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Stat generation

Posted By Scott Martin On August 4, 2008 @ 3:42 am In GMing Advice | 29 Comments

How do you and your group generate stats? A lot of games answer this question for you; Hero System and World of Darkness are two popular games that lack random stat generation. For the last twenty years most newly designed systems have lacked random stat generation, though the exceptions have been the biggest players in the field. D&D in all of its prior incarnations and the Palladium system have long relied on random rolls.

In Dungeons and Dragons 3e (and all earlier variants), rolling for character stats was the primary method, though RPGA play in 3e required point buy. In 4e the tables are turned- point buy is the standard, while rolling up characters is only an optional rule.

I stumbled across the topic a couple of times recently; good stats rock! and bad stats rock! are two recent articles that caught my eye. So did Stupid Ranger’s post where Dante relates that people want to roll the dice!.

As Tom points out, random stats can be a real boon to creativity and roleplay. A low stat can push you to portray an interesting limitation or quirk, such as a bumbling wizard whose nose is always in a book not paying attention to the ground. (Elric’s famously weak constitution is a good literary example.) Similarly, unexpected high stats, like a wizard with a high strength [in my case, the result of stats rolled with 3d6 and placed in order for a campaign at the local game store] can make a character memorable. These advantages are diluted somewhat with freely allocated stats- how many people have played in a party with every character having charisma as their dump stat?

Variation within the group is important too. If the lowest score anyone rolls (or allocates) is a 10, then 10 becomes the baseline for “weak stat” roleplaying. If someone rolls only a 6 that becomes the standard for a weak stat and 10 looks pretty good in comparison. If someone has a 6 Wisdom and plays themselves as straightforward and trusting, that’s perfect. When 10 is the lowest stat in the group, someone looking to hang a roleplaying hook on their bad stat will play their character the same way… which can make you start to wonder about the 12s and 14s. It’s good to have variation among the group’s stats when you’re looking for dramatic inspiration.

Rolling up stats has a quirky history in many groups. I’ve known players who “luckily rolled five 18s”, and I suspect we all know someone who can’t beat the average to save their poor character’s life. I’ve frequently experienced the frustration of low rolls- at every level, for the length of the game, someone else’s character is better than yours because they rolled high a couple of times before the game ever began. While I’m not competing with my fellow players (usually), I do get frustrated when the wizard’s dump stat (strength) exceeds my fighter’s greatest asset.

In my current 3.5e campaign, I cobbled together an interesting compromise that I call stat smoothing. It is a bit inflationary… but to the average not the peak. Here’s how it works.

  • Every player rolls their character’s stats as normal.
  • Add up the rolled stats for each character. Suzie might roll 76 stat points total, Fred 82, George 68, and so on.
  • Pick the highest rolled total. (In the example above, Fred’s total is highest at 82.)
  • Each player calculates how many points as they would need to reach the leader’s total. They record half of that number. This is their stat smoothing total. (In the example above, Fred gets 0, Suzie gets [(82-76)/2 =] 3, and George gets 7.)
  • Players distribute the number calculated above (the smoothing total) between their stats. So Suzie might increase a 15 to an 18, while George increases his character’s strength by 2 and every other stat by 1.)

That’s the whole system. Everyone is still happier rolling good stats, but players who roll less well are rewarded with a little more control and a little less low stat sting. So far everyone has been happy with the result; it was later borrowed for an Aces and Eights game.

Do you still have your players roll stats in order? Are your characters three levels less competent because the dice gods hate them? Have you sworn off random stat generation altogether? Tell us your tales of stat rolling.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "Stat generation"

#1 Comment By Rob Lang On August 4, 2008 @ 4:27 am

In Icar ( http://www.icar.co.uk ), I keep randomness in the character generation because it removed powergaming (back in the days when that was a problem) and gave a more organic feel to the characters. I get asked now and again to make a tuned system but I think it would ruin the fun of trying to play a pilot without co-ordination or a mercenary coward.

#2 Comment By Rafe On August 4, 2008 @ 5:18 am

I like your system, Scott. The group in which I’m a player is using Sphyre’s system, modified. It’s complicated to explain, but for those interested: http://forums.gleemax.com/wotc_archive/index.php/t-782167

It’s kind of like the old Shadowrun priority system mixed with rolling. We’ve adapted it, and it works alright. That said, in the group I DM, we had huge rolling discrepancies. One character had as the highest roll a 14 (with the lowest a 6). I allowed three tries, using any method: Sphyre’s, 4d6 drop lowest… nothing seemed to work. Ultimately, I went with a 35-point point buy because I’d had attribute underpowered characters and they stink when everyone else’s lowest score is your highest. I like an element of fairness, and usually Sphyre’s system allows players to allocate where they want a high statistical probability of a high stat and assign less costly or zero cost dump stats.

Wish this article had come out 6 weeks ago before I dropped rolling altogether. I like the attribute smoothing idea. :)

#3 Comment By Target On August 4, 2008 @ 7:02 am

I’ve always gone with 4d6, drop the lowest die assign in any order you like. This largely prevents truly bad stats, allows the player to be decent at the class they want and still keeps some variation.

#4 Comment By Micah On August 4, 2008 @ 7:59 am

I have to say, I’m not a big fan of the stat smoothing. It seems to penalize the leader a fair bit as far as customization goes.

In fact, I might even prefer to roll the lowest. If I can get 1/2 of the difference between mine and the highest and apply that as desired, it allows for major tweaking. In the case of the classic powergamer, I could make a fighter and just drop every single smoothing point in strength. Or, max out intelligence for a wizard. Assuming I rolled at least one decent score (like a 15) and a bunch of crappy ones (a few 6s and 7s), and came out with a smoothing score of 10, I could end up with a 25 stat. At that point, we’re in mega-munchkinland.

Still, if you put a cap on how high you could boost a stat, I think that would fix things. Plus, it may be that the point deltas are not usually very high, making it infeasible to manipulate things like I’m suggesting.

#5 Comment By GeeksDreamGirl On August 4, 2008 @ 9:28 am

I like this system a lot! I don’t think it penalizes the leader, because they’re still going to be the leader. They just won’t be the leader by a long shot.

It just sucks when someone in your group rolls two 18s and you’ve rolled three 10s or something like that.

#6 Comment By Luke On August 4, 2008 @ 9:51 am

The thing about rolling for stats is that you are letting the dice decide what your character is going to be. Some people come to the table with a specific type of character in mind. For example, I played a ICE Space Master (using GURPS rules) campaign and one of the PC’s was an skinny, sickly stuttering doctor, prone to have panic attacks during combat situations. The guy who played it simply bought bunch of GURPS flaws for his characters, used the extra points to add couple of intellectual skills to show his characters high education which was totally in character. The other characters in the company were a generic and obligatory beefed up ex-mercenary and my psyker specializing in telekinesis and levitation (who used a telepathically controlled thrown blade as his primary weapon) and next to this guy we both looked bland and gimmicky. Yes, the quirky doctor was more memorable character than my flying dude with a blade fetish (and yeah, it was a silly character to begin with).

If we rolled for stats, creating the interesting, flawed but original doctor would be impossible.

#7 Comment By MadBrewLabs On August 4, 2008 @ 9:52 am

I think the stat smoothing system is a great improvement over pure randomness, but still retains that element. I am a self confessed min/max player, so I am not a big fan of point buy, because it always seems I am left with one point to spend and nowhere to spend it.

As a DM I think I prefer a flat distribution, much like the example given in the new PHB. Everyone has the same numbers to work withm but can customize their character by placing the values where they want. Fair and flexible. In fact I think I’ll start giving a flat spread with two options: 8,10,12,14,16,18 or 10,10,12,14,16,16.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On August 4, 2008 @ 10:03 am

Rob: It looks like you have point and random generation options in ICAR, if I read stats generation right– you even gave an example of someone allocating 10/10/6/1/1. It sounds like you enjoy the randomness of rolling in order… which can be a great boon to inspiration for roleplaying.

Rafe: Thanks! I’ll look at Sphyre’s system when I get a chance. Have you backed it up somewhere for when Gleemax goes down?

Target: We’ve done 4d6 arrange as you like for a long time. It does prevent objectively low stats most of the time… but is vulnerable to large disparities within the party. Sometimes that’s OK, but sometimes I find it frustrating.

Micah: Yes, in the original that I linked, I mention that you can’t adjust a roll above an 18. Though I don’t know if I’d be that concerned with your specific example; however much you like a 25 strength, having a low con and dex is going to make your fighter pretty vulnerable anyway. While I limited it to 18 after adjustment, I am a little curious… do you think people would people tweak their characters as strongly as your example if they were allowed to do so?

GDG: Your last sentence is why I made it. I’ve been the low die roller… and I come from a family that curses our die rolls, so I was particularly sensitive to the pain. ;)

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On August 4, 2008 @ 10:18 am

Luke: While I wouldn’t go so far as to say “impossible”, a lot of the crunch would be lost. The stuttering and panic attacks would have to be quirks that the player wanted to play without offsetting compensations. I have played with a few people who’d handicap themselves for an interesting character… but not many.

Madbrewlabs: The flat distribution/elite array is a nice formalization of point buy– with less math for those averse to it. Glad you found a system that looks good to you. [So far, I tend to create 4e characters using the standard array.]

#10 Comment By Target On August 4, 2008 @ 10:29 am

@Scott:
That’s why I always allowed rerolls. If you rolled the 4d6 and didn’t like the 4,6,10, 14,14,12 you were free to try again. This obviously is less ideal if trying to quickly generate a character, but no system is perfect.

#11 Comment By GeeksDreamGirl On August 4, 2008 @ 11:06 am

@Scott: What’s even worse is when the GM lets you reroll or drop the lowest score and you STILL end up with three 10s. :-)

#12 Comment By tman On August 4, 2008 @ 11:17 am

Good timing! I’m working on the ‘pitch document’ for a new campaign at the moment and was thinking about just this topic. Mainly I was planning to let everyone roll and then if they got lower than a particular set of numbers (4th Ed. PHB, method #1), they just get a standard set of stats to arrange how they like.

While I agree with the thought that the lowest stat any PC has becomes the ‘standard’ for low stats, I have fun introducing NPCs to exemplify the truly wimpy from time to time. And PCs are supposed to stand out after all.

#13 Comment By Swordgleam On August 4, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

I like random stats for short games, and point-buy for long games. I’ll admit, though, that my bias springs from the fact that I am that person who allways rolls horrible stats. It’s doesn’t help that one of my close friends is the sort of person who could honestly roll 5 18s, or at least three and two more 16s. That big a disparity just gets silly.

Your system sounds interesting, but it doesn’t address some of my main problems with randomness. What if that person who rolled highest overall didn’t get any 18s? Anyone with any choice is probably going to have at least one 18, in their most important stat, so the person with the overall “best” stats is actually behind when it comes to being good at their specialty.

I really like the system someone suggested in the forum: have a certain number of points to distribute between any three stats of your choice, and roll 3d6 in order for the rest. If you’re a fighter, you get to ensure you have an 18 str with good dex and con, and your wis, int and cha are up to the dice gods. It won’t be a big deal if they all end up mediocre, since that would probably have happened with point buy, but if they end up great or awful, you get the RPing opportunities you would have missed otherwise.

Of course, point buy can also lead to good roleplay. My Iron Heroes Man-at-Arms has the highest charisma (tied with the Hunter) of the party, and that’s intentional. He’s resolved as many battles with Intimidate and Bluff as he has with his greataxe; he just has horrible dex for a fighter. Using wisdom as a dump stat has led to some interesting intra-party conflict. “We need to go back into the woods! The water elemental is my friend!” “She’s not you friend. She’s probably trying to kill us.” “But she was nice to me!”

#14 Comment By cooperflood On August 4, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

I have used a stat auction on occasion. Stats are bought using the point buy method, but before character creation I start an auction for 12 items, an 18 in each of attribute and an 8 in each attribute. The only way to get an 8 or 18 is through the auction. I require each player to buy one 18 and one 8. For example Bill wants to play a strong stupid fighter so he bid 20 points on STR, while was willing to pay 0 points for an 8 in INT. Jack on the other hand wants to break the mold and play a charismatic face so he bid 10 points on the CHA and -4 points on STR. The remainder of their points can be spent on their attributes like normal (just a max of 16 and a minim of 10).

This method causes each character to be distinct (no more everyone has an 8 in CHA) and each character has its own strength and weaknesses. This system works even better in a Gurps or Mutants and Masterminds type game where everything is bought through points, not just attributes.

#15 Comment By Tomcat1066 On August 4, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

Thanks for the shout-out Scott! I’m particularly proud of those two articles you linked to, partially because I think so few gamers really embrace quirks in their characters.

I’m not sure how I feel about stat smoothing though. Definitely something to think about.

#16 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 4, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

I can see both sides of the argument. One side allows for player control; the other sees Random as Fun. It really depends on the group, and the type of game you’re going for.

It’s even possible to allow something like “4d6 drop lowest, or 25 point buy; decide before rolling”. On average, the random side is slightly better.

Or roll 5d4. (Yes, it’s possible to get a 20, but the curve is very steep around 12-13.)

And I’ve always wanted to do 3d6, roll in order, AND add one point to a desired stat at every level (including first). Sure, you can min-max it, but it really encourages the whole “zero to hero” vibe.

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On August 4, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

There’s really no end to the number of ways you can generate stats; each has a slightly different feel and end result. Heck, I was even musing about rolling a d10 and picking the PHB method 2 scores sets off the list. You’d have some variation [I got and 18, but my average is low, you have a pair of 16s and generally higher stats... who was luckier?] and balance in the end.

Copperflood: I like auctions, ever since my Amber Diceless days. They do seem to encourage competition between players from the get-go– has that been your experience? Or is the competition put aside at the end of the auction and play in the campaign is the same as normal?

Tman: And PCs are supposed to stand out after all. I agree, but think, as Tomcat pointed out in his articles, that sometimes it’s also fun to stand out for a low stat.

#18 Comment By Tomcat1066 On August 4, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

True, I did. However, it’s important to have a couple of good stats in important places in order to make the character playable. However, the judicious use of low stats and oddball high stats make some interesting role play opportunities :)

#19 Comment By MadWilly On August 4, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

In my campaign, the players have 7 stats that they roll for, so I let them roll 8 sets of 3d6 and drop the lowest set, then assign them as they like. I also let them float 2 points around any way they like.

#20 Comment By SoftNum On August 4, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

I think the score smoothing would be better if they only got say.. 3/4th or 1/2 the distance in stats. Then they’re given a leg up, but you haven’t lost anything for going random. Because effectively what you have is a points buy system where one person’s stats are locked in.

I’m against random generation in general, because for every person that will embrace an character with low stats, you have at least one (and in my experience 2 or 3) who have expectations, and will vow before the campaign begins to not have fun if you don’t let them re-roll (I need at least 1 16+. If the stats don’t add to 80 it’s not worth it. Anything below 9 is horrible. etc. etc.) I find point buy neatly bypasses any of these issues.

Oh, and I have played a campaign where I was the character with decidedly average stats, where the others were ‘way’ up there, and it is quite a handicap.

#21 Comment By cooperflood On August 4, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

Auction can increase competition between players, which can be a problem for less mature groups. But for the most part I think it just encourages players to play more unique builds. Once it even encourage player cooperation. My players all got together before the game and decided who was going to get what stats and only bid on the stat they wanted, talk about collusion. But if competition is really a problem just do a silent auction where everyone has to submit a bid on every stat.

#22 Comment By Cole On August 5, 2008 @ 11:57 am

Random stat generation in great depending on what type of game and what what type of players you have at the table.

If you play in a campaign where character death is a constant, than random generation is great, otherwise it creates several problems for the party and for the GM.

The players also way heavy when choosing random generation. If you have even one cheater in the group, you would either end up with a seriously unbalanced character, or a large potential for a fight between everyone else and the cheater.

#23 Comment By Raindog On August 5, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

I really like this method. Recently, my group was rolling up characters. One member rolled well, the others rolled repeatedly low, if not terrible. Your method would have been an instant solution to bolster bad scores and, at the same time, allows characters to control their stats.

Cheers,
RD

#24 Comment By Scott Martin On August 5, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

Softnum: As written you only get 1/2 the difference for smoothing, much as you propose. I feel your pain about having an “all around average” character and questing with demigods.

Cole: I agree; I’m much happier with a weaker or less effective character for a one shot than week after week. And you’re right about groups resenting cheaters and suspected cheaters; it was an issue for a group of mine six or seven years ago.

#25 Comment By Cole On August 5, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

@Scott: Thank you for the reply. Maybe you can share sometime with us how you dealt with the cheater on your group.

#26 Comment By Scott Martin On August 5, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

Cole: Sometime I’ll tell the fully story, but in short: poorly. A lot of avoidance until someone blew.

#27 Comment By Joey On August 5, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

Hmm..Interesting I could have used that the last cmapign I ran where I had on player whou couldn’t get a get a total of 6 rolling 4 dice for all his stats and the one guy who rolled nothing lower then a 16. THe next adventure I run I amy try it out

#28 Pingback By Joey’s Musings » From Those Other Guys – 08/15/2008 On August 15, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

[...] Gnome Stew – Stat generation An article about a new system that will even out your player stat scores a little bit. I know I am going to try it out. [...]

#29 Pingback By House Rules, Part 1 « Defenders Of The Core On July 30, 2009 @ 5:31 am

[...] a little more heroic than usual, so I’ll probably let them use a system like that espoused by Scott Martin over at Gnome Stew. It’s really quite the interesting [...]


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