Heart Before Charts
Takes One To Know One
I’ve been thinking a lot about character creation. I’m officially a Player now, and not just a GM. I’ve been lucky enough to become a regular player in a D&DNext game for the past month and a half or so now, and I’ve also started up a homebrew Pathfinder campaign that’s about 4 sessions in. I’ve also had a long drawn out flirtation with both Dungeon World and Savage Worlds for some time now and have begun the initial motions for each of them. With all of this, I’ve learned a lot about what it is to be player lately and also a lot about indoctrinating new gamers. So I’m here to report some of my findings.
To make a long story short, this article is going to explore 2 ideas. Implementing making non-mechanical decisions into character creation and the general over-complication of character creation found in some games and some ideas on how to lessen it. I’m looking at you 3.x.
Conceptualize Before Your Roll Those Dice
Often, we roll up a character starting with exactly that – rolling dice for stats, or in some cases distributing points for stats. There’s not been much emphasis on questions like “who is your character” “what drives them” “what secrets or flaws do they have”? Not only does this seem to place focus on mechanics, but also often only places focus on how awesome a character is. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be awesome, but everyone has flaws, no? Seems like it’s just all about allocating stats and figuring out how many cool feats, gizmos, and special abilities a character can rack up before even stepping foot into their world.
Games like Savage Worlds have edges and flaws, a beautiful system for balancing out all of the top-heavy ‘awesomeness’ characters often have. Not only does this help round characters out, but it also gets the players in the frame of mind that may better prepare them to actually role play a little. Dungeon World has a thing called bonds where you fill in blanks with your other party members names detailing which of them you owe a debt to, knows your secrets, or who’s life you have saved. Bonds also create unique opportunities for character creation that should get everyone out of the fucking tavern.
I’ve recently jumped into Guild Wars 2 as well, because I can get behind a triple-A title MMORPG that doesn’t ask me to dump coins into its coffers every month. Even during the character creation in this game, (an MMO mind you – typically known for their lackluster approach to personalization of your character beyond gear, funny pets, and stupid haircuts) made me feel as if my character had some depth to him.
But, Shouldn’t This Be Up to the DM?
Some have told me that my stance on this is silly and that it should be left up to the DM, regardless of what game system is being used. My answer to this question is a firm No, mainly because I’m bitter and believe that DM’s have enough shit to do already. That and because players are too lazy to do most things unless you force them to. Well, both of those things and becuse most players seem to actually enjoy making these kinds of decisions when creating a character. If you present it before them it can fit right into the character creation process quite nicely, within reason of course. If a player is already choosing feats, skills, theme, background, race, class, specialty, etc it seems that the more you tack on the more excruciating you’re going make character creation for them. Especially to newcomers.
Speaking of Complications
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it again here: I hate feats. The above mentioned gigantic list of all the granular pieces of ‘awesome’ that go into creating a character can weigh down a lot of the character creation process. In games like 3.x, Pathfinder, and even some parts of the latest iteration of D&DNext – these decisions can start to feel more cumbersome than fun, especially for those who aren’t nuanced with RPG’s.
Starting my Pathfinder game began with an entire evening of character creation for 6 players. It took all of 4 or 5 hours to get everyone settled in and ready to roll their first d20. It was a fun night, but it really started to drag toward the end there. Had I already obtained my copy of Hero Lab (full review on this amazing piece of software to come next week) some 4 weeks ago this may have never been an issue. But it was. I like digital tools like Hero Lab, but I also like rolling up characters “by hand” as I think it adds to the investment you have in your character. Now, most of my players are RPG vets and they’re used to what goes into making a character for the most part. Not all of my players are seasoned dice slingers though, and so I think it adds yet another hurdle to overcome for new players.
Now, creating a D&DNext character strikes the sweet spot for ‘time spent filling out a character sheet’ in my book. It’s accessible enough to feel robust but easy at the same time, even people totally new to the game can dive in and not be too intimidated. Though it’s not perfect, as D&DNext in particular has some real redundancy issues with selecting your class, class style/build, background, and specialty. Granted these things are optional, but most players are going to want those options unless their DM has disallowed them. I’m sure the character creation process will also become more streamlined as development continues but in the meantime: saying that you’re playing a Human Rogue Lurker Thief sounds a little silly, and mostly confusing.
Slow Your Roll
I don’t see why some of these bits can’t be moved further into character progression, especially in Pathfinder 3.x’s case. Instead of gaining level 2 and getting a +1 to your base attack bonus and nothing else, why not pick a feat then or gain some other little nugget of coolness? Players like to get perks and stuff like this but, making them choose so many of them, from such a big list of things is daunting and seems to exponentially reduce the amount of fun dreaming up a character can be with each and every asset you add to the process.
Spread out the little bits that go into making a character until you’ve spent some time with that character, and the game itself. Unless you’ve written a massive back story already, will you know what school of magic your wizard prefers? Let them figure it out as they go. Building a character can be looked at like building a house, you need a good foundation but you can’t use all of the (mechanically) strong bits just within the foundation, you’ve got to save some for the walls and the ceiling. Let some of those bigger decisions lie further down the progression line. That’s a lot to deal with up front, and I’m not sure it feels nearly as organic as it should.
Again, this is all just my two cents. I’m sure there are some HYPER MATHEMATICAL reasons why what I just proposed is pure idiocy/lunacy so be sure to enlighten me. It’s just that the more games I play, and the more rule sets that I read I feel like creating a character should have some baseline questions asked about your character’s makeup that goes beyond ability scores and stat blocks. With some of these elements in place, the motivations for your characters and the game world itself become much clearer and easier to manage the improvisation required to both run and play RPG’s.
So, character sheets should read a little more like questionnaires, and I absolutely hate feats and giant lists of hyper detailed bits right at character generation. What are your thoughts?