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.