(This is the twenty-second installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
I’ve been following logical segues from one topic to the other, which means we wound up kind of breezing past the topic of character creation. I’d like to return to that now, because the question of how you make a character for a game is pretty central to any player’s experience.
There are two sides to character generation (or char-gen), the mechanical and the narrative. You might think the narrative comes first: you decide what kind of person you want to play, and then use that to guide your choices for the sheet itself. But in reality, it’s more of a chicken-and-egg kind of situation, because (at least in my experience) those two sides go back and forth in a feedback loop.
This applies even at the beginning level, the initial “who do I want to play?” question. Obviously the answer to that question will be partially constrained by the setting: a Pathfinder game is a bad place for a hard-boiled space marine, and an elven sorcerer won’t fit very well into a Star Wars campaign. You can fudge that to some extent — okay, there aren’t any elves or sorcerers in the Star Wars universe, but maybe you could play a Jedi from an elf-like alien species? — but the further you push it, the tougher time you’ll have making the character work in the setting, because nothing around them is shaped to fit.
But the mechanics step in at the concept level, too. If you’re playing D&D or one of its immediate descendants, one of the first decisions you have to make is your character class. This concept is, quite frankly, the cause of some very bad fantasy worldbuilding: your class is kind of like your profession, but really what it defines is the type of actions you can take, and (above all) what role you’ll play in combat. It’s a rather inorganic concept, and the enforcement of boundaries between different classes (rogues pick locks! fighters don’t play musical instruments!) generally feels artificial. But from a gameplay standpoint, it gives players a guideline for that initial choice, because it helps them see what they’ll be doing with the character. Want to stand on the front lines of combat, whacking away with a sword and taking hits on your shield? Play a fighter. Want to sneak around stabbing people in the back? Play a rogue. Do you enjoy buffing your fellow characters so they can survive fights better? Cleric. Walking tactical nuke? Wizard. Etc. In that respect, classes are very useful.
Not every game has classes as such. White Wolf is notorious for a different approach, which gamers often refer to as “splats;” rather than trying to define what a splat is, I’ll just say that the Houses from Harry Potter are a great example. They’re not so much about mechanics as flavor, the personality types a given group attracts, the ideals it promotes. Vampire: The Masquerade, for example, is all about vampires, but its splats let you decide which strand of vampire fiction you want to emulate. Do you fancy being the urbane and wealthy individual pulling political strings from the shadows? Take a look at Clan Ventrue. Punk-minded street thug having fist-fights in dark alleys? Clan Brujah. Malformed monster hiding in the sewers? Clan Nosferatu. This approach gives you much less guidance in the way of gameplay, because you have the freedom to design a pugilist Ventrue or a political Nosferatu (though playing against type may be more challenging than than going with the grain). On the other hand, it’s much better for players who think in terms of what kind of story they want to tell. If you’re interested in exploring the ennui of an eternal life in which everything grows stale, you know you’re much better off as a jaded member of Clan Toreador than as a Gangrel embracing her inner beast. Whether it’s Vampire clans or Werewolf tribes or Mage traditions or Changeling kiths or Mummy dynasties or whatever, White Wolf has a flavor for you.
Of course, some games don’t have any kind of class or splat; you just make whatever you feel like, picking and choosing from various mechanical options to construct a suitable concept. Others hybridize these approaches: in Legend of the Five Rings, where your character is assumed to have been trained in a specific, named tradition, your school tag operates like your class, so that you can be a bushi (warrior), courtier, or shugenja (priest/wizard). But you’re also a member of a particular clan, which operates like a splat; the Lion are honorable and militaristic, while the Scorpion are sneaky and pragmatic. The cross-section of these two choices determines where your character was trained, and therefore what they’re good at and how they were taught to behave. If you want to play a social character, you’re likely to design a courtier — but a Mantis courtier will be a mercantile bully, while a Phoenix courtier will be a religious nerd. The result gives you a sense of both party role and narrative flavor.
Opinions on this differ, but me, I like having some kind of guidance, rather than a totally open field. It helps even before you get to the character creation stage: when I pick up the rulebook for a game I’ve never played, the char-gen section is one of the first parts I look at to get a feel for the game itself. I’m not enough of a mechanics junkie to care about which dice I’ll be rolling for what, and the “fluff” (bits of fiction included to illustrate the setting and types of stories the system is designed to tell) is rarely well-written enough to hook me on its own, but char-gen shows me the different kinds of experiences I can have with the game. When I browsed through the different school traditions in L5R, I could see the appeal of all the clans (even if some of them were less my personal cup of tea), and the presence of courtiers in every clan told me this was a game that takes playing a social character seriously. Even a first pass through that section gave me three or four seeds that could develop into different characters. With Vampire, on the other hand, I can see the flavor . . . but it just doesn’t inspire me. I’ve played Vampire a handful of times, but never for long, because fundamentally, I’ve never come up with a character I could really get excited about.
When it comes to going from a concept to a character, though . . . that’s another post.