Creating Characters

Character creation is an essential part of any role-playing game, even if it just consists of choosing a character from a list. Indeed, it’s a part that a lot of role-players really enjoy, including me; I’ve created quite a lot of characters that I’ve never played, and knew I never had any chance of playing. However, it takes time. For a lot of role-playing games, it takes over an hour, and that’s after you’ve read and understood a rulebook over 200 pages long. This is a major barrier to getting people involved in the games, and to trying new ones.

On the other hand, there are games with really, really simple character creation. The problem with that is that the games don’t support much differentiation between characters, or, indeed, the fun of designing a character. (It is a mistake to assume that the only fun part of role-playing games is actually playing them.) Thus, people tend to become unhappy with simple character generation systems after a while; witness the tendency for games to include more character creation options in later supplements.

Since I like creating characters, I want to make a system that permits that. However, I also want people to be able to start playing within fifteen minutes of sitting down with the game. I don’t think this is actually impossible.

My proposed solution is to have the characters created in play. That is, you start playing without a character sheet. You might start with a name, but you might not. You certainly don’t start with anything as definite as a concept, because with only fifteen minutes of preparation time you don’t know enough about the game setting to be able to come up with a concrete idea as to the sort of character you want to play. Instead, you start knowing that you are working with the other player characters on this project, but you don’t know why. That’s something you’ll develop during the game.

So, how is this going to work? Let’s look at talents and abilities first.

First, the scenario presents a problem, which can be addressed with a particular talent and ability combination. One of players decides that she would like her character to tackle that problem, and rolls a single die. If she likes that result, she stops. On the other hand, she might well want to go for a better result, in which case she rolls additional dice, one at a time, until she gets a result she is happy with. Once she is happy with the result, she gives her character the talent and ability required by the final result. The talent will be equal to the number of dice rolled, while the ability can be varied, depending on how many dice she keeps.

Of course, there needs to be a mechanism to stop players just rolling and keeping a hundred dice for everything. So, we’ll give each player a pool of points she can use to buy talents and abilities. I suspect that talents should be more expensive than abilities, because they will be more widely applicable, so let’s say 2 points for 1 point of talent, and 1 point for 1 point of ability. This might turn out to be wrong; in the example developed earlier, abilities were more useful than talents, because there were about the same number of both, and dice kept improve your results more than dice rolled.

For example, suppose that our example player is trying to come up with an original idea for a novel. The scenario tells her that she needs to roll her Creativity and keep either knowledge of the subject matter or knowledge of a related genre. Of course, she doesn’t have either of those yet. The scenario also tells her that higher is better, and that she wants a result of at least 9. She decides to go for knowledge of the subject matter as her ability, and makes a note. She rolls her first die, and gets a 1. Not a great start. The second die comes up with a 2, so she keeps going and gets a 4. That’s still not enough, so she rolls a fourth die, and gets a 6. Stopping is an option now, because she can get over 9. She rolled four dice, so she must have a Creativity of 4. That costs 8 points. She could choose to keep just two dice, for a total of 10, and a total cost of 10 points, but she could also choose to keep all four dice, for a total of 13, and a total cost of 12 points.

A similar mechanism can be used for items or features that grant additional dice. The scenario can make them available as an option, with a cost attached, and players who want them can buy them for their characters, and then use them. This can be used to introduce significant elements of character background in play, and thus flesh out the characters. If things like sex, race, and age are going to be significant, the scenario should introduce them early on, because it’s hard to play for long without knowing even that about your own character.

What happens when more than one player wants to take an action? One possibility is just to agree on who will do it. However, it’s best to have a mechanism for when people can’t agree. So, I think that each player will start with a pool of points, about six, with which they can bid for actions. If a player chooses not to take an action, the pool grows by one. Players who want to take the action, or acquire a characteristic, can bid against each other. Only the winner has to spend the points from her pool, but if you chose to bid you don’t get an extra point.

For things that won’t come up again later, such as background features, it would be a good idea to have a mechanism that allows players to insist on having that feature for their character. Thus, even if you lose the auction, you can have a feature by paying an additional point for it. The other player still gets to take this action, however.

This structure will encourage turn-taking, while still allowing some flexibility.

However, there is a problem with this structure. A player has to decide on how good the character’s talents and abilities are very early in the game, before she really knows which are most important, or what she wants her character to be. Recall that the player sets the character’s talent and ability by deciding how many dice to roll and keep; there is no ambiguity about the actual level of the scores. Something a bit more flexible would be better.

This can be done if the rolls result in simple success or failure. If it doesn’t matter by how much a roll beats the difficulty, then you can say that your successful character has at least a certain level in the talent and ability, but may be better. If we look at the example again, this character would have at least 4 in Creativity and at least 2 in knowledge of the genre, but might have higher scores in both; that’s something that the player could decide later, when she knew more about the game, and her character.

However, in order to make that possible, we need to seriously revise the mechanics for creation. Can we do that? I’ll look at that in the next post.

Creating Projects

So, how do we stitch creative actions together into a story? Here, I think I do want to model things on the classic RPG pattern. It’s classic for a reason, after all. The pattern is to have a number of encounters, which go together to form an adventure. Adventures are then strung together into campaigns. Now, in a classic RPG, one encounter is a fight. In this RPG, however, one encounter is either coming up with an idea, or realising the idea in concrete form. Thus, we can’t use the classic RPG adventure structure, of fighting your way through the underlings until you hit the big boss.

Instead, I’m going to suggest that the equivalent of an adventure is a single creative project. Of course, you could do a project in two encounters: one to come up with the idea, and one to realise it. However, that wouldn’t be interesting enough, or long enough. The number of encounters necessary will depend on how long an encounter takes, but between four and twelve strikes me as a reasonable range. So, how do we get that many?

This is where I want to use something that Jeff mentioned in a comment on an earlier post: problem decomposition. Each project should be split into a number of sub-projects. These might be obvious “parts”: for example, the beginning, middle, and end of a novel. They could, however, also be things that can’t be separated out so easily. Thus, a novel might be separated into its protagonist, antagonist, setting, and plot. In order to create the novel, you have to create all the bits. The overall goal of the adventure should be a product with a quality over a certain standard, which will then achieve a goal set at the beginning of the adventure. The description of the adventure is, obviously, an important part of making the players care about achieving this, just as it is in any other RPG.

Another lesson that we should learn from classic RPG adventures is that railroading is bad design. This is the application to adventure design of one of our fundamental rules: the players and characters should make decisions that have an impact on the course of the game. Thus, the players and characters should be able to choose how to approach the central problem of the adventure, and it shouldn’t just be a choice between doing it the way the designer wanted, and failing.

Problem decomposition gives us a way to address this. First, once a problem has been split into sub-problems, those sub-problems can be tackled in various orders. There will, most likely, be some orders you can’t choose; if one of the sub-problems is “integrate all your creations”, for example, that really has to come last. However, complete freedom is not a necessary feature of an adventure, and not, in fact, a positive one; the paradox of choice, where having too many options paralyses people, comes into play. As long as there are multiple sensible options, even just two or three, the players are in control.

The order in which sub-problems are tackled needs to have an impact on the final result, probably by having the results of one sub-creation affect future encounters. The most obvious way to do this is to have it make the future creations either easier or harder. In addition, it’s probably best if each choice of sub-project makes some later projects easier and others harder, so that there isn’t an obvious best choice. If one choice is obviously better than the others, it’s arguable that there’s no real choice at all.

One potential problem to look out for here is the risk of cycles of improvement, where you do something that makes another step easier, then do that step, then use the benefit from that step to improve the first step, repeating until both are infinitely good. The rules must be set up to block this, but you also need an in-game justification. Fortunately, that is fairly easy to provide. Going back to redo the first sub-problem would normally require redoing the whole project, since you would lose things that you had depended on in the later creations. Rules to block these sorts of cycle should, therefore, not break suspension of disbelief.

There is a second way that problem decomposition can help us to avoid railroading. It might be possible to split an overall project into sub-projects in different ways. This needs to have an effect on the final project, in order to be meaningful, but as long as the final quality of the project is complex, this is easy to manage. Different decompositions can make different aspects of the final project easy or difficult to improve.

How much decomposition are we talking about? Let’s say that a project needs an idea for the whole project, and then integrating to produce a concrete result at the end. That’s two encounters. To have four to twelve encounters for the whole adventure, we’re looking at one to five sub-sections. One doesn’t make any sense, but we could have a very simple case where the idea for the whole project is trivial, as is integration, and the project itself splits into two parts, each of which requires two encounters. Otherwise, three to five subsections sounds reasonable. If you have three, A, B, and C, doing A first could make B harder and C easier, doing B first could make A easier and C harder, while doing C first could make A harder and B easier. There’s no obviously superior choice here, so that works for avoiding railroading.

If multiple decompositions are possible, we could also have decompositions with different numbers of elements. This might affect the time necessary to complete the project, which would be important if there was a time limit on the whole scenario. In this case, the method that takes more time could be easier overall. It might work better, if you can just get it all finished by the deadline.

It should be obvious from this discussion that writing adventures for this game is going to be fairly hard work, but that’s no different from writing them for any other game. One thing that is a little surprising is that there is still no sign that a gamemaster is going to be necessary. There is no information that needs to be hidden from the players to make the adventure interesting. Indeed, the characters should also know most of the game information in advance. In a campaign, there might be unintended consequences of certain decisions, and it might be better for the players not to know about those when making the decisions in question, but even that can be got around. The characters might not know, and it might be impossible to solve one problem without creating the new one. In that case, the players will have no choice but to go ahead, and they can role-play being surprised.

Finally, I said that there was a reason why the classic model was classic. What is that reason, and does it still apply to this adventure model? The reason is that the classic model breaks an adventure down into units. When designing an adventure, you can treat each encounter as a black box, with inputs and outputs, and connect those boxes together. Then you can design each encounter without having to worry about the details of the other encounters. Of course, you can add details that link the various encounters if you want, but that’s optional, and you only need to worry about it to the extent you want to. In short, the classic model keeps the complexity of adventure design under control, while allowing the experience to feel complex. That is preserved in this adventure model. The individual creations can be treated as black boxes, as only their qualities are relevant to the way that the later sections, and the whole adventure, turn out.

I need to actually write an adventure to work this model out in detail, but before I do that I want to look at character creation. I’ll do that in the next post.

Executive Abilities

The abilities needed to execute an idea are very likely to be different from those needed to come up with it (a possible exception is knowledge of genres), but what about the talents? Do they have to be different as well? I think that we can have some overlap, which is a good thing; characters should not have too many talents. All characters will have all of them, so if there are dozens, the character sheet will get a little too crowded.

So far, Empathy and Analysis have both been used once, while Synthesis and Creativity have both been used twice. We have another six “slots” in these rules, so it would actually be possible to balance perfectly, at three uses each, but that might not make any sense. However, it would be a good idea to try to spread things out a bit. We want to avoid having a must-have stat, or a dump stat.

First, Empathy makes a lot of sense as the talent that goes with improving Accessibility. The better you understand how people think, the better able you will be to make your writing accessible to them. You will know what they won’t understand on first reading, and know how to rephrase it to make it easier to grasp.

Embedding would really have to be Synthesis or Creativity, if we used the existing talents. Synthesis makes sense; you are looking for patterns in your idea and the cultural elements you are drawing on.

What about Technique? I think I’d like to introduce another talent here: Concentration, the ability to focus on something, and to keep all the aspects of it in mind at once. This makes sense as the talent governing Technique, because if you slip up once, the technical aspects of your work will suffer.

So far, Synthesis has three uses, Empathy and Creativity have two each, and Analysis and Concentration have one each. I probably want to avoid using Synthesis in the rules for reducing the resistances of the execution, but we are not terribly unbalanced at the moment.

Before looking at reducing the resistances, however, we should think about the abilities for improving the qualities. We really need at least one ability that reflects the ability to compose prose, and that ability should affect Technique. However, since there need to be two abilities that can affect Technique, maybe there should be two abilities, each concerning a different aspect of prose composition. Actually, two sets may be best, because of the candidates that occur to me.

One of the two abilities must also be able to affect Accessibility. One aspect of accessibility is the way that the work is written, the word choice and sentence structure. This would naturally be affected by the ability to compose prose in a particular language. We could call this [Language] Prose Composition, substituting the name of the language.

The other ability must also affect Embedding, so a Prose Composition ability specific to the genre you are writing in makes sense. Part of knowing how to write a particular genre is knowing the conventions and references to make, and this is not necessarily the same as knowledge of the genre as such. If you know about the genre, you might be able to say who wrote something, but not necessarily reproduce it.

However, knowledge of the genre, or, more broadly, of the culture, is a good candidate for the third ability. It affects Embedding, obviously, but also Accessibility. If you are aiming at people within a given culture, it helps to know what sort of things they know, and thus what assumptions you can make. The precise ability used here is rather open: it could be knowledge of the genre you are writing in, or knowledge of another genre, or more general knowledge of a culture. However, you shouldn’t be allowed to mix and match, because that would just create a confusing book. Once you have chosen a context for a novel, you have to stick with it.

This choice of abilities means that someone with good [Genre] Prose Composition and [Genre] Knowledge can write good works in that genre in any language she can speak. On the other hand, someone with good [Language] Prose Composition can write good works in that language in any genre she knows. This is, I think, basically reasonable. I’ve obviously concentrated on English Prose Composition, because I can’t write stuff in Japanese…

So, what about reducing the resistances? [Language] Prose Composition has to affect Embedding, and [Genre] Prose Composition, Accessibility, while [Genre] Knowledge affects Technique.

The last one is very easy to justify: Analysis and [Genre] Knowledge lets you see where the structure of the work is letting you down, by comparing to other works that you know, and the problems that they have. This also gives Analysis two uses. Before assigning the second ability, however, I’d like to look at the other two statistics. That might affect which ability looks sensible here.

I think that Concentration and [Language] Prose Composition can be justified for Embedding. Concentrating on how the words are put together might reveal places where you can put in more references without it becoming awkward, or places where you are wasting words, and could rewrite them to draw in more references.

So, the last problem is how to link [Genre] Prose Composition to Accessibility. Looking at the balance, we should use Empathy or Creativity as the talent. Empathy is already used for improving Accessibility, so Creativity is a better choice. So, what’s going on? Maybe you’re finding a new way to write something that makes it easier to include explanation or introduction, or that takes the emphasis off technical points and moves it back towards the characters. This would open up space for improving Accessibility again.

So, looking at the choices for second ability, I think [Language] Prose Composition is best for Technique. In many ways, it’s the purest technical ability here, so it should help you to find the problems in what you’ve written. That means that Embedding goes with [Genre] Prose Composition, which can be defended in the same way as [Language] Prose Composition, while Accessibility goes with [Genre] Knowledge. Your knowledge of the genre allows you to see a way you could make it easier for people to get into the book.

I think this makes enough sense for an initial outline. The talents all have a similar level of usefulness, as do the abilities, although [Genre] Knowledge is noticeably more useful than the others. What’s more, we still don’t need a GM. Might that actually be sustainable? I’m going to have to think about that carefully as I continue the design.

So far, I’ve outlined the “combat system” of the game; the system central to resolving the main individual challenges. However, I still need to think about the game as a whole. Just creating one thing after another would be as boring as just fighting one monster after another. How do I tie the challenges into a story?

Making it Real

As anyone who has ever created something knows, getting the idea, while essential, is not the hardest part, or at least not the part that requires the most work. Turning an idea into an actual creation is a major undertaking, and something that should also be central to this game. Actually, in some cases there is a further stage: music and dance needs to be performed, while industrial prototypes need to be put into production. However, this isn’t always the case. While a novel, for example, does need to be distributed, the distribution stage is entirely mechanical, and not really an interesting topic for the game. (Marketing is a different matter, and one that, again, applies to everything.) However, in all cases there is a step of turning the idea into something concrete, so I need to provide rules for that. Again, I’ll talk about art works to make things concrete, but the same basic structure should apply to scientific theories or inventions.

These rules should determine the quality of the final product, because when the activity they represent is finished, so is the product. The quality of the initial idea should influence the quality of the final product, and should do so quite strongly. However, the quality of execution also affects the final quality. Both aspects influence the final quality in all cases. A brilliant idea, poorly executed, is generally not a good work of art, although it does have redeeming features, and so is not as bad as a poor idea, poorly executed. This means that both aspects of quality must be reflected in the final result. For example, using the quality of the idea to limit the quality of the product will not quite work. The idea would not redeem a poorly-executed work.

However, there is a structure that could work for this. If we convert the qualities into dice, the execution could provide a dice pool, while the idea provides the number of dice you keep. This feels right to me; poor execution of a brilliant idea tends to have a lot more going for it than brilliant execution of a poor idea. It also allows works of art to be a bit unpredictable in how they affect people, because that would be determined by rolling the dice.

We could just use the quality as the number of dice, but that’s likely to produce an excessively large dice pool. If we divide it, however, we create thresholds in the difficulty range. Suppose that we divide by three, rounding up. In that case, a quality of 6 is no better than a quality of 4, as both give you two dice. The question is, is this a problem?

I think it may not be. If you have a statistic on 6, then it is probably worth trying to boost it, even if your chances of getting it up by 1 are very small. On the other hand, if the statistic is on 7, it might be sensible to give up. We can make this difference accessible to the characters, by saying that they can tell when something is very nearly working, so the decision can be in character. This will add a bit of tension, when characters try to gather as many bonuses as they can to get just one more point of quality, before the resistance of the idea increases and makes it truly impossible.

Another advantage of doing things this way is that it allows us to treat the execution of the idea as mechanically independent of the quality of the idea, which allows us to simply reproduce the basic structure of the mechanics for coming up with an idea. This is a good thing; as I’ve said before, using the same mechanical structure repeatedly tends to make a game easier to play.

There is one point of difference. I have to find a way to incorporate the Transparency of an idea into the process of execution. It’s supposed to be easier for a higher Transparency, so I can’t use the Transparency as a difficulty or resistance. I can, however, use it as a pool of points that can be subtracted from the resistance of various statistics during the execution process. The players can only use the points once, but they can split them between as many different cases as they like, or not use them at all on some rolls. They should probably only be allowed to reduce resistances, not the difficulties resulting from high qualities, but even so a high Transparency would allow you to boost the statistics of the execution quite substantially.

So, what are those statistics going to be?

A first, obvious, candidate is Accessibility, which measures how easy it is to get into the artwork. The Harry Potter books are very accessible, James Joyce’s Ulysses is not. Most people would say that the Harry Potter books are better, because high accessibility increases the number of people who can appreciate your work. However, that doesn’t mean that the Harry Potter books are, in fact, superior. (Having read both, I’d like to reserve judgement; they’re not exactly easy to compare. Yes, that does mean that I don’t think that Ulysses is obviously better.)

Another possibility is Embedding. This would measure how much the work refers to and draws on a wider culture. The more you do this, the more you can draw out the idea, but the less accessible the work tends to become. If someone has to understand the references to understand the work, the size of the potential audience drops substantially. If you do it well, however, you can do it without sacrificing accessibility, and make the work richer.

Those two statistics both refer to the content of the work. Let’s call the last one Technique, referring to how well the work is executed on a purely technical level. For a novel, this covers grammar, pacing, and characterisation, among other things.

If we go with this proposal, a completed work of art has five statistics: Originality and Resonance, for the idea, and Accessibility, Embedding, and Technique, for the execution. The Transparency is no longer important once the idea has been executed.

How would they work together for, let’s say, a novel?

Accessibility + Resonance could determine how appealing the book is on first reading, and thus how well it sells to start with. Accessibility + Originality determines whether people quickly think it’s a new thing, or whether it is shelved as derivative. On the other hand, Embedding + Resonance would be a good way to determine how engaging the book is on repeated readings, because the cultural embedding gives the emotional hooks more depth. The embedding allows the readers to discover more about the book every time they read it. Embedding + Originality could be used to determine how original the book seems on considered reading, against the whole cultural backdrop. Technique, on the other hand, might be used when the book is trying to defend itself against criticism. If your technique is good, it is harder for a hostile critic to tear the book apart.

This little exercise makes me think that the best way to come up with the statistics for a creation is going to be to look at how it is going to be used in the wider game, and then provide the statistics necessary for that. You may have noticed that some of the pairings above were a bit strained, but in a game that’s all about establishing a literary reputation in a hostile circle (say, a game set at the court of Heian Japan), the role of Technique might be very important.

In any case, I think they are good enough to serve as a worked example. The next step is to assign talents and abilities to the execution process, and that will be the task of the next post.

Helping Creation

The final part of my outline rules for coming up with ideas concerns ways that players can get more dice to roll. We’ve already covered some of these: I’ve said that good descriptions of actions will get additional dice. However, that’s a reward for player actions. I think we should also have character actions that improve the chances of success in the same way.

The immediate question, then, is what sorts of actions these should be. I think it might be best for them to be specific actions. That is, a character needs to have a particular item, resource, skill, or something in order to be able to take the action at all. Then, the character rolls a particular dice pool, keeping a particular ability, to see how effectively the thing is applied. The number of bonus dice you got would depend on the result of the roll, but the difficulty for a certain number of bonus dice would vary depending on the thing in question.

So, for example, an item might let you roll Analysis, keeping the character’s knowledge of a genre, and grant 1 bonus die if you succeed against a difficulty of 3, 2 if you succeed against a difficulty of 6, and 3 if you succeed against a difficulty of 9. A particular skill might let you roll Creativity, keeping the character’s knowledge of a topic, and grant 3 bonus dice if you succeed against a difficulty of 8, but nothing otherwise.

In general, these actions shouldn’t be able to help with all the actions involved in coming up with an idea, although some might. For example, a library of books from a genre might only be able to help with rolls using the character’s knowledge of the genre, whereas a meditation technique might only help with rolls based on Creativity.

It would be a problem if characters tried to use these actions every single time. This makes perfectly good sense for the characters, but it would mean that the players were taking the same actions repeatedly, and that’s a recipe for boredom. We could guard against that with simple “only use this once” rules, but that doesn’t fit with the other rules we’ve been using so far.

Instead, let’s give each action a resistance, which adds to the difficulties required to get a certain number of bonus dice. First, if you try to use an action, and fail to get any bonus, the resistance increases by the amount by which you failed. This ensures that, once it gets difficult to use an action, it will quickly become impossible.

Second, if you succeed, the resistance increases by the amount by which you beat the difficulty for the bonus you received. So, if, for the first example action, you rolled an 8, you would add 2 to the resistance, because you beat the difficulty for getting 2 bonus dice by 2. This means that successes will gradually make the action harder to use.

Bonus dice for the pool hit diminishing returns fairly quickly. For example, using Troll, we can see that if you are rolling 6 dice and keeping 3, your average roll is 14.3. That’s an improvement in average result of almost 4 over rolling 3 dice. On the other hand, at 9 dice, the average is 15.8, which is only 1.5 higher. The second three extra dice in the pool have less than half the effect of the first three. At 12 dice, the average is 16.6, about half the gain from the second extra three. This means that you don’t want to put all your bonuses on one roll; you want to spread them out a bit.

If an action becomes harder to use every time you use it, and you have a variety available, you are going to want to use as many different actions as possible. You probably would use at least one on every roll, but you’d try to spread them out, to get as much benefit as possible. Of course, there might be some critical rolls at which you would want to throw everything you had, but those would be special cases. In general, the characters would take different actions to prepare for each attempt to improve the idea, which is exactly the result we are looking for.

We might also want to allow for items or qualities that always add to the pool for certain sorts of action. As long as these are limited, they are interesting, and because they don’t need to be rolled for, they don’t create the boredom problem. An example might be a character who always gets 1 bonus die when using Creativity to create a work themed around the night. It might even be OK to do this for a whole genre, as long as the game was going to work on more than one genre. A character who gets 3 bonus dice to Creativity when working on a science fiction project is very likely to write a lot of science fiction, and to produce inferior work if she tries to enter a different field. That could well be an interesting piece of characterisation, as long as the game wasn’t just about writing science fiction.

So, we have three main ways to get bonus dice.

The first is player actions, primarily descriptions of the character’s actions. The better these are, the more dice the player gets.

The second is character actions. These actions could be taken by characters other than the one who gets the bonus, and thus they help to encourage cooperation between characters and players.

Finally, there are items and qualities that always add a bonus in a limited field.

Obviously, character actions are more limited than a constant bonus, so it should be easier to get access to such actions than to constant bonuses. Bonuses from actions can also get bigger than constant bonuses without posing too much of a threat to game balance, as long as the difficulty for the large bonuses is set fairly high.

The big advantage to this, from my perspective, is that it gives us many more ways to differentiate characters, and to have items affect in-game actions in a concrete way. This is going to produce this game’s equipment list, and list of character advantages and disadvantages, and give them a nice place to sit in the rule system.

At this point, I don’t actually want to go into more detail about them. The structure is clear, and that’s my current concern. Thus, this completes the first discussion of the creation of ideas. Next, I want to talk about realising the idea: turning the concept into an actual work of art.