Oct 27

Character Generation is Play


For the Players, the first stage of a story arc is to generate the Heroes. When the rules are familiar, this process may occur alone. Character generation feels like an exam for the Players to pass before the fun of roleplaying can begin. At other times, the GM may schedule one-to-one meetings to walk each Player through the chore of building their Hero.For the Players, the first stage of a story arc is to generate the Heroes. When the rules are familiar, this process may occur alone. Character generation feels like an exam for the Players to pass before the fun of roleplaying can begin. At other times, the GM may schedule one-to-one meetings to walk each Player through the chore of building their Hero.


Character generation does not have to be this way. There is an alternative to the solo, exam or one-to-one meeting options described above. Character generation is part of roleplaying, so why not simply run it like a standard session for your group? Character generation IS play.




Building the Team as a Group

The previous session of our Tales of the Hero Wars campaign involved character generation for The Happiest Apocalypse on Earth. It is always fun to hang out with my wonderful Players. A character generation session is not quite the same as a standard session, but it remains enjoyable. If you think of character generation as part of play, then it makes sense to run it as a standard session.


There are several benefits to this approach. Firstly, it is probably faster to build Heroes in a group and avoids the GM having to walk through the rules multiple times in a series of individual meetings. Playing at the regular time also limits scheduling conflicts. Building as a group helps to limit overlapping characters. Each Player sees the roles of the other Heroes as they are being assigned. Gaps or overlaps in the abilities of the team can be discussed and addressed easier at this stage of the process.


Another advantage comes from simply building the group as a group. The tone of a story arc is strongly influenced by the Heroes who make up the team. When all the Players are present, then they all have an input into the composition of the team. Players are used to making suggestions and bouncing ideas off each other during play. These behaviours also help the character generation process. Running character generation as play ensures greater coherence in the themes and styles of the Heroes.



Making New Pals

The greatest benefit of building characters together is how well the Players know the other Heroes from the start of the story arc. The Heroes need not be best friends, but everyone will know at least a little background for the other members of the team. It thus feels more natural for the group to be a group and not a random band of strangers thrown into danger.


Of course, some stories want exactly this beginning. If a major thread of the arc is for the Heroes to learn about each other, then group creation is not the right way to start. Generally, the Heroes begin the story arc as an established team. This implies a strong measure of shared history between the Heroes. Creating Heroes as a group reinforces the unity of the group.


Our recent character generation for The Happiest Apocalypse on Earth demonstrated a superb method of building a shared history. As a tool for building connections to other Heroes, creating Pal modifiers, the rules provide a set of questions. In turn, each Player read out a question to the group. Anyone was free to answer the background question, which then established a story and Pal link between those Heroes. This two-way connection was a clever representation of shared history and something I will adopt for other games.



DramaSystem Webs

Another way we create links between the Heroes is to play through part of the character creation process from Robin D Laws’ DramaSystem. This highly interactive process builds a web of relationships between the characters. A second stage adds a series of unmet needs into the web too. DramaSystem then explores these relationships as the core story engine of the game.


Most RPGs are not so tightly focused on the relationships between the Heroes. Yet, we have found many benefits from creating DramaSystem webs to portray relationships between individuals and groups. Our last three story arcs all included a session brainstorming a web of relationships prior to the creation of individual Heroes. Most of the subsequent Heroes were taken from the webs we created together as a group. Even these pre-character generation sessions were entertaining when Players are creative.



Juggling the Players

For all the benefits to the group arising from creating characters together, this is not always simple for the GM. When these sessions are in full-flow I have a real sense of needing to juggle the Players. I walk everyone through the process one step at a time, but there are always questions from individual Players. I am happy to explain a point in detail, but the risk is that another Player will then rush ahead. Our group has Players with different levels of gaming experience, which may contribute to this issue.


It is wonderful that Players are excited about their new Heroes, but the whole point is to work through the process as a group. If everyone builds their characters together step-by-step, then every decision is made with the understanding of what the other Players are doing. In this way, Heroes carve out their own space without stepping on another’s role. My Players are very good when I remind them of the need to work through character generation as a team. Yet, this is one issue a GM should be aware of and ready to remind Players of the group nature of the process.



Character creation is often dismissed as a solo task to be completed prior to the campaign beginning. However, there are many benefits to building Heroes in a group. Make character creation the focus of a group session and start the team-building process before the first dice are rolled. Personal relationships between the Heroes and an understanding of everyone’s background are built so much easier when the Players are together. You will soon see that character generation makes for a fun session because character generation IS play.


Have you tried creating Heroes together? Which mini-games help to build shared personal relationships between the Heroes? Have you played DramaSystem is this way? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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    • DM Dave on November 2, 2017 at 5:07 pm
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    Here’s a nice alternative system for generating each character’s ability scores in a way that adds to the Team Building experience…


    • Phil on November 2, 2017 at 7:37 pm
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    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for sharing you stats matrix. The idea of Players negotiating between themselves is a cool idea. Do you have a way to solve disputes where two Players want the best lines? Not every row has a 17 in it!

    All the best

    • DM Dave on November 2, 2017 at 9:43 pm
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    The players need to work out any disputes as a team. Certainly, the process will expose the Munchkins of the group – which might be helpful for the watchful DM. If two players insist on the same line and can’t come to a resolution by talking it out, well, I guess that’s what the dice are for… head to head d20s and high roll gets first dibs 🙂

      • Phil on November 3, 2017 at 7:51 pm
      • Reply

      Hi Dave,

      Yes, that system would work great as a Munchkin alert!

      Rolling a d20 would be a simple solution when Players will not agree. I would look at a complex trading system:
      “If I can have that set, I will trade you one point of CON.”
      “If I can have that set, I will trade you one point of CON and one point of CHA.”

      Keep going until both Players agree the trade. Of course, the “best” array is suddenly not so good, and another set of numbers just improved. The trading deals could be interesting.

      All the best

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