Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Rolling A New One…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 1, 2012

With another (short) campaign completed, I stepped out from behind the Game Master’s screen Saturday night and joined the rest of the group creating a character for a new campaign.

I really do enjoy this. I always have. I remember creating heroes and villains for Champions in geometry class while Mr. Droneburg lectured on using his overhead projector. Hey, it was how I stayed awake (usually), what with the lights off and stuff!  I enjoyed the mechanics of character creation – particularly in Champions – coming up with what kind of “niche” a character could fill, his strengths and weaknesses, etc. But I also loved imagining the stories they would have. Who would they be? What would happen to them?

I still get that, rolling up  a new character for dice-and-paper RPG.  The anticipation of new adventure, my thoughts on how to manipulate the stats to match a particular backstory or concept, is a great feeling. Incidentally, my new character for the upcoming Pathfinder game is a paladin (haven’t played one of those since that unfortunate childhood incident in the Abyss) with the “drunken brawler” feat* and the “iron liver” trait. Yeah, this is gonna be interesting…

I want character creation in CRPGs to be just as fun. But it’s got several things going against it.

First off – there’s system unfamiliarity. Learning a new system is already a challenge, and tends to reward “safer” choices rather than experimentation. Even with a game that seems to be pretty replayable, I’m not too inclined to play through a 40+ hour game several times. I have other games to play!

Second, CRPGs have pretty fixed storylines that may not allow me to really “play” my character. With a good game master, in dice-and-paper games there’s always the chance that at least part of the game will be customized for your particular character choices and personality. You don’t get much of that in CRPGs, and what is there feels pretty “canned” (because it is). It’s the nature of the beast. Computers are poor at creativity and storytelling.  And that’s even a rough task for humans on the fly.

Third, “roleplaying” feels pretty weak in a game where there are no other human players to share it with.  You may be making up your own story in your mind, which is a great exercise for a writer, but I guess I’m too accustomed to having an audience / fellow players when I do that.

Fourth, character creation in many games is kind of a stale, unexciting process – one that many players would like to avoid altogether so they can jump right into the “meat” of the game. Many games now choose to skip this process (or at least delay it, a la Bethesda’s RPGs), but I maintain it can still be a fun stage of the game.

These are not insurmountable obstacles. The first one is a game design issue. There are ways of making the process easier (and fun) to learn. And there are ways of making it a very repeatable process, so the player can take advantage of his familiarity later in the game that he might not have had in the first few minutes. The fourth challenge is similar. Maybe the solution isn’t burying or avoiding the character creation process, but doing a better job of making it part of the game. As I said last week, things like incorporating lore into character creation can really make this process a lot more interesting and help the player get acclimated to the new game world more quickly. We make entire games around the process of building things  – civilizations, tower defense setups, cities, houses for our simulated people – and there are very addictive “life sim” games that wrap an entire game around building & improving your character. There’s no reason this has to be a dry, boring experience.

Adding multiplayer is an obvious solution to the third problem, but it’s not an insurmountable problem in single-player games. Facebook has shown us that there are all kinds of ways to make a basically single-player game feel like a social experience. In my opinion, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. We have tons of options available today, in a world more connected now than at any point in our history.

The thorniest problem is the second, and while it may not be ‘solvable,’ I do feel it can be alleviated. Emergent events and behavior, and procedural content, can supplement canned behavior to customize a game around a particular playstyle. Soldak’s RPGs can give us a glimpse into a few of the possibilities here, as can roguelikes, Minecraft, The Sims, and dozens of other examples.

One of my goals with Frayed Knights was to go back to the dice-and-paper well a little bit for inspiration. I feel like CRPGs kinda branched off from the tree a long time ago, went its own way, and rarely returned to see if there were more fun elements that could be incorporated into the genre today that were perhaps impossible to recreate back in the early 80’s, or perhaps didn’t exist even in the dice-and-paper world back then. There are still a lot of cool things that could be done. And making the character-creation process more fun and exciting is only one example.


* He’s human, so he gets the extra feat at first level, needed to obtain the prerequisite (Endurance).

Filed Under: Design, Dice & Paper - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Senator said,

    It seems that if you want to incorporate multiplayer in an RPG, everyone thinks it HAS to be an MMORPG. But back in the day of pen and paper RPGs, it was usually a small group of friends that gathered around the table and played through a quest. I think a game that made it so you create a party and have to play with that party through the entire game would be interesting. The amazing thing to me is that people would think that is a bad idea because it is too hard to get everyone playing it at once all of the time, but that is what we had to do when we wanted to play Shadowrun or D&D!

  • Adorna said,

    @Senator – actually, its what prevents us from playing Pen and Paper more than once a month, so I switched to Computer games to fill the long waiting times ;D

    But you’ve really got me started here. I love maing charcters. Both, pen and paper and computer ones. I even liked the Wizardry character creation that basically everyone hated. When I had my first basic computer class the first thing I did was trying to make a shadowrun character generator. (it only sort of worked. That was back in Turbo Pascal days and the charcter creation sytem was pretty bulky for a beginner :D)I think the creation I liked most was in Daggerfall – it gave you random questions to answer about your chracters past that got you in the mood and not only influenced your stats but also spells and equipment…

    For me, one of the fun parts is the guessing game: what might the game throw at you and what do you really need to be prepared? The first crpg that I played was the first DSA/the dark eye game. It had you roll up a party of 6 charcters that my brother and I shared. We would play together usually and comment on AI and luck things (“oh, I think your fighter really likes my mage, its the second time he takes a blow for her” and such 😀 )
    Some of the games and systems flaws were something I really enjoyed: It had so many skills you could drown in it and since you culd only try to raise your stats so much each level you ended up having several “hobby skills” sometimes usefull, more often not… some skills were never used in any of the three games of the triology. But to me that was part of the fun.
    I really dislike the modern way of everything being so balanced that it is really interchangable…

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Personally, I love character creation. Sometimes, it’s better than actually playing the game!

    The best CRPG ones I’ve seen are: Megatraveller (based on PnP, so to be expected), Darklands, and Daggerfall.

    As Adorna said, the best ones involve restrictions, so that you have to make sacrifices when building your character. You want to avoid a situation where there is an obvious “optimal” build, and any deviation makes the game too difficult/impossible (or even worse, does nothing at all!).

    When you talk about the limitations of a CRPG and character creation, one game immediately springs to mind. In Neverwinter Nights 2, your choices at character creation are hobbled by the story. Made a fighter? The first two NPCs you get are both fighters. It also makes role-playing a bit difficult since your characters background is revealed through the story.

    And then you get the expansion “Storm of Zehir”, which does the complete opposite and allows you to freely build your own party, and actually makes use of a lot of skills that are relatively unused in the main campaign.

    I found Storm of Zehir just the right length, and surely it’s that sort of thing we need to see more of (with the sort of variety to suit everyone’s tastes). Perhaps when Telltale and the like decided to make adventure games “episodic”, they were actually looking at the wrong genre? Episodic CRPGs might actually work. You only have to look at the NWN/NWN2 mod scene to see that sort of thing happening anyway, perhaps there’s an opportunity for a developer to make a profit by it?