Epic: Character Creation

Rough work on Epic continues…

I’ve been thinking about character creation for a while now, and today during my lunch break at work I took another shot at thinking about what I think character creation should be, what it should accomplish in effect, and then reverse-engineering a system to achieve that purpose.

What I came up was five things I think character creation should accomplish: developing a background, coming up with a character concept, building a group template, outlining how the character (and the group) is likely to develop as the game progresses, and applying all of these things to the particular rules of the system. To discuss these things, I’m using sets of three sub-categories for each broad concept.

Background involves Birth, Childhood and Youth.

Birth (“Where were you born and what was your family like?”) includes the family and ancestry of the character in question – particularly in the Epic system where lineage and ancestry is so important for the setting and the rules. Birth also includes the things about a character that are determined at birth, including any Traits that pertain to caste or other aspects of the character. Nature, in effect, as opposed to Nurture.
–> At this stage, you choose Birth Traits and you develop your family history and current family configuration (parents, siblings, surviving elders, etc.)

Childhood (“What was it like for your character growing up?”) includes how your character develops as well as the conditions of her early years. It is a combination of nature and nurture, as it were.
–>At this stage, you choose your base starting Attributes – at this point, they will be quite lackluster, but will reflect nascent talents and shortcomings that become evident as the character ages.

Youth (“As you got older, what did you learn to do?”) also includes what we might call young adulthood. This often includes basic training in whatever the family trade is, as well as skills that the character needs to get by in her environment and society.
–>At this stage, the character gains her starting basic skills.

Concept involves Profession, Passions and Problems (I’m not married to the alliteration here)

Profession (“What do you do for a living?”) this might be your family’s trade or it might not – as a player-character, you are extraordinary, and go against the grain of the ancient world. Here, you choose intermediate and perhaps even advanced skills.

Passions (“What drives you?”) this isn’t as involved in rules, but rather just lists the character’s main motivations and drives – positive ones at least. What does the character value? What does she believe in? What are her virtues? What are her dreams for herself?

Problems (“What do you struggle with?”) on an individual level, what holds you back? Lost loves? Grief? Self-doubt? Bitter rivals? Physical handicaps? Debilitating fear? Look at your passions, and answer the question – why haven’t you achieved these things already? What keeps your passions from being realized?

Template involves what is Shared with the group, Conflict in the group, and the Strength that a particular character brings to a group. This is another step that is crucial but which doesn’t have specific rules effects in most cases.
(Group Template have been discussed in the past here)

Shared (“What do you have in common?”) describes, in brief, what the group of player-characters has in common, or will have in common if they have not met yet. If the answer is nothing, then you need to put in more work. Even a group of misfits thrown together by misfortune will have to find things they share, or else there isn’t much of a story as soon as they find a chance to escape each other and return to their lives.

Conflict (“What don’t you have in common, or what conflicts are likely to arise in the group?”) should not be game-ending in scope, but a group that gets along perfectly isn’t very interesting. No collection of people have exactly the same values, desires, and motivations. Part of this process is talking about what is likely to come up so that everyone at the table agrees that the conflict will be interesting and will add to the game experience and be fun. Conflicts that don’t fit these criteria probably have no place in your game.

Strength (“What do you bring to the table?”) is just shorthand for talking about what each particular character will add to the group and to the story in general, perhaps. This might be as simple as the fantasy gaming tropes of “healer” and “tank” and “dps”, if that’s what you’re looking for, or more complex ides like one character being a dramatic foil, or another being the conscience of the group, or conversely, the corrupter. Strength need not be moral strength, after all.

Development plots how characters and groups will advance in the game by outlining the Achievements they hope for, the Reckonings they will have to face, and the Losses they are willing to suffer in order to grow. Answers to these questions will determine what has to happen for the characters to grow in influence and power.

Achievements (“What will you accomplish as a group?”) bearing in mind that you might fail (or else it isn’t much of a challenge), outline what the group is aiming for in the larger sense. In other words, what is the story pointing toward? What is at stake? What is the conflict over?

Reckonings (“What will you have to face in order to prevail?”) these could be making amends for past misdeeds or epic battles with recurring villains. A Reckoning is the point in the movie when the heavy music kicks in and everyone gets goosebumps. There is a slow-motion scene when the heroes (or villains) arrive, and then the proverbial shit hits the fan.

Losses (“What will you sacrifice, or what will be taken from you?”) victory without loss is shallow. When important things are at stake, people suffer and die. Things are destroyed. Ties are severed. Bridges are burned. How will your character hurt, and what will she do about it, if she can do anything?

Rules involves putting numbers and specifics to all of the things done above by assigning Abilities, Skills, Traits and Relationships

Abilities include Attributes and Skills – things a character does to get things done. Based on her Childhood, a character divides 20 Attribute points between Vigor, Reflexes, Clarity, Influence and Anima, as described in this post about Attributes. Skills are assigned based on the kind of Youth a character had, as well as a character’s Profession and Passions.

Traits are assigned at Birth, and then are determined by future choices a character makes in life. The Traits assigned at Birth are caste traits or other traits such as inheritance of the Blood Enduring, special abilities and disabilities which are present at the beginning of life, and so on.

Relationships can be derived from any stage of character creation. Relationships with other player-characters are not handled by rules at all – they are assumed and played out in-game. Relationships which are advantageous are purchased as Backgrounds. Relationships which are filled with conflict, such as enemies or rivals, are simply derived from the character’s Concept, the Template, and so on. Relationships include connections to other individuals as well as status in any groups, positive or negative, from something vague like reputation to something concrete like military rank.

Finally, Relationships also cover the spiritual connections from which magic derives in Epic. The most basic is a relationship that every hero and villain in Epic posesses – the relationship with one’s ancestors, which grants at least one Ancestral Gift. There are also relationships with Spirits, powers of the natural world, which grant Spiritual Gifts – more costly than Ancestral Gifts but also more powerful, enabling a Summoner (my working term) to influence the forces of nature. Finally, there are relationships with the Deities of one’s culture, very costly relationships which potentially grant great, but somewhat narrow, power in the form of Divine Gifts.

This makes a decent segue to more on the Magic system – we’ll see how long it takes me to get to it…