I sometimes wonder what my “perfect” RPG system would be. And most of the time, when I wonder this, I often assemble in my head a synthesis of several games I like and the things I like about them.
This particular bout of wonder came up after a discussion about Savage Worlds and the lack of PC uniqueness, and I started assembling in my head the various ways games give us the ability to make unique player characters.
Method One – Theater of the Mind
This is what I call the Savage Worlds method. You can often end up with mechanically similar characters, and the way you differentiate these characters is with trappings. In essence, your description or narration provides uniqueness to the characters. This uniqueness, however, is a thin veneer. Ultimately, your fighter, paladin, thief, brigand, highwayman, etc., all have one underpinning game mechanic that defines them: The Fighting Skill.
With the right sort of group, however, this method can provide a great deal of uniqueness in story-related terms, as long as the players accept the narrative.
In some ways, the various version of DnD, with very little in the way of story-related rules, rely on this method to create unique characters. Various character flaws and traits (that have no mechanical consequence but plenty of role-play consequence) are created out of thin air by player fiat.
Method Two – The Menu
Simply put, this method provides a list of things players can pick and choose to create a unique character.
In modern DnD iterations this shows up as feats, and modern version of DnD rely on long lists of feats for players to build mechanical uniqueness into their characters. Otherwise you assemble six attributes, plus a combination of race and class., which often, if going by some players’ lines of thinking, only provide a few “right” ways to build certain classes.
Additionally, we find both mechanical and story related uniqueness provide in other games with advantages, disadvantages, drawback, edges, etc.
The point of this is that the game provides the players with a menu of item to pick from, and the larger the menu, the more choices and both mechanical and story-related uniqueness you’re likely to find.
Games that uses this, besides DnD, include Savage Worlds, GURPS, Hero, L5R, The biggest drawback with the Menu Method is that your menu can get rather long (take DnD 4th Edition and its thousands of feats).
Method Three – The Toolkit
When it comes to mechanically unique characters, the toolkit is king. Take HERO or GUPRS as an example. Both systems provide not only an enormous number of options, but the ability for the players to build their own options within the system. It is not hyperbole to say you can build ANY character in HERO. The drawback to using a toolkit is that you are often met with a daunting, or at least complex, character generation process.
When it comes to story-related uniqueness, the closest thing I can think of to a tool kit it FATE. FATE frees up the players from a list of menu items to anything they can think of. in the form of aspects.