Monday, September 3, 2012

Character Creation - True Background vs. Limited Future Choices

I'm gearing up to run my new Reign campaign and was chatting with Bob, a friend who'll be playing Reign but has otherwise played 4E D&D almost exclusively with  dashes of Mage, Mazes & Minotaurs and Dread thrown in as well.  As we chatted I realized how different character creation in D&D (and similar games) can be from a game like Reign.

When you generate a new Reign character, and especially if you use the One Roll Engine for character creation where you let a dice roll (mostly) determine your character's background, you end up with a character background that is evocative and easily coheres into a story.  Don't believe me, take a look at an example I wrote up for my character creation packet...  And with the Reign passions, players have the fantastic opportunity to also give their PCs a mission to complete (guard the caravan until the goods are delivered), a duty to honor (always be a shining example of chivalry) and/or a craving to give into or resist (addicted to gambling).  After a brief character creation session you can easily have a basic background outline and all the stats, skills and advantages that normally go on a character sheet and some passions that guide your choices as a player.

Another quick Reign example driven off of a roll 11d10, the profession/unusual occupation that drove the background is in (parenthesis): Conscript (Foot soldier) who was made the personal servant of a wealthy officer and his son (Served the Decadent Rich), the officer took a shine to the conscript and taught him some martial techniques (Studied with a Master) and useful knowledge (Lowly Sage).  Unfortunately the company they were in was captured by the enemy and they were made prisoners of war (Imprisoned).  While in the enemy camp, the officer and his son both died, but when they were traded by the enemy for ransom, the enemy passed the conscript off as the officer's son (Mistaken Identity Shenanigans).  The officer did not have any close family to contradict the conscript, so he took advantage of the situation to rise in the army as an officer (Squad Leader, Officer).

The advantage of the Reign character creation system, in my mind, is that it easily creates a character background.  Looking at the example above, you can get a clear picture of what the PC would have gone through (war prison, officer training) and also a clear idea of what skills he might possess at the start of the game (sword training, basic tactics, vigor from enduring the prison/army gruel).  On the other hand, it's not hard for a player to change character direction.  The player of this character could easily decide that the PC has now left the army and wants to study sorcery and with some experience, he could easily buy up the skills and possible a stat or two to make his former conscript, former army officer into a skilled sorcerer.

The D&D system, on the other hand, emphasizes choices at character creation that drive character choices for the rest of the game.  When you create a D&D character you have two big choices, Race and Class, and possibly a couple of small choices, like background, theme and class build or kit.  You can't change your race once selected* (*okay, I suppose you could die and come back as a revenant, or be subject to a polymorph spell or divine intervention, but for the most part you're stuck a dwarf if you start a dwarf.)  In some editions you can change your class, but you start back at first level.  If you were a 5th level rogue and decide to become a fighter, you keep your rogue levels, but get to start over as a 1st level fighter with the assumption that very little of the skills you picked up as a rogue would translate to a fighter (an assumption that I find dubious as I think about it).

You can multi-class, with differing effects in differing editions, in earlier editions you moved up both classes but with an XP penalty to both, in 4E you gave up feats and powers from your primary class to dabble in a second.

Your major choices of Race and Class primarily drive all your future character improvement choices.  If you're an elven wizard, your choices each level are going to be new wizard power choices, and a feat available to elves or wizards.  If your elven wizard joins a pirate crew and spends a year on a pirate galley, your spell choice might change, but it's hard to reflect the sailing skills your character plausible could have gained (athletics, profession:sailor), without spending precious feats on getting additional skill training.  Once a wizard, always a wizard.  And if your wizard decided to become a rogue that was better suited to the pirate life, you keep your wizard levels but don't gain any more. 

Your secondary character creation choices in D&D are pretty inconsequential for the most part.  4E had Backgrounds which gave you the tiniest extra bit of skill choice but were incredibly vague for the most part, what does "Geography:Mountains" mean?  Themes were introduced late and never quite clicked.  For the most part taking a theme, like Outlaw, was like taking a secondary class.  It gave you some additional powers and features, but in practice it didn't seem to add much flavor to the character.

I find it's very easy for a D&D player to have their 1st level character step whole cloth into the world with no background.  They roll up (or build using an electronic character builder) an elven bow ranger with the tracker background for the +2 bonus to perception and they don't need to worry about what that elven ranger did before he grabbed his bow, an implausible two-hundred arrows and joined the party.

Overall, I definately prefer the Reign or "True Background" character creation style.  Creating a character involves establishing what happened to the character before the game began.  Not to say that with D&D you can't create character with rich and meaningful backgrounds, but you also can create D&D characters who don't need to have existed before they step into the haunted graveyard or wherever the first adventure begins.

Then on the far end of the "True Background" character creation style there's a game like DREAD.  Dread is a game of diceless horror, with the unique mechanic of a tumbling block tower (cough, jenga, cough) being used to determine success.  The bigger selling point of Dread, in my opinion, though, is it's character questionnaires.  The GM comes up with characters for the scenario, in my last game the players were all circus freaks, and then comes up with questions for each character that the player answers to define the character.  For instance, in my Circus Freak game, one of the un-played characters was the Circus Strongman, below are his questions:

  • What happened to you when you were nine that made you swear to yourself that you'd never be weak?
  • Even though you're the strongest person you know, you hate physical violence, why?
  • What intellectual pursuit of yours would surprise people if they knew about it?
  • Why don't you feel comfortable socializing with the other performers?
  • You don't enjoy being a circus performer, but why don't you leave the circus?
  • What nationality won't you admit to being descended from and why?
  • What happened that made you afraid of being underground?
  • When the going gets tough, how do you respond?
  • The elderly clown Juventas died of a heart attack recently, what shameful thing did he see you do three months ago?
As you can see, in answering the questions, a player gets to determine many of the details, secrets, fears and emotions of a character.   The downside to this, of course, is that the character creation does not give any mechanical details, the effect of the answers doesn't give a +1 to attack, all the narration and skills of the game are largely left to the imagination of the GM and the Player.  This works extremely well with a free-form, one-shot game like Dread, but obviously would not work to generate a D&D or even a Reign character.

As I wrap up my D&D 4E Campaign and consider running a game to replace it (Reign plays on opposite weeks of my 4E campaign), I want to keep in mind some of the "True Background" character creation flavor of Reign and even Dread to try and apply even if I run a game that features a D&D style of character creation. 

1 comment:

  1. I've used Quick Background questionnares in the past as an additional tool, but looking at the Reign engine as well as now having played and read the rules for Dread, I'm thinking using them as an additional Character Creation tool for D&D is a must have.
    You're dead on about the comparison, D&D gives you the shell and you have fill in the rest, well if you aren't that good at that part you become an extremely one dimensional component to a game that should be so much more. The randomizer and set-up of Dread makes Character creation far more realized and robust. Reign looks much the same with all the possibilities involved.
    Oh and it looks to be full of charts, and as you well know I LOVE(s) me some charts!


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