Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Realization: Step One Sucks

Over the past few weeks I have come to a realization regarding myself and roleplaying games. For all that I love telling stories at the table or the computer screen, with good friends and new friends, I hate character creation. Don't get me wrong, I love making characters. The trouble is, I also hate making characters. The narrative aspects of character creation make me extremely happy. The mechanical aspects annoy me.

It's not that I'm not good at it. As a rule, once I wrap my head around a game, I'm very good at reliably churning out characters that are, if not optimized (honestly, I find optimization to be critically boring), a reliable portrayal of the concept I was aiming for. What bothers me is that it's boring. When I sit down at the table I want to play, not dick around getting ready to play. And I want to be able to do it from the get go. I want it all and I want it now.

The quandary I face is that I also like heavily character-driven games where a character's feelings, ambitions, and backstory elements are all essential to the plot. Unfortunately, without a character creation stage, where the players create these things, tying their characters to the plot and to each other, where will all that delightful story meat come from?

Alas, I find myself contemplating what seems like an unsolvable conundrum. I hate character creation... but I need character creation. I love character creation... and it bores me. I feel like I'm in an abusive relationship with a game concept, and I can't tell if I'm the bad guy or the victim.

Some games I'm aware of have attempted to tackle this issue. Their efforts tend to fall into several categories. None of them seem to do exactly what I want them to do, but that doesn't mean they aren't worthy of consideration.

The first category is led by Evil Hat Productions' Spirit of the Century, which attempts to make character creation into a miniature game of narrative mix-and-match. This category - making character creation a fun task - seems to be relatively new. As for myself, I find myself liking it. I haven't actually played Spirit of the Century yet, but I've read the book cover to cover, and the process seems neat.

The downside of this approach is that it seems like it would make character creation take a lot longer. This seems to be the case of Spirit of the Century - remember, I've only read the book, I've never actually played it - where you have to build part of your character, play a little narrative mix-and-match (each round of which informs more of your character), and then do more work to finish your character. Given that my problem with character creation is part impatience as well as part boredom, Spirit of the Century ends up seeming like a cool reaction to the problem I see, but not necessarily a solution.

The next category belongs to games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Houses of the Blooded, and many, many others. The games in this category do their best to make character creation short. You spend some points, name some traits, do the usual work of outlining relationships and histories, and then you're done. There's no math higher than addition and subtraction and only a handful of points to toss around.

I know I talk about this game a lot, but Houses of the Blooded deserves special mention. Firstly, Houses does a good job of pacing character creation without resorting to overall mechanical simplicity. The game is quite deep - it even includes a minigame for handling the rising and falling fortunes of your character's lands - but it's possible (easy, in fact) to build an effective character without knowing all the rules. As your character grows and becomes more interested in his lands, or a skilled duelist, or a sorceress, you can learn the rules that become relevant. There aren't many games out there that don't lean to on one side or the other. Either character creation requires a fairly deep knowledge of the mechanics (most games out there), or the mechanics are, for good or ill, overall very simple(Dogs in the Vineyard is a good example).

However, while games in this category address the matter of my impatience, they do so imperfectly. You still have to do character creation, even if it's bitter and brief. They also don't tackle the essential problem of my boredom, though making the process shorter does lessen it somewhat.

What to I really want? I want a game that I can sit down and play, just like that, out of the box, with minimal planning on the GM's part and no "character creation phase." However, I also want the characters to be deep, background-driven, with intense emotions.

One game which comes close - and inspires my solution to the problem - is Ralph Mazza's unfinished Robots & Rapiers which is still cycling through ashcans and revisions. Robots & Rapiers is another game I've never read or played, but I did hear Theory from the Closet's wonderful interview with Ralph Mazza, so I feel qualified to discuss the game in abstract. The premise of Robots & Rapiers is that you play a robotic attraction at a Three Musketeers-themed amusement park of the future, long after all the humans are dead. Now, after years of playing out your programming over and over again, you have finally begun to come awake and have the potential to grow, change, and transcend what you were. Instead of creating a character, you choose which swashbuckling archetype your robot represented, and that's it. As your character grows, he chooses where he's going to rebel against his programming and where he's going to go with the flow, and that's how your character becomes unique.

It's an intriguing concept, but very tied to the game's delightful conceit, so it doesn't really solve my problem.

The only solution, I suppose, is to cook what I want to eat and write the game I want to play. But how, exactly, do I approach the problem of not really like character creation?

The thought that comes to mind is to keep character creation fast, fluid, and have it happen in play. Perhaps you get a pool of dynamic points that can be spent to improve actions you take by forcing a flashback to how you got to be good at something or care about something, which translates to a bonus on the roll and a bonus on future rolls of the same type - essentially, a new trait. As the game goes on, you gain more points which you can continue to spend to improve your character in the now or in the past, defining swaths of the character and how she interacts with the world with every scene.

I'll have to keep chewing on this idea. I'd love to hear what you think about it.

* * *

  • What are your experiences of character creation, good and bad?
  • What are your feelings about character craetion? Do you like it? Dislike it? Find it boring? Exciting?
  • How would you achieve the game experience I'm reaching for?

* * *

Before I depart for the day, I'd like to bring two things to your collective attention:

First of all, if you glance over at my blogroll, you'll notice two new entries. Pseudopod has been joined by its siblings: Podcastle, the fantasy podcast, and Escape Pod, the science fiction podcast. I'm only listening to Pseudopod so far - I just listened to a wonderfully gross story about a person with... woman troubles - but if the other two are anywhere near as good, they deserve a place on my blogroll, and in your mp3 player.

Secondly, Chad Underkoffler of Atomic Sock Monkey Press has produced an awe-inspiring new game. Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies (S7S for short) combines swashbuckling pirate adventure, magic, and airships and floating islands to produce a game that could only be more designed just for me if Chad had actually asked for my input. And, in that case, I'm not sure how much would have changed, both because the game sounds awesome the way it is andbecause I haven't read the thing yet. It's only out in hardcover, and I am a poor, poor man. I will buy and run S7S as soon as I can. And if one of you buys it first, you can tell me all about it.

That's all for now. Goodbye, everyone.


Albert said...

I've generally found SotC chargen takes one session. But it's not just a dry session of crunching numbers and picking abilities; it's a session of play! Inventing your novels, laughing with each other over awesome ideas, giving other players' novels your own spin. It's a good time.

Most mods of it I've seen tend to streamline the mechanical aspects of it (only one Aspect for each life stage to keep brainstorming time down, using stunt packages to reduce reference time), but keep the narrative elements of it largely intact.

Albert said...

I was impressed by Mouse Guard's chargen procedure as well.

First of all, the game makes a strong case for "Pick pregens, let's play!". There are four complete patrols of pregen characters in the book (and three complete pregen scenarios to run them with), and those can be mixed and matched with only a few tweaks.

Second, the chargen procedure requires relatively few mechanically difficult choices, with lots of "Pick one or two of this list of skills" sorts of choices rather than "Distribute 30 points among these 20 skills" sorts of choices. It goes pretty quick

Clyde L. Rhoer said...

Mark have you looked into Other Worlds? There isn't a text for perusal but it is the game I'm personally most looking forward to for long term play. Character creation is very fast, flexible, and puts questions of culture and society automatically in the focus of the game.

I talked to one of the people behind the game, Mike Holmes in show037, of my podcast.

Here's a link to story games talking about it:

In that thread Mike talks about the game and there are links to some quite varied actual plays.

Also you might look at Universalis, which coincidentally enough was a collaboration between Holmes and Mazza. Character creation is very short in that game and it has other play features that make it a must-try at least once....

Scattercat said...

You know what else about roleplaying you suck at?

*meaningful stare*

Tergiver said...

(followed your sig on rpg.net and started poking through your blog)

I've been crushing on Fudge on the Fly for a few months. In its purest form, you create a character's name, blurb, talent, flaw, and then start playing. Skills and attributes are filled in during play as they matter, and if you want the player can narrate briefly about how they learned these skills.