What I Bring to the Table #2: Characters


The second part of a series of "How-I" articles. This specific article covers what I (as a GM) determine regarding characters and character creation, before the players get their hands on the issue. An ambitious, generous, or ambivalent GM might discuss these things with his/her potential players and collect feedback, but it's not a democracy; the GM should enjoy the game also. "How-to" implies that there is a best way. There might be, and this might be it, or maybe not. This is how I do it.


This is where many people consider a game to begin. Without characters there is no game. This is essentially true. A comparison would be a pizza without toppings. To continue the analogy, the GM is the crust, holding things together. The system is the sauce, getting all over everything, and the genre is cheese (or maybe just cheesy). But like peaches and gravy, not every possible topping is a great choice. This article, hopefully, helps to explore choices.

Power Level

This section should have been in Part 1, but apparently I failed to refer to my notes sufficiently, and as the substance of the section would be here, so can the reference. When defining the campaign, character power is an important consideration. Character power spans a spectrum from inept to mythic. The exact terms and definitions might vary from different sources, but the concepts are the same. Inept characters are barely able to function in society, let alone in the sorts of situations PCs often find themselves in. School children and the elderly are commonly in this range. Up from there are everyday folk, shopkeepers and tradesmen. Up another step; to exceptional commoners such as firemen, or police. Heroic characters are where most games start. First level D&D characters or 100 pt. Gurps (3e) characters fall into this range. Superior characters would be higher level/point characters such as Gurps Black Ops, Super-hero games (in general), or most things that munchkins love. Gods and demi-gods are the order of the day for Mythic level play.

When determining the power level of the characters, consider the power level of the enemies or the nature of the perils involved. This also should have some relevance to determining the system being used. Some systems do poorly for very high or very low levels of power. Gurps (3e) breaks down badly at high point levels; D20 is not designed for sub-heroic levels.

Party Creation

Assuming that by now players have been selected characters must be created, but some thought should go into the party first. Why are the characters working together in this campaign? Most of this section will be examples of why characters will band together. Some I've used, others I've only read about. If this idea bores you, skip down to Requirements and Prohibitions

Common Beginnings: The players all just start out in the same place or circumstance. They all come out of Cryo-sleep at the same time. Their village needs victims and the PCs have "won" the lottery. Common jobs, military units, etc. This method has the advantage that PCs will generally know something about the others regarding their skills.

Closed cast: The PCs and a few others are in an isolated situation where crimes (usually murder) happen. The PCs work together to solve the crime (or possibly just escape) and become a team after that. The advantage is that a broader background can be used.

Common Friend: Traditionally, the PCs are invited to a gathering at an individual's request and find adventure thrust upon them. Usually the PCs do not know one another, but all have some tie to the host(ess) that obliges them to help or avenge the host. The advantage is that the players feel less railroaded than the Closed Cast option, but still have access to varying backgrounds.

Bar Fight: In one group I played with, the local tavern became known as Dammit's Obligatory Bar – Home of the Obligatory Bar Fight. This was because every campaign started in a bar, then a fight would break out and the PCs would band together against the local bully boys. There are 2 advantages here. The first is that players know this method like an old friend. The second is it allows a chance to learn what may be a new combat system with preferably few PC deaths.

Cloaked Stranger in a Bar: Similar to the Bar Fight scenario, but players are gathered into a group by a stranger with an adventure. In this scenario, the adventure presents itself with the group formation and allows for huge differences in background.

There are of course countless variations on these methods and methods I haven't presented. The point of determining this brings up the next section.

Requirements and Prohibitions

Depending upon the PC circumstances and the range and genre of the game, there may be required or prohibited abilities, hindrances, origins, or other factors. A space marine does not fit the genre of Old West. A commando does not fit the circumstance of a group of children. A Viking does not fit in the range of an Aztec Empire game. Similarly magic, psionics, martial arts, super-powers and such may not fit with the GMs view of the game.

Inversely, a WWII game where all the PCs are American military will require that all PCs speak English and have the rifle skill. All the kids in Hogwarts know magic. Every adventurer from the Elven village is an elf. These would be examples of required traits or skills.

I have heard arguments that if a skill/power/ability is in the book, it should be fair game for the PC. I disagree with this. While I believe that the player should be allowed to play the character they want, the other players also have that freedom and the GM must ensure that everyone gets a fair shake and the GM should also be allowed his fun. An example of this is the detect lie (skill, power, whatever). If a player knows that investigation will be a part of the campaign and takes DL at gross levels, the adventure is reduced to the PC just asking everyone "Do you know who did X?" and finding the yes or the liar. No one else gets to search for clues, analyze evidence, deduce motives, or have fun. Another example is hackers in Cyberpunk games. While I accept the notion that this is an appropriate part of the genre, and it does not really remove the other characters from play, it tends to monopolize the GM for a good hunk of the session. I've found it far better to make the hackers NPCs who can give the players the same results in about 2 die rolls.

Creation Itself

Most game systems fall into 2 categories: Random creation; in which many decisions are made by the dice; or Point Build systems, where the dice decide very little. To further break it down, most random systems have multiple options for how to roll your character (AD&D 2e had in the neighborhood of 9 ways to roll attributes). Point build systems might use 1 set of points for everything (Gurps) or have different flavors of points for different pats of the character (Aftermath!). All of this is rather moot. What does need to be considered is the player's ability to generate their characters. This ability falls into 3 groupings: Arch-types; Pre-generated; and player made.

Arch-types are like buying off the rack. Every fighter is the same as every other fighter. Every detective is like every other detective. There may be some options, such as ax or sword, but everyone is cookie cutter. This isn't necessarily bad. It makes it quick and easy for player's new to the system to get started without realizing halfway through the session that they have no skills. The drawback is that the characters are rather bland in the personality department and players may not get just what they want.

Pre-generated characters are just that. The GM makes characters before the game and doles them out. This is what I do for conventions. It ensures that the skills required to complete the adventure are available to the party. It allows more time to be spent on the adventure. Again, players may not get exactly what they want. I generally create 2-5 more characters than players to give some latitude, but some adventures are made for a given number of characters which specific characteristics.

Player-made characters are just that. Players use the rules and GM guidance to create the character that most closely fits what they want to play. Player satisfaction tends to be higher, but the method can be time consuming and even frustrating, especially with systems such as Gurps (4e).

In my most recent campaign, I used a hybrid player-made and Pre-generated. I sent, to each player invited to the game, a survey for his or her character. I used the survey results to create the character. The players didn't get exactly what they wanted, but the characters were close.


Most games allow for PC development. D20 has levels, Gurps has points, and Call of Cthulhu has the learning-by-doing system. An important consideration is how fast you want the characters to advance and how to control that speed. If, in your d20 game you see that players are advancing faster than is desired for the story-line, a GM can apply a braking factor to XPs. Multiply XPs by 0.75 each time to slow progress. Inversely, multiplying by 1.5 will rapidly accelerate their advance. For Gurps increase or decrease the points awarded each session. For call of Cthulhu, use 1d4 or 1d8 for advancement. Individuals might also receive bonus or penalty experience if that individual needs to be caught up.

Looking Forward

In Part 1, I discussed how to set up the campaign. This article populated it. Next time, I will go into how I develop Worlds, Religions, Governments, and Societies. Your questions and comments are always welcome. If you are shy or think your question is stupid or too advanced, you can e-mail directly at whutaguy8205 at yahoo dot com.

Mmmm, peaches and gravy, the proximity to Thanksgiving is just far enough not to bring on the memories of eating too much.

Character Power
As much as I dislike the experience-point leveling systems I love to start parties weak, despised and alone. It helps force an apathetic party to work together, like the Dirty Dozen for example, and intensifies teamwork in cooperative parties.

Requirements and Prohibitions
Never had any luck with this. In games where the characters were original I didn't dictate but gave out strong recommendations. When these guidelines were violated (and they were always violated) I made the players pay the price (isolation, being ostracized, etc.) and it never changed a player's mind. Go figure.

Creation Itself
I like point systems. Living by the die is not adequately supported in D&D in my opinion. The standard progress is too stilted and there is no trade off. Game systems such as Legend of the Five Rings work(ed) at this with advantages and disadvantages linked.

This is always a tough one. In D&D 3.5 the feats and skills and all still left advancement uneven for many levels -- for what purpose I can't imagine -- and character advancement is so intricate that starting at a mid-level is unsatisfactory.

I'd like to hear more about how GURPS or Call of Cthulhu work, not that I have any eager players at the moment.

Good article, Whutaguy. I'd be interested in seeing the survey you sent to your players for character definition.

Gurps uses character points for experience to be spent generally between sessions. I generally allow anything earned during a session to be spent on anything used in the session.
CoC uses a learning by doing method. As each skill is used, you check the box next to it. At the end of the adventure, roll against each checked skill. If you fail, the skill improves by 1d6 percent. The more skill you have, the harder it is to improve. It reflects gaining insight into the skill.

Zipdrive. I think I have your e-mail and will send the survey to you. I third posting it, but got some suspicious content warning. I suspect formatting issues.


Do you have a favorite among the three systems?

The survey method sounds really interesting.

Of Gurps, Call of Cthulhu, or D20? Gurps is superior to most, in my opinion, but some things don't port over easily and other systems have their place. I recently played Mutants and Masterminds and had a great time with d20, much to my surprise. CoC (in)sanity rules are still tops despite many imitations. PDQ works better for Role players rather than tactical board gamers. In part one, I expressed the importance of selecting a game system.

Boring personal anecdote here: I started going to conventions to play different systems, I'm a game mechanics nut. After finding Gurps, I quit looking. Now all I see is d20 (various) and have determined to start running other systems at cons for people like I used to be. I'm Running an Iron Gauntlets (review upcoming, watch this space) at BashCon in February.
Anectdote ends.

If you play a variety of game systems, you'll find some that do better for certain things and then use what you know works.


I hope you do some New WoD and/or ParanoiaXP and tell us about it.

Regarding the survey, it's interesting, if somewhat short and Gurps-specific. It's an interesting concept, though, and I'd be happy to explore it further. Anyone got ideas?

An important consideration is how fast you want the characters to advance and how to control that speed. If, in your d20 game you see that players are advancing faster than is desired for the story-line, a GM can apply a braking factor to XPs. Multiply XPs by 0.75 each time to slow progress. Inversely, multiplying by 1.5 will rapidly accelerate their advance. - I don't understand this part, could anyone explain it to me? Thanks, One night in Paris.

are the bots getting wilier?

The road to AI is paved with bad intentions....