Meaningful Choice at Character Creation

By | March 21, 2015

Hello again!

Over the past week, I’ve been pondering the purpose of choice at character creation.  Character creation is an opportunity for the player to create exactly the character he or she would like to play; you get to be who you want to be.  That is, ultimately, the purpose of character creation in a more story-driven game: who am I and what can I do, at its most basic.

Some game systems, like GURPS, BRP or (to a degree) OGL, provide virtually unlimited character options, allowing the player to focus on the most minute of details in order to specify exactly what their character can and cannot do down to the exact percentage point.  On the other end of the spectrum, games like Fate Core and Shock allow you to have an entirely freeform character creation, where choice isn’t presented – it comes from within the player, in the form of describing the character from the player’s mind in the player’s own words.  Between these are games that package choices together into templates that players must choose from: every edition of D&D, Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer 40k and Star Wars RPGs, etc.

When we first set out to make Infinite Earths, I wanted to provide the kind of choices that GURPS provided.  Lots of detail, so you could know exactly what your character could do or not do.  As we playtested that alpha version, though, playtesters divided into two camps: those who wanted more choices and those who wanted fewer choices.  As we progressed through playtesting (and learning how not to be heartbreaker-designers), we found more and more that less choice was required in order to make character creation easy and fast.

But there was something else going on there, something that we hadn’t quite realized.  Specifically, the type of character-creation the game provides also defines the type of play the players will expect from the game.  By providing character-creation with dozens of minute choices, we were actually robbing those choices of meaning.  Choices were being made defensively, to ensure that a character couldn’t be cudgeled later for failing to have a skill.  These choices in character creation were actually damaging the way players were perceiving, and therefore playing, the game.

And it was this perception of play that was informing the group of playtesters who wanted more choice.  They felt that the choices they had not been allowed to make (being better at making poisons than potions, for example) had somehow robbed them of “build points” for their characters, because on one hand the system was telling them build points didn’t matter, and on the other hand the system was subtly telling them that build points did matter.

This has been something I’ve been particularly concerned about as we develop Beta 3 of Forthright (the inheritor of Infinite Earths, and not so nearly informed by game designs of the 70s through 90s).  The choices players make during character creation should be useful to what they want to be and do in the game, not simply present because, well, you’ve got to simulate everything in a universal game!

So, for example, we used to have separate crafting roles for making potions and poisons, making weapons, making armor, and making enhancements or applying enchantments to that armor.  But what we saw more and more is that people didn’t want to craft just a specific type of thing, when they wanted to play a crafter they wanted a MacGuyver-esque “I build shit” experience.  They wanted to play more of a “maker of what they wanted to make” rather than any specific type of thing.

The meaningful choice was more broadly-defined than our design was allowing.  The meaningful choice was to make or not to make, not to make what or to make what else.  That, combined with a general desire to streamline and remove word salad, has resulted in another round of reductions in the bulk of Forthright.  We’re down from a height of 16 roles in each of three verticals to 10 roles in each.  We’ve boiled down the number of skills we have to 10, which should simulate everything we aim to simulate.

It’s our hope that once we’ve got this written up and in front of external playtesters again, the broader scope of choice combined with the less D&D-like combat, social and skill rules will help inform play away from “D&D with a different system” style gaming.  We’ll see 🙂
Thanks for reading!  As always, comments are welcome and see you next week!