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.

Posted in Game Design.

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