Customization Mechanics

The mighty Fighter, strong as Conan and quick as Robin Hood. The resolute Cleric, gifted with the wisdom of Solomon, but stalwart as Joan of Arc. The mystical Wizard, mysterious like Merlin and as elemental as Gandalf. The wily Thief, stealthy as a Baggins and as cunning as Artemis Entreri. These fantasy archetypes conjure specific images of iconic characters with heroic abilities. However, just because these types are iconic doesn't mean the characters patterned after them have to be cookie-cutter. That's where customization mechanics come in.

Dungeons & Dragons used character kits, nonweapon proficiencies, skills, and feats to tailor individual characters mechanically. Palladium introduced its one-of-a-kind skills system to make every character feel unique. HERO's and Rolemaster's point-buy creation gave players the power to mold each character however they wanted. Runequest's distinctive percentile-based evolution mechanic ensured that no two characters were the same after an adventure or two.

What say we dig into some examples of customization mechanics?

Feats, Perks, and Talents

"Perks (or Perquisites) are useful resources, items, privileges, and contacts to which a character has special access. Perks are not innate abilities, but rather special benefits a character enjoys."
-- HERO System 6th Edition, p. 98

3rd Edition D&D introduced Feats, which represented knacks or techniques a character picked up that customized hir capabilities or combat maneuvers. Most feats offered a bonus, offset a penalty, or gave the character a trick or ability outside hir class features. Since their progression was tied to Level instead of Class, every character had access to them.

In a similar vein, Lowlife 2090 has an open-ended customization system called Unique Features that work similarly. These are often three-tiered affairs, allowing the GM to tailor their effects to the appropriate gameplay level for hir table. The book encourages players and GMs to create new Features, granting an open license to fine-tune characters to taste.

The dark fantasy RPG Asunder expresses magic through Essence Trees tied to a character's origin. Mainlanders can learn to harness chaos or enhance their bonds with powerful symbiotes known as living gear. Skimmers gain the ability to manipulate gravity or fly. Thus, every character has latent magical powers they can develop. 

Mongoose's Legend RPG introduced a brilliant growth mechanic called Heroic Abilities. Rather than starting with such quasi-magical talents as Battle Fury or Wall Leaping, the character spends Hero Points and finds skilled masters to teach hir. As such, the mechanic feeds into the character's story development.

Numenera provides an open-ended system for tweaking proficiencies in Medium-Term Benefits. When a player purchases one for 2 XP, ze specifies a narrow field of training or a temporary ability or power that helps the character in a specific region or for a limited time. It adds flavor without unbalancing the game or causing long-term headaches for the GM.

What's the Benefit?

"Sometimes it's just not enough to be a Fighter, Paladin or Ranger. Each of those classes is a lot of fun, but there's nothing which says you want to be restricted only to three types of fun. So, here, we're going to show you how to create and play other sorts of warrior characters."
-- Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: The Complete Fighter's Handbook p. 13

I'm going to make a confession. When I was young, D&D bored me to tears. My first RPG, TSR's Marvel Super Heroes, let you describe your own comic book protagonist using a long list of powers and talents. Buck Rogers, also by TSR, put stars in my eyes with its comprehensive skill system and elaborate space combat. AD&D had the mechanical versatility for which I yearned, but I didn't encounter that ruleset until years later.

Why did I find the world's oldest RPG a snoozefest, you ask?

It's simple. I could make an agile hi-tech wonder in MSH with Darkforce Manipulation and Body Armor, an expert in Martial Arts, Physics, and Acrobatics. In Buck Rogers, I could create a Lunarian Engineer good at Fast Talk / Convince and zipping hir Dragonfly through crowded city streets. 

In basic D&D, I was stuck making a Cleric that could heal and had random stats. To be generous, you could say its customization mechanics were stifling. If you were a realist, you might admit they were nonexistent.

It's one thing to say, "My Cleric loves to gamble, brawl, and cook. They stand tall and frighten evildoers in their leather duster and boots." It's entirely a different thing to have mechanics to back up such claims. It spells the difference between playing make-believe and playing an RPG.

I've had this argument before: "There's nothing in OSR that prevents you from saying your fighter is a master chef," they say. I answer, "Sure. There's nothing in the Cops & Robbers games kids play that says you can't be a master chef, either, but that doesn't mean I want to roleplay Cops & Robbers. There are a thousand different games that handle being a fighter/chef better than OSR. Why would I want to play it when all those other games are better suited for the RPG flavor I like?"

Effective Customization

"It's... useful to give antagonists a distinctive trait and voice of their own. Otherwise, you risk having them drown in a sea of sameness, and having players get blasé about the endless parade of similar-looking and -sounding threats."
-- Wraith: the Oblivion 20th Anniversary Edition, p. 262

So what makes a customization mechanic effective? 

Great question!

Edges and Flaws have been around for decades, and in no system have they been more central than in GURPS. In many ways, GURPS has been the definitive Advantages & Disadvantages system in RPGs for over thirty years. Its Fourth Edition boasts hundreds of choices in a wide variety of categories, from Social and Mental Disadvantages to Physical and Supernatural Advantages. You can make a gluttonous city guard who's an outdoorsman or a lancer with pyromania learned in magery. 

GURPS makes this descriptive rule mechanic work because it's intrinsic to the system and adds fun details to characters. It's intrinsic: it doesn't feel tacked-on, and it works seamlessly with everything else in character creation. It's fun: the sheer volume of options it provides lets you create almost any character you want.

Burning Wheel is a cornucopia of great ideas for rule mechanics. Every PC has two special attributes: Beliefs and Instincts. Beliefs (each character gets three) are both priorities and campaign imperatives. They tell the other players what you want your character to do or be in the game, like "I will own this city and all the nobles in it," or "People never say what they really mean." Instincts are courses of action framed as conditionals: "Whenever there's danger, I draw my knife," or "I'm always thorough and patient in spellcasting." They always happen and never require dice rolls, no matter the situation; that's what makes them instincts.

And what is it that makes these two aspects so great? Effectiveness and simplicity. They are excellent at telling you more about your character without a lengthy dissertation. If you have the belief, "People never say what they really mean," you won't take people at their word, and you'll always look for a hidden motivation. If your instinct is to cast spells patiently and thoroughly, you won't have to worry about botching under pressure. On the other hand, you'll have to fight all your instincts if you need to pull off magic quickly. These mechanics are simple enough to need no rules except: they are true and should always be assumed true in any circumstance. Simple, effective game design, right there. It's genius.

Then there's CyberpunkCyberpunk doesn't have any kind of special abilities or distinguishing mechanisms to individualize PCs (except its most excellent skill system, of course.) What it does offer is bundles and heaps of cyberware. There's cosmetic cyberware to set off your fiber-optic-haired, pink-chrome-eyed Rocker from the rest. Combat cyberware takes your hardwired Solo to the bleeding edge and beyond. Comms cyberware will let your Media express hir deepest thoughts to adoring fans from any gutter in the Sprawl.

And it's cheap and easy. In Cyberpunk, everyone has it--it's as ubiquitous as smog. If you don't, that says something about your character, too. It's consumer customization at its finest, and it fits the genre to a T.


What makes a customization mechanic effective? It's simple, expresses a quirk about your character that makes hir unique, and makes a noticeable difference in gameplay. 

So. What customization rules do you love? What characters did they bring to life? Let me know in the comments!


And until next time, game well, my friends.

Jonathan Andrews

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