Thursday, July 17, 2014

Long vs short character creation

Some games call for a lengthy character creation process while others have a very short creation process. Some players prefer the former while others prefer the later. I don't what to dig into personal preferences. Do you like deep detailed characters or simple less detailed ones are not the questions I'll be asking now. What I'm interested is exploring the impact character creation has on how the game is played and rules are treated. Namely does a lengthy character generation process create such expectations and requires such a investment in time that players are more inclined to pursue their agenda rather than the game's, session's, GM's and other players' agenda of having fun? Is the character creation process required to end by the time playing starts? Can it continue while the game is going on? Fine tuning the character to the particularities of the GM and the campaign. If so, how is it done? Would it help reduce rules lawyering and player complaints?

Let me put forth an example in software development. Your department requires a new piece of software and a team of developers is brought in. They create a list of your requirements and ideas and go off for three months to work on it. They come back later with the finished product. This has pretty much what you asked for but it isn't quite right. It has buttons for features you seldom use which within better reach than those for features you commonly use. Some functionality is implemented halfway. It works, but it requires some work around. It doesn't quite work as you'd expect. The list goes on and on, the budget and time have run out. Without budget and without time the users end up having to adapt to the application instead of the other way around.

I see this happening with players and their characters as well. A lot of time invested in developing a character than might or might not fit into the GM's plans and settings. I want to clarify that by this I don't mean that players should conform blindly to the GM's plans. Rather I'd like to explore how the character can evolve better if everything isn't detailed before game begins. How does GM input improve the character and how does these "looser" initial definitions may allow for newer rules, skills, abilities and what not to take hold. Look into the drawbacks of see in each process.

Lets work from the premise that the game has some set of attributes (STR, CON, DEX, you name it). It also has a skill system, equipment, can have classes or be classless, and has powers and spells as well.

On one end let us put a character generation involving just rolling the attributes, giving the character a name and some basic background and then jumping into play. One the other end there's the attribute rolls, class selection (if applicable), skills, powers, spells, etc. The later is usually done by following a set of rules, books and supplements. It usually involves a thorough reading of the material and a careful selection of the options. This implies a heavy investment in time reading and understanding the material and then building a character with it. After all this the player has what I could describe as a solution looking for a problem. This situation is compounded when the rule system calls for special skills for trivial tasks. Characters in this case can't even operate properly if not thoroughly finished and detailed. Detailing becomes a "cover my back just in case" exercise. Forgot your house keys in grandma's house? Bad luck without climb walls you can't jump the fence.

On the other hand rolling a quick character and then detailing works differently. First of all you get into the game quicker and that is always a good thing. A heavy investment in materials isn't required, although it helps, and a heavy investment in time isn't a requisite either. The character is more ambiguous and in that sense more prone to adapt to the circumstances of the setting. The character stops being a solution looking for a problem and the player can now concentrate in making the character into a solution for the problem. The player is more prone to become part of the the world building process. Without a detailed class selected the player and GM can be more open to develop a new class for the GM's particular setting. Without all skill points spent yet the player and GM may be invited to create new skills for the setting. Without all the spell slots used up the player and GM may be invited to create new spells for the setting. This goes on and on, you get the idea.

On top of all this there isn't anything stopping the player from creating a character as detailed as she or he pleases. The player can write four pages worth of character stats, skills, spells and what not; as long as it isn't prior to the game.

Now there is this little issue with trust. If a character isn't well defined or at least minimally defined then what happens during the adventure? First thing the party encounters is a locked door and all of a sudden one of the characters turns out to be a rouge. Maybe the first thing they encounter is a party of orcs and combat ensures. Turns out the character is a cleric who heals the wounded. I'm not saying the character is switching between being a rouge and a cleric. In one "universe" the character turned out to be a rogue and in a parallel one the character turned out to be a cleric. This is of course an exaggeration made to drive a point. The same can be said about the wizard's or cleric's spell list. Without a predefined set of spells prior to game start the player may be invited to call for the most convenient thing when the challenge presents itself. Some GMs and players may not be able to handle this. They might call it cheating. This sense of needing to have everything locked down prior to game start compels the need for heavy character building processes prior to game start, but is it needed?

Lets consider the extreme case of not even defining the character class prior to starting the game. Lets consider the "universe" in which the first challenge is a locked door. Taking the rogue as a character class locks that decision for the rest of the character's life. What will the party encounter behind the door? Would being a strong fighter and breaking it down be a better decision? Would being a wizard with a knock spell an even better decision? Sure players can "cheat" by making the optimal choice at that point, but is it the optimal choice overall once the adventure is considered as a whole?

What do you prefer? Longer or shorter character creation? Why? In what ways do you reduce the time required to create a character?

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