Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Character Generation Thoughts

In reading Stormbringer -- as I said, I plan to talk about it a lot in the coming days -- one of the things that really struck me was how random character generation is. Until fairly late in the process, the player has comparatively little say about who his character will be. The unstated assumption of the game seems to be that part of the challenge -- and fun -- of the game comes from finding a way to succeed with a character most of whose characteristics are outside the control of the player. This assumption is made a little more explicit in the section I quoted yesterday about beggars.

As I thought about it, I realized that random character generation is an important pillar of old school play, the formal crumbling of which led to its demise. I say "formal crumbling," because we all know there have always been gamers who fudged the dice to get the results they wanted when generating a character. "I want to play a fighter" is the first step toward point-buy systems and it's probably as old as roleplaying games. I'm not condemning it or the people who prefer it by any means, but I can't deny that we've lost something by shifting away from character generation and moving toward character creation as the norm in RPGs as written.

Anyone who's played D&D with a referee who insisted on 3D6 in order is bound to remember a character or three with utterly mediocre stats, the guy with 9, 10, or 11 for all his ability scores. Nowadays, we'd probably consider such a character unplayably boring, but, back in my youth, we often had to make do with such characters. Most of them proved as dull as their ability score spread; some, however, rose above their mediocrity and proved that, even in old school games, the dice are not destiny. This was a pattern I saw often enough as a kid -- an unimpressive collection of randomly generated stats who survived long enough to become a character -- that, after a while, many of us felt it was more interesting to play the hand we'd been dealt rather than re-rolling endlessly until we got the "right" result.

Lots of people took the comment "In RPGs, there are no winners or losers" a little too much to heart, I think. Certainly there are no clearly (and universally) defined victory conditions, as in a board or wargame, but it is possible to play a roleplaying game well. One of the ways we used to recognized such a thing was the ability to succeed with truly randomly generated characters. That was how we used to separate the men from the boys, so to speak. One demonstrated one's mettle as a gamer by rolling all your dice out in the open for everyone to see and then not only accepting the character you got but showing up everyone else over the course of the campaign. That wasn't the norm in practice, admittedly, but it was certainly the norm in theory and I knew enough people who played that way that it wasn't just a theory without any practical application.

I don't think there are many contemporary games that work on the assumption that one's character is generated through random dice rolls rather than created by player choice. Nowadays, the expectation is that one's character is something one creates beforehand and then uses the rules in order to bring him into being as best as possible. Again, there's nothing wrong with this and goodness knows, for many games, it's really the only way to go. That doesn't change the fact that it can be a lot of fun to have to grapple with mediocre or sub-par characters and find a way to succeed in spite of their mechanical handicaps.

I think that's why I still consider the classic Traveller character generation system the most interesting one ever created for any RPG: it regularly forces you to play a character other than you might otherwise choose to play. Speaking only for myself, that's a good thing. I tend to fall into ruts when I create characters, re-using the same basic character concept over and over again. That's just not possible when you're working with a robust random generation system or, at the very least, it ensures you have to be much more clever in finding a way to turn your 15 STR 9 INT character into the archmage-in-training you regularly play.

I'm a big fan of randomness, I'll admit, so perhaps this blinds me to the flaws in random character generation. All I can say, though, is that it was once an accepted part of how one played a RPG and its loss is something I see as unfortunate. Re-reading Stormbringer has reminded of this fact rather powerfully and it's one I'll likely be meditating upon a lot in the days to come.

67 comments:

  1. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the most enjoyable characters I've ever played have been imposed upon me by random generation charts. The creativity required to make these characters not only succeed, but to make them mine always seems to elevate them above any character I simply make using some derivation of a point buy system.

    Here is a thought as to why: since I haven't invested anything in the character (except a few minutes to consult the tables) I don't have much invested in the character. This frees me to take risks and explore things that I wouldn't do with characters I'd spent a couple hours creating with a point buy.

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  2. The present zeitgeist goes as far as foreordaining a characters entire career. In 4E you are mentally expected to stat your character out to level 30 before you even begin play. You have a "plan" for him and this journey is suppose to be according to said design.

    You can see it in adventures as well, the characters are predestined to win and survive. Where's the fun in knowing the destination before starting your journey?

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  3. Many of my gaming compatriots have a dozen or so (mostly interesting, IMO) character ideas at any given time; for them I think an increase in randomness would be more of a hindrance than a help.

    Like you, I'm a bit more likely to fall into a rut (as a player, at least).

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  4. I love classic Traveller for two reasons. First is the random character generation and second is the lack of leveling. It's the antithesis of 4E.

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  5. I think that's why I still consider the classic Traveller character generation system the most interesting one ever created for any RPG:

    I'm uncertain if it's the only game system that features this, but the fact Traveller's character generation method offers the possibility of your character dying during the creation process certainly makes it an "interesting" one.

    I must admit that this quirk has always been something that I waver back and forth on. Sometimes I like the idea; othertimes I'm uncertain if it serves any purpose. But it is unique.

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  6. I, too, am a big fan of randomness. My preferred method of creativity is to start from a seed, rather than starting from nothing. Random dice stats, and especially random backgrounds, feed me a lot of those seeds.

    Even when the game is point-buy, I like to fall back on charts of random tables using playing cards and/or dice to tell me about the character or NPC. For example, in 3.5 D&D, there was a Dragon article using the Three-dragon ante card deck to perform a tarot-style reading on the character. I've had a lot of fun with it.

    As a DM, I've even enjoyed rolling a handful of times on a random encounter table, and see what kind of story I can weave together from them.

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  7. I wonder if anyone has taken a stab at creating a Traveller-like character generation method for D&D? I realize that the average starting age of PCs in each system differ quite a bit, but it would still be an interesting idea to explore.

    I've often thought, "Life is what happens when you don't expect it." Random character generation injects a bit of this and makes us players work with what we've received, be it ideal or (more often) not.

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  8. I, too, love randomness, and were I still younger with tons of free time for gaming, I'd still prefer games that were more random. With very limited time to play, I prefer the 4e approach, though.

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  9. Absolutely. Other advantages:

    (1) When I play, I want to play something... surprising. If it's made out of whole cloth then it's just "more of me" and it's not that interesting. My PCs are a collaboration between me and the dice, and it stretches my roleplaying in ways that I alone would never have thought to do.

    (2) It lets a brand-new player into the game without needing to know the rules, setting, and preferred optimizations in advance. When a modern-style GM starts a new game by asking me "what's my character idea" (possibly without me even knowing the rules/setting to a new game), I'm completely stupefied.

    (3) It encourages teamwork. One guy has 18/99 strength and everyone else is mediocre? Let's build the team around the tough guy and see how much advantage we can all get out of it.

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  10. One feature of old school gaming that -in my mind- goes hand in hand with random character generation is the fact that when it came to playing the games, they were fairly rules-light. There generally weren't dozens of special skills or maneuvers for the player to use so they simply rolled a die and would succeed or fail. The player would describe what they do in order to accomplish something.

    The character who takes the time or effort to think of a clever plan or tactic deserves for it to have a chance of working, even if they don't have a particular skill or ability.

    In many modern games, this flexibility is often lacking, or at least they are often not run that way.

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  11. I agree with you totally on this. I will say I have no problem with the character creation based systems in themselves. They are fine.

    What I do value about character generation is the writing assignment thing. In school you would get writing assignments and you had to be creative in the constraints set up by the assignment. You are limited by your die roll and you have to be more creative in that mix to make the character fun and workable.

    In Song of ice and fire, Tyrian Lannister is clearly not as balanced in anyway with his brother and sister. He is interesting though and he adapts to the limitations.

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  12. For me, random character generation is a great way of modeling real life…that is we don’t generally choose the bodies and minds with which we’re born, nor the heritage that shapes our upbringing.

    For Stormbringer, where each of the Young Kingdoms has their own flavors and foibles, the randomness of the character gen fits perfectly with this “you’ve got no choice of where you’re born now go make your own destiny” feeling. My friend had a helluva’ lot of fun playing a farmer with a spear in one game I ran, and I had a great time with a Vilmaren assassin. Not to mention beggars, beggars everywhere. Of course, in the end everyone meets the same fate as Smiorgan Baldhead (or Elric himself for that matter!)…no one dies peacefully in their sleep, and even Tanelorn is no guarantee of solace in retirement.

    Elric! and the later editions of Stormbringer did away with the random Nationality/Class rolls and suffered all the more because of it. But they were shitty, point-buy affairs (for skills) anyway.

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  13. I've pretty much reached the point where non-random chargen is a dealbreaker for me. If I can't roll some dice to find out what sort of wretch I'm playing, then I'm just not interested. I'd take a pregen from the ref as an alternative, I suppose.

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  14. [i]That was how we used to separate the men from the boys, so to speak.[/i]

    My friends, whom I've been playing with for about 20 years, refer to the "roll 3d6" method as the "man method" for this exact reason.

    I like both random and build approaches to character creation--I think they both bring cool things to the game.

    Reign, Greg Stolze's fantasy game from a couple of years ago, has a very well done random character creation system (in addition to the build option).

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  15. I seem to remember playing a game called Bushido from Fantasy Games Unlimited set in medieval Japan. I wanted to play a ninja, but that was only going to happen if I rolled 0-4%, which would mean I was a member of the lowest order of society.

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  16. It gets old.

    The deal is that if you are switching games and campaigns then it's not so bad. But if you have run the same campaign for 30 years like I have.

    You run into it's limitations which that the odds are your results are not going to be that interesting.

    The answer is somewhere in the middle. For the long term campaigns the best approach is to allow a hybrid approach where something are rolled randomly and others are picked.

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  17. I dunno about it getting old. The idea behind random generation is that even if your results aren't that interesting in themselves, the way you spin them makes them interesting, and keeps them new and different when you get stuck in a rut.

    But it is a sub-game that doesn't appeal to everyone, the same way that building a character 3e- or GURPS-style doesn't. I usually offer my players a choice between rolling in order and going from there or picking the class they want to play, then rolling six scores and assigning them to suit the class. There's no sense in stopping people from playing what they want to play.

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  18. I agree that there must be a happy medium. I do not trust any game where I have no hand in what my character's abilities are. To make the entire thing random seems to me to take away some measure of equality from an RPG, and speaking as someone who feels that both the creative freedom of a player to tell stories he wants to tell, and as someone who feels that an unfair game is the antithesis of fun, I think that random elements in character generation should be agreed upon between the players and the GM beforehand.

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  19. My very first character (rolled in front of the DM at 14 years old) had nothing lower than a 13, and had an 18 and two 17's! All on 3D6. Pretty rare though.

    In my current AD&D a couple of new players actually balked at having to roll 4D pick best 3. Some folk are too used to assigning points nowadays. But I like to keep some of the old school experience, and rolling up a character is a right of passage in my game. One player months ago actually seemed terrified of doing it.

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  20. I'd love to see your further thoughts on random vs points-based games and the philosophies behind them. I think both sides have their own kinds of machismo, and there are some ideas about how the world really is lurking under both viewpoints.

    Warning: non-old-school opinions follow;
    I'm one of those people who always gets a clear idea for a character at the start and then wants to design that, and I like to think I avoid ruts when I see them... so I've had great fun with GURPS over the years. OTOH I've had great fun playing pre-gens, and in the last few games I ran insisted the players start with pre-gens (which I made in consultation with them) because the players were novices and the game world was novel, and I figured the character sheet could itself be a teaching tool about the game. As you suggest, random generation tells the players that the game should be playable (and "optimisable") with any kind of hand. Pre-gens allow me to suggest what might be useful in a hand.

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  21. "To make the entire thing random seems to me to take away some measure of equality from an RPG, and speaking as someone who feels that both the creative freedom of a player to tell stories he wants to tell, and as someone who feels that an unfair game is the antithesis of fun, I think that random elements in character generation should be agreed upon between the players and the GM beforehand."

    That's actually sort of a beautiful summary of the antithesis of old-school thinking. I may refer back to that in the future.

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  22. BigHara said:
    One feature of old school gaming that -in my mind- goes hand in hand with random character generation is the fact that when it came to playing the games, they were fairly rules-light. There generally weren't dozens of special skills or maneuvers for the player to use so they simply rolled a die and would succeed or fail. The player would describe what they do in order to accomplish something.

    The character who takes the time or effort to think of a clever plan or tactic deserves for it to have a chance of working, even if they don't have a particular skill or ability.


    I think that the best description of the what I liked best about "Original Holmes version" D&D when we were playing it way back when. I think we usually ended up using the stats to describe the characters physically rather than what they could or could not do in game simply because there were no honking big bonuses or penalties.

    In a 3e game I was playingh in years ago, I had a barbarian with low INT and WIS. Because he was not good at looking or listening due to his STATS, as a player I got very frustrated very quickly since all I could do is run up to things and hit them. He was very good at that. But if I as a player wanted to do anything like 'look under the bed' or 'hide behind the tree' I had to do dice rolls... and not having 'search' or 'hide' points meant I was very limited in my choices as to what I could do.

    Often I felt the mechanics of 3e defeated the purpose of "role playing" since I found running my barbarian more like playing a primitive video game where what your avatar can do is limited by the program.

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  23. Does anyone else remember Paul Jacquays' Central Casting books? They were books full of tables for randomly generating a character with an amazingly detailed background and "suitable for any sytem". Results could border on the surreal and were wildly unbalanced in a very old school way.

    I picked the SF one up in the bargain bin of a games store in the later 1990s and later acquired a photocopy of the fantasy one. I know that there's a third one out there that I never found. Probably they didn't sell well, because they were a bit too cumbersome and insane to really use in an actual game, though they were great fun to read.

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  24. I sit firmly on both sides of the fence and largely for the same reason. One of my favorite RPG genres is Comic Book Superheroes and one of the staples of the best Superhero RPGs is often fully customizable, point based character design. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say there is Character Generation (random), Character Creation (a combo of random rolls, points and/or choices) and Character Design (as in Champions or Mutants & Masterminds).

    That said, one of my coolest Superhero PCs ever was a guy I generated completely randomly in Villains & Vigilantes. I rolled on the Magical Devices table: Animal/Plant Powers: Fish, Animal/Plant Powers: Bird, Heightened Agility, Heightened Intelligence and some attack power like Disintergration Ray. The other players laughed and the GM asked if I wanted to re-roll. "No way!" I said proudly. Giving up the Ray I created a Native American hero who wore a shaman motif costume with a helmet that was one part totem pole art, one part DC's Hawkman. I named him Seahawk and subsequent rolls gave him the ability to control fish and birds, fly, breath underwater and a few superhuman sense abilities. Turns out that though Aquaman isn't always useful and Hawkman isn't always usual, combining them creates a pretty awesome dude.

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  25. Color me skeptical about all the "role-players" who have great "character ideas" that they feel they must have full control over the character they make. You get a lot fewer Raistlins and Drizzt Do'Urdens with even just a little bit of randomness thrown in.

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  26. I have run mostly AD&D in my time, but in the 90's I never saw my players be more creative than when the played in my Champions campaigns. That was the only time I used points for stats in any game. In my AD&D and Cthulhu games, having to roll dice for stats never kept anyone from having the character they want.

    Again, I like to do best 3 of 4 dice, but I also let the player do a little tweaking here and there. Maybe move a couple points around as long as it isn't to make an 18.

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  27. Besides, you shouldn't feel a lot of rapport with your brand-new 1st level character. Firstly, it means that DMs will feel slightly obscene killing them after a player took 4 hours to make.

    Secondly, technically, and literally, they are by stint of their level untested, untried, and only just formed. It's irrational for people to be so invested in a new character and allowing full power to the player to pull their fresh simacrulum up from the vat fully formed and realized in 4E, 3E etc only feeds that type of play.

    The character themselves will think, "I am chosen, I am destined for great things!" Instead of, "Jeebus, I need to survive this dungeon!---what was that sound!!!"

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  28. Everyone in my group seems to enjoy random character generation. We regularly use fully random generation for Marvel PCs. Even when I’ve offered point-buy in a D&D 3e campaign, they’ve chosen to roll. I don’t think I’m the only one who has rolled for race and class too. They enjoyed classic Traveller character generation too.

    The interesting thing about classic Traveller to me is that, despite seeming to have so few choices, I often end up with more-or-less what I was shooting for.

    Back in my staunch simulationist days, I liked the idea of rolling for things that you don’t get to choose in real-life and choosing the things you do have a choice over in real-life. These days, even typing that makes me wince a bit. A big part of the fun of gaming is being different from real-life. Still, I can deny that the general idea still really appeals to me.

    Anyway, I’m perfectly happy with both. Fully random. Fully choice. Or any point in between.

    I think there are some real advantages to random character generation that people just completely miss. And that I have trouble putting into words myself.

    For instance, putting a point-cost onto something can be very difficult. Too low, even if it is expensive, and nigh every PC will have it. Too high, even if it is cheap, and no nigh no PC will have it. With random, you can set the frequency much more directly.

    Another thing is that the rules have generally given more weight to stats as time has passed. Players are happier with random generation when stats less seldom used and a big difference in scores doesn’t lead to a big difference in chance for rolls.

    I tend to think that’s an illusion, though, because I don’t see the players who insist on high scores really dominating play over those who are happy with whatever they get.

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  29. I played in a Viking-style campaign with Peter Adkinson, Christian Moore, Owen Seyler and a few other game designers. We were using AD&D (pre-second edition). Peter insisted that we play whatever stats we rolled, though we were able to assign the scores as we wanted.

    I was playing a barbarian with an 11 INT. And I made sure to play him like that. Peter would sometimes have me roll against my INT if he thought I was being a bit too clever, the result of which sometimes led me to *really* have to think. For example, if I encountered something mysterious, and didn't make my INT check, I couldn't use the carefully crafted method I'd devised to investigate it. I would have to come up with a Plan B.

    Owen played "the Worm." He was a magic user with a 3 STR. We actually had to carry him around with us, because Owen determined his low strength meant he was deformed and withered, which is why he turned to magic in the first place.

    I totally agree that randomized character generation is fun, makes you stretch your imagination, and should be used more widely than it actually is.

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  30. I definitely think there's fun to be had all over the axis between 'totally random' and 'made to order' PCs. I've played games at both ends and a great deal in between, and enjoyed finding the good in it.

    And one bit just for the sake of discussion:
    For those folks out there who say that there are no system elements that can be truly defined as 'old-school', I think that random PC generation is one, or at least really really close.

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  31. Color me skeptical about all the "role-players" who have great "character ideas" that they feel they must have full control over the character they make. You get a lot fewer Raistlins and Drizzt Do'Urdens with even just a little bit of randomness thrown in.

    I've not seen a Drizzt or a Raistlin in over 20 years. Could just be me.

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  32. Er, make that 10 years. No wonder I had problems with THAC0 :/

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  33. In a 3e game I was playingh in years ago, I had a barbarian with low INT and WIS. ... But if I as a player wanted to do anything like 'look under the bed' or 'hide behind the tree' I had to do dice rolls... and not having 'search' or 'hide' points meant I was very limited in my choices as to what I could do.
    .
    If a player actually comes up with a good idea I usually let them succeed (pretend to roll dice behind the screen) regardless of their stats. Sometimes even the Hulk gets a brain-wave.

    Yeah I'm all for random characters for all the reasons mentioned + most of my favourite literary/cinematic characters, if turned into stats, are pretty mediocre but it's what they decide and do that makes them great. It's the basis of good story-telling.

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  34. I've not seen a Drizzt or a Raistlin in over 20 years. Could just be me<

    Nope, me neither. Although a guy in my current campaing has a female drow who escaped the drow city as a kid and got raised by druids. She uses double scimitars, so I guess she is kinda like Drizzt.

    She doesn't exactly have stellar stats though. This was the player I mentioned above who was terrified of a random roll over point buy.

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  35. I totally agree that randomized character generation is fun, makes you stretch your imagination, and should be used more widely than it actually is.

    This comment is spot-on and reasonable. Well-played.

    It has not been the norm in this thread.

    an unfair game is the antithesis of fun

    This is the sort of thing that gets taken out of context and willfully misrepresented all the time by 'mature' gamers high on their own antiquity and stubbornness and carefully constrained/circumscribed machismo. But of course it's correct for most groups, and of course it has nothing whatsoever to do with play outcomes. 'Playing fair' and winning aren't the same thing for adults. For a child, losing is unfair. For a grownup, 'fair play' obviously means something to do with social responsibilities and honesty, and grownups generally try to stick to it.

    That's anything but the 'antithesis of old-school gaming' as some wag put it upthread - it's just good social sense. (Then again, I shouldn't act surprised when that particular quality is implicitly denigrated on an RPG discussion board, should I...)

    The character who takes the time or effort to think of a clever plan or tactic deserves for it to have a chance of working, even if they don't have a particular skill or ability.

    In many modern games, this flexibility is often lacking, or at least they are often not run that way.


    The leading term is usually the DM, right? A DM who encourages responsible roleplay (i.e. not merely metagaming, not lame munchkinry, grounded in character and situation rather than power fantasy in numerical/tabular form) can wring some sweetness out of any system.

    I run D&D 4e for a bunch of guys who prefer the tactical-mayhem side of D&D, but the best parts of our combats are invariably the moments when a character does something mathematically suboptimal and grandly in-character. Y'know what? I reward those moments in game terms, just as the group rewards the player with approbation. (For instance: I'm far more likely to fudge a dice roll to reward bravery than to 'salvage story.') The fact that there is a mathematical measure of optimality available is a constraint only to the extent that I utilize it uncritically or carelessly.

    If you're willing to play up what the stats (the 'script' if you will) tell you, then it doesn't really matter how you came by the stats...unless you see the 'outlining' (character-creation) phase as part of the writing process.

    Which any serious writer will tell you it obviously is, and subject to the same variability as all the other parts.

    My point here is that if you get great experiences by rolling dice to make your characters, swell, but the experiences aren't essentially connected to those dice rolls - they come from your willingness to roleplay seriously and creatively. If you can bring creativity and daring to character creation, then you're working at (literally) a more responsible level than those who say 'I'll just take what I'm told.' If you can't, then of course the dice are the better option.

    (Do I suspect that most roleplayers, old- and new-school, overstate their roleplaying prowess - dick-length for nerds, as y'all handily demonstrate/illustrate - all the time? Yes I do. So it goes.)

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  36. I know some players that even go so far as to design a character based on what info the DM gives about the campaign. Heck, I even believe 4e states somewhere that it is pointless to create a ranger if your DM tells you the campaign is primarily urban or in dungeons! The antithesis of the sandbox concept where the world is laid out before you to do with as you please.

    That being said, for us older gamers, time available to play is less than in our childhood, so some would say it is better to use it playing exactly what you envision and have fun with.

    I currently lean towards a hybrid of random rolls and straight allocation of stats (best 3 out of 4), with a selection of "primes" a la C&C that the player chooses for his character to "focus" on in development. This would give sense to a mage with Int of 13 who has an easier time with challenges based on this stat since he has spent time refining it. You cannot choose what you are born with, but you can certainly overcome deficiencies by applying yourself.

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  37. @UWS guy: Great, succinct posts.

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  38. Did I just see Ross Isaacs posting? Holy cr...Ross its me, Adam. How are you brother?

    Meanwhile...I am reminded of template and archtype systems like ICON/Last Unicorn's Star Trek, D Star Wars and a few others that essentially have you start as a near pre-generated character that you then futz with slighly and choose options for to round them out. I always liked that.

    Unfortuately I have to slightly disagree with UWS guy on the subject of first level characters...One of the reasons I don't really like level based games is there is often the concept then the character popped into existance the moment you finished writing him up. They never existed before that moment, never lived a life. I dislike that immensely as both a player and a GM. I do prefer systems where you roll for, buy or choose some of your character's background elements so you don't get that feeling of instant-PC.

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  39. "One of the reasons I don't really like level based games is there is often the concept then the character popped into existance the moment you finished writing him up. They never existed before that moment, never lived a life. I dislike that immensely as both a player and a GM. I do prefer systems where you roll for, buy or choose some of your character's background elements so you don't get that feeling of instant-PC."

    Try to think of your new PC as a fictional character. How much do you know about any given fictional character in the first part of the first chapter of the work in which he or she first appears? Very little! Likely just enough bare bones stuff to get the story moving.

    A first-level character is much the same way. If he survives and prospers for a few adventures, add more to his background and personality then if you like.

    Better to develop a character this way than to have your incredibly-detailed lifelike protagonist meet his ignoble doom at the short sword of a wandering goblin in the second room of the dungeon.

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  40. I've pretty much reached the point where non-random chargen is a dealbreaker for me.

    That's really interesting, Jeff. You should post about this some time, as I find it a very fascinating perspective.

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  41. For the long term campaigns the best approach is to allow a hybrid approach where something are rolled randomly and others are picked.

    I'm not really clear what that would mean. You should make a post about it sometime :)

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  42. For those folks out there who say that there are no system elements that can be truly defined as 'old-school', I think that random PC generation is one, or at least really really close.

    I think you're right, but then I'm one of the miscreants who thinks there's more to "old school" than play style.

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  43. "Try to think of your new PC as a fictional character."

    Ok, ignoring the possibilty that in the last 32 years I've been gaming I've never done that before, I'll try to expand my explanation.

    I know very little about the fictional character of a book...unless of course he's MY fictional character from MY book. Then, for the sake of the book, I should hope I know a few things about him. Perhaps it's only where he's from, why he does what he does or what his favorite flavor of ice cream is. I don't assume, as both a player and a GM, that just because we haven't eaten ice cream in our campaign up til now that a character has never tasted ice cream.

    Plus, I do play Superheroes a lot and Superheroes, as it turns out, often have Origins (with a capital 'O'!). These background events explain the nature of the character's power and often their reason for being heroes.

    I actually generate very little pre-campaign background for my characters compared to some players I've met but I don't ignore the fact that this person existed prior to walking into the tavern and meeting the rest of the party. This has been true of all my character since my very first one in 1977 at the age of 8.

    Take Han Solo as a good example of what I'm talking about. We don't know who he is or where he's from when we first meet him but it takes use less then 5 minutes to realize that he's lived a life before he met Luke. It's possible the GM came up with his backstory but why not let the player come up with some ideas - it's his character. Han's player might've said to his GM, "Hey, can I supe up my ship a bit at the start of the game if I owe money on it to a big time space gangster?" To which a GM like me says, "Cool. I can create a crimelord and a criminal organization...maybe someone owned the ship before you...sure why not!"

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  44. "Han's player might've said to his GM, "Hey, can I supe up my ship a bit at the start of the game if I owe money on it to a big time space gangster?" To which a GM like me says, "Cool. I can create a crimelord and a criminal organization...maybe someone owned the ship before you...sure why not!""

    Even cooler: Start the PC off pre-any of that stuff and play through it in real time. If he survives.

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  45. "Han's player might've said to his GM, "Hey, can I supe up my ship a bit at the start of the game if I owe money on it to a big time space gangster?" To which a GM like me says, "Cool. I can create a crimelord and a criminal organization...maybe someone owned the ship before you...sure why not!""

    Even cooler: Start the PC off pre-any of that stuff and play through it in real time. If he survives.


    I'm inclined to disagree. A premise is a premise, not a story in itself. If you're cooking up a Fox Mulder-type character, you wouldn't want to game out the abduction of his sister before moving him into the FBI and whatnot...you'd introduce Scully (they meet in a tavern called 'Quantico') and bring in backstory as you go.

    'If he survives' is dramatically worthless - it's machismo. The whole point is that surviving (his early life) brings about the most interesting situations - the best for gaming.

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  46. Random chargen is pretty fun in my opinion. It does have its limits, sure, and nowhere in Stormbringer does it say that you can't just choose the details for the character you want. I have always liked using random character generation and sometimes get players that appreciate it too. In a case like Stormbringer, I think it was an excellent decision as a way to integrate and introduce PCs into the setting, avoiding the (inevitable?) preponderance of Melnibonean/Pan Tang characters...

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  47. Well, in my D&D edition-of-choice, 1st level fighters are Veterans. (^_^)

    ‘If he survives’ is dramatically worthless...”

    I’ve tended to downplay the “storytelling” mode as significantly distinct, but more and more I’m thinking that it’s more important than I give it credit for.

    When making a decision as referee or player, I do consider “What would make a good story?” Among other things.

    But reading Robin Laws’ latest “See Page XX” about applying the structure of fiction to role-playing games really drove home to me how much I don’t want to play that game. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I can appreciate it. I could probably even enjoy it on the rare occasion. It’s just not something I’m going to enjoy on a regular basis.

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  48. I think part of the issue here, based on this thread and several conversations I've had with other gamers on this subject, is the interplay between "narrative" and "game", between what is "scripted" vs. what happens as a result of randomness and on the spot player choice.

    For me, I think the reason I prefer random generation is because I believe that the synthesis of these two situations is a story that emerges from the randomness. In other words, the narrative is assembled out of the pieces that drop out of play, rather than playing through a pre-scripted narrative.

    For me, random rolled characters are usually an Exquisite Corpse type exercise, 'cos I usually never have a clear idea going in what I want to play.

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  49. "I'm inclined to disagree. A premise is a premise, not a story in itself. If you're cooking up a Fox Mulder-type character, you wouldn't want to game out the abduction of his sister before moving him into the FBI and whatnot..."

    I completely don't see that in any way, shape, or form.

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  50. Stormbringer is the one game I own where I find the character generation process excessively random. How is the GM supposed to deal with a party comprising a Nadsokor beggar, an Ilmoran farmer, and a Melnibonean dragon-rider? I don't need perfect balance between PCs, but Stormbringer chargen, unlike OD&D, mostly creates mundane people unsuited to adventuring. Certainly unsuited to the kinds of adventures published for the game, which seem to assume a more typically D&Dish gang of warriors, rogues and wizards, not peasants and tradesmen.

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  51. @Delta:

    There's value in *sometimes* declaring the abduction of Mulder's sister part of a characters a background for a couple of reasons.

    6) That kind of stuff gives the player a little bit of input into the world-building, which gets certain kinds of players more involved in the game.

    5) The player may want to play a character with certain particular traits and/or motivations, which might require a particular life experience to have happened a certain way. This is not unusual, and frankly, there's nothing wrong with it. The drama club crowd is allowed to game too.

    4) Some folks just hate playing spell-casters. Or they only really like playing ninjas. These guys can't rely on random generation to give them characters they want to play, and a lot of them use background and motive to differentiate their characters instead of race and class.

    3) Past events offer a 1st-level character a motivation, which is a handy role-playing hook when the player doesn't yet know what he wants to do. Beginning sandbox games often suffer from this malaise. And as core motivation goes, the goals a player comes up with himself are usually better than anything the DM comes up with for him.

    2) The player is very often more intrigued by the fallout from his background than by actually playing through it. For instance, the abduction might have happened while Mulder was out of town, or asleep. He wouldn't get to play a part in any of the exciting bits.

    But most importantly:

    1) If the abduction serves as a reason for the character to meet the party, playing it out would mean a lot of time that the other PCs don't get to game. We can probably all agree that having one guy playing and four people watching for six hours at a time is bloody stupid. If you keep the psychodrama confined to character background, the player gets a character and an initial goal that makes sense to him, and the rest of the group can actually get in a word edgewise.

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  52. The selection of random generation or a point-buy system is to my mind centered squarely in consideration of an RPG as, in fact, a game. The former is like getting dealt a hand in a card game, and involves similar structural implementations of the interaction of chance and skill.

    From that perspective, a complaint that "it's no fun if I don't get the character I want" is as odd as someone insisting on picking the cards with which he or she starts in Pinochle.

    However, another perspective has become common, one that taken to an extreme results either in subversion of the game (via GM "fudging" and "railroading") or in transformation into a different kind of game.

    With Marvel Super Heroes, I greatly downplay the whole game aspect. I use completely free-form character generation, working with the player to translate his or her concept as accurately as possible into mechanical terms. In play, I treat it more as an entertainment, a collaborative story-telling exercise. The use of formal rules is so fast and loose that I would consider it a "game" only in a very tenuous sense. "Interactive fiction" would be spot-on!

    "One size fits all" simply does not. I also dig V&V and Champions, each used in its traditional way.

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  53. "I'm inclined to disagree. A premise is a premise, not a story in itself. If you're cooking up a Fox Mulder-type character, you wouldn't want to game out the abduction of his sister before moving him into the FBI and whatnot..."

    I completely don't see that in any way, shape, or form.


    My suspicion is that you're thinking in terms of the story you want to see rather than the story you ought to tell. For example: I 'want to know' whether Angel and Spike and Gunn survive the battle at the end of the Angel TV series - but it's not a cliffhanger. This thing that I don't know, I don't know because not knowing is part of the story.

    As for Mulder's sister, not seeing the event at first makes its eventual presentation more eventful, and puts the audience in the position of facing the memory along with Mulder, linking character experiences to audience experiences. I don't need to see him in college to 'make more sense' of the bits of college-related backstory the show gives. See what I mean?

    Closer to home (alas), the value of Strahd von Zarovich is as a badass villain and tragic figure. If you leave his backstory up to chance, maybe you end up with the same dramatic situation eventually, but what if you don't? Backstories work in one direction; 'filling in the past' is an important dramatic technique, 'filling in the future' is usually cheating.

    PCs =/= NPCs, and playable material =/= backstory. They have different functions and should be treated differently. That seems obvious to me so I wonder what you mean by your disagreement.

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  54. But reading Robin Laws’ latest “See Page XX” about applying the structure of fiction to role-playing games really drove home to me how much I don’t want to play that game

    Laws is probably the most important mainstream RPG writer right now, in both theory and practice. His 'See Page XX' collection is worth every penny of its low price, and more - really lays waste to a lot of gamer pretensions and assumptions.

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  55. The comments about "old school" being random vs. "modern" point-buy should be taken with a grain of salt, since The Fantasy Trip, which started in 1977 with Melee, was total point-buy from Day 1. No randomness in chargen at all.

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  56. I don’t know that I disagree about Robin being the most important mainstream RPG writer. If there is such a person, he may well be in the running. It just seems more and more like his approach and mine are divergent enough that they aren’t even the same hobby anymore.

    Could you elaborate on laying waste to gamer pretensions and assumptions? I’m not seeing what you mean.

    Whether old or not, I will say that TFT was clearly and intentionally a different school than D&D. (So much ground was explored in the early days, I have a hard time trying to classify with terms like “old school” and “modern”.)

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  57. Random rolls can't be that 'old school' given that Mongoose Traveller, all of the ORE games and the current editions of BRP and all of the Warhammer FRP games (including Dark Hersey)feature Random Char Gen.

    Sure, many of these games have older roots, but the designers of these incarnations of these games clearly feel that Random Char Gen isn't incompatible with modern gaming.

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  58. "My suspicion is that you're thinking in terms of the story you want to see rather than the story you ought to tell."

    I'm not thinking story. I'm thinking game. Ultimately those are polar opposites, and therein lies our fundamental inability to agree.

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  59. Robert Fisher said...
    Whether old or not, I will say that TFT was clearly and intentionally a different school than D&D.

    Agreed. I was trying to point out that the "Then" vs. "Now" distinction is a bit fuzzy. The Mike and Jenny post also pointed it out in the opposite direction by mentioning new games' use of randomization in character generation.

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  60. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I can appreciate it. I could probably even enjoy it on the rare occasion. It’s just not something I’m going to enjoy on a regular basis.

    You and me both. With the exception of The Dying Earth RPG, I've never been a huge fan of Robin Laws's designs, but that's purely a matter of taste and many people whom I respect think highly of his work.

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  61. In other words, the narrative is assembled out of the pieces that drop out of play, rather than playing through a pre-scripted narrative.

    That's my preference as well.

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  62. How is the GM supposed to deal with a party comprising a Nadsokor beggar, an Ilmoran farmer, and a Melnibonean dragon-rider?

    With some difficulty, I suspect, but, if he somehow manages to do it, I'll bet it'd be a campaign worth remembering :)

    More seriously, yes, there is a danger of just what you describe happening in games where randomness is the sole name of the game. Fortunately, I think most old school players and referees have as much fondness for common sense as they do for randomness and so would make appropriate tweaks to ensure smoother campaign play.

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  63. From that perspective, a complaint that "it's no fun if I don't get the character I want" is as odd as someone insisting on picking the cards with which he or she starts in Pinochle.

    I agree, but, of course, I don't think many gamers would liken RPGs to card games these days. Indeed, I suspect that a great many of them no longer even consider them games in the traditional sense at all, at least if the descriptions given in the obligatory "What is Roleplaying?" sections are any indication.

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  64. Sure, many of these games have older roots, but the designers of these incarnations of these games clearly feel that Random Char Gen isn't incompatible with modern gaming.

    I think it depends greatly on how one uses the terms "old" and "modern." I don't think it's impossible to create a new old school game. "Old school" is, for me anyway, a description of an approach to game design and game play that has its roots in the past -- hence the "old" part -- but isn't limited to that past. There are plenty of "modern old school" games out there; they're just not the norm.

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  65. Heck, I don’t consider role-playing games to be games. At least, not in my own sense. I’m not sure about any traditional sense.

    But then, I guess I already admitted to being OK with “character crafting”—even if I’m personally likely to make some impromptu die rolls to help me decide things when doing it myself.

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  66. I think it depends greatly on how one uses the terms "old" and "modern." I don't think it's impossible to create a new old school game. "Old school" is, for me anyway, a description of an approach to game design and game play that has its roots in the past -- hence the "old" part -- but isn't limited to that past. There are plenty of "modern old school" games out there; they're just not the norm.

    See, and I think ascribing random char gen as an indicative of being 'old school' not only glosses over the early point-buy and choice based systems of the past but it also ignores the fact that random char gen has been a common design choice throughout the history of RPGS.

    For me, and I suspect many others, Random Character Generation isn't 'old school,' it's just 'school.'

    I fear that there is a tendency for people to label everything they like about role-playing games as 'old school' and everything they dislike as a modern deviation from their ideal, regardless of accuracy.

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  67. Random is just that, 'school'. Nothing more.

    I do prefer it, though. But, for me it's because I suck at 'designing' characters. I always takes what the dice give me and try to see how I can portray that character, funny voices and all. The times when I try to design a character with point buy system I usually find that I don't know what to do with it after a few sessions. That just my style.

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