Select Page

Tabletop RPGs traditionally squander — utterly — the opportunity to make character creation an exciting part of a game’s actual play.

Sure, in lots of RPGs the process of rolling up a character is an entertaining mini-game of its own. It has the benefit that you can do it without the rest of the group around. Think back back to all those Traveller characters you created, just goofing around by yourself. Remember how half of them died in the process? Made the ones that survived feel that much more awesome, didn’t it?

But even for that, think about how few RPGs — and precious few mainstream ones — do much of anything to directly tie character generation to the action of the game itself.

Here’s what I want to know: Why the hell not? And what would be better?

Ask just about anyone with an adult opinion about stories whether character or plot is more important and here’s what they’ll tell you: character is way more important than plot. The reason is simple. Plot that’s worth anything flows from character. Plot without character amounts to porn; at best, you appreciate it on a mechanical level.

That truth — that the only decent plots flow from character — makes the vast and traditional chasm between characters and adventures in RPGs that much more sad. And the chasm is both vast and traditional. It’s vast because the only feature of character typically taken into account when designing an adventure is level-appropriateness. It’s probably traditional for commercial reasons. I mean, it would have been a lot harder to sell a half-gazillion copies of The Keep on the Borderlands if it had to be tailored to your own PCs.

So, what to do?

Come at the problem from a different direction, that’s what. In a novel or film, every character’s introduced as a cipher. Nothing is known in advance of the character showing up and starting to do things.

So why not just start playing the scenario — before creating characters — and let the players define their characters as the adventure goes along? The player describes his character’s appearance the first time someone looks at him, defines his ability to schmooze the first time he has to fast-talk an NPC, describes his ability to fire a gun accurately the first time he pulls the trigger on one.

Would there be rules? Absolutely. But if you think it through, they wouldn’t be as different from your standard RPG character creation systems as you might think at first.

The benefits to this approach could be awesome.

You can start playing right away. On-the-fly character creation completely eliminates the worst RPG start-up annoyance of them all: That you can only start playing once the slowest player is done creating his character.

Indie RPGs have been much better than mainstream games at tying character creation to gameplay. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover some indie release has a system just like what I’m describing here. If you’re familiar with one, please share (and describe!) in the comments.

Everyone has expanded and concrete opportunities to tie their characters’ capabilities and characteristics to the dramatic questions of the game. Each character’s relevance increases because its nature flies out of the specific challenges the adventure poses. And this approach does nothing to limit the GM’s traditional ability to create scenes and scenarios that riff on what the players define about their characters.

Buyer’s remorse is greatly curtailed as a character creation consideration. The most common cause — that players’ choices become uninteresting in the face of the storylines that actually develop in play — is simply eliminated.

There’s at least one obvious objection to the idea I’m proposing: Wouldn’t it allow players to define their characters’ capabilities, in ultra-cheesy fashion, explicitly to overcome the first obstacles the game throws at them?

Yeah, maybe. And so what?

Don’t the first-act obstacles thrown at the protagonist in traditional stories serve mainly to define character? In a tabletop RPG, the fact that those initial obstacles don’t necessarily tell us anything about our heroes strikes me as a much greater sin.

In any case, this objection will primarily be raised by those who value the competition over the story. (The gamists, if you’ll accept my fast-and-loose Forgisms.) For those players — and those kinds of games — this approach is probably less than ideal.

Give it a try. So will I. Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.