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is a historical fractal story system that I've used successfully to generate background worlds for several campaigns, what it does it does very well.

What I'm looking for is something similar but not quite; a system that can generate campaign history for a group of characters that will end up in the same team/pub/gang.

I don't want to run a standard game-session using the target RPG game for this as that's too restrictive, it only gives you a moment of history.
What I want to do is have a single game-session using something where myself and the players can splice together moments of history for the different characters and get the story of how and why they are together.

This is for a cyberpunk 2020 game, but this could equally apply to any system.

So what I'm looking for is:

  • A method or system for generating group character backgrounds
  • It should encourage players to generate history together and moments where they've met/helped each other.
  • In the end the players should have something in common with each other and good reasons
  • It doesn't have to be a game, it could just be a methodology.
  • It should be doable in a single game session (3-4 hours or so)

While Microscope allows you to generate history it's more focused on events and things that are going on in order to answer historical questions (Why did the Klingons attack the Station 23?) It also actively discourages perpetuation of characters through history and a single history story for a whole world.
What I'm looking for is a way to generate multiple histories from the view of several characters that cross over at different points and ultimately end up in the same place.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm unclear on why you have decided against using Microscope for this. Could you detail in the question why you've rejected that option? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 10 '15 at 15:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have added; hopefully that explains why. I certainly was considering using Microscope and may fall back to using it if I have to; but it's not quite geared up for what I want and won't generate as much background. At the moment I'm considering using the Dresden files character generation system as that gives focus into character origins as well as how different characters met each other and what happened. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Apr 10 '15 at 15:51
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Fate Core, and other Fate-based systems, seem to do exactly what you're asking for. Since you're asking specifically about character backgrounds, I'll skip the part about collaborative game-world creation, which is also present in these games, and skip straight to the characters.

Chapter 3: Character Creation (FC30) opens with the header "Character Creation Is Play." One of the points they make is:

Character creation in Fate is collaborative. As with game creation, character creation is best done as a group activity. Doing all of this together builds a strong foundation of communication between the players and GM, and this process has a number of ways to establish connections between the characters and the setting.

The way this happens is through a series of phases. In Fate Core, there are three of these phases, which they call The Phase Trio, and each of them involves creating a new "aspect" for your character. (Note: In Fate, character aspects are short narrative hooks that describe your character and are used to justify your expenditure of Fate Points to create a mechanical bonus or give you an extra bit of narrative control. They can also earn you Fate Points, by complicating your character's life).

The three phases in Fate Core Character Creation are as follows:

  1. Phase One: Your Adventure

The first phase is your character’s first true adventure—his first book, episode, case, movie, whatever—starring him. You need to think up and write down the basic details of this story for the phase’s summary. The story doesn’t need to have a lot of detail—in fact, a pair of sentences works pretty well—because your fellow players will add in their own details to this past adventure in the next two phases (as you will to theirs).

  1. Phase Two: Crossing Paths

In the next two phases, you’ll tie the group together by having other characters contribute a minor, supporting role in your adventure, and vice versa. Once everyone has their adventure written down... you’re ready for phase two. You can pass to the left or right, or shuffle the stack and hand them out randomly... However you decide to do it, every player should now be holding someone else’s adventure. Your character has a supporting role in the story you’re holding, which you get to come up with right now. Briefly discuss it with the player whose adventure it is and add a sentence or phrase to the summary to reflect your character’s supporting role.

  1. Phase Three: Crossing Paths Again

Once everyone’s done with phase two, you’ll trade adventures with whatever method you chose before, so long as everyone has an adventure that isn’t theirs or the one they just contributed to. Then you’re ready for phase three, where you’ll contribute to this second adventure and determine your next aspect. Follow the directions from phase two.

Using this system, your character won't necessarily have met every other character (unless there are only three of you), but you will at least be within a few degrees of separation.


Other Fate-based games, such as Diaspora, Dresden Files RPG, and Spirit of the Century have similar collaborative character creation rules. For example, Diaspora's chapter on characters begins with this gem (p.31):

Creating a character uses a process that creates significant interaction in each others' stories. No Diaspora game begins, "You all meet in a space bar," -- how all the characters know each other and even what dirty secrets they share will all be considered as part of character creation.

I believe Diaspora was created before Fate Core, and the rules actually discuss five phases ("growing up", "starting out", "moment of crises", "sidetracked", and "on your own"), with two aspects being created in each phase. Of these, only phases 3 and 4 directly involve other PC's (those to your right and left, respectively).


Does this meet your requirements?

  • A method or system for generating group character backgrounds

Yes. You generate character backgrounds by inserting your character as a supporting character in another character's story.

  • It should encourage players to generate history together and moments where they've met/helped each other.

Yes. Each player must be involved in two other character's background stories.

  • In the end the players should have something in common with each other and good reasons

Yes. Each character now has the common shared experience of the phases they jointly contributed to. The reasoning is as good as the narratives they collaboratively create.

  • It doesn't have to be a game, it could just be a methodology.

Yes. It is not a game (as no dice are rolled), but it is a specific methodology.

  • It should be doable in a single game session (3-4 hours or so)

Yes. According to (FC30):

Combined with game creation, character creation can take a full session to do—this allows everyone to learn about the world and each other’s characters.

The one term you use that I'm not sure about is "fractal" -- it's not clear to me from your bullet point list of requirements just how you're using the term, or what you're expecting from it (the term refers to self-similarity across multiple scales). However, Fate uses a concept called the "Fate Fractal" (FC270) to be able to view anything in the game world as a character, and thus capable of having it's own aspects, skills, etc... For example, in the game-world creation section (that I passed over) the game world is described as having it's own aspects, much like a character might.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is pretty much what I was looking for; although I asked for a "Fractal" method, I wanted something that I could generate collaborative backgrounds and the fractal method was the only thing I could really think of that might be able to do this. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Apr 13 '15 at 7:27
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Microscope works fine for this. The two problems you note aren't actually problems Microscope itself brings to the table:

  1. Microscope focuses on historical events and questions. This is the usual focus of Microscope, but it's an effect of the type of history the group has chosen, not the game itself. Choosing the history of a group of people will result in events, periods, and scenes that are focused on that group of people's history; e.g.:

    • (Scene) "Why did Berengar leave the Church of Light?"
    • (Period) "The War of Succession (and how the PCs participated or didn't)"
    • (Event) "Annileise becomes the student of Jares the Kell."

    When the history is about a group of people, the historical events and questions are exact the kind you find in a really good background writeup.

  2. But Microscope actively discourages characters that live through the whole history. Yes, but only because the typical history is much longer than a single person's lifespan. That's why it discourages, but doesn't forbid, characters with lives that are comparably long to the chosen history. In practice, I've been part of games that have even broken this rule of thumb in millennium-spanning galactic empire histories, and when you're careful it works there. In a history that is very short, it's not a problem at all.

    One setup detail you have to pay attention to for such a short history is that it can't span significant changes in the PCs' ages. (Otherwise scene and event details start to cause problems for placement of future bits of history, which what Microscope's discouragement of long-lived characters is designed to fix.) Make the history five years, and not overlap with their childhood, and it works. For a game about how they met, you might only need a history that covers a year of in-world time.

So you can use Microscope for this just fine. Set up the bookends so that the last period is when they meet and the first is a period relevant to all of them — such as a war that affected all their homelands, or when they all started at Hogwarts, or whatever. Microscope's Lenses that focus everyone's history-making on the same thing means that the group will have a lot of shared things in their histories, even if they experienced them separately. Two veterans of the War for Cambrian Independence are going to bond over their shared but separate experiences of it.

There are many great ways to build a shared history, but Microscope contains no inherent barriers for being one of them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I could just be lacking caffeine, but I'm having a hard time parsing the last sentence? "There are other ways to build a shared history, but Microscope contains to inherent barriers for being one of them." \$\endgroup\$ – Cthos Apr 10 '15 at 16:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cthos Woah, one slip of the finger and it became complete gibberish. I had to read it thrice to get past what it was saying to recall what I meant; prepositions are so hard-coded in our brain. Thanks for catching that; fixed! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 10 '15 at 16:51
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Technoir immediately sprang to my mind.

The core scenario mechanic involves a list of 6 contacts, places, objects, organisations, something I can't remember and threats which are randomly combined with the GM inventing the reasons for their connections. This could probably be modified to do what you want.

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