[RPG] How to introduce Life Paths to character generation


The first time I played* Traveller, I found myself blown away by the detailed character creation, featuring year by year (4 year chunks actually) break down of how your character got where they are today. Finally you see how to tie major life events together, with a mechanical reward for this on the side for good measure. It was honestly the most fun I'd had creating a character and group.

I'd love to bring this experience to other games I play, because now just rolling some die, and assigning points feels flat and lifeless.

What general techniques can I use to add this sort of mechanic/technique to other systems, such as (but limited to) NWoD, D&D, Exalted…. etc? Is there any particular format this takes, and can it be compatible with all systems?

Best Answer

I don't think you can do this without some legwork on your part. All life-path systems I've experienced so far (Fading Suns, Blue Planet) broke the mechanical choices down into background requirements rather than just providing a justification why a character has ability X/Y/Z. Basically, live-path systems as I know and understand them work best with point-based character creation/advancement systems, because they provide a much more fine-grained ability to allocate resources and abilities.

A generic approach I would suggest is:

  • Identifiy the number of steps you want the path to have. The more steps the life-paths have the less important each individual step becomes and the less resources (character points, build points, whatyouhave) does it manage for the character. You must also decide whether all steps are weighted equally or if some steps are more important than others. A good selection for an equal split would imho be:

    • Origin (where/how the characters were born and how they spent their early childhood)
    • Upbringing (what the characters did as teenagers)
    • Early career (how the characters got into their profession/lifestyle/career)
    • Professional training (how the characters expanded their job knowledge and training)
  • Split the allowed number of character creation resources amongs your selected steps. This is the most difficult step since you now need to decide what step of the life-path grants access to which game elements (skills, special abilities, whatever) and how many character creation resources (build points, skill levels, etc. etc.) are allocated to it. Don't forget to split out the different types of skills among different packages/steps so that you don't end up with uberspecialized characters that can shoot a fly at 100m distance with a rusty pistol while being blindfolded but are too dumb to tie their own shoe laces, or super-nerds who can solve differential equations in their head but are unable to punch through a wet sheet of paper (unless you explicitly want those types of characters ;-) ).

  • Finishing touches. Last but not least there are some things to consider/double-check. First, don't forget to consider adding some additional free character creation resources so that players can customize their character's abilities to some degree (and to avoid cookie-cutter characters in case 2 players select the same or very similar life-paths). Second, write it all down in a more or less neat document to give to your players so that they can make well-educated decisions and aren't surprised by their choices.

Actually, you don't have to do all the work by yourself. If you have players that can come up with interesting background stories by themselves you can ask them to write down at what age their characters developed which skills or abilities, which gives you basically free templates for individual steps for some types of characters.

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