Saturday, April 18, 2009

a pet peeve

Gamer1: One reason I don't play [HERO System/Rolemaster/3e/whatever] is because character generation takes too effin' long.

Gamer2: It only takes me about ten minutes to whip up a new character.

The first gamer is probably misdiagnosing the problem. I've done that before. I think people will put up with longer chargen time if the process is engaging. "Here pick 14 items off of our lame list of poorly conceived skills" is not a method that gets people interested. Generally if asked I'll tell you I like super-short chargen, but in fact I'll roll lifepath style random charts (Traveller, the R. Talsorian systems, etc) for as long as it takes just to find out what kind of weirdo I'll end up with. "I get bored and/or confused making characters for system X" would be a better way to phrase the problem.

Gamer2, whether he realizes it or not, is being a pain in the ass. Reporting how quickly he can make a character does absolutely nothing to solve Gamer1's poorly-worded problem. And it's easy for Gamer1 to see the statement as a veiled denigration of his or her intelligence. "Oh, so I must be some sort of idiot because I take six times as long to make a character." If Gamer2 wants to add something useful to the conversation, he should consider asking where Gamer1 is getting bogged down and/or offer some helpful tips for shortening the process.

Just my 2 cents on an all-too-common situation.


  1. Character creation should be quick if you want to do it and get on with the game ASAP.

    It should also have some scope to take your time over it and make your character really cool if you're so inclined.

    Getting a system to provide both of these options in the same process is something I always go through when designing a game. I think I get close, at least!

    A step in the right direction is removing chargen choices that break your character, as then you can encourage new players to play it fast and loose with their choices, confident it won't cripple their effectiveness in the game.

  2. Jeff, you're smart.

  3. Ok, I got another thing I want to say:

    I think player 1 types get upset when it takes them a real long time just to get to "normal". That is, they have to fiddle with charts and systems and percentiles for an hour just so they can have "a guy who carries a sword and is good at fighting".

    Also, I think player 1 types get worried when the system seems to suggest that if they do character generation "wrong" SOMETHING HORRIBLE WILL HAPPEN. Like, certain systems give people the feeling "Oh, sorry, you didn't buy the Breathe Oxygen skill"

  4. I always liked character generation nearly as much as playing. We'd all sit around the table, or the living room and talk, drink, throw cheetos at each other. Nobody was ever really in a rush to get the game going if we didn't have characters all ready to go.
    I think it sort of made a differance if it was a store bought module, or a home made campaign. We usually treated purchased modules as one-offs, and just did quick and dirty character generation, or just went with the pre-gens.
    Characters made for the house campaign were made with alot more care and detail.
    Not that they lived any longer.

  5. Karizma8:30 PM

    I was worried that the abnormally lengthy CharGen of the game system I use would put off my group of newbie players, but despite the time-consumption, they enjoyed making *their character*.

    I play Rolemaster actually, and CharGen really can be a pain in the butt if you don't feel like it.

    Something I wonder about is the difference between games with Quick chargen and slow chargen. With Quick, I assume that there's little emotional investment at first, but character death is less of a hassle because Player can whip up a character and re-enter the game before the session's over. While Lengthy chargen has player investment from the get-go, with the risk of losing something "valuable" to the player, and keeping him left out for the remainder of the game.

  6. If you are talking about GURPS then player #2 will almost always reply with "Just buy the character building program". Which only infuriates player #1 even more who typically responds with "WTF should I need a computer program to build a character?"


  7. The "character investment" angle has struck a weird chord with me ever since I first heard it.

    You can roll up Fighter #1 for OD&D, or a similar game in 5 minutes. Then the player can spend half-an-hour or more detailing everything from his PC's hair color and style to his catchphrases and highlights of past life. Does this not count?

    Why is it that "emotional investment" is only brought up to defend chargen systems which are lenghty due to their complexity, vast array of choices, customization possibilities or a mix of the above?

  8. "Gamer2, whether he realizes it or not, is being a pain in the ass. Reporting how quickly he can make a character does absolutely nothing to solve Gamer1's poorly-worded problem."

    I think the implication is that Gamer2 has a great deal of experience with the system. It's not necessarily an insult.

  9. Anonymous10:21 PM

    Since I've started in this hobby I've done everything from the "roll 3d6 six times and pick a class" style of game to 5 different editions of Hero/Champions.

    Chargen is, in the end, a player preference based, in my experience, on how much actual roleplay goes on and how long the player expects to live. When I played OD&D, we rarely went beyond picking name and class. Why expend a lot of time on someone who may die with a single hit on the first adventure.

    However, in my Champions campaigns, I generally devoted the first two sessions to chargen, and this didn't include further phone calls during the week from players who wanted to tweak something. Characters rarely die and what you created was what you generally were stuck with for a considerable time. So players wanted to make sure they got it right.

    And I don't know what player2 was drinking, but I've never seen a Hero system character made in ten minutes, and I do use Hero Designer.

  10. I think the implication is that Gamer2 has a great deal of experience with the system. It's not necessarily an insult.It's not that it's an insult as such, but that it's dismissive of 1's difficulty. 2 should be saying "I know how the system works, would you like some help?" but is instead coming across as superior and arrogant.

  11. The other problem is an inexperienced player building a character for an open framework system like Hero has no idea what a good character looks like. How much damage is a decent amount? How high should defenses be? Should I buy reduced endurance or a higher recovery?

    It can be daunting for those not familiar with the system (and even some that are). Out of the players in my group, about a third have no interest in playing Hero or GURPs because it is so complicated.

    On the other hand different players would gripe at how restrictive d20's class/level system was.

  12. Personally I'm with you on greatly preferring a randomized, mini-game kinda approach to character generation. (Hell, I spent the last seven posts on my own blog obsessing about a quick D&D one).

    I always found on the Hero-style character generation that you face that phenomena put out by the book "The Paradox of Choice"--that a bewildering list of options tends to make people have less informed decisions and feel less satisfied with them.

  13. Hey, it depends on the game I expect to be playing.

    If we're playing a one-off, or I expect my PC to be killed in the first few sessions, I want to create him in a few minutes, if he's strength 18 or 8, it's cool either way.

    But if I expect to be playing a PC for the next few years, I have no problem spending a few hours creating backstory before I even come to the table, and I want a lot more control over his stats.

  14. For me, if my D&D character can't be up and running within 10 minutes, I'm doing it wrong. Or in the case of more recent versions of the game, the game is doing it wrong.

    For other games, it depends. Random gonzo sub-games are awesome, and are great for super-hero and post-apocalyptic mutation games (or both in the case of TMNT). Narrative, use the group to help make your character type methods, as in Everway, are also great.

    But I really can't stand big bunch a points, pick a ton of stuff off a list type char gen. I just find it tedious.

  15. I think another, perhaps unstated, problem that Gamer 1 often has is that new players (from my experience, at least) seem to equate the complexity of character generation with the complexity of the game itself; essentially they are thinking "if making a character is this much of a hassle, imagine a combat/vehicle chase/the magic system/in this game, etc.

  16. Just to make sure - we're talking about Gamer #1 and #2 creating a character from the same system & edition, correct?

    'Cause I'd hate to be called a schmuck if I pointed out that OD&D chargen takes 'WAY less time than 3rd Edition D&D. I mean, as a rule, random chargen does take a lot less time than point-allocation, if only for the fact that you don't have to take time to make sure your totals are balanced.

  17. There is one RPG I play a lot that has an involved chargen system, but high character mortality - Pendragon. This causes real system shock to my players. Now I have the first session just be chargen, and have them make 3 characters, so that they have two waiting in the wings.

  18. I've spent the last couple of weeks and the last few columns I've written debating the same sorts of things in my head.

    I'll definitely agree with the posters who say it depends on the sort of game you're playing in. For a "casual" game, chargen should support the "we've got nothing better to do, let's roll up some PCs and get cracking" mentality. For a more involved game, where you're looking to play weekly for the next year or two, some (not all) players and GMs like the idea that chargen should be a more involved process (this fits in with the idea mentioned that the more time chargen takes, the less players feel their PC is "disposable" and the more they'll "take care" of the PC during gameplay).

    I'll also agree that systems that allow for more "open" chargen can be intimidating on multiple levels. I remember an article - I think it was in Pyramid - that talked about the "less is more" principle of character generation choices. That one of the problems of overly-expansive chargen systems was that players, without close GM supervision, tended to build PCs in an awkward, haphazard fashion and more often than not overlooked the "must-have" skills or took various widgets and tidbits that were either counter-productive to each other or just made no sense.

    I can certainly relate to this. My Rolemaster GM still has my first RM PC, and looking at him as compared to the last RM PC I built (only a couple of years ago, for a game that never got going), it was shocking how much more capable the new PC was since A) I knew more about how chargen works, and B) the GM and I sat down and very carefully drafted out the PC and examined every stage of character creation.

    I don't think RM is a bad system or that their chargen is poorly designed, but I do think it's true that there are a lot of systems out there that demand a high level of understanding from the player and assistance from the GM in order to "design" a PC to the sort of specs that the game assumes you have - meaning that if task resolution / combat lethality assumes X level of competency in PCs whose specialty involves X, and your PC is nowhere near X because you didn't buy packages A and B and skill bonus C, that's not good.

    So if your game is meant to be played after three beers, two slices of pizza, and a long day at work, and a typical one-shot is about 3 hours of nonstop adventure and action, your chargen should probably take about 5 minutes and not involve a whole lot of charts or math or "formulas". If chargen for your favorite system is more involved in that, BUT you still want to play it in the above manner, that's where the GM needs to step in and have 90% of the book-keeping already handled - perhaps with "templates", perhaps with a whole binder-load of pre-gens, or perhaps with just a lot of "take A, B, C, and D, no Es or Fs, and only two Zs" to keep things moving along.