Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Character Creation VS Character Generation

At first blush, these two seem like they are the same thing – what we call making a character.  They really aren’t, though – and I have a strong preference for one over the other.

Let’s start by defining our terms.  Not defining your terms is a HUGE problem in conversations about role-playing.  Things like “balance”, “encounter scaling” and “resource management” mean TOTALLY different things to different people, so a conversation can go off the rails pretty fast as people talk past each other.  And I like to have conversations where everyone is mostly on the same page - at least in terms of what is being discussed.

To me, character creation involves selecting from available options for mechanical elements of the character and making up from whole cloth the non-mechanical elements.  Crunch and Fluff, if you will.  The best example of this that comes to mind is character creation in Vampire: the Masquerade.  Everything is allocation and trade-off for the parts of the character that have game mechanics.  You are not reliant on randomization at any point.  You can make up a backstory and build the character towards fitting that or create a character and then build a backstory around it.  Either way works.

Character generation, on the other hand, relies wholly or largely on randomization – dice rolls – to determine mechanical and occasionally non-mechanical elements of your character.  This can include things like Background, Stats, Hit Points and other core mechanical elements.  D&D pre-4e is a mix of creation and generation.  Traveller or Hackmaster are even more generation-heavy, and many homebrew systems introduce random tables for various elements of character generation.

The standard arguments in favor of generation go something like this:
1)      If you allow players to choose everything, then certain optimal solutions will be identified and abused.  Randomization solves this problem.
2)      That’s how the game designers set it up, so that’s the way it should be done.
3)      You might get some bad rolls, but they will balance out with good ones in the long run.
4)      The interaction of random elements creates neat and interesting things.

Me, I don’t like character generation.  I believe that it is poor game design, displaying a failure of imagination and skill on the part of the game designers.  There is nothing that randomization in the “making a character” phase of an RPG can do that a well thought-out system of allocating resources cannot do better.  All randomization or “character generation” does is create arbitrary winners and losers right at the beginning of the game.

Whenever I’ve pointed this out, the immediate response has been “well surely your players are mature enough to deal with that.”  Or, “but things balance out in the end if you look at the big picture”.  This, frankly, is bullshit.  Or malarkey, as popularized recently by one Joe “Angry Gramps” Biden.

Why should my players have to be “mature” enough to deal with getting the smelly end of the randomization stick?  What concrete benefit does this provide to your table or gaming experience?  None, say I.  Wanting to make interesting decisions myself rather than being forced to accept random results is reasonable, especially in the context of modern tabletop gaming.

I feel that the best example of why generation systems are problematic is the new player, sitting down at the table excited and ready to play for the first time.  “No,” you explain, “you don’t get to make up your character, you have to roll this handful of dice and check these charts – that will tell you most of what you need to know about your character.”  

Murder-hobo.  Possibly diseased.
They roll and check the results, which indicate they will be playing a diseased murder-hobo.  “Ah, not to worry," you blithely reply, "I’m sure your next character will be better if/when this one dies - unless he isn’t.   He’ll be behind everyone else either way of course.  Good luck and enjoy your experience.”

And we fucking wonder about the decline of the tabletop RPG?  It’s like drinking a Rusty Nail.  You have to be specially conditioned to enjoy that shit.

It’s not that I don’t like random stuff.  I love the horrible vacuum of entropy that is the failure cascade in Dwarf Fortress.  I like random encounters.  I like using random tables to generate cool stuff in the game world.  But I don’t like random character generation.  All phases of the game should present interesting choices, especially the start of the game – the “gateway” by which new players enter.

That being said, creation has its own pitfalls.  It has to present interesting trade-offs.  There should not be some choices that are clearly superior to others in all cases.  It should be reasonably easy to understand the ramifications of your decisions, without extensive knowledge of the entire system.  Choices should start out manageable in scope and work up to more complex.

This is harder than listing a bunch of randomly rolled statistics and write up some background tables.  It requires quite a bit of work and thought and skill.  Done poorly, it leads to endemic min/maxing and generalized munchkinism.  Done correctly, it makes character creation and development as interesting a part of the game as all the other components, rather than a crapshoot.

Thoughts?  Do you prefer character creation or generation and why?  What systems have you played that do interesting things with either method? 


  1. I'm going to put this here, instead of on G+ so that anyone reading the article above can reference it.

    The thing that you're missing is that in these systems that use random generation the game isn't about the character it's about you, your skill and the choices you make.

    The things you are randomly determining? Rarely provide any sort of bonus at all (B/X etc.) In the systems where they do, they are weighted to provide an average minor bonus (AD&D).

    You see, I find character generation systems superior because it insures that anyone who is sitting at my table is interested in playing a game. I don't care about character concepts, or thespianism, and I certainly don't want to hear about a character's backstory. You are likely not a professional writer and my eyes glaze over at the thought of listening to the wish fulfillment fantasy of a neckbeared storygamer. OR SO I IMAGINE IT TO BE.

    The game is about your skill, and the character simply is the toolset for how you are going to approach the game. Which toolset are you most skilled at?

  2. I'm curious about the logic here. You say that generation systems make the game about skill, but how can that be so when they explicitly remove skill, indeed they remove almost all choice from the character creation process.

    In addition, this article is mostly discussing the process of character creation. Once the game itself starts, there is no difference in the way the players skill, or lack thereof relates to how the character is played.

    Finally, when you say that it ensures that everyone at your table is interested in playing the game, what do you mean, exactly? If somebody is at my table, it means they are interested in playing the game. Do you use the character creation system as some sort of litmus test? If you can hold this hot coal in your hand, then you are WORTHY OF PLAYING IN MY GAME!

    The thrust of your argument seems to be twofold: 1)It doesn't matter anyways because it's all about player skill and besides the things you generate randomly don't really matter. 2) It's supposed to suck because that way my players can prove to me that they can toe the ideological line and are worthy of being in my game.

    I'm trying to understand here, but so far, I'm not convinced.

    1. That's not at all how I read his comment. He was saying something quite different to what you think he was. He was saying that many players come up with crap back stories and tend to waffle on about them thinking that they are really good, whereas random generation naturally produces characters who have little or no back story at all and therefore avoids this issue. With random generation, a character's story forms from in play, where in discussion of the history of the character becomes a shared, group discussion and this lends itself very well to the group dynamics of the game itself.

      Perhaps this is best summed up as: character creation is highly personal with a high degree of individual decision making, whereas generation is more focused around chance and therefore more in line with people's expectation of what a game really is. If you want tremendous variety, then get away from the personal decision making because the generation method offers this.

    2. Other than a tabletop RPG, I have yet to play a game where there is a significant randomization factor involved in the game setup. Actually, one does come to mind - Risk.

      Most people who play games that I know expect games to be about making interesting decisions at most or all phases of the game, not randomization, especially not during game setup/startup.

      Also, I think you are misunderstanding what I mean by creation. I would encourage you to re-read the definition. Nowhere there does it advocate tremendous variety. In fact, I think creation systems that offer limited but clear options are better.

  3. Generating characters is faster, much faster, than creating them. Aside form a certain form of misguided bravado, this is the real advantage of generating instead of creating characters.

    A game is "about" whatever you spend most of your time doing. Different games of D&D are about different things depending on the players and DM. By making character generation very fast, it takes the emphasis off the characters and puts it on the environment and situations. This makes sense in the kind of "old skool" games which depend more on player skill (ie critical thinking, creative problem solving, and resource management) and less on character skill (ie stat bonuses and codified skills)

    Many people play D&D because they find it fun to mess around in a fantasy world and fight orcs or villagers and deal with traps and court intrigue or whatever. Some people play D&D because they find it fun to create characters. When D&D was first being designed character generation was implemented over character creation not due to bad design, but lack of foresight; no one could imagine how many people would enjoy creating characters for its own sake. Character generation is still the better choice for people who simply don't find the decisions involved in character creation interesting (whether they be meaningful or not) and want to start playing the "real" game as quickly as possible.

    Some such people also enjoy playing the kind of "old skool" games which often feature low level characters and semi-regular character death. In such games it is especially useful to be able to quickly make a new character and rejoin the others with minimal fuss or interruption.

    1. I'm glad you mentioned character death. The more time you invest into the character creation process, the less you want the said character to end up dead. Which might happen because of bad dice rolls, i.e. luck. The games designers were actually quite wise: a fast generation system helps to get a player back in the game who has just had a character die and is feeling the sting of it. A 2-3 hour character build process (D&D 3.5 I'm looking at you here and I'm being kind; one player took 2 game sessions to make a character when I was running 3.5) is truly horrible. I much prefer a quick 15 minute generate and the game continues.

  4. Some very good comments here, which prevent me from having to write an essay of my own!

    Suffice it to say that, with character generation systems, the character creation process is called "playing the character"....And after playing around (a lot) with character creation games, I am more than happy to go "back" to a game using an excellent character generation system -- Dungeon Crawl Classics!

  5. Time I will buy, but only to a certain extent. But I still feel that generation offers NOTHING in terms of time that even a simple creation system could not.

    Let's look as something like old school D&D. As written it is a mix of generation (roll stats, HP and money) and creation (buy equipment).

    If we swap it out for pure creation, and by that I mean a series of interesting or consequential choices, would that not actually speed things up?

    For example, you could easily set up slips with standard ability scores for each class or race/class combo. Then provide 3 different standard sets of equipment and let the players pick which one they want.

    Now what you have is several consequential yet easy to understand choices, which takes very little time. What is better about the old system?

    1. In the B/X game I play I can make a character in about five minutes. This is as much time as I am interested in thinking about it for. I would rather spend my time thinking about how to lure that ogre into the pit trap we found when my last character didn't check the floor thoroughly.

      I don't want to say that your stats don't matter, but it doesn't ruin my fun when they're bad. One of my favourite and longest running characters was a dwarf who started with bad stats and then was magically aged in the tower of the stargazer so that he had negative bonuses in STR, DEX, CON and INT. He was still a total badass, he had a magic fiery sword and a ring of fire resistance and would set himself on fire before he charged into battle. The fact that he was a hobbling old man just made him sweeter.

      If you're worried about it, or if the idea of playing a fighter with 7 strength upsets you, character generation probably isn't for you. This is okay. Play the game you want to play and I'll play mine.

    2. addendum, I misremembered and misrepresented his stats, they were actually
      Strength 5 (-2)
      Dexterity 4 (-2)
      Constitution 13 (+1)
      Intelligence 13 (+1)
      Wisdom 4 (-2)
      Charisma 10

    3. I'm pretty sure I could design and OD&D character creation system that would take 5 minutes even for an relative newbie. I'm going to try that.

      If you want to say that stats matter (removing the double negative for clarity), then why is your example on why stats don't matter?

      The fun you had with your dwarf was purely the results of your choices. The fact that it was done with a diseased, crippled murder-hobo does make it sweeter, I agree. Overcoming handicaps can be fun. I can add that to the the pro's column for generation systems. Mileage varies a lot on that, though.

  6. I'm a big fan of creation for both the crunch and fluff of it. In fact I usually start with crunch, which inspires fluff, which then makes me go back to change the crunch to fit the fluff.

  7. For a new player, especially one who is new to RPGs, generation is just easier. If you invite a friend over to try out an RPG, then hand them a rulebook, there's a good chance that they will decide "this is not for me".

    That's one of my problems with late edition DnD--I can handle the creation methodology, but a newbie definitely can't. Hell, even early DnD can be quite quite intimidating.

    So I would argue that a system without Character Generation is poor game design, since it limits it's market only to veteran players.

    1. Wouldn't you say that handing someone new to an rpg a rulebook and then not providing any assistance in creating a character would qualify as a "dick move"?

      I'm not arguing that generation is easier. And I play games with basically random characters, but they are board games that I don't expect to play for long. I think most people would rather have some input, even if there is a learning curve involved in that. Heck, that may well be what hooks a new player.

    2. You're saying the book would tell you how to generate but not how to create? I think "dick move" might be a little extreme. I'd say it's more of a design decision. And if players don't like the standard method, they'll invent their own to suit their tastes more.

      This is probably just a matter of personal preference. If you think your new player will enjoy the arithmetic and strategy involved in character creation, then I agree. If you think it will intimidate them, and what they will really enjoy is the actual role-play, then go with generation.