Let me start off by saying this: I hate character generation. Thirty years ago, by virtue of being the only one who had ever even heard of fricking Dungeons & Dragons, let alone the only one willing to read BOTH of the 30-page rulebooks inside the box, I became the GM. And I have been the GM ever since. Pretty much exclusively. That’s just how it is: once you’re the GM, you’re the GM. Forever. When I left New York four years ago, I left a group behind that literally has not gamed since I abandoned the screen. And when I moved to Wisconsin a few months ago, I found a group of people who had lost their GM and had been waiting a year for a new one to show up.
That’s the thing. Any GM willing to actually put in the effort can find players. Or create players. Assuming they have any human contact at all and have any reasonable population to draw on.
But that’s not the point. The point is that I’ve been running games for thirty long, thankless years. And because I insist on writing almost all of my own content, it’s been a lot of hard work. The only saving grace is that I don’t have to participate in character generation. I hate character generation. For a GM, character generation involves two minutes of getting useful information out of each player and then two hours of watching them do math and paperwork.
Now, I know a lot of whining mouth-breathers who self-identify as “story and character focused GMs” are already lunging at my comment section and slamming their monkey fists on their keyboard trying desperately to string enough coherent words together to tell me that character generation is a collaborative process and a great way to invite the players to set goals and provide the GM with stories and all that horseshit. And how they love character generation because the players are such a rich font of ideas about the game and the world.
Well, skip it. Because you’re doing it backward. Session 0 is where you pump the players for ideas. Then, you establish a premise for the game and invite the players to build their characters around that premise. And then you ask them for the limited background information they’ve come up with. LIMITED. And you use then when you turn your premise into an actual game.
Seriously, that’s how I handle character generation in the past. I don’t actually want my players coming up with too much about their characters before they start playing. I’d rather allow the characters to develop organically through the process of play. Frankly, the less a player knows about their character at the start of the game, the better for everyone that is. I’m not saying they shouldn’t know everything. But they should know JUST ENOUGH to explain how they got to the start of the story and why they are inclined to play in the story. They can fill in the other details later.
And that isn’t to say I don’t weave personal goals and stories into the game. I do that all the time. It’s just that I usually do it organically too. I find interesting bits in what the players tell me about their characters and say, “okay, would you be interested in this” and they say, “hell yeah, that sounds great.” And then I start dangling bits and pieces in front of them so that they can decide, through play, where to take their character. See? THROUGH PLAY!
And that’s what has lead to my general campaign starting process. First, meet with the players and figure out what game they want to play. Second, come up with a premise based on that game. Send the premise to all of the players for approval. If they like it, third, work out the character generation details and tell them to generate a character on their own. Fourth, ask each of them to tell me some details about their character. Whatever they know. But keep it very brief. Fifth, based on that information, I fill in details about the world and story to flesh out their background with world details. Sixth, I start running the damned game.
Notice how I do not request written backgrounds. Nor do I even read them. Just as I start my campaign with nothing more than one short paragraph that sells the game, I expect each player to give me the same level of detail about their character. Everything else will be developed during gameplay. If the players have other ideas about their characters, that’s fine. They can reveal that information THROUGH PLAY. But I don’t care.
THAT is why I don’t have to participate in character generation. Character generation is a mechanical process of assigning gameplay stats to a very thin concept. If you want a thicker, meatier concept, you can have that. But I am sure as hell not participating in that. I don’t ask you, after all, to read the entire history of the whole frigging world. I share the bits that are important when they are important. Players need to do the same. If your character is selfish because they were the seventh kid and all they had were hand-me-downs and their family was poor and yadda yadda yadda, no one gives a crap except you. Keep it in your head. Just play the selfish character. And, when you encounter some other poor family and give a present to the smallest kid and someone asks why, then you can share the story organically. In character. Until then, backstory is just rationalization and motivation.
Unfortunately – and perhaps by now you’ve figured out this is NOT just another Long, Rambling Introduction™ but instead is actually one of those meandering, bulls$&% articles – unfortunately, nothing about starting my current group has gone according to plan. And that includes character generation.
Yes, this is the third installment of my series about starting a brand new campaign with a bunch of strangers in this weird-ass town in Nowhere, Wisconsin that reeks of cheese and beer. Basically, this is a sort of journal of how I am getting this campaign off the ground. And unlike all of my prior, brilliant advice about how to plan and build a campaign properly, this is a nice, dirty, practical example of how to handle it when nothing actually goes according to plan.
The Setup So Far
Here’s where we were at the last time I’d written anything about this campaign. I had four players. Two of them were old buddies, both obsessed with D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. They had both run games in the past, but much preferred to be players. But – and this is something they kept bragging about – whenever they’d actually found a GM, they’d broken the game and ended up with nothing. So, they were gaming orphans and had been trying to find a GM for a year who was willing to run for them.
You might wonder what they’ve done to keep breaking games in the past. I don’t really know. I haven’t asked. I honestly don’t care. And that’s the difference between me and most GMs out there. Most GMs would worry about statements like that. They’d assume Frick and Frack were purposeful game breakers or problem players or something. And they’d get all nervous. Me? I don’t give a crap. I have the balls to try to run a game for anyone. And I don’t want to know about their dealings with past GMs. Anyone can sit at my table. And I will judge them the way they behave at my table. End of story.
The only thing I have said to them on the subject is a very clear statement that I would be doing my damndest to run a game that everyone – including me – wanted to play. Because that’s what I do. And if we all sit down and play the game in good faith, there’s no problems. But if I ever get the sense that a player is being purposefully disruptive or contrarian just to mess with the game, I will kick that player out and not look back. And I didn’t even say it like, “well, let me tell you how it is if you think you’ll break my game.” I just worked in it as part of the reason for having a Session 0. And they thought that was pretty cool, honestly. I still don’t know if they were testing my limits or giving me fair warning or what. It doesn’t matter.
So, there’s Frick and Frack. Then there’s the other two. One is a complete newbie to RPGs. Like, she didn’t even know what an RPG was. She’s friends with Frick and Frack, especially Frick, and they dragged her along because we needed players. And finally, there’s Fourth Man. He – like me – doesn’t know anyone else at the table. He’s had some experience with D&D and other RPGs, but he’s been lapsed for years. I think he might have played back in the 3E days or maybe 4E. Because he seems to be naturally a little shyer and because Frick and Frack talk so damned much, it’s been hard to get much out of him. And because Greenhorn needs so much attention because she has no idea what’s going on, Fourth Man tends to get overlooked a little. That’s just something I have to be conscious of.
We had a Session 0. Most of it was given over to teaching Greenhorn what an RPG was and getting Frick and Frack to stop sharing war stories about all their awesome past adventures and trying to impress, scare, or warn me about how hard it would be to run a game for them. And also stop them from trying to teach Greenhorn because that’s my job. And to iron out style wrinkles.
So, Session 0 was a mess and it ended with me agreeing to run vanilla, core Pathfinder and having a generic fantasy kingdom and no idea for a campaign at all beyond: “it was a hard winter and now it’s spring and there’s a town in the center of the kingdom having a festival for the new year and they hope it will be good but there’s bad omens.” And that was the pitch. The players liked the pitch, such as it was. So, I expanded it into a document with a brief introduction to the world and sent it out to the players and then we agreed to have a character generation session.
No Rest for the Weary
Yes. You heard me right. Character generation session. I realized that I couldn’t get away with just turning the players loose to make their own characters. Greenhorn and Fourth Man would be totally lost. She was completely new to RPGs and he had been out of the loop for a long time. So, I wanted to be able to ferry them both through the process. And I also wanted to keep Frick and Frack a little restrained.
See, Frick and Frack were sending me a lot of mixed signals. There were definite power-gamer tendencies in there. And they had talked a bit about some balance issues in past games that led to me suspect they were just good at building the best characters possible in games like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. I don’t have a problem with people building the best character they can. I just like to know what’s coming. Because Pathfinder is breakable. The balance in the game is really wobbly to begin with. And too much craziness can send it tumbling into the abyss. Now, it’s one thing if you have a whole party of optimized characters. That’s easy to deal with. But having a mix of optimal characters and sub-par characters – especially those created by new players – can wreak havoc on game balance. So, I just wanted a little bit of oversight.
Moreover, though, Frick and Frack had both expressed a desire to start building their characters in advance. Despite all their power-gamer and game-breaker noises, they also talked a lot about interesting characters and interesting stories. A lot of their war stories involved some pretty bizarre concepts. Some of which were very interesting, others were kind of goofy and crazy. So, I was trying to figure out if they were grabbing for the story-spotlight or if they just liked going wacky and off-the-wall creative or what. Honestly, in some ways, they triggered pretty much every description of every “problem player” ever ripped off of Robin Laws. And, to be clear, I think the concept of “problem player” is a load of bullshit. It’s terrible GMing to try to identify problem players and fit them into broad classifications based on the problems they cause. That hamstrings your ability to just run games for anyone who shows up and have a good time. The number of actual problem players I’ve dealt with of the many, many multitudes I have run for is in the single digits. And they could all be classified as one type of player: asshole.
What I’m saying though, is that if you actually do believe in classifications like Power Gamer, Thespian, Spotlight Hog, and so on, you’d have put Frick and Frack in almost every category. Frankly, I was actually curious to see what they’d actually play.
That said, I still prefer characters that mostly come out during play. I don’t want pages of worthless backstory and all sorts of other crap like that. I want an elevator pitch. And then I want to work with the player to build a game around that pitch. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.
So, I wanted to see what Frick and Frack were going to do, I wanted to watch them make their characters, I wanted to make sure I had some oversight and a restraining hand, and, mostly, I wanted to see what the hell they were actually going to do. Spoiler alert: they were fine. Like totally fine. Totally normal, reasonable players. Zero issues. They are also really nice guys. I like them both a lot. Don’t tell them I said that. I’m just worried that I’ve not been painting them in the most flattering light. Mostly, they love gaming and are really excited to have a game. The only issue with them is that they get distracted sharing their own war stories and reminiscing about games past. But once my game gets rolling, I can keep them focused.
And let that be a lesson to you: if I HAD pegged them as problem players because of their repeated talk about breaking games, I’d have screwed myself out of two good players and two genuine friends. Yeah. Friends.
Meanwhile, though, I was still kind of screwed on the story front. I knew I was just kicking the can down the road when I pitched that generic non-story. I didn’t know how to actually start the game or what it would be about. And I was hoping that something would emerge during character generation that I could use.
Long story short: I had to run the character generation session. I couldn’t just sit at home and play video games while the players did all the math and paperwork. Oh well.
How to Actually Run a Character Generation Session and How I Ran Mine
Let me preface this by saying I did not expect the character generation session to go as smoothly as it did. After the Session 0 and my inability to generate a decent pitch, I figured I’d end the character generation session with four characters who were all set to go enjoy the festival and who were all just waiting for whatever inciting incident actually incited. And I was half worried I’d spend half the time reigning in requests for weird classes from obscure sourcebooks while trying to explain the difference between Combat Maneuver Defense, Armor Class, and Saving Throw to a bored and confused Greenhorn who just wanted to get on with the game and didn’t sign up for the fantasy equivalent of filling out a tax form. But it actually went very smoothly.
Now, you probably noticed that, in my campaign pitch, I spelled out all of the options for race and class. And I described them in terms of my game world. I prefer to do that whenever I can. I like to spell out the actual list of options available in any game I run. It’s usually slightly shorter than the full core list. Sometimes, I add some options from other sourcebooks, but I often make space for those options by eliminating other options. I like people to be able to count the number of races on one hand and the number of classes on both hands. That seems to be about the right number for everyone to keep them in their head. I think the designers of D&D 3.5 picked pretty much the exact right number of race and class options for the core rules in that respect.
But I also like to spell out in a single paragraph exactly what that choice means in MY game and MY world. I’ve written before about the whole “playing against type” thing and the “making the class your own by changing everything” thing. That crap is terrible. It ruins campaign worlds. It ruins races and classes. It ruins the verisimilitude and continuity of the world. I don’t truck with it. And I don’t need to go into it again.
Point is, I like to be clear that if you decide to play an elf, that means you’re going to play like an elf. And if you play a cleric, you are worshipping a god and obeying precepts and all of that crap. THAT is why I spell stuff out. But I also spell stuff out because it makes it easier for people to choose stuff. Contrary to popular belief, most players actually don’t like having a very broad, blank slate. For every internet pisspot whining about how class archetypes pigeonhole characters, there’s a dozen more actual players who actually need strong archetypes just to make a character. That’s why class-based games always sell better.
And, the thing is, the archetype is pretty much the first and most important thing the player is going to decide. Everything else hangs off of it. One of the smartest things D&D 5E did – and that PF2 is copying – is to make the background part of the archetype. That is, to build a three-part archetype of “race, background, class.” Makes a lot of sense: birth, upbringing, training.
Anyway, the first thing I want to know about a character is their archetype. In Pathfinder terms, race and class. The second thing I want to know is how that character ties directly into the premise of the game or into the hook for the first adventure. The third thing I want to know is if the character has some personal goal or motivation that will drive them to engage in the campaign. That’s all I need or want from character generation. Everything else is just math, statistics, and useless details.
So, I begin every character generation session by nailing everyone down into their archetypes. I looked over the group and said, “does anyone know what they want to play, race and class wise?” And Frack immediately said he wanted to play a human paladin. He had some more ideas to share, but I put the kibosh on them for the moment. Because I want everyone to have a solid archetype before I go any further.
Fourth Man indicated a preference for rogues and also indicated he wanted to play a human. And that was good. If you read my campaign document, you’ll notice I focused very heavily on making the world a human world. Basically, five centuries around, the races were sort of unified into a cosmopolitan super-empire. But those days are long past. It’s Europe after the fall of Rome. The non-humans have retreated to their own kingdoms, except for the halflings, of course. Race relations are strained. That’s because I – like Tolkien – like the non-human races to be rare and special. And I like their differences to be front and center. I am always happiest when I end up with an all human group and I push things that way.
Anyway, with Frack and Fourth Man already having solid choices for their character archetypes, things were going well. Frick insisted that he had a dozen different concepts and was going to choose one once he saw what everyone else was doing. That’s pretty standard. There’s always one of those players at character generation who will decide what they want to play based on filling a hole in the party. And I’m always happy to oblige those players. Some people just like picking that way. Which brought it down to Greenhorn. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to play, but she a character who was a good fighter and who could use a little magic. And she wanted to play a half-elf. That’s pretty typical of new players. New players often have the hardest time creating characters and often fixate on a very vague, general type of gameplay. They don’t know the game archetypes well, but they usually have enough of a sense of fantasy tropes to give some vague sense of what they want to do in the game. The key is to help them refine that into a character.
Now, Frick and Frack immediately started making noises that sounded like “multiclassing” and “fighter” and “wizard” and “sorcerer,” but I threw things at them until they stopped and took over running my own character generation session. See, before I steer a new player toward very complex character options, I want to make damned sure there’s no other way to give them what they want in a more approachable. And because I noted that Greenhorn specifically said, “good fighter who can use a little bit of magic.” To me, that’s not a gish. To me, that’s someone badass who can call on a few magic tricks to supplement what they do.
It is very, very important to pay attention to every word a new player says. Because they don’t know the right words to use. But they know what they want. Or what they think they want. And Greenhorn made it clear that she wanted her character to be able to handle herself in a fight and that the magic was an extra little cool factor.
The most obvious choice for someone who can fight well and uses magic to supplement their combat abilities is a cleric. I mean, there’s also a paladin, but we already had one of those. So, I asked her about the gods. Specifically, in my world, the new gods. I described clerics as warriors who served the gods and supplemented their combat abilities with divine magic. Battle priest. But that didn’t do it for her. She didn’t like the “shackled to a god” thing, but I was on the right track. She liked the general idea, but not the god aspect.
So, I threw ranger at her. I explained that a ranger was a badass wilderness survivalist, like Aragorn, but they also learned to wield nature magic. The magic of the natural spirits of the world. Because that’s how it works in my world. There’s the Old Gods – the spirits of the natural world – and there’s the New Gods – the divine host in the Heavens. And that was it. She liked the idea of badass survivalist loner who was a good warrior but who would eventually learn nature magic. And, in Pathfinder, because it takes rangers a couple of levels to start using magic, she didn’t have to learn the magic system right away.
Now came the issue with the half-elf thing. See, I had removed half-elves and half-orcs from the world. I hate the half-breed races. They are a dumb, useless trope. They add nothing to the game world. And they are a product of a cosmopolitan world. Which my dark age frontier kingdom certainly wasn’t. So, I laid out the options for her. She could be an elf if she wanted. And she’d be a Legolas type elf who was wandering the human world and had befriended humans and who might be seen as brash and young and wild by other elves. Or she could play a human and we’d find a way to work friendship with elves into her character later. She ultimately decided on the latter. And the way she was talking, I don’t think the elf thing was actually a very strong desire to begin with. Time will tell.
After all of that, I turned back to Frick and ran down the list. And he still didn’t know what he wanted to play. So, I held up the entire process until he could work through it. And he finally settled on fighter. Human fighter. And I had my all-human party. Which made me happy.
Now, with the question of races and classes settled, we could have settled into the minutiae of character creation. But, remember when I said I like to know how the character ties into the premise of the game and how they are going to get involved in the first adventure? Well, I like to know that stuff – or at least have an idea – before anyone starts putting numbers on their character sheet. That helps me help the newer players make their characters and it helps guide the more experienced characters in their choices. And it keeps me from being too surprised at what comes out at the end.
So, I turned to Frack. Because he had come not just with the idea of playing a paladin, but an idea for who that paladin was. His idea was pretty cool. He wanted to play a member of an ancient order of knights. He’d been trained by a hermit who was trying to keep the old ways alive. And now he was on his own, trying to revive the order. Well, that worked REALLY well with the idea of a Dark Age. Because there were plenty of knightly orders in the past that had been lost to the ages. And he saw his paladin more as a duelist type than a standard knight in shining armor. A courtly paladin. He wanted to be a swashbuckler. And he also wanted to play a naïve kid. Someone not particularly worldly who was struggling to integrate the morality of this old order into a dark, pragmatic age. Those weren’t his exact words, but basically, that was what he said.
Okay. Fine. Perfect. I was very happy with that idea. It gave me two things. First, it told me why he might go to a festival and tournament at a crossroads town. He wanted to start making a name for himself and his order. Earn some glory and renown. Second, it gave me a motivation for future adventures. Glory and renown, sure. But also, there’s the aspect of rediscovering and reviving the mysteries of the past. Now, that wasn’t quite what he was selling me. He was basically selling me Luke Skywalker and the New Jedi Order. But I saw a hook I could build on in future adventures. I made a note to talk to him more about that. Because, right now, I had a problem. I didn’t have any religions in my world. I would need to build some places for ancient knightly orders to fit into the mythology. I made a note about that too.
I then turned to Fourth Man and asked him if he had any ideas. And he did too. He understood I wasn’t going to allow any evil, amoral, or criminal characters. But he was looking at something between the scoundrel with a good heart and Robin Hood. Or rather, the journey from scoundrel with a good heart to Robin Hood. An urchin, anti-authority, who’d lived on the streets and grown up a thief in a community of thieves. He was forced to run away after trouble happened. He wasn’t sure what kind of trouble had happened. That was fine. But now he was just trying to survive. He was heading to the festival because there would be people and money there. I was fine with that story as long as he was willing to lean into the Robin Hood aspect and ultimately become a hero of the weak and downtrodden. Otherwise, he’d not fit with the others.
Frick, surprisingly, had a story ready to go. Apparently, he really did have a dozen concepts in his head and was waiting to choose. His fighter came from a noble background. But the house was in disgrace. His family sent him to live with his uncle. His uncle trained him and turned out to be a pretty amazing warrior. But his uncle was a drunk. And Frick’s character didn’t realize it until he got older. He was functioning drunk, but his life was also a shambles. Frick didn’t see it due to the naivety of youth and hero worship. Moreover, his uncle had brought the family – which had once had a proud military history – into disgrace. And Frick’s character was going to cleanse the family’s name. Which also meant distancing himself from his uncle.
Well, that works very well with Frack’s paladin. Because the two of them provide the impetus for the party to be Big Damn Heroes. Glory, renown, honor, reputation, and so on. And even though Fourth Man’s rogue is a bit of an amoral survivalist to start, he has a moral center of helping those who are worse off that will also work with Frack’s paladin. But it will create some conflict with Frick’s fighter. That’s a pretty strong party.
And then there was Greenhorn. Now, I am always pretty gentle on newbies. I don’t expect them to be able to invent an entire background, motivation, and future goal right off the bat. And she really didn’t have anything beyond what she wants to do. So, I just wanted to leave her enough room to grow into a character. But I also wanted a few strands of spaghetti I could throw at the wall to see if any of them stuck. Honestly, as a wandering ranger, she could end up at any dot on the map. And she might participate in a tournament or contest just to make some coin. So, I wasn’t worried about fitting her in.
I turned Frick and Frack loose to make their characters. They knew what they were doing. And ultimately, Frick ended up with a dual-wielding skirmish fighter and Frack made a lightly armored, rapier-wielding paladin. Done and done. Fine.
Fourth Man didn’t need much more attention. He made a rogue that was focused on street crime skills and crossbow combat. He just needed some help with the math and game specifics. That freed me to work heavily with Greenhorn, who’d never made a character before. And that was fine, because, in walking her through the process, I was able to plant a few seeds of possible motivations and storylines.
For example, she had to choose archery or swordsmanship. And she chose archery. Which meant an archery contest would be a good draw for the festival. Easy enough. Then came the time to choose a favored enemy. So, I started asking some simple questions to feel out some details about her character. Had she grown up in a frontier town or had her family lived alone and isolated. She decided they had been isolated. And since she had mentioned elves, I asked if perhaps her family had lived on the fringes between human and elven lands and that, perhaps, if her parents hadn’t occasionally encountered – even traded with – elves. She seemed to like that idea. So, I posed the idea of goblins as her favored enemy as goblins tend to compete for the same lands as elves and are traditional enemies. Goblins would have been a constant threat. And the elves would respect someone who joined in their fights against the goblins. That seemed to work.
And it was enough. We still don’t really know why she left home, but it seems like she might have left after her parents died. We just know where she grew up and that she was wandering and that she’s come to this town during the festival. She’s likely to just go with the flow for a while. And we’ll see what develops from there. She may even change characters eventually once she gets a better feel for the game. But I’ve at least got enough to get her involved.
After that, character generation went fine. Well, it went. I mean, it’s boring as hell. Watching people fill out paperwork and do math for hours isn’t my idea of a good time. But it had to be done. And when all was said and done, I had a pretty strong party I was happy with. Human two-weapon skirmish fighter, human swashbuckling paladin, human crossbow rogue, and human archer and goblin-hunter ranger. And I had some stories to weave into the campaign. The problem was I didn’t have a setting. And I didn’t have a campaign. Just a bunch of blanks and the fact that I’d be starting “at a festival.”
It was going to take a lot of prep work to get the first game going. It’s just a shame that I’m lazy as hell. Because I knew I was going to do about one quarter of the prep I intended to. But that’s a story for another day.