Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Creating Characters: Lifepaths, Carrots, and Flaws

I've been speaking with some friends about creating characters lately, and my thoughts on the matter are changing a little.

I've definitely been in games where people portray rather flat characters. And I've seen a variety of mechanics in different games (Vampire and the other WoD games, Fading Suns, D&D, etc); none of them completely eliminates PCs who are bankrupt of all personality.

What would help this though? Well, some players are probably beyond help. Or, they're at least more than a simple trick or two away from a character with goals and motivation and personality. I've also seen people improve after playing for a while with different groups. It can happen.

Let's assume there are some remedies for flatcharacteritis. What are they? We can see some in character creation. Some games, like Fading Suns and Burning Wheel, have life paths. So you actually grow a character from cradle to the first adventure. Were you poor or wealthy? A city boy or a country kid? The priest who ministers to a flock will have different abilities than the monk in the abbey. Reign does this with a random roll system, so you have important events but you have to structure them into a story. But its all the same sort of approach: building a background and giving mechanics for it. This approach is nice because you get it all done right away

Another aproach is to have carrot and stick rules. So you may be rewarded (often with roll bonuses, XP, or action/karma points) for sticking to your philosophies or punished for violating them. This approach helps to enforce things during play, but actually says little about the character's actual background.

Another interesting approach, found mostly in point/skill type games (think World of Darkness) is to give bonus points for taking afflictions or flaws. You might gain some points for selecting an enemy, a disability, etc. Flaws also give a character those types of story hooks, and are a bit of a combination of the Lifepath and Carrot/Stick approach.

D&D, however, lacks any of these sorts of approaches. In fact, the class system can even limit growth, because once you're a wizard you're basically a wizard for life. You're certainly an elf for life. So a class-based game almost necessarily gives up some flexibility for things like ease of character creation (hey, little to no story required) and some game balance (At least in 4e, I know my bard will at least be competent, if not optimal). The 4e backgrounds were really nothing of the sort, and things like paragon paths and themes don't speak to your past too much.

How could character creation include background info in D&D? Life paths would be hard. You just don't have that many skills and choices to make a difference there. Plus, if there's little to no mechanical benefit, you can easily ignore any sort of backstory you created. An Affliction/Flaw system is likewise not likely to result in deep backgrounds and PC motivations. Maybe accepting a rival would give a bonus feat or training in another skill, but again, without a finer-grained point system its hard to have a detailed flaw system. That leave the carrot/stick method.

One thing I particularly like about the carrot/stick method is that it could be tied to different things. So first and second edition had class-based ways for characters to earn bonus XP. Like thieves stealing treasure and mages casting spells. This could easily be transported into D&D, though it has some implications for the XP tables in general, as we return to uneven advancement for characters. The rewards could also come in the form of action points, or something like that. Controlling when you get to roll twice for an attack, or spend your second wind might really give people an opportunity to look for these carrots. The problem comes with how to deal with sticks, but this may not actually be a problem at all. I'm a little less than keen on the DM punishing PCs/players for their choices, and the DM has a lot of things to track without worrying about using sticks. So what if we just used Carrots?

I think Reign gets the Carrot pretty right with its Passions system, which is clearly related to the Unknown Armies equivalent. You three things you're keeping an eye out for (that seems to be a manageable number) and you get a bonus while following your passions. Reign also uses a problem system, which is a bit of a mix between Sticks and Flaws. Rather than giving you bonuses at character creation, you gain bonus XP when your flaws come into play. I think it could be patched up a little though.

What if the Problems weren't things like peg leg (ok, maybe that could be an option) but focused on the ones like stupidly forgiving or hated enemy? These could be tied a bit more into your background (and whatever life paths or random rolls used to generate a background). So the Carrots and problems that you use in-game are explained in your background. You've just got 3-4 of these things total, so its not overwhelming. A specific class or race could give you an extra maybe even (I'm thinking like Berserker rages) or give you a range of choices to pick from (All wizards need something related to their master or academy, etc).

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