With such an important role, it’s no surprise that character creation is also one of the most difficult game elements to design. For game masters, this can be a real headache, as we watch our players struggle with bad design after bad design. Fortunately, we are not helpless, and we may conquer these difficulties yet. To do that, it helps to know what we’re looking for. Let’s look at some of the most common problems in character creation and a few tips on how to deal with them.
1. Character Points for Gear
Equipment is a challenging part of RPG design in any circumstances, but it enters the province of character creation when players are allowed to spend their points on gear. Sometimes this is just a few points for an upgraded gun, but it’s also common for systems to go much further. In the first edition of 7th Sea, players could spend nearly half their points on a suit of Dracheneisen armor. Eclipse Phase is even more gear obsessed, with a countless number of implants and morph upgrades to tempt unwary players.
The first problem with spending points on gear is that it puts the GM in an awkward position, story-wise. Most roleplaying campaigns will have at least one instance where it makes sense for characters to lose their stuff, at least for a while. Maybe they’re captured by the enemy, or maybe they have to leave their high-powered weapons behind for a diplomatic mission. But if a player spent character points on gear, losing it puts them at a significant disadvantage compared to their fellows.
Most players don’t like being suddenly depowered. It’s one thing if everyone is operating under the same constrictions, but if a player had to spend some of their precious character points on absent gear, they’re a lot worse off than the rest of the party. At best, such a player will have a worse time that session, as they pretend like nothing is wrong with their reduced status. That’s bad enough when your goal is to promote fun at the table, but it’s worse if the player gets angry and disruptive as a result.
To avoid this difficulty, GMs have to torturously plan their stories so that players either don’t lose their gear or have a way to easily get it back. This is a pain in the neck, to put it mildly. The problem is even worse if gear is more powerful than other character options, point for point. This happens because designers see the risk of losing gear as a balancing factor against inborn abilities. The Katana of Death might be more powerful than Mega Reflexes, but reflexes can’t be stolen.
This logic doesn’t hold up because, as we’ve established, players don’t like having things they spend points on taken away. So GMs are left in an impossible position: leave a PC with overpowered gear, or have them lose it and turn into an underpowered PC. This is what we in the biz call being stuck between a rock and a bigger, spiky rock.
The best solution is to take gear out of the normal character-creation process. Instead, GMs should give their players a set allotment to spend on gear. That way, everyone has roughly the same amount invested in it, and you don’t have to worry about punishing one PC when a thief makes off with the party’s stuff.
2. Character Points for Rank
Alongside abilities that make PCs better killing machines, many systems offer the chance to spend points on increased rank. This is especially common when a game’s setting places a high emphasis on hierarchy. Ranks available for purchase run the gamut from formalized military positions to membership in powerful families. Back in the days of Last Unicorn, its Star Trek game made players pay extra points to start at any rank higher than an ensign. Meanwhile, older editions of Legend of the Five Rings let players spend over half their starting points in order to be from an imperial family.
At first glance, these options seem to make sense. A higher rank means greater authority, which sounds like something PCs should pay for. The problem is that if the captain has to pay a significant amount of points for their rank, they have fewer points to spend on skills than the other characters. This creates a dynamic where the PC with the most authority is also the least capable.
While most of us can remember a time when our boss was the least competent person in the room, this isn’t a good model for roleplaying games. If nothing else, it violates player expectations. When a player signs up to be the captain of a Starfleet vessel, they’re imagining themselves on the level of Ultimate Diplomat Picard or Fleet Commander Sisko. No one wants to be an incompetent captain because they had to spend too many points on their rank pips.*
Adding insult to injury, the benefits of rank are often insubstantial. Most systems leave such benefits up to the GM’s discretion, which means it’s really easy for them to disappear. Sure, a PC from the imperial family should command respect and obedience, but there’s nothing in the rules that quantifies their standing, which means they will usually lose out to a PC who spent more points on social skills.
Finally, beyond a single PC’s experience, paying points for higher rank creates a bad dynamic for the setting as a whole. Unless given a reason to think otherwise, players will naturally assume that NPCs follow roughly the same rules that they do. That means they’ll imagine any NPC of rank had to pay for that rank and should be less competent as a result. Legend of the Five Rings gets absurd quickly if you imagine the entire imperial family having less than half the ability of other samurai.
Fortunately, concerned GMs have an easy solution: don’t charge for rank. Instead, PCs should be given positions of authority according to the story’s needs. Playing a member of the imperial family will have a huge impact on the game and is something the GM should give explicit permission for. If an in-game rank would put one PC in charge of other PCs, then it’s a decision that should be made as a group. A captain who doesn’t get their party’s blessing will have a rough time of it indeed.
3. Unrequired Requirements
For new players, character creation is like being a kid in a candy store. There are so many options, and they all seem great. But more experienced players know that once the game starts, many systems have certain requirements in order for a character to be viable. That’s not a big problem so long as those requirements are present in the character-creation process, but many systems fail this important test.
7th Sea’s first edition is a prime example. In that game, combat characters needed at least a three in their Finesse attribute, or they’d never hit anything. Finesse determined the maximum amount a PC was likely to roll on an attack, and the game’s underlying math meant that any serious combatant’s armor class* was high enough that a Finesse of two simply wasn’t enough.
Another example comes courtesy of Call of Cthulhu and all its cousins that use the percentile dice system. In most games, investing a few points in a skill means the PC can succeed at low difficulty rolls but will have problems at higher difficulty. CoC, on the other hand, has a static difficulty, meaning all rolls are equally difficult. If a player invests only a few points in Spot Hidden, there won’t be any low difficulty rolls for that investment to pay off on, so the points are wasted.*
Both of these examples arise from quirks of the system’s math that aren’t obvious in character creation. A 7th Sea player who wants to make a brawny wrestler won’t see Finesse as an important attribute, but they’ll be doomed without it. Meanwhile, an investigator who dabbles in a wide variety of skills seems like a perfect CoC archetype, but in play that character will almost always fail their rolls.
The more experience players have with a system, the more likely they are to spot these unlisted requirements for a viable character in advance, but something will always slip through. When that happens, GMs will be well served by letting the affected PC reallocate points so they have the necessary numbers. An ambitious GM might try to modify the system so those requirements don’t exist, but that’s a tall order. In most cases, they’d have to completely rework a game’s math, which should only be attempted by masters of the system.
4. Flaws That Aren’t Flaws
With the goal of greater customizability, many systems offer players the chance to earn more points by taking flaws for their characters. The idea is that by taking a hindrance in one area, characters will be more capable in another. These options are particularly common in systems that place a heavier emphasis on roleplaying, as flawed characters are generally more interesting from a storytelling perspective.
The main problem with character flaws* is that they’re wildly uneven in terms of how big a penalty they give, which makes them easy to abuse. Consider some of the flaws from Mage: The Ascension. Permanent Wound is a serious flaw that reduces a character’s ability to take damage. That’ll be a hindrance in all but the most combat-light games. On the other hand, Shy is a flaw that gives penalties to social rolls with new people. That could be a problem if the character is invested in social skills. If they’re not, it’s just another penalty on rolls they’d fail anyway.
The problem gets worse when looking at flaws that don’t have a mechanical effect at all. The Dark Secret flaw means your character has some kind of tragic backstory that’s bound to come up in play to make things more dramatic. Wait, is that supposed to be bad? The player gets more points and a free plot hook? Meanwhile, flaws like Witch Hunted and Enemy give the PC special antagonists out to stop them. In other words, more plot hooks.
Character flaws allow savvy players to load up on character points while not taking any real penalties in exchange. If anything, their characters actually benefit from it, since flavor flaws make it easier to take the spotlight. This isn’t a huge problem if everyone does it, but it’s a nasty trick to play on new players who take flaws that actually hinder them.
The solution isn’t to ban flaws, since everyone likes to have Dark Secrets and Sworn Enemies, but to remove the incentive to pile on as many as possible. Instead of awarding bonus points according to how many flaws a PC takes, GMs should give everyone a flat number of bonus points, then invite them to take any flaws that interest them. That way, players who want an enemy can get one, and there’s no pressure to take flaws a player isn’t interested in playing.
5. Power Stats
The power stat is an age-old tradition of roleplaying games, and it refers to a single attribute that’s far and away more powerful than the others. Sometimes this is related to combat. In the Serenity RPG and its various adaptations, Agility is the king of the battlefield. It’s used for initiative, attack, defense, and doing extra damage. It’s really the only stat you need. As a side bonus, Agility is also the base attribute for super useful skills like Covert* and Pilot.
Other power stats have nothing to do with combat. Education has long been the power stat in Call of Cthulhu, because it determines how many skill points a PC has to spend. Intelligence ranks a close second because it also gave skill points, but not as many. Other stats have minor effects, but skills are what really matters in this game. 7th Edition tried to address this by allowing other stats to contribute skill points at certain times, but Education is still the best investment by a country mile.
The most obvious problem with power stats is that PCs who invest in them, either by luck or from hard-won experience, will be far more capable than those who do not. This will unbalance your game and cause a lot of unrest around the table. Eventually, everyone will learn which stats are the most valuable, and every character will start to look the same.
More insidiously, power stats throw off the theme and atmosphere of a game. In Firefly, Jayne is unquestionably the best brawler on the ship. Why? Because he’s built like a tank, that’s why. But according to the rules, Wash actually has the best setup for hand-to-hand combat because he has a high Agility from all his piloting practice. In Call of Cthulhu, you’d expect the veteran police officer or the hardened PI to be the best at finding clues, but really it’ll be the geriatric college professor, because they have the highest Education and the most points to spend on investigative skills.
These bizarre dynamics will damage player immersion and make it much harder for the GM to tell a good story. Unfortunately, like unrequired requirements, power stats can be hard to address, since the reason for their outsized influence is often buried deep in the system’s math. One option is to make the power stat less influential by giving some of its functionality to other stats. Agility will be a lot less powerful if the GM makes Alertness the governing stat for firearms. In other situations, it’s best to simply set every PC’s power stat at the same level. If every investigator has the same level of Education, no one will have more skill points than anyone else.
6. Useless Options
The flip side of the power stat is the useless option. These are skills, attributes, or other abilities that seem fine in character creation, but have no use once the game starts. I love the Burning Wheel family of games, but they’re fraught with this problem. Burning Wheel itself often sticks characters with skills like Soldiering, which is supposed to represent all the non-combat related aspects of being in the military but in practice will sit unused on a PC’s sheet for the entire campaign.
Mouse Guard has a similar issue of allowing new recruits to purchase skills like Harvester and Miller, which are unlikely to ever come up in a game about protecting the Territories from predators and natural disasters. These skills are presented alongside far more practical options like Carpenter, and there’s no way for an inexperienced player to know which they should pick.
Useless options offer players a one-two punch to the face. First, they trick players into investing points in abilities that will never come up. It’s demoralizing to look at one’s sheet and see a bunch of unused skills gathering dust, and it means unwary PCs won’t have the points they need for more useful options.
Second, useless options set the wrong expectations in players’ heads. If a game offers skills like Beekeeping and Winemaking, players will assume a big part of the campaign will revolve around managing farms and the like. Otherwise, why would such skills be available? They’ll be in for a rude surprise when the game turns out to be an epic adventure tale about fighting aliens.
Since half the point of character creation is to properly set player expectations, this is a major problem. Sometimes, it’s enough for a GM to simply warn players away from abilities that won’t pay off during the game. Other times, the GM won’t be able to catch them all, at which point it’s a good policy to let players reinvest points from abilities they never use. In really extreme cases, the GM may even want to shift what the game is about to accommodate useless options. If every PC takes a farming skill in a campaign that was supposed to be about fighting orcs, maybe it’s time to tell a story about managing a farm that suffers from occasional orc attacks.
7. Missing Options
Some options aren’t overpowered or underpowered, but simply absent. Often, a roleplaying system will set player expectations before character creation even starts. When a campaign is set in Middle-earth, players will expect beautiful elves and greedy dwarves. When roleplaying in a galaxy far, far away, players are primed for hot-shot pilots and mystical space wizards.
But games don’t always have the options players expect. A particularly blatant example is the Iron Kingdoms RPG, which is modeled after the Warmachine miniatures game and shares the same setting. Players of the IKRPG might reasonably want to emulate their favorite characters from the Warmachine fiction, but in numerous cases this is impossible. Some of the most prominent Warmachine characters have abilities that are impossible to duplicate in Iron Kingdoms.* This is disappointing, since otherwise the IKRPG is designed to mirror a game of Warmachine as closely as possible.
Missing options aren’t always that blatant. At first glance, Mage: The Ascension seems to have everything a player needs to make their favorite wizardly archetype. But digging a little deeper, it’s really hard to make a classic necromancer. Controlling ghosts and raising zombies is possible, but it requires a lot of different magical abilities and isn’t something most beginning characters can accomplish.
Players sign up for games expecting to have certain options at their disposal. Often, the excitement over those options is what gets players interested in the first place. It’s a big disappointment to find out that the thing they wanted to do isn’t an option.
Missing options are difficult for GMs to address because it usually requires a lot of house-ruling. In many cases, the game designers knew players expected these extra options but left them out for balance reasons. It’s certainly possible for GMs to craft their own rules for such options, but it takes a lot of time and energy. For GMs who don’t have both in abundance, it’s usually better to talk to players before character creation and explain what character options the system supports. If the missing options are a deal breaker, it may be better to find another system.
Problems that arise in character creation can persist through an entire campaign, so it’s important to catch them early. No system has perfect character creation, so it’s best to be forewarned. A GM that knows what’s coming can more easily prepare solutions, protecting everyone’s fun at the table.
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