Generators: The Good, The Bad, And The (Mostly) Ugly


Let me preface this rant with one generalization: I hate generators. I feel they completely take away any creativity and planning from the GM, and quickly become a crutch to all who use them. This being said, there are a few out there that are better than others, and depending on what they are used for (and how much they are used), they can possibly help either a GM who is just getting his/her feet wet or a GM who simply has writer's block.

Let me preface this rant with one generalization: I hate generators. I feel they completely take away any creativity and planning from the GM, and quickly become a crutch to all who use them. This being said, there are a few out there that are better than others, and depending on what they are used for (and how much they are used), they can possibly help either a GM who is just getting his/her feet wet or a GM who simply has writer's block.

Name Generators
The worst of the worst. I command all of you to go read my article on choosing a good name for your character. Most of the name generators out there make the most horrible, unpronounceable names! I feel if a gamer is developing his character, the name he chooses must represent the character fully, because the character is an extension of that name. The only place I feel name generators are acceptable for use is when a GM needs to make a large group of NPCs for a particular session and he knows those NPCs won't be major characters in the campaign.

God, do I hate them, but here's a name generator that at least asks you what style of name you are going for (ie. Tolkien, Deverry, Warhammer, Babylon 5). Grade: B

Weather Generators
These have been around for a while, although some fancy shmancy commercial ones are making their debuts on the market currently. This is one of the only types of generators I think can come in very handy. Real weather is not exactly random, yet it is quite difficult to predict (unless you have a degree in meteorology). If a GM decides to make weather a component of the campaign (especially where it directly affects the characters, battles, etc.), then the weather must not be contrived. A weather generator can come in quite handy because many are equipped to give out multiple-day forecasts, so the weather in, say, a 10 day period actually makes sense, yet still is quite randomized.

Some Free Utilities

Tome of Trouble
. An online generator that allows you to choose the season, environment and terrain where your players are and it generates an average temperature, wind factor, and wind direction for a period of days set by the GM. Grade: A

A javascript generator.
This one is too random for randomness' sake. The GM has no opportunity to enter any fields, so any weather that is generated has nothing to do with the setting in which your campaign takes place. Grade: C-

A software weather generator in a package of GM utilities. Poor graphics, decent interface. Grade: B-

Another software weather generator. This one is specifically designed for weather with every detail you can imagine. It has been well play-tested, and is by far the best of the free downloadables. Grade: A

Dice Roll Generators
Must they take all of the gaming in gaming away? Whoever thought this one up should be cast into the pit-fires of hell. If you want to play - get some dice. 'Nuff said.

Magic/Spells Generators
For the truly uninspired, the magic effects generator was invented. Again I say: use of a generator such as this gives me the distinct opinion the GM has no creativity of his own whatsoever. The only exception to this opinion is if the GM has a character "stumble" upon a mysterious magical item that is supposed to create random magical spells. In this case, the GM most certainly could still come up with some quirky events, but in the interest of pure unpredictability, a spells generator could be helpful.

Very, very hit and miss, but some of these spells generated are quite strange and original. I pushed the button about 50 times and got a different spell each time. Grade: B

Miscellaneous Generators
NPC Generator:
Not a name generator, but still not a good generator. This one has several categories of traits a NPC can have and just arbitrarily shuffles the traits each time you push a button. There's no real substance here. Grade: C

Village Generator:
This is one of the best free generators that I have found. It provides an entire village, WITH A MAP, names and ages of each NPC and family that lives in each house or shop it creates, weapons proficiencies, and so much more. This is a great tool for GMs, as it completely takes the grunt work out of creating dozens and dozens of NPCs for a full-fledged town. Grade: A+

NPC Generator:
Another one by the authors of the Village Generator, this is great for creating a traveling party of NPCs. You pick the race, game system, and how many of them, and they give you a detailed listing of your new NPCs, complete with age, sex, height, weight, and more. One example NPC I got was - Gaekon (Mercenary, Leader of the party), human, male, 43 years old, 179 cm, 80 kg, short auburn straight hair, green-brown eyes Clothes: Low, hard boots, brown cloak and brown trousers Wealth: Average Stats: Normal strength, low skill Weapons: Magic Broadsword, longbow Armour: Hard leather. Grade: B+

Everything rolled into one:
A free generator for names, spells, monsters, encounters, weather, NPC parties, dungeons, and world maps. Everything you need to completely stifle your creativity, all in one box. Grade: C

To sum this rant up, if you want to be a GM, you must be creative. Your friends and fellow gamers are relying on you to create their fantasy world for them. Not everyone is cut out to be a GM, and while using these tools can help you fake it for a little while, isn't it better to practice? Let your imagination flow and try to create campaigns from the heart? With a little prep work beforehand, a GM can create a fantastic journey for his gamers on his own. Plan carefully, write everything down for yourself beforehand, and never try to wing it or make things up as you go along (unless you are really, really good). Be thorough and prepared, and your friends will certainly appreciate it.

Why someone who hates these so much is writing an article about them is puzzling. How they could overlook the most useful category of generators is just bizzare. What am I talking about? Character generators! Not for creating random characters (although I suppose some of them can do this) but for greatly speeding up character creation and sanity checking the results to ensure they are legal. As a Shadowrun player the NSRCG has saved me many hours of flipping through books:

I also think that the author somehow missed the best name generator on the internet: The Everchanging Book of Names ( is flexible and expandable with style to burn.

I would argue that a generator can be a useful tool in creating an adventure. The trick is to feel free to change things as needed. Sometimes a generator can be a good place to begin. Maybe something generated will not fit with your gaming world, but it sparks an idea and helps shape the encounters.

Another use of the generators would be for the time when, oops, your epic adventure was cleverly finished almost as soon as it began by luck or quick thinking by the players. Instead of ending the session 10 minutes after it started, it might be better to whip up some sort of adventure to play, even if it isn't the greatest work ever created.

With regards to a dice generator, I could not imagine having to consult the computer every time I needed a roll, but for the purposes of online play, they can be very helpful to ensure fair play.

I could use one of those generators before running an adventure, just to get a few pointers to start from. In practice I won't. All of my best adventures have begun with an empty paper behind the screen. A paper that is slowly filled up with names, places and numbers in the order the PCs come upon them. Ach, I'm rambling.

I am a huge fan of name generators, but I'd like to think that that doesn't make me a crappy DM void of any creativity. Sure, clicking the button once and naming your beautiful princess NPC Grxphlt might not work, but who's to say that name generators are like dice in that you have to use the first result that you get? You keep playing with the generator until you get an interesting-looking name, and then you tweak it. It's not that bad.

And speaking of dice, I like dice rollers, too. If you game online, then you pretty much HAVE to use one of these, in the form of a chatbot or something. They're also useful for situations where you'd have to roll a kind of die that doesn't exist, or that you don't have. Try buying a d3, for example. I think it's pretty cool.

Personally, I have to admit:

I like generators.

To varying degrees, sure, but there are a lot of cases where they're absolutely essential (dice-rollers especially).

For example, PBEMs. When I'm doing PBEM stuff, or anything online, I rely heavily heavily on dice-rollers. Why?

Because, well, a lot of times, it's very awkward (to say the least) to be carrying around dice.

Now, a related question.

I do a lot of gaming in the modern era. Occasionally, I need to design vehicles (especially of the military sort).

Does anyone know wherein I could find easy-to-use aircraft/warship/armored vehicle creators?

Even better, do they do illustrations? (I am, ahem....Horrible at drawing, cannot figure out for the life of me how to use programs like gmax or similar, and would really enjoy such programs...IF they let me assemble parts others had made.)

Random die rollers are horrible, they are based on a random seed and are by no means random! Random name generators don't ever give the cool sounding names you can just come up with by combining words and syllables to what sounds right. If you are making a town, I'd say to put your all into it. Even in hack and slash video games, towns are rarely just a buncha stuff thrown together. They usually have a whole cast of NPCs.
And the motherload, the most horrible attrocity of them all! Character Generators used to make PCs!! I'm not saying they don't help if you're playing a campaign where you have to make new characters everyday due to massive party death, but if you are playing a game like that, you probably should go online and check out a game called Diablo. It'll satisfy any hack and slash cravings and it's quite multiplayer. Meaningful campaigns bloom from players taking forever and thinking out their characters. I'd rather have a guy make a paladin in 3 hours, than make a wizard in 10 minutes and then commit suicide in the second gaming session because he doesn't like his character.
Maybe, it's just the people I game with, but I don't like generators, especially if they are on a calculator!
Just my rant for the day.

"Meaningful campaigns bloom from players taking forever and thinking out their characters."

This is an incorrect assumption probably based on the poor caliber of the players you game with. Character generators save time -- that's it. A good roleplayer is still a good roleplayer and good roleplayers will play their characters the same whether they took 10 minutes or a month to create.

I used to spend a week of evenings creating a Shadowrun character. After I started using the NSRCG I not only cut that time in half, but now I can spend much more of it fleshing out the character's background story. This is time that I used to spend doing "meaningful" activities like paging through rules supplements reading gear descriptions and adding tall columns of numbers.

Of course I still have to do a lot of paging through rules supplements. The difference is that now I'm usually looking for timeline, gang, policlub, corp and city information to firmly integrate the character into the world.

You do make a good point there, when a gaming system gets bogged down with rule supplements, a character generator would be a lot better than searching through your stack of 20-25 books(like back in 2nd edition D&D mainly) I haven't played Shadowrun since 1st edition and we never had any rule supplements so I don't know exactly how long it takes to make characters in the newest edition(or whatever you play)

Heh, just wait. 3E D&D will end up just as "bogged down" in supplements as 2nd Ed. was. WotC has gotta make money somehow...

My point isn't that SR has too many supplements, really. Shadowrun isn't just a game system -- it is a timeline that advances with each book published. Even old books contain valuable information because your character literally wasn't "born yesterday". So to create a fully-formed character you must take into account what was going on in the world when he was younger and how that might have affected him.

I am just naturally slow at juggling the numbers around to make a character -- in almost any system with any number of books. Many times I'll be halfway through creation and read something that changes my mind entirely about what kind of character I want to create. This balloons the time it takes me to do everything manually. Character generators take a lot of the grunt work out of the process so that I end up with exactly the results I want much faster.

haha, yeah, 3rd edition is already getting up there _and_ the supplements are all 20 or more dollars instead of the old 10 dollar books you'd buy; I didn't know the later editions advance the storyline of Shadowrun, maybe if I see them I'll pick up some of the later books; just hope they fixed that crazy armor system. wearing a nice trenchcoat can stop missles in 1st edition

I don't have my books with me, but I'm pretty sure that in 3rd edition SR there are optional rules in the main book for "deadlier combat" or some such thing. They either up the damage weapons do or lower the effectiveness of armor or maybe some of both.

However many things have changed since 1st edition and it's quite possible that this is one of them. It has been a long time since I played 1st ed. and even then I only played it a few times (despite owning the book).

on the subject of dice roll generators, there is one simple yet helpful use for them.
Keeping rolls secret.
If the Dm is rolling something without PC knowledge and wants to keep it that way then this is the best option.

Dice roll generators become usefull if you have to roll something like 40+ times same dice. Sometimes I have to roll such amount of dices. Otherwise I do not use generators, because I almost always just make almost everything on-the-fly - and it works well.

I suck at creating names for people on the fly, and even when I think about it. Just because a generator gives me a name doesn't mean I have to stick with it. I just keep going until I find something I like.

I disagree with the Shadowrun statement. I play Shadowrun quite a bit and began with it shortly after 2nd Ed was released. The new 3rd Ed stuff is really concise as far as supplements are concerned. There is the core book, which is really all you need, then there is Matrix, everything computers, Man & Machine, everything cyberware, Rigger 3, everything rigging and vehicles, and Cannon Companion, everything guns. Beyond that they have the Shadowrun Companion which has some great ideas for alternate campaign types or character cration but is not even remotely required for the game and New Seattle which is only a setting book about Seattle of 2061, I never even bothered with this book because I was allready intimately familiar with SR's Seattle. The only other books, besides adventures, are Year Of The Comet and Wake Of The Comet which are only metaplot updates for the setting. When compared to D&D where you need at least three books just to play without alot of work on the DM's part I really like the new Shadowrun. Now 2nd Ed had far too many books by the end there, it was crazy, but that got fixed when WizKids took over.

As for generators, I agree. I hate the damn things and mostly they are only a crutch for people who are uninspired or uncreative. For an intiial idea to build an adventure from I can see it but there's lots of inspiration everywhere for that. I like weather generators because that's a detail I tend to forget when running a game but something that I really wnat to take into cosideration. Also that town generator sounds pretty cool but I can usually detail a town on my own without much trouble. Maybe I'm just strange like that.

on generators i find there useful for the smaller points prepared before the game starts
a few sheets on tavern or village population
saves you a few hours writing and you can change the details to suite your game and plots
helping quickly to make a better game without trawling through the 110 books you inevitably collect as a d&d gm
it's all part of preperation
but sitting in front of your pc during a game is just wrong
i feel
there an aid not everything
they cant replace creativity but there useful for those moments when every dm's brain goes numb

The only thing that I like about the dice-rolling system goes along with AutoREALM. If I'm using a computer to have a DM Screen, it's much easier for the players if I use generated dice. If they need dice, I can give them some, and still be able to make rolls, without the whole "passing of the dice" nonsense. If you're low-budget, then you can use that as an easy way of not buying dice. I'm one of those people. Plus, I don't feel like shelling out 10 bucks towards several amounts of dice (especially the big, kickass d20's. those I'll shell out the money for. good for MTG as well).

Other than that, yes, I agree about other generators. Use some creativity, not some idiotic computer program. I can understand some name generators, though. But that only applies to elves, dwarves, half-orcs, and the such. Although you should be able to generate the names seperately (i.e. last names, first names, the such).

My creative energy isn't infinite. I only have so much thinkpower (and thinktime) available to me. Why should I spend time on things like names, when far more important things beckon?

I found out a long time ago that nine times out of ten, the "tag" name (temporary placeholder name I assigned until I could think up a "good" one) I put on an NPC turned out to be its permanent name, because thinking up a good one just took too long.

Generating a whole pageful of names, and then picking out the ones that fit various characters best is a huge timesaver, and it hasn't stifled my creativity in the least... in fact it has freed it from mundanity.