Years back, I designed a character creation system around astrology, psychology, and the various intelligences (natural, spatial, emotional, et cetera), but found that they were too arbitrary and didn’t leave enough up to the imagination. My players couldn’t find a way to apply their choices because they were too abstract.
It was ambitious and maybe even “ahead of its time,” but it was ultimately a failure. Now, the wrong way to solve the problems I encountered using that system is removing the elements of player choice and interpretation from the process. A player will make their choices, and everyone else can hang (especially if the choice is “leave”).
This morning I did some math. I tried to determine how many “features” should come bundled with each choice a player makes during character creation. Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons ostensibly gives us Race plus Class plus Theme to start, and then adds lots of little things on top like weapons and powers and such.
But tweaking our characters to the extreme isn’t what gives them personality. Especially not if the choices we make can leave them lacking in areas of the game where we’ll be counted upon to contribute. (Rogue’s gotta trap-find, fool.)
I made a short list of features that come bundled with race in each 3.x and 4e, and here’s what it looks like to me:
Abilities, size, speed, senses, defenses, skills, language, penalties
Abilities, size, speed, senses, defenses, skills, language, origin, power
If I were to excise the parts from each that I thought were superfluous, I think I’d remove size, senses, and language, in the same way that you might not expect to see “deities” or “alignment” (except that you would see them in the Monster Manual entries). In each case, it seems to me like “theme” would handle those better.
When I combined the two lists and dropped “penalties” along with the other features I mentioned above, I came up with six major features: abilities, speed, defenses, skills, origin, and power. I’m not sure if “health” counts as a separate feature.
All told, a racial stat block would look kind of like this:
Origin and type: Natural mortal
Damage Threshold: 12
Abilities: Fortitude and Cunning
Trade Craft: Deception (rogue)
Defenses: dodge, and +2 to defense vs. poison attacks
Dodge: Prevent all damage from a missed attack.
Speed Bonus: Basic move +2
Racial Power: “Hidden Blade”
Hidden Blade [Close Burst, Poison]: Once per encounter when you’re the target of a melee or ranged attack, you can use a Quick action to deal 1d6 + (Dexterity or Cunning) poison damage to your attacker as a Close Burst.
I’m still working out some of the kinks, and I have yet to define the different movement types (though they aren’t too far off) but that’s pretty close, right? All it’s really missing at this stage is the flavor text for their features, and some malarkey about their culture and motivations. Oh, and some pretty pictures. Need lots of those.