Creating Your Character : Incremental or Immediate?

I am an old school role player.  I played in the eighties through to now and my base in the eighties have inured me to a certain style of gaming.  But I am curious of the new school style of game and how that has changed to reflect the newer gamers and also the older gamers who have little time to grind through levels to get what they want to play.  In particular I am looking at character generation systems today and how they differ in the older style game to the newer (and still largely indie) style games available today.

Nowhere was this difference in mindset highlighted to me than in the game of Zounds! that I have started playing.  When we got together and made our characters the GM ( +Cameron Corniuk ) told me he loved this system as it created characters that the player wanted to play.  I had made myself a thief style character that acted as a “face” for the party.  He knew people who knew people and could always find that special bit of information.  I thought about the character and the concept came out well but I realised that I had created a character thinking of a low-level thief with room to grow.  This is something that is logical to me.  You role-play, gain experience and grow from a pleb to a powerful character.

Image taken from DriveThruRPG

Then the GM’s wife ( +Jennifer Corniuk ) made her character.  She had a clear idea in her head of playing a powerful elementalist with a wild accent on her magic.  She put together her powers and schticks in the system to create exactly that.  She had an elemental shield that encompassed her party constantly protecting them from elemental harm whilst being able to manipulate the four elements with power.  The character was fantastic!  The genius of it did not really hit home until the game yesterday though.

We were moving through a cultist temple and came across a room of guards “off duty” that we needed to get past to make it up to the top of the temple.  I asked Jen’s character if she could do anything silently to fix the problem which got her thinking.  While she was thinking we were talking about sneaking in and taking them by surprise.  The GM had a combat planned but then Jen piped up and said she had an idea.

“I’ll suck all of the air out of the room and they will fall unconscious!” Brilliant idea.  Powerful and eloquent so I waited for the GM to knock it down and tell her she did not have that level of power yet.  but he didn’t and we ran with the plan.  It was then that I realised I had undersold myself.  I had, by trusting on my own background, focussed on making a character who was “low-level” and thus outclassed by others in the game.

+Cameron Corniuk describes Zounds! as his favourite system at the moment and part of the reason for that is the character generation.  He tells me “What system allows the player to decide their powers?”.  He is right as the powers section is like the FATE system aspects.  From the start you can be what youy want to be.  You come up with the concept and then play it from the start.  +Jennifer Corniuk always gives great thought to her characters and their concepts.

Traditional games like Pathfinder, EarthdawnVampire, 13th Age and so on work on a system where you start out as a basic character and if you want to be the best swordsman in the land you have to level up and prove it.  You do not start as Conan but you may end there.  it is a curious idea in fact that I find this the typical way to game.  Surely gaming should be about playing the type of character you want to, not having to earn the privilege and then retire the character.

I know that Jen has tried at least one game of Pathfinder with me and I also know that character creation frustrated her.  She wants to play a specific style of character that had certain powers in place but could not as the rules would not allow it in the format I was looking at.  I could have started them at higher level but I it was to give them a taste of the game and I did not want to overcomplicate characters at the start.

 Some of my Pathfinder material

I am tormented by this discrepancy.  I like to work a character from basic level up in power and build as the progress of the characters story moves on.  It gives them a history and a reasoning for their powers and abilities that are selected as they advance.  But why shouldn’t I be able to play Mad Mardegan the greatest swordsman of all time right from the start?  I suppose that is why so many different systems exist, each giving the ability to play the similar genre but in different ways.

Nowhere has this been more evident to me than super hero games.  I have played a lot of systems for supers over my time and still my favourite is the overly complex ruleset of Super Squadron where character creation is random and you may come out with a Superman-esque super hero or you may be playing the guy out of Kick-Ass.  In most supers game I want to play Peter Parker or Doctor Strange but when I am faced with the generation rules at best I can come up with is a guy who can sense danger and fight a little or a parlour magician and I need to build those powers up to reach those heights.

You have to use experience to build your super up to be a power and that frustrates me.  In most comics I read (my favourites were Doctor Strange and Cloak and Dagger if you are interested) my super hero began with major powers or gained them in a single, calamitous event.  In other words, nothing like what we see in most systems for supers.

This style though is beginning to change.  Many of the game designers out there (especially the indie ones) are older gamers that do not have a lot of time to work their way through twenty levels to get the character they want.  They just want to explore a character concept and advancement can come and go, as long as they get to play the character they want.  They have families and work that they have to attend to and so they want to get the good stuff up from and escape for a while.  the new generation of players have lived with computer games all their lives so they need their rewards to be instantaneous.  there can be a little bit of a power scramble at the start but once the “tutorial” is over they want something with a bit of oomph to it!

Considering this I am interested to find out how this affects the other gamers out there.  What style of generation do you prefer?  The instantaneous character is not a new concept (Classic Traveller in essence allowed you to generate a powerful character up front if you survived) but it is growing in popularity.  Hit me up in the comments and let me know what you think!  Keep rolling.

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