In the old days, we’d have these intense conversations in a nearby hallway, sometimes out on the porch. The game’s genre and system would be decided on, sometimes with a premise of some kind (Deadlands, you are all part of a travelin’ show / L5R, you are all Crab out in the Shadowland wastes to find a lost visiting Crane) and the players would pitch their character ideas.
These talks were always away from the other players, out of ear-shot because we didn’t want secrets to be unveiled, you see.
I would listen. With my whole brain I’d listen. Because somewhere in their back-stories was the meat of the campaign. If I didn’t understand the character, I’d ask questions and we’d talk about it until we were both nodding, knowing that we understood one another. On a good hall/porch talk, I’d add in a detail to their history, elaborate on something they said to make sure we were on the same track and gauge their reaction.
Sometimes, “Yeah, that’s it,” and their eyes would sparkle and dance as we connected.
Sometimes, “No, more like this,” and it would take another round of questions to get that connection going.
I was looking for Beliefs, Instincts and Traits.
I was looking for Kickers.
I was looking for Aspects.
The game needed something to be built around and I knew just enough over a decade ago to know that the scaffolding was in the character’s histories. Back then, I had to read that shit on the wind.
Nowadays, my conversations with players are far more fruitful. The games I enjoy playing have character sheets that are inspirational. All of that brain-effort that was taken up by trying to suss magic out of the wind can now go towards teasing magic out of the character sheet, towards making a good character concept great.
I am not a palm reader but a soothsayer or augur and the players spill their guts on their character sheets, allowing us to get to the good, bloody stuff.
And the truth is, the truth is I still read the damned wind. I never stopped. I get little vibes about a character and find little nooks and crannies that are in between the lines.
But if the wind is still and silent, there’s always the blood and the guts. It is all right there on the table and its a glorious mess to sort through with friends.