Why I Hate Character Concepts
An ongoing table-top RPG development blog
I play a lot of unique and strange ttrpg systems, and I read even more of them. I'm a bit of a system junkie. One of the things I look for in a system—and I don't think I'm unique in this—is that it has to make me excited to play the game. I'm a "forever GM", which means if I want to play something I have to run it, which means I'd need to sell it to my play group as the next fun thing to play. Even when I'm just looking over ttrpg covers at a convention, what I'm looking for is not just: does this excite me? It's also: can I get my players excited about this?
And nothing kills my interest in a ttrpg quite like the line: "Come up with a character concept." I'll explain why.
If The Rules Does not Care, I Don't Care
So, excitement for a new game is precious and should be cultivated. I find that one of the quickest ways to kill that excitement is when an author writes in some paraphrase of "I don't know...just write whatever you want in here. Anything will work, I guess."
I found this most recently in a small zine game Project 39: Beta Maxx X Quasar Edition by Andrew Chirgwin, and otherwise cool little space game with a cool cover that...umm...did a terrible job of representing its contents. It has a skill system based on making up the skills yourself. I've read and played enough systems to know that is a big red flag for my design sentiments.
I don't want to spend time at the table as the GM with one player arguing that the skill of "commando" should apply to martial arts, guns, and survival in harsh conditions, where another player across the table just took "judo", which is only going to happen for throws. You've just downloaded a chunk of the engine of your system onto me, the GM. Either give me a skill system, and you do the work, or design a game that does not require a skill system..
I can hear some people reading this thinking: "Oh, just don't let the one player have an abusive skill like commando", but that's an overt example of the disparity that can happen between skill range definitions. There are more insidious ones, and this is not the only area of game design prone to abuse (even by a well-meaning player) because it was left ill-defined. Custom milestones or advancement hurtles are another area where huge accidental disparity can happen between players. Do you know what solves that? The developer thinking through the implications of their own rules.
Part of my belief that system matters is that the rules with it matter. If the ttrpg author demonstrates that the rules don't matter to them—and in this case it's clear the author has never had the commando vs. judo argument—then they sure don't matter to me.
Character Concepts Are a Flawed Concept
The worst version of this to me—or at least my pet peeve—is when the first or second step in character creation is "come up with a character concept", when there is no guidance on those concepts (beyond what I suppose you were suppose to, rudderless, glean from the setting as a whole) especially when that character concept you're supposed to pull from thin air has no apparent mechanical reinforcement.
There are players out there that port their character concepts from game to game, regardless of system. I've heard of such people. I'm not one of them. If I knew what my character concept was, then I wouldn't need your system. Give me some guidance! Get me excited about playing my character!
Instead of a line about how to hand-wave the rules away, an equal amount of space could have been devoted to guiding my play expectations, enriching the setting, and setting me up for excitement for the game even if all you're doing is providing examples. Even just:
"Come up with a character concept. Typical adventurers in this setting include puddles of inky blackness out to find a quick buck, a collection of three eyeballs, and unicorns hiding their heritage pretending to be a common horse."
Bizarre, but that tells me a lot about the setting....I mean those are some pretty strange examples, but at least I'm not going "uhhh...thief? I guess?" But no, it usually just says: "come up with the character that you would want to play in your heart of hearts and let nothing stop you", which means to be inspirational but ends up being the creative writing equivalent of a tax form, largely because of "assumption traps".
Asking me to come up with a character concept before making any meaningful choices about the character just feels like a big trap. At this stage, if this is your first time with a game, you just don't know what's an equitable choice in the system given its setting, or given its mechanics. I'm not talking about power gaming or taking best advantage of the system; balance is largely a circumstantial illusion, but I am talking about basic playability that can go out the window if you make choices misunderstanding the system. For instance:
Uhhhh...I guess my concept is I'm going to be an acrobat? Does that work with this urban magic setting? Turns out yes, kind of—but you'll be severely penalized for it because the concepts should be inherently magical!
Okay a superhero game...my concept is "Roman Centurion unfrozen from ice after thousands of years. He is a veteran of many wars, and will take up the cause for justice! (Ignoring the problems with Roman history...superhero fun?) Okay. we can do that. But because you didn't choose a superpower that fits in our rubric you'll be sitting twiddling your thumbs while more important PCs solve the problems.
Let's even take the most vanilla example of D&D. What's your character concept? Uhhh—I want to be a wise old Gandalf-like wizard who adventured years ago but has settled into retirement in a toadstool cottage and ,even though he has a bad back and his hearing is almost done, feels the call to adventure again. Okay. Ummm....well, you still only have 1st level spells and ummm...messing with age penalties is possible, but...
Or worse still, your concept has to get wedged sideways to work half-way through character creation.
Survivalist mountain climbing game. What's your character concept? Ahh...mountain shepherd with a lovely goat herd who guides people on the game paths through the mountains. Okay....I mean you can have Tracking? There's no animals in this game mechanically, so , I guess you're a guide. We'll hand-wave the goats as RP. Okay, I guess? Well, no, not really—I no longer care as much as I did.
Systems Should Define their Borders
I'm not frustrated that I don't get to see the character concept I had in mind come to live more vividly, I'm frustrated that if a system can only support certain concepts, why, then, won't you present me with those concepts? I'm happy to work within your rules, but tell me what those rules are. Give me the borders of your system so I can make an informed decision.
Part of the problem is the pressure for small indie ttrpgs to pretend they can be all things to every table. All ttrpgs—and most keenly seen in smaller, more focused ones—have a design bias towards certain activities. What that is is not always apparent without a thorough pre-existing understanding of the system, and even then sometimes you have to see things at the table to know how they play out.
The result is that when I get character creation....if a game has survived my cull of: "Am I excited about this? Can I get my players excited about this?" I will still have to ignore the aspect of character creation that so often calls form a completely unguided, unsupported, open-ended character concept that is at best an ignorable big of system fluff, effectively useless question in all regards, and at worst a the first system trap you encounter. It's a lazy convention in rules design, it does not have to happen, and it happens all the time—especially in what are often otherwise great little indie ttrpgs.
Why is this Happening?
For one, designers have to hold so much of the system in their brains that they don't always think of their work in the order in which the material is can be understood by someone wholly ignorant of it.
It seems reasonable to have character concepts from a design perspective because the designer knows what concepts are likely or advisable or challenging for the setting and mechanics they designed. Oftentimes the designer is trying to present the false pretence that their system can do 'anything' as though it could do anything equally. That is never the case, but that's a big topic for another time. The brass tax of it is, prospective players just do not have access to the right information to answer a question of character concept unless they are primed to answer it appropriately by lore, elaborating previous steps, or other prompts beforehand.
Their character is the lens through which a player sees the whole game world. You can't expect—speaking as a designer—the players to read the book cover to cover. The vast majority of them, I'm sure, get their in-game information from the double-page-spread that is their character's special attributes, and that's it. How many games have you played where you've only read your "class" or your "moves" and nothing else?
Some people call that lazy playing, but—whatever. If that's the case, then design needs to be wise to it. We can't stand on a soapbox and insist players should have done their homework. At the end of the day if you want your game to get played, then a player needs to be able to make a character in a system they have never heard of other than being excited from their GM's pitch. Anything else, I think, is poor design.
I'm sure someone is going to come along one of these days and point out all my design flaws, too. I don't mean to knock Project 39: Beta Maxx X Quasar Edition by Andrew Chirgwin down—he's a nice enough guy, it seems, and the indie space can use as many authors as it can get, but just like a novel loses me once I can't trust the author's narrative, a ttrpg loses me once I can't trust the author's sense of how their game will actually run at the table without them there to guide the process first-hand. I'm quick to point out I still believe in buying all the weird indie stuff and supporting creators directly, but...to use another analogy—bad movies can sometimes be great, even if they're bad. Ttrpgs can sometimes be bad, and glorious also, but for me—I just need them to foremost be exciting, and nothing kills my excitement like "come up with a character concept".
Radio James Games