Yesterday we had the character generation session for my upcoming Traveller campaign. I think it might be the most fun character generation session I’ve ever presided over, and it’s due entirely to the way Mongoose’s edition of Traveller implements its life path mechanics. Mongoose Traveller, like Classic Traveller, uses terms of service in various jobs and institutions as the primary means by which characters get skills and other benefits in character generation. (Unlike Classic, it does give some means for obtaining a few extra skills here and there for the sake of rounding things out, but for the most part the focus is still on those terms of service.) In Classic, however, what goes on in a particular term is actually rather sparse; you might get promoted, you might get fired, you might die, that’s more or less it.
Mongoose, conversely, have modified the Classic “survival” roll so that if you fail it you don’t die, but you do have a randomly-generated mishap which causes your ejection from the particular career you had been pursuing. Even if you don’t have a little accident, you still roll on an Events table to get some flavourful incident to spice up that term. This means that no four-year tour of duty is uneventful, and soon enough not only do characters obtain colourful personal histories, but these histories also sometimes generate unexpected synergy with other features of the term. (For instance, one character accidentally caused a small war in one of their terms – at which point they received a promotion, when they hadn’t received any recognition for more heroic actions earlier in their career. Obviously, we decided, the powers that be had been hoping to kindle that war for ages before the PC finally gave them the casus belli they needed…)
On top of that, events which happen to coincide suggest linkages with the characters. For instance, two players were ejected from the Navy and Army respectively due to military disasters blamed on them by their commanders, which has led us to infer that about 8-12 years before the campaign started there was a big war which both characters were involved in – and in fact it was the same commander who framed both of them.
The way I ran the session was to have the players generate their basic characteristics and do their other preliminaries simultaneously, then go around the group running through each player’s first term of service one at a time, then each player’s second term, and so on. (We eventually stopped at 4 terms of service, at which point the characters had become quite well rounded out and the players had, despite various mishaps, managed to obtain roughly the sort of PCs they had been aiming for from the start of the process, and I had enough adventure hooks to plan the first session properly.) This was actually enormously entertaining, and everyone seemed to be engaged by the various twists and turns of each others’ fortunes, so despite the mild added complexity over Classic character generation I think the overall process was far more fun than any character gen process I can recently remember participating in.
The character gen session for my AD&D game was also nice and painless, and also notably heavily based on randomness – thanks to the stat-generating method we used there was little dithering about character classes because people often didn’t qualify for any of the fancy classes and the choice between mage, fighter, cleric and thief was fairly easy to make. I think what gives Mongoose Traveller the edge, however, is the fact that it’s not only quite random but also generates interesting events and synchronicities. I do find that when participating in games with people who are new to RPGs their enthusiasm for the process can be dampened right at the start of the game by a stodgy character generation process which combines lots of book-keeping with lots of choice (because choice tends to involve staring at a shopping list and dithering) and is distinctly lacking in surprises or interesting plot developments. If the process of making a character is difficult and time-consuming and involves lots of concentration and little laughter, then that’s going to be intensely offputting to new participants, and they can be forgiven for wondering whether the rest of the game is this painful.
In short, I think character generation systems should ideally do at least one of three things:
- Be short and simple, so you can get the job done within half an hour and get going. AD&D accomplishes this, so does Call of Cthulhu.
- Build enough entertaining features into the process that generating a character is almost a fun game in its own right. This is what Mongoose Traveller does; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does the same if you go full random, though interestingly I don’t think the 40K RPGs succeed to the same extent because they seem to have more points where you are picking options from very long and complicated lists.
- If you absolutely must be slow and stodgy because you have a target audience which loves character choice and optimisation and dislikes random wackiness, at least have the courtesy to include a robust process for bypassing a heap of these choices so players who are new to this sort of thing (or just find character optimisation impossibly tedious) can bypass all that and jump into the game quickly. A nicely developed template system can help a lot here.
- Character generation can be fun and if it isn’t fun that’s a completely legitimate complaint.
- Coincidences create plot opportunities.
- Mongoose Traveller could well be Best Traveller.