Three Roleplaying Games With Great Character Creation

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.

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  1. Ephraim

    One thing to point out- NWoD’s revision by Onyx Path eliminates that imbalance between CP and XP, so dots cost a flat amount of XP.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      See, this is what I get for not keeping up with the latest editions of everything.

      • Adam J. Thaxton

        Not only that, they introduced a Beats/Condition system that enforces the conceits of the style. Did you succeed on a Perception roll and get Spooked by a weird noise? If you split off from the group without telling them to go check it out, you get XP! Did a vampire mind control you? You can grit your teeth and work through it, but you won’t earn XP as quickly as you would if you do what the vampire says! Combat is also broken down into goals – the alien monster wants to kill you, you want to get in your truck and escape. Combat ends if either goal is met.

  2. Rand al'Thor

    It’s so fun making characters. Especially for Mouse Guard, which is what I normally play, but also for other games.

    Some character creation is horrible! Like for 3.5 D&D!

    Polar Opposites.

  3. Copperhamster

    Burning Wheel sounds like Traveller’s character creation; probably without the ‘oh hey I made a decent character but he died before he got done… let’s start again’.

    This was later changed to ‘injured badly enough to be removed from whatever career path they were on’.

  4. Kathy Ferguson

    There have been some RPGs created for academic classes in history and other fields. I would think “Spirit of the Century” would be great for a writing class. It might also work for a biography class – Could you base the characters on actual historical figures?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You can, and I’ve done it. I once played a character based on the idea that Pliny the Elder was a time traveling sorcerer. I don’t know of any games specifically done for that, but I feel like Spirit is a good place to start.

  5. Adam

    All the praise Mouse Guard gets in most of the articles on here, and Mouse Guard wasn’t included in the top Three Roleplaying Games With Great Character Creation!?

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