The Joy of Character Creation

This is true for me as well.

Back in my teens, I considered myself a roleplayer (and frowned upon boardgaming, mostly out of ignorance). Starting in my 20s and all the way through to now, I have made the shift almost exclusively to boardgaming because (outside of legacy-style games), the individual sessions are self-contained and atomic – different people can show up each week to our boardgame night and have the same experience as people that show up every week. This is also why I typically turn away from legacy-style games.

Maybe in 20 years or so when my children have grown and it’s easier to set aside huge swathes of time on a recurring basis I’ll get back to roleplaying as a hobby.


Even back then we did play the occasional boardgame or wargame but roleplaying was more fun and we had the time for it all: the character creation, the worldbuilding and adventure design, the miniature painting. We even had three 24-hour sessions over bank holiday weekends so we could play several different games and take turns running them. Nowadays, real life makes such devotion tricky, so yes I can see why a two or three hour boardgame is more inviting. I’d love to try a long war game or economic engine game but would need the players and the chance to devote a whole afternoon and evening to it.

Board games can be fun, as can card games (I like Race for the Galaxy a lot). But they don’t offer me the sense of participating in a literary jam session, or the activity of world creation; they aren’t much of a substitute for RPGs. They seem to me to be two very different things.


That entirely depends on who you are playing RPGs with! As is very common, back in my early teens, my friends and I were more of the dungeon-crawl, kill-everything-that-moves type of muderhobos. In my twenties, I really learned to enjoy collaborative, emergent narrative in RPGs. To this day, me and a friend will occasionally do a bit of world-building conversationally without necessarily dragging rulesets into the mix.

But, yes, the type of roleplaying I want to do has very little in common with the types of board games I’m wont to play. It was a mistake to so casually contrast the two without further explanation.


Ah the joys of early-year gaming murderhoboing! Glad that nowadays I’d rather focus on the story and narrative side too.


When I was in my early teens, I had never heard of wargaming, and D&D hadn’t even been dreamed of. But I invented something I called “the map game” and played it with my sister and a friend of ours. It involved drawing a map of an imaginary large island or small continent, and then placing settlements on it, each settlement being hand drawn as an area of a certain approximate size. Then in successive turns, we had resources proportional to the number of settlements, which could be spent respectively on founding new settlements, capital improvements in existing settlements, or fighting battles to conquer other players’ settlements. Unfortunately, I no longer remember any of the details. But I think I was clearly looking for worldbuilding games even back then. Had Settlers of Catan been invented I might have been a fanatical player . . .


They are all rubbish. Good RPG systems all date to the Eighties.

I never actually did early-year murder-hoboing. My introduction to RPGs — or perhaps to the idea of RPGs — was an article by John M. Ford in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (the July 1979 issue I think; I don’t seem to have it any more) “On Evenings Beyond the Fields We Know”. Ford introduced RPGs as a kind of collaborative extemporary storytelling with dice, emphasising characters and not mentioning the dangerous underground complexes. That’s always been what I expected and wanted RP to be, and in my very few encounters with dungeoncrawls I have found them both both stupid and boring. The result was that my first couple of attempts quickly ran aground on a serious mismatch of expectations.

Sounds like I took a break from it at the right time then! I never even bothered trying D&D 2E although it came out a year or so before I largely stopped roleplaying.

Thinking about it, maybe the emphasis that our groups had on mostly combat driven games was what contributed to our focus on single shot games and new characters, rather than long continuing stories with the same ones. Not that this is a bad thing - or a bad thing for my groups at the time - but yes now that my perspective has changed more RP than combat would be preferable if/when I get back into the realm properly.

If anyone is interested, last night’s new character was for the TMNT After the Bomb variant setting Mutants in Avalon, making a Goat Soldier. I forgot how much fun making TMNT characters is mostly from the variety of options for mutant animals. Never got that game book when we were playing in the late 80s and early 90s and I laughed liked a drain when I read that in post-apocolyptic Britain even the animals have their own social class ranking. Because of course they do! :joy:

Next up is probably another TMNT ATB world which I do remember us playing: Mutants Down Under. And over the weekend probably relook at the various Doctor Who and Star Trek systems once more, both the old versions I remember and the newer releases for comparison.

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I can’t agree with that. I have had happy results with a number of later systems: Big Eyes Small Mouth (1997), Mage: The Ascension (1993), Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG (2002). I’m not sure if I’d call FUDGE a “system”—it’s more a toolkit for making up your own system—but it dates to 1992.

What I would say is that often enough, the later editions have not been improvements. I feel that Big Eyes Small Mouth, Mage: The Ascension, and RuneQuest were all at their best in their second editions and have gone in undesirable directions subsequently.

In my San Diego campaigns, I typically ran one high-combat campaign and one high-roleplaying campaign; there might be a third that went in some other direction. On the other hand, I once described my high-combat campaigns to a fellow gamer on the Steve Jackson newsgroups, and he said that his players would consider what I described to be “low-combat.”

So, for example, in my last campaigns in San Diego, World Class (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying) was about a team of mismatched superheroes, but Tapestry (GURPS) was about a multiracial consortium pioneering long distance oceanic trade . . .

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As a scientist by inclination and training, I want to measure this. Fights per hour of play?

The GURPS Monster Hunters game I’m running at the moment is higher combat than most of mine, and is probably about one per three.

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Two of my three groups would have felt short changed with less than three “action” scenes - combats or chases - per two or three hour gaming session, regardless of the system. I think that is why Star Wars worked best with my main group: combat was quick and easy plus they revelled in being members of the Rebellion sticking it to the Empire in quickfire scenarios involving lots of sneaking, subterfuge and guerilla raids.

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A typical high-combat campaign for me was my second Champions campaign, Pulp Heroes. Following the model of a lot of classic comic book stories, it would have one session where the PCs figured out who the bad guys were, and had a couple of minor skirmishes, and then one session with a big fight with the main bad guy and his or her henchmen. So call it maybe one fight per three or four hours (my sessions being five or six hours, typically).


I should add my third gaming group were more thoughtful and into the roleplaying and exploration aspects much more. Our sessions in that group were generally longer - 6 to 8 hours on a Saturday or Sunday - and would usually have two or three combats all day. We mostly played AD&D with them rather than other systems.

My San Diego campaigns had a different organizational structure. I didn’t have three distinct, discrete groups. I had one big pool of players—at its peak, around 16—and each time I started a new cycle of campaigns, I would pick three campaigns that got a lot of votes and sort players out according to which one they preferred. I did have three or four players who habitually liked high-action campaigns (for example, all three of them were in my Buffyverse campaign), but even they didn’t always end up together.

The analogy I like was that for me, a gaming group wasn’t a “club” that was created by the agreement of the members to come together and that belonged to them; it was a “dinner party” that was created by my inviting those particular people to play in that campaign.

I’m not saying that everyone should follow that model! But it does seem to me to avoid one of the common liabilities of gaming: The sense that the only games that are acceptable are those that every member of a particular group is willing to play in. In my approach, if player A doesn’t like game x, I put them into campaign y or z instead. This suits me, because I tend to approach gaming as an auteur: I want a lot of creative freedom.

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I agree that this is a pleasing setup, but some groups definitely have the ethos that it’s this particular lot of people first. (This is where I usually link to the Geek Social Fallacies.)

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It seems to me to be a collectivist way of thinking: Everything in the group, nothing outside the group, nothing against the group. I’m too resolutely an individualist to be comfortable with that approach. And at least in San Diego, I had enough social capital that people were willing to game with me without getting to form nucleated groups.

Speaking of character creation, I’m going to be working with two of my players today. They’re in my historical fantasy campaign Tapestry, but it’s about to shift modes from trade ventures to a military expedition, and they don’t feel that their characters are suited to combat (one of them deliberately built a character with 200 character points and no combat skills other than one point in Brawling); but the players were agreed that they wanted to carry on with the campaign rather than start a new one. So they’re building new characters. They’ve decided to try a different race, and one that none of the established PCs belong to, so they’re creating a brother and sister who are both elves—one of the things they’ll need to decide is which elven culture they come from, as there are up to four different options in the general region.