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Netflyer 33

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The Generation Game

Origin of the PCs Revisited
Way back in White Dwarf 70-odd, Pete Tamlyn won Punslinger of the Year 1986 with his learned article, Origin of the PCs. Times have changed, so letís take another look at the subject.
This article has been provoked by my own experience - after years as a referee, Iím getting involved as a player in two major campaigns. The tortuous births of Baron Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin and The Energetic and Modest KotŠru hiShathirin have been with me throughout the writing [1].
Pete Tamlyn framed much of his original discussion in terms of the choice between character generation - largely random - and character design. That seems as good a point of departure as any.

Generation - Kotáru hiShathirin
Kotaru was "rolled up" using the Tirikelu [2] system. A central plank of the character generation system is a D&D-esque process of simply rolling attributes.
Itís easy to knock holes in the random design system. Itís not "fair". Itís not "logical". It often used to be claimed that "if players donít like the results, theyíll suicide their characters and get new ones". Presumably such childish players can be forgiven their grammatical errors, but Iíd prefer to stay away from a game with one. But it is hard to accept with complete equanimity a character with no grand flaws, just a kind of hotchpotch incompetence. Fortunately, Kotáru isnít such a character. But I suspect Iíd not be enjoying the game as much if he was...

In defence of randomisation, a few throws of the dice by Lady Fate do a lot to thwart the forces of cliché. Kotáru has Cleverness [3] 20 and Reasoning 3 - an absolute academic failure with a brilliant scheming mind! We lack literary models for this, and a good thing too. In Kotáruís case, this is a stimulating challenge for me.

Another advantage of the generation system is that I was able to produce Kotáru from scratch in about ten minutes, knowing nothing about the Tirikelu system.

Design - Alexandrovich Karenin
The Baron Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin was designed for a game of Traveller using a system Iíve advocated for a long time, GURPS. GURPS has a full-on design system: attributes, training, status, appearance and contacts all have a price, with a budget set by the referee.
Now, itís all very well putting detailed design rules in, but one of the reasons it had been so long since Iíd designed a character in GURPS was that I simply didnít have the energy - Iíd let whoever was refereeing do it for me.
Now, with both a campaign and a character I could really get excited about, Iíd been looking forward to designing Karenin.

Karenin took me eight hours to design - and this given ten years familiarity with the system and a very clear character conception to work from. But that wasnít the only problem.
In fact, the firm preconception I had was itself a real obstacle. The aim of character design systems is to allow you to design exactly the character you want, within reason. But this only works if the character fits the system. Superficially, GURPS allows anything. In fact, thereís an envelope of efficient designs which, while broad, excludes many perfectly reasonable character concepts.
The GURPS point system pretty much requires that you choose particular complementary abilities. We see a lot of sneaky, acrobatic warrior types, because if you buy high Dexterity to boost your combat skills, you might as well spend a few coppers to become an all round Olympic gymnast. You can get a similarly fearsome bruiser by making him strong and tough, but the fringe benefits of being able to shadow people, escape from handcuffs, cheat at cards and ride horses just donít come packaged in. Shame.
We also see wizards, engineers or net-runners who also happen to be splendid tacticians, diplomats or doctors.
As I say, itís a broad envelope but there are plenty of perfectly fair designs that just donít fit.

Agreed that the GURPS prices arenít well conceived. But is there a more fundamental problem? Alexei faced a tremendous expense in acquiring the fencing and motorcycle skills he wanted, more as an affectation as anything else. In a fantasy campaign, being able to fight and ride as well as the Baron could would be formidable: in a science fiction campaign, it was mere colour, unlikely to be more than chrome. GURPS aspires to price up characters for any background, and the project seems doomed to fail on those terms [4].
Certainly, any system which prices abilities based on how difficult it is to acquire them, rather than on how useful they will be, will fail to create "fair" characters - which presumably was part of the aim.
One wonders whether we wouldnít be better off using Paul Masonís "Outlaws Light" system [5] :

"Write down what your character is like. Then go through and write a bonus number for each area in which they differ from the average. The number can be positive or negative to indicate aptitude or ineptitude, and can range from 1 to 5 (although most areas should be 1 or 2). If you arenít "mature", then you might want to agree some numerical limits with the referee."
As character design systems go, Iíve seen worse. One might even say it was adequate.

Design and authoriality
Depending on oneís view of the nature of role-playing, character design has a serious flaw, or great benefit.
In the Black Corner, we have White Wolf and the Storytellers [6]. Boo!
In the Corner of Iridescent Holiness, we have me, Dave, Paul and all right-thinking folk.
The bout is to decide whether the players and referee are combining to tell a story - the Black Cornerís viewpoint - or whether plot is something which only exists in retrospect, having arisen from the interaction of fictional personalities.
The Black Corner holds that the character is a storytelling tool: the player should wield this tool to help the other players and the referee produce a good story. We might call this an authorial approach.
The good guys suggest that the pursuit of a good story is self-defeating. The best way to play, we suggest, is to treat your character as a person and think yourself into the role. You may skew what the referee had in mind, but perhaps she should have been more flexible - with a good referee and a mature bunch of players, the outcome will usually be a great story which surprises everyone.
Anyone who has encountered this old chestnut will have their own opinion. Suffice it to say that a self-conscious process of character design is highly authorial and so it plays into the hands of the Storytellers.
In creating Alexandrovich Karenin, I could have been a storyteller and designed a character with a view to helping the referee. Iím glad I didnít, because I am sure the result would have been insipid. Instead I turned myself into the referee for a while. I thought about how he should be played, the kind of political interests he would have, his contacts, his allies, his old lovers and his mortal enemies. This has certainly provided the referee with some material to go on, but at the same time gives him a real headache. This kind of conflict is inevitable in a character design system.

Kotáru grows up
Letís return to Kotáru. I said that Kotáru took about ten minutes to generate, but this was disingenuous of me. Kotáruís character actually took eight hours, just the same as the Baron Karenin.
As Iíve said, while creating Karenin, I was referee for the day. The result was good, I feel. The eight hour generation of Kotáru hiShathirin was better. Having taken a few minutes to put together the basics about Kotáru, and to think a little bit about what he was like, I joined the other players and the referee in a joint prelude.
In Nightflyer 32 I argued that a good prelude might involve some or all of the players, and span many events rather than focusing on a single epiphany. That prelude turned out to be a fantastic session.
As Kotáru grew up we found out about life on Falesa Island, the Hlüss under the pile of stones on the rock, my unexpected enemy, when Kotáruís wife Kala turned the air blue with her curses and whether she was justified, how Kotáruís weird younger cousin, Kishonu hiLanaka is insatiably curious, and what the friendship between Kishonu and Kotáru is really based on.
When the game itself started, we understood how weird The Nom was, and how great the sacrifice of Chondrek hiLanaka, and why we owed the Stranger great honour.

Much as I love Alexei, I wonder which was the better use of eight hours.

A Modest Proposal
Pete Tamlyn set the industry a challenge to produce a game with many ways of producing a character, from a full-fledged design system to a method which would allow fairly detailed characters to be generated with a few quick rolls of the dice - either to allow play to commence quickly, or to allow the referee to produce NPCs.
We havenít seen too many examples of that [7], but here are a few suggestions.
From the anti-authorial viewpoint, a full-fledged design system is not what is required. Instead, we need to think more about the process which produced the person represented on our creased and coffee-stained character sheets. What is her history? Where did he grow up? How did she spend her time when she was young? Who trained him to hold a sword like that? Why is he so nervous of left-handed men? Why wonít she go to confession? And what does all this mean for the numbers on the piece of paper the player holds in his hand?

The player needs a framework to think about these questions. This could be anything from a simple list of points to consider to a programmed prelude along the lines of a gamebook [8] - make choices about your characterís youth, and note down the skill bonuses along the way.
An example:
1 When you were very young, did people say about you:
"Heíll be a great warrior, like his father." (2)
"Such a sickly thing! A miracle he survived." (3)
"Heís got such a sparkle in his eyes." (4)
"Always getting into trouble, that child." (5)
Each answer will affect skills and attribute modifiers, and some may spin the character down unforeseen paths.
Later on, the questions may be a little less mystical. These would be questions about how you spent your adolescence:
78 Now that you are a squire, what do you do with your spare time?
Flirt with the ladies of court (+1 Bard, +1 Etiquette)
Run errands for a castle craftsman (+2 to a Craft skill)
Spend time around the stables (+1 Riding, +1 Animal handling)
Keep training (+2 Sword, -1 Charisma)
Get up to mischief (+1 Stealth, +1 Pickpocket)
Itís possible to go into a lot more detail, but that is probably not appropriate. It may well be appropriate to elaborate, but that is probably best left to the playerís imagination - or even better, some prelude time with the referee present.
The thing that appeals to me about the gamebook format is that it can be made fractal - you can zoom in or out depending on the level of detail you require. To speed the process up, sections of decision-making can be bypassed and given summary statistics:
Train as a squire: +2 Sword, +1 Etiquette, +1 Riding, +1 Strength.
Or, at any point, a one-line summary can be made into a play session lasting anything from a couple of minutes to a whole afternoon. Just how successful was that flirtation with the court ladies? You picked up some skill points, perhaps, but what else: A jealous rival? A reputation? A social disease? A bouncing baby boy? An adoring new friend?

To allow for these fractal possibilities, the generation system needs to be modular. For example, character development could consist of:

  • Potential at birth: attributes, rolled randomly perhaps, or chosen using a point system;
  • Childhood: roll on a table, play it out, or use a programmed scenario;
  • Adolescence: as above;
  • Apprenticeship: as above. Childhood, adolescence and apprenticeship could all be combined in a summary template to save time, if thatís what required - back to the old "character class" system;
  • Careers. Traveller pioneered the idea of describing the training a character had received in terms of one or more careers. Each career, again, can be described by summary statistics or the highlights can be played out.
This process builds a tremendous amount of background detail. It also allows for a significant degree of player choice while avoiding the absurd mathematical trade-offs inherent in a point-based design system.
It has its disadvantages, too. Itís a lot of work for the referee and for the designers - but they love that. Itís also quite incompatible with the "generic" vision of GURPS: character generation is inextricably bound up with the details of the game world. Some people will find that an objection, but for me itís a tremendous way to introduce a game world and a type of campaign.

Iím struck by how little has changed in the hobby since Pete Tamlynís article. I think that a prelude-heavy form of character generation is a step forward, despite the practical objections. Perhaps these ideas are most likely to be carried forward with electronic resources. Until then, the young heroes Alexandrovich Karenin and Kotáru hiShathirin march forward into a bright future.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Imazine Issue 34, available at
Tim Harford

1. As have partners-in-crime Steve Foster, Ralph Lovegrove, Paul Mason, Dave Morris, Frazer Payne and Tim Savin, whose comments have been invaluable and occasionally useful, too.
2. Tirikelu is a system designed by Dave Morris for use in M.A.R. Barkerís world of Tekumel.
3. The best explanation I have seen is "Kirk had cleverness, Spock had reasoning."
4. There are patches for this, of course. Frazer Payne suggested a simple multiplier. The referee spends a few minutes - or hours, more likely - going through the book and applying multipliers to each advantage and skill. Thereís a point break: Primary (x 1), Secondary (x 2/3) and Peripheral (x 1/10). Alexeiís strength is secondary, as is his Baronial status. His theological studies and his fencing are peripheral. On the other hand, his ability to pilot a starfighter is fairly central to the game...
5. You can find Outlaws Light, in Imazine 33 at
6. Also our own Steve Jessop, the man who gave Nightflyer to the Web. He may wish to speak for himself, and you can read his article in Imazine 32:, where it generated both light and heat as all good articles should.
7. The GURPS random character generation system is atrocious. Perhaps this lack of thought about the possibilities of character generation is what caused the finicky design system which powers GURPS.
8. Dave Morris suggested the idea of a gamebook format.