Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Menus Aid Character Creation


For me character creation is like ordering from a menu. People have some idea what they want to play or eat, and a menu helps them decide exactly what they order in the context of the game or restaurant. Character creation is an essential step in playing in a roleplaying game, just as ordering food is a required part of enjoying a meal at a restaurant. The process isn’t the main endeavor but a necessary prelude. The sooner one creates a character or orders food, the sooner one moves on to the primary and more fulfilling activity.

I prefer game rules that easily allow me to teach newcomers, both experienced gamers trying a new system and complete novices to roleplaying games as a whole. Although I usually rely on basic pre-generated characters when running games at conventions, when starting a new group (either as a gamemaster or player myself) I prefer a relatively easy character creation process. Like ordering food at a good restaurant, menus aid that process.

I like restaurants with simple menus. That doesn’t necessarily mean the food isn’t good or the meals simplistic; it means the restaurant focuses on a few really excellent dishes, enough that my choices fit on one or two pages. I can peruse a brief, well-organized menu and find something I like so I can get on with the enjoyment of the meal and those with whom I’m sharing it. Many family style franchise restaurants have menus with multiple, full-color pages splattered with loud typefaces and tempting photographs of various menu items. Nobody has time to comprehend all that information and make an informed choice based on their tastes and appetites, especially with some harried waiter pestering your table for its orders.

Menus help us connect what a restaurant offers with what we as diners desire based on our tastes and appetite. Too much information presented on too many pages with too many loud typefaces and photographs distracts us from making an informed decision and thus threatens the enjoyment of our overall dining experience.

Like a good restaurant menu, an effective character creation menu -- at least for my gaming tastes -- remains concise yet varied. I prefer character creation systems to have a few basic choices, well organized like a menu, that help me order up something I’ll enjoy playing in the game. Certainly some gamers prefer tomes of character creation rules and options, with massive lists of feats from which to customize their heroes. This approach characterizes a certain style of game that often proves daunting to newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby. Although I myself once dove head-first into vast tomes of game rules, as I get older and find myself with less time to both learn and play new games. I’m drifting toward easier game engines with shorter start-up times and lower learning curves; much of that boils down to a streamlined yet meaningful character creation system.

I love the D6 System, especially as presented in the classic Star Wars Roleplaying Gameby West End Games. It was among the first innovative, skill-based game engines to allow players to choose a general character template -- in this case based on a stereotype from the Star Warsfilms -- customize it by adding a few dice to boost some characteristic skills, and dive into playing. While this isn’t a menu per se, it helps illustrate my affinity for a quick and easy character creation systems with a basic yet expandable core game mechanic.

Two relatively recent games -- Old School Hack and Dungeon World -- exemplify for me the furthest refinement of putting everything one needs for character creation right on the character sheet…and they both manage part of it using menus. (I’m sure other roleplaying games out there embrace the simplicity and clarity of this menu technique, whether on the character sheet itself or in character creation rules and class descriptions, but I’m focusing on two I’ve recently enjoyed.)

Old School Hack -- a retro-clone, dungeon-delving style game -- describes each iconic fantasy class on single-page sheets, complete with a list of exceptional “talents” (special abilities) from which players can choose. Players essentially use a character sheet to record specifics of their character and reference the class sheet for class-specific game rules. Using Old School Hack’s  “awesome point” mechanic during gameplay, players can spend points to activate talents they haven’t yet gained, making easy reference to class talents important in showing that class’ potential. The game’s overall presentation works extremely well for referencing rules, with each page serving almost as a player or gamemaster handout presenting rather clearly all the rules on a given subject.

I recently had a chance to play an early version of Dungeon World -- a “hack” of the popular Apocalypse Worldthat uses a very similar approach -- which goes one step further and puts everything one needs on one, double-sided, class-based character sheet. Aside from the stats, this includes a multiple-choice menu of sorts from which players check off elements for their character. I went into the game session knowing I tend to play dwarven fighters in fantasy roleplaying games. I picked the fighter from the available classes; one of my first choices was “race,” so I checked off “dwarf” and noted any special rules or “moves” allowed by that choice. “Alignment” was also one of the first categories, with each choice including a short description of how that related to one’s class. My “starting moves” included several actions exclusive to fighters, but then a menu-driven “signature weapon” move that allowed me to customize my dwarf’s axe with a few special abilities. Determining one’s gear also used a menu checklist with certain limitations. The sheet even included appropriate lists from which to choose names and aspects of one’s appearance (which inevitably led to numerous jokes about the paladin’s stunning hair).

Both games remove the element of referencing character elements from the rulebook and put it right on the character sheet itself, streamlining things further by employing menus to some degree.

These games illustrate an extreme of sorts. Rather than sending players into vast tomes of character creation rules and options, they concisely list a representative menu of options players can choose on class-oriented character sheets. Like most of my choices in game design, my tendencies lean toward some middle ground closer to the more beginner-friendly technique rather than one extreme or the other. While putting every option in a menu on the character sheet is a bit more than I prefer in my own game design endeavors, it proves the effectiveness of clearly and concisely providing character creation rules and options in one place (even if still in a rulebook).