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Breakdown: Creating Characters

Posted by Jason Walters on

Author’s Comments on Breakdown:  “Creating Characters”

I’ve especially enjoyed recent historical and sociological storytelling games, such as Microscope and In a Quiet Year, as well as my own foray into that realm, At the Hands of an Angry God.  But it’s been a great pleasure to return to character-focused gaming, my first love in roleplaying. 

Breakdown is relentlessly focused on character, specifically that of our players’ protagonists, whom we call “Pros.”  The settings exist solely to facilitate Pro creation, help bond Pros, and focus Pro context (including plot lines), otherwise bearing no weight of their own.  Plots only serve character development, being built solely based to fulfill player desires for their Pros in the given context.

But unlike many games, especially most “traditional” ones, Breakdown is devoid of skill or attribute ratings and mechanics.  How good is your Pro at seduction?  As good as you say they are, up to the limit of verisimilitude (which in turn is defined by your play group and setting expectations, not arbitrarily by the game system). 

As discussed in last week’s entry, this game focuses almost solely on emotional context for conflict execution.  Your Pro might be the most seductive character in the world, but their seduction may fail when acting out of grief instead of focused only on the job at hand – or be the stuff of legends when acting out of genuine feelings of love.

And so, this seduction ability has no measure as such.  For some players, especially those familiar with “traditional” action-adventure roleplay gaming, the absence of measuring a skill or attribute may be jarring.  If this game otherwise intrigues you, I hope you stick with it.  I’ve seen plenty of players have a great time along the lines reflected in my favorite praise of the game: “we just played a hacking conflict, and it was exciting instead of tedious and technical!”  As you’ll see in the “Action” chapter that follows, there’s copious examples to help you get into the groove of driving action with your Pro’s emotions and intentions.

But before we dive into that, in order to have a firm grasp on those emotions and intentions, we first spend time defining our Pros through the lens of their Problem, Caring, Drive, and Success.  We understand these in part to then define their Emotion Pools and Openings, the tools for conflict resolution and dramatic escalation.  Because the coherence of our storytelling depends on mutual understanding, we do it together.  Then, when those mechanics come into play, when your Pro is ready to act, you can think about what is really going through their head – unconsciously and consciously.  And we can think about what makes the narrative and therefore our play more interesting to everyone.

It should be said that the emphasis on “emotion” is broad and includes such as the self-absorption of the hyper-skilled or otherwise self-focused.  If you want to play that sort of Pro, you’ll see discussed in the text how your friend will be the Focus Emotion Pool.  This game gives you the tools to play a character so absorbed in their skills and puzzles that they risk losing touch with humanity. 

And we’ll talk more next time about your Pro in action, and especially how players may drive more or less tense action, may rely on the mechanics more or less.

(This entry’s side note:  I’d like to call out Downfall as the most compelling fusion of sociological storytelling and character-focused roleplaying that I know.  I can’t think of another game where both setting and character are so equally critical in defining play, resulting in stories that work along the lines of The Great GatsbyAtlas Shrugged, or Fahrenheit 451.)


Who is a Pro?

A Pro is first and foremost a protagonist. We want the Pro to succeed, we are pulling for them. Maybe the Pro is a jerk, maybe even psychologically limited in dealing with others. But we care about the Pro. In this game, that means the Pro wants some kind of good, has some kind of noble aspiration: they want to rescue children, save a loved one, maybe even fix society as a whole. They are not just happening to do good while plotting evil or ambling ambivalently: play a different game if that’s the character you want to play.

And a Pro is vulnerable. Because the Pro cares. It might be limited, it might be deep down, but this connection to others or at least someone else is real and – unless the character is being retired – unbreakable.

Also, the Pro is awesome and powerful. Even in the most realistic and gritty of settings, the Pros in this game “get things done.” Even if the Pro is not admired, even if the Pro isn’t known as capable, even if the Pro lacks confidence, he, she, or they are highly capable.

Despite being awesome, the Pro will, on occasion, be self-defeating! What makes the Pro vulnerable doesn’t always mix well with what makes the Pro awesome. The Pros in this game alienate others, hurt loved ones, harm themselves, and/or generally screw up. Because they care too much. Or because they are trying so hard not to care.

Stick with those fundamental principles and you won’t go wrong.

Facilitating Pro Creation

Creating Pros is a group activity. Every group will find their own way, but do employ the following basic guidelines:

  • EVERYBODY talks. EVERYBODY listens. EVERYBODY thinks. That sometimes means BE QUIET, let everyone else have a chance to speak.

  • Be polite, be a basically decent person, etc.. The (should-be) normal rules of social engagement apply.

  • Ask questions – especially “WHY.” WHY is this character this way? Does it REALLY make sense without explanation? For example: “I am focused on saving children.” Sure, we “all” love children, but why does THIS Pro love children? If it is just a superficial generality, it’s a crap motivation; the Pro/player will forget it as soon as play begins. But if there is a good reason, nobody will forget, and the play will be more interesting. For example, “I try to rescue children because I saw my brother abused by my father, who got custody of him, and I can’t stand how he’s a drunken wreck now.” Wow! Maybe your REAL passion isn’t “saving children,” it is “SAVING MY BROTHER” or “PUNISHING MY FATHER”, and your Pro just can’t quite face it yet! We have lots of stories to tell now, step by step, as we have gripping, fertile ground to explore.

  • Do not pressure anyone. Do not forget anyone.

  • Remember, a person playing a Pro owns that Pro’s character and story. Do not push your ideas on them; just suggest. If they don’t like an idea, drop it.

  • Keep thinking: “every moment I am talking, someone else cannot,” and respect everyone’s time and participation accordingly.

  • Go into enough detail to “get the idea” but not much more. Try to keep things open. Do not write an extensive backstory. This will make it easier to adjust later as the characters come more into focus by actual play. Treat this as any television or paperback series where it usually takes a few episodes or books for the richest backstories and character expositions to arise.

If you are playing Darkness, unlike everyone else, you are not creating a Pro. You will not create any characters while the others create their Pros. Your most important job is to LISTEN. Second to that, and EQUAL to everyone else, is the role of contributing ideas. What you should be hearing are ways to help these people tell the stories of their Pros. If not, that is where you need to ask questions and help drive engaging character concepts.

This game provides a specific way to frame and talk about your Pros. There are four dynamics elaborated for each Pro:

  • The Problem: this is a problem both immediate and not easily resolved – it is deep and wide. It frames early conflicts for the Pro that are interesting to the player. It provides a long-term challenge for the character.

  • The Drive: this helps shape the moment-to-moment play of the game and the world of the Pros. It tells us the kinds of conflicts the Pros will regularly encounter.

  • The Caring: this also goes to framing challenges, but in a more emotional context. It tells us motivation. It is key to defining interesting moral and emotional challenges for the Pro.

  • The Success: this tells us what makes the Pro so cool and how they win: what edges they have, what special skills, what relationships or connections they bring to bear, etc...

The Protagonist Profile page/section is provided to maintain descriptive information about each Pro. Space is provided to record the information created by players as follows…

The Problem

This is especially influenced by the setting. In Life in the Shadows, it will more likely be a specific mess, possibly without the Pro’s knowledge. In The Breaking Point, it will more likely be a long-brewing personal issue, perhaps repressed or ignored.

The Problem is the critical springboard for the Pro’s story. It will shape the beginning circumstances and challenges for the Pro. What the Pro knows about it will shape how the first Scenes unfold.

Remember, the Problem must have immediacy and cannot be easily resolvable.

Some examples…


Meet Edwin in a game of Life in the Shadows. He’s a Professional Socializer (a “Pro-Soc”) in our near-future dystopia: a Pro-Soc posts to social media on clients’ behalf by employing recording devices mounted on clients and at their frequent haunts. The profession is well-established, as it’s expected that people share regularly online – otherwise it’s presumed one has something to hide.

Edwin’s clients are his sole connection to humanity. He sits alone among his tech in his otherwise-spare apartment, vicariously living their lives. And here’s the Problem: they, like others in society, are disappearing. He’s uniquely placed to witness the moments of their disappearance, although he’s never able to see exactly who or what is doing it. He’s afraid to go to the authorities (and they haven’t come to him, which is suspicious given they can easily identify Edwin as recording their movements).

We have a good Problem for Edwin. What will he do? What will “they” (the authorities – or someone else) do?


In a game of The Breaking Point, first year resident Dr. Pearl Rar has a serious problem at home. Since living together, her boyfriend has become increasingly unstable and emotionally abusive; she fears he may become physically abusive. She is hiding this from others and doesn’t know what to do.

Further complicating matters, she’s starting to feel sick and is avoiding the issue, as the symptoms prompt fears it could be a recurrence of cancer from her youth.


Paramedic Rob’s Problem is an emotional/psychological one. When Rob was ten, his brother died in an accident. Ever since, he sees his mission as “do or die,” as if he can somehow rescue his brother vicariously. He recklessly risks himself, ignoring safety protocol for the greater good – as he perceives it. He’s been cited by the medical board and he’s on thin ice.

Darkness will ensure he’s put right in the thick of danger.


Back to Life in the Shadows, there’s Chris. He knows he’s an android, but doesn’t know his origin, having only memories of being a “normal” human, growing up, joining the marines, and becoming a private detective. RobChris remembers his father leaving forever shortly after his twelfth birthday. He remembers his distant and often absent mother, with whom he’s lost touch since leaving home. He had a long-term girlfriend after the military, a medical examiner through whom he discovered he isn’t exactly human, but she disappeared long ago. The existence of androids is only a vague rumor barely known to the general public.

Note that Chris’ Problem is on one hand quite specific (he’s an android, that’s unusual enough) but on the other quite vague in that there’s no specific pressing spark and no direction as to what threat is forthcoming. This is how Chris’ player wanted it, giving permission expressly to Darkness to take the “who” and “why” in any direction, while considering the background given for Chris.


Admitting Clerk Luciana Ruiz, who works in the same emergency room as Pearl, also has a domestic problem, but of a whole other sort. When a teenager, she gave birth to a daughter, who was adopted and raised by an aunt. Now the daughter, 14, is trying to establish a connection with Luciana, who struggles with feelings of guilt and a wall of emotional distance.

And more emergency worker Problems…

Let’s not forget Trisha Mason, the EMT who cheated her way to accreditation via a stand-in and is living in fear of discovery. Or Darcy Stimson who is a firefighter and a “high-functioning” (aren’t they always?) cocaine addict.

The Drive

What drives the Pro day-to-day? What is their self-appointed mission? It cannot be their job description! It is more specific and more personal. Some examples:

  • Save children (by itself this is rather general: consider defining how and/or from what?)

  • Find my wife

  • Protect the “innocent” (best to define this a little more – the naïve? the weak? the falsely accused?)

  • Speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves

  • Fulfill a family obligation (must be more specific, such as “my grandfather was a cop, my mother was a cop, my siblings all serve”)

The Drive tells us what should be dangled in front of the Pro. It tells us what pushes their buttons day-to-day, what drives their decisions.

Sometimes the Drive is wrapped up in the Problem or the Caring. That is fine, as you’ll see in some of the examples of Pro’s Drives below.


We already know that Chris, the android, wants to find out about how his origin. That does not really help us understand his day-to-day, so Chris’ player fills that in with a “day job” as a private detective. Exploring why that job and what is the Drive, Chris’ player defines that Chris most values the pursuit of truth. So we “get” Chris’ Drive, it tells us what we need to know.


From the same game as Chris, there’s Clint, the hacker, an obsessed freedom fighter. His Drive is to compromise the NSA’s vast, secret surveillance system. His Drive created his Problem as he is being identified and singled out by “them” (shadowy forces of the state).


In The Breaking Point setting, firefighter Darcy Stimson is obsessed with safety (in the same game as our “damn the rules” Rob; the players collaborated for strong character intersections). She was in the military in the Mideast and “saw some shit.” Her Drive is to keep everyone around her safe. As noted earlier, she has a cocaine habit as her Problem, a good example of where the Problem can complicate the Drive.


Arson investigator Anita’s Drive is to prove herself. A very tough job, as she is the youngest child and only daughter in a firefighting family. Her father showed a mixture of pride and misgiving in her becoming a firefighter. She believes he sees her as a failure due to an accident she incurred on the job. She became an arson investigator after the accident left her with limited mobility in one arm (as well as a misshapen ear), forcing an end to her firefighting career.


The aforementioned Dr. Rar’s Drive is her concern for how her patients feel, especially their emotional vigor. She takes it personally when they don’t embrace life; she’ll do whatever she can to help them find a reason to fight for themselves. See more below about how her Caring fuels this Drive.

The Caring

This is critical to ongoing motivation across stories. It is core to what really matters to the Pro.

Like most things deep in our hearts, this doesn’t come up every day - at least not directly. But it speaks to why the Pro keeps going, why the Pro gets up in the morning. Sure, they want to “save children” or even have broad and loftier goals such as “every day, do something to make the world better than it was in the morning.” But what’s personal, what’s behind the goals?

This is critical to the game. Knowing what a Pro truly cares about and why they care so much is key to the player understanding and exploring the Pro’s emotional drive (you will see how this is especially center stage in The Emotion Pools and Conflict sections to follow).


Anita’s Caring is not apparent from her Drive (as mentioned near the end of The Drive section just above) but linked as intimately to her backstory. She received little warmth and caring from the rough firefighters of her household. And when the accident happened, her father provided no emotional support. Thus, she Cares deeply, too deeply, about bringing comfort to victims. Mostly, her job removes any moment-to-moment play aspects; as she is bringing justice, at best. But her job does bring her into contact with victims – the homeless, the wounded, the patsies to a boss’ or loved one’s arson, the wounded colleagues, the loved ones of those dead. And she cannot turn a blind eye to their pain, she cannot shut off her Caring.


Officer Brandon McPherson Cares about being admired by everyone – his wife and child, his famous detective father, his siblings in blue, his community, even the criminals he arrests! It is an impossible standard. He’s a pleaser, overcommitting professionally and personally. Yet he also expects others to maintain the same high standards, offending anyone he sees as shirking.


Edwin’s Caring is that his clients’ lives – as he reimagines them – have become his own. He has no separation from them, and he will do anything to protect them. No matter what sort of person they are.


Our “rager against the machine” Clint is complex. Consciously, to the extent he faces it, his Caring is that he has, as his player put it, read too much Cato and become convinced he knows better than the state. He will do anything to win this fight, it’s part holy war and part ego. But the real Caring, which he tries not to think about, is that he’s never gotten losing his intimate friend and mentor, the great resistance leader Tyler Pruitt, who died at the hand of government forces while saving an innocent civilian.


Dr. Rar Cares so deeply about her patients’ emotional state because she fought cancer as a preteen, thus gaining a profound appreciation for life. She tries to live in the moment. It’s what informs her Drive to ensure her patients want to live.

The Success

Why does the Pro succeed so often, especially when it matters? What tactics, style, abilities, characteristics, connections, oddities, and/or traits make the Pro generally awesome, funny, interesting, noticeable, engaging, cool, and/or commanding in conflicts?

Some attributes will be directly related to the Pro’s profession. Others will be suggested from their background.


Our Soc-Pro Edwin knows all career-related technology quite well. He isn’t a deep cyber sort, but he can do all sorts of basic hacking and knows fundamentals of security. He can tap into all his clients’ knowledge and information, and he’s seen a lot, even if he hasn’t directly experienced much. We don’t detail out every client, that would be way too laborious, but Edwin’s player can come up with learnings from clients as the game proceeds (similarly, Darkness can make trouble from the same source).


In the same game with Rob, Anita, and Darcy, there is the nerdy chemist for the arson department, William Wentworth III, known to his colleagues as the mohawk-wearing “Tyson.” His towering intellect is his Success. He’s a genius of the highest order, yet underachieves in his job and life in general due to his Problem (when young he killed somebody in a DUI and his rich family covered it up – not even his teammates know).


Our android is a special case and a great example of what to consider in the more futuristic and high-tech setting of Life in the Shadows. Any Pro with unusual abilities should have offsetting limitations assuring that they don’t narratively unbalance the game, that they aren’t easily able to set things right with a power or “magic” (or literal magic if you develop your own Urban Fantasy detective setting). This play group, with Chris’ player’s approval, decided androids, at least Chris’ type, were tip-top humans; unusual feat of strength, speed, or survival would trigger a possibility of exposure, so a price was to be paid for exceptional acting out. If you have powerful beings as Pros, keep to as simple an approach.

But I Want to Change My Pro Later!

Sure, go ahead!

Characters change. They grow, sometimes they solve problems. Sometimes the thing they care about isn’t what it seemed. Sometimes, a player just doesn’t like a concept after playing it a while.

No problem. Change away, so long as you consider the story and other players:

  • Story. Just like when reading or watching your favorite story, you want character changes to make sense. Honor the story the group has told so far.

  • Other players. If you change your character every week or change relationships with other Pros, consider that it can be difficult for the other players to adjust.

Trouble Generating Pro Ideas?

Take a break from discussing/thinking about individual Pros and skip ahead to THE WORLD OF LIFE IN THE SHADOWS and/or THE WORLD OF THE BREAKING POINT and especially the Game Starters sections of each. Freely discuss and brainstorm.

The Emotion Pools

A Pro acts based on one of three mental states:

  • Compassion: sensitive and caring moves: heartfelt, sad, tender, open, revelatory, despairing, melancholic, self-sacrificing

  • Focus: unemotional and self-obsessed moves: off-putting, controlling, dominating, alienating, officious, unemotional, myopic, self-satisfying

  • Fury: stormy and damaging moves: heartless, angry, attacking, hurtful, distrustful, neglectful, cold, self-empowering

All these are positive and productive – until they are not. Each can be employed pragmatically and, in normal doses, has a good social and personal use. But each can, at its extreme, be employed in ways that damage relationships and hurt oneself or others.

For each Pro, one of these three Emotion Pools is selected to be Overwhelming. This means when the Pro taps into this Emotion Pool, it is most powerful AND brings the greatest risk, potentially causing the Pro to lose control and/or alienate others. The more the Pro uses it, the more conflicts are won, but only at the increasing risk of causing problems. This is the powerful and dangerous Emotion Pool.

Another Emotion Pool is the Pro’s Steady mode. They are more often successful when this motivates them, but it does not threaten to consume them or harm others. This is their safe and steady behavior. Choose either of the Emotion Pools not chosen as Overwhelming for the Pro, as it fits them.

Finally, the remaining Emotion Pool is Vulnerable. When so motivated, the otherwise-awesome Pro is, for a change, just like everybody else. There is less power with this, but more room to grow.

More on Using and Assigning the Emotion Pools

“Compassion,” “Focus,” and “Fury” are deliberately very broad in meaning; they are open to interpretation by the players. Do not feel constrained to specific dictionary meanings but rather by the spirit of these Pools.

One way to break down the meaning of these Pools:

  • Fury is about “me over everything;” think about this as ego and self over everything else

  • Focus is about “the thing over everything,” where “the thing” (logic, mystery, a passionate pursuit, a cause) is the sole center of concern, to the exclusion of everything else

  • Compassion is about “others over everything,” self-sacrifice and concern for others is paramount

Another way:

  • Compassion is the range of sadness to happiness, about FEELING

  • Fury is the range of self-determination to rage, about FORCE

  • Focus is the range of dispassionate scrutiny to obsession, about ORDER

Yet another way:

  • Focus is the controlled use of the mind: FROM THE BRAIN

  • Compassion is how one connects to others, deep down: FROM THE HEART

  • Fury is that raw, churning pit in the stomach: FROM THE GUT

We’ll see examples of how these are played in the Scenes and Conflict sections. Players should get some idea of how Conflicts play out before assigning Pools, understanding that the Pools drive Conflict and what happens afterward.

When defining the Overwhelming Pool, especially consider why and how the Pro is so effective with this. Also consider what the risk is in using it and how the Pro might create problems; in short, how it is overwhelming.

When defining the Vulnerable Pool, especially consider what makes the Pro vulnerable with this and why they are more open, more like everyone else here. Consider how they might grow or how they haven’t developed their strengths.


Overwhelming = Focus: with his focus on his clients’ lives, he is super-detailed, obsessive, and extremely guarded; easily comes across as paranoid, off-putting to anyone not serving his purpose of the moment
Steady = Compassion: he intensely cares about his clients’ lives, he is entirely empathetic with them; he knows what they know
Vulnerable = Fury; avoids open conflict, tries to stay in the shadows, strikes out only when necessary, little-experienced with any kind of interpersonal conflict


Overwhelming = Focus: as an android, he can out-perform humans in so many ways, but risks revealing himself or bringing unwanted attention; he will take great risks to satisfy his obsession with how he came to be
Steady = Compassion: he cares about human connection; he is highly insightful and tends to be empathetic
Vulnerable = Fury: he channels his Focus when he needs to do something aggressive; he has no hate; maybe he is literally programmed to hold back and put life and the concerns of others ahead of his own?


Overwhelming = Compassion: he is driven utterly by his need for admiration and his concern for others, especially those closest; he has a wide social network (with the obligations, enemies, and complexity that brings)
Steady = Focus: he is well-trained, an outstanding student and cop, a keen observer of people – disciplines he has developed in service to his emotional needs
Vulnerable = Fury: of course he can be angered, but he is more often seeking justice than vengeance; when he is angry or wants to lash out, his emotions overcome him and he’s that much more likely to make mistakes


Overwhelming = Fury: underlying his skills is his rage over the tragedy and injustice he’s seen; he takes big chances, leveraging his fitness, hacking skills, and long experience fighting the system, but it’s this rage against injustice that pushes him over the top
Steady = Focus: Clint relies on his keen perception and sharp wits to stay alive; he’s not paranoid, they really are after him
Vulnerable = Compassion: compassion is a luxury and weakness Clint can little afford, and rarely stops to ponder; but he’s witnessed great compassion, as when his mentor sacrificed his life for innocents


Overwhelming = Compassion: he can’t stop caring, damn the rules and common sense alike if they get in the way of helping someone; he can’t stop thinking about how those in distress feel
Steady = Fury: he doesn’t show it, but Rob has anger he’s learned to channel productively, much of it from feeling he hasn’t done enough, and some from feeling the same about others
Vulnerable = Focus: when he tries to stop and think, without his emotions to push him to action, it’s a scary and unfamiliar sensation to objectively weigh risks and consequences; doubts creep in and it’s too easy to question himself – but it’s also his rare opportunity to grow


Overwhelming = Focus: an ounce of prevention…Darcy is all about preventing bad things through preparation and order; she sees this as the one true way to keep victims, colleagues, and herself safe, no matter what others think; rules and operating procedures exist for a reason, there’s a right way to do things and everyone around her WILL follow it
Steady = Fury: curt and sometimes abrasive, her aggression shows through; without even knowing it, she bullies her colleagues by her demeanor alone (maybe the coke has something to do with it); but her focus does keep her anger from crossing the line
Vulnerable = Compassion: like every Pro, she cares, but she’s not well-practiced in letting it show, deep down she’s afraid she’ll be a sobbing addicted mess if she lets herself feel too much; maybe she just needs to let someone get close…


Overwhelming = Compassion: starved for affection and care, she knows what it feels like to be alone and vulnerable; she directly feels the pain in the victims’ stories, and considers their needs in her actions
Steady = Focus: having been raised in a firefighting family, she learned the ropes and developed a strong sense of duty; the job at hand is what matters most at the moment (she rarely realizes how much her compassion is guiding her more than procedure and education)
Vulnerable = Fury: it’s there, the anger at her father’s negligence, at her own physical impairments, but it’s kept deep down; when it comes out, it’s ugly and messy – but maybe it’s time


Overwhelming = Focus: everyone calls Tyson a “nerd,” and he shows off as a know-it-all; he digs into his work relentlessly, forgetting about everything else, including family and friends; but what a mind he has!
Steady = Fury: he knows what he did…he killed someone; “I’m a murderer, a cowardly, hiding murderer, from a long line of self-serving bastards”; he cannot forgive himself for drunkenly running and killing someone, nor can he forgive himself or his family for the cover-up; that anger drives him to make up for what he’s done, as well as it reminds him the “bad guy” is often someone ignored, presumed innocent, and/or protected
Vulnerable = Compassion: maybe, having grown up an indulged rich kid, Tyson wouldn’t have known true compassion if not for accidentally killing someone – but he did, and there’s no way to forget; when he can’t keep his mind focused on his job or some intellectual puzzle, he lies awake at night wondering about the family of the victim, how they feel, what would that victim be doing now if alive; working with the arson unit he’s heard the tales of other survivors of tragedies and realizes the horror he inflicted on someone, a horror with no closure for them; sometimes he thinks “maybe I should turn myself in…” – and darker thoughts


Overwhelming = Focus: you might think it’s Compassion, but it’s really her obsession with living in the moment that is her most powerful and most dangerous emotional state; when she commits, she’ll take any risk to move any mountain; it’s what has gotten her into an abusive relationship she can’t walk away from, it’s what pushes her to naysay a powerful doctor without regard to embarrassing him (check that Conflict out later in this text)
Steady = Compassion: clearly, her love for life and her desire for her patients to feel the same is a critical emotional fuel but it doesn’t overwhelm her; rather, she’s effective in her Compassion, it’s a safe and solid emotional state for Pearl
Vulnerable = Fury is not something she can deal with, either others’ or her own – but to be an ER doctor she’s going to have to learn

Each of these three Pools is associated with a number of dice reflecting its intensity when used in a Conflict (see Conflict for more information). The Pro is breaking down emotionally when there are 6 or more dice in a single Pool (this happens due to Conflicts, see Outcomes for more information).

A Pro starts the game with 4 dice for the Emotion Pool in the Overwhelming space, 2 dice for the Emotion Pool in the Steady space, and 1 die for the Emotion Pool in the Vulnerable space. The Player Game Sheet indicates this, along with other points which will make more sense upon reading the Conflict section. Put the number of dice in the respective Pool, leave them there (or, if you don’t have enough dice, write down the number); it will change during the game (and may only change as defined in the rules, players cannot alter them at will).

The Protagonist Game Sheet also indicates a Maximum number of dice beyond which a Pool may not grow during a gaming session. You don’t need to worry about this for now or even for quite a while into the game. Later, in the Outcomes section, you’ll see how the dice may increase or decrease (the Maximum may only be changed between gaming sessions, as described in Between Games: Reflecting and Evolving).


Until now, we have talked about each Pro individually. But this game isn’t about loners, it’s about the Pros in a social context.

How do the Pros know each other? In The Breaking Point, the connections will be in some part established by the profession(s) chosen. In Life in the Shadows, connections will often require more work by the players to ensure there’s crossovers between the Pros.

We create compelling connections, and later exercise special narrative power, by using “Openings.” At the beginning of the game, each player having a Pro is given two tokens, distinctive to that player (as discussed in the Materials for Play section). Each token represents an Opening. Each Pro must give one – and only one – Opening to another Pro who does not yet have an Opening token from another player. This must be explained as representing some obligation, secret, deep feeling, shared history, or the like that makes the giving Pro vulnerable to the receiving Pro.

The giving and receiving Pro are equal in collaboration, neither can force any aspect of the backstory on the other. The Opening given and its related backstory must be acceptable to both players.

The Pro’s saved token can be used for making an Opening later (explained in Outcomes), exerting narrative control via Seizing Narration (explained in Using Openings: Seizing Narration and Wait – Seizing Narration!), or recovering from stress (also explained in Outcomes).

More rules on Openings:

  • If a player doesn’t like an idea, drop it.

  • Establish an emotional connection as part of the Opening; this will drive story and keep Pros engaged with each other. Do not allow an Opening that is event-based while lacking a deeper back story. For example, do NOT allow the Opening to only be explained as “I saw her steal something so I’m blackmailing her,” but also establish the relationship between these two characters and how they feel about each other.

  • Don’t hold back on ideas for your Pro or keep secrets from the other players. If you want there to be some deep secret none or some of the Pros don’t know, such as “they’re related but don’t know it,” say so. Play the Pros with appropriate ignorance while enjoying the tension and building to revelation.

Examples of Openings

Love is popular: often a Pro in love with another Pro gives an Opening. Some variations to consider::

  • Does the receiving Pro know? Maybe the receiving Pro exploits the love interest, manipulating the swooning (giving) Pro.

  • Is it an unrequited secret love? Maybe the one in love does foolish and reckless things to hide or show that love.

  • Maybe it’s a secret affair with more risk for the giving Pro. Maybe it compromises the giving Pro’s position. Maybe the giving Pro is married.

Knowledge of secrets can be a powerful Opening. In one game an Opening represented that the receiving Pro had knowledge of the giving Pro having cheated to get through police academy. It isn’t enough to say, “your Pro knows a secret about mine,” the players should discuss why the Pros care, how the secret was discovered, why exposure matters, why the secret is being kept, and/or such explorations until there is a clear picture of the relationship the Pros have around the secret. Below is the discussion the players had about our cheating cop situation:

  • Joe, playing the Pro Joe Drury: “I think you didn’t turn me in because you want to keep my secret. My real secret – I have a learning disability, I have trouble reading or processing information and have been hiding it, but otherwise am a great cop.”

  • Helen, playing the Pro Lieutenant Davis: “Yeah, I like the idea I’m hiding your secret. But why would I, even if you are a great cop? I think we’re childhood friends and I’ve always known. In a way, I feel guilty because I didn’t say anything, I feel like your secret is my secret.”

  • Kelly, playing another Pro: “But then how is the Opening potentially compromising to Joe, then? Or should you each play an Opening on the other?”

  • Helen: “No, I think that I use this knowledge to push and steer Joe. I am condescending and don’t quite trust him.”

  • Manny: “But there’s no way Joe could be functionally illiterate. What sort of disability?”

  • Joe: “Aphasia! I can’t recognize faces well at all. It’s not so severe that it matters with people I see every day. But I have to make notes on people’s faces on things to look for, like ‘remember to look for small scar above left eyebrow, must also have blue eyes and best way to check if it’s Danny the Scumbag is to put my nose up to his thumb and see if the width matches; if the thumb is too fat, it’s that informant Jinny B.”

  • Helen: “Yeah, that’s how I realized from growing up with Joe. And I am always pushing Joe around a little to ‘protect’ him. Also, I always resent how everyone says Joe is so smart, maybe this will come out in some moment of anger!”

  • Everyone agrees this is a cool opening.

Blackmail is a great Opening. But add some reason the blackmailer cares. REMEMBER: YOUR PROS ARE GOOD PEOPLE – ULTIMATELY! The blackmail comes from some good place, even if it’s a perverted, harsh means to an end. Maybe that “good place” is where the blackmailer and the blackmailed have a deeper connection.

  • “My character is a member of the NSA, in their dark ops division. I spotted your character hacking our systems, and began blackmailing you to do what I want, the price simply being I don’t turn you in. But I am not really trying to screw you over; actually it’s because I’m a double agent, really, a freedom fighter, trying to uncover and expose the government’s surveillance programs. The last thing I want is for you to be caught; in fact, behind the scenes I really want to help you find your long-lost son. But I’m just that kind of closed, manipulative bastard who finds it easier to use you than to just be open and vulnerable!”

    • “Cool, I like it! Here’s the token for the Opening. Someday I’m sure my character will figure it out and then the tables will be turned!”

The basis of a relationship, especially a power imbalance, is a great start to an Opening:

  • Maybe one Pro feels a debt is due; for example, a great Opening is such as “You saved my life, so I feel I can never repay you adequately, and am always beholden to you.” Or “You got me the job here, I won’t let you down.”

  • Perhaps one Pro is the mentor of another, the mentee representing their trust and faith in the mentor by giving an Opening.

  • Another possibility is the overly-protective colleague or boss, an Opening given typically by the protector to the protected to show how the protector can be easily manipulated. Remember to flesh out why, such as, “You remind me so much of my deceased son that I feel you’re my responsibility, I’ll do anything to help you, it’s like I’m making up for not saving my son’s life.”

  • Past relationships in which one is trapped, even if only emotionally, are good, such as the Pro who was bullied by another in high school and still fears the former bully.

Knowledge of a Pro’s problems or weaknesses can be direct. More examples:

  • “Here’s an Opening for, if you accept it, the idea that your Pro is mine’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. You know my alcohol-related problems deeply and I rely heavily on you.”

  • “We were best friends growing up. You know about how I was abused as a child, and you know how my buttons can be easily pushed.”

  • “Okay, so, as we both work in the hospital, your Pro deals mine drugs. You could slip my Pro anything and they wouldn’t know, and anyway my Pro will do whatever favors you need to get the stuff.”

And a few more examples using some of our favorite Pros:


Some of the DNA of our android is from Sam, the long-disappeared brother of another Pro, Alex, so Alex gives an Opening to Chris. Note this is also a great example of the players defining a vital aspect of the game – the “Disappeared” are somehow being used to make androids!



She has written a program for Clint; during that process, she managed to learn that Clint is against the state and knows a bit about how to track him, getting an Opening from Clint.



She knows that Dr. WInslow relied too much on his intuition/quick judgment, and made a mistake treating a patient that has since led to that patient, after release, ending up in chronic care. She came across this information reviewing some old cases.



Our Pro in Admitting knows that lately Pearl has been sick and is hiding it: the players agreed to keep the exact cause undecided at first, to be fleshed out in play. This heavily shaped the game – it later developed that Pearl was pregnant (by her abusive boyfriend), and she uses Dr. Winslow’s secret against him to keep hers (see Using Openings: Seize Narration for how this worked).

Reviewing Characters and Openings

Characters are not complete until:

  • Every Pro’s Problem, Drive, Caring, and Success are understood.

  • Every Pro has assigned each of the Emotion Pools as Overwhelming, Steady, or Vulnerable and placed (or recorded) dice accordingly.

  • Every Pro has received an Opening from another Pro.

At the end of character creation, each player should briefly recap their Pro to the group, ensuring to reference the three bullet points above in describing their character. Also speak to a couple or so basic physical characteristics, keeping it to a few short sentences. There will be plenty of time to explore details later.


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