The Peril of Rich Character Creation Schemes

Creating rich, detailed characters with loads of back story is nothing new. It’s the lonely fun that many have written about, regarding character creation and back story as the last moment that a player has full autonomy with her character. However, what is relatively new is a game’s character creation scheme forcing elaborate back story and mechanizing it.

Lately, I’m starting to think that we’re taking this idea too far. This hit me a few months back after playtesting a friend’s game, and after character creation thinking “okay, I feel like I expended all my energy already, and don’t really have much juice left to play.” We played briefly, and I said that after the session.

To illustrate, I’ll stick with games that folks know: Fate. In Spirit of the Century, you have a lengthy character creation process where you came up with a concept of your character’s early years, and turned that into two aspects. Then your character during the Great War, and two more aspects. Then your character’s signature adventure as a Centurion, and two more aspects, followed by twice inserting yourself in someone else’s adventure and generating two aspects apiece.

Many people, including some of the Dresden Files RPG team, noted that people phoned in the last two or three aspects. So when we rebuilt character creation, we started with “come up with one aspect for your high concept and one for your trouble,” and then the five-phase style above but with one aspect each.

After watching people make characters over the last couple years, Lenny & I decided that even that was too much. There were always a couple aspects that were meh, phoned in because they needed to be on the sheet and the game said “don’t worry, you can change those later.” Always a couple aspects that never worked into the game. So when it came time to rebuild character creation for Fate Core, I proposed:

  • Let’s keep high concept and trouble[1]. That’s an easy way to frame a character skeleton.
  • People like the collaborative element being in someone else’s story. Let’s keep the last three phases.[2]
  • One aspect per, so five total.

This decision wasn’t about streamlining the game, though it has that effect. This was about playing with a new idea: let people come up with rich back story on their own terms. And because aspects can be tweaked, it follows with let people mechanize the parts of their back story they want to.

(This decision was also about trimming down character aspects in order to promote creating and playing with scene and other aspects.)

Similarly, in Mythender, I used to have people make four Weapons. Time and time again, I would watch people get excited about their first Weapon, excited about their second, and kinda interested in their third. (Sometimes more interested in their third, as the first two warmed up their brains.) But consistently on the fourth Weapon, people phoned it in and rarely used it.

That was time taken up at the table to come up with something that wouldn’t actually be used. And that’s creative energy expended that would be better used elsewhere. This idea is key if you want to make a game intended to be immediately engaged after character creation. (If you’re making a game where character creation and all that is its own session, then creative fatigue won’t impact play — unless people decide they want to do both back to back, and spoiler alert: they will.)

– Ryan

[1] Which, as the guy who came up with it before working on Dresden, I’ll admit I’m partial to. Originally, I called it “Shtick, Trouble, As-Played-By,” which I should blog about.

[2] Although, that’s actually a hot-swappable module. You could as easily remove those three phases to be about some other dynamic and dramatically change the nature of the group. Perhaps I should blog about that, as well.


2 Responses to The Peril of Rich Character Creation Schemes

  1. Arcane Springboard says:

    I’ve noticed this too.

    In my Torg playtest using the Marvel rules, I setup Distinctions like the Aspects from Dresden, and while there was confusion, I also got a “can we start playing already”?.

    For my 13th Age game, a few of my players didn’t want to pick their One Unique Thing right away. Still haven’t.

    Some players just don’t want a backstory it seems, even though I think the experience is much richer for it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I think you hit on another element of this: it’s one thing to make up a back story. It’s another to then have that back story (a) structurally prescribed and (b) mechanized. Suddenly you’re asked to think about stuff you might not normally be thinking about, and have to answer questions rather than just have them in your mind as you’re playing. And because these choices can relate to character competency (and thus character autonomy), you also have decision paralysis as to whether your back story is *efficient* or otherwise *the right choice.*

      Some players just don’t want a backstory it seems, even though I think the experience is much richer for it.

      That’s not 100% true. I would amend that to “…if they want it to be richer.” And that discounts the richness in playing to discover. I have played amnesiacs for that sense of richness.

      – Ryan