One of the keys to the success of any campaign is the party of characters. The party, using the classical term, is the group of characters who are working together (for the most part) to advance the plot within the campaign. Who those characters are, what talents and skills that they bring, and how they react to one another, can propel your campaign into a Tolkien-like greatness, or have it end like Hamlet. The most critical moment for the success of the party lies in character creation. Different groups have different approaches to this important activity, and today we are going to discuss what is the role of the gaming group in character creation.
Character creation is the ultimate player expression within the game. The character is the player’s interface to the game world, and in many ways is an extension of that player. That makes character creation in one light, a very player-centric activity. On the other hand, that character has to be part of the party, and the party needs to not only accept the character, but also have a useful role for that character, so that there is something fun for the player to do during the game. That makes character creation a group-centric activity. So which one is it? We’ll get back to that later.
Let’s look at three common methods to creating characters for a game, and then I will share with you my experiences in the games that I have run and the ones that I have played.
On the one side of the spectrum, is the player-centric side of character creation. In this case, the GM informs the players of a new game, and tells the players to show up with a character ready to play. Unless your group really knows each other well, this can end in disaster. Without group input, players will create the character they want, and may not take into consideration the needs of the party. This pitfall can be summed up a bit by one of my favorite quotes from Reservoir Dogs:
Mr. Pink: Why can’t we pick our own colors?
Joe: No way, no way. Tried it once, doesn’t work. You got four guys all fighting over who’s gonna be Mr. Black, but they don’t know each other, so nobody wants to back down. No way. I pick.
Point is that you run the risk of all your players showing up playing the same character class, or neglecting one class (A 4e party of 4 Rogues and no Cleric). Thus, there is no guarantee that the players will have all the roles needed for a viable party for the game. At best, this group may be playable but, it will present the GM some challenges in the execution of the game. In the worst case, the group is lacking critical abilities that the designers of the game expected all groups to have, and the party will not survive very long.
Another potential pitfall is that all but one of the players decides on good aligned characters, and someone shows up with a chaotic evil character. While this may seem like fun on the surface, it is only time before a confrontation between the Paladin and the Destroyer is going to happen. When it does, you can expect that the story will come to a screeching halt, and either the other characters will sit back and watch, or the party will take sides, in which case you are nearing your Hamlet-like ending.
GM Directed Development
A step towards coordination, this method is where the individual players create their characters but the GM acts as an advisor, offering advice and redirecting any potential problems that a player’s choice may create. In most cases the GM is only handling the really big issues, such as filling the requisite roles in the party. They may suggest that a player make up a cleric, since no one else in the group has mentioned it. Or they may suggest a less disharmonious alignment, knowing that the other players have expressed picking good alignments.
This method can be pretty successful. The GM can avoid large issues, by steering players away from any poor choices. Though there is a risk is that GM may not be good at keeping all the other player options straight in his head, and could let something slip, or potentially mislead a player. A potential side effect is that this method may create an element of surprise, where only the GM is aware of the full builds for each character, before play starts. Depending on your group is may be a good or bad thing.
On the way other side of the spectrum, is the group-centric process of building characters. In this case the group builds the characters together, having input into every aspect of every character. They review what races and classes people are going to play, and as a group select the optimal mix so that the party has everything represented. They then review skill choices together, to make sure that there is someone in the party who has every critical skill (Joe has lock picking, Brian has healing, Carl has arcana…). The process moves on to make sure that feats/powers/spells are coordinated, and in the most extreme case, that equipment selections are done so that there is no duplication, and that everyone is carrying something for the party.
What’s the problem with this? In the most pure version of this technique, it completely saps any individual creativity from the process. In essence the character is playing what the group has created for them, and that may create problems for the player to get into character, since they were not integral to the creation of the character. If that happens, the game will suffer from players who have great playable characters, but no connection to them, thus preventing them from creating the real drama to the game.
How I Do It
Over the years I have run the spectrum for character creation in my games. The most common method I have used would be GM Directed Development, with varying degrees of success, often less success than more. The problem often being that the lack of communication between players about build choices, often leads to confusion about who has what abilities, and creates anxiety as the player tries to figure out their role in the party.
Lately the two 4e groups I play in, we started using a hybrid of group and individual techniques. From the group activity we take the coordination of classes, making sure that the party has all the necessary classes/roles met, and we talk about character personalities to make sure that the party is not going to crumble under any intra-party conflict. Then we switch gears and we go off and make the characters on our own; picking attributes, skills, powers, etc. Though it is not uncommon for someone to ask for the others players input.
The hybrid method works well for games where a tight knit party is needed, like 4e. It ensures that the group needs are met, in this case that we have all the major roles represented, while giving each player room to create their own character. In games where the party strength is not so paramount, this hybrid method may seem overkill.
How Do You Do It?
In the games you run and the games you play in, what methods are you using to create characters? What methods have worked for you? What methods have not?