Pre-Made vs. Custom Characters

When it comes to the use of pre-made vs custom made characters there is not a set rule in the world of RPGs.
However, it could be said that there are three main trends:

Pre-Made Characters

Traditionally, eastern style games (Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, etc…), often called JRPGS, make the most use of Pre-Made characters. The player is only given the option to change the names or select which of the characters will be in the adventuring party. The advantage of this style is that it allows the characters to have authentic conversations amongst the members of the group. The conversations are sometimes non-interactive for the player, but they can help advance the narrative. On the other hand, the player does not have as much freedom and it can make for a more linear story.

Player Made Characters

More in keeping with old-school games like Might and Magic, Wizardry and a few other more modern games like Icewind Dale, are games that allow the player to have full control in creating all of the characters that make up the adventuring party. The benefits of this option are that it lets the player identify more with their self-made characters and opens up more possibilities for the player to develop their own strategic ways to play the game.

The limitations of this style is that less narrative story can be implemented through meaningful conversations between the different characters in the party. Most conversations are instead driven by NPCs with a limited number of response options given to the player character.

Player made main character with pre-made group

This is the more modern and common option in RPGs today. Beginning with games like Baldur’s Gate it has also been used in Neverwinter Nights 2, Dragon age and many others. In this setup, the player designs the main character in the story and then later adds pre-made characters to the party as the story progresses. Generally the main character is silent for most of the story except when presented with dialog options. The other characters in the party may have more real story-driving conversations than the main character will actually voice.

Characters in Lords of Xulima

Story is a fundamental part of Lords of Xulima, and the story contained in the first game is just a small part of an elaborate mythology. The plot of this mythology is revealed little by little as the player advances in the game.

When originally conceived, all 6 of the characters were completely pre-made and each had its own personality. Conversations were written for the characters and they had dialogs that were at times intense and dramatic and sometimes touching. The characters were written to evolve throughout the story. Personally, I can’t recall another game where this has been carried out to such an extreme. The characters truly came to life and communicated their emotions.

However, I felt this was betraying the spirit of the old school. I think a fundamental aspect of these games is the way they allow the player to create their own characters in a fashion that I think is lost in many modern games. So with this in mind I decided to do away with the original narrative direction for the characters and take out the conversations and feelings that had been included with the pre-made party.

I still wanted to keep some of the dialogs and intense conversations so the decision was made that the main protagonist would be a pre-made character while the other members of the party would be created by the player.

Gaulen the Explorer 

Gaulen is the protagonist and will have numerous, often intense, conversations with the rest of the major characters of the story. He also represents the player because he too will make decisions at key points of the story and dialogs.

We believe that this balance gives us the best of both worlds in the pre-made vs custom made question. On the one hand the player can personalize the party to a great extent while also enjoying a strong character-driven narrative and interactive conversations.

11 Responses so far.

  1. Kordanor says:

    Sounds great. However I hope that you do not use the path NWN2 chose: That some skills and attributes only make sense on the main character and are completely useless on the other characters because they are automatically used by the main character while the other chars don’t havy any option to use them.
    Imho these stats and skills should make equal sense on all characters.

    • Aric Buroker says:

      Hi Kordanor,

      Thanks for your feedback, there are no plans to have skills like you describe. Different classes will be able to level different skills that will make sense to their builds, but the protagonist won’t have exclusive skills.

      Numantian Games

  2. forgottenlor says:

    I think both paths are viable, provided that the main character is player generated. I find Balder’s gate 2 & KOTOR good examples using pregenerated companions, while Wizardry 8 is for me the best example of a game where all characters are player generated, but still possess a modicum of personality. If I have a lot of character creation options (say 15 classes for 6 slots) then I prefer generating myself.

  3. Rodolfo says:

    Another approach would be for the player to create the characters when he meets them. Maybe the story is that you meet Joe the warrior, and when you do, you get a screen where you create Joe (stats, abilities, etc), the only fixed thing would be his class/race. That way he can be a warrior for conversations and story, and even have warrior armor in cutscenes, but you still feel like you created him.

  4. JimGagne says:

    Some players are very combat-oriented and like to fine-tune their player characters (PCs) and companion party members for maximum effect or most interesting gameplay. I’m MUCH more character and story oriented. That’s hard to do if everyone in the party is a roll-your-own choice. So I’d be in favor of having all or most companions pre-made. Rudolfo’s suggestion is pretty interesting and should work too, although you’d also have to lock down the companion’s gender as well.

  5. Michaela says:

    I’m firmly with Rodolfo in this. I *love* the way this combines rich plots and characterization with a sense of having done it all your way. You might even lock some attributes (like high strength vs. low wisdom for a hot-headed fighter), but the details of the party’s development, choice of skills, weapons and combat style are still up to the player.

    Also, I would rather define my own main character and take pre-built sidekicks (I understand there will be a sufficient number of them to choose from so you can always pick the archer over the javelineer, if you prefer) than the other way round, as planned. After all, the main character is the one I am to identify with, whereas the companions are, in a way, simply what fate has dealt him.

    Which brings me to another point I would like to make:
    The main character is locked, and of course it’s… a guy.
    Without even starting on the gender ratio of RPG main characters – if I am to identify with the protagonist in an epic, all-encompassing and creation-saving storyline that is to touch my heart, how about giving the girls in your audience a break and a choice to play a woman? (Sensibly clad, experience sadly requires me to add!)
    You’re a guy; if the main character in your favorite RPG was a woman (and I do mean a woman, not a fashion model for chain mail bikinis), wouldn’t you feel likewise?

    So, unless the larger story arc really requires the main character to have testes and a penis – how about putting that one up to your players?
    Pretty please? ;)

    • Mathieu Slm says:

      That was a very passionate post, Missy. Despite being a guy, I do understand where you’re coming from. Some would’ve preferred a choice of appearance for Gaulen… others (like me) a choice of class… and of course, a choice of gender (Gaulenette?).

      Personally, I like to play female protagonists; and I know I’m not the only one. So I’m not convinced it’s a favoritism thing, more a question of inspiration IMO.

      That said, and this is the most important, when crucial aspects of the protagonist are left up to the reader (player, in this case), the story loses a lot of “personality” or “touch of the author”. The only way to do this “right” is with a silent protagonist, but silent protagonist + silent party = lame. They had to make a choice, and since the story of Gaulen the Explorer was written long before the game, the central “medium” for telling it probably could not be altered. I’m sure they would rather offer a credible experience for a female protagonist, as opposed to something just recycled.

      In light of posts like yours, however, perphaps making the gender interchangeable will be taken in account in future stories :-)

      • Michaela says:

        Why, good sir, thank you for your kind empathy. :)

        I fully understand that telling a story “right” may impose certain limits on the protagonist. Still, unless too many of the central plot twists and dialogues explicitly require him to be male, I would very much like to advocate making this the player’s choice.

        Furthermore, most of the “gendered” situations may be adapted all too easily. If there are any potential love interests planned, those may be replaced by alternative characters of the opposite gender (or even remain as they are, if the player swings that way; I have seen this done amazingly well in several Choose-Your-Own-Adventure games).
        I do realise that will add to the load of artists and writers, but if the changes are restricted to those things crucial to the storyline, they will be very limited indeed.

        Please understand that I will play (and most probably love) this game either way, but there’s a dire dearth of women (again: NOT the scantily clad type for teenagers to gawk at) in leading roles (or even more-than-walking-scenery roles) already, as succinctly stated by the wonderful Anita Sarkeesian in
        (Go on, do take the two minutes to watch her make her point. I’ll be waiting here. :) )
        I cannot do much about Hollywood, but I would hate to not have raised this point in a video game project I firmly believe in.

        Thanks for reading and considering my point,

        Michaela :)

      • Michaela says:

        Oh, PS:
        I do realise that merely changing the looks and pronouns will merely cater to another trope, the “Ms. Male” main character – see
        (especially the part about gendering the protagonist in Mass Effect 3, starting at 19:45).

        A main character who is more than the male version with female body and voice actress, however, is step two.
        Step one is having even that much. <:7

        • ericfromabeno says:

          Michaela, yeah, after watching that video, it seems rather problematic, designing a female character with depth and originality and not stuck in some kind of be-ribboned, giggling, vapid one-dimensional mold… our entertainment media sometimes tries to get it right but even in shows where women are shown as level-headed, commanding and unique individuals you still occasionally get situations where they beat you over the head with “remember, she’s a woman” shopping scenes or such… -_-

          Reading the name “Gaulen” does not immediately say “male character” to me, by the way… If I met a woman whose name was Gaulen, I don’t think i’d find it jarring except in the sense that it’s an unusual name. I’m all for designing the character to be alterable by the player, gender, skin color, hairstyle, starting outfit… I don’t think this game will be heavy on cut-scenes that advance the plot…. I suppose they could have them, but probably not in such a way that changing the main character’s gender would make the game unrealistically hard to design…

          Michaela, I saw what you meant in that video, about the Mass Effect character… I honestly don’t know how this designer could combat that tendency in their games or in the gaming community at large, though, that habit of assigning the male version as the “norm”… it seems a societal issue beyond my ability to alter… lots of thought provoking information in that video. Kinda depressing, honestly… only in the very last minute of the video do i get a glimmer of hope that someone out there knows how to represent female characters in a less stereotyped, more personally identifiable way….

          in the case of this game, I’m guessing that a “Mass Effect” treatment is the best that we can hope for… The storyline was designed around the male protagonist, so probably the most they can provide is an exchangeable female version. Hmm… :(

          • Michaela says:

            Dear Eric,

            thank you so much! :D
            For reading my posts, watching the video, actually getting its point and, above all, understanding and caring.

            I do not insist on a female main character, I merely would like to point out the stereotypes and the problems with them. And my goal here is to influence perception of the problem, and a tiny change in mindset. I believe to achieve that is a nice success already, so after your post, I stand happy and relieved. :)

            I will still fully enjoy the game – it’s only that I believe the designers could do even more, if only in their next game.

            Thank you all for reading and caring,

            Michaela :D