Some people roll up characters for fun. In fact, I’ve heard lots of gamers say they take serious joy from this. It’s never been my bag. I’ve always dug writing up lists & details of NPCs, but there’s something about creating PCs. Maybe it’s that I can’t bear the thought of creating a character and not actually running them? Maybe it’s that character creation has the highest rules density and I’m kind of a wimp?
In any case, we recently talked about Character Creation on the Play on Target podcast: favorite systems, best practices, player exploits. It’s a solid discussion and Sherri once again joins us. I’m way behind on cataloging those episodes. You’ll find the show link below and I’ve written up nine additional things that occurred to me.
NINE RAMBLINGS ON CHARACTER CREATION
The Greatest Random Generation: I appreciate elements of random character generation. Rolemaster was a fav because it had built in safety nets. First, you could drop any rolls into your Primary Profession stats and make those a 90s. Second, stats had “Potential,” meaning how high they could go over time. Each level players rolled for stat gain. It usually meant a poor stat could eventually become average. But RM had a problem that became clear over multiple levels. Since stats heavily influenced skill ratings and determined how many points you got to spend on skills, characters with good stats pulled away. The rich got richer. These days if I’m going to have random generation, I want it for secondary elements: like the drawing of mutations for Mutant: Year Zero.
Homeworkers: Group character creation sessions give solid benefits, but have a couple of potential problems. Make sure you have enough reference material: sheets, playbooks, rules, etc. Print out or copy relevant sections. You may also have to deal with players at different points in the process. Some players like to plan ahead; some come with a finished character. I try to dissuade people from that. On the one hand, it means they’re less likely to have a conversation with others players. They’re less flexible. On the other hand, it means that some players may already be done by the time others are rolling up stats or choosing a class. Be prepared for that.
R-E-S-P-E-C: In the episode we mention letting players change character details and abilities after a few sessions. 13TH Age has this baked it. Leveling up’s an opportunity to change things around, to find a configuration you enjoy. I like doing that. Sherri paraphrased to me something S. John Ross said about the problem of player-written “Jack of All Trades” abilities in Risus. He said to not worry about them; they reduce that pressure of creation. It avoids players tangling themselves up creating the perfect, useful skill to make their character what they want. The same with respecs. Plus letting players know they’ll have the opportunity to make changes potentially means they’ll experiment more.
Need to Know Basis: As a GM you should figure out what the players need to know before creating characters: set up and mechanics. Give them a sense of the setting, but don’t overwhelm. Can you reduce it to key points? You don’t have to consolidate everything, but give them a guide to the heavier material. I’ve tried to cut any backstory down to a list—longer if I know the players, shorter if I don’t. Especially online I don’t expect players to have read this stuff. Often they haven’t. But I can direct them back to it if they have questions. I also give them sample character sheets and a rules cheat sheet. The former helps them to see what the game’s like. The latter’s useful to me; it makes me go back and figure out the key rules. In play I can direct questions back to that sheet as well.
Know Your Limits: Flaws and Disads can be awesome for the GM—depending on what tradition your player comes from. More recent games use these primarily to flesh out characters or generate resources in play. Older games use flaws to give characters stuff at the start and then expect them to pay that back with harsh interest. The latter means you’ve got a sharp division between cost and reward. All of this can confuse players who move from one approach to the other. Or if they’ve played disad-based games, but their GM hasn’t done much with those (something I’ve seen and been guilty of). These days I echo Fate’s advice: it you take a problem, trouble, disad, complication or whatever, it should be something you actually want to play out at the table.
Spend to Buy Divinity: One of my favorite character creation devices is “Buying into the Setting.” I haven’t yet adapted it to other games but I want to. Weapons of the Gods provides all kinds of backstories—on factions, on religions, on legends, on sex, and so many other things. It usually includes a story/anecdote and then some game info. But most importantly, you can buy a connection to these elements during character creation. Want to be tied to the Heavenly Circular Fists Gang? Make a small spend to be affiliated, make a large spend to be the son of the Leader. Like that cool legend about that dragon? Spend points to have your destiny tied in with that. It’s a cool idea and lets the players engage with a relatively deep setting.
Elect Your Representative: 13th Age has related mechanics with the Icons, Backgrounds, and “One True Thing.” The Icons distill the major actors in the setting. Players know they’ll be connected to these, so they learn a little more about the world. The choices they make tell you what kinds of stories they want. Backgrounds and OTT let the players tell you more about the world and about how they see their place. They’re super-useful. Plus the looseness of the Backgrounds reduces anxiety, as I mentioned above.
Weight Training: That approach does have some pitfalls. If you leave too much open and undefined, you put most of the heavy-lifting on the players. They may become overwhelmed or lost. You need to give some structure or direction. For example in Before the Storm, players build their characters with only the loosest sense of the world. But the game provides structures for those choices. They have to spend cards to make certain picks. The cheat is that it’s pretty easy to get a card allowing you to take something not on the list, so players still have lots of freedom. Directed questions in playbooks serve the same role. My Crowsmantle game failed in part because I put so much of the work on the player’s shoulders- from character idea, to world, to kinds of moves.
Overwhelming: How many choices are necessary in character creation? How many can overwhelm I like class and playbook approaches because they offer an answer. They present players a tight set of choices. It does put weight on that initial pick, but players can tune that archetype to their wishes. Confronting players, especially new ones, with pages & pages of stunts, powers, and advantages can put them off. That’s even worse if they have veteran players making suggestions at the table. I dig games that open up over time. In Mutant Year Zero don’t really make contact with the secondary talents as an option until after character creation. Perhaps that’s a way to handle Fate? Archetype playbooks, with the ability to add stunts outside of it once we actually get to playing. Now that I think about it, that’s sort of how Dresden File Accelerated handles it…