Organic Character Creation

James Maliszewski has written a very interesting post on his blog about character creation and character death in old school gaming.  What specifically caught my attention was the following:

Characters are only truly born after they’ve survived a few adventures. The kind of detachment necessary to undertake this kind of play is made easier with random generation in my opinion. When you sit down at a table without any preconceptions about the kind of character you want to play and see what the dice give you, it’s a lot less traumatic when that character suddenly dies in play than if you provide him with an extensive background, personality, and goals due to careful thought beforehand.

This reminds me very much of a difference of opinion Delta and I discussed frequently a long time ago when we played 2nd and later 3rd edition together.  This is probably back in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, well before the existence of an OSR or retroclones or the like.  Back then, I really liked to think through a character before sitting down to play him.  Sometimes I would write background, a couple paragraphs and occasionally even several pages.  Point was, I had a solid idea of the character I wanted to play before I even started rolling dice.

Delta had a totally different approach.  He had no pre-conceived ideas of what he would play before starting character creation.  He’d just roll the dice and let that guide him.  His character was very vague at the beginning, but quickly took on a lot of personality.  This was a radical idea for me.  The point we were probably disagreeing on was random rolling vs. point buy character creation, but in retrospect I see our differences were very much new school vs. old school.

In that very long running campaign, Delta played a rather arrogant yet also weakling priest.  Sometimes grating, but always funny, the character was really enjoyable to play with.  The name of the local gaming club I run (Helga’s Heroes) is derived from that character’s name, or at list a mispronunciation of it.  Anyway, point is, the character had legs, survived through the entire multi-year campaign, and was seriously fun to play with.  My characters, on the other hand, I think are much less memorable.  In fact I grew tired of the first one, and orchestrated his dramatic death so I could make a new one.  At the time I blamed the transition from 2e to 3e, but I think there was a bigger inherent problem.

The fact is, by thinking that much about my character before hand, I had played out a lot of the interesting parts of the character before I even sat down at the table.  Indie gamers would say I was playing before we played.  By allowing myself to toy with the character that much ahead of time I had already done the most interesting stuff I would ever do with the character, and unless the DM played into that background material and twisted it in interesting ways, the character would generally feel pretty flat.  Sometimes a DM can do that sort of thing, but it’s difficult, especially when you have a table full of players.  How do you play into one character’s background without ignoring the rest?

I’ve since come around to Delta’s way.  While I do allow my players one stat swap after rolling 3d6 straight for their stats, if I were playing at my own table I wouldn’t even do that.  I let the rolls inform what the character is.  More than just the rolls though, I let the game inform who my character is as we play.  By doing this, every game is always about my character, because my character is about what happens when we play.

Back in the 2e days (I’m talking mid 90’s now) I used to rail about the absurdity of level based systems.  It made no sense to me.  But now I see that levels are a direct game mechanic expression of this kind of organic character development.  Your character changes over the course of play, both his personality and his statistics.  In and out of game changes each reinforce the other.

Anyway, clearly I’m a believer now.  I love letting the game build my character.  I can’t imagine going back to the other way.  On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if my opinion made such a 180 turn over the past 15 years, what will the next 15 years hold?

3 thoughts on “Organic Character Creation

  1. When you sit down at a table without any preconceptions about the kind of character you want to play and see what the dice give you, it’s a lot less traumatic when that character suddenly dies in play

    This is exactly why all of character creation in Warhammer FRPG is random – you’re going to die, so be as unattached to your character as possible! 😉

    I find it amusing that a lot of these things you’re “suddenly” discovering are things that I’ve thought since I started playing. I wonder if that’s because I came to roleplaying much later than you did?

  2. OK, don’t take this the wrong way, but I think why you find this so amusing is because the range of RPGs you play is so narrow. All things considered, Warhammer RPG 2nd Edition is a fairly old school style game. Only the skills and combat actions have a reasonably new-school feel to them. Ultimately, Acheron took a fair amount of stuff from first edition Warhammer RPG (even more old school than second), and those two games I think are your major exposure to roleplaying. So I think you’ve always been an old school player, despite only starting playing fairly recently, but long enough ago that old school didn’t have that designation.

    Me, I caught the very tail-end of the D&D golden age, and through high school I was a silver age D&D kid. I bought full force into everything TSR told me, and played a lot of 2e and 3e D&D. You never liked those systems, and I eventually fell away from them myself, but it’s taken me a long time to figure out what it was about them that I didn’t like. The OSR I think has given a focus to my thoughts on this stuff.

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