What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

tripwireI was thinking about chargen techniques and the ways to push towards bad and hard things in play, and wondered about elaborating on a technique from 7th Sea. In 7S, as part of chargen, the GM could ask a player to describe their character’s death scene. There was absolutely no guarantee that this would be the way the character would die, or that anything related to it would happen, but for all that, it’s an incredibly powerful technique. Not only did it communicate a lot about the player’s intents and interests, it created this shared image that the GM could draw upon for foreshadowing and play elements that were guaranteed to have a certain amount of resonance and tension.

To give a crude example, if your character’s death scene is dueling her step-brother in the family crypt, you have just introduced an NPC that the player is invested in and created an interesting location. You have also guaranteed that when the game takes things to your family crypt, tension is automatically escalated because you have this shared idea. And if your step-brother emerges from the shadows, then it is on.

Placing this in the context of putting pressure on players (in ways they will enjoy), I found myself wondering what would happen if I were to ask during chargen “What are the three worst things that could happen to your character?”.

The answers would certainly be interesting an informative, and could be used to drive play in the manner of the 7th Sea death scene, but there are also risks. For some players (including many of mine), this list would more or less a checklist of the things they want to happen in play. For other players, this might be more of a list of options from which they’d love the GM to pick one (I’m more in that camp). For others still, this list would be the no fly zone, things they really don’t want to see.

Aside: That last group reveals that it’s important to define “worst” as considering any other limits the table has communicated. If a player has already communicated that something like child endangerment is not something they want to see, that should be taken as a given. They should not need to re-state it in in their worst list.

As with a character having an apex skill, this is one of those datapoint that works poorly without context, so there obviously needs to be some additional layer of communication. Perhaps something as simple as asking a follow up question “How many of these do you expect to come up in play?”.

That could work, but I worry about the no-fly list. When people pick zero, they’re giving you useful information about what they don’t want, but not much of you to act on. So what if you flip it around and also ask “What are three cool things that should happen to this character?”

I admit, I like this a bit because I know that when I create a character I really sink my teeth into, part of that process involves imagining their future triumphs. And it might be reasonable to leave it at that, but it’s maybe a bit too open ended and positive here, so I want one more tweak.

Suppose I ask both questions, then after I have two lists of three, I ask how many of them are expected to become true, with a limit on the number.

For example, I would be inclined to say “the two values cannot total more than four (or maybe three)” but that won’t work for every table. If your players are going to grab the bad with both hands, there’s no need to “balance” the equation. It’s truly a taste check. If, on the other hand, there is more of an interest in fairness at your table, you may say the good cannot outweigh the bad (or, if generous, that the good cannot outnumber the bad by more than one).

Either approach is fine, and has a pretty powerful result if you want your game to be strongly driven by players (as I do). But it also has an interesting upshot that is especially useful in advancement-lite games, like those in the Fate family. In getting this information, you have effectively just identified the character’s personal milestones. When one of the items on this list gets hit, that is a great mechanical trigger for almost anything, whether it’s a re-write, skill advancement or anything else.

I can think of a few more tricks to refine this – using cards for inspiration, for example, but I think as a baseline, this is a good enough trick that I need to bust it out for my next chargen.

4 thoughts on “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

  1. Jesse Cox

    Perhaps, “describe (flavorfully!) three situations in which you would choose to put yourself at mortal risk.”

    It puts the tension from the 7th Sea method, while making it clear that these need to be things the character would _choose_ to do, not just avoid at all costs.

    It doesn’t directly address the “pick one v. Pick three” question, but that can be asked explicitly on the side.

    And people who would risk mortal danger to avoid certain things are telling you something clearly different from people who would risk mortal danger to do/get/find certain things.

  2. Alex

    I think I’d agree with Jesse – as phrased in the blog, I think players would be saying things that they really, really *didn’t* want to happen to their PC… things to avoid.

    The ‘death scene’ idea is a really neat one, but you might have to frame a question more along the lines of “What kind of tragedy might your character experience?” or “How might you lose which treasured item”?

    Too directive? Or along the lines you are thinking of?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Definitely depends on the players. Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a phrasing that will work in all situations if intent is not clear.

  3. Stephan

    I’m thinking of asking my Fate players to describe their characters “at the height of their powers”, and also to ask what they think the character’s legacy might be. In a system like D&D, the class advancement table (including spell list, feats, etc.) goes a long way to describing “height of their power”. Fate is so cool because we have High Concept (and other Aspects) instead of class, but I still want to get on the same page as my players about their advancement arc.


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