Character creation is one of the more difficult aspects of roleplaying-game design, and a few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the most common problems with it. Since then, I’ve received a number of questions about what makes character creation rules good, which is harder to answer. Different systems have different requirements for character creation. For example, Primetime Adventures has a bare-bones character creation system, which works well for abstract, dramatic adventures but would be terrible for a gritty dungeon crawl.
Even so, there are a handful of qualities that almost always improve character creation. While they aren’t a guarantee, they are signs that a system has good character-creation rules. Look for them the next time you’re choosing a system, and your group will have more fun when it’s time to generate some PCs.
1. Simple Math
Few things put the breaks on roleplaying fun like systems that ask for a lot of arithmetic in character creation. RPGs are supposed to be fun, a way to relax and tell enjoyable stories after a hard week, not a flashback to high school math class.* The more times a system asks players to divide and multiply in order to produce derived stats or damage values, the more players will check out. Dedicated groups can get past this, of course, but it’s still a blow to the fun and can drive away less devoted players altogether.
Weird math can also affect a game’s balance and trick players into taking underpowered options. They might think a two-handed sword sounds cool without realizing that the way damage is calculated means a pair of one-handed swords is the superior choice.
For both these reasons, it’s important for systems to keep math simple whenever possible, especially in character creation where players are just learning the system. Players should be able to tell at a glance what their points will get them, without having to run calculations on their phones. If the rules do ask the group to do math, even just addition and subtraction, then it had better be in the service of an essential feature.
Mouse Guard is a system that scores fairly well in this area. Players spend one point to raise a skill one level — no need to figure out different values for cross-class skills or anything like that. This allows players to focus on where to spend their points rather than worrying about how those points are spent. The simple math also speeds up character creation, because no one has to calculate their THAC0 or perform eldritch arithmetic.
2. Guided Freedom
There’s a constant tug-of-war in character creation between structure and freedom. A game with lots of structure and little freedom gives players a list of premade options that can’t be meaningfully changed, otherwise known as every edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Meanwhile, a game with lots of freedom and little structure gives players a bucket of points and a list of abilities to purchase. This is exemplified by games like Eclipse Phase, where players must literally spend hundreds of points before their character is finished.
Neither extreme is desirable. Too much structure means the players can’t express themselves freely. They can’t make the character they want to play because it didn’t fit within the designer’s narrow range of possible characters. On the other hand, too much freedom means players will often create characters who are unbalanced, don’t fit with the setting, or are just unplayable.
Good character creation strikes a middle ground between the two extremes, even if there’s no universally agreed-upon point where the ratios are exactly even. The ideal system will offer players plenty of meaningful choices, but within a safe framework. That way, players can make what they want to play but also have some assurances that their characters will function properly once play starts. This kind of guided freedom eliminates the analysis paralysis that comes from a blank canvas, without crushing players’ dreams.
Fate is an excellent system in this regard. Most Fate-derived games offer players a skill pyramid and then let them fill in the blanks. Each character has one skill they’re the best at, two skills they’re really good at, three skills they’re pretty good at, etc. With so many skill combinations, players have plenty of room to customize their characters, and the game ensures everyone has a broad base of balanced skills. Fate also gives players a separate pool of points to spend on special abilities, which means no one faces the dilemma of whether or not to get a cool power or increase a boring but probably more useful core attribute.
3. Clear and Condensed Information
Roleplaying games are infamous for the amount of information they expect players to absorb, especially sprawling simulationist games like D&D and Shadowrun. These systems expect players to read through page after page of rules and scan hundreds of abilities and combinations. Needless to say, this kills the excitement and anticipation for many players. A lot of people just aren’t up to absorbing information at that scale. Even if they are, it takes a long time, and that’s assuming you have enough books to go around. The only thing worse than spending hours looking over pages and pages of rules is waiting for someone else to finish looking over pages and pages of rules.
The best character-creation systems take steps to reduce the amount of information players need to digest. The first step is to put as much information on the character sheet as possible. At the very least, all of the system’s skills and attributes should be on there. No player wants to finish making an ocean-loving sailor only to find out the diving skill was hidden deep within the rule book.
Character creation in the rule book should be organized so the GM can explain each step verbally. That way, every player can make their character at the same time instead of waiting for the book to be passed around. If there’s a step that does require each player to look at the rulebook on their own, it had better be important. A long list of nearly identical abilities is not a sufficient reason to make players stare at a page for two hours.
Chronicles of Darkness* is the epitome of clear and condensed information. The character sheet has almost everything a player needs to make their character. Every skill is listed along with starting point values, how those points are spent, and in what order. The only time a Chronicles player ever has to look in the rule book is to choose from a list of special abilities called Merits. These merits are all distinct from each other, and there aren’t very many, so choosing doesn’t take long.
4. Identity Mixed With Mechanics
For a long time, who a character is and what a character can do have been kept segregated. Characters have mechanical abilities, like hitting things with a sword or casting spells to keep from being hit with a sword, and then a separate section for backstory and personality quirks. Roleplaying was seen as something that happened separately from mechanics.
When a system divides a character like this, it divides the players as well. Mechanically oriented players stop caring about the roleplaying side, because it doesn’t affect their dice. Meanwhile, dedicated roleplayers lose interest in the mechanics, because it’s all orc killing and loot stealing anyway with nothing dramatic to be had.
Fortunately, this dynamic has changed a lot in recent years, and good character generation rules will combine who a character is with what they can do. Many systems do this by using meta currency as a reward when players emphasize their characters’ established personalities. Other systems ask questions about a character’s backstory and then assign mechanical bonuses based on the answer.
Burning Wheel is a system that does both. Each character has three or four beliefs that define how the character views the world. Players are rewarded when they act on their characters beliefs. They are rewarded even more when they play against a belief. If they believe criminals deserve no mercy, they might roleplay the struggle and uncertainty as they show mercy on a young thief. It’s very dramatic.
Burning Wheel also has a system where players build their characters’ histories and get points in exchange. They might decide a character’s first job was as a courier, from which they’d get points to spend on stamina and navigation. Then the character was conscripted, giving them basic weapon skills and a healthy cynicism about war. Once character creation is complete, each player has a clear understanding of who their character is and where they come from.
5. Correct Atmosphere
Setting expectations is one of the most important aspects of roleplaying. Players who expected a game based on The Lord of the Rings will be disappointed to learn their GM was more interested in A Song of Ice and Fire. And yet, despite its importance, setting expectations remains difficult. Most players aren’t going to read through chapters of setting information, and GMs can only put so much in a campaign-primer email.
This is where good character creation comes in. Character creation is most players’ first exposure to a system and is a critical tool for setting expectations. If information is properly organized and displayed, then players will finish the process with a strong understanding of what they’re doing. Lots of factors go into this, from skill and attribute names to the flavor blurbs on special abilities.
If a system stumbles in its presentation, it can cause a lot of problems. If a game is supposed to be about supernatural, personal horror, then a skill list dominated by options like Firearms, Larceny, and Stealth isn’t going to do the job. That’ll give players the expectation that they’re playing badass secret agents who steal stuff and get into firefights. They’ll be perplexed when the GM tries to describe ghostly children watching through the walls.
Unlike this hypothetical supernatural horror system,* Torchbearer does a fantastic job of setting expectations in character creation. Torchbearer is a gritty dungeon crawler, and the skill list reflects that. Dungeoneer and Cartographer are both prominent skills, along with Pathfinder, Scout, and Survivalist. This tells the players that finding their way around and avoiding environmental dangers will be at least as dangerous as fighting monsters. From there, players fill their inventory with rations and and torches, which communicates the importance of basic supplies. By the time character creation is complete, players are well on their way to delving the treacherous depths.
6. Collaborative Creation
While having the right skills and inventory rules is really helpful for setting player expectations, it can’t do the job alone. Sometimes, players just come to the table with radically different ideas of what the game is going to be about, and they never reconcile. One player might build a ruthless assassin because they expect a game of murder and carnage, while another player could craft a caring social worker because they think the campaign will be about revitalizing impoverished neighborhoods. Even worse, two players might make characters that are very similar and then be in constant competition for limited material.
Most games don’t do much to address this issue since they consider it the GM’s prerogative to get everyone on the same page. And of course, as a GM you try your hardest to do just that, but wouldn’t it be nice if you had some help? Enter collaborative creation.
In most systems, character creation is a solitary affair. Players assign stats and take feats individually, occasionally asking if the party already has a Gnome Barbarian.* Even when character creation is done as a group, it’s just everyone playing solitaire in the same room. Not so with collaborative creation.
In a collaborative system, character creation must occur as a group because each character is influenced by the others. Take Spirit of the Century as an example. Players can handle the early stages of character creation on their own, but then they reach the point where they describe their pulp hero’s first adventure.* Each player must pick two other characters who co-starred in their first adventure, and then the three players decide together how the adventure went. This gives each character a new ability and informs how they view each other when the campaign starts. Are they rivals? Besties? Lovers?
When functioning properly, collaborative character creation helps players reach a consensus on who their characters are and what kind of game they’re playing. Everyone thinks about what everyone else is playing, so duplicates and wildly clashing themes are more easily avoided. It also helps get past the awkwardness that is so common in early sessions of a campaign, when the players don’t yet know how to interact with the other characters.
Even though your group only goes through character creation once per campaign,* it’s unquestionably important. If a player isn’t happy with their character, it can ruin the entire game for them. While game designers should tailor character creation to their system, these traits will improve almost any system they’re found in. It’s unlikely that any single system will have all of them, but if it has two or three, you’re probably onto something good.