While we’re generally all about Becoming Heroes, we’ve recently hit upon one part that is harder than it needs to be—character generation. Right up front, we ask you to decide eight traits, three circumstances, and three ties. We don’t give you a lot of guidance around selecting these traits and people get stuck around six traits in.

Now, I don’t think getting stuck is a fatal flaw—it usually clears up when you talk about it as a group—but we’re going to add trait suggestions to each arc in our next revision. For instance, the Lost King should probably have some trait relating to their nobility. The Dutybound should have a trait related to where their duty comes from. Lots of places can inspire traits; the system just doesn’t yet help you find them.

In designing Piece of Work, we’re addressing character generation directly. We’re using a Dread-esque questionnaire that walks you though building your character. It works phenomenally well. First, it breaks up tasks like “allocate your skill points” or “pick your gear” into a series of discrete steps. Because those are smaller decisions and those decisions have context, they’re much easier to make.

Second, it lets us gently reinforce the tropes and setting of the game. Instead of just picking a random piece of gear, you have an item you picked up when things started to go wrong. Instead of just knowing the person to your left, you’re childhood friends. This added context pushes characters to create conspiracies, attach nostalgic meaning to things, to have conversations with other characters fraught with historical subtext—all staples of the noir genre.

I’m now on the hunt for other systems that use smaller choices to reduce the strain of creating a character. Dread is obviously one. Spirit of the Century‘s phases works this way. And Leverage not only has bite-sized char-gen steps, but moves some of those choices out of char-gen and into actual play. What are some of your favorite char-gen systems, and how do they help create a character?

  • Jason Pitre

    Burning Wheel hints at a fascinating tool for character generation. When I burn up a character, I focus on the specific kind of shock/conflict that would cause someone to switch lifepaths. How did a Burning Empires character go from “Captive of War” to “Ship Captain”? If you know your starting point and destination, you can build on that to establish really interesting character backstories.

    • Personally, I have problems with BW (possibly stemming from playing Classic in high school and being unable to see how it’s gotten past that game, which, while it had a lot of great ideas in it, overall wasn’t very good). But you’ve touched on one of them here: I find the shifts between lifepaths, and the leads especially, to be the actual interesting bit, and I don’t like them and their effects being consigned to the implicit realm, though I suppose that they can be encoded in Beliefs.

    • Having not played Burning Wheel, I can’t comment on it directly, but we’ve talked about the switching of lifepaths as a point of interest in a character’s story. I’ll have to take another look at them from the perspective of creating backstory.