It occurs to me that we’ve never talked about a thing that almost all RPGs do.
Almost as soon as you start playing them, you create a character – an avatar that will be ‘you’. It’s a core assumption of most RPGs. It can be hell for newbies to make what is in their head transfer onto a sheet, but it gets easier, and ‘character’ is the among the most recognisable of RPG concepts.
What you may or not be aware of is that the process of character creation is a framing device. It shows us as players what the game cares about, how we are supposed to navigate it and what is likely to be important going forward. I think this incredibly important for us as GMs and players. We can learn a lot about what we are supposed to be doing or not doing by examining the resources available to players.
So I’m going to look at character creation systems and show you what that means. Even if we don’t play these systems, we should be looking at what they are doing, in case we want to borrow them to reframe the thought processes of a campaign we plan to run.
Mork Borg: Invention From Choas
Mork Borg is somewhere between old school RPG and artpunk fever dream, its character creation process is no different.
You either roll a random character class with a set of random abilities or forgo character class and just roll randomly. Then you’re supposed to make sense of the random collection of stuff you’ve been handed which can range from “I am a disinherited noble with an arrogant talking horse” to “I own a small dog and a couple of arcane scrolls, so I guess I an a canineomancer?”.
This sort of anarchy gives players a few clues to the way the whole game works – It has a lot of randomness, this universe is unfair, and you will just have to deal with it and that everything will come together if you continue to be clever and resourceful. As a beginning, the game introduces itself well.
It also builds you into the setting automatically. You don’t need to come up with a twisted backstory for your rogue if you roll “I was raised by Rats in the gutters of Grift”. It not only tells you that this is a thing that exists in setting, but it also tells you the city it happened in. This tells us that if we end up in Grift, we are likely to run into sentient rats at some point.
The character creation has told the player a piece of game information without them having to leaf through a massive setting guide and then plugged them into the mood and story of the setting.
If you compare this to the random generation tables in the Xanathar’s guide supplement for D&D which are set up for a more generic experience that you can adapt to any setting, we can see a difference in what each game is attempting to give players and GM’s to work with. In D&D, the mechanics are set up for you to make your own experience without any boundaries – Mork Borg is interested in capturing a certain feel.
It should also be noted that Mork Borg’s process is brief. This combined with the randomness means that while players like playing these oddball characters, they aren’t tied into expectations and backstory the way they would be from a character that took an hour to make. Which is good because Mork Borg is unforgiving and dangerous – it will kill this character if you aren’t quick enough, so it makes it easy to make a new one.
When I recently had a near TPK happen in a Mork Borg game, the players simply laughed for ten minutes and then spent 15 minutes rolling a new party, and we started a new story. The game’s character creation facilitated the ease of the loss and the ease of acquiring new ‘heroes’.
Vampire: Deep Points
While I am not qualified to speak on modern Vampire: The Masquerade, the original World of Darkness game lines had a point-buy system that meant you had to consider every characteristic of a character when they made them.
Are they a charming personality or simply attractive? Is their cleverness raw wits or book-learned intellect? Are they an expressive person or do they have a single dot in law because they studied legal classes at a college level? Do they have close friends or a network of contacts that disappear when it gets tough? Are they in control of their inner self?
All of these characteristics have a mechanical measurement during character creation, considerations that you might not think too hard about in other games.
By giving you a resource and then presenting you with various ways to spend them, these games made you start to ask questions about them.
Often questions I get about character creation when I dust off vampire books are not “how can I get this power” but “I think about my character in [this specific way] do my choices make that true?”
It means that once you assign all the dots, you have this picture of a person, ready to walk into. It’s my observation that many Masquerade character concepts (in the second & revised edition at least) survive contact with the game a bit better than a standard D&D character who is often not quite what the player had in mind.
Also, by including stats we hadn’t considered before, the game is trying to tell us what it is about. The game has mechanised Conscience and Self-Control then told us that those things constitute our humanity. If we listen to that mechanic alone, we realise the game wants us to take time over questions of morality.
Beyond The Sheet
Looking at both of these processes we see there are different ways to go with the character creation, some leaning into deep thought about a character you hope not to lose, others opening full gear on what is fun to play right now and worrying about everything later.
The trick is to work out what you want from a game and add that process to your game.
For example, what does it do to D&D if you throw out the alignment system and instead bolt a morality system like Vampire on to the game, with players falling to corruption via their actions in game rather than how they measure up to a random alignment category that they can change with little/no consequence? That’s a game with different goals.
It would be worth taking a look at some character sheets, see what they offer if you can understand a mechanic on them and what it would do to bolt it to another game. If you come up with any good ideas, stick them in the comments.
Next time, we are going to continue looking at a character creation mechanic that taught me a really important GMing lesson about the relationship between choices at character creation and the ongoing story.
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