Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Character Creation as World Introduction

One of the things I like to think about is different methods of character generation, both in a tabletop RPG and in computer games. Even if your system is stock d20 or whatever, by changing the way that characters are created, you can get a very different kind of game.

Character creation is usually viewed in two ways:

1) A tactical choice where the party sets up the basis for their interaction with the world at large. This is the "we need a cleric" style that's been popular in D&D since the beginning.

2) A storytelling choice where the party creates hooks for the GM to use in the story. This is uncommon in something like D&D, but shows up more in some other game systems.

However, there is a third thing character creation does:

3) It introduces the player to the world.

This isn't normally considered, because most people play in the same world repeatedly. Even if they play in different worlds, the worlds are actually so similar that they know exactly what to expect. I mean, hopping from Dragon's Age to Oblivion and even to Icewind Dale - these are technically unrelated, different worlds.

Except they're not. They're all the same. So the character creation system tends to be mechanical and coldly statistical. In some cases there are hints or post-creation 57 hour tutorials covering the difference between the races or whatever, but in general, it's all stats.

I'm someone who thinks the world plays a much larger role in the player experience than the story does. So I don't like the idea of playing in the same world over and over. I want to play in radically different worlds, so I can have different experiences. And I want to GM in different worlds, so I can GM different experiences.

When you do that, you have to get the players pumped about the world as rapidly as possible. They have to really want to live in that world, and they have to know enough about it that they don't feel completely lost when the game begins.

You can do this by having some kind of extensive intro sequence, but that's dull and pedantic. A better way is to let the players uncover facets of the world while designing characters!

Here are two ways I've started using:

1) Splash pages. 
If you have classes, make the initial list a series of art splash pages that cast the class in the best possible light of awesome. The details can come later: you want the players to think "holy shitballs I want to play a doombaker."

This doubles as getting them involved in the world as long as your classes are related to your world. In classic fantasy worlds, they aren't. The existence of four different magician subclasses distinguished by how they memorize which spells doesn't make you go "YEAH THIS IS AWESOME". On the other hand, a class which has magic injected under their skin in tattoo form? That plays well! Distinctive, interesting, and easy for the imagination to get excited about.

2) Combinatorial characters.
Classically, characters are point-spend, where you assemble them from very fine constituent parts. Do you want an endurance of 17 or 16? Do you want this perk or that one?

This is great if you're operating in a known world and are seeking greater control over the tactical face you present. But if it's an unknown setting, those choices are actually paralyzing. There is literally no possible way to know whether having sixth sense or combat reflexes is better for your character design. Those kinds of details only make sense when you have a strong grasp on the underlying systems and how they interact with the world you're playing in.

Instead, use chunkier components. Instead of carefully weighting their stats, allow players to simply choose A, B, or C - several times.

I did this in several builds of Bastard Star Wars. There were several slender decks of cards, each for one component of the character. Backstory, species, training, and talent, usually. Randomly draw from each deck and let the players trade with each other. Add in the ability to draw a few more cards from a deck of your choice so that nobody is too disappointed.

This works pretty well because it pushes the player to experience a specific class or character they would not have built on their own, but still feel is cool. It also introduces them to many of the concepts of the universe, and allows them to build a character without knowing anything about the game system (while teaching them some small amount about it).

Another idea I'm working with is a universe-hopping game, where play is split between three distinct universes. Each universe has different rules and, therefore, different classes. The idea is that when you make a character, you do so simply by choosing one class from each universe.

The class list itself "explains" the universes, because the classes have a strong cultural bind to the universe. For example, in a "high fantasy" universe, the "elf" class is a stereotypical, oldschool elf. But it is made distinct by the flavor that the other classes you chose in the other universes bring in. You're still an elf in the fantasy universe, but you're an elf with unique flavor. Of course, your elfiness bleeds over into the other universes, so if you were, say, a talking stuffed animal in another universe, you would be a bit fey for a talking stuffed animal.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on character creation today.


Isaac said...

The *World (Apocalypse/Dungeon/MonsterHearts) games do a great job of doing this. Character creation is basically selecting items from great, thematic lists.

As a GM, you're instructed to build the world around the characters; "Oh, we have a Cleric, so we know there's some kind of organised religion in our world". Then ask them questions as part of character creation, using their answers as cues for the world; "You stole your car, Driver? Dog Head is gonna be real pissed when he finds out who took it. Where have you been hiding out from his gang?". Done right, every tactical choice has some impact on the fictional world and ties the characters to it.

Craig Perko said...

I've played a few games like that - more cooperative story-telling than anything else.

There's nothing wrong with those kinds of games, but I usually design the world I want to run in pretty carefully. That way the theme and mechanical support all unify properly.

Random_Phobosis said...

Splash pages (literally) remind me of tribe generation in King of Dragon Pass. It mainly serves as quick guide to the game world, not just as customization tool, which is pretty cool.

Concerning card-based generation, I like how easy to start is Warhammer Fantasy 3rd ed. compared to older editions. Just pick a card, then pick a card, and then - guess what - pick a card. And you're good to go.