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The Douchey DM » General Gaming » Should Characterization Be Part of the Rules?

Should Characterization Be Part of the Rules?

It’s strange how some games do not address character personality at all (or only very vaguely, like with alignment) while other games build PC characterization into the system.

If you look at several character sheets from different games, some give you insight into the character, and some don’t. Take a game like Mongoose Traveller for example. Traveller gives you no clue as to what the character is like. It’s all stats, skills and equipment.

Look at a Savage Worlds or GURPS character sheet. Drawbacks, disadvantages help define a character’s personality most of the time.

Is one better than the other?

I’m not sure.

In my experience, character generation between these disparate systems tends to happen in opposite order.

When I roll up a Traveller character, I take a look at the completed character and try to determine what sort of personality this collection of numbers might have. If I make a character that can’t make a single survival roll, maybe he’s a little kooky and can’t hold a job. I’ll often let the different careers determine his personality as well.

With systems that have disads and drawbacks, it normally works in the opposite direction — even more so because they tend to be point-buy systems. I come up with a character concept and personality first, then buy the stats, skills, ads and disads to build the character sheet as close as I can to my concept.

Many people have a preference for one method or the other. I personally count myself as a point-buy, concept-first player.

Then again, I’ve had an enormous amount of fun playing character concepts I never would have consciously created.

I’ve also seen players build detailed character personalities that rival anything created in a detailed chargen system, using a game that stays completely away from characterization, DnD4e.

I think if a player has a tendency to come up with creative character concepts, it’s going to happen whether there are rules there for it or not.




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Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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7 Responses to "Should Characterization Be Part of the Rules?"

  1. shortymonsterNo Gravatar says:

    Thinking about CP2020 a lot at the minute, as in a couple of months I will be running it for almost a year, and they have the space on the sheet for personality stuff and background info that doesn’t affect stats and gameplay much at all (maybe a few life path results). The fun comes during the game when players draw on these things to gain an advantage, or even a disadvantage if it’s fun to role play.

    This means people who thrive on that kind of thing can play to their heart’s content, but less roleplay savvy players aren’t forced into it or stymied if they don’t play along. In my experience, they get to see how it’s done and maybe give it a shot later in the game.

    This is the kind of middle ground I like when running a game, but playing; I prefer the savage worlds way.

  2. OberonVikingNo Gravatar says:

    I tend to make the stats first, then figure out a personality, though I have plenty of characters built from personality first and these ones tend to be more memorable.

    I’m curious though, what about as GM? Which method do you prefer or use most as GM?

  3. Andreas DavourNo Gravatar says:

    I have found that when I roll some dice, and then try to figure the character out in play, that character tends to be more dynamic and real. It also keeps longer.

    When I decide from the start, and especially when it’s point buy, I often end up with a one trick pony. Maybe I’m just bad at designing a personality complex enough, but I tire more quickly of the characters I did not generate randomly.

    Now, this feels like a blog post of my own coming up, when I start to think how this differ in new school Forge games, which are often crunch heavy with regards to personality….

  4. jwilsonNo Gravatar says:

    I usually figure out what i want out of my character first and then make it. being a gurps guy through and through this has lead to me taking disadvantages past my allowed amount for free because its what i want to do. Alot of point sysyems tend to encourage players to take more disads just for the point, and i get it, but then you end up with 50 points of stupid or lame disadvantages. when i lead ive gotten rid of the point cap and told my players if it makes sense with your character do it and take the points just dont screw me over with ennuch no sense of taste and others that dont progress the game enjoyment

  5. Andreas DavourNo Gravatar says:

    It did indeed turn into a post of its own.

    Interesting subject.

  6. Philo PharynxNo Gravatar says:

    I usually start with the rules of a character, then that will often perk my muses’ interest and she will come up with a personality. Which often means that I have to rebuild my character to match the new personality. 🙂

    As for characterization being part of the rules, I like it to some extent. But a few games, especially Hero System, get into what I call “Grubbing for Disads”. The point buy guidelines give a maximum point value and a limit for disadvantages. Most players take the maximum amount of disadvantages to get the most points. If you don’t do this, you’ll often find yourself unable to keep up gainst the challenges. So you need to find diasads that fit your character and aren’t too crippling.

    On the other hand I like the way M&M does a lot of these types of issues. Your complications don’t give you extra points to build your character, they give you hero points if they come up during the game. So you can come up with a set that feels more organic and less forced. At least in my view.

  7. @RA_WhippleNo Gravatar says:

    I roll them up and do not worry about it. I am not a player vs. player character wall type. My PC and I achieve Cosmic Oneness at the game table. Believe me when I say ability scores will naturally direct me to the betterment of the character’s own longevity, which can either be a character’s challenge playing me or a liberator playing me in character. The GM puts me into imaginative situations where I respond given my abilities/tools written on the character sheet. I am resourceful. My character is resourceful. Together, we work with what we’ve got.

    I figure I am there to play a game and make a contribution to the group. If I have a low intelligence, I will argue my ideas as much as if I have a high intelligence. If I hear a trap within the DM’s descriptive narration, I will blurt out my suspicion even if I am stupid so long as I am with the others in the party. (Note I am not distinguishing my person from my character here!) If some guy decides that I have a higher ability score than my character’s 6 Intelligence Ability Score and wants to metagame… fine. I will be at the back and around the corner before the explosion.

    And if a GM wants to overrule that because everyone is killed except the dumbass with the 6 INT, then he’s a douche to me. Sue me if my character is an idiot savant!

    It’s not the low scores that keep me from trying. I would try in real life (supposing I had better ability scores in real life or just a plain positive attitude). The low ability scores keep me from succeeding. Rather than failing in a competitive gave, the collaborative nature (I was introduced to) of RPGs means I get to try again. I get to take a static character on paper and make him a dynamic one at the table.

    The original concept of Alignments (keeping to the discussion of personality) was to help a DM grade experience points. It functions much the way a resume helps an HR manager rather than a job seeker. Did I earn a grade of E,S,F, or P? (pg 86 AD&D DMG) And /some/ classes required stereotypical player personality consistency.

    The important piece for me in role-playing is my profession/class choice. I can build that profession from whole cloth or I can pick from off-the-rack. If I want to play a Media in Cyberpunk 2020 I can choose several “alignment” paths but I am certainly more apt to play a more political savvy Media person whereas a Solo might not be that savvy. Even then we can apply “your mileage may vary.” A Solo could rise with level to lead a large mercenary condottieri corporation and a Media could rise with level to the Carl Kolchak working for an underground Independent New Service…. But this would suggest a more dynamic character in the former than the latter class as they level.

    Should characterization be legislated into existence? My feeling is that if you need to do that, you’re no longer playing an RPG. It is akin to a loveless marriage and the two uneasy parents (GM and players) together for the children (characters). Legislation only furthers _souless_control by the book, and personality takes _soul_contribution_ not just a ceremonial ring and a legal document. Getting married is the worst thing to happen to a relationship in some anecdotes, and I would hazard a metaphor like that would equally apply to RPGs – taking my experience from over-ruled DMs in improved (legislated with the best of intentions) Dungeons & Dragons.

    So I am thinking very Old School: pre character-player walls of Jericho. I am content to have the Master of the Game tell me if I fail or succeed but I sure as hell will give it the old college try whatever the odds! Same as I would in my life. I might not be a leader personality-type if another player/character has better leadership stats and/or wants to lead at the table. It would certainly add dramatic tension, without GM input, if our characters all hated each other too…

    …I suppose if I wanted to be a douche bag I could debate the shit out of other players and emphasize to them that I’m just playing my character. Never heard of such a person being invited to, well, anywhere come to think about it… I guess it could be okay in a game of fun. But not at my table.

    Please let’s not legislate character into existence. The hobby has enough with which to contend already.

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