Character Building

I’ve been a little lax about posting this past week or so because I’ve been caught up in preparation for a few games. One of the games is a playtest of the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay*, another is the next installment of the Hunter – Shadow Wars episodic campaign, and then there’s the bookkeeping for the Storm Point campaign, and the pregame development of Scio Occultus Res.

But the work I’m doing on the games has got me thinking about building characters in games, and the different systems the games offer and why, and the different goals and ideals that players have when building characters. See, I’ve been building some pregens for the WHFRP playtest, some NPCs for the Shadow Wars game, and watching my players build their characters for SOR. I’ve also been reading some other games, like Starblazer Adventures, Mutant City Blues, Two-Fisted Tales, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel, and Mongoose’s latest iteration of the classic Traveller.

What I’ve noticed is that character building systems in game sit on a continuum of customizability, ranging from games where you pick an archetypical character and play it to games where you build each individual aspect of the character. There really isn’t anything at either extreme of the continuum; even a system that focuses on archetypes like Feng Shui or Shadowrun lets you customize a few aspects of the character, and even a game where you build almost everything from scratch like Unknown Armies or Spirit of the Century has a few predefined elements that you need to use to create your character.

In the middle of the road, though, you find the race/class systems, like Dungeons & Dragons, and the skill-based systems, like Call of Cthulhu. Each still has components of the other in it – you get to pick skills and feats to customize your character in D&D, and your choice of profession shapes your skill picks in CoC.

This says to me that , as gamers, we tend to like the ability to build the kind of character we want to play in a game with few restrictions, but we also want a bit of a structure to help realize the ideals we have in relation to the rules. It also seems that the more detailed and low-trust* the rules system is, the more the structure is needed to make the mechanics of character interact properly with the mechanics of task resolution and other systems.

Character building also sets the tone for the game. Consider that, in D&D, most players look at the concept of roles for picking their classes. Now, roles really only impact the game in combat, which leads to the tacit assumption that combat is going to be the most important part of the game. The majority of rules in the game deal with combat in one way or another, from the powers of the characters to entire books of monsters to fight. Now look at a game like Mage: The Awakening. In that game, first you build a normal human, then transform him or her into a wizard. That leads to the tacit assumption that the themes of transformation, alienation from mundane life, and the price of power are going to be present in the game, leading to a more introspective, internal focus for play.

Some systems even have mechanics for building in backstory for your character. The Burning Wheel is a primary example, along with Traveller and Spirit of the Century. Some things you get to pick, but some you don’t, and your choices may restrict or open certain other choices for you. Classic Traveller even had the chance your character would die during character generation, forcing you to start from scratch with a new character*. This can be very useful for games where you really want a bit of depth to the characters, and it leads to assumptions that character history and motivations are going to feature in the game.

Traditionally, once you have your characters created, you throw them together into a group, have them meet in a tavern, and they all decide to risk their lives together. Kind of cheesy, but it works. Now, however, many games are going out of their way to build in reasons why the characters work together, helping the GM give the disparate characters a history together. The brilliant novel idea from SotC and other FATE games is one example, where everyone winds up with connections to at least two other people in the group. WHFRP now has a party sheet, which gives the group a reason to work together, along with benefits and perils specific to that type of group. Traveller mixes and matches this, giving characters a chance to link themselves to other characters during character creation, and then pick a group skill package to represent why they’re together and what they get out of it.

As a GM, I like these sorts of ideas. It takes some of the pressure off when the players are the ones who decide why they’re together and what they want from each other.

And, of course, some character generation systems appeal more to different players than other do.

Me, I like random in character creation. I like rolling the dice and having them dictate aspects of my character, trying to fit the disparate pieces together into something that I want to play. Others I know hate the random method, because they have a much more developed idea of what they want their character to be, and don’t want to let the dice ruin it. And some just don’t like the inequity of randomness, where some characters may start out just plain better than others. I can understand that.

And then there are those players to whom the system trappings of the character are just so much decoration -  the real heart of the character is his or her inner life. See, I like a character that can do something mechanically different from the others in the party; it gives me the chance to stand out in areas where I excel, and it prevents me from stepping on other players when their characters have the chance to shine. But I know some players who are more than content playing the “other fighter” because the attitude, behaviour, motivations, drives, and reactions are all different.

These things come up in character development, too. Some plan out each little advancement, whether in a level-based system or a skill-based system, doing their best to tweak their character to fit the ideal in their head. Others take advancement as it comes, and make their choices based on what seems to fit best at the time. This has some connection with the optimization ideas I discussed back here, but it’s not always about min-maxing.

I think this is part of what keeps most character generation systems near the mid-point of that continuum I mentioned earlier. Developers are trying to make a system that works for the largest number of players. Which is good, because you want more player buying your stuff, but leads to a bit of conservatism in the big games out there. In RPGs, the big guns are definitely Wizards of the Coast, with D&D, and White Wolf, with their World of Darkness games. Both of these have stuck very strongly to their core race/class, abilities, and skills through multiple iterations.

It’s the independent games that are pushing the envelope, coming up with cool new ways to build characters. The FATE games, The Burning Wheel, and Dogs in the Vineyard all have innovative new twists to their character creation that can be looted for other games – the novel idea from FATE, the idea of drives from The Burning Wheel, and the crux moment from Dogs in the Vineyard are all things that can usefully be lifted into pretty much any game.

And then there’s creating NPCs. This is, of necessity, different than creating PCs. As a GM, when you create an NPC, you generally have a specific purpose for him or her, a story role or goal that the character fills. Maybe he’s the villain, or the mentor, or the annoying dependent. Maybe she’s a love interest or a rival or an obstacle. This purpose shapes the type of character you create, but I also find that I shape the character based on what I know about how my group reacts to different things. In the Storm Point game, for example, I know that if I send a halfling NPC anywhere near the party, I’m just asking for him to be distrusted (and possibly stomped), so I only use a halfling if that’s the sort of reaction I want to provoke, or if I’m trying to prove to them that all halflings aren’t deceitful, manipulative crooks.

Of course, you don’t need nearly as much mechanical background for NPCs as you do for PCs. All you need is enough information for the NPC to serve his or her purpose. For longer-running NPCs, you may eventually need to come up with an almost-complete set of stats, but if the only reason the PCs are going to talk to the bartender is to find out that the guy they’re looking for isn’t in the bar, you barely even need a name.

Having said that, one thing that I did in the Dresden Files playtest is create a number of characters along side the players, and then use my characters as NPCs during play. This worked especially well using the DFRPG rules, because of the novel stage, where my NPCs wound up with nice connections to several of the PCs. This meant that the PCs had NPC contacts they could call on in play, contacts that they had a history with. I really liked it.

I think the point I’m trying to make in this post is that there are a myriad of systems for creating characters, and a myriad of ways that players – and GMs – look at making characters. Whatever method you use has got to suit both the game and the players, and that you shouldn’t be afraid of mixing and matching elements from other games to make the types of characters your group likes. Remember that the game isn’t what’s written in the rulebooks; it’s what happens at the table, when you and your friends sit down and start playing.

Do what you need to do in order to give yourself the characters that you need. Characters that you will remember and talk about. Look around, try out new things, read other games, experiment. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it. If something does work, keep doing it.

And remember. Games are supposed to be fun. Have fun.

*About which I will post a full report when the playtest is done. Back

*Low-trust is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that both the players and the GM can have a solid, shared understanding of just what is and is not possible for the character. High-trust is not a bad thing, either. It means that both the players and GM have more of a chance of surprising each other with something cool. Back

*Mongoose’s new Traveller has a more interesting (IMO) mishap table, where something bad happens and you have to leave your current career, but it retains the death option in what it refers to as Iron Man Character Creation. Back

System and Setting

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes up a game the past few weeks, thanks to my intended change in gaming habits. It’s got me examining that age-old balance in RPGs – system and setting. As I examine games that I might like to run, I look at both aspects, and I’ve been exploring the relationship between the two.

So, for the purpose of clarity in the following article, let me lay out my definitions:

System is the combination of mechanics that allow the modeling of the game world in play.

Setting is the fictional world of the game, including the campaign world and all the assumptions that go into it.

Essentially, I’m saying that the system is the set of tools that allow you to participate in the setting. Forgotten Realms is a setting, and D&D 4E is the system you use to play there.

We good? Good.

As I look at games to play, I’m struck by the observation that games tend to fall into two camps with regards to system and setting. One camp ties the system and the setting tightly together, so that the system reinforces the feel of the setting, and the setting pulls the necessary system elements into the game. Here, I’m thinking of games like Unknown Armies, Don’t Rest Your Head, and Polaris.

The other camp tends to divorce system from setting, so that the system can handle pretty much any aspect of any setting, and the setting uses only those aspects of the system that it needs to. Games in this category are things like GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, and d20 Modern. Now, I’ve chosen those three games specifically because they are at the extreme of this camp – they are essentially generic systems.

There seem to be real advantages to both ways of doing things. In the first group, you have games that are very rich in flavour, mood, and theme by default. You can feel the postmodern horror in Unknown Armies everytime you have to make a terrible sacrifice to power your magic. You feel the desperation and lurking insanity everytime you count up the dice colours in Don’t Rest Your Head. You feel the doomed fate of your characters with everything you do in Polaris. This is stuff that’s really lacking in the other camp without building a lot of specialist mechanics in, which, of course, moves you more into this category.

On the other side of the street, you tend to get systems that fade out of the spotlight and let you concentrate on the roleplaying. You can adapt the systems quickly and easily to pretty much anything you want to do, and your players won’t have to learn a new set of rules. This gives a fair bit of flexibility, and can emphasize the storytelling aspects of what you’re doing. But it can also limit the ability to mechanically implement creative ideas, both as a GM and as a player, that may require separate mechanics to produce.

Let’s look at an example I’ve currently been working on. I’m starting an episodic Hunter: The Vigil game, but I involved the players in the worldbuilding part of setting the game up. The result of that was a world where a lot of the specialized H:TV systems didn’t fit anymore. So, I developed a new framework for granting minor supernatural powers and/or special abilities to the characters, one that I planned to be fairly loose and rules-light. I wound up having to create different mechanics for about twenty different things that the players wanted to be able to do. This game of H:TV isn’t going to much resemble the default play style put forward in the book.

Now, that’s not bad, and that’s not necessarily good, but it involved a fair bit of effort on my part and negotiation with the players. It also illustrates both categories of game I cited above: World of Darkness is fairly setting-light, building a more generic system at the sacrifice of specificity of setting. the Hunter: The Vigil book provides specialized mechanics to integrate more closely with the setting. I wound up stripping several of those specific examples away and building new ones based on the generic stuff.

What’s my point?

My point is that I’m in a bit of a quandary. I want to run a number of one-shots over the next several months. Some are specific tightly-bound system-and-setting games, while some are just ideas that I need to put a system to. My buddy Clint put together a great three-shot game using OpenQuest, but he had to build some specific mechanics in to make the game do what he wanted. I’m not sure that the system is robust enough, or models things in the right ways, for some of the setting ideas I have. Another great generic system I like, FATE, could handle some ideas better, but I find it to walk a very fine balance between rules-heavy and rules-light – combat, specifically, doesn’t always have the tactical feel that many of my players like, and many settings would benefit from. And for the games where I’ve already got a system, there’s the problem of getting the group to learn the new rules.

So, anyone out there got any suggestions or comments? If you were going to run a game based on the movie The Prophecy, for example, what would you use?