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Approaches to Character Creation: A List

Josh, who comments here as longcoat000, emailed me with a great question: “how many different kinds of character creation are there?

Not kinds in the sense of rolling 3d6 vs. assigning points, but in the sense of meta-approaches — individual vs. group character creation, background first vs. numbers first, etc.

I didn’t have a ready answer, so I decided to think it through by creating a list. Here’s what I came up with.

Methods of Character Creation

To keep this list from getting bogged down in details, I used “background elements” to mean a combination character concept, personality, flags [1] and character background (history, etc.).

1. Individual creation; numbers first, background elements second. The “traditional” way, enshrined by old-school D&D.
2. Individual creation; background elements first and numbers second. Reversing the traditional approach, this works better for some players.
3. Individual creation, no background elements at all. Suitable only for hack-and-slash games.
4. Group creation; numbers followed by background elements. The traditional approach combined with a discussion about party roles, skill overlaps and tying together backgrounds.
5. Group creation; background elements before numbers. As in #4, but with the focus shifted to matching up backgrounds and connecting the PCs to each other.
6. Pregenerated characters, little or no player involvement. Mainly used for cons and published scenarios.
7. Players create PCs for each other. Technically an option (using methods 1, 2 or 3), but does anyone actually do this?

Reader Contributions

8. Weird exception: Amber Diceless Roleplaying. Character creation in Amber involves players bidding against each other for stats. It’s kind of like a combination of #1 or 2 with #4 or 5. (Crazy Jerome and Alan de Smet)
9. Individual creation, very little background — but with room to grow. A variation on #3, this approach involves developing the PC in the first few sessions of play. (Scott M)
10. Individual creation; pick a miniature, then develop a character around it. “The Gospog” is sort of a variation on #2, with the key difference being that everything starts with the mini. (Gospog)
11. Freeform and mutable. No one makes a character per se. Instead, everything about the PCs can be changed on the fly. I see the theory, but does this approach actually get used? (Walt C)
12. Characters determined by first actions. The party starts in media res [2], and whatever each PC does first determines the basic elements of their character. (Mr. Shawn H. Corey)
13. Development by consensus. A variant on #1 or 2, but at every stage each player needs approval from the group to make their decisions final. (Ben)

Over in the forums, Scott M has started an excellent thread about character creation models [3] — same idea, different approach. It’s good stuff.

As always, I’m sure I missed something! Let’s complete this list together — if you know of a method that isn’t here, tell us about it in the comments.

In his email, Josh suggested that I write a series of posts about the various types of character creation. That’s an excellent idea, but I’d like to have an overview of the various approaches — with contributions from the TT community — before deciding whether or not to write that series.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Approaches to Character Creation: A List"

#1 Comment By Crazy Jerome On September 13, 2006 @ 9:32 am

I’ve never played it, but doesn’t Amber Diceless have a bid mechanic that’s a bit different than the group builds you have listed?

I don’t know of any game that actually uses it, but we ran a one-shot once where we built up various bits of fantasy characters on index cards (using a Fantasy Hero base). The character generation was a combination of random deal, bidding, cajoling, and good natured tom-foolery. In effect, all of us did background/mechanics that we thought were cool. Then we threw them in the pot for anyone to end up with.

#2 Comment By Mercutio On September 13, 2006 @ 9:36 am

I think with the prevalence of the point buy system, at least with the majority of gaming groups I’ve played with and seen, the standard is pretty much number five. Often players will say, “I want to play the meat-shield,” or “I want to play the mage.” Many times the players will hash out roles, ensuring a balanced party for multiple different encounters. After that, they’ll get into the numbers and create characters, working on the actual background story last.

At least, that’s been the bulk of my experience. Very rarely do I see players make characters without interfacing with other players to determine who will cover what role, or if they even feel a particular role needs covering.

#3 Comment By Alan De Smet On September 13, 2006 @ 10:02 am

Amber’s big difference is that player’s bid for their attributes in a sort of auction. (It’s more complex than that, but it’s close enough.0 By necessity, this requires that everyone be present. However, the level of communications between the players (what I think defines the individual/group difference Martin made) varies from group to group, probably with a bias toward individual. Since the game is an auction system, you can’t entirely predict what stats you’ll have, so the game strongly tends toward “numbers first, background elements second”, although obviously people will have some ideas up front. I’d suggest that Amber is typically a type 1 style.

#4 Comment By Gospog On September 13, 2006 @ 10:23 am

You left one method out: Pick a miniature first and then create the character. This is how I typically do it.

Sometimes, I will get a cool character concept in my head, a mental picture of what I want my character to look like. Then I create the character on paper. Then I go back and combine the two into a custom miniature. Usually this is a miniature conversion, but sometimes it’s a sculpt from the ground up. Very rarely, it’s a mini off the shelf, “as is”. (I like to leave my mark on the mini, it is after all my character)

Please note that I always write a decent character history and try to give the GM plenty of hooks. I try to make sure my character fits with the group. But for me, it all starts with the miniature.


#5 Comment By John Arcadian On September 13, 2006 @ 11:26 am

I prefer the #2 method.

2. Individual creation; background elements first and numbers second. Reversing the traditional approach, this works better for some players.

Trying to build an idea of the character niche I want it to fill, who and what they are, then using whatever system to build it with the numbers.

#6 Comment By Zephyros On September 13, 2006 @ 11:28 am

I concur with Mercutio: I almost never see pure individual character creation, in the sense of “everybody shows up to the session with a character sheet they made independently.” Party roles are usually at the very least broadly defined before people touch their dice or point pools. I generally talk with my players at this point about the campaign setting and their characters’ backstories, to help weave them into the world. Then when they finalliy start rolling dice, assigning points, and selecting abilities, they have a foundation on which to make that selection. (This also helps prevent any twinking problems. If they can’t justify something by their character, I don’t allow it.)

#7 Comment By ScottM On September 13, 2006 @ 1:47 pm

Zephyros, I see premade characters most in systems where Character Generation is very complex and time consuming. While some minimal discussion of role often takes place (no deckers this time), all the specific details are worked out at home because it’s such a long process. [Example systems: Shadowrun 3, Champions, Battletech/ Mechwarrior.]

#8 Comment By Zephyros On September 13, 2006 @ 2:12 pm

True, Scott. Anything complicated or time-consuming is best worked out on one’s own time. Maybe we’re operating with different definitions of “independent,” though. I consider independent to be *completely* on one’s own, no group input whatsoever…and if there’s overlap in roles, or missing roles, so be it: one of the extra fighters is gonna Nodwick the traps since there’s no rogue. That’s what I was talking about when I said “pure individual character creation.”

Conversely, I don’t think “group” means everybody has input on each others’ point/die distribution. (But that’s just me. Perhaps some of you have tried it.) Frankly, as a player I’d smack anybody who tried interfering with my character-building too much. (Well, anybody but the DM, and even then I wouldn’t just bow out — I’d work with him.)

#9 Comment By Martin On September 13, 2006 @ 3:19 pm

I’ve added Amber, Scott’s variation and “the Gospog.” Thanks for the additions!

As far as the list not being that intuitive, I’m not sure how intuitive I find it myself. 😉 I was going for a combination of clarity and simplicity, but trying to avoid getting bogged down in dictionary-like terminology. It’s a fuzzy target, and I don’t know how close to the bullseye I came.

I agree that “true” #1 approach groups — the ones where everyone shows up with a PC, with no discussion at all — seem to be very rare. I’d draw the line between #1/2 and #3/4 at actual discussion. If we all show up, and I say “I’ll play the fighter” and Bob says “OK, I’ll play the rogue,” that doesn’t cross the line into #3/4 for me.

By “group,” I mean more along the lines of full-fledged discussion, batting ideas back and forth and brainstorming together.

#10 Comment By Walt C On September 13, 2006 @ 3:40 pm

I’m a little shaky on the definitions, but here’s a few from my experience (which may or may not have already been covered):

1. The Model: A variant of the “miniature approach,” the Model is a PC generated to emulate a character from a movie, tv show, or comic book. I’ve seen at least one player almost quit a game because, based on some random attribute rolls, she couldn’t properly emulate Scully in a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

2. Limited Selection: The players pick from a pool of predetermined roles. Sometimes these roles are fully pregenerated (“Here are the PC sheets, gang. Choose the one you want”) and sometimes they are just guides (“There are four of you. We need a fighter, a thief, a cleric, and a wizard).

3. Avatar: The players have to stat out (and play) themselves as PCs. I first saw this in Villains & Vigilantes. In a WOD game I played in, we first generated ourselves, then modified them to reflect becoming vampires or ghouls.

4. Freeform: No character is actually generated. The player is free to create, delete, and modify new elements of his PC as the game progresses, limited only by GM fiat or group consensus.

#11 Comment By longcoat000 On September 13, 2006 @ 3:50 pm

I’ve always taken “numbers before background” to mean that a player puts down a character’s stats before thinking of any background elements more complex than “I want to play a thief”. Background elements should define how a character is created (“He’s got a gimpy leg and likes dogs, so I’ll concentrate on his ranged attacks and give him some trained hounds because he can’t move well in melee, but the dogs can trip up anyone who comes near.”) instead of being used as an excuse to explain why a character has such a wide array of strange skills and abilities (“Why is my 16-year old 1st level character a master swordsman who makes no sound with no other skills? Uhh…he was kidnapped by ninjas who…uhh, no, I don’t have any skill in Japanese…who only spoke English…and, uhh, his training didn’t leave him any time to ride a horse or anything like that, and the ninja clan hated everyone else, so that’s why my Charisma’s a three and everything else is a sixteen.”).

It’s also been my experience that even if a group sits down for character generation and decides who will be the mage and who will be the cleric, they rarely create a strong background, personality, or even reason to adventure together before hashing out their stats. They may talk to each other to tell themselves how “cool” certain aspects of their character are or will be, but when play begins it feels more like a bunch of random individuals thrown together by chance rather than a group of people who have decided to adventure together. To me, that then makes it more of an individual character creation effort rather than a group of players actually making a party.

Thus, that’s why I think that most gaming groups use method #1 (individual creation, numbers before background) more than anything else.

#12 Comment By Mr. Shawn H. Corey On September 13, 2006 @ 4:29 pm

This is one method I heard about but never tried: characters determined by first actions. “You all waked up tied-up and naked in the middle of an orc camp. The orcs are agruing over your posessions. What do you do?” Those that are bold and take on the guards become fighters; those who try to sneak out become rogues; those that pray for divine intervention, clerics; and those who try to be clever, mages.

#13 Comment By Martin On September 15, 2006 @ 11:22 pm

I popped freeform, consensus and first actions into the list. (For me, limited, model and avatar are all slight variations on the first few approaches.) Thanks for the additions!

Scott’s thread in the forums is better thought-out than my system, and comes at things from a different perspective. It’s definitely worth checking out.

#14 Comment By Walt C On September 17, 2006 @ 6:48 am


You asked whether anyone’s ever seen “Freeform” creation in play.

First, as a GM, I’ve created many NPCs this way, pulling them out of thin air when needed and adapting them on the fly.

Second, in some of my early “RPG chatroom” experiences, most characters were created this way. You introduced a character and talked him up. There were no stats (that came later).

Third, Primetime Adventures is pretty freeform in regards to the abilities of your character (the character’s “stats” are based on his importance in the current episode, and the player is free to make up particular abilities as the game is played so long as they fit the general concept).

#15 Comment By Martin On September 20, 2006 @ 7:40 am

Walt: Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean by freeform. Pulling NPCs out of thin air (which GMs do all the time) involves freeform creation, but not necessarily mutability.

Once I create Bob the fighter, whatever I settle on is in place — it won’t change unless he changes in game terms. If I need to add elements, though, maybe that’s what you’re getting at.