Character creation is the breakfast of roleplaying games. A good one gets you pumped to play, ready to tackle any challenge the GM puts before you. While there’s no magic formula to good character creation, some games clearly stand above the rest. Each has a something that other designers should learn from.
1. New World of Darkness
The watchword for New World of Darkness (NWoD) is simplicity. Characters in this system are incredibly easy to create because nearly everything you need is printed right on the single-sided character sheet. Skills, attributes, derived stats like speed and hitpoints, they’re all there. The only time a player needs to open the book is to pick their limited number of merits.* You can whip up a NWoD character in about 15 minutes.
Time saved isn’t its only advantage. With every skill represented on the character sheet, players know what they have access to from the start. You’ll never get four sessions into a campaign and find out you’re missing a skill vital to your character concept.
NWoD also has a great balance between structure and freedom. The players prioritize their physical, mental, and social abilities, and then receive a number of points to spend in each category. This allows characters to specialize without becoming so focused they can only do one thing. Your mob assassin might be a gun fighter, but she’ll also have a modicum of social skills, just like a real person.
Whiles other games have simple character creation, NWoD combines simplicity with depth. Characters in NWoD are detailed despite how easy they are to create. The rules are also intuitive. Even someone without a good understanding of the system can figure out that a brainy hacker should prioritize mental abilities so they have more points to spend on Computers and Intelligence.
The biggest weakness with NWoD is that character creation points are spent differently than experience points earned in play. When making a character, it costs one point to raise an ability, no matter how high you’re raising it.* With experience, it costs more points to buy higher ranks in a skill or attribute. This means that if you want your character to be good at fist fighting and shooting, it makes more sense to start with max ranks in Firearms and buy Brawling later than to start with lower levels of both.
2. Burning Wheel
The opposite of NWoD, Burning Wheel requires a lot of looking at the book, but I promise it’s worth it. This game has depth, depth, and more depth. Instead of arbitrarily assigning points wherever they feel like, players construct a detailed backstory for their character in the form of life paths. Life paths represent a length of time the character spent in a certain profession or lifestyle and can range from glamorous court appointments to the sentence of a galley slave.
Each life path grants different numbers of points to spend, plus access to certain skills. Being an Archer grants Bow, Fletcher, and Brawling.* Being a Conscript grants Foraging and Baggage Train-wise. Most of these are not skills a character must take, but they have the option.
Characters always have more than one life path, unless you’re playing a young child, which is a good way to get eaten. You might have been born a Peasant, then spent several years working as a Farmer, then become a Conscript in the king’s army, before finally mustering out as a Veteran. Essentially, you construct your character’s backstory as you go. In addition to the mechanical implications, this ensures that no PC springs forth fully formed from the womb. You get a sense of what your character’s life was like before becoming an adventurer, where they come from and what impact it made on them.
PCs generated this way are more believable than characters from most roleplaying games. Your character isn’t a world class orator because you wanted them to be but because they spent eight years giving speeches as the king’s chancellor. Their mastery of swordplay comes from a brutal life spent on the battlefield. Plus, searching through the book for just the right life path is great fun. Who among us can say they haven’t wanted to play an apiarist from time to time?
The failing of Burning Wheel is its rigidity. The life paths are specifically tailored for a Tolkien-style fantasy setting, and any modification requires building a huge number of new ones from scratch. Also, the game is intentionally unbalanced: being a Knight gives you way more points than being a Galley Slave. This is a problem if your group is used to everyone having the same level of ability.
3. Spirit of the Century
Set in a world of 1930s pulp action,* Spirit of the Century features a character creation system that’s really a creative writing exercise in disguise. Players literally write out small blurbs for each stage of their character’s life, from their early life to the Great War to their first adventure novel.
For each stage in the process, a character receives aspects that help or hinder them in play. This example shows what a character’s Early Life blurb might look like:
Red Alice was born to a tiny anarchist collective on Kotlin island. From a young age she was tutored in the construction and operation of early aeroplanes, as the collective’s founders considered them essential tools of a free working class.
From that, a character could gain aspects like Free in the Sky and Loyal Comrade. Then you could go on to describe how Red Alice joined up with the early Soviet Revolution, becoming one of their only pilots. From that, she could gain In My Sights or Lost Too Many Friends.
The best part is writing the back jacket blurb for your character’s first novel. You give the book an awesome sounding title like Doctor Hurricane and the World’s Most Powerful Laser, then summarize the events of the book to gain even more aspects.
In addition to being fun for writers, these exercises get you into the mood for Spirit of the Century’s over-the-top narrative style. You won’t bat an eye when a super genius gorilla steals your airship, because that’s just the sort of thing that happens to people like you. The novel stage also grants a connection to other PCs through guest starring. Each character’s book includes two other characters in supporting roles, so Doctor Hurricane might get some help from Red Alice on his quest to retrieve the world’s most powerful laser.
The only weakness in Spirit of the Century’s character creation is the rest of the game. With a lethargic combat system and unintuitive damage mechanics, it’s not very good. It can still work, but it doesn’t hold up to the expectations of such a fantastic character generation system.
Good character creation rules set the stage for everything else in a game. They’re especially important for one-shots, where rolling up characters is half the time commitment, but even longer campaigns need a strong start. Designers and GMs should pay attention to them when choosing what system to run.