Thursday, February 17, 2011

Group Characters

I'm a big fan of group character mechanics, by which I mean RPGs where the player characters have some manner of shared or communal character that their group supports.  This is usually something like a noble house, mercenary company, etc.  Through the course of the game players can advance not only their individual characters, but the group character through both mechanical and non-mechanical means.

The first instance I can think of this mechanic in a game is the old Palladium gem Ninjas and Superspies where there was a point buy system for creating spy organizations for players to work both for and against.  There was no mechanic for advancing these groups. only creating them, and aside from equipment and logistical support there was not much in the way of mechanics for the system.  You could buy an armory, but not political influence.  Still, it was neat and I spent a lot of time fiddling with it.  This system was slightly revised and then reused for the Rifts Vampire Kingdom and Mercs books but these changes were more of an update to the Rifts universe than anything else.

The my favorite implementation of a group character mechanic is the house rules for the Song of Ice and Fire RPG, where all characters are assumed to be members of the same noble house.  Thus they play roles like captain of the guard, seneschal, maester (house sage), etc, giving the group a ready made reason to work together and while family political conflict may take place, real PvP action is unlikely.  The house was rated in a number of areas, such as Defenses, Influence, Land, Population, etc.  Some of these ratings were used as pools to buy resources, like Defense being used to buy castles and towers the house controlled, while others provided modifiers to rolls made to manage the house (which could lead to loses or gains in these ratings).  Ratings could also be altered by actions in game, either by gaining Glory for big achievements (which could be traded for any of the house ratings at a 1:1 rate) or plot actions (for example in my campaign the players got a house to swear allegiance to their house as a banner house, increasing their Power greatly).  The system gave the players a good higher level set of goals for the group (expanding the power of their house) in addition to establishing a series of sub systems to represent house resources (a large scale battle system, social combat, etc).  This system can easily be expanded to represent different types of groups.  I've done some writing for Song of Ice and Fire sourcebooks in that direction and I hope that Green Ronin will support more of that going forward.  I've got pretty solid ideas for using this system for merchant companies, bandits, mercenary groups, tribes, etc.  The only downside to the system was there was not a lot in terms of rules for what you could tell your house to do.  You could build fortifications, go to war, or hold tournaments.  There were no rules for establishing spy networks, trade efforts, etc. 

My second  favorite group character system is Reign, which uses a very abstract system to simulate large groups that the characters control.  Basically groups have stats (Might, Treasure, Influence, Sovereignty, and Wealth).  These were overall very vague and left a lot of room for players to define the resources of their faction, and this I think is the weakness of the system.  What exactly your company (the term Reign uses) has is very hand wavey, and while it makes the game easy to scale, I like the more concrete resources in the Song of Ice and Fire system.  Reign's advantage is it has significant rules for what your company can do, such as espionage, counter espionage, and police actions.  The system is very good, but the abstract nature of it doesn't work as well for what I want out of a game. 

Another version of this system is the group character sheets for Warhammer 3E.  These are much less involved that the Song of Ice and Fire or Reign systems.  Basically the group chooses a group archetype for the group, each of which is based on a different theme (going from memory they're things like military company, pilgrims, gentlemen adventurers, rogues, etc).  Each of these provides different mechanical advantages and allows some abilities to be applied to the group as a whole, plus mechanical penalties if your group does not cooperate (or gets unduly influence by the forces of Chaos).  The cooperation mechanic is mainly a counter track that can increase when certain mechanical events happen (like fumbling magic rolls and bringing Chaos into the world) or if the GM just thinks you're being difficult.  This mechanic seems to mainly exist to limit group conflict; it does not give the players much to pursue in terms of goals.

In many sci-fi games the group ship could be seen as a similar sort of mechanic, though this is rarely treated as a group character and more as something the group can do if they want (though it often seemed to get foisted off on the pilot/smuggler/whoever actually owned the ship).  Using a full group character system could be used for a ship pretty easily if desired. 

Some games like Dresden Files and Spirit of the Century have a communal setting creation mechanic, which is awesome for group cohesion but it doesn't give the same sort of goals for the group.  This level of communal creation is great for one shot or short term games since the game will not last long enough for large scale, long term goals to be realized.  Also these mechanics are great for getting player investment in the setting and telling the GM what sort of game the players want to play. 

So why discuss all this?  I'm going to be running a GodWar game in the next few weeks for folks at the new job and I want to integrate a group character system for that game.  Below is the intro text for the game:

I was there when the world changed and the sky fell, when God was lost and the angels cast out. I was there when darkness descended upon the land and the hope of man was reduced to a flickering candle. But I was also there when the archangel Raphael carried hope to us with his last effort, and I will be there when we retake Heaven from the Qlippoth who defile it.

The God War began November 6, 1492 when the earth shook and the skies raged with fire for days and nights without release. When the fires finally subsided the sun had grown dim and the clouds sickly and all knew some great fell deed had come to pass. We lived in fear of what was next in store, but our fear was soon quenched with knowledge of the most terrible kind. In the lands of Provence the archangel Raphael emerged from where he had been cast to Earth, spreading tales of the invasion of Heaven by Satan and his allies, allowed through the Gates of Heaven by treachery. The battle that followed destroyed worlds and scorched the heavens, but in the end God was imprisoned due to treachery amongst his own angels. Now Satan sits on the Throne of Heaven and his demonic followers frolic amongst the souls of the worthy, turning Heaven into a mirror reflection of Hell.

The surviving angels were cast to Earth like Raphael, and those of Earth who did not believe Raphael’s tales quickly found many other angels telling the same tales. Panic set in quickly as if God could not keep Satan under heel, surely the material world would soon fall to his power as well. Despair filled the land, but Raphael brought not only words of warning but words of hope. With the help of the Cabalists of Gerona he and several other angels completed a ritual long ago set forth by God to empower the mortal world in case it was directly invaded by the creatures of Hell. Using the energies of creation itself, the divine energies once so common in the world and commanded by the likes of Moses were returned to the hands of mortal man, and thus the war for Heaven begun. This ritual gave us hope, but took our mightiest champion, the last known archangel from us. And so we struggle on in a conflict that some have come to call Raphael’s Crusade for the angel who made our struggle possible.

God remains imprisoned in heaven still three years later, but we can now see a day, though it be far from now, where we can storm the Gates and Heaven and retake what is ours. The coming of the Breath of Creation, that power Raphael restored to the world, has given us the tools to carry on this fight. The demons now seek to conquer our world, invading from both Heaven and Hell, but man now stands ready to fight for both their home and for all creation. Where once religions stood opposed, the revelation of ultimate evil and divine power in all its forms has bound them together. While all is not peace amongst the people of Earth, there are bigger wars to be raged. In France and Spain, Jewish Cabalists exorcise demonic incursions with the power of the language of creation, while Arabic Alchemists purify corrupted lands in the East. Hermetic wizards take the battle to the demons directly, using the lore of ancient Egypt and Greece to retake the realm of spirit from demonic influence. Even goetic summoners, masters of demon control, join the fight against Satan and his perverted horde. Rumors abound of the Knights Templar remerging, using the power of the Holy Grail to instill powers in those who partake of its liquid. Armies equipped with devices made from the workshops of Da Vinci march on demonic fortress, tearing them apart with steam and springs. We now have holy armament, given by God to all those who seek something higher than themselves, and we use it every day to strike back at the Qlippoth. Even Asmodeus and his half demons join us in our long conflict, having long ago accepted the teachings of the Torah. Our diverse and wide army stands ready.

And you must stand among them. Some of us wield mystic powers, while others weapons of steel and iron, and still others knowledge of times and histories long forgotten. This is a war with no boundaries for the very stuff of existence and creation. We do not fight in shadows or in secret, but in the open, for there is no time for secrecy. We fight to win.
Your talent is promising. Join us. Help return Heaven to its rightful owner.

God is imprisoned.
Heaven is lost.
The Angels are dead.
Now there is only one hope for the salvation of all creation:

GodWar is a role playing game of occult high action in an alternate version of the 15th century.  In this version of history  in 1492 the forces of Hell rise up to over throw the Throne of Heaven, leaving it up for mankind, along with those angels that survived and some well meaning demons, to try and set things right.  Now it’s been a century since the GodWar began, but it shows signs of abating.  Across the planet, the reality of Hell has begun to bleed over into ours, turning sections of Earth into demon dominated Hellreaches.  For every human nation that stands fast against the demonic horde another sells out its kin for some small profit.  It’s up to the players, heroes striving against the forces of Hell, to try and set things right.  

Characters can be anything from Templars to rogue undead Aztec warriors to clockwork robots built by Da Vinci.  Part of the attraction of the setting is you can play a lot of stuff, and its all pretty high on the awesome meter.  Problem is, how do you bring together such a disparate selection of characters with a group character mechanic?  Characters may be from widely varying geographic regions, religious backgrounds, etc.  

I was thinking it could be something more metaphysical, like some sort of mechanics to measure the "destiny" or whatever that brings the characters together, but that just seems weird.  And by quantifying it, it makes it seem less important.  

Another option was not to have any "worldly" aspects of character generation, so characters did not worry about wealth, contacts, influence, bases, etc as part of character creation.   Instead that was all done with the group, though each resource had one character who could use it most effectively and that is the character that brings that resource to the group.  So the group could invest in followers to represent an army (which the Templar is better at leading since they were his army before he joined the PCs), a wide network of contacts (who respond best to the Dominican since he set it up years ago), etc.  The Dominican could order the army around, it just wouldn't be as effective as the Templar doing it as the army does not know him as well.  

A third option is say screw it, build an organization and figure out how your characters work within it.  

Other ideas welcome.  Next post will be about the system ideas so far for GodWar, which will be interesting since I'm trying to do it using tarot cards. 


  1. For a game with a very robust structure for international and local politics, building up empires, etc., you really need to check out Birthright. Since you presumably do not have a copy close at hand, I'll hand one off to WW next time I see him to loan to you.

    Birthright's mechanics aren't party-based in the way that SIF's are, in that you don't have a pool of points based on the number of characters. Instead, depending on the DM, you might have one PC in charge of the local law, another in charge of a major trading house (a guild), another in charge of a major local temple or religious sect, and another in charge of the magical power of the land. Unifying that power within one party is a huge advantage within the setting. (Just don't do what I did (hey, I was 15 at the time) and give PCs control of multiple adjacent nations; this forms a power-bloc too strong to challenge. Also, don't let them build holdings in a void - make them compete with NPC-run holdings.)

  2. I was introduced to Birthright in a poorly run game where each character had their own country, so I've never seen the mechanics in the same light. I would like to read the actual rules.

    An idea I had driving into work this morning was to have players build the area the game takes place in, setting up things like reputation in the area, their base of operations, allies, demonic infection, etc and then work through the campaign to change these for the better and then expanding to a bigger and bigger area (basically once you get all the problems in a size 1 area under control, you go to size two and a lot of your numbers go back down or some such, or maybe are on a different scale). This has the problem of discouraging travel in a setting with lots of neat places to go, but I think it would be a good tool in players saying what kind of game they want.

  3. Having players build Bad Stuff into their region is pretty awesome. Nobilis had room for that kind of thing in the group-created Imperator and Chancel, and you could either fix those flaws over the course of play, or worsen them for short-term benefits to get you out of bad situations.