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Progressive Character Generation (PCG)

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Progressive Character Generation (PCG)

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.

Yes please. My big ideas for

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.

Yes, I'm on this same exact kick!

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...

I don't know of any actual

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.

Now I do!


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...

Credit Where Due

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.

Do you consider Blades’ or

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.

Qualified Yes

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.

HeroQuest Glorantha does it

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).

Great technology

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.

Fudge on the Fly did this

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.

I like when characters change continually through play

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.

There was a game called Blackout

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.

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