Building Character

Posted: 23 May 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

I just read an interesting post over at Pencils and Papers about Character Generation versus Character Building.  P&P seems to take, or have taken in the past, a lot of time comparing modern games to the ideals of OSR gamers.  OSR is the Old School Renaissance that’s budded up in the community recently with a, some say overly-nostalgic, preference for the games and systems of the 1970s.  I would have to say that I am at least on the fringe of that group (notionally, at least), but my interest is mostly in taking mechanics from the past that have been discarded and re-integrating them into modern games.  I don’t want to play D&D 2E, I want to play Pathfinder with hexmaps and random encounter tables.

But I digress.  The post I referenced talks about old school “character generation” where you roll a few dice, pick a class, and you’re done.  P&P says there’s a de-emphasis or discouragement for players to get too deep into the rules, ostensibly so they don’t limit what they believe are valid options in play.  This is contrasted with Character Building, where the player is presented a cascade of rules and options to play with and customize their character.  P&P talks about how he loves Character Building, how he fiddles with his character and plans out his next level ahead of time and writes up character sheets for the NPCs in his background.  This is exactly what I do, and I have the same level of glee.  But P&P concludes that Character Building is harmful to the hobby.  It can be daunting to new players and it can really bog down the excitement of starting a new campaign (never mind just getting a group together at random for an afternoon of gaming).  When I had my players build characters for my Expectations game I feel that I set out fairly rigid guidelines in order to help limit the overwhelming options they had to deal with — they had a Standard array of stats instead of rolling or point-buy and I had soft and hard requirements their characters had to satisfy (generally, be an exemplar of your Race and Class in some meaningful way).  it still took them roughly a month to finally get me characters, and even then their sheets were incomplete in places.  Granted, I don’t expect they were actually working on their characters for any significant portion of time, but that it took that long is ridiculous no matter how you excuse it.

There is a problem with Character Building, and like P&P no one I know (with maybe a few exceptions) enjoys the character creation process.  That being said, I for one dislike the notion of character generation, even if it has the benefit of drastically cutting down the time necessary to create characters.

P&P talks about an imaginary system that makes equally balanced characters either through Generation or Building, to allow people like he and I to gleefully twiddle our characters while at the same time letting less-enthusiastic players generate a character 10 minutes before play.  It’s not clear that such a system is possible, and P&P claims to be working on a stop-gap to use with Pathfinder.  I haven’t checked to see if he’s gotten anywhere with that, but I like the idea of it.

I’ll take a note here and say that this is one of the things that I really like about some of the non-d20 games I’ve played.  CAPES has a really quick, easy, and fun method of character generation, and it DOES work (in a sense) whether you generate a character with their templates or free-form (I’ve done both).  Burning Empires uses a lifepath-style form of character creation, and while it doesn’t necessarily make it quicker or easier to generate a character, background details naturally flow out of it (something which isn’t true of most other systems).

For my purposes, I think I’ll start putting together “generation guidelines” for my players to help streamline choices.  I think I’ll use his “X+INT skills at Level+3+attribute” idea (though, what happens if X+INT is bigger than the list of class skills?) and work on paring down Feat option.  From my post on Massaging Feats I already plan on doing some pruning there.  After that, you have issues like Stats, Class Features, Spell Lists, and Equipment that needs to be accounted for.  I may take a page out of another RPG I played once (can’t remember which) and just bundle up packages, like “Necromancer Spell List” or “Tomb Raider Equipment.”

If anyone has thoughts on this or ideas on ways to help make Character Generation possible in modern D&D, let me know.

  1. LS says:

    I’m glad you’ve been finding so many posts on Papers & Pencils which interest you! It is edifying to have my work enjoyed.

    I would agree that I’d rather play Pathfinder with elements drawn from old games, than play the old games themselves. Which isn’t to say that I’m not interested in oldschool play (I am eagerly awaiting an upcoming attempt at playing 1st edition), simply that I enjoy games like Pathfinder.

    I never did finish a method for creating Pathfinder characters any faster. Most of the times that I tried, it came down to either forcing the GM to do a lot more work than the GM should have to, or breaking the Pathfinder system.

    • I’d be curious about that… “more work than he should” would be my expected result, though was it one-time effort and then the system ran itself, or the GM had a lot of work every time a character was made? And how’d you break Pathfinder?

      Thanks for stopping by! You’re blog’s got a lot of great info on it, though I think I’m still mining your archives.

      • LS says:

        If I only had to do the work once, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But the only way to actually reduce the amount of work the players need to do is to reduce the number of choices they needs to make. And since somebody has to choose which feats a character has, that means the GM either needs to pick the feats for the player, or pick a selection of feats for the player to pick from. In both cases, no less work is actually required. It has simply been shifted from the player’s shoulders, to the GM’s.

        And gods damn it, I’ve got a world to build. I can’t be bothered with PC builds!

        The number of choices isn’t even the only problem. Every class in the game has such a deluge of mechanics for players to memorize that the playing starts to seem like too much work for neophytes. Particularly if those neophytes aren’t the type of people who would normally seek out a game like this for themselves. A lot more people are interested in role playing games than you might think, but the idea of working through all the superfluous mechanics is a strong deterrent.

        As I’ve said, I enjoy character building. But I think an ideal system would be much more refined than Pathfinder is. With fewer options, which are both more significant, and more balanced, than what Pathfinder presently offers.

        There is a day coming when I simply get fed up with Pathfinder and write my own damned sourcebook.

        Sorry to rant all over your comments section. x’D

        • By all means, rant away; that sort of thing drives discussion.

          So, the notion that I’m trying to develop is one where the player chooses a package and… that’s it. All the work is already done. Kind of like how you have them pick X+Int skills, and you’re done, but with potentially less variation. A Necromancer spell package might have these four spells at Level 1, and at Level two it adds these two others, etc. There’s a bit of fiddling to be done (what if you get bonus spells for high Int?), but it’s all one-time work.

          If D&D 4E did anything right (and I’m not sure it did), their Essentials character classes were kind of elegant — there were VERY few choices to be made, very few fiddly mechanics, they even (more-or-less) avoided the At-Will/Encounter/Daily structure that “real” classes had. But they were ostensibly balanced with characters you built. My notion is to set up something where you have a few quick choices and your done, potentially with a track laid out ahead of you for advancement so you just need to look up the right level and bam, done.

          Add in a few guidelines for “here’s what’s under the hood, and if you want to twiddle the bits here’s how” and you stare getting something of a continuum between generated and built characters and can move from one to the other.

          I plan on posting more on this idea as it solidifies. I kind of expect it to be a lot of work up front, but then the DM doesn’t need to worry about it (and can focus on building the world — you know, his job).

          You may have a point with all the options and mechanics characters have, and the problems that brings. This may be a reason I prefer low-level play. This may be why I consider higher level play “advanced” D&D, not for beginners; play through the first 4 or 5 levels a few times, then see if you can move up a notch. And yet, there may be a solution, without necessarily writing a brand new system.

  2. casewerk says:

    I for one don’t especially enjoy character generation. I’d rather make and build a character from the ground up step by step, and I enjoy doing it.

    Does doing that raise the entry requirements for a game? Certainly. And I’m okay with that.

    Lifepaths are interesting and can be fun, but the old “roll 3d6 down the line, pick race and class, maybe bother with a name, now GO” methodology is, as far as I’m concerned, for making a large number of disposable NPC templates in a short while and little more. I’d rather see that stay in the 1970s. However, I will agree that it makes pickup games much easier to enter.

    Perhaps a happy medium? Perhaps having folks pull the random generation thing to get them playing and run a short term “filler” or “introductory” scenario, meanwhile letting the players take the time to tune a character for the actual forthcoming campaign?

    Oh, and the click-and-locks thing? Way fun.

    • I personally dislike character generation, but I think many players I know would prefer it. I think there’s a discussion here on playstyle and philosophy; maybe I’ll get to that some day.

      I think rolling for stats is a terrible idea with the potential for a vast gulf in power levels between characters. I do like the “standard array” for characters instead of point-buy, though. The standard array is 15,14,13,12,10,8 and I imposed it on my players for Expectations. Just assign the scores and add racial adjustments and stats are finished. There’s also a lesser array recommended for non-heroic npcs of 13,12,11,10,9,8 so PCs still feel “better than average.” Allegedly, the standard array is the expected results of “roll 4d6 and drop the lowest” and the lesser array is the expected results of “roll 3d6.”

      The lifepath systems I’ve seen are a lot more like building characters than generating them. In any case, the main problem with character building is that it raises the entry requirements not just for this campaign/session, but for the whole hobby. To make a Pathfinder character you need to know A LOT about the rules in order to make choices that aren’t going to hinder you in-game. If you need to have a working knowledge of the entire Players Handbook before you can even start to start to play, most people who aren’t already in the hobby are going to toss it aside as too hard, to confusing, or some combination of the two. It may be fair to say that you don’t care to have such individuals in your campaign and that’s fine – campaigns take a lot of work. But if they never play their first game, they’ll never become better players. And I think that as it is our hobby is starving to death for lack of players (and, in turn, lack of DMs).

      Click-and-locks are almost absurdly fun. And now that we’ve talked about them and there’s a long weekend coming up, I think I may dig around for my CAPES book and play some with my brothers at our cook-out…

      • casewerk says:

        The gulfs in power level issue is one of the several reasons I don’t much like character generation. Standard array sounds like a better idea to me; if I were to ever run a DnD variant game again (if I did so, I just might suffer a Paradox Backlash), I’d probably do something like that rather than “roll ’em and weep”.

        Note that, however, I’m also well aware and appreciative of the creative springboard that generation can be, and I’ve had a lot of success in using that at times to come up with characters i really liked; about a year back a friend convinced me to make a characters for the WFRP2 system, which has a setting I’ve loved for over 20 years, but whose system (and all editions thereof) itself I consider horribly flawed. WFRP is known for its generation system that even randomizes character class to a certain degree. While I was in process of making that character, I also made this ( ) with reference to the process. 😉 Anyways, I ended up with a Strigany mystic (Roma fortune-teller type basically), looked at her sheet and decided that she would be a lot of fun to play. Would I have been likely to just pick a character of that type in a character build process? No. Once in a while it’s very nice to just see where the dice take you and then find how to make the fun in what you got. Making that standard operating procedure wouldn’t work for me, but as a change of pace it can be refreshing.

        As for helping new folks in, I’ve had pretty good success bringing folks that are either used to character generation systems or just haven’t played in the particular system I’m using before in my current campaign. The process that I use helps take some of the intimidation out of it – I sit down with the player and walk them through, explaining things as I go. Of course, the systems I’m using don’t have quite the array of feats and such that Pathfinder has, but basically I encourage the players to come up with their character concept and I’ll talk them through it, pointing out how their point allocation might support that concept and providing suggestions while also showing them alternate ways of doing something similar and bringing up things they won’t have known because they’re new. In fact, all but one of the current players in my ongoing oWoD chronicle (ah, that insistent and somewhat self-important terminology!) either had never touched oWoD before I talked them into joining the game or hadn’t looked at it in many years and weren’t very familiar with the system beforehand anyways. The game’s been on for about 9 months now and is going strong. 🙂

        Oh I envy you your forthcoming opportunity to play some Capes. 😦

  3. dhlevine says:

    If you love character tweaking, what’s the problem with too much work? When I prep con games that need them, my favorite part is making the pre-gens! 🙂

    What about something like this (cribbed liberally from the 1e 0th level character system)?

    The mechanical “chassis” of any PC is totally generic, or at least influenced by a very small number of choices (in a D&D context, say class and race, or even just race). So the utterly optimized PC and the person who says “I want to play a Dwarf Fighter” have the same chance to hit a dragon (etc) and are balanced in that way.

    Then, everything else can matter not affects.your numbers, but because it gives you cool options, like walking through walls or turning undead.

    You can work that all out before you play, or you can choose it on the fly.

    • For my part, it’s not that *I* don’t like building my characters, but that (1) my player’s don’t necessarily like it, and (2) it really hampers the ability to decide on the fly that you want to play *right now*.

      I’m starting to like pre-gens more than I did, but I still feel like they tread awfully close to players’ toes. That’s fine in a lot of cases, but it still makes me a little uncomfortable (unless my players specifically ask for it, and then I gleefully set about my work).

      I mean, what if I make a Chaotic Neutral Half-orc chain-fighting Cleric and no one wants to play him? *runs off to stat said cleric*

      • casewerk says:

        This talking about building characters is going to make me go dust off my “four splat” character building exercise on my own blog. It was a project I did a while back where I’d pick a character type and dash off up four highly distinct and different examples of that type that would be interesting enough to play. I try to make every one of them somebody I’d be willing to at least entertain the concept of playing. And later, when I need a stock NPC I sometimes grab one of those guys and plug him in to the slot, thus making the exercise a useful one. 🙂

        One approach to the pregens thing is you could make a large number of them for fun, show them to your players and say something like “I’ve made these for you to use if you want, but if you want you can also roll your own” – that way they can do the easier, faster thing if they want.

        Hm. That chain-fighting cleric sounds fun to me. 😉

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