Comparative Character Generation, Part 5

New Year, New Games

Frank Mitchell

Feb 2, 2010

The Story So Far

So far I have reviewed some lightweight game systems, agonized over d20, and tried random character generation in Traveller, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition, and Labyrinth Lord.

Summarizing character creation times, our consistent and possibly irrelevant metric, we have:

GameTime (mins)
PDQ Plain5#
Terra Incognita (Fudge)30######
ASCB (Fudge)20####
FATE 2nd ed45#########
Call of Cthulhu25#####
HeroQuest 1st ed20####
GURPS Lite, 4th Edition45#########
D&D (Standard)45#########
D&D (Generic)45#########
Labyrinth Lord15###
Warhammer 2nd ed30######

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

A lot has changed since I began this seemingly unending series:

Our Story Continues

Of the game systems we've examined so far, here's roughly how much I would prefer to run them:

  1. FATE (Spirit of the Century / 3.0)

  2. PDQ and PDQ Sharp (incl. S7S)

  3. Traveller (space game only)

  4. HeroQuest (either edition, "legendary" level play only)

  5. Basic Roleplaying

  6. WFRP 2 (Warhammer or other fantasy world only)

  7. GURPS

  8. True20

  9. Labyrinth Lord

  10. Any d20

I left Fudge, retro-clones of Original D&D and AD&D, and D&D 4 off the list. Fudge is a mechanic with suggestions for use, not a full game; FATE probably uses that mechanic the best. D&D 4 is just not my thing, even as a GM. As for Original D&D and AD&D, I didn't like them the first time around. OD&D seems more suited for tinkering, but like d20 when I think of the changes I'd make I end up emulating some other game.

So, in this report, I'll examine some easily adaptable systems that look interesting. Except for Savage Worlds and Wushu, I've played all of these before, in one form or another.

New World of Darkness


The New World of Darkness system isn't really new; White Wolf released World of Darkness and Vampire: the Requiem in 2004. I've only played it in the last few weeks, so let's pretend it's new.

Among the changes to the previous World of Darkness were the following:

Most people welcome the mechanical changes, but dislike changes to each game's background, particularly Vampires and Mages. Old Vampire fans miss the metaplot, and prefer the old thirteen clans to the five new ones and the "bloodlines" named after the old clans that didn't make the cut. In the old Mage, mages fought against the force of consensus reality; in the new one, they're survivors of Atlantis(!?) forced to live in this Fallen World but yearning for the Supernal Plane.

In any case, let's create a mortal, and apply templates to make him a Hunter, a Psychic, and a Vampire.


Let's create a new character, Matt Baker, a student in Archaeology with a penchant for the occult.

Characters have nine Attributes, notionally arranged in a three-by-three grid:

Power Intelligence Strength Presence
Finesse Wits Dexterity Manipulation
Resistance Resolve Stamina Composure

Each starts with one dot. Characters have 5 extra dots for one category of their choosing, 4 for another, and 3 for the remaining one. The fifth dot in any attribute costs two dots.

I imagine him as a student who does a lot of field work, so Mental and then Physical are most important. Let's try this:

Intelligence 3,  Wits         2, Resolve   3;
Strength     2,  Dexterity    2, Stamina   4; 
Presence     2,  Manipulation 1, Composure 3.

Skills likewise belong to one of the three categories, and characters have 11 dots in one, 7 dots in another, and 4 for the remaining one. Again, the fifth dot in any attribute costs two dots. A character also gets three specialties, which add one die to a skill roll concerning that area.

Again, I'll go with Mental 11, Physical 7, Social 4:


He's pretty guileless, but time in the field has toughened him up. He's also a bit of a sword nut.

Next come Merits, various perks and unusual talents. We get 7 dots of those to allocate.

Professor Rubinov is his thesis advisor. He knows Spanish from digs in South America, and Latin from some of the Occult books he peruses. Encyclopedic Knowledge -- knowing a little bit about everything -- may or may not be worth the cost, but I imagine him as bit of a dilettante.

Finally, we calculate other Advantages from Attributes and defaults:

Total time to develop all this: about 30 minutes.

Hunter: the Vigil

Matt has found out the hard way that the Occult is very, very real. A close call with a vampire has made him a Hunter, scourge of supernatural creatures that prey on mankind. To create a Hunter, we back out the Merits, add a Profession and optionally a Compact or Conspiracy from the Hunter template, and revisit Merits.

Hunters also have an ability to "risk" Willpower on a Hunt. By spending a Willpower point they can reroll 9s as well as 10s, and gain that point back along with another if they succeed. If the Hunter fails, however, it's a Dramatic Failure. That's part of the "Hunter template", though, and not a choice for character generation.

A Profession grants a character an extra specialty in one skill relevant to that profession. After leafing through the options, Academic, Occultist, or Scientist seem closest. Let's go with Academic, which means he can take a specialty in Academics or Science. Let's go with Religion, under Academics.

With GM permission Hunters may belong to a Compact or a Conspiracy, in addition to the Cell formed with other player characters. Compacts provide "free" merits or minor abilities based on one's status in them. Conspiracies offer powerful weapons or magics to fight the forces of darkness. I'll take the middle road and let Matt join a Conspiracy. Despite their grim overtones, the academically-oriented Loyalists of Thule look like a good match.

Finally, we revisit Merits. We could liquidate Encyclopedic Knowledge, but that's a valuable Merit for an academic, and we can only buy it at character creation. Let's remove Dr. Rubinov (they had a falling out) and Latin (he hasn't used it in years), and add one dot each in Profession (Academics) and Status (Loyalists of Thule). The Profession dot gives him the equivalent of Contacts (in this case, other academics); the Status dot allows him to gain an extra Willpower point when risking Willpower on an Academics or Occult roll.

His new stats:

Profession: Academic

Compact: Loyalists of Thule

Intelligence 3,  Wits         2, Resolve   3;
Strength     2,  Dexterity    2, Stamina   4; 
Presence     2,  Manipulation 1, Composure 3.

Skills: Academics (Anthropology) 3, Computer 1, Crafts 1, Investigation 1, Medicine 1, Occult 3, Science (Archaeology) 2; Athletics 2, Brawl 1, Survival 3, Weaponry (Swords) 1; Empathy 1, Persuasion 2, Socialize 1.


Defense: 2, Willpower: 6, Size: 5, Health: 9, Initiative Modifier: 5, Speed: 9, Morality: 7

Virtue: Fortitude

Vice: Sloth

Total time: about 20 minutes.

Second Sight Psychics

Alternatively, Matt's research into the Occult has awakened latent psychic power. To represent these new powers, we back out the Merits and add the Psychic template, which opens up a new range of Merits.

Unfortunately, to buy any I need to liquidate his Encyclopedic Knowledge. Instead, after flipping back and forth for about fifteen minutes, I've decided he has the four-point version of Psychometry, which allows him to read the history of any object or a whole location.

Psychometry gives him a definite advantage as an archaeologist, since he can read what actually happened in a place or to an object. Of course, he then has to prove it to his thesis advisor.

I could count the time to apply this template as fifteen minutes, but part of my problem was unfamiliarity with the advantages and no clear idea what I wanted. Call it ten minutes?

Conflict and Combat

As stated above, NWoD uses a dice-pool system where each die represents a success or failure. This system handles skill rolls, supernatural powers, and combat (itself a type of skill roll).

For example, let's say Selena Vasquez is shooting at a werewolf again. Selena's Dexterity is 3, her Firearms skill is 3, and her Revolver has a damage rating of 2, giving her a pool of 8 dice. (Yes, a better weapon increases her chance to hit.) On the other side, the werewolf isn't trying to dodge, so she doesn't subtract his Defense score, but it has two points of armor, reducing the pool to 6. She gets two successes, and the werewolf should take two points of lethal damage to its Health score. It doesn't seem to care ...

For those of you into this sort of thing, here are the probabilities of getting k successes on N dice:

SuccessesNumber of Dice


NWoD uses experience points, traded in for advances in characteristics, skills, merits, advantages, and supernatural powers (e.g. Vampire Disciplines and Devotions). The cost increases geometrically with a trait's current value. For example, increasing a skill from one to two is 6 points, while moving from four to five costs 15.

Savage Worlds

Billing itself as "Fast, Furious, Fun", Savage Worlds sprang from a simplified miniatures combat system for Deadlands. An abundance of supplements provide toolkits to build your own world and fully realized settings: Solomon Kane, Realms of Cthulhu, Pirates of the Spanish Main, Slipstream pulp science fiction, and, well, Deadlands.


SW rates each trait (attribute and skill) as a die size: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12. A trait test succeeds if the result is 4 or more, after modifiers. "Wild Cards" (PCs and major NPCs) rolls a d6 "Wild Die", and may take the better of the two rolls. Rolling the maximum number (naturally) allows the player to roll that die again and add the result as long as he or she keeps rolling that number.

While there are more rules, notably "bennies" spent to reroll a die, these are the basics.

Character Generation

Savage Worlds defines five "ranks" of hero (PC): Novice, Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic, and Legendary. Let's create a Novice, for simplicity.

As a young girl in the late 18th century, Callista Morgan watched a vampire slaughter her parents. Despite the best efforts of guardians and teachers, she studied vampire lore, trained with crossbow and axe, and learned how to survive far from salons and housemaids. When she reached the age of majority, she set off in what she believes is a holy mission, to destroy the undead.

While flipping through the book, I found two Edges that describe Callista perfectly: Champion (+2 to attack and defend against evil creatures) and Holy Warrior (ability to repel evil creatures). Prerequisites are the edges Arcane Background (Miracles), attributes Spirit d8+, Strength d6+, and Vigor d8+, and skills Faith d6+ and Fighting d8+. Let's see how close we can get.

Each attribute starts at d4, with five points to raise them.

Agility d4, Smarts d4, Spirit d8 (2), Strength d6 (1), Vigor d8 (2)

Hmm, she's not too bright or agile. Then again, she is a Wild Card, and rolls an extra d6, so maybe that's good enough for now.

Each Novice character has 15 points for skills. Raising the skill up to its associated characteristic costs one point; surpassing the characteristic costs two.

It appears Callista isn't very suited to her new life, but she's trying anyway. The Guts skill reflects bravery and perseverance despite horrific sights ... a valuable skill in a monster hunter.

Characters may also have Edges and Hindrances; starting characters may take only one Major Hindrance, worth two points, and two Minor Hindrances, worth one point. Each two points of Hindrances allows a character to add an attribute point or an Edge; one point grants a skill point or increases starting funds by 100%. Humans start with a bonus Edge.

As stated above, Callista has three edges:

To balance this, we must take one Major Hindrance and two Minor Hindrances.

I'll skip gear as usual, but I'd get $500 worth by default. Calculating derived statistics:

With her Arcane Background, Callista gets 10 Power Points and two Powers. She takes the following:

All in all, that took about 25 minutes, maybe 30 given that I flipped through the book to get a character idea.


Characters get from 1 to 3 experience points per session. Each 20 experience points advances a character in Rank: Novice, Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic, Legendary. (Some edges have specific Ranks as prerequisites).

Every five points also gives a character an Advance, with which she can gain a new Edge, increase a skill above its die type, increase two skills up to their die type, buy a new skill at d4, or (once per rank) increase an attribute by a die type.

Barbarians of Lemuria

A few months ago a friend ran a game of Barbarians of Lemuria, and I thought it was pretty cool. It's almost as lightweight as PDQ or PDQ Sharp, but Barbarians specifically addresses combat in swords-and-sorcery, a genre with swordplay in the title. For that matter, its sorcery system is at once evocative of swords-and-sorcery and about as simple as one can get.


Barbarians of Lemuria uses a 2d6 mechanic: roll the dice, add an attribute, a relevant ability, and other modifiers; if the result is 9 or more, the test succeeds. 12 on the dice is an automatic success, 2 is an automatic failure.

The basic attributes are Strength (doubles as constitution), Agility, Mind, and Appeal (charisma). Combat abilities are Brawl, Melee, Ranged, and Defense (subtracted from any roll to hit). The system represents non-combat abilities as "Careers", such as Hunter, Mariner, Physician, and so on.

Character Generation

Character creation is dead easy: distribute 4 points among basic attributes (max 3 in each, with at most one at -1 for an extra point), another 4 among combat abilities (max 3 in each, with at most one at -1 for an extra point), and 4 points among any four careers (minimum 0, maximum 3 in each).

Characters can also take one boon, and additional boons balanced by flaws. Available boons and flaws depend on the character's home region.

We'll make a character named Kaland:

AttributesCombat AbilitiesCareers
Strength 0 Brawl 0 Barbarian 0
Agility 3 Melee 1 Warrior 1
Mind1Missile2Hunter 2
Appeal0Defense1Thief 1

Home: Axos Mountains

Boons: Hard-To-Kill (+2 LB), Quick Recovery (1 extra LB after combat)

Flaws: Distrust of Sorcery

Hero Points: 5 (default)

Lifeblood: 10 + Strength + Hard-To-Kill = 12

Total time: 15 minutes.


Characters accrue 2 or more Advancement Points at the end of every adventure. Raising attributes costs the current value plus the new value; combat abilities cost the new value + 1, and career ranks cost the value of the new rank, up to a maximum of 5.

Barbarians of the Aftermath

A supplement, Barbarians of the Aftermath, adapts BoL to the post-apocalyptic genre. Awakened Animals, Awakened Plants, and Supernatural Creatures have a "career" for their species, which reflects the strength of their special abilities. Mutants and aliens roll on a mutation table. Additional rules describe psionics, radiation, gray goo, and advanced technology.

Why is this important? Apart from adapting the game to the post-apocalyptic genre, BotA gives GMs patterns and tools for other genres. Space Opera? We've got aliens, psionics, and mystical powers. Historical horror? We already have supernatural creatures, sorcery, and Rennaisance technology. Planetary Romance? Aliens and rayguns already there, just add spaceship. BoL has a clear bias toward combat-oriented adventure, but that's a wide range of genres.

Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies and PDQ Sharp

PDQ Sharp, the system of Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies adds influences from Spirit of the Century and other games to the PDQ rules. In particular, it introduces "Style Dice", which act much like Fate Points in SotC: after rolling the dice, a player can spend a Style Die for a simple +1 bonus, or roll it and replace any die in his original roll with the style die value. (E.g. In a simple contest I roll a 2 and a 3, totaling 5; if I roll the style die, and get a 4, I can replace the 2 and have 4 + 3 = 7.)

Let me quickly present a character for S7S that I didn't get to use in my demo game, to show how it differs from PDQ.

Name: Vladimir Delgado

Foible: Suspicious

Motivation: Use Gifts for Good (Good/+2)

Nationality: Barathi (Good/+2)

Past: Aristocrat (Good/+2)

Swashbuckling Forte: Fencing (Expert/+4)

Swashbuckling Techniques: Simora Fencing School (Idiom: Playful, Weapon: Rapier, Weapon: Dagger, Weapon: Two Weapons), Situation: When Cornered.

Other Fortes: Sky Navigator (Good/+4), Gift of the Merhorse [ESP] (Good/+4)

Here are the differences from PDQ:

This character and two others took me 30 minutes to make, which averages to 10 minutes a character.


S7S characters gain training points only when they fail a roll. Players can spend training points to increase a Forte (4 pts), gain a new Forte (8 pts), gain a new Foible (4 pts), purchase a new technique (2 for one chained to the Swashbuckling Forte, 4 for one chained to another Forte, or 6 pts for an Unchained technique.) Alchemists and Koldun (wizards) may also spend Training Points to create Alchhemicraft or Kolduncraft items.

Ultra Rules Light Systems


Dan Bayn's Wushu attempts to capture the frenetic action of Hong Kong action movies, pulp novels, and high-powered urban magic.


Action resolution in Wushu uses a pool of six-sided dice. Each die is compared to a target number -- the Trait a player is using -- and if it is equal to or lower than that number, it's a success.

Wushu is, as far as I know, unique in that players add dice to the pool through vivid description of the action they're about to roll for. Each "Detail" of the action is worth one die, up to a GM's limit of anywhere from 3 to 8. What each player says happened, happened ... but a bad die roll might mean it didn't work so well.

Wushu openly defies typical RPG mechanics like buying equipment or character advancement. Characters have any gear that they would logically use for their traits, and may rearrange points between sessions.

Character Generation

Pulp-Fu, a Wushu game of 1930s pulp action, suggests players distribute 5-8 points among whatever traits they want; Traits start at 2, and have a maximum of 5. Characters also have a Weakness, a Trait at 1 rolled whenever the character does something involving that weakness. If no trait applies, the default is 2.

Let's do Callista Morgan, Vampire Hunter, this time in Wushu with 7 points:

Holy Warrior (3), On a Mission (5), Seek Out Evil (4), Fearless (3); That Crazy Girl (1)

Five minutes, tops. Most of that was thinking of Trait names.


S. John Ross wrote Risus: the Anything RPG, as a comedic, beer-and-pretzels RPG. Despite that, the same system could serve a more serious game; Over The Edge, by Jonathan Tweet, is very similar to Risus.


Characters in Risus have Cliches, much like Wushu Traits and PDQ Qualities (or Fortes in PDQ Sharp). Each is rated in number of dice, usually six-siders but optional rules for superheroes or demigods might use larger polyhedral. Characters have 10 dice to distribute among cliches, with a maximum of 6 per Cliche.

Character Generation

Let's do Callista again, this time in Cliches:

Holy Warrior 3, Vampire Hunter 4, Outdoorsperson 3

About a minute.

Conflict and Combat

Tasks follow the typical d6 scale: 5 is Easy, 10 is Challenging, 15 is Hard, 20 is a Master-level difficulty, 30 is superhuman. Characters also roll against each other, higher wins. In actual combat, each failure reduces the Cliche used by one die.


At the end of a session, the player rolls against every Cliche used significantly in the session. If the dice all come up evens, that Cliche goes up one die.

Legends of ...

Dark City Games produces solo and GM-less adventures using three similar systems: Legends of the Ancient World, Legends of Time and Space, and Legends of the Untamed West.


The system is extremely simple: characters have three stats (ST, DX, and IQ), plus skills. All skill tests, including combat, roll 3d6 (usual) against a stat + skill level (if any) or less. If this sounds familiar, it should.

Unfortunately, the free Legends of Blah Blah PDFs aren't quite complete games. For example, it refers to Karma, Wishes, and Curses, but only the adventures detail when or why.

Character Generation

Characters distribute 32 points among the three stats, with a minimum of 8 in each, and three points of skills (or spells for wizards).

Let's make a warrior, Arak the Barbarian.

ST 12, DX 12, IQ 8, Sword + 1, Survival, Thief

That's it. Less than a minute.


Characters get one XP after every successful combat, or after acquiring a "plot word" (whatever that is). Between adventures, characters can spend 10 XP for a skill point; in Legends of the Ancient World, spells cost 20 XP for normal characters, while magicians can buy spells for 10 XP but skills cost them 20 XP. Raising an attribute costs a number of XP equal to the new value.

The Fantasy Trip

Dark City Games's system and adventures recreates The Fantasy Trip, written by Steve Jackson and published in the 1970s by Metagaming, now out of business. It started as two of their "Microgames", Melee and Wizard, for skirmish-level combat. Expand the two games, and write a book to expand character creation and advise the budding GM, and it's an RPG.

TFT didn't have a skill system. Instead, they had "Talents": abilities that take up a number of IQ points, and required a minimum IQ. (Weapon familiarity was IQ 7, so even an orc could learn them.)

The Fantasy Trip was the first RPG I saw, except (maybe) for bits of D&D. (I vaguely remember owning the White Box and the AD&D Monster Manual 1st edition around that time.) I played one TFT campaign my first year of college, which was a blast. So, as with GURPS, I'm a bit sentimental about it.

Still, by modern standards TFT isn't that complicated tactically, and doesn't have many roleplaying hooks. Granted, you can role-play with a coin-toss -- or a Jenga tower -- but a GM would need to have a great world or supplementary material to capture today's gamers' interest.

Analysis and Conclusions

Creation Times

GameTime (mins)
New World of Darkness: Mortal30######
New World of Darkness: Hunter50##########
New World of Darkness: Psychic40########
Savage Worlds30######
Barbarians of Lemuria15###
Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (PDQ Sharp)10##
Legends of ...1|

As a metric, Creation Time is somewhat subjective. I've played Risus and TFT before, so the Risus and Legends numbers might be too small, and having never played Wushu the number might be too large. Similarly, I took time to skim through the Savage Worlds book before I began, with a character in mind, while for Barbarians and World of Darkness I made up a character as I went.

Times for the New World of Darkness include time to create the mortal version. Perhaps I should have built a NWoD Vampire or Mage, which have a few more fiddly bits (Vampire Disciplines, Mage Arcana), but I suspect they'll be similar to a Hunter. Familiarity with the system would help; I spent a lot of times flipping through a book or PDF, considering my options. Also, working out Merits twice cost some time, maybe 5 minutes or so.

Character Creation

Even with the margin for error in creation times, I think we can say "rules-lite" isn't just a marketing term. An ordinary mortal in World of Darkness takes as long or longer than a human holy warrior, Atlantean wizard, or psychic Mantid in Savage Worlds. Other systems examined in this installment take far less time.

With fewer decisions and fewer rules to look up, lighter and more freeform systems make throwing a character together easier. Like PDQ, player-written Traits/Qualities/whatever requires a GM to hash out an agreeable definition and think on his feet when the player uses it, but the end result allows a player to immerse himself in the game more readily than if he had to scan his sheet to find the predefined skill that allowed him to do X.

Point buy at least feels more complicated than a fixed number of points in each category, and lends itself to minimaxing -- as we saw with GURPS. In contrast, all the systems above give a small number of points specific to each type of stat, speeding generation enormously.


Each of the systems above have a fairly straightforward experience system, except Wushu which eschews advancement entirely. Savage Worlds has a linear relationship between experience points and advancement, as does S7S. Risus uses die rolls to control advancement (much like BRP). Legends ... uses linear advancement for skills and spells, but geometric advancement for attributes.

However, when I made an experienced Vampire character for a recent game, I found myself trying to get point breaks between beginning dots and experience points. The experience required to increase an attribute, skill, merit, etc. depends on its current value, in a geometric progression. BoL also uses geometric advancement, so creating experienced characters would get complicated.

Linear experience, or else using the same units for creation as for advancement, makes generating an experienced character much easier.

In Play

While I haven't walked through play in each game, we may assume bookkeeping tends to slow things down. Even Lifeblood in Barbarians can get a little confusing when half the LB lost in the preceding battle comes back ... worse if there are escalating consequences, as in heavier games. In contrast, PDQ and Risus simply reduce a Quality/Cliche by one step for every damage point, which automatically affects performance. In S7S, a character gets all "failure points" back (social or mental stress), and 2d6 "damage points".

Otherwise, each system has a "central mechanic", used for skills and combat. Except for PDQ, all have some sort of hit point system. WoD adds other points: Willpower, Morality, not to mention Hunter Conspiracy Endowments, Vampire Disciplines and Blood Potency, Mage Arcana and Gnosis, and so forth. The others have fewer complications, usually magic rules and Bennies/Style Dice/Fate Points. Risus and Wushu improvise magic the same way they improvise everything else.


These days, when most people have a job and/or family, gamers are short on time. Even maintaining a regular campaign becomes harder, especially when not playing D&D and therefore not having a huge pool of alternate players. Crunching numbers for half an hour or more subtracts the time to play, and learning a bunch of rules and exceptions even more. Better to let players translate concepts to stats, and actions to mechanics, as quickly as possible.

Next Time

Next time I'll look at one last adaptable system, Unisystem. Then I tackle two controversial games that came out this winter: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition, and Mongoose RuneQuest II.