Wednesday, 4 March 2009

WHFRP and the Beauty of Random Character Generation

I'm a big fan of random character generation. For one thing, I just love randomness. Modern gaming often seems to be a huge exercise in reducing its effects, and I find this trend boring. I want to be surprised by what the dice throw up, the more surprises the better. (This is probably why point-based systems like GURPS, or diceless games like Nobilis, have never been by thing.) And why should the character I'll be playing be any different?

D&D character generation in its 'purest' forms is nicely random, but only up to a point. Once you have your stats, the rest is up to you. Weirdly, D&D characters also arrive more or less fully formed into the universe; you start off with a blank piece of paper, roll 3d6 six times, and hey presto! a 50-year old elven druid appears from the ether. This is a strength of the system, because it's quick and easy, but it's also less fun than, say, Cyberpunk 2020 and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, random character generation extends far beyond generating stats. Not only can you roll on a 'starting career' table containing dozens of entries (from Pit Fighter to Zealot to Rat Catcher), you also randomly determine pretty much everything else, including eye colour, star sign, distinguishing features (like 'pox marks'), birthplace, family background and and finally even your name (plus names and careers for your family too, if you're so inclined). I love this process and can spend a considerable amount of time merrily churning out characters. It almost always throws up interesting plot hooks for the game, too: who was this pit fighter born in a hovel in Talabecland, why does he have a missing eyebrow, and what are his 5 sisters, one of whom is an outlaw, doing? Boom: loads of ideas for the GM to use in the game.

It wouldn't be hard to incorporate something like this into a D&D campaign, and in fact it's something I might try. In particular, I think such random tables are fantastic if you're going to be running a game in a non-standard (i.e. not high fantasy) setting: we all know how hard it is to get players to invest in a game set in ancient Akkadia or whatever and how likely they are to come up with stuff that just doesn't fit. How much easier is the process made if you can randomly generate a character using tables that are tailor-made to produce results that fit in with the setting? At a stroke some of the key difficulties running campaigns in Tekumel, Athas or your bizarre homebrew setting are removed.

Of course, the best random character generator of all was Cyberpunk 2020's, with its silly life path and life history tables which never failed to turn up weird and wonderful results. ("I'm playing a Fijian netrunner who likes wearing fingerless gloves but otherwise goes around completely nude, whose favourite possession is a childhood toy, and who has five sworn enemies, seven ex-lovers and grew up in a pirate gang? Cool.")


  1. I've use the extensive charts in Heroes Unlimited for generating villians for Mutants & Masterminds, so I'll vote yea on crossing one system's rules with another's tables.

    I also generally prefer random rolling characters over point buy. I don't often come into a campaign with a clear idea of what sort of character I want to play, and the dice give me something to chew on.

  2. ("I'm playing a Fijian netrunner who likes wearing fingerless gloves but otherwise goes around completely nude, whose favourite possession is a childhood toy, and who has five sworn enemies, seven ex-lovers and grew up in a pirate gang? Cool.")

    Seriously? I may have to acquire this game. Because that's awesome.

  3. BigFella: I think this happens the longer you've been gaming. There was a stage when I thought long and hard about the characters I wanted to play, but now I just want to roll the dice and see what the cards deal me (if that's not mixing metaphors...).

    Odyssey: Cyberpunk 2020 is both great and kind of stupid. The mechanics are both awful and wonderful in equal measure. Anyway, it's well worth playing.

  4. I've had numerous people literally refuse to play WFRP because of its random character generation. I honestly think it is one of the game's greatest strengths. I sit around rolling up WFRP characters for fun - I've rolled up things I would never have come up with on my own in a million years. It is, to me, undeniably awesome, but I guess some people really hate not being able to control every aspect of their character.

    By the way, I'm currently working on a lifepath system for fantasy RPGs, based on the CP2020 one.

  5. While I still think point buy systems have their place, (I don't think I could play a superhero game that way), I do enjoy me some randomness. In our D&D games we often use "Central Casting, Heroes of Legend" for initial character creation. You can get some seriously fun and or messed up characters. The best (or worst) was an NPC rolled up who had been sexually abused as a child by... well... lets roll on the chart... 99? Your future self. That's right, we had an NPC who was destined to go back in time and bugger himself. Thank you Central Casting!

  6. Blizack: That's a worthy pursuit. Is it something you're going to release on pdf?

    Blotz: Have you read the Heinlein story "All You Zombies..."? If not I won't spoil the ending, but your comment reminds me of that. Check it out if you get the chance.

  7. Interesting post seeing as now the PHB 4e suggests that you do not roll up random stats but distribute a set of predetermined stats. A long time since the challenge of explaining what to do when you rolled a "3" for one of your characters statistics

  8. man, yeah - i love random character generation - using the same tables I'll populate some area with NPC's - though it is certainly can be a deal breaker if the players aren't into it.
    it's a matter of taste, but I find it much more enjoyable to play witht he cards you're dealt than to build the perfect beast

  9. Surely the best random character generator is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Animal, character class, degree of mutation - you could be a completely skill-less rabbit, or an over-skilled ninja tiger. Crazy.

    I prefer completely non-random character generation. Twain, never, meet, etc.

  10. lokipan: That's one of the things that really turned me off 4e, but each to his own.

    Ragnorrak: Yeah, it can be a problem with some players. That's one thing I'll never understand - "deal breakers". Generally speaking I don't like point buy, but if everyone wants to play GURPS, I'm not going to insist we play something else. About the only "deal breaker" for me is if I don't get on with the other players.

    faustusnotes: That's one of those games I've always wanted to play but never have. I'll have to see if I can dig out a copy.

  11. I'm not sure what the format of the lifepath project will be when it's done. PDF is a strong possibility. I might also try to submit it Fight On! or a similar publication.

  12. The fun thing about TMNT/Heroes Unlimited were the background tables, ones that told you if you were on friendly terms with the organization that created you or marked to be shot on sight.

    In my old homebrew Gamma World campaign, rolling up the mutation tables was some of the best part of the game. Of course, I generally allowed my players to roll several groupings of mutations and pick the best, 'cos sometimes random rolls do give you unplayable combos from time to time. (Prime example, one time one of my players rolled up a character who's skin was both flammable AND water soluble.)

    Bad stats, in my mind, just give you something to play off of. A 3 Intelligence (for example) can be spun into a mighty tornado of stupid that strikes terror into party members and GM alike.