Update: I posted the finished playset, sans images because of copyright issues. Enjoy!
I’m working on my games for Convolution next weekend (alas, they’re not showing up in the schedule yet, but I submitted them late). Right now I’m writing a new Shadowrun-based play set for Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat’s Blowback game. Blowback is a game where you play highly skilled spies who are short on resources and must rely on family and friends; excellent to play Burn Notice, Haywire, Desperado, or The Bourne Identity. I figure that maps pretty well over to shadowrunners, who plan and execute elaborate operations on the wrong side of the law.
I set up a technique for this last time I prepped a playset, and it works pretty well for me. Here is how it goes:
First, I decide how many players I want. I like five: one Lifer as a well-rounded leader and four Artists as specialists in each area of expertise (in Burn Notice, Michael would be a Lifer and Fiona and Artist). I’ve also done it with different mixes, but I like this one.
Then I line up four columns but I don’t label the columns yet; I distribute top stat values (4 for Lifers and 5 for Artists) with as many sets as I have players. (I do this by hand in a ruled notebook, but you don’t want to see my handwriting…)
I then balance this out by distributing the rest of the stats around (total of 4, 3, 3, 2 for lifers and 5, 2, 1 for Artists) so that the totals of each column will be about the same.
Now I label the columns with the four stats and, based on peak expertise, I assign roles for each area. For example, if I was running a Leverage-based game, I would have the roles Leader, Hacker, Thief, Grifter, and Muscle. It would look like this:
Naturally, I can distribute values and points some other way, this is just the first one that arose by assigning in the order the areas of expertise are listed on a typical character sheet. I look at it — does it inspire me? If I want a Leader whose strong suit is Pavement instead, I will re-label my columns and redistribute the roles.
Another way to pick the labels is to decide where I want the team to be most evenly rounded (which corresponds in this particular spread with the Lifer’s weak suit) and most uneven (which here will correspond to the Leader’s strong suit). If I don’t like this, I can reshuffle stats.
But let’s say I’m happy with keeping this, a Leader who is best at using force (Commando) and poorest at manipulating people (Provocateur). I start looking at the way the Artists are shaping up:
- The Muscle will also be pretty decent at deception and OK at doing research and investigation, but not at the MacGyvering, setting up diversions, and intrusion.
- The Thief can also do some smooth-talking and can keep up in a fight, but is not big on that boring investigation or computer stuff.
- The Hacker can do some physical intrusion and set up a bomb on the bridge when needed, and also fight a bit, but doesn’t like to deal with people.
- And finally, the Grifter can do just about anything else but stays out of fights.
Do these characters speak to me? I can start fleshing them out just based on this; it gives me an idea of who they are and how they move through life.
Next I list each character with relevant stats and a good amount of blank space below, and I start assigning relationships (3, 2, 1, 1 for Lifers and 4, 2, 2, 1 for Artists). I know I want every Artist to have a relationship with the Leader, that makes team cohesion easier. For each relationship, I add a quick description or catchphrase. For example “Childhood pal,” “Friendly rivalry,” or “I know he has my back.”
This is also the stage where I give the characters names and faces. I use mnemonics, so the Leader’s name will start with an “L”, the Muscle’s with an “M”, and so forth. I pick names that are gender-neutral or ambiguous (like “Chris” or “Freckles”), or I give both a female and a male version (like “Louise/Louis”). I get photos, one male and one female for each, making an effort to have good representation of diverse cultures and races. Nothing is more boring than an all-white team, as far as I’m concerned, except an all-white, all-male team.
I continue assigning relationships, adding at least five Civilians — friends, family, business partners, people they owe debts to, etc. As I add each Civilian, I start an entry for this new character and I list its relationships with the Professionals, as seen from the Civilian side. For example “He’s still my son, after all” or “Worst brother ever.” I try to link the Civilians to more than one of the Professionals and to each other. I get names and pictures for them too, trying to keep to gender-neutral and multicultural character creation. I score the Civilians’ relationships (5, 3, 3, 2), trying to distribute them so they will pull about equally on all Professionals, and give them skills (2 or 1, 1).
There will be relationships to some additional minor characters, unless I want a very closed party: bosses, colleagues, friends, etc. I put less effort in these, and may only give them a single picture and a gendered name; extras they are, though they may be promoted in play. I just need to make sure I have the same number of fully-fleshed Civilians and Professionals, one of each for each player.
Now I jot down a background description in the case file of every Professional and Civilian and list a few starting questions, but not too many; players will add to agendas, profiles, evaluations and questions when we start the game. Ta-dah! We have a play set.