• Forget Character Generation… what about Group Generation?

    by  • August 31, 2012 • Essays • 14 Comments

    Role-playing games tend to have reams of pages dedicated to creating characters. However, very few spend time on creating the dynamics of the character group and establishing existing relationships between the characters. Apocalypse World is a rare exception but even Apocalypse World (which is one of my all time favourites!) doesn’t give as much time to the development of groups and relationships as I would like.

    For some games the characters do not know each other at the start of a game and part of the point of the game (either explicitly or implicitly) is to establish a group dynamic . But for those games where the characters already know each other before time-in, isn’t it time we had more game support to help define and express their specific group culture?

    There is a huge amount of material available on group culture, team building and organisational theory out there in the world.  So why aren’t we using it as part of our character generation systems?

    All groups have an internal culture, be it a set of friends who regularly hang-out, a business division, sporting team or military unit. All these groups have shared conventions, language, in-jokes, even little rituals, stories and symbols which bind the group together. I still refer to beating up a monster as “jobbing”, a hangover from an old LARPing group I joined 10 years ago. These little details make a group’s culture and the relationships within it rich and realistic – which is just how I like my games.

    It is easy to observe some of these details of our own group interactions, tack on a bit of theory and come up with a quick-start system for generating group culture.

    In fact I just wrote one below…

    Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.

    All groups go through 4 distinct phases:

    Forming –  The group are coming together and getting to know each other, creating a leadership hierarchy (possibly implicitly) , a group purpose etc.

    As a player group try answering or role-playing a short scene based on questions:

    • How did you all meet?
    • What happened the first time you met?

    Storming – a time of conflict, the members of the group discover areas of friction and tension. They may jostle with each other to assert themselves or even engage in power struggles.

    Questions for the group:

    • Tell me about a time you fell out over something in the early days?
    • Who is the group leader (explicit or implicit) and how did that come about?

    Norming – the group establishes its own culture and rules and begins to enforce them.

    Questions for the group:

    • What symbols, stories or rituals bind you together e.g. we always go to the same bar to drink beer after we finish a job.
    • Describe a time that one of you did something the others disagreed with (an unwritten rule of the group) and how the group enforce compliance with the group’s rules?  e.g. suggesting taking hostages and the group shaming you into dropping the idea.

    Performing – In game terms this is what happens from the time you starting playing.

    Didn’t you hear me… go play!

    Once your group is generated you can hit the ground running with your game, without the awkward and often unrealistic “getting to know you” moments.

    (Based on Brian Tuckman’s theory of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing from 1965)



    I have been a feminist all my life and a gamer for 21 years. I have enjoyed all sort of gaming from LARP to tabletop but deep character role-playing is what really floats my boat. I live in London, England and when I am not blogging, knitting and role-playing I am grappling with the dastardly, dissertation of Doooom!


    14 Responses to Forget Character Generation… what about Group Generation?

    1. avatar
      August 31, 2012 at 18:47

      Some resources to suggest regarding character groups:

      (1) Elizabeth Sampat’s “Blowback” RPG explicitly uses relationships to fuel the story and works very well to create a functioning ensemble cast from the beginning.

      (2) Josh Roby’s “Full Light, Full Steam” offers excellent GM guidance on building each adventure around the characters, including their relationships.

      (3) This 2006 article on RPG.net offers interesting reflections about the roles in a group of characters (though not the relationships): http://www.rpg.net/columns/timeout/timeout1.phtml

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      • avatar
        September 1, 2012 at 16:33

        Thanks mechanteanemone that looks really interesting.

        There is a definite shift going on towards exploring this more in RPing which is really wonderful.

    2. avatar
      August 31, 2012 at 23:46

      Mongoose Traveller, Mongoose Runequest 2 and Runequest 6, all written by Lawrence Whitaker, offer mechanical incentives during character generation for PCs who specify how they know another character, usually an extra skill that they each choose relevant to the situation in which they met. I like this idea a lot, and in the Traveller and MRQ2 games I’ve run, PCs have been very willing to take advantage of it.

      I recently wrote a post on my blog about teamwork house rules for Openquest inspired by some things I’d learnt while studying Diaspora. Good teamwork rules in RPGs help frame group interactions during the “norming” and “performing” phases by offering clear alternatives to choose from that can be explicitly debated, rather than leaving the range of actions a given PC is expected to take vague or implicit. In Diaspora, you quickly learn who passes shifts on; who tags or compels other people’s aspects frequently and who doesn’t;what everyone does on the ship (or at least in ship combat). All of these choices give PCs better ideas of who their fellows are and how they relate, as well as providing the possibility of interactions that are more nuanced than just roleplaying would provide (they’re always fighting, but in combat, they work together like two fingers on a hand; they get along great, but their skill sets are so different that neither really has anything to offer to the other except companionship, etc.).

      Here’s the post, btw, in case there are any other BRP fans around looking for teamwork rules. Enjoy! http://retiredadventurer.blogspot.ca/2012/08/improving-teamwork-rules-in-openquest.html

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      • avatar
        September 3, 2012 at 21:48

        Hi Pseudoephedrine

        I don’t know Diaspora but I really like the idea of debating the alternatives as I can see how the storming and norming would come out through the discussions.

        • avatar
          September 4, 2012 at 04:40

          Yeah! Same thing goes on in D&D 3.x during the first few sessions, I find, as everyone gets used to how the other PCs are going to work in combat.

          BTW, this is more of a preliminary to the process you’re talking about, but have you ever seen the 100 reasons characters know one another table that Blackrazor put together? It’s a free download that you can roll on that provides some ideas for how characters are related to another it. http://www.mediafire.com/?34ma1t3pr66r33s

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          • avatar
            September 4, 2012 at 08:20

            Cool! Thanks for that.

    3. avatar
      September 1, 2012 at 09:07

      The Dresden Files RPG (by Evil Hat, who I think made Diaspora) has an excellent group formation dynamic. The group and GM get together and not only create characters in which everyone literally writes themselves into each other’s backgrounds, but also create the setting locations and “faces” as well.

      Also, though it is truly for “one-shot” play, Fiasco is built on inter-character relationships.

      I find this attention to these relationships refreshing and it really has revitalized my group’s sessions.

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      • avatar
        September 3, 2012 at 21:52

        Hi Shedrick

        I too love it when relationships get proper airtime in character creation but I am also trying to go one further than this and talk about group culture. Group culture exists separately from all the individuals and relationships in a group and I think that for me a really good gaming experience would create both.

        I’m sure I’ll be doing a post more explicitly about the phenomenan of group culture and how we can leverage it more at the table.

    4. avatar
      September 2, 2012 at 17:47

      Good take on this subject. We have a legacy from White Wolf of the individual prelude – which is great for reinforcing player-GM relationship, but not player-player. Plenty of games encourage past lives that can be woven together, but the task of weaving is left to the GM (e.g. Burning Wheel) when it should be a round table discussion.

      The only issue I see is getting consensus from players on the answers – it may be more effective to ask one player in turn one of the questions above, then let the others feed off the response. You could even encourage differences of perspective (“that’s not how I remember it…”)

      By the way, Nephilim uses past lives in character generation – and while it isn’t explicitly group generation, the game provides several eras where each immortal’s past can intersect with others. The GM could use that for some leading questions, e.g. “what were you doing at the French Revolution”. 

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      • avatar
        September 3, 2012 at 21:53


        I love the idea of encouraging and weaving in different perspectives like that. I am currently writing a game which has a really comprehensive group building stage to draw out some of this…a game I was hoping you might want to play in when it is finished 😉

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    6. avatar
      September 5, 2012 at 15:57

      Frax> No prob. This is a great post btw. Are you planning to write more on this subject?

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      • avatar
        September 5, 2012 at 21:31


        As I do more reading on Organisational Theory for my MBA I am certain that more GAW posts will emerge!

        • avatar
          September 6, 2012 at 05:20

          Very cool. I’ve been saying for a while that people ought to be importing lessons from social psychology, management theory, etc. into RPG group operations (my own background is in volunteer management). Glad to see someone’s finally doing it in a rigorous way!

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