C Series • #16
Building a character is, as should be obvious, an important part of role playing games. Characters are the “roles” that players step into. How a game system allows players to create their characters is a key element to the game and how enjoyable the game is. Whether or not the method of a particular system is “good” or not largely is a matter of taste for the players so, because of that, no system is going to be a perfect match for everyone. Experimenting with different systems, creating characters, reflecting on what you have and then deciding if this is a character you are eager to play is going to depend a lot on your personal preferences and how they match with the system. This exercise is going to talk a bit about approaches that I have seen in different system.
Before jumping too deeply down the rabbit hole of this topic, I’d like to take a quick overview of character creation elements that are common to most systems. Every system I ever have seen has “abilities” for characters. By this, I am referencing the aspects of the character that define physical and mental attributes. For the D20 System, these were the Strength, Dexterity, Constitution scores for physical attributes and the Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores for the mental attributes. “Skills” are commonly (though not necessarily universally) used. The original Dungeons & Dragons and 1st Edition AD&D did not have any separate skill systems initially though they were added later. Here I am talking about skills, generally separate from class abilities, that players may take for the characters. Class abilities are a third element but, once again, are not part of every game. Some game systems don’t even have defined “classes” in their framework.
The way these elements interact defines how a system works. In the original 1st Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the choice of race and class essentially defined what the character could do. Rangers could track. Rogues could be stealthy and deal with traps. Magic-users (yes, that is what they were called) could cast Arcane spells. If you wanted different elements to play with you could either multi-class (or use the dreaded dual class approach if you were human) or create a new class (which was another popular choice). This made the character creation process rather straightforward. Roll your ability scores, select a race and class, note the abilities you had because of those selections, and you pretty much were off to the dungeons.
From that beginning, game systems began to expand out. Instead of having what the character was capable of doing solely defined by class abilities, the concept of skills was developed. In this way, two different fighters could be substantially different in the way that they were played. Dungeons and Dragons (technically AD&D) did this through “Non-Weapon Proficiencies” which were introduced at the very end of 1st Edition before AD&D 2nd Edition was released. The Original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D as I have seen it referred to) also added skills through the Gazeteer series released for the Mystara setting. Other systems contemporary to these generally already were using the concept of skills. Rolemaster, in particular, was entirely a skills based system. There were no abilities automatically granted by selecting a class, and no skills were unavailable because of class selection. Even racial selection had very limited abilities automatically granted to the character.
“Feats” (D20 System and Pathfinder), “edges” (Savage Worlds), “stunts” (Fate) and “foci” (Cypher) are elements that are part of the current trend gaming. These are specific powers, abilities and modifications greater than simple skills (although they may modify how well you use skills or what you can do with your skills) that players can select for their characters for added customization. In some systems, like Fate, Savage Worlds and Cypher, these selections are core to the character creation process. In the D20 and Pathfinder systems, a class still defines most of the base abilities for the character while the feats are add-ons and customizations of those abilities.
In Savage Worlds, there are no classes. You build your characters based on skills and edges to flesh out the concept that you have for your character without having to select a class archetype. You are not restricted by the system’s concept of what a fighter is and are much freer to create the character as you wish. This takes a bit longer, and requires a more in-depth understanding of the rules and how skills/feats/edges (whatever that particular system calls them) work in those rules to get the end result that you want. Depending on how familiar you are with the rules, character creation can be fairly straightforward for building a character according to your concept. If you are not as familiar with the rules, you’ll need to go through the various edges closely to get the character where you want it to be.
Another method some systems employ is a “layered build” where you select different independent aspects of the character during creation. The character is given additional abilities and aspects based on those selections. 5th Edition D&D adopted this with the “background” selection. The chosen background gives you proficiency options and character aspects independent on the class choice. You could be a paladin (a champion of justice and law) with a criminal background. The background choice has no direct impact on the class but the choice would allow for some skill proficiencies that otherwise would not be available to the character.
Cypher system uses this layered approach much more extensively. When creating a character, you first select a “type” (warrior, adept , Explorer , or speaker ). This gives you the opportunity to select certain abilities within your type. Optionally, you can add a “flavor” to your “type” (if you wanted to play a warrior-mage for example) to alter your available choices. Next, you select a “descriptor” which gives you additional options, and third, you select a “focus” that grants you another set of options in your build. Character builds take significantly longer but the end result is a unique character that is molded after your concept.
Pathfinder’s 2nd Edition rules also used this layered build concept. Ancestry, class, and backgrounds all open up different feat choices that lead to characters with different abilities available to them. Unlike 1st Edition Pathfinder, the newer edition has far fewer automatically granted abilities with race (now called ancestry) and class choices, instead moving many of these options to feats available to the character.
All of these approaches work. There are games with a number of varying degrees to which character attributes, class abilities, and selected skills/feats/edges interplay together in character creation and development. One of my initial tests of any game system is to generate a character that I am eager to play. If, when I am done with the character generation process, I don’t have a burning interest in playing that character, it probably is not going to be a good system for me. While character creation is only one aspect of a rule system (skill resolution, combat, and overall game mechanics are not part of this discussion), having a system that allows you to create interesting characters that you are eager to play and bring to life is a strong point of recommendation for any set of rules.