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Innovations In Character: Personalizing RPGs, Retaining Players
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Innovations In Character: Personalizing RPGs, Retaining Players

June 26, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[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!).

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Lorenzo Wang
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Two disparate things I would add to this.

1. Entourage. Characters are often defined by the people they travel with, are assisted by, represent (socially), or are nemeses with. The impact of a character's identity is shaped by his place and symbolic role in the pantheon of the story, so I want to call this the Greek Gods effect.

2. Character arc. What about rolling twice for each character, once for creation and once for his final state once the player completes his development arc? This would force the player to see how his own choices lead him down either pre-destined or novel paths. This also puts his decisions at major story junctures in the spotlight since he would have a reference point for whether he knew himself as well as he thought.

Ken Nakai
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While it was complicated, I liked the way Traveller (old Sci Fi pen and paper RPG) had a whole piece of character development that took your character through his/her early career. You'd roll to determine how long you were in the navy, for instance, and could tack on some random events as well.

Mass Effect did this in a simpler way that is more realistic for CRPGs where you selected your background from a list of three that differed in terms of career and major historical event. This was later integrated into dialog and really helped with immersion as it made you feel like that history existed (rather than the standard amnesiac waking up with incredible fighting skills but no idea how he/she got them).