Perils of Questionnaire-Based Character Creation

Those of us who have made questionnaire-based creation methods (like Dread, Don’t Rest Your Head, etc.) know that creative blocks can be a peril to making them work. But there’s more that can go wrong, as I recently (re)discovered.

This past weekend, I ran a Mythender game at GottaCon. (Side note: if you can get to GottaCon in Victoria, BC, I super-recommend it! And stay a day or two earlier/later to enjoy the lovely city.) I used the same convention blurb I always do:

On the other side of this bloodied snowy plain stands Thor, God of Thunder and Mythic Norden’s warmaster. His thousands of einherjar charge at you and your two comrades. Mortals watch from the distance, unable to turn their gaze away from the oncoming storm. As the horde charges, you let out a bellow that drowns them all out, shaking the very earth beneath their feet. Armed with your sword, loyal wolf companion, and your wits, you and your friends dive into the fray.

It’s pitiful. These fools don’t stand a chance. You’re a Mythender!

Mythender is a roleplaying adventure game about stabbing gods in the face and sundering every mythic being until there’s none left. It’s a game about power and temptation, as you are constantly in danger of being the very gods you’re Ending – and when that happens, your friends will End you.

I got four excited players for my Friday evening game, though only one had any idea what Mythender even was. And for one of them, this ended up being an introduction of sorts to games with high creative requirements. He locked up when looking over the questions on the Hearts and Pasts, having no sense of what to write—indeed, didn’t expect he’d have to write anything.

It’s so rare that I run into people who lock up these days that I had genuinely forgotten that the problem exists. But people do run into paralysis. I use rather open-ended but focused questions to enforce theme (like the Child’s “What unimaginable cruelties have you endured?”) This player took the Warrior Heart, and with its first question (“What skill do you value most?”) he looked up in askance.

I really didn’t know what to say. I threw out some ideas, and eventually something clicked, but it was rougher than I’m used to. I’m used to people feeling blocked, but not to people who aren’t sure what they’re allowed to write based on their prior experiences.

I thought about that person’s perspective: someone who’s probably used to being delivered information about the world rather than given privilege to define it. Answers you give can be wrong in that context.

In the past, I’ve never enjoyed the results of making pre-generated characters for Mythender, because the mortal/Mythic tension is weak when you didn’t make the character yourself. But that just illustrates a tension of game design: between crafting an ideal experience and crafting an experience that can survive non-optimal conditions.

I suppose I could make a version of the Hearts and Pasts that work like Fates: you have some options to pick from rather than a blank bit to fill out. I have strong reasons for not wanting that as a base scheme, as whenever you list an idea like that, some people will innately rebel against them all—even when they’re really good archetypes to build from—for fear or feeling of not “being creative.” Perhaps I could have on hand a PDF that has three answers for each, so that the default is a blank to answer, but I have the stop-gap between that and making full-on pregens.

And maybe I will, but I’m mainly surprised to see such a fundamental problem hit my face years after I released the book. It goes to show the big peril of these schemes: if you’re not conscious about spreading out your playtesting, you’ll end up cloistering yourself and not experiencing the full breadth of problems.

Edit: An analogy I made on the G+ thread:

People are used to ordering off the menu, but not telling the chef what they want. An analogy that’s true literally and true metaphorically elsewhere in life.

– Ryan