Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Random Character Generation

After taking part in Play a New RPG month, (which has become Play a New RPG for 3-4 months) I was forced to use random character generation. I say forced, but what I really mean is that I used random character generation and it was actually part of the rules to do so. I've played in exactly one D&D campaign where we used a pure point buy system, back in 3rd edition. I've used either rolling or a hybrid buy/roll system for every other D&D campaign I've played or DM'd. It's about finding the exact method that works for you.

Why Point Buy
There are some RPGs where point buy gives me a giddy feeling inside. The hours (days? weeks?) I've spent making Champions characters is a testament to that. Man, I loved building those guys. Last night, I was thumbing through Tales from the Floating Vagabond - their entire character generation is point based. And this game packs more chaos into its system than a whole slew of Gamma World mutants. (Projectile vomiting as a skill and combat technique? Loooove it!)

Point buy does a few things. It sets a level playing field. This is especially important for public play, such as the Living Campaigns, Encounters series or back in my Vampire LARPing days. Everyone has a safe, consistent set of rules that are as open to abuse for everyone so there shouldn't be any complaining.

Point buy puts control of the long reaching parts of a character into the player's hands. A character's stats last until they die or they experiment with teleportation tech and forget to bring a flyswatter with them. A missed attack roll here and there has little effect on a character, but your starting attributes define your character and if you don't control those, you may get stuck with something you don't like.

Finally, point buy let's you define your character before you ever start building him. If you want to be a bloodthirsty barbarian, you build him. Sneaky rogue? Build a sneaky rogue. Cute Teddy Bear with homicidal tendencies? Yep, I've built him, too. It annoys me to no end when an RPG tells you to define your character concept as step 1 in character design, and then step 2 is to roll for all your abilities regardless of what your concept actually may be. (Helloooo, Dragon Age) When you sit down with point buy, step 1 is define your character concept. Step 2 is massage the mechanics of the game to support your idea. The better the game mechanics and freedom to customize, the more fun this stage can be. (ah, Hero System)

Why Random Generation
Random Generation has been around since Dungeons and Dragons inception. For some, it's a golden cow. For others, it's a dead horse that the old folks keep beating expecting it to carry them to the next town. Which is actually possible if you're a necromancer, so it's not quite as ridiculous as it sounds.

What is random generation good for? Imperfection and inequality. Which can be positive traits. Life's not fair. I'm waaay better looking than all my friends. I also think bald patches, uncontrolled nose hair and a single eyebrow are the prime features on an attractive man. Until the rest of the world learns to agree, my life is a big ball of unfair.

My recently rolled up Dragon Age character had no scores above 2, while everyone else in the party were sporting multiple 3s and even 4s. I was by far the weakest character in the bunch. And it was OK. The chaos emphasized just how great those high scores were for the other characters. For me, it showed that the hard working Dalish kid could keep up with the big guys. As long as the character has something unique to them, (I was the only bow specialist) the inequalities don't matter.

Inequality also lets a player try out strange combinations they'd never look at otherwise. How about a half-orc barbarian with a keen tactical mind and a charisma above 6? The muscle bound elvish wizard? The muscle bound anything that's not a fighting type? A fighter that's not muscle bound and has to rely on his other attributes?

Which leads to where random character generation shines- defining your character concept. But unlike point buy, the character concept is determined after the stats are rolled, not before. Point buy is working your brain to make the rules fit your concept. Random character generation is working your brain to come up with a concept that fits your rolls. It's the difference between acting out a play and doing improv.

Control vs. Chaos
Both point buy and random character generation have their place in gaming. Like any other mechanic, there are strengths and weaknesses for each. How much chaos and control are involved in the game is literally up to the group that's playing and what is fun for them. Sometimes the rules of the game push you toward one extreme or the other. Sometimes the players sense of fair play or desire for zaniness will do it.

As a general rule, I consider the importance of the attributes to the mechanics of the game. If the attributes easily let a character overshadow the other players or make it too difficult for the DM to challenge all the characters, more control (ie. point buy) is necessary. As the other parts of the characters are the sources of character effectiveness, then more randomness can be introduced into character generation. Again, how much of an impact starting attributes have on character power is up to the individual groups to determine.

Character generation can be polarized to be pure control or pure chaos. Here are some options that go from each extreme. Maybe one is right for you.

Pure Random
This is what they're talking about when the say old school.

1. Roll 3d6 (or 4d6 drop lowest or 5d6 or 6d6, etc.) and arrange in order. This is pure chaos, 1st edition D&D. Some have used it successfully. I'm not sure I'm quite that brave anymore, but it's still an option.

Mostly Random
These are highly random, but give the player a little more control over how their stats are assigned.

2. Same as #1, but swap any 2 stats. This is the Dragon Age method. The ability to swap 2 stats gives a lot of flexibility. In Dragon Age, it let's you choose any class you want and still be viable. In 4E, it gives you nearly the entire range of character classes available, though not every build is in reach.

3. Same as #1, but arrange in any order you want. A tried and true method used for many editions now. This is point buy, except you've randomly determined how many points everyone gets.

4. Set the important stats then roll for the rest, using any of the other methods. This is the Gamma World technique. Pick your race, class and build. (or roll for them in Gamma World) The stats which are vital to your build are preset. (ie. pick 2 scores to be 16 before racial adjustments) It means the stats that have a large effect on character power are distributed equally for everyone, while the stats that have a smaller effect are randomly determined.

Random, meet Point Buy
This is the medium ground that will appease most gamers. Though it may not make every gamer in your group 100% happy, it contains enough of both systems that no one can complain too loudly about the results. It's about as politically correct as you can get when it comes to calming your extremists on character generation.

5. Take the random method or mostly random method of your choice, and then give each player a handful of points to spend afterward. This can be enough to let players enhance what the dice have already given them, or smooth out the rough edges of a random character.

6. Use points to determine how your random stats are generated. A classic method of this is to be given 24 points and each stat receives 3-6 points. Afterwards, roll that many d6 and take the 3 highest to determine the stat. Sphyre's system can provide even more control.

No Random
Used by thousands ((millions? How many people are playing RPGs these days?) the world over.
7. Pure point buy. The 4E default character generation and likely the system for D&D from now and into the future.

There's no right or wrong answer about point buy vs. random. When it comes to point buy vs. random character generation, there's always a right answer. It's what lets you have fun. I change my system almost every time I start a new campaign just to see how it works. Right now, I'm leaning towards #5 with #1 as the random option, though I may throw some #4 in there as well.

Have you played with mixing random and point buy techniques into something unique? I'd love to hear about it.


  1. Rolling for stats is too stressful, although in the old days, because I was a min/maxer, and am still very concept driven, I would roll the stat, and then decide which stat it was getting assigned to. Nowadays, I much prefer the point-buy. I generally try and make fairly balanced characters now, although the min/maxer in me still gets an opportunity to analyze the numbers and see if I can borrow a few points from here or there to improve a primary stat a little bit.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sinius. Personally, I pegged you as an embrace the chaos kind of guy. :)

    Believe it or not, the pure rolling system in #1 can be the least stressful system. You have no control, so there's not much you can do about it except go along for the ride. Point buy is right up there because it's all under control. It's #2-#6 that cause the most stress. There's enough control there to make you think you can affect your stats, but whenever you add chaos into that equation, that control can be a bit of an illusion. Randomness is like Jurassic Park dinosaurs - "Nature (dice) will find a way." No matter what kind of control you stick on top, it eventually ends up with a huge T-Rex tearing your control to shreds.

  3. No, the player dislikes Chaos... The characters he plays, completely different story. :P

  4. While rolling ability scores was fun in Basic and 2e, in recent editions, I've leaned more and more towards point buy (or something similar, like point pool, like we did a lot of in 3.x).

    To me, I like the idea that everyone starts out from the same base of power - the foundation of the game starts with character ability scores.

    With 3e and 4e being so mechanics-heavy, it quickly becomes more often which PC has the ability score advantages from the get-go, and that always bothered me in these two editions especially.

    That said, I like the *idea* of more organic ability scores, it's just the reality of the power curve being different from one PC to another at the most basic and 1st level I do not like. Especially in 3.x and 4e.

    That's why I believe game balance and everyone feeling on par, power-wise, right out of the gate is most important moving forward. You can still have weaknesses and plenty of customization, of course.

    As long as everyone starts with the same basic power level through ability scores... then the power gamers can get right to their scheming and mangling ;)

  5. Hey Kilsek,

    I hear what you're saying about ability scores in 4E. I like option #4 for cases like this. Everyone gets a great score in their main abilities. The other abilities, which are dump stats or merely average, can be rolled without having much effect on the power level of the character.

    I agree that 4E encourages the point buy system more than any previous edition. 4E character classes are more similar than they ever were before. The difference between an archer ranger and a warlock are mostly aesthetic. They both are ranged strikers- the fact that one uses Dex compared to Cha is irrelevant. That's why point buy is the de facto method. Everything is apples to apples and those little differences are glaringly apparent.

    On the other hand, the more characters are different, the less players will notice ability scores. A 2nd edition wizard was so different from a fighter who was so different from a rogue, that there was no point in comparing ability scores. A wizard's intelligence in 2E didn't even affect combat directly- it just affected which spells they had access to.

    Thanks for your response. I think point buy is winning over more and more players, though rolling is making a comeback in games like Dragon Age. So if I like rolling, does that make me a visionary or an old fogey stuck in his ways? :)

  6. How about a visionary old fogey? :D

    Haha, I kid! Seriously though, it may not be as big a deal in Dragon Age because the mechanics are fewer and simpler, but every "inch" really seems to make a significant impact in mechanics-rich 4e D&D, right at 1st level.

    Thus my apprehension with rolling abilty scores in 4e.