Walking in Gumshoes ~ Casting and Creating Characters

It turns out we were more than perilously close to starting our campaign of Mutant City Blues by Pelgrane Press last week, it began within moments of my posting this article.  I really wasn’t expecting it to have started before the end of that week, so that was a great surprise.

In sensible fashion, we began with the assignment by our watch commander to report to the first crime scene our three investigators would work together. In between in-character posts, the GM has been working with each of us to flesh out certain things he finds interesting or useful in our backstories and circumstances. There is no official posting rate, but replies are following replies at a good pace.

Before we get too deeply into how things are being processed, let’s finally take a look at the characters we have created for our version of Mutant City Montreal.

Two Detectives and One MD!

(I can’t help but hear the Beastie Boys in my head as I type that…)  Anyway, our player group is fielding two detective sergeants, and one embedded forensics consultant.

  • The lead of the two detectives in our player group is a native of Montreal, and has overcome a shady past of family members being in the mob. A member of a very Italian family, Luciano Cattaneo has an educational background in law and finance, and a passion for neatness. Observers are not surprised that he went into law enforcement, but some might note that he has managed to live a comfortable life from investments, real estate, and so on. His record with the department is unblemished, however, and he has a reputation as a stickler for regulations.
  • The junior detective in our pairing is mine, Carter MacTavish. You can read about him in greater detail below should you like, but in essence, he is a highly trained, highly disciplined cop who has been passed over due to a perception he makes a better 2nd than a lead. Carter has always been more concerned with helping people than helping himself. He is hoping his transfer to HCIU in Montreal will finally allow his character to benefit his career.
  • The forensic consultant assigned to this pair is Dr. Cora Vale. Bearing very visible scars from some sort of trauma in her past, Dr. Vale is known to have served in the military overseas, and most suspect got her injuries there. It is not a topic of conversation. A very valued asset in the department, Cattaneo and MacTavish are envied for drawing her as their embedded consultant. Cattaneo and Vale have worked together a few times in the past few years, and it is a matter of amused rumour that perhaps the two of them, plus the outsider MacTavish were put together because no one else could stand to work with them every day.

Discord in Development

One unsurprising element in the staging of the campaign was resistance to the adoption of overlapping conceits and conventions which would allow us to just get on with investigating things regardless of what might happen ‘in the real world.’ Realism, or at least the simulation of realism, has always been a watchword with us. Hand-waving is usually reserved for things we just don’t know well enough about to model to our own satisfaction. As a result, we ended up in cordial discussions trying to get our heads around how elite the system made our characters – whether we liked that level of eliteness or not. Trying to limit access to the wide range of abilities only made that worse as the points had to go somewhere eventually. It may sound strange to some that players would be uncomfortable with characters that are too competent, but this is not some bizarre 0-level fetish. This is the reaction to wondering about how this character could come about, and why on Earth they would settle for this job if they could do all these things so well. When you are not trying to play “the best,” but rather are seeking to participate in an engaging and challenging experience, things like this stick out and annoy you.

Although there were only three of us generating characters, we did get to see two major character generation approaches butt heads briefly. One was to bring a fleshed out idea to Gumshoe and try to make that character, as experienced by the forensic consultant’s player. The other was my approach (my normal new game approach) of forming a character out of what I make or roll during character creation. I do not bring this up to get into a ‘this approach is better than that approach’ debate, but to illustrate an interesting quirk that I did not fully expect.

As this is a narrative-heavy game with more respect for what the players want to happen than you would expect in a system with rules more strongly defining play and reality, I did not really believe that a player would run into trouble generating a character by any approach. I expected players to not like their choices, or the setting, or the fonts, or whatever, but I did not expect there to be actual issues about character creation. To be fair, the word issue is perhaps too loaded for this situation, but I cannot say that the creation of the consultant was smooth. That she exists at all is a function of two things: the player wanted to run a personality/profession concept that she had started but not gotten to play in a different game, and several of us were having problems rationalizing how a lot of the main investigative skills could really be a part of a working detective’s life.

To address the second part first, rather than force us to accept that little bit of cognitive dissonance, the GM reworked the concept of our department to include a consultant with each pair of detectives. She took on the bulk of the lab-related skills, while we rounded out the investigation and cop-related skills. There are a few exceptions that sparked later conversations along the lines of “we have to accept how awesome these characters are,” but this solution took the bulk of the ‘entitlement theater’ aspect out of our way.

That solution mostly took care of the second and lesser factor in the group’s character creation, but in so doing in this specific case it played into the first problem. The first was more significant in my eyes as quite simply, the game would not let the player reasonably create her character in this game. She could easily have any personality, background, and lifestyle she desired just by writing them down, but at the end of the process you are still hit with this: “Take scores in the following skills…” The lowest rating is a 1 and a 1 is awesome.

With many of these skills, they are career defining elements not mere aspects of a broader career. This did not cause a mechanical problem for the player, who simply went with the flow and adjusted the backstory of the character concept to fit the role the system was shaping. This did cause us to raise our eyebrows, however, as the character concept she chose did not violate or impinge upon the type of game Mutant City Blues is trying to be. It was our first solid interaction not with how competent Gumshoe characters are, but with how extremely talented they are in more than one area of expert knowledge and practice. It was jarring.

When I created my character, I followed the steps as outlined in the core rules, and as I began assigning points on a whim in my mind, I began to see a character forming between the lines. When I sat down to write the character out, I was able to work with the skill descriptions and that hazily suggested character to have an acceptable balance between reasonable limitations and the system’s enforced application of awesomeness. Overall, I found the creation process to be fast and fun. It supported me in making an investigator of this type, and it let me roam free in other areas. I am quite pleased with the persona that grew out of this process. I can say honestly that I do not believe this character would have grown out of a more structured chargen process. By constraining the player only in terms of what they can do investigatively and as a result of their powers, you walk a fine line between freedom and explaining away that frightful level of competence. Interesting, but as I said above – not compatible with all visions. The whole process from start to finish took about 20 minutes. Transferring character details from point form to paragraph form took another 20, spread out over a few commutes.

Sample Character:

Carter MacTavish

This is a link to the character I have created for the game. This level of depth of character is normal in the games that we play – regardless of type. I would make a character this detailed for Palladium Fantasy, Call of Cthulhu, Aces & Eights, All for One, or really any of the games that I run and play. The direction it takes is in direct response to a call from the GM for a gritty, Noir feel, with a hint of Bladerunner rain and desperation. What is unique about this character for me is the focus and breadth on personal as opposed to professional information I felt like encoding in this write-up. Unlike in other games where I have to identify what and how characters do what they do. In Mutant City Blues everybody knows what you do and why; the describing needs to be about something else, and it needs to go further than just listing motivations because none of the traditional character framework such as attributes are here to speak for you.

The observant will note that this character does put itself, and therefore me (or is that the other way around?) in conflict with Gumshoe in one way. I did not want him to be lauded and transferred to HCIU because of great successes on the force. He has the skills for that to be true, but I did not want to play that personality. I was more interested in a character that has chosen time and again to stand outside the spotlight and support others in order that justice be done, and criminals be brought to justice. That others more ambitious than he chose to climb over him is as much his unwitting fault as it was their premeditated fault. In Montreal, I want to see if Carter can survive in a high-pressure world where the spotlight is firmly on him and there is nowhere to slip away and out of sight. It does take a stretch of personal credulity to look at his scores and accept this past. I take this as a sign, as I said before, that this game is not really targeted at me. I am in it for the investigative action, but having to wrestle, as are the others, with the core assumptions of the game, and the way those assumptions lead into running elite characters. We will get into a deeper discussion of this effect later, but…

Next Time

In the next entry we will take a look at how the GM is using Google Drive to organize play, and present the details of the first case, a murder in a commercial district behind the world-famous Shwartz’ Restaurant.

I hope you will continue to take this journey with me~

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One Response to “Walking in Gumshoes ~ Casting and Creating Characters”
  1. Murderbunny says:

    When creating Dr Vale, I hadn’t started with the intention of re-purposing a character from an aborted game. I didn’t have a solid idea for a character at first, so I was going to read the book, peruse the powers, and build a character around some powers that I liked.

    I got to the skills section first, noted the Medic, Anamorphology and Forensic Anthropology skills, and then became inspired to a course of action that would cause our GM grief. At a time when neither the GM nor I had finished reading the book, I re-wrote the doctor’s backstory to fit in with my somewhat incomplete understanding of the MCB universe while still keeping to the core concepts of that character.

    She takes a visual cue from Whiskey (Dollhouse), and much of the expressed personality is inspired by characters such as Dr McCoy, Dr House, Dr Lazarus (Outland) and Dr Cottle (BSG Re-Imagining). TV Tropes calls this type of character a “Dr. Jerk”. I also liked the idea of a doctor with a dark and troubled past and who appears mostly harmless but is able to surprise would-be assailants with just how effective she can be at exploiting her knowledge of anatomy and practiced, steady hands to harm as well as heal.

    The problem was that although the system let me create such a character, the assumptions of the setting are that all the player characters would be police detectives. We all found it a bit jarring that player characters would be allowed to take skills that are pretty much careers in and of themselves (lawyers, psychoanalysts, Anamorphologists, forensics lab rats of all stripes etc), but not be in careers where those skills would logically take center stage. How many police detectives do you know who have medical or law degrees? The closest fictional example I could think of is Agent Scully, who has a medical degree specialized in pathology, but is a special agent for the FBI.

    The combination of system permissions and setting assumptions would turn the player characters into what TV-Land imagines super-geniuses must be like: hyper-competent Renaissance men and women capable of performing the tasks of three full-time careers. So what are all these super-geniuses doing in mid-level policing careers? For people who are sticklers for realism in their fiction, it was something we needed to work out.

    As for integrating my troublesome doctor into the PC group, the GM took inspiration from a TV series called Bones, where the title character – a forensic anthropologist – is partnered with FBI agent Angel– I mean, Booth, as a permanent consultant. So, one problem solved.

    It’s quite a switch from the World of Darkness games I’m used to, where frequent failure is practically expected. I now enter a world of hyper-competent characters where success is the practically the default. This could take some getting used to.

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