.

Chiarina's picture

HeroQuest Glorantha does it with it´s "Create A Hero As-You-Go" method.
You simply leave blank spaces in your skill slots and fill them if you need them.

You find similar suggestions in Gumshoe systems... You don´t have to distribute all your pool points from start. Put them aside until you know what you need (...or want).

Paul T.'s picture

I think there's a lot of room for interesting ways to do PCG in RPGs (heh). "Fate on the Fly" was a popular published version of this, and there have been a variety of 'indie' games with similar ideas, like Psi*Run or Blackout (your character gained a new trait after every scene).

I brainstormed all kinds of ways to do this in a trad game like GURPS a long time ago. Basic ideas, like "you decide what skill level your character MIGHT have, and then you have to roll OVER it. If you do so, add the skill to your sheet; if you fail, write down that you are unskilled in that area."

Maybe I still have that list somewhere. I don't think any were groundbreaking, but some might definitely be fun. They tried to find interesting ways to balance risk and reward. :)

A lot of popular indie games - starting with The Shadow of Yesterday all the way to PbtA games - and including how Experience works in Dogs in the Vineyard - do this on a smaller scale; yeah, you know who your character is when you start, but only in broad strokes, and you'll never guess where they'll end up, because you'll typically be taking moves and advancements as you need them in the story, whenever you happen to have the XP.

It takes the character concept out of your hands in a lot of fun ways.

There are elements of this in the OSR, too; typically starting characters are pretty blank slate, and develop in play. In my homebrew D&D, you don't even get to choose a class at 1st level: you only do so when you survive to 2nd level.

It's also important to consider the relationship between improv acting ("say yes, and" style) and PCG. Having a PCG method in play enables an improv-like approach to play, allowing you to respond to offers from other players instead of blocking them: "Hey, I heard you fought in the Clone Wars..." "Oh, that's right, I was a pilot once... [scribbles down Piloting skill]"

That can enable very different ways to play.

Nathan H.'s picture

Fudge on the Fly did this traits-as-you-need-em sorta thing.
I'm gonna guess that Fate has an on-the-go option as well, 'cause they were the ones who wrote ...on the Fly.

A backstory is only as good as it's usefulness, to the not-quite-story going on right now.

This kinda thing usually messes with the idea that role-players want something that resembles a story.
Once ya remove the central antagonist(GM/DM) this thing(protagonist as you go) becomes less of a desirable thing.
If success or failure is the sole mover of plot, you just might as well use "yes, and".
Story is more about conciliation prizes than pure wish-fulfillment. If it were just about giving out things without asking for anything in return, it'd be less interesting.

Corvinity's picture

The games I like best (and the ones I'm working on) have changes to the character sheet as an integral part of the mechanics of play. I'd rather have less of the character frontloaded during char-gen and then have mechanics that add, remove, or change traits as part of conflict resolution. Character development is one of my favorite parts of roleplaying, and I've never managed to keep a game going long enough for the kind of long, slow character development that a lot of games seem to assume is going to happen whether they support it with mechanics or not. I'd rather have it be part of the nuts and bolts of every conflict that character change is on the table.

But I know that some people really don't like this, so to each their own.

Paul T.'s picture

The game was never published, but characters had as many traits as the number of scenes they'd been in. Each time a character appeared in another scene, you'd add a trait to them.

In less formal ways, some OSR playstyles do this, too. The character is barely defined at the start, and as experienced accumulate, we learn about them. Depending on how leveling up works, it could be mechanical, too.

DeReel's picture

Inflorenza is a game where you change traits almost every conflict, sacrificing abilities, gaining wounds or loot.
There's a french RPG where you play aliens that gain genes. It's a little unvoluntarily silly the way it's done though.
I fancy a game where you roll for anything, like Roll for shoes, but then you can decide whether you fail because you're bad or because something terrible happenned. (watch out, there are two different sorts of yous in this sentence)
Improvisation is at the heart of RPGs. You're going to invent some things. For this you need to know some others, solid ground to start from. Every arrangement of where you start and what you set to explore is possible.
The important question to me is with whom?

webtech's picture

PCG - Progressive Character Generation

It has become popular in modern RPGs for GMs to accept all sorts of creative input from Players. In many games, even details of worldbuilding - like the town they grew up in or some NPCs they happen to know - have become part of CharDev territory, a place for Players to flex their creative muscles during the character development phase that happens before play. Player-generated content is great when it flows smoothly, but this approach can make the CharGen process even more daunting and drawn-out than it already is. Some people don't improvise that quickly, and for them, the additional creative freedom can feel like a lot of responsibility. For others, getting to know a brand-new character just doesn't come so easily. It takes time.

Well, why wouldn't it, really? How well do you know any hero at the beginning of their book?

It’s all well and good to allow your Players to create 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 spent any time playing yet.

But if we're talking about media emulation, well, it's not uncommon to be several seasons into a TV series before learning something totally new about a character you thought you knew already. These are literary examples of Progressive Character Generation (except fiction writers call it "Character Development").

A good example of a Character Development scene appears in every episode of "Kung Fu". Sometimes these flashbacks allow Caine to overcome a difficulty he is in, by reminding him of something or keeping his energy focused, avoiding negative emotions, etc.

Here's how that might work in a game: The Character finds themselves in a tough situation, the Player has a moment of inspiration about their character's past, and says "I'd like to do a Flashback." The flashback may involve remembering training the character underwent early in life, or reliving the loss of a loved one that set them on the path of adventuring, recalling a life lesson learned or a promise made to a family member, etc. It may add a bonus or pick up a skill that wasn't on the character sheet before. It may give the character an idea for solving their current problem, which can be a neat way of bringing "meta" information into a character's head.

Calling for a Character Development Scene is just a matter of remembering that it's an option. You could do it at any time. The GM would play any NPCs necessary for your scene, but that may not be necessary at all since it's just you making up a flashback, basically.

Mechanically of course, the technique would differ from game to game. If you'd like to experiment with PCG in your own game, here are some of the things you'll want to consider.

  • - Cost of Scene. Does it cost any type of points to do a Character Development Scene?
  • - Limits of Scene. Is there a limit to the number of Character Development scenes you can do?
  • - Value of Scene. Do you get any experience points or bonuses for doing a Character Development scene?
  • - Value of Information. Can a Character Development scene grant you a bonus of any kind? Does it allow you to spend points on stats, skills or gear?

In CORE, the answers are:

  • - Cost: It doesn't cost anything, but does allow you to spend unspent points on skills
  • - Limits: Players are limited to one CharDev scene per session
  • - Scene Value: You can get experience points at the GM's discretion if the scene is used to solve a problem, spark an idea, etc
  • - Mechanical Value: You get a bonus die if the scene is used to provide information that affects a roll

There are other games that make use of the PCG approach. "Otherworld" is one of them. "Roll for Shoes" is nothing but PCG. I've even been told that a variant of the original "FUDGE" rules included an option for beginning play with an entirely blank character sheet! You don't need to go quite that far, but try giving your Players more time to settle into their characters by using a PCG approach. Watching their characters develop both forward and backward in time is a cool experience, and much more dramatic, since these scenes tend to be whipped out in dramatic moments when the PCs are in trouble.

GM: "Ok, so you've fallen into a gigantic trash compactor. The great iron walls begin closing slowly. What do you do?"
Player: "Oh man... I want to do a flashback!"
GM (grinning): "This is gonna be good..."