Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Building Character

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.

Choices Matter

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.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Some of the best for me are the ones like Darklands and Megatraveller, in which you are essentially crafting your pre-adventuring career. They were quite in-depth and had many variables that required either the test drive or much manual reading!

    On a more simplistic note, the character generation for Quest for Glory is rather good, if only because the games are well balanced for the three main character classes. Of course, this is more necessary when controlling a single character.

    A major sinner for your last point would be Neverwinter Nights 2 (except Storm of Zehir), if only because your available party members. Pick poorly, and you can make the first half quite difficult, especially since that you don’t get a Paladin or Cleric until quite late. There are also plenty of useless skills which have descriptions that make them sound useful.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I think one of the most challenging things about designing an RPG is balancing out abilties so that they are useful. I think the classic example here is lockpicking abilities. It’s always such a crapshoot because there might only be two locked doors or chests in the whole game, or on the other hand you might have locked items with important quest objectives behind them. So, do you invest points into the skill or not?

    The other major problem is that old bugbear “realism”. As you said, the cost of an ability should reflect its usefulness in the game. But, a designer who believes lockpicking is a black art that takes a lot of training might make it expensive to train, even if there are only a few inconsequential locked doors or chests in the game.

    Ultimately, I think that creating your character(s) really is one of the more fun parts in an RPG. But, that fun can quickly evaporate if you decided to take lockpicking without a locked door in sight or didn’t take energy weapons and now you feel horribly gimped.

  • Kimari said,

    Knowing What We’re Getting Into:
    If the game was actually well designed and the stats well described, then it should be impossible to make a broken character. For this to happen though, the choices offered in the character creation need to be meaningful in equal measure. This also means that you’d need to design the character creator with only a few choices available: Having a million and one special abilities to choose from sounds awesome on paper but then you realise that 80% of those are going to pale in comparison to the other 20% that actually matter.
    Now, you could say that that 80% is what introduces fun and wacky though unimportant elements to the game, and that’s fine by me, but they don’t need to be available at the character creation screen if they could just as well be aquired much later. See what I mean? Having totally superfluous stuff available at the beginning only helps the player make an unwise choice…. the problem is, he doesn’t know it’s an unwise choice because he hasn’t played the game yet. That’s just a dick move, if you ask me.

    I mean, in Fallout 2 you start the game by having to fight your way through an ant infested cave. Good luck if you built a character with no strength and no sneaking ability!

  • Andy_Panthro said,


    I think that beginning challenge was put there as a tutorial after the game was complete (publishers request or something like that). However, once you actually finish that, there are several small quests in the starting village that make a much better tutorial than that could ever be, including speech and repair based quests.

    Of course, you could throw the blame back at Black Isle since they designed the tutorial bit anyway, even if it was short notice. It’s doubly bad of course because it’s unskippable…

  • MalcolmM said,

    I agree that the character building in classic RPGs was much more interesting than in most modern RPGs. Like you, I prefer a more random point assignment, rather than allowing you to tinker to your hearts content. I think Wizardry attribute generation was random, which made creating characters lots of fun.

    Modern RPGs have so many, mostly useless attributes that I am often at a loss as to how to design my party, even when I am given control over the attribute assignment. I sometimes end up looking at a FAQ to see what is an good setup, but the FAQs are frequently dozens of pages long, so I end of just guessing. I think I messed up the attributes of my party in Dragons Age doing this, I ended up giving up on the game.

    Another thing I liked about some classic RPGs, Wizardry in particular, was that when an attribute went up, it was a major event. You only had a few attributes, and they often only went up to 18, so a single point increase was a big deal, and could make a significant difference to your character. Wizardry 8 went to the other extreme, far too many attributes that each went up to 100. During combat I would get many lines of text, each line indicating that a attribute went up – I completely ignored the messages.

  • Silemess said,

    I suspect that the ability to try out a game with a character is one of the make-or-break catches. I make a throw-away character that I think will be decent and then play. After I think I’ve got the hang of it, I’ll see about if it is worthwhile to go back and recreate and deciding to push on. It just burns me if I recreate that character and then discover that there was a game changing mechanic that rendered the new build useless.

  • WCG said,

    Although I rarely complete an RPG, I’m always starting over, convinced that I can make a better character. It’s kind of ridiculous, really. I started over several times with Morrowind, and that was after playing for a week or two with each previous character. Ha! It’s no wonder I never finish a game!

    On the other hand, a game can be a lot more fun when your character is really suited to it. I enjoyed Planescape: Torment a lot more on a recent play, when I emphasized Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma, than I did the first time I played it, when I made the standard RPG character (mainly Strength and Agility). But, of course, I had plenty of character-generation FAQs to advise me the second time.

    Personally, I love RPGs with lots of different skills, but all too often, most of them aren’t really useful in the game. That’s one reason I prefer party-based games, so that my characters can divide up all the skills between them.

  • Underworld said,

    […] a quick ten or fifteen minute session can easily stretch out into an hour.  My post Monday about character creation was, in part, inspired by my going back and creating a new party for the latest version of this […]