25 February, 2016

What does character generation say about a game?

Over the years there has been plenty of discussion regarding the way new players approach a game, and how the first interaction they have with a game typically involves the way characters are created. If the character generation system is quick and dirty, there is an expectation that characters will be expendable, or maybe that the characters will be developed further in play if they aren't expendable. Conversely if a character generation system is long and complex, there is an expectation that the characters will not be expendable because players won't want to go through the whole process of generating another character after a single encounter.

There have been plenty of games over the years that have ignored this, and have been ridiculed due to it. One example that comes to mind exists in various incarnations of Traveller, where a complex life path system may see incredibly detailed characters come to the table, only to die en route to a mission or trade encounter (hell, some characters don't even survive character generation). Another example is HoL which parodied this notion by making an incredibly over complicated system for character generation.

Another element to this comes in the form of the nebulous concept "game balance". Rifts is a great example for a very unbalanced character generation system, where one character might be effectively be a hobo (Vagabond OCC), another character in the same party might possess the most powerful suit of powered combat armour built by humanity (Glitterboy OCC), yet another character might be an alien entity with a completely different set of abilities altogether. In a combat based game, the Glitterboy might be utterly dominate; in an alien world game, the alien might dominate (because the Glitterboy can't get spare parts)...it's pretty hard to see a game where the hobo might be the best character.

There are ways to ensure game balance does occur in a game, or at least to moderate things to ensure the game balance doesn't get too far out of control; "point buy" systems come to mind. Such systems don't completely eliminate balance issues (and there have been many discussions on this over the years), but they do serve a regulatory function. Don't get me wrong, sometimes unbalanced games can be great, you can tell some very specific and interesting stories when there is a distinct unbalance between members of the party; but you need to be aware of this unbalance, and moderate other elements of the session accordingly. Players need to know up front that a game is asymmetrical, and this should be a part of the character generation system.

Which brings us to the reason for my post...

The LARP I've taken over in recent months has stagnated. It uses a simplistic character generation system, because the guys who wrote it had never written a game before (and because numerous people who were involved at the beginning wanted a character development system created ASAP). Over the 18 months the game has been running, the various organisers have added patches to the rules to fix elements that didn't seem to be working, and expand possibilities where things were lacking in the game. The game has grown organically from where it started, and while some players are content to go with things as they are, others are grumbling. For a while it was the largest regular LARP in the area, but in recent months disgruntled individuals have created their own LARP groups (some focusing more heavily on combat with minimal roleplaying, some focusing on stories for smaller groups led by a GM while other players spend most of their game portraying NPCs...desperately hoping that they'll be one of the chosen ones able to play their character in a later session).

I'm looking to change things up a bit by exploring the historical background of the game in a series of sessions over the next few months. But to give this an "epic historical" feel, I need a point of difference for the characters in this era. The existing system is basically a loose modular point buy system, a bit of a free for all where players can pick and choose what they want to get a character that's not quite what they're after (then in theory, during play they can aspire to their goal character, and move on from there). To give this new set of games a different feel, I'm thinking of throwing out the point buy system, and simply applying a range of templates with a few customisable options. I guess I'm thinking of this in a Star Wars perspective. The original trilogy is filled with heroes who are picking up pieces from the past to forge their identities, there is no formal Jedi training academy, the rebels are forced to learn things for themselves and from their fellow rebels, scoundrels and smugglers learn all sorts of things on the fly and there is certainly no formal training school for them. In the "prequel" trilogy, there is a formal Jedi academy, there are multiple military groups who each train their members in specific styles and arts.

I'm also working to make the character generation system easier because the games will be spaced out over decades of in-setting timeline. The standard game doesn't allow characters to die unless the player specific wants to tell a dramatic storyline where death is a climax to their arc, this new game will see character death or retirement as a feature (roll a die at the end of a session, if the die result is less than the number of times you've died during the game, then you may retire the character or the next game will be your last). With the period between each historical event, players will see rapid acceleration of their character development. Instead of incremental change where a single minor upgrade might apply each game, or where a major upgrade might take multiple game to achieve, this new game will see characters earn multiple upgrades from one game to the next, rapidly ascending to heroic levels, or dying in a blaze of glory along the way.

Once these historical sessions have played out, we'll go back to the regular game with a new perspective, and maybe we'll bring some of those variant ideas back into the regular game.
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