When designers sit down to create the character generation section of a roleplaying game, they must decide where on the scale of structured to free form they want to fall. The question is a difficult one with no obvious answer. At one extreme are systems that fit like straitjackets. At the other are anarcho-libertarian utopias where everyone does whatever they feel like. Both options have their pros and cons, and a perfect solution has yet to be found.
Structured Character Creation
For a long time, this option has been the default for roleplaying games. Dungeons and Dragons lies near one extreme end of the scale. Players must choose an all defining class for their character that will decide everything they are able to do in play. Once you decide on Fighter, your character must conform to the game designer’s idea of what a Fighter is.
There are a number of advantages to the structured approach. First, it provides new players with a guide to follow. Think back to your first time cracking open the Players Handbook. There’s a good chance you were nearly overwhelmed with all the information you were supposed to absorb. In that instance, having such options as Fighter or Wizard to choose from can be a big help.
The other major advantage to a structured system is that the game designers have much more control over how the system will work in play. It is much easier to impart a desired experience if players have no choice but to take from a limited number of options that have all been thoroughly tested.
As an example, imagine what would happen in a standard D&D game if one player ended up making a character who was bad at fighting? Other than a bard, I mean. Combat is the main course of D&D, no matter what edition. If a player can’t participate because of how they made their character, then the desired experience will not be achieved.
Free Form Character Creation
This is the type of system that gives you a bunch of points plus something to spend them on, and tells you to go nuts. Follow your dreams. Draw outside the lines. Throw out the crayons and do some oil painting if you like. Games with this design choice let players make whatever kind of character they want, and damn the consequences. Power to the people!
Like its counterpart, this side of the scale has several things going for it. It’s easier to play a narrative heavy game with the free form style because the players can create characters that are much closer to real people.
If a cinematic game is what your group wants, then free form is the way to go as well. How many great characters from film or literature fit neatly into a single class? Gandalf is arguably better with a sword than Aragorn, despite his wizardly status. Someone like Jean-Luc Picard has such a wide range of skills he defies structured options.
For that matter, it’s just nice to break out of the arbitrary restrictions of a structured system. Maybe you’d like to make a wizard who can pick locks, or a fighter who is also a welcome presence at the negotiation table. Players like to personalize their characters. It’s a great feeling to come up with a concept, and then see that the system can provide you with the tools you need to realize it.
Free form character creation is also liberating from a GM’s perspective. More character options means more campaign options. As the GM, you can tell your players to make characters who all have a bit of social skills in their makeup, because you’re planning on running a game in the Emperor’s court. A free form system lets you do that, where a more restricted one might not.
For someone trapped inside the cramped box of base attack progression and one feat every three levels, this kind of system seems like it can do no wrong. How can a system which lets you do what you want be wrong? How can too much freedom be bad?
Sadly, the free form model has its problems too, because people don’t always make good choices. The more open ended a system is, the easier it is to fail character creation and end up with a character that is far too weak to play. It’s no fun to spend hours making your character, only to find out they will crumble to dust when confronted by a baby goblin.
The reverse is also true, because it is very difficult to prevent all potential power gaming combinations, while at the same time letting players take whatever options they like. The overpowered monsters that once came out of systems like 7th Sea were terrifying to behold.
Another unfortunate quirk of free form systems is something I call hyper specialization. By taking a series of options, none of which are over powered on their own, a player can make a character who is incredibly good at one thing at the cost of everything else. Battlestar Galactica is one system that has this problem in spades. It isn’t difficult for characters to have one skill they can roll all the way up to “impossible” on the difficulty chart right out of character creation.
Hyper specialized characters create a very bad dynamic of play. Any challenge that keys off whatever they are good at will be passed too easily, and anything that doesn’t is automatically failed. On top of that, it stretches believability within the game world when a starting character has such a high level of skill. Such characters are usually framed as inexperienced, not people with access to superhuman ability.
The Happy Medium
Both styles of character creation have their pros and cons. The obvious solution would seem to be a system which falls in the middle, taking the best of both options. The problem is finding the sweet spot, and that’s something no game that I know of has been completely successful at.
The two which have come closest are, in my experience, White Wolf’s Storytelling System and Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel. The Storytelling System divides skills, stats, and merits into different sections, and a certain amount of character points must be spent in each. This allows players to make characters who focus heavily in one area if they want to, but ensures that at least a few points must be spent in other areas. Not only is character creation straight forward, but it usually results in well rounded characters.
Burning Wheel uses a different method. Players choose a number of life paths to represent what their character did before the adventure started, and those paths determine what abilities they have access to. From those abilities, players may choose where to spend their points. It tends to go something like this: “Let’s see, my character was a teacher, and then a foot soldier. I want them to be a badass, so I’ll take a Assault Weapons, but I also think they enjoyed being a teacher before the draft, so I’m going to take Instruction.” This method is very organic, and helps new players get a feel for who their character is with each life path. At the same time, veterans can use it to create just about anything they like.
As good as the two examples above are, they both still have problems. In the Storytelling System, the division of skills and stats can sometimes feel very arbitrary. In Burning Wheel, inexperienced players sometimes pick life paths that sound cool but don’t actually do what they wanted them to. In both systems, it’s still possible to max out a small number of skills and end up with a character who borders on hyper specialized.
While the problem persists, more and more game designers are shying away from the extremes. Some of them, at least, recognize that a balance must be struck, letting players have the freedom they want while at the same time providing enough structure for a good experience.