Character Design Manifesto

The EvilHat's Character Creation Manifesto

(This lines were posted originally by Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue over at This Forge Thread.)

What Fred said (the abstract points)

  • We believe that character creation is not a nuisance you need to "get past" in order to get to play.
  • We embrace the idea that creating characters is a game in and of itself.
  • We suggest that character creation is the first (and most important) step in communicating to the GM what the GM must do in order to make the game rock.
  • We do not believe in character stats that do not directly hook into driving actual play in interesting and vibrant ways.
  • We never provide a means for creating characters that does not embed them in the story of the game, and does not embed the story of *them* in the game.

What Rob added (the anecdotal explanations)

Fred's nailed the abstracts, so I'm going to settle for anecdotes.

I can't remember if the first lifepath system I ever got exposed to was Traveller or Cyberpunk, but either way, it struck me as something awesome and fun. Even more than sitting around seeing what kind of point tweaking I could do with Gurps or DC Heroes, I loved the way that putting a character through that sort of grinder pushed me to be creative and come up with ways to explain how this mishmash of random stuff made sense . It challenged me, and made me think in ways that i normally wouldn't, and the net result was a lot of really cool characters.

The problem was, the mechanics actually sucked. So many of the steps were tied into mechanical benefits and drawbacks, naturally I wanted the good ones, and once it came time to play, I wanted the lifepath outcome that gave me the best mechanical benefit. The result was a certain sameness to the characters, because I would cheerfully make characters until the dice liked me and gave me the "good" background. This lead to me ultimately discarding the model, but I still carried it around in my heart.

The same awesomeness showed up in odd places. A friend of mine took an idea from the Nephilim RPG and began chargen with an array of virtually nonsensical questions (If he were a color, what color would it be?) and it had a lot of the same cool. In parallel to this, I kept encountering firsthand proof that when we had some limits on character generation (Characters must be priests. Characters are all cousins. You all grew up in the same small town. Whatever.) the characters tended to be a lot more interesting.

All in all this lead to a conclusion: Structure in character generation is not just desirable, it's awesome. Structure forces the player to think about things he wouldn't normally, and when and answers the questions it raises, he does so on his own terms and in such a way as to make the character more fleshed out.

So that was touchstone #1: Structure is good.

Next was the issue of group cohesion. I ran a lot of Rolemaster and Amber, and over time I'd started insisting on more and more shared history between the characters, usually offering a bribe so that players had incentive to be assertive. These seeds made it much easier to roll directly into play, without the first session or two being spent "Getting the group together" which had become a giant suck upon my time and mental bandwidth.

Calling on the players to establish some history paid off more each time I got more into it, and in time I threw in some external elements, so that players could get points based off having shared relationships with external people and events. It was not too big a step from that to a shared timeline.

Thus, touchstone #2: Shared history kicks ass.

So, once upon a time I was running an Amber game using the Feng Shui rules for, like 6 or 7 people. This was a one shot with no time to come up with characters, so I whipped something up very quickly. I had everyone draw a trump(a card with a character image) from the deck to determine the characters parent and initial stats. Then, they got to pick two cards from a big deck of business cards with concepts on them like "Duelist," "Musketeer," "Sailor," and so on. Then I'd shuffle the deck and deal them a third one at random, indicating the stuff they'd just picked up along the way. The most memorable combination was "Cowboy Ninja Diplomat" and that concept still rattles its way to the surface from time to time.

Anyway, the game went great, but most notably, chargen had been a lot of fun. The Amber DRPG had already introduced the idea of chargen as something interactive and participatory, but the DRPG auction was all about making life unpleasant for players, so this idea of having chargen be participatory and fun was just madness. And it was madness we dinked around with more, and once again, the more we did it, the better it was.

So touchstone #3: Chargen can be play.

Those were the three big vectors on our minds when we started thinking about running Kings, the sequel to Fred's previous Amber game, and the first Fate game, and it's just continued to roll forward from there.

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