Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 11, 2010
Modern CRPG design philosophy, at least so far as I can grasp from interviews and games, seems to hold that it is a sin to make a player wade through the character generation process prior to letting them get to “the fun part.” Character generation should be as streamlined as possible, minimized, and preferably delayed until after the adventure started. Players want story and action, not to be confronted with statistics.
Hey, I get it. It makes sense. You are promised on the box a game of adventure and discovery. But it starts out with a screen of numbers and unfamiliar terms that you are somehow expected to assign, balance, and not shoot yourself in the foot by making a magic user with an intelligence so low he can only cast the beginner spells. Oh, and rolling dice to create a character? Letting chance dictate that your character may be underpowered? Extra bad with bad sauce!
With some designers being very vocal about eliminating these design horrors of a bygone era, it’s easy to forget all those times I used to keep myself awake in Mr. Droneburg’s Geometry class (no lie: That was actually his name) making Champions characters. Or the little feeling of glee I experienced going through Eschalon‘s old-school character generation system (I only really played one character, but I made five).
Last week, I picked up Icewind Dale Complete, a late-90s RPG using the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. It is a less story-driven, more hack-and-slashy, and somewhat less famous little brother to Baldur’s Gate. It lets you create an entire party of six adventurers. Actually, it kinda requires it (I forget if it provides pre-generated parties, like its sequel). I thought I’d play through the first twenty minutes of the game, just to get a feel once again for a new (to me) old-school Bioware-style RPG experience.
As often happens with a good RPG, my quick trip to the fantasy world lasted considerably longer than I intended. Like, closer to two-and-a-half hours. At least half of that time was spent creating characters. I had no idea that much time had been passing, but I was completely entertained. And the random dice rolls were a big part of the entertainment factor. I was exploring the possibility space, trying to decide on the best arrangement of stats which, with a little bit of tweaking, could help describe someone filling a key role in my awesome adventuring party. It was challenging and gave me a gambler’s rush. I was having a blast, and I hadn’t even started “playing” yet.
Okay. Maybe there’s only a niche geeky old-school gamers that find deep, involved character generation to be fun. And sometimes I’m not all that into it, either. But I suspect that it’s more of a case of presentation and expectations. We old school tabletop gamers immediately recognize the page of stats for what it is and represents, but other gamers may wonder if they’d accidentally ran accounting software instead of a game.
Making – and growing – a character is a key element of the RPGs genre. And it can be FUN. Rather than simply delaying, hiding, and minimizing it, turning it into just a bonus point to drop into a skill tree, maybe designers can focus on enhancing this aspect of the genre. Make it more fun, make it easier to use, make it more interesting, and make it deeper. It’s been done, to a degree. Fallout 3 at least tried something kinda interesting with it. In the dice-and-paper world, there have been several systems and supplements that created a very detailed character generation system that combined random dice rolls and personal choices into creating not just your character’s “starting stats,” but an actual skeleton of a history, waiting to be fleshed out by a little bit of imagination. Why can’t CRPGs do the same? If you played the Cute Knight games, that’s pretty much the core gameplay right there. Okay, it’s not so much character generation as building one over time, admittedly, but there are some interesting ideas there. And it was for anyone but the traditional, hardcore audience.
I’d like to see more of that.
And I’d like to see more building entire parties for adventuring rather than just one character, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant.
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