Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Rolling Your Own

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 23, 2011

Making your own character(s): For some, this is essential to the RPG experience. For others – like me – it’s no big deal. For some, it’s daunting and a reason to avoid playing RPGs altogether.

I remember tournaments back in the glory days of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons where players were assigned pre-generated characters.  Or other times when a pre-gen might be in order. Then, as now in CRPGs, there was something more satisfying about making your own character from scratch, giving him or her a unique name, and calling them your own. Back then, I had binders full of characters for various RPG systems – some only played once or twice, some deceased, and even a few that were created for one reason or another but never played.

One character that I’d created but never played ended up getting “loaned” to another player. She hadn’t had time to create a character of the appropriate level for a game, so I handed the sheet to her. She became a regular in the campaign, and the character became her own – and one of her favorites. I didn’t miss the character too much. I ended up marrying that player, so I kept the character in the family or something. 🙂

I’ve played and enjoyed a lot of CRPGs where I little or no say in what character I played, and often little control over their progression as they increased in levels. I’ve played CRPGs where I had full control over their stats (even to the point of being able to enter any values I wanted to “import” my D&D character into the game) from the get-go, and even “had” to create an entire party of characters from scratch. Let me tell you, I almost didn’t get started playing Icewind Dale 2 because I was having so much fun making characters!

I don’t really consider one style superior to the other, or gauge the “RPG-ness” of a game based upon whether it gives me a pre-generated character and background or not.  With a pregen, the game can do some nifty things with story that are much harder to do when the player’s character is a blank slate.  There are some tricks to give you a little benefit of both worlds, like how Knights of the Old Republic gave you a back-story you didn’t know about, or how Dragon Age: Origins gave you a selection of possible backgrounds. Or – well, Planescape: Torment. Almost any RPG at least hints at some background you are expected to drop your character concept into.   For some reason, you’ve answered the kings’ summons or something. You figure out why.

And, like my wife’s pregen, there’s no reason you can’t take the character concept and make it your own. Okay, yeah, maybe in some jRPGs it gets a little heavy handed, with your character only given the choice between saying something acerbic or nothing at all, and so forth. But while somewhat constrained, my version of Geralt in The Witcher games is different – and may have different adventures – than yours (or the one in the books, which I have never read). I’m still playing a role.

None of this means that CRPGs with player-generated characters must be weak on storyline, or that players can’t be just as enthralled with a game where they are playing the same character as everybody else.  Both scratch the RPG itch for me just fine.

Though if I can get a request through, game dev dudes (indie and mainstream) – I’d like more party-based RPGs. Especially the kind where you roll your own characters, though I’m cool either way. Those kinds of RPGs seem to be in shortest supply in these days of action-RPGs where you play a solo character plus NPC henchmen. Or pets. Playing Knights of the Chalice, or going back to play some older party-based games like the Might & Magic series (not to mention all the Frayed Knights testing) has really reminded me how fun that is. It’s more of a party with a party, right?


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 21 Comments to Read

  • EHamilton said,

    Large-party games almost never work well with an action RPG. Once you get over three characters you need a combat-pause option– that seems to be the lesson of the Bioware/Interplay series from BG to NWN2. And these games, for me, don’t really feel satisfying until I have almost complete control over each character individually, which means constant auto-pausing. At that point, you’ve created a game that would work better in turn-based format to begin with.

    So really the decline of “roll your own party” is a corollary of the decline of turn-based games. And the same phenomenon, in reverse, is why Eschalon never quite satisfied me. Once you’re turn-based, you need the tactical complexity of a larger party to rationalize the slower pace.

    Anyway, totally agree that we need more of them. I still remember all my characters from my original playthroughs of BT1 and PoR!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, you are correct on that – so I guess my appeal to non-indie devs is a little silly (as no western, non-indie developer is likely to make a turn-based RPG again).

    I felt the same way with Eschalon. I wanted more to do. I solved that by focusing more on magic, so I at least had choices between weapons and spells.

  • Fumarole said,

    Once you’re turn-based, you need the tactical complexity of a larger party to rationalize the slower pace.

    Fallout wants to have a word with you.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Isn’t controlling a large party in an RPG . . . weird? Just playing Devil’s advocate here, but most RPGs inherit most everything from D&D right? In PnP D&D you don’t control a party – you control an individual character. All the other party members are made and controlled by someone else with their own agenda – they just worked with you. So really, the RPGs where you make one customized character for yourself and then recruit pre-made NPCs with backstories and abilities already in place is more true to the roots of the genre.

    That said, it is fun to create a whole party and name them and meticulously plan out how they will work together. But it also sort of destroys a lot of great story-telling moments possible with a premade party in a game, like a character refusing to go along with a morally ambiguous decision, or a sudden betrayal.

    But we can all agree, single character or a whole party, making characters is FUN. I wonder if they could market that as a game – a full-fledged program with the most robust character creation system in existence . . . game sold separately.

  • Menigal said,

    In PnP D&D you don’t control a party – you control an individual character.

    Actually, the early early versions seemed to encourage a playstyle based on you controlling your PC and a series of henchmen and hirelings; a bit of a holdover from the wargaming roots. It makes the Sudden Gygax Death Syndrome easier to deal with, in any case.

    But I do far prefer creating my own character to playing one that’s handed to me, especially one that comes with a preset personality. That’s what kills a lot of Euro-RPGs for me. People can talk about more story opportunities all they want, but to me it tends to kill the immersion.

  • Maklak said,

    I don’t mind making a character for RPG, but I prefer playing. Making a full party of 4 or 6 is somehat fun, but may be tedious too. I generally go for optimised builds when I can. It makes combats easier.
    I’m closer to ‘blank’ character creation than customizing everything. In any case I preffer playing to making characters, but I sometimes restart with a better character when I screw up.

    On henchmen in DnD: None of my parties used pack animals or henchmen. I wonder why, they are cheap and usefull. Rise Dead is to expensive to bother with an army of darkness (plus towns might react unfriendly to a neutral character who has zombie henchmen), and summon monster sucks (maybe except for invisiblity + summon combo). Henchmen are dirty cheap, like a few gp’s per piece a day, and come in squads. Plus they may still have some of what you paid them on them and some crappy equipment to sell. There is just something captivating about sending your minions to explore a dungeon ahead of you, and looting their stuff after finishing off whatever monsters killed them. Pack animals are usefull to carry loot, and after they get killed, you can still skin them, eath them.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    We would frequently play multiple characters back in the day. If we couldn’t get enough people for a full group, we’d double or triple up on characters (many adventures back then were optimized for 6-12 characters). Plus, when one died, you’d have a spare… 😉

  • Calibrator said,

    I think is actually not a trivial subject and something that is worth thinking about thoroughly.

    While I see the roots (war games with units, possessing number values but no backstory) CRPGs swiftly diversified in several directions.
    There are games where you roll every member of your party and there are games where you roll your “own” character and add pre-defined characters (NPCs that become PCs) to your group. The latter has the advantage that your party members still can have some mystery in them, a free will of their own while a completely rolled party is more or less just a set of sock puppets.

    Some people favor those games that require you to roll all characters and I think it’s because they are really seeing their party not as characters but as toolsets (“I’ll make me two warriors, a wizard, a healer and a thief to unlock doors!”). If one dies and cannot be resurrected then it’s time for a spare tire, isn’t it? 😉

    The Ultima/Bioware school of adding pre-defined charcters to your party on the other hand can lead to interesting things like colorful discussions between those characters or with the “player character”, party members leaving on their own or even betraying you.

    A “control freak” surely hates a party having a life on its own but this is the type of party I favor. Being a seasoned player I want the maximum of atmosphere and I most certainly want surprises, as rare as they are in todays games. Pre-defined characters can give you that when implemented well.

    Speaking of implementation: Adding new predefined characters to your party usually isn’t as trivial as going into a guild house and roll-up a new one. There are lots of design decisions: Is the NPC part of the game world or just positioned there to get picked up (or not)? If the player advances a level should the NPC advance, too, or stick with the initial values? What sense does it make to add a funny but weak character to your party? etc.
    Not trivial at all…

  • Menigal said,

    The Ultima/Bioware school of adding pre-defined charcters to your party on the other hand can lead to interesting things like colorful discussions between those characters or with the “player character”, party members leaving on their own or even betraying you.

    Of course, the problem with this approach is that it’s very easy to get it wrong and end up with a game where the Superduper Chosen One in a quest to save the world takes a back seat to a party of overly intrusive NPCs. It’s not quite as annoying as if a real DM does it, but it can get pretty close.

    It all comes down to whether you think the game should be about you making your own story or having one presented to you. I’d say the majority of people who call themselves RPG fans these days go for the latter, and when you look at their comments on older games you can see that a lot of them think that if there’s not fully voiced characters providing a running chatter and keeping things suitably cinematic then it’s got no story.

    Storytelling in CRPGs needs to be subtle and preserve player agency (with the occasional exception), and the use of NPCs should follow that same philosophy. I’d much rather make my own story, with the occasional help of well written but not essential NPCs (New Vegas) than play what is essetially a relationship simulator that mostly writes your character for you (Bioware), but obviously I’m in the minority these days.

  • sascha said,

    Have to agree with Calibrator! Predef characters that have their own ‘life’ instead of self-rolled puppets are often more interesting but I wonder what choices we have to find a good solution between those two worlds.

    For example being able to switch to solo mode with any of the party characters and play that one for a while can be fun (SWKotoR had this feature if I remember right).

    Then on the other hand it raises the question of what is the advantage of being able to roll a whole party on your own like in Icewind dale. For me these are all more or less empty hulls with no personality. Some RPG players might want to invent their own role-playing to them and if they are able to do that well then that’s fine but other than that you are dragging a troupe of characters through the game that are unconnected to the game’s story.

    This leads to an interesting idea: What if you could roll a whole party on your own but the game then decides what backstory each of them has and how they are integrated in the story. I’m not sure if this makes much sense but maybe could lead to some new ways if thought a bit further.

  • Calibrator said,

    While this would sound like a good idea to merge two worlds I doubt that this would work with the hardcore tactics crowd. Those players want total control over everything as they want to play the game and not having the impression that the game plays them…

    While I have no problem with that I still maintain that interesting NPCs with a slight amount of active personality offer an additional degree of player immersion, making him experience the game world a bit more like a real world. This is far from being a “relationship simulator” it’s just an additional feature to enrich the game.
    One thing is certain, though: A troupe of mute soldiers that execute your every whim without so much as a comment is *certainly* not enhancing the game world as a whole. The only question you ask yourself is “Do I have enough ‘resources’ to conquer the problem/fight at hand?”.

    NPCs with a minimal AI may provide optional sub-quests or just provide colorful banter – but of course: The player should stay in control of the party, direct them to where he wants to go, lead them into battle, swap inventory, buy stuff etc. The player controls the game and therefore writes the story. The NPCs shouldn’t be Tamagotchis that need to be fed and kept warm all the time.

    Yes, undoubtedly, there are “on-the-rails-RPGs” where everything is scripted and where the player, exhausted from work, comes home and simply wants to follow a path just narrow enough to not get lost. But here the games are limiting the player, not their NPCs which are only a single part of the whole affair.

    Bethesda, for example, decided at one point to make single-player, single-avatar games (the whole Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3) where the player character is some sort of Jack-of-all-trades. Fighting? No problem, even against multiple enemies. Spellcasting? Of course! Lockpicking? Sure!
    In those games you are in total control of your -single- character and all NPCs are only stage props, even if you decide to let them “join” you for a while (Fallout 3).

    But: Where exactly is the difference to a party that is more or less only a toolbox? Why have a party in the first place? Only to move some more units on a battlefield?
    Where is the fun in having a party member that is “chaotic evil” but still does everything you want him to on your quest to rescue the kingdom?
    Putting a thief and his capabilities in the group because your main character (your true avatar) must be a paladin at all costs?
    Why not having the thief lament to your shiny paladin that he is around to keep the conscience of the paladin clean? Or even playfully refusing to unlock a door (for a moment) to make the player sweat for a moment?
    There are endless opportunities to make something like this work and I agree: It has to be done right. But on which element of a game does this not apply to?

  • Leopold said,

    This is a very interesting discussion. If I recall properly, the original Icewind Dales won “Best Tactical Game of the Year” for one of the major PC gaming magazines. If you think of it that way, building an entire squad to fill specific roles was a form of roleplaying, but not the same as your One True avatar in Baldur’s Gate. Advantage of one: better control of the strengths and weaknesses of the party as a whole. Advantage of the other: more party interaction.

    One problem I have had over the years is what is the purpose of introducing a new (fully voiced, well fleshed-out) NPC more than 1/4 of the way through a game? You’ve already started leveling up the existing NPCs to suit your concept of a party, your preferred sytle, and to cover the weaknesses of your PC, probably filtering your swag to accomplish those ends. What is the likelihood of disrupting your party to take in the new NPC?

  • manic roper said,

    I don’t have a firm opinion on rolling an entire party, but I think it’s better in almost every circumstance that you get to roll your main character.

    When people talk about Dragon Age (1) or WoW or NWN2 they get a special glow in their eyes as they eagerly recount the character they had made themselves. You don’t get that with a predefined character – I have next to no emotional attachment to the nameless hero, or the character in Risen or Hawke or Geralt because there’s nothing of me infused into them and 999,999 other players have the exact same character. I think it’s far less engaging.

  • nyxalinth said,

    I hate being railroaded. I hate being told ‘Here’s your character(s), now go out and ‘But thou must!’ quests until it’s time to fight the Big Bad’, and I hate Jrpgs, I hate the tropes and characters and everything about them.

    The only predetermined characters I’ve ever liked have been in Frayed Knights. I played the Pokmor Zang demo a few years ago and had great fun 😀

  • Yoel said,

    Well, I’m currently in pre-production with a group of fellow college students for a jRPG/tactical-RPG hybrid. As in, the battles play like a tactical RPG, but out of combat, it plays like a jRPG (isometric). I’m pretty optimistic about actually making it to a playable state. We’ve got a good group.

    So if we manage to actually finish the game, I’ll have to inform you of it, since it’ll be party-based.

  • Yoel said,

    (We’re also trying from the beginning of the design to make characters and classes/stats independent enough that you can pick your party based on which characters you like without worrying about whether that’ll doom you to combat incompetence.)

  • Calibrator said,

    “The only predetermined characters I’ve ever liked have been in Frayed Knights. I played the Pokmor Zang demo a few years ago and had great fun :D”

    What a sly, sly way to say that Jay is late…

  • Menigal said,

    I hate being railroaded. I hate being told ‘Here’s your character(s), now go out and ‘But thou must!’ quests until it’s time to fight the Big Bad’, and I hate Jrpgs, I hate the tropes and characters and everything about them.

    I imagine that’s a common theme with people who prefer to make their own characters. I wonder how much of it comes from whether people got into RPGs through video games versus pen and paper.

    I should point out that I feel a bit different if premade characters are part of the concept of the game. When you play The Witcher, you know you’re going to be playing Geralt. When you play Frayed Knights, you’ll be playing the Coyote’s characters. It’s far different when it’s supposed to be a more open-world, player-driven story.

  • sascha said,

    @nyxalinth My my, so much hate! How can you live with that? >;)

  • wangxiuming said,

    Good article! I’ve penned a quick response at my blog too.


  • nyxalinth said,

    @sascha I was kind of grumpy that day lol. To reword, I prefer open sandbox games where I create my own character or characters and am not being pushed along a predetermined path. Therefore, I don’t much like Jrpgs, though I recognize that most are very well done.