Before I begin, Lunin's answer covers all of the requisite mechanics. This answer explores what I believe to be a critical prerequiste to employ the mechanics. Therefore, there will be a fair bit of theory.
This document is a fragment of a much longer theoretical exploration into the nature of character creation. The current draft can be found here. This document uses ideas defined in that draft. Unfortunately, the 30k character limit of stack answers prohibits the reproduction in full.
The journal article looks at character creation in three systems: D&D, Ars Magica, and Apocalypse World. The Ars and AW sections have been left in to provide insight into how other systems perform character creation. This insight can be useful as parts can be imported into D&D for a richer experience.
This document is also seriously unedited, and spelling and grammar flaws absolutely abound. It will be updated as the parent document is edited.
The basis of mechanical creation in each system is covered well by D&D, Ars Magica, and Apocalypse World. However, there may be some difficulties in applying the requirements process to the mechanical creation of character. This section explores a process that will gracefully lower the options of the design space until a single character emerges, blinking, from the fog of imagination.
In any system, in order to create a character to requirements, it is important to understand the character creation system and the fundamental rules of the game. While complete and perfect system expertise is not necessary, the first step is to play around with the rules of the game until an understanding of why those reuls exist is reached. System mastery is critical because it is through system that agency is expressed. I have seen too many players uncomfotable with their characters because of little known aspects of system kept intruding. Even worse than the tiny details of external elements of the system, far too many players simply have not spent the time it takes to master their own character sheets. In order to reduce dissatisfaction with character, a character must be taken seriously and time must be spent in learning how a character performs their intended purpose.
To be clear here, I am not advocating that everyone at the game have memorized all of the rule books. I am advocating that everyone have read the pertinent sections of the rule books and have made attempts to acknowledge what they do and don’t understand. A lack of understanding must then be addressed immediately. The understanding is critical to align the player’s mental maps (those structures of “knowledge” in our brains that allow us to imagine future outcomes and map a course of events onto that outcome so that it might come to pass) with those possessed by the game master and those required by the system.
Requirements in D&D
The process of creation in D&D iterates over the choice of class, race, powers, items, skills, and feats. The first stage is a process of familiarization with the options possible. Players should begin by being aware of all the classes that they have to choose from by reading the class desription and their “at-will” powers either from the books themselves or the character optimization board.
Again, to emphaize the point, the act of reading the character optimization board is not an act of optimization, but an act of reading the neatly summarizd descriptions of each class as a shortcut to reading the class descriptions in each book. Because Dungeons and Dragons is a living document, the character optimization boards usually have a far better understanding of the state and possible actions of each class than do the book: the dead tree being obsoleted by successive errata until it is useful mainly as a rough guide rather than a canonical document.
The central choice of the character is the class of the character, and the reading of the class should then indicate if the class bears further examination or if it can be set aside. Interestingly, the categorization of classes into roles should not be one of the primary sorting factors as even reading roles that are likely foreign to the character’s requirements by give rise to interesting thoughts of synergy, suggestions for other players, or a dramatic reevaluation of the requirements.
With a short list of classes chosen for their mechanical attributes, as flavor can be adapted to the class to fit many of the story requirements, it is important to then create a quick mechanical sketch of each character. The sketch (not a line drawing, usually) consists of a vauge race selection, identification of the most important at-will power, items, its to-hit and damage, and of the feats. This process can be trivially done in either of the software tools that Wizards of the coast has made available or manually.
This sketch can then be compared to the theoretical requirements to assess if its damage-capacity, mitigation, and damage-dealing theoretical attributes are all approximately where they are wanted by the player. While the selection of encounter powers and fiddly lass features is important, an look towards the at-will power and the bare minimum needed to support its to-hit and damage calculation can suggest whether or not the character is on the desired path. These sketches can also be communicated to fellow players to get their feedback and to inform how they, themselves, are producing their characters.
Once the short list of characters is pared down to the character that best fits the requirements, the rest of the charactermay be completed as per the rules. In order to demonstrate mastery of the character and understand the basis of her attacks, it is then important to prepare a checklist of strategies. By articulating the onditions required for certain attacks, what a player needs to be watchful for out of turn, and the setup for other attacks, the player then does not have to rederive that information during game. This frees the player to try to understand the flow of the battle and make a choice between sets of strategies, rather than trying to determine the best individual move for any given situation. By summarizing interrupting actions’ triggers, it is far easier to remember to use them. By summarizing the actions of other characters that may contribute bonuses or that the character can call upon during battle, the need to remember interactions and synergies with other characters decreases. Furthermore, by writing down the moves that effect you from other characters, the player can make a request for help, rather than relying on the potentially distracted attentions of the other players. ((cite RPG.SE answer))
Of course, throughout this process it is vital to communicate with the game master. Not only because she has the ultimate say over the validity of your character, but because she can both spot potential mistakes and discuss polt and mechanical options that are appropriate for the world. Creating a character with more in-world ties can lead to a far more rewarding game experience as the character can have reasons to enter into conflict beyond the purly mercenary and generic.
Requirements in Ars Magica
This document will not discuss the details of the extremely complex character generation optional methodology. While it can be approached with the same requirement basis as the process described here, the sheer complexity and the potential for unexpected detours make it and systems like it the basis for their own paper.
While the book recommends choosing attributes and the “house” of the player’s magi first, it is more the combination of virtues and flaws that express a particular theme of the character. The choice of house manifests in modulating the magi’s philosophical outlook on the world and its interesting problems. The virtues and flaws have a direct say in the ability and potential consequences of the magi trying to solve those problems.
As ever, the first task is for the player to familiarize herself with the mechanical options available. Given the superb quality of the supplements for Ars Magica, a player who reads through the lore and details of every house in the “Houses of Hermes” books will not only understand her potential choices better but will understand the Order of Hermes (the main political body of magi) far better and can operate within the world far more effectively. Barring a will to read the supplements, reading through the potential spells can also lead to some interesting means to satisfy requirements. If a player finds some iconic spells for her character, those spells can then shape virtue and flaw choice which then shapes the rest of the character.
However, the fundamental modulation of theme of the character are the virtues and flaws. A player should be aware of the choices present and the general idea of what each of the virtues and flaws does. By creating a few likely sets of virtue/flaw combinations, a player can sketch character concepts without having to wade through the detailed experience calculations necessary to complete a character. It is generally obvious from the virtues and flaws present if a character is able to satisfy any set of requirements at game start.
The creation of virtues and flaws is also a good stage to discuss their potential consequences with the game master. As both virtues and flaws can have remarkable consequences in game-play, some even directly removing agency from the character by rendering her berserk or addicted to casting spells (and pity the poor character who has both flaws), it is critical that the game master advise the player of her choices before any commitment to those virtues and flaws is ever made. Beyond mechanical consequences, they can also have a remarkable effect on the game world, shaping the game master’s plans for the campaign.
It is worth discussing sketches with other characters as everyone can be in a position to offer suggestions or make modifications to their own characters with updated knowledge. Once the group has an understanding of the various characters, their personalities, and their likely stories, it is generally safe to build the characters individually.
With an approved sketch, experience allocation is simple, and the present requirements in all three categories can guide the areas of emphasis. With a chosen specialization in any category, the game master can discuss what sub systems exist for that mode of play and the necessary statistics needed to represent excellence or competence in a certain realm of endeavor.
Requirements and Apocalypse World
Character creation is a sufficiently trivial process in Apocalypse World to not need the process of iterated sketches as seen in the prior two games. Complexity derives from story rather than mechanics and the mechanics are ruthlessly and effectively tailored to story. With a set of narrative requirementex expressed at any level, all that is turely necessary is to skim through the archetypes until the player finds a set that vaguely match her chosen requirements.
Creation of characters in AW is also a group effort, and as such, will be explored further in the subsequent section. The main individual requirement is to imagine the character in a series of scenes and try to visualize the preferred tools for resolving those scenes. If the visualization corresponds with both the areas of expertise in the mechanics of character and the requirements, the character should be a good fit for the player’s chosen mode of game play.
Group Character Creation
There is, surprisingly some prior literature on the process of group character creation. The methodology in this section was inspired by an optional rule in the Pax Draconis role-playing game by Justin Dagna. There are also game specific philosophies. One tailored to D&D can be found (((Group interaction and interactions with the mechanical-functional level are addressed here.)))
The intention of group character creation is to make the creation of group an integral part of the game. As the party cooperates on group creation, characters will start play enmeshed with each other, both mechanically and story-wise. This process tends to produce far more effective game play at the start of game, and more satisfying world interactions as the tedious and obligatory contrived meeting of the characters is avoided. By having everyone’s “fingerprints” over all of the characters, it is also possible to create a reserve of characters in case the game does not allow character return from injury or death as well as to create a stable of characters to switch out. The concept of a stable of characters works to provide a level of continuity of people miss sessions or if players become tired of their current characters. By creating a large reserve of characters and gradually adding to the reserve as the game progresses, it is possible to develop a trusted community within the game that can provide a useful and valid source of replacement characters without trying to find ad hoc justifications to explain why the group has the sudden and complete trust of a new character that is the usual hallmark of adventuring parties.
Group character creation should be performed synchronously, with all of the members of the group in real or virtual proximity. The real act of “shuffling the sheets” is facilitated by writing these stages down on physical paper, but is not required. The act of randomizing or passing the character sheets around the table is what allows everyone to be invested in all of the characters. It also allows everyone to learn more about the mechanical options available and how they interact, by simple conversations about potential options. When these instructions note to shuffle the sheets, some groups may prefer to pass the sheets around the table. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages and the mixing methodology should be decided upon by the game master.
The start of the process is a discussion about the group social contract. All of the questions raised in the social contract section above should be addressed, but are not an exhaustive list. A group that is not already enmeshed in friendship has a different but no less difficult social contract. Pre-existing friendships carry some norms over and reduce the possibilities of certain types of stories.As part of the social contract, the group should also discuss what kinds of narratives they want to explore. Articulating this before the start of the character creation process is essential as it allows everyone to put binding positive and negative requirements onto the group. While these requirements are usually story-based, there is no reason why they cannot also include functional or theoretical requirements.
With the group requirements set, everyone then takes a piece of paper and articulates one positive requirement for that character onto the paper. The positive requirement can take many forms, but at its heart it’s an idea that will shape the rest of the character. Depending on the size and the planned size of the group it is worth allowing one or all of the players to make one or more characters at the same time. Simply provide them with extra sheets of paper and a “virtual” extra seat. To insure that everyone has choice, even if players choose not to make an extra character, the game master should participate in this process. While she will not end up playing this character, it means that every person, even the person choosing last, will be presented with a choice of characters. Preservation of choice and agency is critical at all stages of the game.
The second action is to provide a social requirement for a character. The act of creating a requirement to make the other players’ lives better/more fun gives the character an outward focus and already starts thoughts about character interaction.
Negative requirements will not be solicited, as they can manifest as post hoc editing after the completion of this process. Every player when they claim ownership of a character to play in game, will be allowed to make whatever edits they want to the character: customizing it to fit their own particular requirements. It is futile and un-fun to expect a player to choose to play a character that doesn’t fit their own requirements, however it was generated.
The third act is to make a choice towards a sketch of the character. A sketch varies by system, but is best described as a single choice of a mechanical characteristic. For D&D, it will be the choice of class. For Ars Magica it will be a single virtue/flaw pair. For apocalypse world it will be the selection of an archetype. Shuffle the papers and repeat until every character has a complete sketch. This outline of character, with everyone making a choice for every character, provides a community consensus over the nature of characters. People engaged in this process are encouraged to ask for help or information from more experienced gamers, but to not allow them to dominate character creation. One way to enforce this is to make suggestions only allowed as a response to a direct question.
The process of making single choices also is a sneaky way to inculcate system mastery. As each choice is treated as a different event and is explained, that explanation combined with the act of making a decision serves as a reinforcement mechanism for learning. In this way, the character creation process can teach a new group a system far more effectively than a solitary creation process.
With sketches completed, shuffled many times between characters, it then becomes time to sanity check all of them for their faithfulness to the requirements. Edit sketches as needed so that they align with the group social contract and the individual requirements for each character.
With the mechanical-functional sketches out of the way, a group backstory should be theorized. This group backstory will form a common organization or entity that these members are all a part of. While the fictional group does not need to become a formal organization in the game world, it should be sufficiently organized for the characters to have pre-established bonds of trust with each other. Beyond that, it can take any form agreed upon by the group.
With a group backstory in place, shuffle the sketches and allow players to craft and share a backstory for each character. The backstory can be as long or as short as the player wishes, but should draw upon the dominant mechanical themes in the sketch. It is at this point that the characters should be named.
With sketch and name in place, it becomes time to complete the build of every character. Groups may choose to continue the random shuffling for the complete build or may simply allow players to choose their character at this point and have the eventual “owner” of the character complete the creation process.
With creation complete, checklists should be made of the primary mechanical interactions of each character. With the checklists being made in a group environment, everyone can contribute and brainstorm for every character, allowing everyone to partly internalize the strategy and tactics that their other group members will employ. This discussion is far preferable to finding out an effective strategy through painful trial and error in the first brutal and lethal combats of an adventure.
This group character creation process involves everyone in the group at every step of the way. One downside of this is that it becomes proportionally more difficult to add new players to the group after the fact. They will be presented with pre-established characters to choose from. While the new player will be welcome to customize the character they have been handed, there is very little room for originality within the constraints set by the original group. If the occurrence is seldome enough of if combat losses have been incurred, the advent of a new member of the group may be a time to do another round of group character creation, adding the characters so generated to the already existing game-organization. This activity then becomes a formal welcoming ritual and keeps the group sterngth up despite losses to unfortunate events in the world.