The Joy of Character Creation

As a former roleplayer back in the 1980s I am somewhat out of the loop with most modern systems, other than picking up some D&D 5E books. While I can’t see a quick return to my playing days any time soon - having limited regular free time and few if any people I know locally into any sort of games - I had given up thoughts of getting back into roleplaying.

However, a week or two ago I found a few pdfs of old RPGs I played in my gaming prime, or that I had always wanted to play but passed me by. Reading some of them encouraged me at least to relive one of the best solo thrills of RPGs - character creation.

A fan of a few of the Palladium system games, creating my first Heroes Unlimited character was a joy and reminded me why I loved their system and mechanics. (“Salamander”: a scaled Alien planetary scientist from a thermo-world with vibration and mental stunning powers, if anyone is interested.) I know these days, the thrill is about developing the character concept first and then researching the ability, skill and trait combinations, but going in cold I loved the joy of randomly rolling everything to see what came out.

I’m sure we’ve all made countless unplayed characters for all sorts of systems, but I was pleased that the excitement of building a new character is still as strong as the first Dwarf I made in red box (Basic) D&D back in early 1983.


In the mid 90’s (and my mid teens) after moving cross-country and devoid of friends, I used to spend hours creating characters for Star Wars, DnD 2nd, Macross, Marvel RPG, and few other systems I never actually got to play. Character creation was always my favorite part. I got to relive that about 2 years ago when starting dm-ing a long FFG Star Wars campaign. I think I’m just more in love with world-building than world-playing.


Something I’ve mentioned in the podcast is that 1980s and 1990s RPGs (and 1970s, but I wasn’t gaming then) often had “gaming-adjacent” activities that you could do without the rest of the group present. In Traveller, generating characters is a game in itself, building subsectors is essentially rote but can be enjoyable, and building starships is a multi-way optimisation problem. (And two games I played that melded into RPGs, Battletech and Car Wars, had their own design systems that were used in the same way.) You didn’t have to be preparing an adventure in order to do something that would be of use in the game.

I think that this went away because, once a typical role-player could be assumed to have Internet access, there was no longer a need for solitary game-like things to do: if you wanted your fix of RPG-mindset, you could check a forum or the last dying days of USENET. It was replaced by the feeling that actual gaming time is precious and shouldn’t be spent on anything but the game – one aspect of this is the way D&D and Pathfinder publishing now seems to have an explicit goal of releasing adventures fast enough that nobody will ever have to write their own if they don’t want to.

So I think modern character generation tends to be very quick, to get you up and running as fast as possible (and complexity may come later, e.g. with D&D feat prerequisite paths), because “building a character” isn’t regarded as a thing that’s enjoyable in itself any more.


I’d go so far to point out that many modern designs have you build your character during the game, leaving many options, switches and levers untouched-and-blank until, as part of the developing narrative, those things are filled in by the actions of the player (prescriptive vs descriptive character sheets).


Yup, true, just enough up front that you can start playing and then fill in more when it’s needed.

1 Like

Even when doing complicated systems, I’ve long preferred to leave some aspects of characters undone, so the players could add something to the character as the game progressed. Sometimes that meant leaving a few points unspent so an unexpected skill could be acquired, or figuring out who an Enemy or Patron actually is. it adds a lot to the game.

1 Like

Just started 5e for the first time, and immediately made 6 characters. I have a small problem.

First roleplaying was probably 2nd ed AD&D around 1995, and at the same time 2nd ed World of Darkness. I cannot count how many WoD characters I’ve made over the years.

What was the system where your character could DIE during character creation? (Traveller? Not GURPS. I think one of the space trader games?)

And the one where in your pre-game history, if you were in a battle there was a % chance the person next to you chopped your arm off?



This quickly got modified to some variant of “you get invalided out of the service”. The idea was that certain professions were very dangerous (Scout Service in particular)… but like the high stat requirements for the original AD&D paladin, that just meant that if you kept rolling until you got one, you had a pretty effective character.


I love character creation so much that I DM specifically to create and control as many characters as possible. Though the mechanical creation isn’t as important to me as concept and appearance. In general my NPCs can do what I need them to do, rules be damned.

I do have a few specific characters I really want to get to the table but likely never will.

What makes a character fun for y’all? Both mechanically and roleplay wise (of course those things interlock).



My leap to 5E was even longer, coming from Basic and AD&D/1E straight to 5th. I love the character creation in 5E which works for me because it is more balanced than AD&D. And at least in that setting I have lots of character ideas to go with or play against type, so the freedom of choice works very well for me there. The early characters I made for 5E used races and classes I couldn’t make in AD&D - Tiefling Sorceror, Dragonborn Bard, Drow Elf Warlock - but with the backgrounds and skills even more typical combinations can be fleshed out more richly, like my Dwarven Fighter who’s a cook and brewer.

I think this may have been Runequest - or maybe early Warhammer FRP. Those systems loved embellishing the critical hit and targeting attacks to specific areas of the body.

1 Like

The thing with Traveller is that the scouts, with their high chance of death, were a safety mechanism. You created characters by rolling dice for their stats. So if you got a character whose stats were really low, or didn’t give a character concept you wanted to play, hey, have them enlist in the scouts! Then when they died, you got to try again for better stats.

This problem wouldn’t arise with a decent point build system, of course.

I never heard of the “invalided out” interpretation until today. At first glance I don’t find it appealing.

Interesting! I hadn’t seen it that way.

Doesn’t help when you’ve got the character with OK stats who doesn’t manage to enlist where they want to, gets drafted into something, and thrown out after one term with two skills. I think there’s probably rather more variation in playability of (original) Traveller characters than there is with (original) D&D/AD&D ones, where truly low stats could keep you out of certain classes but otherwise didn’t make a huge difference.


I do think that problem is exacerbated by the lack of any system for gaining new or higher skills once actual play begins in Traveller.

There’s also the problem of whether characters are all suitable for the same campaign. When C and I first got together, in 1984, she was playing in a Traveller campaign. She had rolled up a soldier with skill in demolitions; the other players decided on a mercantile venture. She told me that all her character had to do was sit in her bunk and smoke dope. Not what I’d call an exciting gaming experience!


Much to my own chagrin, I often enjoy playing flawed and/or under-powered characters. Right of the bat, they have more dimensions to them than average or especially-good characters.


That can be fun. A while back, I played in a Dragaeran campaign in GURPS. I made my character a Dzur, but I didn’t want to deal with the magic rules, so I gave him IQ 9 and no Magery. I named him Bertran, after Bertie Wooster (I had made him Tazendra’s nephew, and she seemed such a great fit to the profile of Bertie’s terrifying aunts . . .). Playing him was a blast, especially when he failed to figure things out and I got to come up with amusingly clueless dialogue.

1 Like

I ran a RuneQuest campaign where I used the “previous experience” rules, and I don’t recall that being part of them.

I’ve never looked at 5E. In fact my involvement with D&D pretty much ended with 1E. I had been playing using the little tan books, and between the high price tag for those big hardbacks (I was chronically short of money then) and the prospect of all my established characters no longer being legal, I wasn’t even tempted. What pulled me back into RPGs seriously was being invited into a RuneQuest II campaign (still my favorite version of that game and milieu).


The trick is to be able to establish them. Obviously, one can role-play in any setting and system. But it’s a lot easier to get a handle on someone if they’ve got some (GURPS) Advantages and Disadvantages, (FATE) traits, etc., rather than just “higher than average strength, basic competence in Demolition”. There are a lot of people whom that character of C’s could have turned out to be, but the system did nothing to help them become manifest.


Yeah, I was going to go into further detail where the ruleset, setting, GM, and other players are all key components to that being an enjoyable experience.


I’ve been told that to get the high-level character you want in D&D, you have to think very carefully about your first level character, so that they have the necessary traits to qualify for the feats and prestige classes that lead toward your goal. That seems to require doing a lot of strategic analysis before you set anything down on paper or in pixels. And it’s a kind of thinking that’s much less congenial to me than “who is this character now, where did they come from, and what do they care about?”

My memory of Runequest is not great: it was a system we got and played for maybe two sessions at best. There weren’t too many fantasy systems other than AD&D that we played back in the mid to late 1980s for more than a two or three sessions: trials of Runequest, Middle Earth and Stormbringer were about it, although if we’d had the Palladium Fantasy RPG that might have stuck around for longer.

AD&D was fine with tweaking and an acceptance that few character classes were any good until levels 5 to 7, so we never got any campaigns going in that world, even among three different gaming groups.

I think the longest campaign we ran with the same group of players was for the WEG D6 Star Wars. I think between our groups we just liked trying loads of systems and experimenting with all sorts of new characters so our gaming experiences were mostly all one-shots.

1 Like