The Challenge: Character ability is the first thing that any role playing game designer should consider, and in many ways the most important. Fortunately, it is also generally the easiest to perfect in and of itself. The challenge of character ability comes from the need for a variety of character types, each with their own unique capabilities.
There are a number of possibilities for solving this challenge, each of which is generally viable. Perhaps the most common one is the set “character type” role playing game. Using this system, all players choose what sort of being their characters are from a list of possibilities. This style of RPG is often broken down into two or three lists from which the player makes one (or sometimes multiple) choices. Perhaps the most common example of this style is where the player chooses a certain type of being and a certain profession that suits the game’s theme. The choices made, and the character’s level of power, determine what the character can do.
Certain designers prefer a skills-based role playing game. Using this style, players have a number of points or other units of measurement, which they can spend on certain abilities, powers, attributes, skills, or other advantages. This style offers more flexibility than the previous type of RPG, at the expense of more work on the player’s part.
Another possibility is the ability list role playing game. This style is somewhat similar to the skills style in that players choose from certain abilities to build their character. The difference is that instead of selecting from certain abilities, players select lists of skills, gaining all abilities appropriate to their character’s level found on their chosen lists.
Combinations of the three are common, often using one system as the base with another for certain parts. For instance, a role playing game might use a character type system to determine which skills or lists the character can select from. Alternately, an RPG might use an ability list style, but also have points to choose which abilities within those lists the player can select from.
Other combinations are possible, as are other styles of design, although these three make good overall categories. Each has its merits, but likewise, each comes with potential disadvantages.
The Risk: Although character ability is not a difficult challenge to meet, the style a role playing game designer uses here will affect every other challenge in the RPG-making process. Characters are the most important part of any role playing game, as they represent the medium that the players use to interact with the game itself.
The rules for creating characters are the most important when concerning issues of game balance. If characters are too powerful, the game is not challenging and thus less fun. If the characters are too weak, the game is overly difficult, and likewise less fun. But perhaps the most important consideration is the worry that certain character options will be more or less powerful than others. This prevents players from fully enjoying the sorts of characters they wish to play.