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.
On this understanding of characters, generation didn’t cease at the start of play, with the rolling of ability scores, the tallying of hit points, and the choice of equipment. Those were simply the starting conditions of a character, the basic facts that a player was given, and from which his character would evolve over time. It was only through actual play that a player began to get a sense that Sir Justin Case, his randomly rolled fighting man, whose 13 Strength was his highest stat, was more than a collection of numbers on a sheet of paper.
By surviving adventures, undergoing in-game hardships at the hands of a “challenging” referee, and growing in experience, Sir Justin became what we’d today recognize as a character. At the start, he really was little more than a “playing piece,” a bunch of game mechanics through which a player could interact with the game world.
If his player succeeded – and the dice gods smiled upon him – a bunch of game mechanics could transcend his origins and possess all the depth and breadth we typically associate with literary or cinematic characters. This is, of course, assuming that’s what his player wanted. Many early roleplayers weren’t all that interested in “getting into character,” preferring instead to treat RPGs as a kind of open-ended tactical wargame that also included elements from strategy games in terms of planning and logistics. This approach existed side by side with those that treated characters as a vehicle for pretending to be another person in an imaginary world.
As the hobby grew and became more mainstream, casting aside its wargaming roots (or at least downplaying them), it was the second approach, the one about pretending to be someone else, that came to be emphasized and indeed promoted as the unique feature of RPGs. That’s perfectly understandable, as most people, from children to adults, instinctively understand the notion of playing “cops and robbers.”
From a marketing standpoint, it’s much easier to sell a game if you can compare it to something people already grasp. And nowadays, with the mass marketing of fantasy and science fiction, both of which were more marginalized at the dawn of the hobby, it’s even easier to compare roleplaying to “writing your own fantasy novel” or something similar. It’s a very straightforward way to present roleplaying games to those unfamiliar with them or their history.
Still, for those of us who’ve played these games for three decades or more, it can be disappointing to see the older understanding of character disappear. I still prefer to roll up my characters randomly and run with them, seeing them live – or die – as a result of the choices I make. There are, at the start, no grand plans or extensive backstories, just some ability scores, a name, and a willingness to let the character tell me who he is as I use him to experience an imaginary world.
Sometimes, it’s true, this approach yields few or unsatisfying results, but, when it works – and it often does – the resulting character is one I’d never have created through planning beforehand. He feels like someone real, or at least as real as you find in novels and movies. That’s good enough for me; here’s hoping I’m not the only one who feels this way.