[In this detailed design piece, researcher Tychsen looks to tabletop RPGs for inspiration on the best ways to create compelling characters for video games.]
The player character is alpha and omega in RPGs, forming the main point of interaction between the player and the game. In tabletop RPGs, player characters are generally defined in much greater detail than in digital RPGs, and this has direct benefits on player engagement and retention.
The question is whether there are design principles in tabletop RPGs - and the associated benefits - that can be transferred to the digital format. This article will be taking a look at how tabletop games handle characters, outlining a few ideas for adapting these approaches to digital games and the potential benefits of doing so.
The creation of player characters in role playing games - in any media - and the relationship that players have with their characters is a convoluted subject. As with any essentially user-oriented issue within games, the number of variables involved is staggering (because humans are involved). This is reflected in the massive range of opinions on how player characters should be designed (see Toby Gard's or Steve Meretzky's articles on this very site, or indeed any self-respecting game design book).
If such a thing as a design paradigm exists when it comes to characters in RPGs and MMORPGs, it seems to be that they should be blank slates, which the players can project themselves into and onto.
However, the lengths that players of RPGs often go to in order to flesh out their character's inner workings and personalities (rarely are these the mundane selves of the players) indicate that perhaps for the RPG genre, the blank slate approach needs an update.
In my several years of research with user experiences in RPGs across formats and player number, I have experienced that adult players (18+) prefer having well-developed characters with distinct personalities and backgrounds. This increases their immersion, engagement, and enjoyment with the game.
This goes both for tabletop RPGs and the digital version. Perhaps surprisingly, the personality of the character can be very different from that of the player without any adverse effects on the gaming experience.
That player characters which are comprised of more than visual models with stats are of interest to a segment of the player population should come as no surprise; however, when considering the segment of players interested in RPGs, the interest is pretty substantial.
We might for a moment accept the hypothesis that having the opportunity to create more "complex" characters - in the internal sense - is a benefit; and that we are reasonably sure this will impact on the financial bottom line - which means we can justify allocating development money. But the question is: How do we apply this to computer games?
Without making any claims as to having perfected a way, the purpose of this article is to point towards a few likely venues for approaching this subject.
We will start by looking at how player characters look in RPGs today, and then address how tabletop games handle the same issue (and throughout generalizing horribly, RPGs are incredibly diverse genres so there are exceptions to every rule!).
Player Characters In RPGs
RPGs are inherently character-based games. The term character should in this context be understood as not just physical representations, i.e. the avatar embodies the player, but as something more.
RPG characters have features that develop throughout gameplay, and commonly personalities, goals and motivations that are either pre-defined or in case of player-controlled characters, which emerge from the projection of the player into the character and control of the character during gameplay.
While the typical RPG contains many characters, it is the player-controlled character or characters which form the focal point of interaction between the player and the game world.
This makes RPG character design important to development - if the character is not interesting to play, the gaming experience will not be of a sufficient quality to motivate the player to continue playing.
Fascinating characters can make a game and create lasting relationships with the player that keep them coming back for more - as is evidenced in the game series featuring characters such as Lara Croft, April Ryan, Max Payne, Crash Bandicoot and Sonic the Hedgehog.
In general, there are two ways of approaching game character design in RPGs: Either completely pre-define the character (e.g. the Final Fantasy-series), potentially with some room for customization by the player, or let the player inhabit a "shell" - an avatar which the player can project him- or herself into (e.g. Diablo I and II).
There is an ongoing discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of pre-defined vs. player-scripted characters, and the purpose of this piece is not to debate the relative merits of different solutions to character design.
In general, most RPGs fall somewhere in between the two extremes, for example in offering development of skills/stats, customizable appearance and the opportunity to act along a good-evil axis when communicating with NPCs.
This offers some support for the player to either project their own personality onto the character, or create a character with personality and behavior different from their own. There is no ultimate right or wrong approach; many different forms have been shown to work in practice.
Irrespective of the balance between pre-scripted and player-scripted, the lead character of a game story in an RPG is a most important element and is normally player-controlled. If players cannot associate with the lead character the storyline will not be enjoyable, no matter how great it is.
Where games differ from traditional media such as books and movies is in the interactive relationship between the player and the character. Therefore the character has to be compatible with the viewpoints and psychology of all the potential players in the target audience. Maintaining such a balance in character design is very difficult - it is one thing to design and describe the character, and place it in the game world.
But the game designer also has to ensure that the way the character moves and acts follows the singular vision of the character; and furthermore ensure that the player can add what the game design either intentionally or unintentionally leaves open.
Because player characters (and to varying degrees non-player characters) are alpha and omega in RPGs, a substantial amount of attention to their creation is necessary to ensure that they function as intended.
In games with as varied gameplay opportunities as the typical RPG, players have a wide freedom in testing boundaries, developing strategies and in other ways utilize their characters in ways unanticipated by the designer. It is therefore always exciting - and often frustrating - to see what happens the first time the players sit down in front of a prototype and alpha-phase testing is begun.
Deconstructing Player Characters
Player character can be designed in different ways and with different properties, depending on the specific requirements of the game in question. The RPG character can vary in its constructional complexity across a range of elements, covering the various facets a game character can have, e.g. stats, personality and integration, as is seen in the table.
Within each of these facets, more or less depth can be applied to the character functionality. For example, the character JC Dent in Deus Ex featured a relatively simple character development and item-based upgrading system, but had a relatively well-developed integration into the game world, with e.g. a NPC brother.
In the typical Dungeons & Dragons-based RPG, such as Neverwinter Nights, the characters are usually devoid of personality elements, feature superficial explanations for why they are where they are.
But a varied, deep and flexible character development and item-based upgrading system forms one of the main drivers for rewards and player motivation in the game. When playtesting characters in RPGs during production, it is therefore important to tune the tests to the way the various facets are designed, integrated and operated.
Overview of the core RPG player character component builds (the list is not exhaustive). Not all may be present with all player characters, and the level of development for each aspect varies from game to game as required by the design in question.
The psyche basically defines the core of the character, covering all aspects of the character psychology, including motivations and emotions. This aspect of the character can be non-existent, providing a blank slate for the player to project onto, or relatively complex, aiming at providing an interesting template for the player to relate to and possibly even learn from.
Goals are the primary tool for engaging the players first hand, and the principle is known from quest systems. Goals can be mechanical or personal, simple or complex: Kill 10 centaurs; gain control of the guild of thieves; maintain a close relationship with a sister, not letting a phobia control one's life. Goals targeting the character psyche are generally harder to code, therefore comparably rarer in RPGs as compared to mechanical and simple goals.
The stats provide the mathematical numbers associated with the character, e.g. strength and other physical or mental attributes, abilities and skills (e.g. farming, sword-fighting) and unique powers (i.e. spell casting). The stats directly affect the effect of the PC interacting with the virtual environment.
Characters will likely know some other characters of the game world, whether NPCs or other player characters in a multi-player RPG or MMORPG, and throughout the game will get in contact with even more. Associations can be more or less detailed, from a random quest provider to a long-term associate or companion.
Most characters start out with associations formed by their background, and build up increased contact networks during the running of a RPG. In RPGs with multiple players, some players like to develop stories for the relationships between their characters, while others chose not to.
An important subtype of associations is the contact, characterized by being a quest giver, mission provider or similar entity that progresses the game story. Contacts are the NPCs that initiate the adventures of the player character(s). They exist in all forms of RPGs (e.g. City of Heroes, Neverwinter Nights), and are one of the primary means of propelling the players forward in the game.
The term category should here be interpreted in a broad sense, to indicate the overall typecasting popular in RPGs. The classical way of handling the categorization of different types of characters is via a set of classes or occupations, e.g. warrior, wizard, private eye, biologist.
This is however not the only way to approach categorization - games such as Morrowind develop stats/skills based on character actions. Categorizations - in whatever form they take - can be used to help develop the vision of the character and anchor it in a specific context, but at the same time can be restrictive. Occupations and classifications are generally developed via a rules system, but need not be so.
The physical location of the character and reasoning as to why. The player needs to have enough information to provide a solid hook into the game world in the beginning of a game.
Background details where the character comes from, the events that have it to the specific point in its life where the game begins. This includes the history of the character developed during game time.
The character will have an appearance, and in good game design this complements the integration of the character in the world, anchoring the character in the overall theme and style of the game world. Appearance is modifiable at least in terms of clothing/weapons in most RPGs such as (World of Warcraft), or can be more static (The Longest Journey). Irrespective, appearance is a vital visual link between the player and the character.
Game characters have since the earliest console days been associated with specific physical behaviors, e.g. special attacks in Tekken and Mortal Kombat. The physical behavior of a character can greatly assist enhancing the character theme, and project its moods and feelings. Emotes with associated animations are a typical way of providing RPG players some control over the physical behavior of their characters. As with appearance, physical behavior should serve to strengthen the ties between the character and his/her/its place within it.
It should be noted that the list in the table is technically incomplete when it comes to listing all the potential elements of RPG player characters that can impact on the gaming experience.
If there is one conclusion that is shared among the large number of research publications and game development books & articles investigating this subject, it's the following.
The process of creating gaming experiences is complex and associated with a host of variables that contribute to greater or lesser extents, depending on the specific situation, player and game. This is also one of the major reasons why experience is vital to a designer of player characters.
Stats are, of course, the rules based component, and something we see creatively used in games today. Integration is more rarely exploited, and the degree varies.
Usually the background for a character is not well developed in FPSes or CRPGs, with Neverwinter Nights a good example - we just know that he/she is a hero in training come to aid the city. Other games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic utilize background as the premise for the entire game story.
Personality is an area which is more rarely utilized, possibly due to the existing "blank slate" paradigm. There are some exceptions - KOTOR has an alignment system, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has an insanity system, the Final Fantasy series generally has pretty well-rounded characters, and most D&D games integrate an alignment system.
These are all relatively straightforward compared to what is possible in tabletop RPGs, even when alignment affects NPC reaction. Furthermore often players are served the personalities of their characters in a passive manner, e.g. via the way their character behaves during cutscenes (e.g. Beyond Good and Evil).
Role playing communities tied to specific games, e.g. Neverwinter Nights or RP-guilds in MMORPGs, offer an interesting contrast - here players often have thorough descriptions of their characters and utilize these.
In the persistent games, the RP guilds do a lot to integrate them. This would seem one of the main reasons why people are still hanging in there. In other words, this is a strong driving factor in player retention.
In tabletop RPGs, the players need to create integration and personality from scratch. Some, such as GURPS, Mutant Chronicles, Traveller, or Vampire the Masquerade, provide a more or less developed system for assisting players in creating these features with a rule-based component.
For example, acquiring a good connection in the government costs two character points. Being a pacifist gives you two extra points (apparently a disadvantage!), and you may take up to 20 points in disadvantages.
Such systems do not replace the full image that players can and generally do build of their characters, but for computer games provide a direct path to integrate such systems because they are rules-based.
Utilizing Tabletop RPG Character Systems In Digital RPGs
Personality-based character elements can be integrated in various ways into the overall game structure. In general, we can categorize a complex character system based on its depth - i.e. how detailed and complex the system is - and the level to which it is integrated into the game in question.
For example, a character personality system could have a rules-based effect, be used to control content access, or have no in-game effect at all, being primarily a tool for the player community. We can even integrate a personality system that operates outside the game mechanics but features its own rules for character development.
Depth of system: In general, we can separate between a shallow and possibly mechanistic approach, where personality/integration elements of the characters are chosen or generated from a simple system, or a deep system where the effects are embedded in several elements of the game, e.g. mechanics, story, and other content.
A shallow approach could be a list of psyche elements to choose from, with each element leading to a simple rules-based effect. Shallow approaches are not better or worse than deep approaches, but each offer specific benefits and have different resource requirements.
As an example, let us consider the character Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A shallow approach could specify that Aragorn has a "favored enemy" in orcs (adopting the terminology from the D&D tabletop RPG system for class attributes), granting him a bonus to damage them in combat.
A similar approach would be to define that Aragorn "hates orcs", which makes him less prone to retreat from combat with them (this can again be implemented in the game mechanics).
In a system with more depth, we might define Aragorn as having a high level of "social responsibility". This can be hard to integrate in the game mechanics, but not impossible.
Furthermore, it points towards a different option for utilizing this personality element, namely in the creation of content to accommodate this personality element, and the direction of content towards characters. We might tailor a series of quests to Aragorn's player, providing a story-based response to the character personality.
This can be problematic in terms of development resource, so a different option is to "tag" the hundreds of quests generally integrated in CRPGs after the personality/integration elements of the character system, and direct them to the player content.
This is not as big a development resource issue as one might believe, since CRPGs generally have lots of different quests in order to accommodate different player preferences anyway. Note that this approach does not prevent any players from accessing any of the content, avoiding redundancy.
As an example, a quest involving helping a group of refugees would be in line with our Aragorn. What we need to do is make sure this quest comes to the attention of Aragorn's player. Even if this quest might have been available anyway, the fact that the content is directed provides a measure of responsiveness to the character generation choices of the player.
This kind of responsiveness to player characters is one way of providing a feel of agency. It can be further developed, even in a simple framework. For example, Aragorn might develop new personality elements over the course of play - either through the actions of the player, or by use of a point-buy system mechanic.
Integration of character elements: The different options for integration allow different advantages and correspondingly varied requirements on development resource. Three examples are suggested:
1) Rules-based system. As a fairly shallow example, consider that a player selecting the character element "arachnophobia" provides the character with a rules-based -2 to damage against all arachnids, and five character points to spend somewhere else. This form for integration mimics the GURPS system, and provides players a direct use of the personality system.
A point-buy based system furthermore has the advantage that it allows people to use it as much or as little as they like, or even ignore it, gaining no special benefits or advantages.
As designers, we obviously have a challenge of balancing such a system and provide due consequence to choices - a player may meet twice as many orcs as spiders, meaning that a spider phobia is worth less. However, game balancing is a regular challenge in design and these issues can be addressed.
In tabletop RPG rules systems such as GURPS, integration and personality components can be defined as advantages, disadvantages or neutrals, depending on whether they cost character points, or provide the player with character points to spend on advantages or stats, or does not alter the balance.
This is just one approach - other tabletop RPG systems have chosen to use die rolls to determine character histories (Mutant Chronicles) or combinations of selections and dice rolls (Traveller).
While not fully realized in either of these systems, one major advantage of tabletop RPG systems is that they permit a method for players to play the game mechanics better by utilizing their character elements. In this way, tabletop RPGs encourage both players who prefer strategic/mechanic challenges as well as personality/storytelling-based challenges to utilize their character elements.
2) Content-only system. A personality system could also mean that NPCs who give you quests related to arachnids try to reassure you they are not that dangerous (if the NPCs know, they might not realize until they have joined you in the dank and musty cave...)
This is an illustration of how the game can utilize the character personality information to modify or direct content. This would appear to be a powerful tool in providing a personalized experience - the player will realize their choice of character elements are being responded to.
Note that the character effects that the game system responds to can be anything - personality trait, background, a contact etc. (alignment, reputation and past actions in the game are already utilized to some degree in computer games). Content direction is one method of utilizing existing content in relation to complex character systems. Other options include e.g. ambience and environment reactions.
For both 1) and 2) above, a personality generation and response system gives the player an increased feeling of agency - a higher degree of impact from their choices when creating and playing their character.
3) No direct implementation. There could be no game effect at all, with these systems functioning merely as a tool for the player to flesh out the personality of his or her character, and to use when communicating and playing (role playing) with other players. This might be a good tool for the Neverwinter player community to introduce new players to role playing and to assist experienced role players - just like in tabletop RPGs.
The three examples above suggest that there a at least a handful of different options for integrating more complex character constructs in digital RPGs, even when the choice of which character elements to choose are determined by the players.
In practice, there are two sections of the game structure that would be affected: character creation and content creation, delivery and management.
New Reward Options
In the above some arguments for why we should consider the use of more developed player characters in RPGs. There is one important argument that is not made however: It opens up an entirely new venue for in-game reward structures which directly support the game story. This goes all the way from single-player RPGs to MMORPGs.
Imagine the arachnophobia-plagued warrior. After putting himself in situations facing spiders countless times, facing his fears, he finally learns to control that fear.
This is a powerful reward format because it affects the player characters on a personal level, and we can structure these rewards into contingencies and responses just like regular award structures (story rewards, stats rewards, item rewards) and without interfering with them.
If we can then add choice to the mix, the cocktail would appear pretty retentive - e.g. how should your character evolve? Will he lose his phobia, or gain a new advantage? Sure, not all players will want this level of character depth - this means we have a challenge in designing systems flexible enough to allow different levels of depth.
Resource Cost Vs. Benefit
The benefit of a personality system has to be weighed against the resource cost of designing and implementing it. Briefly put, it may not cost a lot of development resources to integrate this kind of system.
In a simple implementation, the system response to the player choices of personality and integration components could be as minimal as having NPCs alerting players to quests related to their character's personality/integration component, in order to provide the players with a game response to their characters.
In designing complex characters and the systems to support them, the characters must be created in a manner that allows players to adapt/adopt parts they like, and ignore/overpower parts they do not care about.
We can alleviate this problem from a design perspective, by giving at least a portion of the creative control to the player, and pre-design a system to respond to the choices of the players. As discussed above, this need not negatively affect the remaining game design (e.g. the game storyline).
Tabletop RPGs do not always tell fantastic stories - but they usually tell the stories their players like.
Tabletop RPGs have for the past 30 years created personalized story-based gaming experiences for players worldwide. Given their likeness with digital RPGs, it would seem there are some opportunities for leveraging these experiences.
Character generation systems can provide sets of cues for the game engine to react to and direct content after, provides a reasonably simple method for integrating soft personality components in a programming environment, is theoretically simple to design and integrate, and can be scaled to accommodate different levels of intricacy and integration.
A personality system such as that observed in many tabletop RPGs has the further advantage that it is modular, it can be designed to change appearance and stats of characters or it can be strictly parametric.
Ideally, the various approaches should be combined. Some rules-based impact of personality/integration choices could be mixed with the use of directing content based on the player personality.
With the further options for integrating rewards based on personality and integration of the character, in addition to traditional story-, stats- and object-rewards, it would appear that this is a fruitful area to investigate in more detail.
More Readings & Further Info
Gard, Toby. Building Character. Gamasutra, June 2000.
Isbister, Katherine. Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach. Morgan Kaufman, 2006.
Jackson, Steve. GURPS Basic Set: Characters. Steve Jackson Games, 2004.
Krawczyk, Marianne. Game Development Essentials: Game Story & Character Development. CENGAGE Delmar Learning, 2006.
Meretzky, Steve. Building Character: An Analysis of Character Creation. Gamasutra, November 2001.
Sheldon, Lee. Character Development and Storytelling for Games. Course Technology PTR, 2004.
Thomas, Frank and Ollie Johnson. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. New York: Hyperion Press, 1995.
Tychsen, Anders; Hitchens, Michael and Brolund, Thea. Character Play - The use of game characters in multi-player Role-Playing Games. ACM Computers in Entertainment, 2008.