If you know me, you know that I am a huge fan of the indie RPG Mazerats, created by Ben Milton. It is one of the most simple Role-Playing Games I have ever had the pleasure of running, but does a great job of inspiring all sorts of detailed characters.
The Character Creation aspect is exactly what made me fall in love with the game. In Maze Rats, to decide stuff like your Looks, Background, and Goals, you simply roll on a few tables with 36 options, like this one!
While it looks like the someone trying to design their own word-of-the-day calendar, this Hex Table (or so I call them) is one of the most creatively fulfilling design choices in an RPG I have ever seen. You roll a D6 to pick the group, and then a D6 to pick the word, and as you slowly roll through these tables and jot down your character, you end up with a blurry picture of a person that slowly becomes clearer and clearer. You create your Maze Rat, and it fulfills the desire to play something you came up with, but something that was more or less given to you.
You then decide on a few items and a special ability, and your character is already done. Its important that the process is quick, because characters in Maze Rats don’t last long unless they’re clever and lucky.
While Maze Rats covers what I mean by Character Creation, a game like Dungeons & Dragons by Wizards of the Coast is more about Creating Characters.
Creating Characters is all about deciding the character you want to play ahead of time, and building them through a collection of choices. In D&D, you have a ton of things to decide, but the major decisions are broken down into three chunks. Race, Class, and Backround. Your Race will give you a few stat bonuses, your Class will define how you play for the entire Campaign, and your Backround gives some Items and a fun ability based on where your character came from. While it gives more options and a finer degree of control over what your character is, it does take quite a bit more time. The investment is heavier, because you usually play your D&D character for a while.
While Maze Rats is quick and easy, and Dungeons & Dragons has more detail and options, both are incredibly fun, and good examples of Character Creation and Creating Characters. Ultimately you can use both games to inform your own ideas, and combined together they can weave together a really cool character. Maze Rats Hex Tables can be used along with the D&D Character Creation process to fully flesh out your character.
Now, lets think of Character Creation and Creating Characters as a line.
Before we continue let me just define the two phrases that i’ve been using for a moment, a little more clearly. The following definitions are my take on it, not the official word of it. Ostensibly, these are two phrases that mean the same thing, but i personally always saw them as separate.
Character Creation is a designed set of mechanics in which a Player Character is created through a randomized tool set, or game-decided function.
Creating Characters is a process by which a Player goes through the rules of a game to create their desired Character within the boundaries and rules of said game.
By those definitions, we should be able to place Maze Rats and D&D on the line appropriately, like so.
D&D is more close to the center of the line than to the right side. This is because D&D still has elements of randomness associated with Character Ability Scores, and the Races and Classes are packages of abilities and bonuses, giving you choices, but not fine tuned control, which is truly Creating Characters. A game with completely fine tuned control over your characters is something like G.U.R.P.S. by Steve Jackson Games.
G.U.R.P.S. allows you to completely and mathematically modify every little statistic or ability of your character. You put points into skills and statistics, and its all structured in such a way that you can get exactly what you want out of your character. It would be incredibly difficult for a game like G.U.R.P.S. to have a Character Creation style random element, as the many options would make any random character completely useless. Therefore, I’d say that it is the pinnacle of the Creating Characters process.
Likewise, Maze Rats is just barely not at the end of its side of the line, due to some choices you have given to you that make the Character Creation process decidedly nonrandom. Your health is also static and the same as your fellow Maze Rats, which is a game-given feature of your character that is decided for you, even though in a nonrandom way.
Just like how G.U.R.P.S. is a perfect example of Creating Characters, I believe that Dungeon Crawl Classics (By Goodman Games) is a great example of Character Creation. In DCC, you start the game with four completely random level-0 Characters. Each player takes their four through a Dungeon in a large group, and whoever survives to the end of this Funnel gets to go to level-1. This provides a completely game-given Character that you inject soul and personality into. It may seem a little annoying at first, controlling four characters at once? But the level-o’s are simple and easy to use, and you come to like all of them, as they slowly get killed off one by one.
So our newly updated line would look something like this!
Ultimately, I think the point has been driven home. Some games give you all the fine tuned control in the world, and that helps you create any character you can dream of. Other games help you by pushing you through the character creation process at warp speeds and using improvised ideas and even group coordination to design the character that you will play. There are merits to both styles, and there is all sorts of fun to be had.
Here’s an updated version of the line with some other varied games to give you an easy reference point.
Image credit goes to Subset Games