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Generators or Degenerators? The Mixed Blessing of Character Generator Culture

February 23, 2015

cease and desist!Guest Post by Matt Orbach

Recently, Pathguy got a letter from WOTC, politely asking that he remove his 5E character generator and any other content that might be their IP. I’m not going to discuss that choice here; what WOTC did was legal, and there are boards aplenty debating the matter. Suffice it to say that what you can do legally and what you can do wisely do not always coincide.

But it put to the question, do these generators really help the game, or do they remove us too far from the fundamentals? As it happened, I hadn’t visited this page in quite a while, but I was reminded of it as a tool to help level a 5E character.

Pathguy’s generator was a great tool. When I found it was unavailable, I was forced to level up by hand. As it turned out, leveling by hand was very easy for 5E, although this is not always the case for all rules systems. It caused me to wonder how reliance on character generators for popular systems had shaped the quality of play from a GM perspective and from a player perspective.

As a GM, I come to a game with a set of expectations as to what my players will do during a session, including, but not limited to:
• know most of the rules, and ask questions about the others
• learn how characters and the game world interact
• pay attention
• enjoy the narrative of the story-line
• act out characters
• collaborate with the other players
• have fun

I’ve also come to understand that a group of committed players enjoying themselves will typically do about 75% of these; which is fine, as long as “have fun” is somewhere in there. It might be great for everyone to come prepared with a carefullly researched and crafted character, and it probably makes for a richer, deeper game, but realistically it just won’t always happen.

To enjoy a game a player has to have an understanding of what they are doing. A character generator that removes that understanding inhibits enjoyment of the game by making the character mechanically incomprehensible for most play systems. A good build is useless without some knowledge of its implications, and inhibits having fun if it is mysterious and incomprehensible to the player.

As a player, I have slightly different expectations. I know the groups I’ve played with all seem to enjoy different aspects of the game. These can be primarily broken into two groups:

The Artist
This player enjoys creating interesting characters, sometimes with unexpected traits. Some temper this so the character can be effective in the game world, and thus more involved in the story. For others, the reverse seems to be true: they start from a fairly blank slate and draw out the character from the actions taken during gameplay, laboring only to create one who will take effective actions. Still others go further to extremes, creating bizarre and often unplayable characters.

The Engineer
There may very well be a graphing calculator or spreadsheet involved, because these folks enjoy the mathematical permutations and precise calculations of creating a character that is purpose-built. While personality and story is a factor, it is secondary to the build mechanic.

I fall primarily into the first category myself. There’s a certain appeal, I’ll admit, to the Engineer, but I lost my love for that sort of endeavor years ago. You see, I spent a summer designing mecha upon mecha for a tabletop wargame called Battletech. But when the hour of completion neared, I began to realize that the GM had no intention of actually playing the simulation as a massive dropship game, sure to be a fight of epic proportions…oh, the glory that was not! He simply enjoyed, and assumed his players enjoyed, crafting the pieces. Even with the computers of the time (early 90’s) we could have done it faster, but we would have missed fretting over the small decisions of armor vs. weight v.s ammo capacity.

Engineers enjoy the thrill of the build. Artists want to tell a story (efficacy coming in a distant second).


Character Generators can facilitate quick and effective ends for the needs of both these player personalities as well as accommodating the needs and desires of the GM perspective, but only when used judiciously.

Here’s what I think Pathguy did right: his character generator was fluid and helpful, and allowed you to “see” the rules as you went through the build process. It didn’t mask them or create copy pasta out of inputs, but walked you through the relevant choices and bypassed rules not related, but still allowed you to glance at them as you scrolled down. It encourages the player to consult the related rules and sourcebooks, rather than depend on an output charsheet note.

A character generator needs to facilitate rather than inhibit an understanding of the rules; a helping hand rather than a crutch.

There are more generators out there that fall into the crutch category than don’t, however. A very quick search will lead you to whole-cloth character generators, with everything from family relationships, to appearance, to complete backstory. And if you’re stuck, those can help… but if you aren’t interested enough to create something, will you play it? A “disgruntled, fine boned young man with a bad arm who is from the sea and lives with an army of undead” doesn’t think you will. Thanks http://whothefuckismydndcharacter.com/

“Artist” and “Engineer” must perform a balanced calculation to make a really good gaming experience, and GM’s and players must work together to really optimize the outcome. And the right generator is only one of many tools that helps the player and GM get there.

Matt Orbach is a raconteur, an alchemist, a some-time magician and a noted character creator. He should always play a bard.

  1. February 23, 2015 at 8:36 am

    Character Generators are not a problem but merely a symptom. If people rely on them, that’s probably a strong indication that the rules are too complicated and people focus on mechanical character builds instead of making story characters.

  2. cadilon
    February 24, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    I can apply a story to just about any character without much problem. But what I loathe is spending 20 minutes trying to figure out (often from a poorly laid out players handbook) if that particular stat should be a 15 or a 16. Or what exactly my character gets when they level up. So I guess in this regard I am 100% in the Artist Camp.

    In the same way that I use Excel to avoid doing calculations by longhand, I greatly appreciate generators taking care of all the minutiae so I can get onto the story. I just wish that if WOTC were going to throw their IP rights around that they would get off their butts and get something out for 5e.

    • February 24, 2015 at 5:45 pm

      I agree 100%. It’s interesting the difference of how WotC treats their fans compared to Goodman Games and DCCRPG. Goodman Games puts forth standards and wants to take a look and make sure quality is high, but approves all sorts of 3rd party support. Most notably Purple Sorcerer: http://purplesorcerer.com/tools.php – It’s why I’ll play 5e, but I evangelize DCC.

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