Trait Draft: Constraints and freedom in character creation

Unique snowflakes

I love Lady Blackbird (it’s free, go flip through it). Never play it, but I’ve read through it so many times. The scenario’s roster of characters are so well developed and unique. Each role in the game has a solid two or three things that make them stand out.

I love FATE (it’s free, go flip through it). Never play it, but I’ve read through it so many times. The characters can be whatever you want them to be as a player. Each role can be defined by their high concept, trouble, and extra aspects that make them whatever else your heart desires.

But Lady Blackbird has downsides, for both the player and the GM. For the player, you choose which character to play and nothing else. Some may find those rails distasteful and constricting. For the GM, you can really only play that scenario once with the same group. You have to move on to another game after that. And if you as the GM wanted to design your own niche, complex characters for your games like in Lady Blackbird, you have a lot of work cut out for you making those characters JUST right.

But FATE has downsides too, both for the player and the GM. For the player, you choose everything about the character. I mean everything. Analysis paralysis much? Some may find that freedom uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. Not to mention that some players get into a rut of playing the same way with the same archetypes over and over. For the GM, you can’t plan around that kind of open-endedness. At least, not in the same session. FATE really needs a session zero to get the groundwork laid down and familiar otherwise you have to hone your improv skills JUST right.

To iterate:

Lady Blackbird? Constricted (but excellent) characters, one time play which makes scenario planning easy.

FATE? Promptless (but limitless) characters, infinite plays and configurations which makes scenario planning difficult.

Middle ground: The Trait Draft

The GM comes to the table with a series of cards for his three players, laid out by category like so:

Because the pic is so bad:

Category A (finances): Collector, Getting By, In Debt

Category B (reputation): Criminal Record, Recognized, High Rep

Category C (family): Noble Birth, Adopted, Malevolent Sibling

Category D (extra features): Dance, Secret Language, 20/20 Vision, Cooking, Ride, Animal’s Best Friend, Consume Alcohol

Category E (mechanical bonus): Lucky, Second Wind, Divine Favor.

“We’ll go around and each player must pick one card from each category. On your turn, you can pick from whichever category you want, but you must end up with one from A, B, C, and E. D is special and you’ll end up with two from that Category. Got it?”

So players get a choice in building their characters, but from limited set. They can’t be the smart, richest, AND best looking in the party so which do they choose? One players HAS to have the Malevolent Sibling, so who’s it gonna be?

You could even have players who intentionally choose “bad” traits so other players can have better ones. Everyone (including the GM) loves them for this as they embrace the faultiest character’s misfortunes.

In play though, this generally balances out. Each player gets something awesome, something eh, and something bad.

Each player emerges with a character as unique as Firefly, er, Lady Blackbird, but still informed by their choices like in FATE.

It eases the constrictions and narrows the focus. Give and take.

And you as the GM? Your scenario design got a lot more open-ended than Lady Blackbird, but much more focused than the infinity that is FATE. You have written down “Malevolent Sibling = Tiffany, evil sister who is a spy for Dr. Horrible” but you don’t know exactly WHO is going to have her for a sibling. Maybe whoever has the “In Debt” trait is going to be the one who brings the group together for the heist. Maybe whoever has the “High Rep” trait will be approached by a wealthy corporate member who has a job for someone he can trust.

Are the wheels turning yet?

You still get to design the scenario, but there are blanks where the players’ names will go instead of everything being known in advance or the whole design being absolutely blank.

Few design notes

Not every Category needs to have as many cards as players. Category D (extra features) has seven cards, so each player (of three) will get two then. But last card? Keep it or discard it? Up to you and your table.

There are many Categories to list here. Finances, rep, items, superpowers, connections, body build, starting vehicle, bending type, even starting stats.

Category F (strength): 16, 12, 10, 8, 4

Category G (dexterity): 16, 12, 10, 8, 4

Category H (will): 16, 12, 10, 8, 4

You might get “Super good-looking” and “Enchanted sword” but your Strength and Dexterity scores are looking a little low there, son.

I hinted at it above, but mechanical traits, feat-like things can be drafted. Trait cards don’t have to ALL be diegetic things (take a shot).

Category I (mechanical nonsense): One re-roll per session, Start at level 2, +10 ft of movement speed per turn.

Could be spent things:

Category J (bennies): extra turn, +10 temporary HP, one free level 3 spell

Not every trait card HAS to be unique either. To enforce a human-centric game with six players for example, (as I’m likely to do) you might have:

Category K (species): Elf, Dwarf, Human (city), Human (city), Human (city), Human (desert).

Use the same trait cards from one game to the next. Add to them. Remove some. Make a whole new set. Doctor them up however you want. You’re the captain.

Wouldn’t recommend more than 8 categories of things. You do want this to be fast, right?


Open your game up with some light prep-work in the form of imaginative traits. Kick the beginning up a notch by giving great things to the party and letting them choose who gets what.

Empower without giving panic-inducing freedom or that ugly sense of “I feel like I’m cheating by making my High Concept myself.”

GMs still get to be control-freaks (yay, me!).

Players still get to make choices (yay, them!).

Everyone wins. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Trait Draft: Constraints and freedom in character creation

    1. Seems a good number of folks are having the same reaction! Perhaps some more example lists from myself or outsourced from you fine people could flesh this out even more… 🙂

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