On Character Generation

Posted by The Architect on January - 27 - 2021

So I’ve begun setting up my new game, and one of the first matters I took a look at, as it’s usually the one you also encounter first as a player, is the character generation. Given that I want the player to create a whole party instead of just the main character (as has been custom since Bioware introduced companions with their own background stories and quest lines), the process has even more weight. Turns out that there are quite a number of questions and options that might not be immediately obvious.

First of all, there’s the balance between the impact of character generation and character development, not a trivial matter. For an example of extreme imbalance: if you are unaware of how things are going to develop, the Might & Magic games let you spend quite some time juggling around with your characters’ initial statistics, which will usually assume values between 15 and 25 (at least the ones you care about for the character in question, i.e. perhaps not Charisma for a Barbarian). However, in particular in the earlier games, it doesn’t take all that long until you come across means to raise statistics far beyond those levels; the World of Xeen is probably the most extreme here, with the endgame values of statistics with focused increases easily topping 300 points. Yes, you read that right. So you may follow the standard min-max approach and try to allocate every single one of the randomly generated statistics points optimally… just to find that half an hour into the game, it really doesn’t matter whether your wizard started with 18, 19 or 20 points of Intelligence. Shrug. At least it feels epic.

For an opposite, the first Realms of Arkania game might be a good example. Not only do your characters advance only up to level 6 at most (you can certainly finish the game with level 4 heroes), but the actual effect of level-ups is largely randomized. Your stats and talents do not automatically increase; all you are guaranteed are attempts at increasing, the success of which is determined by the computerized GM, who might just be having a bad day. So you should better invest some effort during character generation to make sure that your heroes already start with a certain level of competence.

That brings us to the next question – what are the factors that the creation process might allow you to manipulate? It turns out that there are some options that the player will sensibly only be able to influence during creation, but not afterwards. Naturally, unless their impact simply translates to an effect on the other characteristics, it will be felt throughout the whole game.

Possible elements affected by character creation:

  • Statistics (Personal stats: Strength, Intelligence etc.)
  • Skills (Trained abilities: Pick Locks, Disarm Traps, Two-Handed Weapons, Alchemy etc.)
  • Perks and Traits (Additional elements, usually yes/no, which further define the characters, their abilities and their personality: Sharpshooter, Diplomat, Natural Healer, Aggressive, Benevolent etc.)
  • Race (Human, Elf, Dwarf etc.)
  • Class (Fighter, Wizard, Thief etc.)
  • Education (may have an effect on any of the previous, be a requirement for certain classes or stand on its own: Blacksmith, Sage, Preacher, Hunter etc.)
  • Origin (may have an effect on any of the previous, be a requirement or stand on its own: Northlands, Mountain Nomads, Nobility, Orphan, Escaped from Slavery etc.)
  • Birthsign (who knows? Capricorn, Virgo and/or whatever the game world offers)
  • Starting Equipment (may be determined by any of the previous factors or by leftover generation points, if the system allows it)
  • Starting Location (this is rare; might also happen if the game has origin stories or allows character transfer from previous games, which might start in a different location than a newly created party; might expose the party to quests, encounters and items that could have an effect deep into the game)

Clearly, these elements allow for some complex interplay, which may also depend on the order they are brought into play. Darklands, for instance, requires the player to essentially create a whole CV for each of the characters, having them go through a complex system of successive educations which determine their starting abilities (…and their starting age: you won’t end up with a 20-year-old bishop, no matter how hard you try).

Which brings us to another point: the actual creation process. While the standard nowadays is a point distribution system, usually with set numbers of points strictly separated between the different parts of the character sheet (20 points for statistics, another 30 for skills, 3 for perks etc.), history alone shows that there are many more options:

  • Random point distribution (a relic from the days when CRPGs tried to emulate Pen-and-Paper-RPGs, but makes only limited sense when players can just reroll)
  • Overarching point distribution (a collective point value for all parts of the character sheet; while extremely interesting on paper, this could make character creation, especially for a whole party, too frustrating for the average player, as it’s even more difficult to get an idea what a good party should actually look like)
  • Situational questions (the player is confronted with a situation and has to make a decision; of course there are again tons of options for this setup: In the Ultima series, the player has to decide which virtue, i.e. moral guideline, to follow – often the honest approach is not the most compassionate one. The questions are then selected in such a way that the player again has to decide between the preferred virtues until one stands as the absolute favorite – and this determines the character class. Daggerfall, on the other hand, simply presents an unconnected series of situations that might take place in the game character’s life, and the way she deals with it, i.e. brute force, thought or sneakiness, determines the starting characteristics.)
  • Simulated education (the character is taken through life’s beginning (?) stages, with the choice of an education path in one stage opening up paths in the next stage and blocking others; taken to the extreme, this might also include random events happening to the character during this time – if I’m correct, there is a game out there that might have the character die due to really bad luck in these education stages already)

There are, of course, sub-options and sub-sub-options for all of these systems. In the later Wizardry games, for instance, you cannot simply choose a race and class for your character – you need to roll (!) a certain number of bonus points to make the desired class even available to the selected race. Too bad that you can only reroll after having finished the creation of the character with insufficient bonus points anyway. A way to test the player’s patience, I guess – it’s astounding what game designers in the ’90s got away with.

One last point regarding “rolling”: the one positive effect it does have is emotional. Rolling unusually high values for stats etc. basically is something like a loot box, with the perceived value rising with the investment, usually time. This does not excuse making the player having to go through a process that will not have any effect on the eventual party anyway – if time has to be spent on random rolls, it should be spent on their evaluation. Usually, this is trivial. The character has six to eight stats, values range from 5 to 20 (or something), two seconds are enough to determine whether the current roll is any good. But what happens if the rolling includes other factors which can’t be evaluated as easily? If the statistics roll also determines some traits, the origin and the starting equipment? Because the range of the possible results will be much harder to determine (unless the player is given a list) and their effect on the gameplay is probably impossible to foresee (what if the equipment might include a strange key that may or may not be helpful in an optional dungeon deep in the game?), players would effectively be forced to accept imperfection to a certain degree. And if the RNG gods generate something they did not expect but that looks somehow great, it might feel like an unearthed treasure, and they might be tempted to keep it, because who knows if it would get any better? Or it might feel frustrating because you never have all the good parts at the same time, and there’s no way you can influence it except clicking “reroll”. Really not sure about this. Might have to try in practice.

Happy crafting!

Categories: Allgemein

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