So last time we looked at character creation and how that process informs the way we view a games priorities and characters. How, in well designed RPGs, variations on the process telegraph details to players about a game they are about to play.
This time we’re going to look at a mechanic that changed the way I look at the process of character creation: the playbook.
So to begin with, let’s take a moment to look at where the concept of the playbook comes from. The first RPG to use the term is Apocalypse World.
This game, at the point of its release (a decade ago, somehow) was revolutionary in its thought processes about how an RPG could handle basic elements.
Among those things was the playbook, which was a several page character sheet that represented an archetype that a player would choose to play. This sounds like normal character creation, but a few massive changes are immediately apparent with a playbook. Important ones are as follows;
- There is only one of each playbook
- Each playbook has a specific set of triggers for specific rewards
- Each playbook asked you to assign specific background elements to other players characters.
Some of these elements might seem really arbitrary, they represent a bombshell on the received thought about RPGs.
These things unbalance progress and limit the agency of player choice. Yet they make a better game. And have spawned maybe fifty games that use a version of playbooks.
So let’s look at those three elements in more detail and see how these limitations can actually improve our lives as GMs and grant players more agency in the long run.
Only One Of Each Playbook
Each playbook is supposed to be unique. If a player chooses that character archetype, they don’t have to compete to fill the same space with someone else.
For example, if they are the person who does medicine, they are likely the only one who does it.
This brings a clarity to character creation. A player can choose a playbook and be assured that if the elements of the story they are interested in exploring come up, they’ll be the one front and centre of that specific type of action.
It also means that as a GM you are giving the player a chance to signal you about the sort of stories they want told. If in the World Wide Wrestling RPG someone picks ‘The Wasted’ archetype, you know you should lean into stories about sports and addiction, whereas if someone picks ‘The Shoot Fighter’ you know you need to look at the tension between pro wrestlers and MMA.
The players dictate the content by choice of playbook they make. This sounds obvious when you spell it out, but it took the playbook for me to realise as a GM that basic fundamental choices about what type of character a player chooses to play are also an indicator of the types of story they’d like to see at the table.
No one picks a Warlock in D&D to never have the patron relationship come up.
Specific Triggers For Specific Rewards
In PBTA games, often a playbook will have a specific set of conditions that players need in order to work towards advancement that have nothing to do with each other.
In Masks for example, The Beacon is trying to work through a tick list of staple teen life experiences. The Doomed is being rewarded for facing their inevitable dark fate.
Each playbook moves towards advancement when they ask specific questions of other players about who they are and have that thing confirmed or denied by another.
This very clearly indicates to the players what they can do to get better and in that way, shapes the gameplay in that direction. The Doomed will constantly be engaged in a battle with their fate every session, the beacon will be growing as a person.
Players will advance by fulfilling those goals, which takes advancement out of GMs hands, which means players don’t feel cheated if advancement happens at different rates. This is a really interesting relationship to progression that I wish more game had.
Regardless of which game, each PBTA playbook comes with a section full of Mad lib style sentences along the lines of ‘I think [x] has trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy’ or ‘[x] thinks that I am a danger to everyone else’.
Often accompanying this is a question the payer answers about how the characters know each other. This is an amazing conceit and allows you to build a situation where the players shape their backstory live and start with an idea of how they know each other. It’s so effective, I have stolen it for other systems.
A particular part I like is that often the question creates world elements like locations, existing villains and ongoing plots. This really allows you to have extra material to dive into and I often don’t plan my first session until I have some of this information down, tying it right into the opening story, because it gives me a base, to begin with, that we all agreed on.
Next time you run a campaign, this is a really good way to use a session zero.
So what are we learning?
I think we are beginning to realise that character creation is the anchor for the story of an RPG as much as creation myths are for the underpinnings of culture.
Once we understand that, we can be very specific with the type of process we use to generate characters to re-enforce the tale we are telling.
You can change the course of a campaign in those opening moments. So spend time with it and with the others at the table to make it work.
Think about how you are going to approach it. Will it be a charming conversation with shared storytelling elements? A frat party atmosphere where you are laughing at each other’s random dice rolls? Are you going to assume a character and run them through it like it’s a bad dream where they are taking a test they can’t even remember to create tension?
The options are endless, and each choice about it makes a difference to the game mood going forward. Start as you mean to go on.
Next time, we change gears where we look at a different type of table technique. There might be a dance to go along with it.
What do you think? Sound off in the comment section below.