Days of High Adventure: When Characters Were Born, Not Made

James Maliszewski | 20 May 2010 21:00
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If there's one element that strongly separated tabletop roleplaying games from the miniatures wargames out of which they grew, it's the former's focus on characters. Although some miniatures (and even hex and chit) wargames included individualized "hero" units, they were rarely the focus of these games. In a very real sense, the conceptual leap that gave birth to RPGs was a shift in focus toward hero units -- characters -- as the primary focus of gameplay. Characters (or "player characters," as they quickly became known) served a dual purpose in early roleplaying games, being both the means through which players interacted with the game world and an end in themselves.

This dual purpose contributed greatly to the appeal of RPGs over other types of games, as well as highlighting their differences from them. However, there is a tension inherent in this dual purpose, with some players favoring one purpose over the other, particularly the notion that a character should be primarily an end in itself. In the view of such players, creating and developing a character as an in-game "persona" is what roleplaying games are all about.

RPGs are thus a kind of interactive drama or fiction and their rules ought to facilitate the creation of characters according to suit the imagination of their prospective player. On this model, a character is something a player creates before play and that the game rules allow him to bring into existence.

The earliest RPGs don't generally share this point of view. The 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons, for example, notes that "Prior to the character selection by players it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order to rate each as to various abilities, and thus aid them in selecting a role." There are quite a few interesting points to consider here.

First, and perhaps most surprisingly, players select their characters from those created by the referee. They don't make their own characters; instead, they choose them from among those the referee has on offer. Secondly, the referee's creation of the characters is done solely through the use of dice to randomly determine their abilities. Taken together, the Little Brown Book edition of D&D seem to treat character creation as something of a crap shoot, or perhaps being dealt a hand in a card game rather than the result of careful deliberation.

Although the 1974 version of D&D is probably unique in making the referee rather than the player the creator of characters, other early RPGs nevertheless share the notion that characters, to borrow a phrase, are "born not made." The 1977 science fiction RPG, Traveller, notes that "Characters are generated initially through a series of six double dice rolls," adding later "Obviously, it is possible for a player to generate a character with seemingly unsatisfactory values; nevertheless, each player should use his character as generated."

What an odd perspective this must seem to many players nowadays! What possible rationale could there be in encouraging someone to play a character whose abilities are other than what the player would choose if he had the opportunity to do so?

There seems to have been the idea in many - though not all - early RPGs that a character was something a player created out of pre-existing raw materials rather than something he conceived and then implemented using the rules. Under this model, characters are generated rather than created and you'll find that many early RPGs use precisely that terminology, though one should be wary of focusing too heavily on terminology as the first half-decade of the hobby was one of great terminological ferment and flux. After all, Dungeons & Dragons didn't start calling itself a "roleplaying game" until some time after its release.

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