On Character Creation

Role-playing games are games about characters: Who they are, what they do, and what happens to them. In most games, a character is the lever through which the player interacts with the world, and even in broader games the actions of characters are still primary in terms of what happens. What this ends up meaning is that game setup for a role-player, the act of character creation, takes on much more importance than setting up would in most board, card, or other tabletop games. 

Character creation is game setup, yes, but it’s also a game in and of itself, and was the solo act of role-playing well before solo games were popularized. Making characters is fun, and many of us who either couldn’t find people to play with or had more desire to game than time would make sheaves of characters who would never be played. As this was the one way everyone could interact with RPGs, friends to play with or not, it created a shift towards games with interactive and evocative character creation systems. Making choices was fun, though rolling random dice and seeing what you got could be fun too.

So where are we at with this? Character creation has broadened significantly since the days of D&D, and games now have longer, shorter, simpler, and way more complicated character creation methods. Each one generates different results and puts you in the head of your character in a different way, and not just because of math. This past week I had a gaming weekend with my primary gaming group, and as preparation I made characters for games of Legend of the Five Rings, Twilight:2000, and a couple others. It was the first time in a long time I had sat down to make a really involved character, and it made it clear that character creation can provide a lot more than stats if you want it to.

The Journey to a Character

In character creation you take a metaphorical journey from a blank sheet of paper to a well-rounded, fleshed out, and hopefully interesting character. Legend of the Five Rings and Twilight:2000 are both games which lean into this idea by giving you a rich process to work with which tells you a few things about your character along the way. Twilight:2000 uses a lifepath system, which even four editions on is still based on the term-based system developed for the game’s older cousin, Traveller. In a term-based system, most character details are fleshed out as you either roll or choose a career that your character follows for a period of time, or term. At the end of the term, you roll some dice to see what happens, and move on to the next one. The number of terms each character has can be deterministic, it can be chosen, or it can be random; in Twilight:2000 it’s random, with the end of each term bringing a certain chance that the war starts and you move on to wrapping up the character.

Legend of the Five Rings does not use a lifepath, per se, but instead it stretches character creation out into twenty questions. Some of the questions are heavily mechanical; the early questions about your character’s upbringing and what region of Rokugan they’re from instruct you to build out your stats, while selecting a school provides a broad baseline of your skills. As you go on, though, the questions tend to be more narrative than mechanical, and are intended to give you a solid first impression of who your character is. Of course, the last question, ‘How will your character die’, may not have any mechanical impacts but it’s certainly going to make you think about how you’re going to play.

There’s really two things going on here, framing and obfuscation. Framing is the primary aim of the character creation method in Legend of the Five Rings; it’s not hard to see how many skill ranks and stat bumps each character gets, and lumping them together into ‘pick stats’ and ‘pick skills’ would, statistically, net the same result. What twenty questions gets you, though, is a chance to add some more narrative weight to each choice, and also pull bits of the setting into character generation. When you pick your race and class in Dungeons and Dragons, the setting implications of those choices are unclear. When you design a character for Legend of the Five Rings, though, you have a much deeper understanding of who your character is and also why they are.

Character framing, be it the more granular mode in Legend of the Five Rings, race and class in D&D, or another constrained character creation mode like careers in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, also serves to reduce the number of choices available. While most players say they want as much choice as possible, the reality is that most players want a menu from which the choices have obvious consequences. There are games that give you nearly infinite, granular choice, like GURPS. Character creation in GURPS is not celebrated for its freedom, rather it’s criticized for making said character creation immensely complicated. Guidance always helps, even if the illusion of choice is baked in as well.

Obfuscation ends up coming up in character creation systems where not all characters are the same. The reason that Twilight:2000 can in this year of 2022 get away with randomly assigning the number of skill rank buys each character gets is because the randomness is spread across the term rolls. Having more rolls determine the underlying outcome does reduce the swing a bit, but even if it were statistically identical Twilight:2000 would not get away with ‘roll 2d4 and that’s how many skill ranks you get’. Hell, the game does have you roll for stat increases and my group opted to make that roll optional to prevent grousing if you happened to roll a 2. Obfuscation is not only needed when randomness is at play; the Burning Wheel lifepath serves the same purpose even though there are no random rolls at character creation. The reason is much the same though; certain Burning Wheel lifepaths will simply generate more skill ranks or stat points, and these are balanced more through narrative than numbers. But just like Twilight:2000, you can’t present choices and expect a range of characters when some of the choices are numerically superior.

Obfuscation in character generation has the same role as randomness; get players to make characters they wouldn’t otherwise if all the information was in front of them. Randomness, however, asks a more fundamental question. How much control should the player actually get over their character?

The Role of Randomness

Remember way back when in Dungeons and Dragons when certain character choices, like the Druid and the Paladin, were gated behind stat requirements? The Gygax theory behind this is that these sorts of adventurers were relatively rare and should therefore be relatively rare at player tables. Naturally, what happened is that players just filled in the requirements, made the characters anyway, and played just like that. So is this cheating? Maybe. Is gating off part of the game behind an arbitrary set of dice rolls bad game design? …Maybe. I think class requirements were bad game design, personally, but I also think using random rolls to tell you what part of the game you’re playing can be fairly ingenious. Consider Electric Bastionland. Electric Bastionland has around 100 Failed Careers, and a Failed Career or pair of Failed Careers is linked to either one of 81 unique pairs of highest and lowest stat, or one of 13 subsets for those players either lucky enough to roll a low stat above 12 or unlucky enough to roll a high stat below 9. This means that it’s not even whether your stats are good or bad that matters, it’s specifically what you roll. There is some degree of balance; a Failed Career tied to very low stats may get a wish-granting artifact or a small pocket dimension while one tied to high stats will start with fur all over their body, or facial scars. There is a huge amount of variety, though, and part of the fun of the game is seeing what you get, even if you end up with lesser stats. The balance is more in continuing to give the player fun.

And that’s what sucks about the traditional form of random character generation. Randomly generating stats usually just means you’re randomly determining which characters at the table are better at doing things. In most traditional games, being better at things means you do more things, do more things successfully, and get more spotlight time from the doing of things. The game, therefore, is randomly telling you who gets to have more fun, and that sucks. Randomness is interesting when all characters are equally interesting, but most early games with random stat generation, Basic D&D included, tended just to generate bad and good characters rather than ‘interesting and flawed’ characters as someone trying to rationalize these design choices may tell you now. Electric Bastionland can do interesting and flawed very well. 3d6 line-roll D&D never did.

There are middle ranges. I haven’t tried one, but I am in love with the idea of ‘the Funnel’ from Dungeon Crawl Classics. The players write four randomly rolled zero-level characters and send them into a dungeon along with the four randomly rolled characters of everyone else at the table. These characters will mostly die horribly, with the survivors slowly gaining survivability from loot and the equipment they pull off of their dead friends. In the end, everyone should have one character left alive, and that character then gains their first character level. This both gives players more chances to roll a ‘good’ character, but also helps form some attachment to the character that survives which should hopefully smooth over whatever stats the player did manage to roll. Because at the end of the day, randomness to get varied characters on the table and in the minds of players is a good thing. Randomness to arbitrarily make some characters worse than others? Not so much.

Character creation can be a mini-game or its own narrative, but it can also just be picking from a list. It can be random dice rolls, or it can be one-for-one point buy. What makes character creation good or not, though, is if it’s fun for the player and produces a character they want to play. Some players are going to enjoy the narrative journey of something like Legend of the Five Rings’ Twenty Questions, while others are going to see it as just cruft. Similarly, some players will absolutely insist that only they can create the character they want to play, while others are fine to let randomness into the process. I’m of two minds. I get that it’s easier to go into a game with exactly the character you intend. That said, just like random tables when I’m GMing, random elements in character creation get me to places I would have never thought of myself. Having those random elements, in my experience, pretty much always makes your characters better. The problem is that when randomness is used for the character’s core competency and ability to contribute to the game, then bad rolls will suck the fun out of the character and potentially an entire campaign.

Just like every other element of the role-playing game, there’s no one right way to do character creation. But, as game design moves forward, I think there’s a need to revisit randomness. Getting something new and unexpected can be such a boon in a role-playing game, it can stretch your mind. What we need to do, though, is pull that away from the mechanics which affect character contribution. I suppose there will always be players who want complete control over their character, and when you’re looking at the time commitment of a typical game, I don’t really blame them. For me, though, I’d rather take the journey, roll through a few terms, and see where everything ends up.

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