Cranium Explosion (Or, Thoughts On Character Creation)

(Because Panty Rats would be just plain wrong…) Over the weekend I finally got around to running Panty Explosion, as well as reading Cranium Rats, and wound up pondering character creation a bit.

Panty Explosion
I first heard about Panty Explosion when Jake Richmond posted about it on, and I instantly fell in love with the concept. I’m not sure what this says about me, but then I also really like superflat, so go figure. My tastes keep getting weirder and weirder, and especially in terms of what’s actually in the rulebook, PE is less shocking than, say, Narutaru or Alien Nine, much less Takashi Murakami’s Hiropon (I would give a link, but for some reason even the Wikipedia entry is NSFW…)

Creating characters went pretty smoothly, and the players were able to come up with fairly interesting characters to boot. The one issue that came up was one in no way specific to Panty Explosion, and one I think I want to look at more in RPG design in general. Since creating a character involves picking out elemental dice, blood type, and zodiac animal, none of which a beginning player can really understand the significance of just by looking at the names. As a result, making four characters at once was a bit cumbersome and required passing the book around a lot. Needless to say it was nothing compared to any number of other games I could name, but next time I think I’ll make some cheat sheets or something. Still, once it was done the players had surprisingly distinct and well-defined characters, from Haruka, the socialite kogal, to Kuromu, the creepy psychic girl who always tries to defuse arguments (and whose telepathic abilities cause nosebleeds).

One of the things about Panty Explosion is that the conflict resolution mechanics work best when the conflicts are decently long. We kept having overly short conflicts; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it means that the players often had no reason not to dump a bunch of dice on one or two actions. The way narration is distributed on the basis of Best Friends and Rivals took some getting used to, and some players wound up narrating much more than others.

In terms of getting the proper Panty Explosion feel I think I made a mistake in that I had the PCs all be from a school that was closed due to a mysterious fire, and were sent to another school. Hence, it created more of an us-against-them feel, instead of an us-against-us kind of thing, and made it so the PCs didn’t have many hooks into the setting. Though to be fair, I suspect my group isn’t used to playing RPGs in any remotely competitive way in the first place (need more Paranoia).

Unfortunately we only got about halfway through the scenario I’d planned, and Real Life™ interfered with our plans for playing more on Saturday. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to run the conclusion, but hopefully this coming weekend.

Cranium Rats
I probably would have overlooked this game were it not for Guy persistently asking me to check it out via AIM. His big thing is what he calls “CSI games,” and it being his baby he can explain it far better than me (and he will if you give him half a chance; his enthusiasm is impressive). I’m going to have to read it over again to really see how the pieces fit together, but I’m starting to understand why he’s so enthusiastic about it. It’s very “indie,” and it has elements of both narrative control distribution and almost board game-like competition. Given that I’ve seen none of the films he lists as inspiration, I don’t know that I’m the best person to comment on it. The essential idea is that you’re not playing a character, but one of three Aspects—Water, Dirt, or Rat—of a character. Ideally the group makes three characters, and in each scene one player is handling one of each Aspect, and each player plays every Aspect at different times during the game as it cycles through different characters.

The thing about it that I found exceedingly cool was the sort of “round robin” character creation. In CR it comes from the fact that each player is playing Aspects of characters, rather than the characters directly, and as a result it naturally lends itself to the different players having different kinds of input into the character.

The writing in Cranium Rats is interesting in terms of how Guy uses and controls voice. This is something I find incredibly hard, to the point where I’m designing an entire RPG (Moonsick) around working the writing style. It’s really frustrating, since I don’t have the same struggle to control voice when I write fiction or poetry. CR has a mixture of a lot of different things, each “compartmentalized” in the text. There are “Legends” sections that set a deep, philosophical tone (“And Man and Woman tempt Snake – into coming and tempting them once more.”), fairly measured rules explanations, and footnotes that very much remind me of the virtual noogie giver I talk to on AIM (“Fuck that lie! Play for the win!”). This is one interesting solution to marrying the need to present clear and concise rules and the desire to give the game personality and teeth.

Creating Characters
One of the things I’m noticing is it seems like not too many RPGs give much thought to the circumstances in which characters are being created. Some make it much easier to create characters as a group than others (and to a certain extent it’s just page-flipping that makes this annoying), but the question is what kind of experience is born at the gaming table, and how it fits in with the aims of the game itself. Risus‘ roll-your-own Cliches make the book (all 6 pages) almost completely unnecessary, and there’s games like Toon, where if you know the basics, the character sheet has everything you need. For Tokyo Heroes you have to create characters as a group, and if my playtest is any indication the brainstorming was far more time-consuming than anything stemming from the game mechanics.

Of course, like not a few indie games the character creation in Tokyo Heroes is in part a codification of stuff my group tends to do during play. Ever since the first Mascot-tan playtest, where all three PCs had Smarts at 1 (and thus my original scenario fell apart under the weight of the characters’ stupidity), my group has been trying make characters that are as distinct from each other as possible. In the case of Panty Explosion, without any prompting from me they made a point of having no two characters with the same Zodiac sign or primary element. D&D encourages this kind of behavior to a certain extent, since a party can get into big trouble without a cleric or rogue (when we played no one really wanted to be the cleric though…), but you must have a copy of the Player’s Handbook to create a character. In the cases of Cranium Rats and Tokyo Heroes, the way the character creation process is carried out stems from the intended genre and such, but the end result is that both games strongly take into account the environment in which a group of players will be creating characters.

What published games do this particularly well or badly?

3 thoughts on “Cranium Explosion (Or, Thoughts On Character Creation)

  1. Panty Rat, for years when you don’t feel like waxing!

    Yes, the tone issue was important to me, and though at times conflicting, I decided it to be better for the game to have my voice(s) than to be some dispassionate tool of teaching.

    I think there’s something important about games of Capes or Universalis that begin as “Silly”, and the same thing happened with Cranium Rats. When a game has lengthy and codified rules they force you into being serious by the time you have a character, let alone begin playing.

    But when you don’t have enough constraints, and repercussions are not permanent, people allow themselves to test the limits of the system, and of the Social Contract specifically. In ways that can ruin a game or force you to re-boot the campaign.

    This seems to happen more when you let players play/design together, as alone they’re more “solid”.

    In Cranium Rats it can be solved by having normal people put into normal situations, under stress, and watch things escalate. This is what happened in the playtest.

    I also used tone to address this and specifically note what moods the game is not set to address.

    The movies are there for pacing purposes.
    CSI Games stands for Competitive Story Interaction Games, of which we have a blog and a Wiki.

  2. The Panty Explosion cheat sheet… since even before we released the game we’ve had near constant requests for a cheat or rreference sheet of somekind that gave quick and simple explanations about Bloodtyps, the Godai, Traits and some other stuff. I’ve just bever gotten around to making one. But it is a good idea. Creating Students is a cinche if you know the game but can be a bit difficult if you have to pass a single book back and fourth between 5 players.

    As far as creating conflicts between players… something that I find works well is to have players choose Traits that encourage conflict. “I hate Yumi because she slept with my boyfriend”, “I think Ohno discovered that I’m secretly into hentai” or “My father was killed by a psychic, and I want revenge!” are traits that can easily create conflict between your players. Often just suggetsing that the players should choose traits that are antagnistic is enough to plant the seeds of conflict.


  3. FYI, the Panty explosion Cheat Sheet is now available for download at You can read more about it here:

    The Cheat sheet covers more general info about playing the game and less about creating Students. I plan to create a “Student creation/getting the game started” Cheat Sheet later this month.


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