How to make random character generation work?

edited March 2006 in Story Games
So a discussion over on RPG.Net got me thinking about random character generation. Specifically wondering about how to make it an effective part of a system, particularly all your fancy story game type games.

In D&D, random character generation determine a baseline for how effective your character is versus other characters. In a fight between guy with all 18s and a dude with 6s and 7s the guy with bigger numbers wins.

This is one of those parts of the system that was pretty quickly abandoned in mainstream rpgs, for better "balance". And I like the results of that shift, but wonder where else we could take the idea of random elements during character creation. Lots of games use random elements during play, so it's not just the dice getting in the way of creativity. Or is it? Why not use dice in character design?


What I'm thinking right now for how to make this sort of thing work is twofold:

1) The dice don't determine your effectiveness. Whatever is being decided between by the dice, it isn't "Is my character good at what he does (yes or no)?" or "How much control will I have over the game?" Whatver you roll, your character will be efective and competent: it just is telling you something about how or why your character is competent.

2) The dice inspire the player's creativity. They present elements to introduce into your character you may not have put there on your own, but aren't dictating or limiting what your character is or does.

I'm not sure exactly how to achieve these goals, or what other elements you'd need in a game to make random elements in chargen work. how would you do it?

Comments

  • edited March 2006
    I've been thinking about something like Bacchanal, only with character traits rather than other characters involved in the fiction.

    You still have to set your characters goals and sense of self (the flags or other handles) - or it isn't really *your* character - and since you're doing that it doesn't seem to make much sense to randomly generate the rest of the player's tools...

    Of course, that might change if you make the generation/randomness factor into building the character as you go...

    But how different is that really from something like Dogs (eg: normal story games), with its conficts and fallouts decided by the dice? ;)
  • Dogs has random character generation, at least in part.
  • You could imagine random character generation working well if you had attributes like those in Shock: where the value of your attribute just tells you where you lie between two extremes.

    So you roll the dice and 1 means "Very angry" and 10 means "Very placid". The value you get doesn't determine your effectiveness but it does tell you something about your character.

    Graham
  • You mean Accomplishment, Vax? That's a very very minor feature in the grand scheme of things.

    Teapot, I was fiddling with an idea where the dice determine not what your rating in each aptitude is, but they determine the distribution of aptitude across broad categories. So like, you have six attributes and to make a character you get a certain number of six-sided dice (say twenty). You roll the dice and group them by their result. If you have three ones, the first stat in the list is a three. If you have two twos, your second stat is a two. And so on. Maybe add one to all of the stats to avoid zeroes, or not depending on how your system uses them. Point being, though, that you can't get a 'crap roll' that makes you totally useless -- at worst you can get totally overspecialized (I rolled eighteen fours?!?), which is rare, or total lack of specialization (I got three in everything?!?), which is, I think, exactly as rare, statistically speaking.
  • Mr. Teapot wrote:
    I'm not sure exactly how to achieve these goals, or what other elements you'd need in a game to make random elements in chargen work. how would you do it?
    Well, I did random chargen for one of the campaigns I'm currently playing in, a HarnMaster campaign -- so maybe I'm not the right target for your questions. To me, the biggest problem with HarnMaster character creation is that all of the characters were generated independently, so it was difficult to put a party together. Characters were often interesting on their own, but didn't fall together well as a group. Then again, even if we designed PCs it's difficult to get a diverse set of characters believably acting as a group. Really, an excuse should be written into the background to justify close-knit groups of characters.

    Also, there should be a defined procedure for introducing a new character --whether at the start or when a player character is killed. It's not a critical problem, but slightly troublesome.

    I haven't found balance to be a problem, but that's group dependent, I'm sure.

    --------------

    As for other ways to do it. If you're concerned about balance, I think the easiest way is to have a negative feedback somewhere. i.e. If you roll low for attributes, you get a bonus to training, or perhaps just extra Fate Points. For inspiration, I would look at Everway as well as lifepath systems like R Talsorian's Mekton, Cyberpunk and others. The random lifepath generally is purely color, with no effect on the character's stats.
  • edited March 2006
    I am with John. Random does not automatically mean posible unbalance. I see two simple ways to create balance involving randomness in the numbers used for effectiveness during play:

    (a) If you roll high/low in aspects (i.e. attributes) you get a compensation of a different nature (i.e. hero points)

    (b) If you roll high in one aspect of the character you get proportionally low in another aspect (i.e. you group attributes by pairs which will be in opposition for your character, roll once for each pair, you get the number rolled in one of the attributes, and "maximum" - the number rolled in the other)

    (edited to correct presentation and a sentence)
  • edited March 2006

    Well, I did random chargen for one of the campaigns I'm currently playing in, a HarnMaster campaign -- so maybe I'm not the right target for your questions. To me, the biggest problem with HarnMaster character creation is that all of the characters were generated independently, so it was difficult to put a party together.


    I did random chargen for our current D&D game. Any perspective on how it works and how to make it work better is good. As is the outlining of problems that it can lead to.

    Perhaps you could have some table which suggests possible relationships between PCs, to help add to group cohesion. Key it into the campaign gameworld, so an elf and a dwarf don't wind up brothers (or is that just a challenge to explain how that happened? Is one an orphan who was adopted? An elf polymorphed into a dwarf as a curse?).
  • You mean Accomplishment, Vax? That's a very very minor feature in the grand scheme of things.

    But an interesting one to consider. How and why does this random element work for chargen? One key thing here is that no matter what you roll something cool happens. You fail your Accomplishment and you get motvation to do better and a trait. You succeed, you've won and you get a trait. Your character can't be less effective or interesting after your Accomplishment.

    Another bit is the player defined stakes for the Accomplishment. Is there some way to use this in more games? Perhaps the game's character creation is just a series of a few flashbacks in different categories: one Physical, one Mental, one Social, etc. as appropariate to the game. You have a flashback to when your character was trying to accomplish something in each of these realms, and define how it affects you in the present if you succeeded or failed. Then roll off to find whether your success made you cooler or your tragic failure gives you a tormented past to deal with in game.

    How and why else do the Accomplishments work in Dogs, and how can these aspects be applied to other games?
  • Teapot, the discussion that follows my article Creating Characters via Roleplay may interest you along these lines.

    Basically, while framing character creation as scenes is viable for some, some other players need something to start with, to contextualize themselves, to get into character so that they can roleplay in those scenes.
  • Lacuna has an almost completely randomn chargen, and is very well suited for thematic play. The reason it works is that part of the deal of that game is that you don't know who your character really is, so the randomn chargen plays into that nicely.
  • I remember Andy posting something on his blog a while ago about a Japanese game where you randomly generated a memory for your character. Stuff in the vein "When you were a small child, by the side of a lilly pond, you were unable to prevent a beloved enemy from making a fatal mistake." It struck me as an extremely cool randomly generated element.
  • Teapot, the discussion that follows my article Creating Characters via Roleplay may interest you along these lines.

    The discussion certainly does. I had only skimmed through the article because it seemed to me like a half finished version of Fudge on the Fly, but the discussion following it about character investment preplay is interesting, though a bit tangential to this.

    Lacuna has an almost completely randomn chargen, and is very well suited for thematic play. The reason it works is that part of the deal of that game is that you don't know who your character really is, so the randomn chargen plays into that nicely.

    Hmmm... that's relating to the same sort of thing. It's about dicovering your character rather than deciding it. Very interesting. Dogs's Accomplishment and adding traits as you go is sort of similar: does the Dog have the strength to do this? How does this change him? Etc. You don't know these things, even if you created the character. They need to be found out.
  • Possibly relevant to this discussion, if you are going with the "random determination of point on continuum" approach, I can't see why just choosing isn't a stronger option (see Trollbabe)...
  • Because people tend to choose things that they are comfortable with.

    This is often boring.

  • Do the rules push you, or do the rules make you comfortable? :)
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