Every TTRPG has a Second Game Inside
A table-top role-playing game development blog
There’s a secret in table-top role-playing games. Hidden inside every ttrpg is another, second system. We don’t like to talk about it. I’m referring, of course, to character creation as a separate, unacknowledged system. A game’s system for character creation and a game’s system for play usually have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
Let’s take the elephant-in-the-room system. Of the many, many methods in Dungeons & Dragons for making a character, none of them mechanically relate to how you play any iteration of the game. You don’t point-buy to resolve tasks in Dungeons & Dragons. You don’t roll 3d6 to see how well you did. Nor do you place an array of numbers in different categories. To defeat an opponent in combat you do not pick Feats and assign skill points.
Why so Different?
The funny thing is, you could. You could easily have a ttrpg with a bidding system for points on a situation-by-situation basis, or a feat-tree-like decision making process, or place an array of numbers in different categories and measure results against a GM’s result matrix. I’m all for exploring that, but, for the sake of making a specific argument here let’s stick to systems that exist.
I assume the separation between two systems to make one stems from the fact that what makes a character creation structure easy and fun is not what makes a play loop engaging. So, part of the unrecognised structure of ttrpgs is that a new player actually has to get used to two different systems for every one. That's a hurtle to entry that should be addressed.
Part of why people are resistant to imagine that there are really two systems at work in their favourite ttrpg is because they don't acknowledge character creation as a system with any legitimacy unto itself. There is a prejudice in the ttrpg industry against folks who sit in their room making characters just for fun, as though that’s some kind of lowly or lesser practice than actual play.
I've had people admit to me, sheepishly, as though confessing a horrible shame, that they would often sit along rolling up characters that would never see actual play. I wish we as a hobby industry would just let people have their fun.
Character Advancement as a Band-Aid Solution
Character advancement structures sometimes offer a partial bridging structure between these two separated systems. But on the whole they exist in bubbles. But there are ttrpgs that have intentionally tried to integrate these two halves, usually with one of two methods.
One method is by ensuring PCs enter play with unrealised characters to force character advancement to fill the roll of character creation. You see this a lot in little micro and indie ttrpgs that are intentionally playing with the concept of chasing a single unified play mechanic across the entire ttrpg. Personally I do not consider finding a way to just not have character creation to be a satisfactory merging of the game's two systems.
The other way I've seen ttrpgs try to merge their character creation system with their play system is with a life-path structure that mimics the play loop. For example, FASA's Star Trek attempted this, having you resolve conflict at different points in your career during character creation to establish your rank, your tours on different starships, and so on. The problem is that character creation structure was more engaging than the actual play loop.
What is the Solution?
Well, I guess that depends on if you see it as a problem. Some systems brag a lot about having unified mechanics and no orphan rules...but ignore how different their character creation structure is. And if it works, that's fine. If people are having fun, that's fine.
But what would a truly unified ttrpg look like, with the same system for character creation as play, and not just skipping the structure of creation? If you can think of one that does not involve amnesia, I'd love to hear it.
Radio James Games