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?

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ IIRC, with Mercenary/High Guard, it actually was one year at a time. But as Dork Tower said "Kids today don't know what they're missing. Dying during character generation, for instance." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 17:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ You understand that you are giving 50 rep to a user who no longer visits the stack? \$\endgroup\$
    – Tritium21
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 12:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @tritium21 eh... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 20:58

5 Answers 5


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.

  • \$\begingroup\$ In line with the above suggestion I'd propose to add the biological development as one of the steps as well. Many systems do this by letting the player pick a race/species/... Essentially the biological development is just the very first step, preceding the social development (which comes after being born). \$\endgroup\$
    – fgysin
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 14:49

A simple way of implementing this would be to have players give a short (one sentence to one paragraph) description of each of their meaningful character choices. For example, have your D&D players tell you why they have their feats, and what inspired the character to learn those specific skills. For GURPS, have the player explain how they got their most salient abilities, or groups of skills. This allows players to get a better feel for their character as a whole without requiring large backstories.

I feel like having a system more specific than this would be difficult while keeping it system-agnostic.


A life paths system doesn't need to be mechanical. The power of the life paths system in Traveller, is that it creates characters who are like people, not story characters. It's terrible if you're the kind of person who wants to tell a specific story about a specific character, or if you are really into the metagaming aspect of chargen. However, if you're really into experiencing another life, the simulation of another reality as such, it is pretty impressive. So, because it isn't really about the crunchy character-building metagaming, those metagame elements aren't actually very important to the system. (Traveller incorporates them for practical and simulationist reasons) Thus, a life paths system can be generalized as a back story writing tool. If generalized as such, it could theoretically be applied to pretty much any system.

However, a life paths system is restricted to setting. You can't really use the Traveller system to write the back story for a game about medieval diplomats, can you? It's rather deeply entrenched in its sci-fi genre setting, with star ships, and aliens, and interstellar empires, and such. So, unfortunately, you're going to need to either make up a lot of genre related details, or build a life paths system that is so generic that it leaves much up to interpretation. (Instead of "you join the space marines", you get "you take a military career path").

You'll also need to consider how far back the life path system starts. Does it begin with character birth, determining gender, race, social status, and even family history? Or does it let you choose some of that and start later on down the line, like when they begin education, or reach maturity, or choose a career? Does it choose your career for you, or do you have some say in the matter? How much input do you, as a player, have in the process? Also, how far does the life paths system go? Is it possible for a player to just play our their entire character's life in the life paths system if they choose to never retire? Does it always end when the characters reach a certain age? Or immediately after they choose a class and become level 1? (Or some other mechanical contrivance) Finally, you need to decide what kinds of characters the system can create. In general, you want the system to make characters whose stories will be relevant to game play. If it is too broad and makes lots of characters who are pretty dysfunctional in the game, that won't work out well for you.

Once you have a system that can create the kind of experience and characters your game needs, then you can go back into the system and work in those mechanical aspects of the chargen process for your game. You'll want your system to replicate the effects of the original chargen system as much as possible, so that your life path system doesn't interfere with balance.

Finally, and this is absolutely essential: TEST PLAY IT A LOT. Before you actually go and use this thing, give it a good 50-100 test runs. Make sure it doesn't create impossibilities, like men giving birth, people marrying themselves, characters arbitrarily getting younger or aging at different rates, people having siblings of different species from the same parents, etc. Also, test it to make sure that it always makes a full and functional character. Essentially, these things are really prone to bugs, and you need to catch them before they appear in play.


I like the Life Path system from Mechwarrior RPG 3e. It gives you and childhood and an adolescence to get your to age 16, and the whole thing follows a progression of reasonable developments for age, (dis)advantages, skills, and events. You can always "jump the track", reroll/nudge a current roll by reducing the maximum your Edge trait can be (represents positive luck in the game). Starting from the middle of the table and expanding out the results get more intense - lower rolls being horrible, higher rolls being amazing.

If you're willing to put the time in to create it, and really embrace the geography/culture of your game system, I found it one of the best random methods because you get a good seed for your character with points left over to cover bases.


There is a fairly comprehensive "Life Paths" production for Savage Worlds, that I have been slowly adapting to several other systems. Written by Paul "Wiggy" Wade-Williams and called the Fantasy Character Generator Toolkit. This 90 page PDF walks you through Race, Family and Origins, Childhood, Adolescence, and Professions.

As was stated before by arotter in 2012, this sort of undertaking for character generation and development is time consuming. I will say that it has helped me in better understanding the systems I play in and Game Master for.

Please consider, finding a Life Paths system you like and then begin adapting or converting for the other gaming systems in which you want to use it. Doing it this way, will enable you to a) have a guideline or framework to follow and b) enable you to keep things organized.


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