A Stable of Characters

Posted: September 7, 2007 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts

Some of you might remember that I gamemastered several dinner table RPG campaigns for years.  One of my favorites was a game from FASA called Earthdawn.  I loved the game and apparently so did my players, but we kept falling into a problem.

You see, I can be a brutal GM from time to time and occasionally my storylines would pit our faithful heroes up against some particularly nasty foes.  Though this often lead to some spectacular moments where someone’s character died heroically, that meant that someone’s character had heroically…died. 

Oh well, blow the dust off the old player’s book and start rolling up a new character, right?  Well, yes…to a point.  You see, most of the time someone died in my campaigns, it was a big deal.  It wasn’t as if I wrote the storylines specifically to snuff out someone’s favored creation every other week.  In fact, I almost never specifically wrote a storyline intended to kill off a character – but through the luck of the dice and the choices the players made, death was a real part of the game I ran.  It happened, and happened at least frequently enough to push the idea that players had to think through the consequenses of their actions a bit more.

So what this means is usually by the time someone died, everyone else was well into a higher level of gameplay.  No one wants to just start over, and the other players don’t want to suddenly have a little “apprentice” to contend with on every other gaming session.  At the same time, I’m not terribly fond of the idea of allowing characters to just start out higher level for no reason just so they can play with everyone on a relatively even field right away – because that takes a lot of the sting out of dying in the first place. 

My solution at that time was to develop a concept I referred to as a character “stable”.  Basically, the idea was simple.  Whenever we started up a new campaign, I’d have players create a minimum of three new possible characters individually.  Then, as a group, the players would choose the “primary” they wanted to start out with together.  The other characters would be filed away with the rest of my documents and papers and brought out at the end of every gaming session whenever we awarded points and rewards. 

In addition to the normal rewards I gave out, I’d give players an additional, much smaller pool of points that they could then apply to their “stable” of characters.  The idea was that while their primary was out gallavanting around, their other characters were having their own (albeit much less grandiose) adventures on the side, and were levelling up as well (though at a much slower rate).  Because it was a pool of points, the players were allowed to spend the points on just one favored “secondary” or they could divide the points out. 

Whenever a player did die, they could then choose which remaining player would be their new primary, and if they no longer had at least two secondaries in reserve, we’d have them create a new character to fill the gap. 

For Earthdawn, it worked out great.  It was a fun, relatively easy to administer system.  It gave the players a much greater sense of growth and accomplishment because instead of just levelling up one character, they were actually levelling up several characters.  It also gave me a bit of flexibility for campaigns, because occasionally I’d put the primary storyline aside and have the players choose a secondary or two and we’d take off on a tangential storyline (which worked out great when one or more of the players had to take a vacation or go out of town for a week or three). 

I’ve been thinking the idea through a lot lately and realized that the idea would require little to no adaptation for MMO design.  You could design a game completely around the concept up front – or just plug it in to an existing game with little to no real hassle.

Obviously there’s drawbacks to such a system, especially if implemented incorrectly or incompletely, but if done right, the system could really be a boon to players as well as to overall game design.

Initially, I’d set limits on the system.  Create an upper limit to the amount of experience/points which can be “banked’ before spending.  The idea would be to encourage participation in the system, not to allow players to just hoarde points to spend later on for new characters.

To prevent flat-out powerlevelling of characters one has never played, the system could likewise have delays built in requiring every 5 to 10 levels to be played through manually (or the game could introduce gatekeeper style quests at specific levels which could work to prevent just flat out level grinding).

The system could even be geared toward factioning, by allowing points earned to be flavored toward Qeynos or Freeport or what have you.  Points earned by your troll inquisitor can’t be used by your fae paladin or vice versa.

Even without such restrictions, it’s not as if the idea would be bad.  The points being generated are coming from playtime.  You can’t just buy up points or sit offline and wait for points to come rolling in.  You aren’t using the points on someone else’s characters (unless you’re logging in to their accounts – which is a different issue entirely), and it’s not as if you’re bringing in the points at a 1:1 ratio (or even a 1:5). 

It’s not as necessary a system in current games since certainly there’s no permanent death in modern MMO’s.  However, it could still be a bit of a differentiating factor for a game which decided to use it. 


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