Standby characters for scratch games

Back in March I made a brief visit to Canberra to see how everyone was doing and run a little bit of Flat Black. Time was short enough that I thought character generation would take an unacceptably large bite out of our playing time, so I pre-generated a group of characters. They were a team of effectives (non-government clandestine operators) working for Human Heritage under cover as an extreme-sports vlogger and his support crew. That made them closely similar to the group that I generated for my previous visit, who were the same except that they worked for the Journalists’ Guild. It would have been clever if I had saved the character sheets from the previous time.

So now I am embarking on a little project to prepare a portfolio of pre-generated PCs for ‘Flat Black’ pick-up games, just in case. I’d like a bit of advice on several points.

Please feel welcome to answer the questions below.

Q 1. The archetypal adventure for Flat Black is that the PCs come as outsiders with some task to perform to a world where the society is quirky or even bizarre, and that to accomplish their goal they have to deal with the oddities of the locals’ behaviour. Is a team of clandestine operators working for a sympathetic, cosmopolitan NGO a good concept for a PC party in Flat Black pick-up games? Or can you suggest something better?

Q 2. If the party are to be a team of effectives, is it best to

  1. commit to some particular NGO and write the character briefs with that commitment in mind, perhaps including a paragraph about the NGO’s aims and values? If so, what NGO do you suggest?

  2. write the PCs as working for an NGO, but be artfully vague about which one it is, so that in one adventure they might be permanent employees of the Journalists’ Guild and in another of the Humanity League, or of the Sons of Patrick Henry?

  3. write the PCs as free-lance trouble-shooters who are engaged for particular jobs by different NGOs, no especial loyalty being expected on either side?

Q 3. There usually aren’t many women in the scratch groups I GM for, but I do like to make allowances for the possibility. Besides which, some players like to play characters of different sex and gender from themselves, at least sometimes. Writing one character as female is not an adequate provision for this, because (i) it doesn’t fit the need when everyone wants to play a man (ii) it doesn’t fit the need when more than one player wants to play a woman, and (iii) it needlessly restricts the scope of choice of character available to a player who wants to play a woman. All that being the case, I want to make provision for most of the characters to be playable as whichever sex the player prefers.

  1. Is it good enough to simply not specify the sexes of some or all of the characters, and write them so that the player can choose which sex to play them? Or should there be two or more full write-ups for most of the character roles, allowing the players to choose their characters’ sexes after functional roles have been distributed?

  2. Is it desirable to include one or more characters who come from colonies where gender roles and even sexes are markedly different from the Earth-WEIRD norms? For example, would it be advisable to include a character from Nahal (where the genders are “armed” and “unarmed”), New Fujian (where there are six genders of each sex), etc.? Or perhaps a character who has designed their own custom sex without it having anything to do with the culture of their homeworld?

Q 4. On one hand, the core activity of ‘Flat Black’ adventures involves relatively cosmopolitan PCs in confrontation with bizarre colonial societies, and perhaps that doesn’t work very well if the player is simultaneously coming to grips with playing a jackal-headed runaway demigod from Navabharata, a sterile worker from the social organism on Simanta, or an orc from Beleriand. And perhaps the more conspicuous such folk make poor clandestine operators. On the other hand I think that playing someone who isn’t at all WEIRD and is perhaps only marginally human is an under-exploited possibility in Flat Black.

  1. Can I put a character in the party who is marginally non-human or fully parahuman, or who comes from a society with a very different way of looking at things? Or is that too much to come to grips with in a scratch game?

  2. If I do include such a character, does they have to be only optionally parahuman, and how much trouble is that going to make for me writing the rest of the team?

Q 5. As I generated them last March, the characters were as enumerated below, with capabilities distributed among them as described. Does this arrangement seem satisfactory? Ought some character or capability to be added? Ought some capabilities to be swapped or transferred to balance spotlight time or avoid other problems?

The cover that this team have rehearsed and established is the the Talent is an extreme sports and adventure vlogger, accompanied by a Camera Operator, a medic who seems to be more importantly Eye Candy and perhaps a groupie, a Manager, and a Roadie.

  1. The Talent uses athletic and small-vehicle skills to get to inaccessible places, where they performs as a muscle and wet worker (i.e. thug and assassin). They also has some society skills, but is not a versatile social infiltrator nor social engineer.

  2. The Camera Operator can go anywhere the Talent goes, albeit less flashily and sometimes requiring the Talent to lead. They is a break & enter expert, bang & burner, and wire rat, The Operator also makes things, such as disguises.

  3. The Eye Candy is a medic, forensics tech, cleaner (frustrator of future forensics), cobbler (maker of false identities and IDs), and pavement artist (expert in shadowing and urban stealth).

  4. The Manager is a cuckoo (gets to secure places by pretending to be someone they is not), asset handler (corrupts people), bagman (bribes people), and hacker.

  5. The Roadie is a wheel artist (expert at driving large vehicles in all media), mule (expert at smuggling), watcher (surveillance expert), and sniper.

Any comments? Suggestions? Observations? Hints?

Q1: surely that depends on what sort of adventure you want to run? But in my experience, players are happy to be briefed “you’re a bunch of rufty tufty types who work for this vaguely defined authority that tells you it’s the good guys”.

Q2: how NGO-specific are their skills? If “not very”, one might as well go for the generic version. (Given that I’d keep the character sheets in electronic form and print them when required, you might have scope for a search-and-replace.)

Q3: usually I don’t put anything sex-specific in the character background. At the last Stabcon, @DrBob had double-sided character sheets, with identical stats but different photos for male/female versions of the character; that worked pretty well and I may well steal the idea.

As for the weirdness, if that’s an important part of the setting I’d say put it in. But see next point, if it’s externally obvious.

Q4: I’d say that you need PCs who can blend in with local appearances. I don’t know how good your camouflage/disguise tech is.

Q5: I don’t see a security role in this list of covers. That might look a bit suspicious to the excessively-paranoid. The roadie can do some of it, but a guy who stands around looking big and saying “the boss doesn’t want to talk to you” may well be an expected part of the entourage.

The trick to the double-sided male/female character sheets is only give them a surname and to write any character background stuff in 2nd person. You are a theology student on your gap year…

Well, that and only run games where the character sheet fits on one side of A4 paper! :slight_smile:

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Do you write only as many pregens as there are places in the session? The one time I used pregens, I had five players and something like eight or nine character sheets. In the nature of that game, ALL the PCs had to be female, but I left the names blank, and if sex is to be unspecified you could certainly do the same.

Q1 I’m having a hard time picturing how missions are structured under your default framework. Is dealing with the quirks and oddities of local culture the point of the exercise (e.g., to convince them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise) or simply an obstacle to it?

Q2 I think your best option is a committed patron organization with a lofty sounding but nebulous purpose (and perhaps hints of false flag – some missions seem to contradict its stated goals).

Q3 I like the idea of second-person descriptions and avoiding the mention of sex or gender. Allowing the player to pick a given name is a quick bit of personalization.

Q4 It might be nice to provide one “what does it mean to be human?” point-of-view character, for the players who like the challenge. For the default framework, the pov character should be able to pass as baseline – hidden mods, or psycho-social differences.

Q5 As I understand it, your default framework results in four phases to a typical operation: information gathering, preparation, execution, and escape (or contingencies for when bad things happen). It is probably helpful to ask what each character contributes in each phase.

Eye-candy and pavement artist seem as if they should be mutually exclusive, but eye-candy is beneficial for face-type characters like the Manager. Call the medic character “Personal Trainer” or “Personal Physician,” with the intent of maintaining the Talent’s health (possibly despite themself). Medics in some stories are emotionally distant observers – perhaps this could be your pov character?

Cobbler and hacker seem mutually reinforcing in a high-tech setting; perhaps the Manager’s expertise is more social engineering?

The Roadie’s skill set seems designed to prevent using them at execution time: is they driving the get-away vehicle, sitting in overwatch with a long-range weapon, or moving things through security? They would have to commit to one of the three at a time. It might make more sense let the Roadie be lookout at run time and get-away driver on the escape, but then load up on prep or tech skills (like scrounging, research, or what I think you mean by wire rat) to balance out.

Sniper might go better in the Medic’s portfolio (moving about unobtrusively), although that sets up a hard decision when anyone else gets hurt.

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A possible sixth character: The Location Scout is the team logistician (transportation bookings, hotel and restaurant reservations, purchases of equipment and supplies, etc.), producer/editor, and salesperson (edited media, t-shirts, autographed items – “merch,” as in “merchandise”). This is your mule, fast-talker, spoofer/jammer, and might be a better place for the sniper.

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For a con game, yes, because the team for one of my con games is usually pretty tightly crafted to expose particular conflicts, expound particular themes, and immanentise particular eschatons. But when I’m preparing a binder full of characters for a possible future scratch game I don’t know how many players there are going to be or what adventure I’m going to run. There are four characters in my Cincinnati Special folder, making up a small firm of PIs in Prohibition Ohio. Two of the scratch games I’ve run with those had only three players. There are ten characters in my Gehennum Pre-Gens folder, which no fixed connection except that two of them are identical twin brothers.

I’m suddenly wondering how many cultures have a surname that means “Smith”.

Well, I don’t know what adventures I am going to want to run. I want this set of characters to be handy for occasions when I am asked to run something at short notice, and when I am I will run whatever adventure desperation (masquerading as inspiration) can dredge up.

“Not very” is about it. The various NGOs have field workers with specialist skills, but those don’t usually work under cover, and the NGOs don’t really do many clandestine operations (except GreenWar, I suppose). “Effectives” are sometimes fanatics and sometimes little more than mercenaries, but very much generalist teams who have to deal with all the variety of operations that come up because everyone is spread thin and remote from backup.

I’ve run two adventures for effectives so far — one for effectives of the Journalists’ Guild and one for effectives of Human Heritage — and both have been missing persons cases culminating in hostage rescues.

It is a good one.

I’m in two minds. On one hand I feel that Flat Black affords an opportunity for playing some pretty wild and interesting characters, which has been under-used. On the other hand the ur-adventure is that a party of sensible and cosmopolitan characters suitable for WEIRD players to identify as encounters, explores, and adjusts to a freakish Vancean society. Some of the people I still occasionally game with have been playing in Flat Black for twenty-five or even thirty years and have grown to know and love places like Nahal and Navabharata and would be comfortable playing a character with the expected characteristics of having grown up there. And when I tried running Flat Black over the InterNet with players recruited on the SJGames forums I found that some leaped at the chance of playing very foreign human minds.

Good point. There is not just being under cover as a group of foreigners with a reason for going odd places, buying odd high-performance equipment, and doing odd things. There is also being under shallow cover as locals or just plain inconspicuous.

Good suggestion.

Usually the latter — the quirks and oddities are an obstacle to the mission. Generally the effectives are brought in to deal with a problem — perhaps to find and rescue a journalist who seems to have been disappeared by the regime and who has kidnap insurance from the Journalists’ Guild. But what has happened and who did it and where the kidnap victim or corpse is are the result of some un-appreciated side-effect of local customs, politics, etc. So to find the hostage or corpse the PCs need to explore and understand the bizarre culture. Then, when it is time for the rescue or assassination or recovery of stolen whatsit or acquisition of something that belongs in a museum, the PCs plan and contingencies have to work around, or may exploit, local oddities.

That’s what I’m inclined towards. I’m not likely to get to do “some adventures”, though, as there will be no continuity.

Sounds good.

Good point.

Thank you, that seems like a very valuable hint.

The eye candy isn’t really eye candy. That’s their cover. In some places (with good medicine, e.g.) it is a little bit odd to bring a medic with you from off-planet, but an ostensible medic whose actual role is to be a distinctive presence in the vlog, or the Talent’s squeeze, may be more plausible.

Yes, the Manager is a cuckoo, asset handler, and bag-man. They persuades people to let them in to places they shouldn’t be, corrupts people, and bribes people.

Good point.

A lot of that stuff needs re-arranging. The Talent and the Camera Operator are good at infiltrating to snipers’ vantages, but the Talent is the person the oppo expect to see. Should the Camera Operator be the main sniper?

Schmied (German/Austrian) is obvious; Kovács (Hungarian but variants all over eastern Europe), Ferrer (Catalan), Kowal (Polish).

Russian and related nationalities: Kuznets or Kuznetz. (neuter)

Spanish: Herrero (m.) or Herrera (f.)

Turkish: Demirci (that looks like a descendant of Greek “demiourgos”!)

Igbo: Igwe

Greek: Petalotís (seems to mean specifically “farrier”, but close enough).

You are not the first: Smith (surname)

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My point was that a person of distinctive appearance will have a more difficult time blending into a crowd when tailing someone than a non-descript person. On the other hand, there is a trope for characters who toggle between stunning and plain from minor changes in hair style (e.g., pony tail or not) and accessories (e.g., glasses or not), so I suppose you could make it work.

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I had been thinking that a person of attractive appearance isn’t necessarily of striking or distinctive appearance. I see a lot of young people on the beach who would certainly be convincing shaking the champagne or holding the big cheque in the victory video of a provincial motor-sports event, but who if they wore jeans and a sweater and ditched the glitzy sunglasses would not look out of the ordinary in a supermarket. But I guess that even in supermarket guise they get noticed more often than is ideal for a pavement artist.

That’s one of my assumptions for running fantasy worlds—that is, worlds with multiple cultures. It’s convenient to have a Shire analog that players (or readers) will find familiar, so that they can play a twentieth century Englishman or twenty-first century California with modest changes wandering through a world of horse-riding Vikings or Seelie plantation owners with Unseelie slaves. But many of my players have enjoyed playing more exotic character types.

Length of game may be a consideration there too. I’ve found players happier to take on board major weirdness about their own characters for a one-off demo scenario, where if it turns out not to be fun at least it isn’t a long term commitment, than in something that’s intended to be a longer campaign.

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Fair point. These characters are only intended to play in very occasional, isolated adventures. No continuity is being expected, and if any player is involved in one adventure and the next he or she might well not play the same character each time.

A similar consideration may attach to a player taking on a character of sex, gender, or sexuality not his or her own. Nevertheless I shall not sex or gender any of the characters and I have reservations about specifying that any of them is a swallow.

Splendiferous Wikipedia!

I just reviewed the characters I designed for the last Flat Black adventure that I presented at a con. They had forenames and definite sex, but I wrote the character briefs in second person. I seem to remember that that was for brevity.

They came out as 1 column intro to Flat Black, 1 column description of the world the adventure was set on (Cockaigne), 1 page of character brief (with a head shot), 1 page of ForeSight stats, and one page of effects and equipment.