At one time or another, everybody’s probably been struck by the three game killers: holidays, summer, and shiny new games. I’ve certainly seen my share. In my experience, however, there’s another one that I’ve seen prevent games from starting in the first place.
In RPGs, Character generation is sort of a bottleneck through which all games must pass. Even in a oneshot with pre-generated PCs, there’s a certain amount of time necessary to become acquainted with the background, personality, and mechanics. How can we get through it without bogging down the game?
We all want a character that fits our concept for the game. Spending more time on a character might let us find that inspirational background hook, and the perfect mechanic. Then again, it might also just delay the game, or keep us from other pursuits that could be just as fun. The trick, then, is to find the best character in the shortest amount of time.
Perhaps the simplest solution, here, is to use a character somebody else already made. Some games, such as Shadowrun, come with a set of premade templates. I’ve found these to be highly useful, both as a player and a GM. They provide both an easy source of characters, and a useful glimpse into the designers’ intent for the game. I’d encourage all RPGs to make this a standard.
Another option, of course, is the Internet. Just try searching for “[game] pre” in your favorite search engine, where [game] is the name of your system of choice. I’ll bet that, unless you use a more obscure system, autocomplete will give you a wide array of options. We recently used this when my wife decided on the spur of the moment to join in our Pathfinder game. A little googling got us a premade druid, who turned out to be the strangest example of her sect I’ve ever seen in a game.
I’ve heard that goldfish will grow to fit the size of their environment. Whether this is true or not, I’m not sure, but I do know that character generation will expand to fit whatever time is allowed. Players could be given either an hour, or a month, and, either way, they’ll likely still be making tweaks when the game begins.
It’s not that all that time is spent on the whole character. In my experience, 99% of the character is done within a half hour. All the rest of whatever time is allowed is spent perfecting the last 1%.
My advice, then, is to set a time limit. I rarely give out the specifics of a game more than a week or two ahead of time. This is especially true of a oneshot. If you’re making characters in this situation, there should definitely be a limit, and it should be strictly enforced.
Annealing is the process of heating and cooling a material to manipulate its internal structure. You’ve probably seen this process, if only on TV, when a smith heats metal in a forge, and cools it in water or oil. What does this have to do with RPG characters?
Imagine that a character has a temperature. During generation, while you’re making changes in a frenzy of inspiration, the character is at its hottest, glowing red like the iron in the fire. A few sessions in, when it has pretty much settled down into a static set of background and mechanics, it’s cooled to room temperature. Once the game is done, and the character sheet is relegated to the nostalgia folder; it’s gone cold.
The rate at which you cool metal will control its hardness and brittleness, and the rate at which you allow players to change their characters will affect them similarly. It’s pretty much a convention among our group that characters may be relatively liberally retconned during the first couple sessions. This allows for a gradual cooling of the character, ensuring that it fits the player’s concept.
If you make it clear before the game starts that this option will be available, it will take some of the pressure off the generation process. Players no longer have to feel like they have to get things perfect. They can merely get close, and fix things later.
On the Fly
One of the many things I love about the Dresden Files RPG (based on Fate 3.0) is its optional “on-the-fly” character generation. Using this method, players only have to come up with a High Concept, Trouble, possibly a Template, and a couple of their most important Skills. Then, during the game, they can fill in their characters as they go.
In a way, this is an extreme example of a slow cooling mentioned above. It allows the players to build characters that suit both their ideas, and the needs of the game. As the sessions proceed, the players get a better feel for the person they’re playing, and can pick character features accordingly.
This is easily explained in the plot. How many books have you read in which character abilities are hidden, only to be unveiled or discovered later in the story? Maybe the PC has had an epiphany, acquiring a new ability. Maybe they’ve just been sandbagging the whole time.
I think this concept is easily transferable to other systems. If you’re playing D&D Fourth Edition or Pathfinder, simply leave a Feat or Skill slot open until you find the one you want. For purchase-based systems like Shadowrun or Fate, just leave some points unspent.
This is a method I’ve tried a couple times lately. During the first game, the group gets a chance to contribute ideas for character generation. Each character gets a turn as the focus. The player will describe the character concept, and the mechanics they’ve chosen so far. Then everybody else can chip in with their own thoughts. I’m not sure if players have found this useful, but it’s been very helpful for me as GM, since it gives me some insight into both the characters, and the thought process of the players.
We’ve written recently about our oneshots using a hacked version of Dresden Files RPG for a World War II Supers universe we’ve dubbed Atomicorps. In our first session, I left things a little too open, and generation took way too long. For our second game, however, I mentioned that players should come prepared with the required prerequisites for DFRPG’s On-The-Fly method.
From there, we moved on to Brainstorming. Each player described their character, and then got five minutes for suggestions from the group. Anything left unfilled at this point could be decided on-the-fly using DFRPG’s rules.
With four players, this added up to twenty minutes of brainstorming. Adding in the usual gamer overhead (snacks, catching up, Monty Python references), we certainly came in over this. Even if you doubled that, however, forty minutes for creation of four characters isn’t bad, especially given that we had one player who’d never played in the system before.
The result was great. We got down to gaming in record time, and I don’t remember anybody being dissatisfied with their PCs. Given the amount of logos, sketches, posts, and propaganda posters that have come out of these games since, it must have worked out pretty well.
Does your group seem to spend more time creating characters than they do actually running them in a game? Or have you found that perfect method for fair and balanced character creation? Maybe you have that one player at the table who thinks that character creation is an RPG unto itself. (We have six at our table.) Create some discussion by sharing in the comments!