Monday, October 24, 2011

On Character Generation V.S. Character Building

Yesterday I wrote regarding the general consensus I've observed in the OSR community regarding player agency and game master guidance. On that issue the OSR community is very much opposed to the emphasis on GM guidance they perceive to be more present in modern games than in older ones. And, while their criticisms have merit, I ultimately disagree.

Today's post is similar. It again relates to the OSR community, this time relating to character creation and progression. The consensus is that the forms of character generation used in older role playing games are superior to systems of character building present in more modern RPGs. I'll explore this in more depth below, but first I'd like to define these two terms as I understand them.

Character Generation is quick, simple, and requires a minimum of knowledge on the part of the character. Many character generation systems actively discourage GMs from allowing their players too much access to the rules, because knowing what the rules are will limit what the player thinks they can do. Often these systems are not much deeper than rolling dice for your basic statistics and picking a class. Generating a character is a great way to get into the game quickly, with a minimal amount of time spent on other things.

Character Building, by contrast, can be a very intensive process. Ability scores tend to be generated less randomly, with many of the most modern systems simply using a point-buy as the default. Players have a multitude (some might even say a deluge) of options available to them to customize and specialize their character's abilities. Character building systems offer greater depth to a player interested in customizing their character.

These are less dichotomous than simple labels would imply. There are gradations between the two, as well as alternatives to either system. Traveler's 'lifepath' system is both amazing, and unlike anything described above. However, in most games (particularly those closely related to Dungeons and Dragons) some variant of character generation or character building is used.

As a matter of personal preference, when I'm a player, I'm very attached to the character building model. That isn't to say I don't enjoy the speed, simplicity, and unpredictability of character generation. However, when Zalekios finishes a hard day's work being a horrible person, and the GM goes home, I'm still on a role-playing high. I want more. Unfortunately, as a player, there's not a lot more for me to do. The only thing I have control over is my character.

Which is why Zalekios often has written and diagrammed plans prepared for the next gaming session. It's why I designed my own character sheet layout for him, I've made character sheets for NPCs in his backstory and sent them along to my GM in case he ever wants to use them. It's why I'm level 12, but already have my character sheet ready-to-go for when I hit level 13. The fact of the matter is that I enjoy fiddling with my character.

Having said that, the OSR community is correct. Character building is harmful to RPGs.

When I think back over my career as a game master--a great deal more extensive than my career as a player--I have a hard time coming up with any of my players who enjoyed building their character. Many, if not most, have needed me to help them with updating their character sheet for every successive level. And that includes the group in which I purchased Player's Handbooks for the entire party. Most people are far more interested in playing the game than they are in deciding where to put their skill points. Or at least most people I've played with feel that way. Anecdotal evidence is not hard evidence, after all.

This doesn't mean that complex character building needs to go away. I enjoy it, and I know for a fact that many others enjoy it as well. But if we want our hobby to grow, then we need to make our favorite games more accessible. We need to engage people who are less interested in putting points into acrobatics, and more interested in leaping across a gaping chasm without caring why they landed safely. This is too big to house rule. It needs to be built-in to future systems.

I propose a theoretical system which offers players a choice between character generation and character building. Those players who want to spend their evenings pouring over rulebooks looking for the perfect combination of skills and talents should be able to do so. While players who don't want to, shouldn't have to. They should be able to roll their character ten minutes before the game and be ready to go.

This is a difficult, if not impossible task. In order for such a system to function, characters rolled using the shorter method will need to be just as effective overall as other members of the party built by dedicated players. Yet simultaneously, players who spend hours building their characters must not be made to feel as though their efforts have gone to waste. I think this would be best achieved by making a "general purpose" and "special focus" distinction. Whilst a generated fighter would be good at all the things fighters are good at, a built fighter might excel in fighting casters, or taking damage, or sundering weapons, while being less adept in other areas.

Considering the fact that games such as D&D and Pathfinder are unable to maintain class balance in the systems they've already got, my theoretical system seems like a pipe dream. I'm confident, though, that with sufficient ingenuity it can potentially be achieved. I fully intend to devote some of my attention to the problem. Until this magical system makes itself manifest, however, we've got to make due with what we've got.

I'm presently working within Pathfinder to try and devise a stopgap solution. I want to work out a method of character generation & leveling which functions quickly and simply. My current criteria for the system are:

-Characters created using this method must be reasonably well balanced with characters who are built within pathfinder. I'm never going to be able to make a formula for creating Pathfinder characters which will be able to rival min-maxed characters, so I won't try. All I want is for a party of casual players to be able to contain both built and generated characters without there being an obvious disparity in power.

-The method must be able to easily create a character of any level, not just first level. And it must maintain its ease of use throughout the leveling process.

-Any mechanisms used in this method of quick character generation should be easy to commit to memory. At the very most it could require a single page printout to run effectively.

I've made some minor progress. The difficult items like feats, spells, and class abilities such as rogue talents are still hurdles for me to make a jump check at. However, I did come up with a quick method of generating skills that I like.
Each class grants x + Int Modifier skill points each level. Select a number of class skills equal to x + Int Modifier. These are the character's skills. The modifier for any check is Level + 3 + Relevant Ability Modifier.

It's a start.


  1. Unfortunately, as a player, there’s not a lot more for me to do. The only thing I have control over is my character.

    Consider, however: How much of this activity can you do without mechanics? Procedures to try/use. NPCs from the backstory. Plans for the future. Keeping a journal. This is all stuff I do no matter what system I’m playing.

    Sometimes we even have PC/PC or PC/NPC conversations outside sessions. They might even be by phone, e-mail, text message, Facebook, etc.

    There’s no denying that—for some people—playing with mechanics is fun. Be it a GURPS character or a Traveller vehicle. I’m certainly one. It’s not required, however, for players to have fun outside sessions.

  2. @Robert Fisher That's very true! Which is another reason why I find myself more and more drawn to character generation. However, I've also discussed this issue with several players, as well as a number of people who have expressed an interest in playing but have not yet had the chance. Many of them note character building as one of their favorite parts of the game. I don't think Pathfinder 2nd Edition (as an example) should ignore them. But it also should not cater to them exclusively.

    @Theodric the Obscure, that sounds like a very interesting book. I may need to hunt down a copy.


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