Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Random Characters from RPGs

I should quickly clarify that the "RPG" I'm referring to here is a "role-playing game," not a "rocket propelled grenade." Just thought I should make that clear. The image of the latter is rather humorous, though...

A while back, I gave a rather disparaging review of random systems for generating story ideas and plots. The condensed version of that entry is basically that while randomness can be great for background and setting, plots really need to have more internal consistency than randomness can give. In addition to setting, however, I find that some of the various random character generation systems found in role-playing games can be quite useful. First of all, an RPG is nothing more than the modern evolution of oral storytelling. The fact that the "audience" participates in the story is not even a new idea. The character that you play in these games is, by definition, a hero, one of the protagonists of the story. Just as in a novel, in order for the character you generate to be satisfying, he needs to be both larger than life, but at the same time complex enough to seem real. The character generation systems take these twin needs into account.

Some systems are better for our purposes than others. The point-based systems, such as GURPS (Generic Universal Roleplaying System), allow you to design a character that exactly meets your specifications. There's no randomness involved, and in fact the only limitation you face at all is the number of points you have been given to spend. The problem with these systems is that they tend to generate one-dimensional characters. A good character has flaws and internal conflicts, and by definition, those conflicts should be something the character doesn't want to have. Sure, GURPS and its ilk allow you to take "disadvantages" that give you more points to spend, but they rarely have a large effect on your character.

Some systems, such as the D20 system (which we simply called Dungeons and Dragons when I was playing -- how times change), skirt the whole issue by making the character a young, inexperienced person just leaving home to make their way in the world. The assumption is that nothing of significance has happened to your character yet, and it is the events of the game itself that will provide those conflicts and the depth of character that arises from them. Unfortunately, most of us don't have time to play a game for several months just to develop a single character.

A few systems, however, allow you to play an experienced character with a rich background. Because that background is more-or-less randomly determined (within certain structures that the player decides), there is a very real possiblity for "bad stuff" to happen to the character. Even before he begins play, he's got conflicts that affect his life and the way he deals with it. I think one of the best systems for generating science fiction characters is the classic version of Traveller.* While it can often take quite a while to generate a character that can fill the role you need (that is the disadvantage of random systems), when you do get one, you'll find that character to be much richer than anything you likely would have thought of on your own. By using one of the various character generation utilities such as that included with GRiP (Generic Roleplaying for Internet Players), you can generate and discard characters very quickly, drastically reducing the time needed to find the right character. Unlike the roleplayer, you aren't looking for the "perfect" character, you're looking for a "colorful" character, one whose background is rich and complex. There is even a a series of books called Heroes of Legend, Heroes Now!, and Heroes of Tomorrow that allow you to generate very detailed random backgrounds, but it's always been my experience that system isn't self-consistent enough to produce anything that makes sense. And because the system takes a long time to generate a single character, it's very difficult to get a character that meets a specific need. Your mileage may vary, however.

Properly used, role-playing games can be a great tool for writers. This is one area in which I think a little randomness is what keeps the world interesting.

*For near future characters, 2300AD (formerly Traveller:2300) is hard to beat...

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