Sunday, April 16, 2017

Character Study

And we're back!

I have been thinking a lot about Character Creation lately.

I use the term 'Creation' and not 'Generation', but only because that's the prevailing objective for me as both a player, and a Gamemaster; I want to create a cool character.

Before I ever played a table top RPG, I had made up my own Superheroes, and put the uniform of a spare Mego Scotty action figure on the Andorian action figure from the same line, came up with an original name, and played with a character I had created.

When designing a character for an RPG nowadays, I try to come up with someone who we haven't quite seen before, but who is at the same time easily recognizable as an individual who fits into that given universe. I want them to have a goal, something they enjoy, something they dislike, and most of all a reason for doing what they do in the campaign they're a part of.

What I don't give a damn about [generally speaking] is whether or not they are the best at their job. At least not initially. I also don't care if they are super effective in combat. Effective yes, as I don't want the character to die, and rip-roaring battles are fun to be a part of. I never want to be a character who can't contribute anything during a fight.

That said...

I really dislike character creation systems where you have to take 'Feat A' now to get 'Feat J-7' at some later date. Nothing turns me off of a system so much as that. The idea that you need to pick the 'right' skills, and abilities in order to not only qualify for others, but to be in anyway effective runs completely counter to the organic growth that can only occur in a pencil, paper, and dice RPG.

Since there is no way for me to know what is going to happen a dozen sessions from now - what might happen to my character, my team, what I might do, what I might need - how the hell am I going to plan, and plot what skills I am going to need so far in advance? Why would I want to? How can my character evolve over time if I have to decide its ability progression months, and months before the character reaches the point where it can take a given ability?

What I mean by that last bit is that to plan that far ahead means I would have to know what was going to happen in the story, and campaign, and that sort of sucks. That's like skipping ahead and reading Order of the Phoenix when you're not even done reading Prisoner of Azkaban just so you know what ability to give Harry now so he can use it later. 

Yes, when writing a book, or a series, some writers will indeed do that, but in a game it leeches the anticipation and surprise out of it for me.

Spoilers ya'know?

Now the flip side of building a character to be 'effective' is rolling up one who is completely ineffective. I have seen people happy, excited even, to play a character who is simply not good at their job. They are jazzed to have a character who is not good at fighting (a key element of Action/Adventure RPGs), and who is basically bad at pretty much anything else they would need to make their character work in the game. 

Usually an ineffective character occurs in games in which you roll randomly to determine your stats, skills, and whatnot, and it just so happens that luck isn't on your side that day. It happens. Thems the breaks in those kinds of games.

However, I have also seen players produce such characters on purpose. The mind set seems to be, "Look how nuanced, and deep my character is! She has to overcome her lame leg, being a drunkard, and parents who don't love her just to get through the day. She'll show them though! She's going to prove she can strike it rich using her mediocre fighting skills, poor knowledge of wilderness survival (she's a scout by the way), and the lack of any singular, truly remarkable ability. Yeah!"

Well, that's all well and good, but I am not sure I would want to sign on to a team that included that character without some serious motivating factor. Really, do I totally despise the same villain she does? Am I getting paid a ton to bail her worthless butt out trouble? Are we related, or something? Otherwise, is anyone else hiring?

Don't forget, when creating a character, unless you're in a Solo game, there are other players and they don't want their characters to die because you made up a tragically useless character. It's a team sport after all.

Look, Character Creation is simple, at least for me.

Look at the setting. The genre. Get an idea in your head of what it's all about. Come up with the kind of character you'd want to be in that kind of milieu. What career, or calling appeals to you there. OK, start with that. Any intriguing, playable species other Humans? Cool. I'll be one of those. Now I need an angle. A reason for my PC to do what he does. Trying to rescue his family from a tyrannical ruler? Rescue his whole species? Something smaller, more personal - revenge against a single individual? That could work. How about obtaining a set of artifacts and handing them over to the parents of a female I like so they will bless our union? Sure, why not.

Now, on to the career/class/job. I pick one because it gives me the skills I need to do the thing I want to do in the game. I'm going to make myself good at that thing, or at the very least I'll be good at the key talent that defines that job.

My pilot is going to be good a piloting. He's going to be OK at other starship related skills. He's so-so at skills un-related to his ship.

My Knight is going to be good with a sword. He'll be familiar with courtly etiquette, and can recognize heraldry. He is unfamiliar with magic. He can't move particularly stealthily. He can ride a horse.

That's it. That's all. That's my big process. I don't write tons of background - just a few key points so I have an idea who they are before I start. As the game goes on, the character's back story will develop. I don't give them a few skills at uber high levels, but rather a few key skills at an above average rating, a few at decent ratings, and a few at 'well, at least I have these if I need them'. 

My favorite systems are ones where I can create the character I want to play. I don't need to roll for ideas, though certainly I sometimes get ideas while rolling. I can create a character without a system, so all I need the rules to do is show me how to apply numbers to my concept.

Games with Character Creation Systems I like include:

Ars Magica and Pendragon

Here are the parts that make up the characters in this world. Pick the ones you like, discard the ones you don't, add a trait here, tack on a flaw there, adjust the're good to go. Really the only great medieval fantasy character creation systems I've played and/or run. OK, Sword World was pretty cool too. 

Star Trek, FASA and Last Unicorn Games versions

Near perfect character creation. Start with a species, add the job you are going to do in the game, fill out some background - What did you do before joining Starfleet? What did you study at the Academy? Where were you assigned when you graduated? Any other assignments before your current one/the start of the campaign? Modify the numbers a bit and done. Love it.

Star Wars D6 by West End Games.

I love being able to slap together a cool character in a matter of minutes. Pick a template, allocate some dice, write a few notes, done. 

Champions, Mutants & Masterminds, and Other Supers games

Here's some points. Build what you want. Anything. Not enough points? OK, give yourself a weakness - fear of enclosed spaces, arch-enemy out to get you, allergic to a rare, alien mineral. Fly the way you want to fly, zap the way you want to zap. So much fun.

Traveller (Classic)

I also really like Traveller character creation even though it's mostly random rolling, something I generally dislike when making up characters. I like it in this instance because as I've noted before, character creation in classic Traveller is a mini-game onto itself. Having an imperfect image of the kind of character you want to play, then going through the process to get as close as you can is interesting. Plus, you sometimes get little inspirations along the way when you don't get exactly what you want. 

Character Creation systems I could do without...

Dungeons and Dragons (any edition), Pathfinder (ugh - the worst), and Savage Worlds. I know, I know, but Savage Worlds just feels like a mess to me. It has a ton of unnecessarily redundant abilities and skills and it feels so 'gamey' in play that I just can't take it. The system feels like it's looking over your shoulder or sitting in your lap the whole time. 

So that's my humble opinion of the good, and bad of character creation. I don't think I really addressed what I wanted to say, and I certainly I could've given more constructive advice on what constitutes a 'good' character, but I got out a lot of creative blockage that has been clogging up my chest lately.

Maybe I'll take another swing at this again in the near future.

Happy Easter Sunday everyone.

Barking Alien


  1. It is curious how tastes differ... I couldn't agree more with some of your choices (Star Wars d6, Mutants & Masterminds, and Pathfinder being the worst), yet I find D&D 5E among my favourites right now, and LUG Star Trek's character generation looks like a mess to me, as numbers don't add up.

    PD: I have yet to comment on the Paradise Fleet series, but I will!

    1. The numbers don't add up? In what way? Perhaps I can clarify.

      I think what I like is creating a character in my mind, the way an author would for a novel, and then grabbing a set of rules and seeing the best way to interpret my vision using the mechanics.

      I am much less interested in having a game's mechanics dictate the character.

      Please comment on Paradise Fleet! I would love to hear what you think of it.

    2. I like a lot the concept of going through background packages (D&D 5E uses a similar idea), but LUG uses a somewhat weird formula when you get the same skill in two or more different packages: they will add up if they have the same focus, but they just give you a new focus if they don't. Which would be OK if the cost for both things was the same, but it isn't. It is a minor issue, but the kind of thing that will annoy you if you are a bit obsessive about numbers, hehehe.

      While I agree with your thoughts about creating characters, I have found in recent years that I like building them like and sculptor would do, with a general idea in my mind, but finding the form hidden in the material (the rules, in this case). What I don't like is the rules giving you only one real option, or, much less, having to wait for several levels to complete your character:

      Player: "I'm playing a knight in shinning armor!"
      GM: "You cannot wear a shinning armor until level 4, because you need to get the Heavy Armor proficiency and it isn't available for starting characters. But you don't have money for an armor, anyway."

  2. I'm with you on almost all of your favorites. Traveller in particular is a fine balance of random rolls and deliberate choices and I could not tell you how many characters I made just because it was fun. FASA Trek clearly used it as inspiration (not surprising considering they worked on a lot of early Traveller material) and I suspect LUG Trek in turn used that as inspiration. Talsorian's Lifepath system seems like a descendant as well and the Mechwarrior RPG had some of that too.

    As far as the "bad" character - I am a lot more sympathetic to the Fighter who has a 9 strength because he rolled it in a roll-em-up game than I am the one who was built that way in a point system.

    I think my biggest difference with you here is the random character creation thing. I really enjoy the challenge of making something coherent out of a series of random rolls. It's easy enough in D&D type games as it's usually just stats and you're an otherwise normal human/elf/whatever picking a class. It's a real challenge in superhero games like ICONS or TSR Marvel where you're trying to reconcile the powers and come up with an origin and a personality and then maybe a look for the character too. There are clunkers at times but it's very satisfying to come up with something fun & memorable from that kind of beginning.