D&D: Dynamic Character Creation  

Posted by Unai in

En español aquí

If you see this in front of you, you should tremble.

If you're anything like me, you tremble because of the excitement. Excitement because of the need of filling those blanks and of the impending beginning of an adventure. It's an emotion not unlike an artist's upon an empty canvas or a reader's when opening a book for the first time.

However, I guess that for most mortals, those of you who have never played tabletop roleplaying games (and even many of you who have), you tremble for pretty different reasons. It's a reaction I've seen many times in people for whom roleplaying games sound interesting but are afraid of their enormous complexity. And that's often very geeky people. And they're right! RPGs are far from simple. They are loads of fun, no doubt about that, but in a game that lets you do whatever you want, rulebooks are going to have to be pretty thick for sure.

It's a three-way challange for players filling their first character sheet — the sheet's overwhelming complexity, feeling intimidated by not knowing the rules of a game in which you know you can do anything, and how slow and tedious it is to fill the sheet (trust me in that it often takes at least a couple of hours). As a regular RPG game director and as a video game designer, I find this problem interesting both because of its practical component, whenever I try to convince someone to play for their first time, and the theorical one, which offers an intellectual challange in trying to solve all three of them.

The standard solution

Obviously, I'm not the first one trying to find a solution to this problem. Roleplaying games themselves usually offer pre generated character sheets. Nowadays, several pre made characters are included in most of the rulebooks, alongisde simple adventures that might serve as an introduction to the game. So it's an easy way out for both the players and the game director — the game's designers themselves have designed an easy and comfortable experience so that players can get used to the system, learn how the rules work and don't waste their time or get bored in the first game session.

This solution's benefits are apparent. All three problems are suddenly gone! The character sheet is still complicated, but it's been filled for you and you no longer feel that you have to understand it absolutely everything to play. No need to know every single rule, it's enough with the director having read the basics; and the adventure has been designed to introduce the gameplay with a nice learning curve. No one has to waste a minute of their time — character sheets are chosen or dealt randomly, and you can instantly start to play.

All of that is really good and I definitely suggest any learning game director (which in RPG argot we call Dungeon Master or DM) that they should use this in their first games. But those of us with a tad more of experience are more ambitious with our adventures. For me, this is not a satisfying solution to use in my games with newcomers.

Pre generated characters do have a couple of problems. Firstly, even if they're usually interesting characters and they have some nice background that makes roleplaying easier, players aren't really going to feel them as theirs in the way that they would if they had made them themselves. Secondly, these characters are most likely only going to be used for a game or two before players feel comfortable enough with the system and want to develop their own characters (or choose not to continue playing, if they happen not to enjoy it much). As a consequence, pre generated characters delay starting an actual campaign where players can feel they're part of the game, the world and the plot.

Therefore, this solution isn't for me. The second one might not be as much of a problem for people who can play every week or two... But in my case, I can only run a Dungeons & Dragons session from monthly to twice a year, depending on the player group (and that's 5 groups of friends right now), so I always try to get them as immersed into the game as I can from as early as I can.

Video games

As I work in the video game industry, it was a natural place to take a look at in my search for solutions. After all, RPGs are one of the main game genres, born directly from the first editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and their elements now reach practically every genre through elements such as experience points and skill trees.

In the first roleplaying video games, character creation was pretty similar from tabletop roleplaying games'. Technical limitations made them simpler, but over the years they ended up being almost the same. And it's still like that nowadays. This is not surprising, as the target audience for these games is not very different: geeks and nerds such as myself, who enjoy constructing characters however we feel like, with as many options as possible, in order to explore a world and live adventures in any way we want to. After games like Wizardry and Ultima in the 80s came others such as Fallout and Neverwinter Nights, with which this style got to its height.

However, not all the games kept that style. At the same time as in the West computers' technical progress allowed digital roleplaying games to get closer to their physical coutnerparts, in the East the simplified RPGs had made their way to video game consoles. From the success of Wizardry and Ultima came forth Dragon Quest first and Final Fantasy following its trail. These console RPGs opted for a different path and evolved in another direction, keeping a simplified character creation with little personalization. This sacrifice allows the developers to know it everything about those characters and so develop more complex, linear and epic stories.

Is it surprising? The difference on the gameplays of Japanese and Western RPGs is the same as the two styles I've mentioned for tabletop RPGs. Western RPGs are like traditional tabletop games and allow customized characters and more complex and immersive worlds. Japanese RPGs are like pre made tabletop adventures, offering a more accessible experience and focus on a thicker plot over which developers have more control.

In the 21st century, both trends have often mixed in several ways. They have evolved and grown branches and they have been mixed with other video game genres. This helps in our quest for making character creation for new players easier.


Let's tackle them one by one. Problem #1: Overwhelmingly complex systems. Solution: Class systems and Skill trees. Character classes have been a part of tabletop roleplaying games from their very beginning, but they weren't there as a simplification system, but to offer character archetypes. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft are a good example of this solution. The amount of choices that players have to make goes down to basically two: choosing a class when creating the character, and spending points in one of the skill trees when leveling up. And that's pretty much it. Everything else is either done by the game itself (such as abilitie scores) or it's straightforward (such as equipment).

This works very well in tabletop roleplaying games, specially when the players are used to video games. In fact, there's a lot of tabletop RPGs that use this nowadays. But in games that don't have this system, an experienced Dungeon Master is able to create a similar system. For example, in D&D 3.5, instead of allowing players to chose a Feat from a neverending list of feats every three levels, the DM might choose the most appropiate ones for the character and let them choose among just two or three each time.

Let's continue. Problem #2: The boring process of creating a character. Solution: Simplify the early steps a lot. Western RPGs needed a solution for this as well. The amount of money being moved in the industry is damn too large to let the character creation, the first step in a game, bore most of the players. Let's look what games such as Mass Effect, or practically any work by Bioware, do this. Even though there's several elements to customize, players can get pre generated options in a lot of them. Every single option has an optional default value and almost the whole character can be defaulted, other than the character class. Further on, as the game progresses, players will still get the option to either upgrade characters manually or by using defaults.

The same can be done in a tabletop RPG — simplify the character creation and let the players do it in a more customized way as they learn more about the system. For example, as the DM, don't give money to the players at the beginning, choose what equipment they'll have at the beginning, and let them find some a couple of hours into the game. This makes one less obstacle for starting the game as soon as possible.

Finally, we face problem #3: Rules are intimidating. Solution: A tutorial. This is something we can learn from almost any proper video game from the last two or three decades, not only RPGs. I'm going to use The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as an example just because I'm playing it (again) right now. When OoT starts, you can do little more than moving around town and talking to people. The first villagers you talk to explain how to do more actions, such as jumping, lifting and throwing rocks, and crawling through holes. Soon, your character gets a shield and learns how to use it; and as a reward for doing so, he also gets a sword and can practice fighting against monsters. It's a tutorial, which are often frowned upon, but this one not only flows organically with the experience, but it also spans the whole game. This is because during the whole game you keep unlocking new skills and items that you use in new ways.

I like doing the same in tabletop roleplaying games. Before I give players freedom to start doing whatever they want, I make them go through a few trials that'll teach them the base mechanics: ability and skill checks, saving throws, basic combat, etc. I also give them as soon as I can situations where they are eased into practicing roleplaying, talking to non-playing characters, or where there's not a clear way to move forward, in ways that they can discover how to solve those on their own and how much freedom of choice roleplaying games give you. It might take half of the session to end the tutorial phase, but by that time players will feel confortable enought for the real game to start.

So, here they are. Three solutions that besides getting rid of those problems, fit together perfectly. I was pretty satisfied with them and I had scheduled a game in a couple of weeks with a group of 7 players, al but one of whom had never played tabletop RPGs or had only played once. The only thing I needed was a bit of inspiration to put the three solutions together and try them out...

The Inspiration

Dynamic Character Creation

1st Step: Base Character
Character concept, Ability scores, first Skill points

The first thing I did was to explain the Abilities to the players, as they are Dungeons & Dragons's primary stat. In this case, it's Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. As soon as each of them was clear to the players, each of them assigned points to each one. However, instead of rolling dice or something of the like, I gave them pre established scores that they could assign as they pleased: 8, 10, 10, 12, 12 and 14. They are not too high, but later on I'd give them some more. Once the Abilities and their modifiers where ready, we filled all together a couple more of the character sheet elements, such as the hit points (which we did as 10 + Constitution modifier, because we still didn't have classes and because I don't like using dice for the first level hit points).

After that, I gave each of the players a fixed amount of points to spend in Skill scores. Here I gave them more freedom, with most Skills available as options. Later on, I think it'd have been better to limit their options with the Skills as I had with other stuff, or at least give them some Skill sets. Otherwise, it's still a bit long and boring, which is exactly what I was trying to avoid. But it didn't occur to me in the little time I had to prepare the game. Next time, I'll do it based showing them instead those Feats that increase two points in two Skills at the same time. That would reduce options to half, and elements to chose to a fourth.

Done properly, everyone can have a base character with Abilities and Skills in about 10 minutes. They're just normal humans, with no spells, no weapons, no extraordinary abilities... But they already have some personality, they're different from each other, and they're ready to have an adventure.

Obviously, this first step is much easier if you know beforehand what each player is aiming their characters to be, and that's more difficult for first time players. I myself like to help them by giving them each a 'secret' or 'mission' that they'll have to hide from other players. Some examples might be "you have an animal companion, but if it dies, you lose a level", or "you're a time traveller, find this person and kill him", or "your character belongs to an ecologist organization trying to protect turle dragons; you'll get a +1 moral modifier to your rolls if you give at least 5 pamphlets per session to NPCs, or a -1 otherwise". This gives depth and perks to the characters, it helps players to roleplay and to take the game more seriously, and a good DM can even use it to introduce elements that are going to serve the plot further on.

2nd Step: The adventure begins
Dice rolling checks, plot, roleplaying

In this campaign, characters began by spending a day... in a theme park! They went through a series of small tests or minigames that gave the best or luckiest of them plastic coins (which will later happen to be the currency in the fantasy world they're going to end up in, of course). A strongman game was a Strength check (Ability checks). A treasure hunt was a Search check (Skill checks). An archery game was a ranged attack roll (attack rolls and damage). And an ice-cream eating competition was solved through a Fortitude saving throw (saving throws).

After players had learned all the basic dice rolls in a fun and interactive way, we went on to a narrative part where I moved the characters from one situation to another, as in a video game cutscene. Many prefer not to use this kind of resource as it could seem to limit the players' agency. But I like to use one at the beginning of each session and another one at the end, as it helps with to set each of our not-so-often games, it reminds players of what was going on, and it helps the plot advance (my way). So in this game, the characters were riding a rollercoster that took them to a medieval fantasy world through a magic portal. The diabolic Venger and his goblin army captured them and locked them in a cell in a dungeon.

This is where I gave them their agency back. Each of the players could describe their character to the others and they could start the roleplay. They can talk to each other, they can try to bribe the guards, they can explore de cell, they can try to find some way out... Most of the times I start campaigns the same way. I let them go on and on until they seem to have understood that they can do whatever they want, and had nothing else to say or do.

3rd Step: Advanced Characters
Interaction with NPCs, Character Classes, items

Some kind of magical smoke filled the cell where the future heroes were trapped and a little man appeared out of nowhere, the Dungeon Master. After talking to the player characters and giving them some information about the world they were in, he aided them by conjuring some magical items and offering one to each player.

Each of this items was represented by a card where I had written several benefits: more Ability and Skill scores, a Feat or two, some special abilities, spells for some of them, and a couple of weapons or armour. Simplified Character Classes!

Cada uno de estos objetos, en la partida, era una tarjeta con una serie de beneficios: más puntos de característica y habilidad, una o dos dotes, alguna aptitud especial, en algunos casos hechizos y en otros, propiedades de armas o armaduras. ¡Clases de personaje simplificadas!

In our game, the 7 players would choose 7 out of 9 objects. A magical sword and an axe, both with elemental damage and Fighter Feats; a shield for a Paladin; gloves and cloak for Rogues; a Ranger's bow; a Bard's lute; a staff for a Sorcerer; and a grimoire for a Wizard.

A this point, the game's pacing slowed down a bit because I had to explain each player all the details of each one's magical item. But it's just after an interactive scene and with a better knowledge of the rules than before starting, so it's more enjoyable. Once this step was done, we had more advanced characters, totally different from each others and with clearer group roles.

4th Step: Action!
Agency, combat, equipment

With the magical items / Character Classes ready, characters were now ready to get out of the cell. At least half of the classes had some way of opening locks (via the Open Locks skill, or the Open/Close spell, or just using the Fighter weapons). So far, roleplaying had been for fun and for learning. There was actually no way of getting out of that cell. But from now on, the players' actions would have consequences in the game world.

Soon thereafter, characters fought two goblins in their first real combat. Players were introduced to turn-based combat, Iniciative, attacking and getting attacked, etc. It was an easy combat, but the characters only had a couple of weapons and it was their first fight, so it was still exciting and it had an aura of danger around it.

The goblins died fast enough and I made sure that the characters got access to a nearby room which was actually an armoury. There, they could find several simple weapons and armour. Not a lot to choose from, but enough so that they could fulfill the final step in character creation and feel they were now ready for anything I would throw at them.

And that's how my test with Dynamic Character Creation ended. It lasted some three hours and it was therefore over half of the game session, but it was... fun! I managed some unexperienced players to create characters in a fun way. While doing so they also gradually learned the game rules, and experienced a story, and I'm confident they didn't feel intimidated by the rules at almost any point. Suddenly they had filled their character sheets with numbers that they understood.

The game session wasn't over yet, so we still played for a couple more hours. It was really fun, but I've already written a lot for this post. The important thing is that by the end, everyone was smiling and remembering anecdotes from the game. They had had fun and we went out to drink some beers.

This entry was posted on miércoles, agosto 05, 2015 at 19:53 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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