Saturday, April 2, 2011

B: Beginnings -- what works best for your game?

Aah, the rustle of fresh unmarked character sheets. The clatter of dice as they hit the table (if one is using dice), the rulebooks scattered about, the grumbling as one loses every pencil in reach to curious cats within five minutes of starting. It's character-making time!

While one could post happily about what character generation methods are preferred and/or "optimal" -- when a game offers more than one generation method -- that's not what this entry is about. Rather two different topics are going to be brushed on, those being beginning "experience" and beginning background ... or lack thereof.

What level of experience -- be it in levels, character generation points allowed, or what have you -- is one of those crucial factors for a newly started game that is often overlooked. After all, the beginning is the beginning, right? Crank out those first-level mooks and lets start after those giant rats, folks! Go go go! And, speaking as someone who loves the low levels in D&D (that's what this blog is geared towards, after all ~), I think there's a great deal to be said about starting right from ground level as it were. There's a hell of a lot of character development that can be had so long as said character survives, of course.

But what about a group that wants to begin with established heroes/villains/adventurers/sheep? Is there something somehow "badwrong" about beginning characters at a higher level or, as in Shadowrun say, with a greater allotment of resources with which to make a fresh character -- can't that character have just as much depth and development as a baseline character?

Of course they can, says I. There's no magic line of death that says "You Must Be Below This XP Or You Will Never Be A Good Starting Character". However, for an experienced starting PC to be believable, at least in my experience, that boost in beginning competence must be backed up by a certain level of background detail explaining just where that experience came from. One does not just mysteriously start out in life as a crack sharpshooter/well-known mercenary/budding master arcanist/head of a small priory, after all; it all has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is likely to require at least a bit more detail than the stereotypical youngster fresh off the farm or out of lessons.

(well, unless you're playing the original Dark Sun. but starting at third level isn't the same thing when it's assumed that those levels are just a reflection of how only the strong manage to survive to adventuring age ;3)

This brings us up to subject number two, which is: how much detail is needed in a beginning character's background? Of course this is an even more subjective topic, and one could simply wave a hand and say "as much as the GM requires" or some other such bland commentary, but I personally would say that unless the game is planned to be a meat grinder at least a sketch of a background is a Good Thing. Name, description, age, I-came-from-here-and-did-this-and-this-is-why-I'm-killing-monsters-to-take-their-stuff -- that's a bare minimum. Some further goal, however sketchy, is appreciated; I like to see it when players give me character information and I try to encourage it, because it shows an interest in their characters as more than just stats on a page (and it gives me convenient hooks). If a character is more experienced, I want to see more details -- because I want to know where that experience came from.

It's not necessary to fill in every hole, of course; some of the most fun can come from developments in-game, even background developments ("The trauma of the goblin invasion made my mage suppress that his cousin was taken by them! Now he's guilt-ridden -- and wants to kill the goblins bad!").

At the other end of the spectrum are the beginnings that take up pages and pages of lovingly-crafted detail. These sorts of characters are sometimes mocked in gamer circles, but (as exasperating as it can be for some of us when we haven't asked for them) they have their own place and some gaming groups prefer that level of informational detail. At that, many freeform roleplay groups positively dote on pages-long beginning backgrounds and it is here that such information is especially useful, because it offers the chance to codify the abilities of the character usually offered by hard numbers in "traditional" rpgs.

So, all that being said -- where do you like your beginnings to begin?


Chris said...

Interesting, thought-provoking stuff. Again!

Q1: 0xp, 3d6 in order, pick class.
I don't play in Dark Sun or Zalchis (14th level starting characters?! *nosebleed*) so starting from zero isn't ZOMGsuicide!!1!

IMXP people who have to bring a replacement character into a higher-level party seem to positively enjoy rocketing up the early levels by coat-tailing their more experienced buddies...

Q2: The GM requireth three sentences about the new precious snowflake, or rolls on the broad brush culture and Dungeon Motivation tables if that's too much like work. ;)

Then, in the words of The Mighty One:

Character? That tends to be something that emerges during play.

Player 1: "How do you know about {stuff that a successful Int check says a PC conventiently recalls}?"
Player 2: "I used to {contrived piece of spontaneous backstory goes here}."

Anonymous said...

In Traveller, as you rolled up your character, you could gain experience/skills. You aged the longer you were in the service or whatever profession until you mustered out. Then, as a PC, all of the rolled events and training were a great source for a background story :)

trollsmyth said...

Chris: How did I miss your "broad brush culture" table before? Great stuff!

Taichara: As a DM, I want the worst of all possible: start with 0 xp and something like a hundred words of background. That just seems to work best for my games, if we're talking about your fairly standard dungeon-delving fun time.

That said, I have (even most recently) started games otherwise. I've just started a rather odd game with a stronger emphasis on social situations where we've gone with a fairly limited skeleton of a background that we will flesh out through play and where the PC begins at 3rd level. The PC is also starting out fabulously wealthy, there are no plans for a single dungeon-delve, and advancement is completely divorced from treasure or killing, so yeah, a very odd game entirely. But those do happen, and they require their own, special set-up.