Sunday, July 8, 2012

Character personality as crunch

I read a post on The Douchey DM, by Stu from Happy Jacks RPG Podcast. He posts on the topic of whether character personality chould be part of the game mechanics. I have on more than one occasion in both posts and blog comments mentioned how I by far prefer to randomly generate my characters and than designing them through, e.g., point by systems.
For me it works better by far to play the character and in play develop personality traits. When I don't, I find more often than not that I run out of ideas and the character becomes a one trick pony.

Now, what happens when the character personality and psychology is supported by game mechanics?

I think the crunch heavy game, where I get to game (so to speak) the personality, it works better for me. Even if I decide beforehand some character traits, I tend to get more out of them if I can use them as an excuse to roll dice. Maybe it's because most games have some kind of mechanic for those traits to change and develop. It kind of is a way to support my implied way of developing a character with a game system.

Interestingly enough, many new school game, like those from the Forge community, are not only quite crunch heavy but also quite "in your face" when it comes to supporting the psychology and personality of the character and its relationships with game mechanics.

Thus, we have three groups of games.

1. the old school game where there's not much game mechanical support for anything but combat.
2. the 2nd generation game where the designers left the random tables behind and you "can build anything". Premier examples are GURPS and Hero.
3. the new school game with few rules, but they often focus on the character personalities and interpersonal activities.

What I find interesting is how this is also something of a chronological series. Really new games and old ones have interesting similarities for supporting a style of play where you "game the personalities of your character. One game by leaving you to your own devices, and the other by focusing the rules on that thing.

For me this explains why I find some games so fascinating, but still can't make them work for me. This is also why I do things like this, where I try to merge the qualities I like most from games of different eras and generations. The true test of skills would of course be to find a way to hack GURPS to be what I want.


  1. I like GURPS for many of the parts that are not points-based character generation, especially several of the sourcebooks... I used to have some house rules that made character generation more random, starting with rolling 3d6 for ability scores - and I never gamed it, because all the GURPS players I knew were point-buy fanatics, or house-rules averse, or both :(

  2. In King Arthur Pendragon, personality traits are treated much like other skills (i.e. RQ/BRP skills divided by 5 to give a 1-20 range). It doesn't detract from the roleplaying, but does work well to connect the player characters (and their actions) to the cultural values of the society in which they live. I have been thinking quite hard about adapting this to a more straightforward fantasy adventure RPG (OpenQuest is the current target), and David Dunham (of King of Dragon Pass computer game 'fame') created a Pendragon hack (PenDragon Pass) set in Glorantha.

  3. Good catch there, DrBargle! I am a distant fan of Pendragon. I'm not sure I'd like to play it, but some parts are just excellent.


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