Thursday, 17 July 2014

Character Generation Systems

Anyone who’s played multiple RPGs knows that Character Generation is first area that players and GMs alike need to get right. Each system, regardless of similarities with other systems, handles the process in a number of ways. Each way has merits and flaws, and end up tailoring to different play styles even if that is not their intent.

When I go through the Char Gen sections of a new game (or an old one I haven’t played before), I always notice certain things about them, and this post is an attempt to categorise or at least detail the various methods and where they tend to take me. You mileage may vary, of course, and that in no way reduces the value of your opinion on different games, but I hope that this post can help shed some light on the most important aspect of a game’s introduction to a new group.

Random Generation:

Systems that completely randomise character generation are fun to look at. They a usually filled with tables and charts full of data and story ideas for a character. We’re not talking about simply randomising ability scores, but the majority of the thing. Such an example is Traveller (and all it’s incarnations). You are given a few choices on where you’d like to roll, but then you must also roll to see if you are ALLOWED to roll in this section, if not your choices get even more limited.  This arbitrary way of generating a character has the benefit of assisting players coming up with the concept of their characters, but this concept must be tailored to the results of the rolls that you made previously.

This method tends to appeal more to the ‘simulationist’ player than the ‘story driven’ player, as you seldom end up with a character that you created from the ground up; the dice did that instead. It is one of the fairest systems, in concept, but has the potential to create truly unplayable characters, and is hard for a player to in end up with a character they look forward to playing. You wanted to play a dashing space pilot who’s handy with a blaster? Too bad, you got the ship’s cook who no one gets along with and has trouble with an old war wound. I say fair in concept, because it’s also possible to end up with characters on both ends of the spectrum; a really skilled and capable character who outshines a useless, flawed character with little in the way of capability despite that fact that both players had an equal opportunity to create either.

This kind of challenge can appeal to some players, however I’ve found that these game systems don’t tend to support play styles that focuses on roleplaying. What I mean by that is that there are seldom rewards for playing a character well, rather they award XP for defeating enemies or overcoming obstacles. This might not be the case with all systems that use this method, just that most of them that I’ve encountered do.

Hybrid Generation:

This system is one of the most common, and well known. You have random elements for some aspects of character generation, and ‘points’ to spend or selections to make that everyone gets the same amount of. Dungeons & Dragons is well known for this, although you can use a point generation systems completely if you so choose, early editions espoused random ability scores and a selection of classes, non-weapon proficiencies, feats and skills, depending on the version. Many of the OSR clones and d20 based games follow this method, but it’s not without its flaws as well. What is IS good for, is versatility. While it’s still possible to end up with a character that is no good at what they’re supposed to do, at least you are playing something that you wanted. You may be a space pilot who has a blaster, but you can’t fly for shit and couldn’t hit Jabba the Hutt’s arse if you were standing right next to him. But you still look good in Corellian Bloodstripes.

Where this system can go wrong is similar to the Random Generation method, but to a lesser extent. These kinds of games tend to support different roles in tactical situations, but a poorly rolled character who is meant to fill a role can’t do it effectively and the rest of the party will be left struggling because of that deficiency. Once again, this can be more of a roleplaying challenge that actually improves play for some groups, but these systems still seem to prefer rewarding encounter defeat and monster slaying as the source of character advancement, with a side note or two for good roleplaying.

This method is perhaps the most widely used system, simply due to it being able to appeal to most types of gamers.

Point Buy Generation:

This method is perhaps the fairest system of all. Everyone gets an equal number of ‘points’ or choices to make, and they build their characters from available options by spending these points. This method allows for the greatest weight to be placed on character concept, as in a player can have a solid idea about what kind of character they wish to play before any pencils touch the character sheet. Personally, I like this method the most as you can create nearly any type of character you want with a little imagination and a good understanding of what your choices mean. But therein lies the crux of this system; consequences of choice.
Too often I’ve seen players build a character they’re excited to play, but realise quickly they’ve built a ‘broken’ character that neither does what they hoped for, nor offers any realistic options for advancement that appeals to them. The players MUST have a good understanding about what their choices will mean for their characters, not only at generation, but during play and in the future. Many abilities or powers may rely on attributes, and if the intrinsic connection between them isn’t fully understood the end result is often a misunderstood character. On the other side of the coin, this system also allows the most advantages to Min-Max players, who can ‘work the system’ to their advantage. It is often hard enough creating a well-balanced character, but there is plenty of risk of abusing the system as well. This is especially the case for imbalanced game systems, which unfortunately many of the systems that use this method tend to be.

Some examples for this style are the World of Darkness series and Shadowrun.

Story-Driven Generation:

Similar to the Point Buy method, this style focuses more on the ‘character’ rather than the ‘statistics’ of the character. A character concept is usually required to start the process, and the rest of the choices usually become logical conclusions to this concept. Monte Cook’s Numenera is a solid example of this system. Sure, you get some points to build attributes, you pick some powers etc, but in the beginning almost all characters are fairly evenly powered in capability and skill level. More importantly there’s already a connection between the characters and the game world built into the generation process.

This system rarely appeals to players who enjoy tactical gaming, the simulationist, but is very appealing to players who enjoy roleplaying their characters as opposed to squashing enemies for XP. These systems tend to focus on story progression as a means for character advancement, and the capability of a character takes second stage.

The drawback of this system is that it’s more tailored to suite a certain style of play, rather than allowing for different styles as needed (or preferred). Starting characters may not be as specialised as some players like, and see relatively low powered characters to be mediocre at best. Players who see progress as gaining character levels instead of deepening of a plot may find this style of game to be uninteresting.

Archetype Generation:

I call this one Archetype Generation because it involves players simply selecting a pre-built character from a number of choices. This system is used for board games, one shot adventures or very ‘rules-lite’ games, where pretty much the only choice a player makes besides selecting a character is the toon’s name. This systems is very fast, gives the GM a solid idea about the capabilities of the characters, and means that relatively inexperienced players and GMs can get right into the game without spending half a day going over player’s options and builds. A GM can pre-generate characters using any of the other systems and present them to players as choices, rather than go through the full character generation process.

As mentioned, this system takes away the creative spark from the players. It can be difficult to ‘bond’ with a character that you did not envision, or spend hours pouring over tomes and rules books to generate. For one-shots, or board games, this is not so much a problem but if the game is meant to be played over prolonged periods of time this system can kill it faster than a red dragon.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and is in no way a definitive guide to character generation, but I hope it highlights for some how the different systems can support different play styles more effectively.