Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 5, 2010
I used to love making characters for RPGs. Both for pen-and-paper RPGs and for computer RPGs. Making your character was half the fun. Then it got old. Kinda. I assumed it was just that the problem was that I had been getting older, and less patient, more “mainstream,” or something. And so for years, I almost bought into the standard argument made by many game designers that the old-school character generation in CRPGs was just a tedious exercise of a bygone era.
And then… I discovered some games where it was fun again. While perhaps less patient than I was at age thirteen, I found I still enjoy making characters for some games. So what makes character creation fun for me?
Holding Out For a Hero
The old-school D&D method of making a character by random dice rolls is supposed to be horrible and completely unfair. Your otherwise awesome character, due to one bad roll, gets saddled with a 7 wisdom or something. The “enlightened” game systems eschew this sort of randomness in favor of assigning points exactly as you want them.
Except… there’s a little bit of our brain that loves the gamble. Look at random-content games like Diablo. Frankly, the randomized loot is half the fun of the game. It’s the same sort of compulsion that works for me in games that throw some randomness into the character creation process. Do I hit, or stand? Is this current collection of points sufficient for what I need to do? Maybe I was trying to make a wizard, but I just got some great fighter stats I should save off for another party member (in games where you play a party).
For some reason, this also appeals to me as more interesting decision-making than point-buy systems. Maybe it’s because I constrain myself too much to avoid weaknesses, and thus always end up with characters with very similar characteristics.
I spoke to a friend the other day who evidently feels the same way. He spent the first hour of his time playing Eschalon: Book 2 just experimenting with making characters. As with other “old school” indie RPGs, it includes some random dice rolls in character generation.
Knowing What We’re Getting Into
Back in the day, it wasn’t hard to create characters, because as a full-on geek I knew the D&D rules very well. And most of the CRPGs used rule systems based heavily on D&D. “Dexterity” might be renamed “Agility” or something, but we all knew what it meant and what it would probably be good for. It wouldn’t take too much to read through the manual on the classes (so you knew exactly what a Ranger in this game could do). It wasn’t too hard to figure out what should be your dump stat.
I’m happy that modern games have a much broader range of rule systems that aren’t all derived from an older edition of Dungeons & Dragons. But making a character can be a lot more frustrating if you don’t have any clue how valuable Willpower might be in the game system, or whether or not there will be much call for your Advanced Larceny perk.
Unfortunately, the only real way to understand the game system well enough to make informed decisions in the character creation process is by playing. And once we’re played enough to understand the game system, we’re not too inclined to want to jump back to the beginning of the process to re-make our characters. Fallout 3 recently handled this in an interesting way by letting you completely re-spec your character after completing the intro sequence. Unfortunately, by that point you still didn’t really understand the game system (at that point in the game for example, you’d be convinced that Energy Weapons was a useless skill). See “Taking a Test Drive”.
Jumping Into the Deep End
Even though it had no random rolls whatsoever, making characters for the Champions RPG fascinated me when I was in junior high. Mainly because of the sheer amount of depth there was to character generation. That’s not the same as complexity, but the two are often related. For character generation, it means that your choices have dependencies on each other. At a simple level, your skill options may have dependencies on a class selection. At a much deeper level, maybe you have some deep, circular dependencies that offer unlimited opportunity for tweaking, adjustment, and other tricks to fine-tune a character.
Maybe it’s just geeky engineer / programmer types that get into that, but I know I certainly do.
After all that fun of choosing character stats that might be sub-optimal, and making lots of decisions in a deep character creation process, there’s no better way to make me feel ripped off as a player than to discover that my choices have been neutered by a game that doesn’t take my decisions into consideration in the game. If I take a low intelligence, it should play out somehow in the game (with more limited conversation options, perhaps).
And if the Underwater Basket Weaving costs the same number of points as Small Arms, I should reasonably expect to be able to get roughly similar amount of value from both skill. While one could argue that throwing points away on a useless skill might be a choice that matters, that’s not really what I’m talking about. I would want to see that my Underwater Basket Weaving skill has a cool and interesting place in the story. Or I want to have the opportunities available to make it so.
Taking a Test Drive
Back in the old days, you could very quickly “test drive” a new character and see how they played. This was the other half of what made experimentation fun – you could quickly learn that although you used Strength as a dump stat for your mage, the huge limitations on carrying capacity were going to be frustrating for you throughout the game. So you could go back to the drawing board without having invested too much time into a character that didn’t play the way you wanted them too.You went from Character Generation to Level 1 of a Really Big Dungeon in seconds.
Too many games now have such lengthy introductory and tutorial sections (I haven’t played it yet, but I hear Final Fantasy XIII is that way almost until the end of the game!), so that by the time you are actually able to jump in and really freely test out your character against “typical” experiences representative of the rest of the game, you are already three or four hours into it.
Optimization Not Required
Finally – if a game is designed to be “challenging” by making it so that only a well-optimized character (or party) has a prayer of succeeding, then there really is no point in making a character in the first place. If all options but one will lead to failure, then there’s really only one option, isn’t there? Alas, when this problem rears its ugly head, it’s usually far too late to consider going back and starting over with a better-optimized character.
Fortunately, most RPGs allow some grinding and money-making (for all those healing potions) opportunities for the special-needs adventurers to make up for not having chosen the “Combat God” class, so this is an infrequent problem. But nothing will kill the joy of making your own characters more than discovering the hard way that your character was destined to failure from the first hour.
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