Monday, February 27, 2023

Generating Interest - Part I

I had a fascinating conversation with my friend Ray last week regarding Player Characters in Fantasy RPGs versus those in other games.

The focus of the discussion followed Ray's observations as to why I - me personally - often find it difficult to create Fantasy PCs and why I don't often find the Fantasy Player Characters I generate all that interesting. This can lead to my becoming bored with the character, wanting to try some other sort of Race/Class combo, or simply losing interest in the game overall. 

Ray's keen insight into why I don't have an investment in Fantasy RPG characters is that they simply aren't particularly intriguing to begin with. They are not, by their nature, especially cool. To paraphrase Ray himself...

'Fantasy RPG characters don't start out interesting. They become interesting.'
I can just imagine the reactions to this statement out there in TRPG Internet Land and the images it conjures in my minds give me quite the hearty chuckle.

I should point out we are talking about Fantasy PCs created in the majority of the bigger, more popular Fantasy game systems; the discussion concentrates on RPGs like D&D, Pathfinder, Cypher System, and other Race/Class/Level based games. I could absolutely create a PC I find interesting in Ars Magica. Ars Magica is a very different beast from the games we're talking about here, though some of what makes it different will come into play (no pun intended) later in the post.

Many a modern gamer would disagree with this statement outright, saying the PC is as rich a character as the work you put into it. A truism I'll grant but that work is all you the player, with little coming from the system itself. Remember we are talking beginning PCs starting at 1st level here. I know many like to run and create characters that begin at 3rd Level or even higher but that only proves my point. The bulk of the classic style Fantasy games don't have you start at First Level with the kind of character you'd really like to play. That comes later (this is a key point that will come up further on in the post).

I can see the Grognards and Neckbeard Old-Schoolers (the latter the name of a Dwarf I met once I'm sure of it) saying that's the point! You start with nothing, a nobody, you're not a 'Character' in a story but a game piece, a component for the game that is D&D (or Rolemaster, Tunnels & Trolls, etc.). That's possibly true...and doesn't interest me. I don't want to play a glorified wargame or innovative board game. I want to go on adventures that tells/turns into stories and I want to be part of those stories with a story of my own. 

Now back to Ray's proclamation: It's always kind of bugged me that you begin many Fantasy game with a character who often seems like they never existed before they first stepped foot in 'Ye Ole' Meeting Place' tavern or the Dungeon-of-the-Week. 

"Flakgore the Barbarian turns to see an Elf in the Wizard Robes standing next to him. She wasn't there a moment ago but then again...was he? He has no memories of his life before opening the vaulted doors of the Crypt of Cataclysm. Looking at the other members of his party, there is a vague recollection of meeting them all in a tavern..."

These types of characters rarely feel 'real' to me and as such, I usually concoct a short description of who they are and why they've deciding upon the life of an adventurer. Without that, it all feels immaterial to me. Unimportant and definitely not special. The problem is, in my experience, I can't come up with a description because there isn't much to go on inspiration wise. Fantasy game settings often feel same-y to me and since I'm not a fan of the genre overall, these elements combine to create a blandness that doesn't motivate me to come up with much. 

Then there's the make-up of the characters themselves...We begin with 'Race'. Humans are boring, the other Races sound cool on paper but have few mechanics reflecting the fluff, and there are rarely rules for creating your own Species. This has improved in later editions and various systems. Classes are fairly rigid, start with few abilities, and multi-classing is usually poorly thought out. There is little to give any ideas for character background (later editions of D&D and other systems have added this and its much appreciated), and I just don't know where to go with it since I'm at a handicap with Fantasy to begin with.  

Compare this to some of my favorite games from other genres:

Star Trek (various versions) and Traveller: Rolls and/or choices develop your PCs pre-playing history. Your 'starting' character isn't just starting out in life but moving onto the next big, bold chapter of it - it just happens to be the chapter the GM and other players are interacting with. 

Characters begin the campaign after their 'Pre-Academy' days and 'Tours of Duty'. They may have gained 'Special Assignments', received 'Promotions' and/or 'Commendations'. They've lived interesting fictional lives before they've even entered the first session. This person is, to me, instantly interesting. It inspires ideas and makes me want to answer questions like, 'What was their homeworld like?', 'What was the Special Assignment they were given?', and 'Who gave them their Commendation? Are they still in touch?'.

Star Wars (specifically the West End Games D6 System) is so customizable that you can practically make up a cool character first, then figure out the Template's numbers, skills, Species abilities, etc. Let's say...OK let me try an experiment. I am going to do a Google Image Search for 'Star Wars Alien'. Give me a moment.

OK, the first three were a Hutt, Grogu (Yoda's Species), and Jar Jar Binks, a Gungan. OK, I love redeeming the Gungans so I'll make one of those. What Template? I'll build my own. There is no official Gungan Mercenary but I like the idea of playing one. Another quick search shows a few different Gungan Species write-ups. The Second Edition has a Mercenary Template as well as rules for making Templates so - bing, bang, boom - I can make a Gungan Mercenary, customize some of the skills, take away some gear since I get a few Amphibious abilities as a Gungan and I have a character I like that I designed myself for the most part. His name is, hmm, Junji Terble. Yeah. I could totally play this guy. 

I had 20 minutes and too much coffee so I made an image. 

Champions and Ars Magica take the previous approach and lean in on it hard. Through the purchasing of Attributes, choosing Advantages and Disadvantages, building your various Powers and Abilities exactly the way you want, I can create precisely the character I would find interesting. I can come up with a story for the character and then dig through the systems for rules that reflect that story. If my Superhero character's origin has her trapped in a forest fire before being given her plant powers by Flora - Spirit of All Plants, Daughter of Mother Nature - she might be as mighty as a Redwood but remain afraid of fire. So...hmm...Psychological Limitation. Cool. How about...Pyrophobia and maybe she takes Vulnerability: Extra Damage from Fire. Nice. That gives me more points so I can add more Plant-themed gimmicks to my PC's repertoire. Which gimmicks? How do they work? The ones I want and how I want them. 

One of my oldest Superhero characters, Excelsior - art by Keith Conroy, 1992.

The randomly generated Villains and Vigilantes version was cool. 
The custom built Champions version was AWESOME!

It would seem that the main focus of classic Fantasy RPG Character Creation is more Character 'Generation'. You are, for the most part, along for the ride as you roll dice and make some choices. You are a passenger on a commercial airplane flight. You get to pick your meal from one or two choices, decide what you want to drink, and whether or not you want the peanuts. 

With many of the games I enjoy it's more like being the pilot of a private jet. It's your plane. Go where you want to go, bring the food you want to eat, and if you want the peanuts, hell, knock yourself out. 

As Ray notes (paraphrasing): 

"The Fantasy character traditionally starts off simple. A basic design without much to make them appear unique. As they adventure, as they explore, fight monsters, and perform their skills, they will gather experience points they can spend to get new and more special abilities. Even more so, they will establish friends, enemies, and live through events that will give them a 'life story'.

Eventually, the PC will become much more interesting, both mechanically and narratively, as they've gone through numerous 'character building' moments."

OK, I get that. That certainly makes sense. I'll even go as far as to say it sounds fun to follow this complete rookie, this noob, through their development into a hero of the realm. But...

Spoiled as I may be, what with having cool traits, knacks, and maybe some neat equipment at the very start - all of which I built or decided upon myself - can you see how I'd automatically be more invested, more attached to this kind of character than the one just described? 

At the end of say a dozen sessions, both a classic Fantasy RPG PC and a Space Adventure/Supers RPG PC will have had the same amount of potential in-game character building and development time.

Yet the Space Adventure/Supers character had a head start on the 'being cool' factor right from the get-go. This is key to my forming a relationship with the PC that makes me want to keep playing them.

What can be done...?

Barking Alien


  1. Oh, I think your image of fantasy RPG's is showing its age right now. While the mechanics (which is what you seem to focus on in regards to PC generation, disadvantages, et al) do not have much more than a simple background option in D&D 5E, the *culture* of PC creation has swung SO HARD in the other direction that now GM's are complaining that players are insisting that their character's backstory be the primary focus of the campaign.
    Maybe that is the "it's what you put into it," statement from your friend, but from a practice standpoint the big influencing factors for D&D (such as Critical Role, which often plumbs the PC backstories at length) have players expecting three pages of narrative as part of the process.

    1. What 'what you put into it' means to me is the player makes up and puts into the character that didn't come directly from the game. I (or anyone) can write a backstory for a character but not every system gives the creator much assistance in that regard.

      If I say, right here right now, I've made a timeline of my character's life, you have no idea what game I've made it for. Furthermore, it doesn't matter. Anyone can write anything about their character. The key question is, 'does any of it have anything to do with the rules and/or game mechanics or the vice versa?'

      Perhaps you wrote a story to explain why your PC has such a high strength because you rolled a high strength. Sure. That's great. Maybe, you are playing a Ranger and you give some history as to how and why your PC joined the became a Ranger.

      Again, that can be done by anyone for any game. That's what you, the player, put into it, the game. But what did The Game put in? What did the system or mechanics of Character Creation add to your development of a story or the customization of the PCs' make-up?

      In my past experiences, the answer is very little when it comes to most Fantasy games and quite a bit when it comes to Sci-Fi/Space Adventure and Superheroes.

  2. I'm with you on this one, but I think you have to break down the issue into smaller parts rather than just blaming fantasy as a whole.

    - Class and level systems are much more prevalent in fantasy. Together, they usually provide much of the background for a character and, at the same time, limit its development outside of an archetype. Sci-fi or space fantasy class and level systems have the same issues, but they are less common (in part because they don't fit the genre that well). I'm running Warhammer 40K Wrath & Glory, which has class, but not levels, and it has the issue with the PCs backstory being baked into the class, but at the same time you can go completely off track with its abilities.

    - Most modern or futuristic settings are usually at least a bit more grounded that fantasy in that people have jobs, go to school to learn their skills, etc. If you want to have a skill, especially if it is unusual, you automatically will start thinking in a justification. You put Stealth and Firearms in your IT expert's sheet? Maybe he used to go hunting with his father. For superheroes, this is half of the character.

    - "You all meet in a tavern" doesn't work very well in many settings. It is more "you all joined the Rebellion/Starfleet/the Army/this crew", and you have to explain why.

    1. Always happy when you stop by Miguel. Good to have you here!

      I want to be clear, am not 'blaming' Fantasy. At least not Fantasy as a genre. I do blame the approach so many Game Designers take when creating Fantasy games.

      I completely agree with your observation about Class and Level but I still wonder why it has to be that way. Why not a system wherein the development of a PC's backstory and history builds the Class. Levels could be attributed to the end result regardless of what it is.

      Think of it...A few random rolls and/or choices give you information on the PC's Homeland, Youth, and Call to Adventure. Your results are Major City, Apprenticeship, and Fought off Invaders. Defining the results further you're from an Learned Upbringing, were the Apprentice of a Wizard, and Fought Invaders during 'The War'.

      Compiling this together you get a Wizard who can fight with Sword and Shield, wear Armor, and is Well Read in various subjects. What is their Class? Adventurer - all PCs are Adventurers and yet no two are exactly the same - and start out at 1st Level.

      I made that up on the fly just now. I have no idea how this would work exactly or even if it would but I can tell you, I'd already rather play this game than most of the Fantasy RPGs I've encountered.

  3. I think that this 'lack of background' trend in fantasy games comes from the original D&D rules.
    In OD&D (and later AD&D), starting characters are quite frail. A fighters would have 11hp at max (OD&D) and would die at 0hp. Which mean that a pair of goblins with short swords could butcher you in a single unlucky round.
    I remember that you had to roll your first level hit die, I've seen a character starting with 1 hp (it was a wizard)... Needless to say, this character didn't survive his first adventure, he died from a simple fall...
    Later, in AD&D, fighters would start with 1d10 + bonus (max 14) and would die at -10hp.
    So why invest much time in a character background if you only play it once or twice. His story will unfold during his adventures as long as he lives.
    D&D started a trend and it took a while to get over with it.

    In OD&D and AD&D, the classes are not archetype that you can tweek. All fighters had the same capabilities & cannot change them. Later weapon masteries & skills were introduced to give some distinctions between characters.
    There was a supplement to create a backstory to your characters, IIRC it was called Central Casting. But the results tended to be quite erratic.
    IIRC for AD&D, there was a supplement to switch options in the classes & the races : "Player's Option: Skills & Powers".

    1. Across the board I think you're absolutely on point. Characters were quite disposable back in the day and you (the Player) weren't intended to get too attached to your PC until later in the campaign (if they made it to a later).

      The problem for my friends and I was that we did get attached, pretty much right away. We were creating Characters and in our minds, Characters were part of Stories. In those early days we came up with little backgrounds to explain why we were adventuring but as time went on that got harder and harder for me.

      As noted in the post, I had/have a hard time coming up with such tales for games that neither help in this regard, nor really reward ones creativity. I just leaves me feeling it's all very flat.

  4. So perhaps there is a hierarchy of game systems here?
    1) Systems which allow total player freedom to choose background details -and- to choose specific mechanical impacts on any or all of those choices (This would be Hero/GURPS/M&M/maybe Savage Worlds ... typically point buy with some kind of Advantage/Disadvantage system)
    2) Systems which have some kind of mechanic for determining backgrounds though not necessarily under the players complete control (this is the life path mechanic or Traveller/FASA Trek's career path type system or something like Runequest's character creation)
    3) Systems that don't really address background prior to play at all like older versions of D&D and many other RPG's.

    There are trickier systems to categorize like 5E D&D which does have background selection/creation as a step in character generation and it does have a mechanical impact but it's a lot less than a Hero-style choices.

    I'm intrigued that you chose d6 Star Wars as an example here as while you might say that your skill selections are tied to the background in your concept I'm not sure it's that different that one's class selection in say D&D.

    Also a shout-out to Alqualonde for mentioning Central Casting - those were some fun books for livening up some otherwise plain-jane systems. There were versions for fantasy, modern, and sci-fi characters and if you like random character backgrounds they were probably the pinnacle of that approach. Heroes of Legend, Heroes Now, and Heroes of Tomorrow - Now I might have to dust those off again.

    1. Star Wars D6 Templates are nothing like Classes in my view, largely because of how they're put together.

      Templates have an average of 25-30 Skills spread out under the six Attributes. Their are 18 Attribute Dice, 7 Skills Dice, and 3 Specialties, right? OK. So I can make my own Template easily that isn't only good at one role.

      A Pilot who can also fire a Blaster and DProgram Droids. I can build that. A Con Man with great Perception whose also a decent Brawler and has good Stamina? I can do that.

      Honestly my most common way of making SW D6 PCs is to pick an existing Template, swap out a couple of Skills for others I like (not changing the total number) and maybe altering the Attribute Dice a little (again, not altering the total number in any way).

      Failed Jedi becomes Vigilante Jedi, Laconic Scout becomes Bold Explorer, etc.

    2. Just imagine if Classes worked that way!

      I am going to be a Fighter but drop this one Fighter ability to take a a Magic User ability. Now I will lower my Strength just a tad to add to Intelligence and...yeah...also take a Thief or Ranger Skill or two. I'll call it the Guardian Class!

      Man oh man I might actually like that kind of Fantasy game.