I'm aware of games where the players cooperatively build elements of the story world (I hear Dresden Files does this), but are there any where the players cooperatively build their characters?

What I'm imagining is a game that follows the D&D style of having a group of adventurers that travel around and do things together, with a single GM who runs the game and decides on the story and world elements, but where the characters are made cooperatively by the players.

How do you cooperatively build characters, yet allow each player to have control over the nature of their character?


5 Answers 5


In Spirit of the Century, in character generation you specifically include other PCs as "guest stars" in parts of your origin, linking them with common experiences (and, optionally, skills). This got inherited by Dresden Files and other later FATE-based stuff like Disapora, Starblazer Adventures, and optionally in Strands of FATE.

In Ars Magica, the troupe style of gaming is usually reflected in grogs and support characters being generated somewhat "at large" and played by whoever it makes sense to at the time.

In Primetime Adventures, players collaborate both on creating the characters and the nature of the "show" they are in.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Mongoose Traveller has a mechanism by which you could establish connections with other player characters during character creation, with the permission of the other player - and you each got a bonus skill point for it, which is a big deal in Traveller. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 17, 2012 at 6:11

I just acquired my copy of Mystic Empyrean, which revolves around the premise that your character becomes how they act. (PCs are immortals/godlings made of the essence of the universe, so being all protean isn't that strange in context.) I'll describe the rules it uses, but I'm not saying "go play this game": how this game does cooperative character development could be used as the inspiration for a character development subsystem in another game.

The mechanic behind it is fairly elegant: After each encounter/challenge, your character sheet gets passed around. Each other player adds a point to one of your character's traits (you start with ten, out of possible hundreds). Traits that have a certain number of ranks give your character extraordinary abilities and are reflected in their appearance. Most importantly (and this is governed by overt social contract, not mechanics), the other players are giving you points for the facets of your character that you played in the encounter. So if you are judged to have been particularly brave, your character becomes braver, eventually manifesting related powers. If you were skulky, your character becomes stealthier, eventually manifesting shadowy powers.

It does rely on everyone judging fairly, but because it's a distributed effort, how your character changes over multiple encounters tends to be more-or-less accurate. Because it's based on how you actually played your character and your tactics for solving problems, the development stays under your direction. However, it remains a cooperative exercise, since everyone gets to mark down what they saw and were enthused about in your performance.

It's worth noting that Mystic Empyrean gives everyone a player character and has the GM seat rotate within an encounter, with each "round" being managed by a different player, making the cooperative context of the game fairly central to play. It can be run with a single GM just as easily, though that would de-emphasise the shared nature of the world and gives players more incentive to "game" their character's development since it's their only point of control over the game's events.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Huh. fascinating. \$\endgroup\$ May 16, 2012 at 23:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Would you be willing to run a session of that in the back room? \$\endgroup\$ May 16, 2012 at 23:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Brian That briefly occurred to me, but alas for not having reliable large chunks of time. I'll consider it though should I find myself with an upcoming block of time to play with. \$\endgroup\$ May 16, 2012 at 23:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BrianBallsun-Stanton I just checked, and the free Mystic Empyrean preview PDF does have a (slightly) simplified version of the character-progression rules that I'm referring to in this answer, on page 13. The preview doesn't cover character creation, but then the game's chargen (as opposed to chardev) system is one of the few things that aren't collaborative anyway. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2012 at 18:34

My paper on constrained optimization has a section on group character creation. This section can be applied to any RPG that doesn't have strictly competitive aspects and has been tested repeatedly in 4e and Pax Draconis.

To quote:

Group character creation should be performed with all of the members of the group in real or virtual proximity. “Shuffling the sheets,” the process of sharing the character sheets, is what allows everyone to be invested in all of the characters. It also allows everyone to learn more about the mechanical options available to the group and how these interact.

The start of the process is a discussion about the group social contract. As part of the social contract, the group should also discuss what kinds of narratives they want to explore. Articulating this before the start of the character creation process is essential as it allows everyone to put binding positive and negative requirements onto the group. While these requirements are usually story based, there is no reason why they cannot also include functional or theoretical requirements.

With the group requirements set, everyone then articulates one positive requirement for a character. The positive requirement can take many forms, but at its heart it is an idea that will shape the rest of the character. Depending on the size of the group it is worth allowing one or all of the players to make one or more characters at the same time. To ensure that everyone has choice, even if players choose not to make an extra character, the DM should participate in this process. While she will not end up playing this character, it means that every person, even the person choosing last, will be presented with a choice of characters. Preservation of choice and agency is critical at all stages of the game.

Negative requirements will not be solicited, as they can manifest as post hoc editing of individual characters. As each player claims ownership of a character to play in game, they will be allowed to make whatever edits they want to the character: customizing it to fit their own particular requirements. It is futile and un-fun to expect a player to choose to play a character that doesn’t fit their own requirements, however it was generated.

Players then provide a mechanical sketch of each character. A sketch varies by system, but is best described as a single choice of a mechanical characteristic by each player. Shuffle the sheets and repeat until every character has a complete sketch. This outline of character, with everyone making a choice for every character, provides a community consensus over the nature of characters. People engaged in this process are encouraged to ask for help or information from more experienced players, but to not allow them to dominate character creation. One way to enforce this is to allow suggestions only as a response to a direct question.

The process of making single choices also is a sneaky way to inculcate system mastery. As each choice is treated as a different event and is explained to the group, that explanation combined with the act of making a decision serves as a reinforcement mechanism for learning. In this way, the character creation process can teach a new group a system far more effectively than a solitary creation process.

With sketches completed, shuffled many times between players, it then becomes time to sanity check all of them for their faithfulness to the requirements. Edit sketches as needed so that they align with the group social contract and the individual requirements for each character. With the mechanical-functional sketches out of the way, a group backstory should be invented. As the group comes to exist as a joint entity, it is trivial to create real bonds of trust between characters. One common theme of group narrative is an organization, providing a convenient trope to explain trust, a history, and a source for new characters. It is important only that there exists trust between characters; the form of those bonds of trust is up to the party.

With a group backstory in place, shuffle the sketches and allow players to craft and share a backstory for each character. The backstory can be as long or as short as the player wishes, but should draw upon the dominant mechanical themes in the sketch. It is at this point that the characters should be named.

With sketch and name in place, it becomes time to complete the build of every character. Groups may choose to continue the random shuffling for the complete build or may simply allow players to choose their character at this point and have the eventual “owner” of the character complete the creation process.

With creation complete, the group should articulate general tactics for each character. By allowing the group as a whole to brainstorm, individual players will not have to play out unprofitable interactions with other characters through trial and error. These tactics may be encoded as checklists at the group’s discretion.

This group character creation process involves everyone in the group at every step of the way. One downside of this is that it becomes proportionally more difficult to add new players to the group after the fact. They will be presented with pre-established characters to choose from. While the new player will be welcome to customize the character they have been handed, there is very little room for originality within the constraints set by the original group. If the occurrence is seldom enough of if combat losses have been incurred, the advent of a new member of the group may be a time to do another round of group character creation, adding the characters so generated to the already existing game organization. This activity then becomes a formal welcoming ritual and keeps the group strength up despite losses to unfortunate events in the world.


The thing to bear in mind is that "cooperative character creation" doesn't mean that someone else picks a stat/ability/whatever for your character. What it means is that players work together to come up with a shared background or connection, then get a mechanical benefit for their own characters to reflect that. Obviously it assumes that people are willing to work together to come to an agreed-upon outcome instead of viewing it as a "competition".

Take Dresden Files. Part of character creation is coming up with your character's "first appearance", which would be the novel your character would have appeared in. Once you have that, you give it to another player at random, and they work their character in as a "guest star".

Let's say Joe made his DFRPG character, and his first appearance is a story is about him fighting a bunch of zombies. Then I get his story and I have to write how my character appeared in his zombie story. I could suggest that Joe saved me from a zombie attack. If he's okay with that, then we each pick an Aspect that reflects that relationship. I might take "I Owe Joe My Life", while Joe might take "Natural Protector".

So now we've established a connection between our characters (and defined a bit of backstory and did a little worldbuilding), and his story had an influence on my character creation. But it was just that: an influence. The actual Aspect was entirely up to me, and Joe's character's Aspect was up to Joe. We can offer suggestions (of course), but we're still at the helm of our own choices.

Now, if Joe didn't like the "he saved me" idea, he could of course make his own suggestion, or we could back-and-forth some ideas until we got something we liked. Again, it's about woking together.

Apocalypse World also has collaborative chargen; each character has a "History" stat that determines how well the characters know each other. This is determined by each character playbook having some predetermined questions to ask other players. For instance, the Chopper (the biker gang leader) can pick another character and ask: "You stood up to me and my gang by yourself one time. What was that all about?" Then the two players hash out that situation, and then that determines the History stat between the characters.


In Dresden characters' backgrounds are created so that a character has a past experience with another character. Then an aspect is developed from that event. This provides roleplaying opportunities throughout the game by referencing that aspect.


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