Friday, February 12, 2010

Risky Character Generation

The other day I discovered a simple little computer program that lets you generate Traveller characters. It's become my new time waster, much in the way that many people play Solitaire or Minesweeper or those little Facebook apps. I actually find it extraordinarily diverting to roll up a random set of characteristics for a character and then see if I can press my luck by getting him into the service I want, with the skills, rank, and mustering out benefits that I'd like as well.

If one is using a computer program, which cannot fudge its results, this process is a lot harder than one might think. There's always a chance that the random rolls will turn against you and your "perfect" character will be killed in action, requiring you to start over. There's also the chance that you won't wind up with the character you intended to create but with someone just as, if not more, interesting. Like a lot of gamers I have certain "types" of characters that, if given the chance, I like to play. In Traveller, I've long aimed to create Naval/Marine doctors -- no idea why -- but often the character generation rules have other ideas. More than a few truly memorable characters were created because of the way Traveller generates PCs. It's why I continue to believe it's probably the best character generation system ever created for a tabletop RPG.

As I think more on it, I realize that I like the "gambling" aspect of character generation a great deal. The kind of risk assessment that comes with creating a Traveller character is something I enjoy and I find myself wishing that more games included character generation as "risky" as Traveller's. Gamma World certainly qualifies as risky, as do Empire of the Petal Throne, early RuneQuest, Stormbringer, and perhaps a few others, but, by and large, RPGs seem to have minimized or move away from such things entirely. That's neither good nor bad in any absolute sense, of course. However, I find my interest in games that lack at least some degree of "gambling" in character creation to be less interesting than those that do -- which probably explains why so few modern games hold my attention for very long.

22 comments:

  1. You'll be delighted to know that the brand new edition of Runequest makes character generation far more risky - 3d6 rolls or a measly 80 point buy. No more superheroes out of the box. See my review here.

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  2. How about a link to that program?

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  3. You'll be delighted to know that the brand new edition of Runequest makes character generation far more risky - 3d6 rolls or a measly 80 point buy.

    That sounds intriguing. If were actually going to play RQ anytime soon, I might even buy it. Maybe Mongoose will send me a review copy (ha!) ...

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  4. Here's a link: http://download.cnet.com/Traveller-Character-Generator/3000-7539_4-204368.html

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  5. I always enjoyed the "gambling" aspect of creating characters for Basic D&D, where you roll stats in order and then see what class best fits them, rather than picking a class and arranging stats to suit. I don't think I ever would have played clerics or magic users otherwise!

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  6. "You'll be delighted to know that the brand new edition of Runequest makes character generation far more risky - 3d6 rolls or a measly 80 point buy."

    But none of that's "gambling" in the sense that James seemed to be writing about. It's not simply synonymous with "weaker".

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  7. Huh? As I read it, the Rientsian definition of gambling that James uses refers to "playing poker" with the hand you're dealt. So your character may be weaker, but may not be. It's up to you to make the best of it. A straight 3d6 generation system will produce a wider spread than "4d6, drop lowest, arrange as you'd like and then lower and raise characteristics as necessary," so enabling more interesting character generation.

    I've already done it myself with the very first character I rolled up under the new system. It was a sub-Xylarthen suck monkey. But in the end he turned out to be a half-decent Lhankor Mhy astronomer who would be useful to a party or a clan alike. That was much more fun than designing someone half way to Runelord already. So on that particular piece of gambling, I think I won.

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  8. This appears to be a newer version of a program I played with some time back. The one I used did not have a multiple NPC option, IIRC.

    And yes, the computer doesn't let you fudge. Not that we ever did, mind you. Just speaking hypothetically;)

    Very cool.

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  9. The first two editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay featured delightfully random character generation, though it wasn't "risky" on its own - you couldn't die before you started playing. Combat's risky enough in WFRP.

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  10. When I ran a Gamma World homebrew campaign years ago, I used to give players multiple passes on the mutation tables (10 and pick the best)before they even rolled up the rest of their characters. Some combos of defects were just too heinous (like the poor bastard who rolled up skin that was both flammable AND water soluble) or the mutant chicken with giant seven foot long drumsticks that smelled naturally delicious to every predator within' ten miles...

    Eventually, as I became less of a soft touch, I decided this would form more of a "Dark Sun" style character tree, with your second best character taking the place of your first choice if and when they got et by a landshark.

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  11. it's probably the best character generation system ever created for a tabletop RPG

    The first two editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay featured delightfully random character generation

    These are my two favourite character generation systems, and some mutant combination of them would be my holy grail.

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  12. I haven't had the chance to ever play the game but rolling up characters using Mongoose's Travellers system is pretty entertaining by itself. I think the major difference is that you can have more than one career path.

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  13. The more char-gen is like playing craps, the more I like it.

    The more char-gen is like doing my taxes, the less I like it.

    These two qualities are not necessarily exclusive nor are they always present in every rpg.

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  14. Swordsman: The post speaks of partly generating a character and then making some decisions about tables to roll on later.

    As an aside, the "spread" of 3d6 and 4d6-drop-lowest are practically the same. (Standard deviation 2.96 versus 2.85.) The main difference is that the latter is simply higher on average (mean 10.5 versus 12.24).

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  15. Villains and Vigilantes was always our favorite superhero game BITD because the powers you rolled up were random. Think about it, did Peter Parker choose whether to be bitten by a radioactive spider? Did the Fantastic Four really think those cosmic rays were going to mess them up so bad (and lead to one of the genre's all time tragic heros, The Thing?)Much more fun to figure out how bonus STR, extra limbs, and the power to make things catch on fire with your eyes was going to make sense!

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  16. I used to have the "MegaTraveller 2 - Quest for the Ancients" game for my computer. It had a random character generator that was just like that. No fudging results and what had looked like a GREAT character that you decide to take one more term with... dies. Or gets a crummy assignment. Or otherwise ends up not half as great as you'd hoped, but probably a bit more interesting.

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  17. @Stuart: I had that game, too. As I recall, the only thing it was good for was the chargen.

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  18. Great, now we only need a Star Trek character generation.

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  19. This will date me, but once upon a time I had written a program in BASIC to do AD&D character generation. No not visual Basic...BASIC. Of course, It has been 10 or more years since anything would run it....

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  20. When we played traveller back in the day we aways used the houserule that when your died that was the dice telling you that it was time to quit rolling up the character and play it. Of course I do not remember traveller charater generation foundly, since time I rolled up some swab jockey with a little mechanics and the snot nosed 12 year old I was playing with rolled up a rear admiral with his own space ship (Of course we needed that spaceship to avoid even more swab jockeying on Planet Boring trying to raise the cash to buy one).

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  21. "The more char-gen is like doing my taxes, the less I like it."

    I agree, whole-heartedly. That's why I really don't play d20 anymore. 400 numbers and 500 pluses on a charactersheet don't make a character -- they make a mess.

    Traveller back in the day was awesome. I had a Dreadstar-type game going with it (the Epic Comics run, not the First comics bastardization that came along later).

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