Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Choice, options, and character generation in 4e

I have had many about-faces over the years when it comes to character creation. Like many gamers of my age, I began with AD&D 1st Edition, slowly branching out to Gamma World, Traveller, Top Secret, and Star Frontiers as friends bought them, and read but didn't play a lot of Chaosium/BRP games -- though the vast majority of my adolescent gaming through high school was with AD&D. All of these brought with them some sort of random character generation, though often in very different forms.

In college, however, I fell in love with Champions, circa third edition. Champions introduced me to the idea of building the exact character you wanted, which really blew my mind. In me head, I threw off the shackles of randomness and restricted choices for a free utopia of characters built just as I wanted them.

In practice, though, it quickly became apparent that skill in building characters could really create disparities that made the game less fun for the non-optimizers, teaching players to build characters was a chore, and in the end, there were actually few new ideas in characters and a lot of design dead ends that weren't fun to build a game around.

Games with more structured choices in character construction became my next fascination, ranging from dot-allocation in World of Darkness games to template- based characters in Feng Shui. These still allowed custom builds, but were easier for players to master.

My days with d20 slowly slid me back to a group of players that slowly evolved into Champions-like obsession with builds, efficiency, and differential effectiveness of PCs based on players' skill at optimization, often to the detriment of the experience of casual players at the table, an effect I see continuing with 4e.

What has been making me interested in traditional/old-school/call them what you will games is that they address some of the thingsI would like to see at my table. Skipping rules elements and only looking at character generation, I like:

  1. Speed. Optimally, you should be able to make a character at the table and play right away.
  2. Limited, structured choices with quick, clear impacts in-game.
  3. Surprises. Most build-a-character systems have clear optimal choices for experienced players, eventually leading to limited optimal builds and few moments that become unique or surprising in developing characters.
  4. Limited up-front character development, with real definition and growth coming in play.

I don't think it is impossible for the current iteration of Ye Old Game to have these things, but my mind is trying to think, given some time with 4e under my belt, a way to modify the game to my tastes, harness my idiosyncratic world-building ideas, and still keep my pool of players open.

What those ideas would look like is something I plan to explore over the next few posts.

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