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The Saving Throw
Guides for Gamemasters Jan. 5, 2006
Some advice from one gamemaster to another.

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Diceless Adventures: Characters
contributed by Nwash

This guide is part of a series, continued from Diceless Adventures: Introduction.

   Tabletop RPGs using dice typically have many rules related to the creation of characters. Some use a random method of character creation, while others rely on some type of point-distribution system. Typically, in order to use the dice, the players and gamemaster must use these rules to create their characters in order to get the necessary statistics for the various rolls to be performed. Certainly, some adjustments to these rules can be made, but the end result is still a character sheet filled with many statistics.

In diceless adventures, character creation can be far more flexible. One can still follow the rules of the game and go through the full character creation process, as it can be an enjoyable activity in itself, but this is no longer a requirement. In fact, only a minimum amount of information is absolutely necessary to play a character in a diceless campaign, though such minimally developed characters are not recommended. This guide discusses four approaches to character creation and how they work for a diceless adventure.

Using the Minimum Information Necessary
   In a diceless adventure, one could potentially begin playing a character with little more determined than the character's race (where relevant), sex, general age range, important or immediate possessions, and probably an idea of general physical appearance. More than likely, the general class or profession of the character will have to be determined as well; it is unlikely that the adventure will proceed too far without that kind of information. Even the name isn't absolutely necessary; some of my players have a very hard time naming characters. I have frequently gamemastered adventures where some of the characters were not named.

While a diceless adventure makes this approach possible, I don't recommend it. This may allow characters to be created and used very quickly and easily, but it also increases the difficulty for the gamemaster as well. As such characters do not even have their personalities or motivations well defined, the gamemaster is likely to have little idea how the characters are going to react during the adventure. The exception will be players that always play their characters in particular ways, but players who roleplay well are less likely to be predictable. As noted in the last game, players who enjoy and are good at roleplaying are best suited for diceless adventures, so this approach will generally leave the gamemaster truly "flying by the seat of his or her pants."

This approach will also make planning of any kind difficult; gamemasters will have to be highly skilled at improvisation to work with such player characters. It is my belief that it is best for gamemasters to work with players in character creation before an adventure, which doesn't happen with this approach. In this case, the characters are essentially being created, rather than just further developed, in the adventure itself. Such an approach may even be more difficult on your players for the same reason. As noted, creating a character can be an enjoyable activity by itself, and this approach denies the players this opportunity.

Relying on Non-statistical Information
   As stated before, in a diceless adventure, no statistical information is really necessary. This approach may or may not involve actually writing anything down for the character, though I personally recommend recording the information. In this approach, the character's race, age, sex, appearance, background, personality, and immediate and important possessions are all determined beforehand in at least a moderate level of detail. The personality factor is somewhat optional, as this can be developed in play, but knowing a character's background will often allow the personality of a character to be reasonably predicted even if it isn't described beforehand.

This works even better if the gamemaster has some role in the creation of the characters, even if it is nothing more than discussing the players' character ideas and knowing what they plan to do. The gamemaster can probably improve this situation even further by giving non-spoiler information away before they begin creating their characters. This helps to ensure that the characters will be well-suited to the adventure and vice versa. Instead of restricting the possibilities for an adventure, this expands them. With minimally developed characters, a gamemaster would have to create either an extremely flexible, open-ended adventure that could go anywhere, potentially becoming fragmented or chaotic, or a very restrictive adventure that will force characters down a certain path, potentially robbing the players of all illusion of freedom. Instead, since character behavior and actions can now be predicted to a degree, a gamemaster can create a tailor-made adventure that provides ample motivation for the characters to go along with the plot.

Of course, players can never be perfectly predicted, and this is not ideal anyway. Many of the best moments as a gamemaster come from your players pleasantly surprising you with their ingenuity. However, by knowing the motivations of the player characters, you can at least generally predict their goals, and that is usually enough to create a solid adventure tailor-made for the player characters.

Adding Attributes to the Non-statistical Information
   While knowing a character's background, personality, and appearance gives a gamemaster the bulk of the information necessary for a diceless adventure, it can still be nice to have a certain amount of statistical information at hand, if for nothing more than estimation. This can also serve as a bit of a check on the players, as you can use the game rules or your own rules to force them to make choices and trade-offs, keeping the characters reasonably balanced and not too weak or powerful. Essentially, this approach just involves taking attributes from a tabletop RPG, or making up your own list, determining a range for them, and having the player use a set of rules to determine them. Random methods are not highly recommended for this. While they may work fine, they are less likely to provide for well-balanced characters.

Such methods could be as simple as providing a total number of points available, allowing the players to distribute it among such attributes as they wish. A more complex system may have the cost of improving an attribute increase as the attribute gets higher. Whatever the system, it is important to select all of the relevant attributes for an adventure. If you are using a tabletop RPG system without the dice, it is generally fine just to use the attributes they have there, or even to use those of other systems. There is also no reason you can't create your own list.

As an example, I have nine attributes in the system I am creating: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Perception, Attractiveness, Charisma, and Willpower. That's a fairly large set, and you may not find it necessary to use all of them. I wouldn't recommend using too many more, though; attributes are intended to be very general estimations of character ability and traits, not specific indicators of certain skills.

This approach can have a drawback. It does slightly reduce the flexibility players have in creating their characters, but not by much. Additionally, some players will abuse such flexibility, and as such, this drawback may actually be more of an advantage to the gamemaster.

Full Character Creation by the Rules
   Giving up the dice doesn't mean one has to give up the character creation system of a tabletop RPG. Indeed, like the previous option, this may help provide a higher degree of balance between the characters. Of course, this assumes that the system is good at creating such balance. Additionally, depending on the character creation system, one could potentially run into similar problems as those associated with minimally-developed characters if the system doesn't emphasize or provide much for developing the non-statistical side. (This can be true of Dungeons and Dragons, Second Edition. I can't personally speak for the third edition.)

Generally, while some of your players may find this enjoyable, there is little reason beyond that to go this far in creating characters for diceless adventures. The skill ratings, or other appropriate statistics, might be useful for loose comparisons or identifying character strengths and weaknesses, but generally a gamemaster won't typically need to know exact numbers for a diceless adventure. Indeed, constantly comparing statistics will generally defeat the purpose of leaving the dice behind in the first place; the idea is generally to emphasize story and roleplaying rather than number-crunching. In general, this approach is simply overkill, though it probably won't harm the adventure to use this approach, assuming all the necessary non-statistical information is well developed.

The Best Approach?
   There isn't really one best approach I can recommend except to emphasize the importance of the non-statistical information such as background and personality. Statistical information can be helpful, but isn't necessary and isn't likely to be used except for very rough estimations. At any rate, while it's helpful for adventures with dice, it's even more helpful for adventures without dice if the gamemaster is somewhat involved with player character creation, and if it is done well in advance of the adventure (meaning more than an hour or two before). With these guidelines, gamemasters can create adventures that match well with the player characters who are going to "live" them and create an enjoyable experience for all involved, and that is why we game in the first place.

The next guide in this series, Diceless Adventures: Combat, is now available.



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