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

Dungeon World example bonds for a Bard. Great stuff here.

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.

Charm, Diplomacy, Ferocity? How does your character typically overcome their problems?

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.

How to completely bewilder even the most seasoned of RPG 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

Emphasis on “all of them” but perhaps a penchant for one or the other. A nice touch from Guild Wars 2.

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?


  1. Ars Magica also uses virtues and flaws, and the best way I’ve heard them described is, “virtues are stories you want know about and flaws are stories you want to be surprised with over the course of play.” I think it’s apt.

  2. You have a point: if you want to create level 1 there is enough math to go through, let alone at higher levels. I dislike feats mostly if they don’t add anything to the character (expertise feats in 4E) which are most feats unfortunately.
    Players in our group don’t start out with connections to each other or the world. Their characters tend to grow over time, they learn how their character works and with each encounter it becomes more complete.
    So I give them more flexibility in changing powers, skills, feats, etc to match that process.

  3. On one hand, I can appreciate games that front-load all their complexity into character creation, but on the other, sometimes I just want to create a character quickly and get into the game. Then you have the special snowflake games that have complex character creation and complex leveling. Those are the ones that make game prep a serious chore if you’re going to have the PCs encounter an NPC and you want to make sure the NPC is built correctly. There just aren’t enough resources out there that help you fake it in those cases.

    Plus, I’ve noticed that as I get older, the more I like rules-light systems with quick & easy character creation, especially since my wife has started to play. The last thing I want to do to her is bog her down with hours-long PC creation and thousands of feats to choose from when she still has trouble knowing which dice to roll and even which dice are which.

  4. I agree with what you’re saying: there is enough math to create a level 1 character, let alone a higher level character.
    I don’t like feats that add nothing to the character, I’m looking at you 4E expertise feats.
    Sadly, I find that most feats add nothing to a character.

    In our group characters are created with no ties to the world or the other characters.
    These connections grow slowly over time, as the group overcomes challenges.
    As a DM, I let players change powers, skills, feats, etc to reflect this growth.

  5. I have been having the same feeling myself and I agree that D&D next both strikes a good balance but needs some more streamlining. I really like that on the character sheet PDF the column on page 1 for your class, background, specialty, and class build are specifically for the story/fluff aspect with page 2 being reserved for the number crunch. Once I made all those choices I filled in the story part first and had created this veteran legionnaire soldier character just from human fighter slayer survivor.

    • I never even thought of those separate locations being for fluff/crunch but that makes a lot of sense. I’m going to start doing that! I left the back of the sheet for the more verbose definitions of the abilities/perks that come with the background, etc.

  6. Essentials did a lot of this. Open up one of the Essentials books and making a PC is very simple. You get some flavor, a few features, and very few choices beyond that first feat (for which you have a suggestion).

    On the backstory side, a lot is going to be based on the complexity the audience wants. Spycraft had an excellent system where you chose your concept. You roll attributes, but then choose your Talent (Adaptable, Agile, Brainy, Burly, Caustic, Clever, Convincing, Cunning, Daring, etc.) and your Specialty (Authority, Celebrity, City Dweller, Clergyman, Contract Pro, Criminal, Doctor, etc.). So, you might end up being a Grizzled Hunter or a Daring Hot Rodder or a Disciplined Soldier of Fortune. Only then do you pick your Class. So, you might be a Daring Hot Rodder Hacker or a Grizzled Hunter Explorer. You can play to or against type (a Disciplined Soldier of Fortune Scientist). In play it works really well, because you can use the Talent and Specialty as little or as much as you want. Talents and Specialties are pretty lean, with about 10 of each to a page. Spycraft wasn’t the first to invent this, but we see it in a lot of today’s games. D&D Next’s system of Backgrounds and Specialties is similar, though with more to each one. Numenera even seems to use this (and spins it as a new thing… we shall see!).

    The key is that complexity. It would be easy to have a simple system where you only had 3 skills from your Background and just one small story aspect from your Specialty. Would gamers be happy enough with that? I don’t think most would. How far you should go is a tough question. I still like the Spycraft system for its compromise between simplicity and meat while being interesting and descriptive.

    When it comes to feats, many earlier games used feat trees to try and limit how much you needed to absorb at one time. We can see this in 3E, where to get one bow feat you must first take two other ones. Spycraft does this, but perhaps the most obvious example is the class-based feat tree system of Star Wars (you can only choose feats from within your class and then within specific subclass-styled feat trees) or the recent 13th Age approach (where feats are primarily just within your class and enhance existing class features). All of these see criticism, and I have no idea if any one is really pleasing more PCs than the other. I can’t count how many times people have complained about feat trees, just as I can’t count how many people complain of being inundated by choices with 4E. It just isn’t easy to avoid bloat while providing options without adding requirements!

    In all of this we have to keep in mind how RPGs usually are aiming to be a game we play weekly for years. Any system is good enough for a short spin. The issues really come out when you play with the same system all the time, right?

  7. I agree with this article whole-heartedly.

    Many of the people that I used to play with (dm’s & players alike) were all about the number-crunching, minmaxing, etc.

    Roleplaying, regardless of the system, should be about the storytelling. Also, if a rule in the game (during character creation or otherwise) directly conflicts with that creativity in storytelling, t’hell with the rule.

    Also – a nod benwards. Ars magica does slightly better than other systems in that respect, especially with the virtue/flaw system.

  8. I meant to also talk about flaws a bit. In general I haven’t liked them. I don’t know how many allergies my Shadowrun PCs have had that never triggered. And I admit to avoiding the obviously bad Disadvantages in a system like Legend of the Five Rings, only to then carefully pick the good advantages. That’s a problem of the flaw/advantage system – it is really easy to game. I would rather there be balance between choices and instead it be about flavor/concept/personality.

  9. Guild Wars 2 is awesome man! Good article there.

    I got my toon on guild wars to level 30 and need some friends to romp through a dungeon! I need to ad you to my friends list on there. We have a guild also with some all local people in it yeor welcome to join!

  10. I’ve been a long time Superhero player. One of the things we would do is include a grace period on character stats. Specifically with point buy supers games there is a lot of room to wiggle around and the character might not play with the concept that you came up with. Because of that, there was always the first 3 sessions to try out the build, see how it played and change it if necessary.

    Alternatively, the initial part of your post reminded me of ICONS (and by extension the old TSR Marvel game) where you rolled up your stats first and then tried to figure out how that all turned into a character. It can be a good exercise in creativity but also one of frustration.

  11. Lots of good discussion here. I don’t know where to start.

    Flaws – I like how M&M does it. You don’t get anything for them at character creation, but you get a small bennie in play when they limit you. This keeps them from being “free points”, and means the GM doesn’t have to figure out how to work the crazy bounty hunter pursuing you into 40% of the adventures.

    I hate rolling for stats – if you’ve come up with an idea, your stats will probably not work well for that idea. True, they can inspire a different idea, but I often need some time to stew on a concept before my muse figures out the right way to do this.

    Speaking of my muse, I highly recommend getting one. Of course this means you won’t be able to sleep when she comes up with an idea at 3:30 in the morning. But it is so worth it.

    Feats – I like looking through lists of feats, but I realize I’m odd about this. What they need is a good way to organize this so that people have a good idea of some feats that will go with their concept. What makes this harder is that people think in different ways, so they want different types of organization. Since I like looking at lists of feats, I’ll often help the other members of my group. Sadly, the Moreau Conventions forbid cloning me to give to your gaming group.

    When I don’t hve an idea to begin with, I’ll often start with some interesting mechanical option I want to try. Sometimes this will spark my muse a concept for the personality, and when this happens I often need to go back and re-work all of the mechanics to fit the new personality. Not the most efficient system, but it’s a lot of fun.

    I also recommend Hero Lab. Though it can be expensive if you are playing a game with lots of supplements.

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