RPG Character Creation, Part 1

D&D is probably the best known modern RPG system, and it’s character creation system is fairly well known. Select a race and class, apply your randomly generated stats, and add the appropriate bonuses. This approach tends to lead to gaming the system for stat boosts, considering the nature of the game lies in modifying an otherwise entirely random dice roll. That’s not necessarily bad – that’s just what the game is. It’s a legacy of it’s origin as a wargame and dungeon crawler. The biggest weakness is characterization – the 2 axes of alignment (good/neutral/evil, lawful/neutral/chaotic) have existed for several versions. And, while later editions have made ‘backgrounds’ a thing, they’re still minor, barely counting as flavor text. Compare that to selecting your spells – in both the amount of time involved or in the space on the character sheet. It doesn’t stopped a determined player from writing a backstory that defines their roleplaying, but it does nothing to encourage it, either.

Shadowrun (5th edition) takes a slightly different tactic towards generation your character. It replaces random generation with the ability you select from 5 predetermined starting blocks that give you different amounts of character-building currency (money, skill points, etc) to spend. Shadowrun encourages more actions outside of combat (I think – 5E is in severe need of a V2 edit for common terms and organization) but the fact is you will spend far more time considering what your character can do than who they are and why they do those things.

The Sprawl (based on Apocalypse world)… each character has a playbook that helps your build your character – specifically, what your choices as, say, a driver say about you as a player and how they impact both your playstyle and your other choices. The basics of the system are a few attributes that every character has, and that every action (called a Move, in-game) is checked against. It encourages you at every step to not just say what move you make, but to ensure that you describe your actions, since that will allow your GM to determine not just your roll, but the potential consequences of your failure (or success).

In Tales from the Loop’s manual – the first 48 pages are devoted to world setup. Then you set up your character. You have 14 steps from selecting your type (class), setting basic attributes for gameplay, but the last 9 are literally about the details and make your character unique and their relationships to the world and other players – down to their favorite song. Each character ’type’ gives the player 3 key attributes, then asks the player to select 8 things about their character. The easiest is their name. The rest define their problems, their drives, and their key relationships with the other players and the worlds around them. Skills and attributes take a page and a half.

For a game where combat and conflict can come in many forms, both from internal and external sources, it is important that a player knows how their character would act and react to the people and situations around them. Both building your statistics (or skills) AND your character should have equal weight. The system sets limitations and provides guidelines – but players may expand beyond the framework we provide for their character. Now, the specifics of skills and attributes really is determined in large parts by the world of the game – but the basic setup should be the same.

The first action should be selecting what type of character you want to play, whether you call this a class, an archetype, or something else. This will determine quite a bit of your base stats and how you interact with the game systems. Then define who your character is – why they are that type, and what makes them unique – age, race, culture, and other details that influence both numerical modifiers and roleplaying style. You select and refine your actions (a limited selection of ways you impact the world around you) and the other strongly-defined details such as a character’s compulsion – an action that must either take place (putting the character or group at risk) or be resisted with an increased difficulty over time. Last, as a player you will determine the goal(s) you must achieve in order to level up. If our interaction system is card based, perhaps the the entire game – including character creation – could be as well. You’d have to simplify the details enough to fit comfortably on standard-sized, double sided, playing cards without requiring too much lookup in a manual (otherwise, just reference the manual for everything), but it also creates a nice way to randomize the details for a group looking for a quick setup (and prevents duplication).

I’m also considering the idea of a “change of plans” style event where, when certain conditions are met, a player may unilaterally change certain conditions of the game. This is a holdover from an idea I was considering for a heist-themed board game where players had personal goals to achieve in addition to the overarching goals, and a change-of-plans would offer one way to prevent another player from walking away with the story. In the context of an RPG, you’d need to take care to enable the right variability, and how that would impact the GM’s plans for the story. Perhaps it’s a once-per-session/story “get out of jail free” card that turns a failure into a success, but will introduce some sort of additional cost down the line.

Before I go too far, I need to design the basic world for the game so it can shape the system.