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Hot Button: Random Characters

When I was tapped to write for Dragon Age last year, one of the first things that struck me was the fact that character ability scores were randomly generated in order (with the caveats that the results were weighted to give more bonuses than penalties, the players could switch any two scores, and there are opportunities later to increase the bonuses).

This struck me at first as rather quaint and old-school, but when we generated characters for a playtest I was also reminded at how much fun random generation can be. In a way, it’s reflective of real life. You are born with certain traits and you make career choices based on your interests and what you were born with. I remember playing “iron man” (A)D&D (3d6 or 4d6-1 die in order) where I was thrilled that I could finally play a paladin as well as being disappointed by generating numerous “red shirt” characters that were only qualified to be poorly-skilled fighters.

Random generation also sparks players to create concepts that they’d never think of on their own. Depending on the RPG system, a PC could have an intensely rich background and career by the time the player is done rolling on a few charts.

Another benefit to random generation is that it’s easy to draw in new players. Essentially, six rolls in (A)D&D and its derivatives pretty much determine a character’s class and race as well as give the player an idea of her character’s physical, mental, and social traits. Other games go a step further and use random rolls to determine class/careers (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay), physical appearance and personality (the pot-bellied lone wolves of various Palladium games) and even the size of your private parts (F.A.T.A.L.).

However, I also remember all of the arguments against character generation: it makes an unbalanced PC party, it encourages cheating, you may not get to play the concept that you want, and that the randomness of real life shouldn’t be imposed upon you when playing make-believe.

I’ve also seen many attempts at a middle ground, such as arranging scores as you see fit, rolling an extra die and dropping the lowest, automatically granting high scores in ability scores essential to your class (Rolemaster), making more rolls than necessary but keeping the best, or granting players that rolled less than the best-rolling players extra points to make up the difference (ironically often making the poorest-rolling player get a better character than the best-rolling player).

In one extreme example, I know of one D&D group that had each player roll 4d6 nine times. She’d keep the best six and drop the lowest die from each. Needless to say, most characters in that group had very high scores.

What this all boils down to is that I’ve seen players and GMs that embrace random generation as well as players and GMs that absolutely loathe it. I’ve even known some gamers to refuse to play in or run games that included it.

How about you? Do you embrace random generation in your games or do you tend to take steps to mitigate it? Have you ever added randomness to a point-buy system? How did it work out?

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Hot Button: Random Characters"

#1 Comment By lebkin On November 24, 2010 @ 9:46 am

My experience with random stat building is simple: players want to rebuild their characters until they get good stats. They do not want those fatally flawed characters imposed upon them. Nor do they want to be the weak link in a party. Anytime a weak character is created, he or she is extremely prone to “accidents.” Or the character instantly because the “antihero” that the party leaves to die because he is a jerk. Anything to get a better character.

As such, we do a completely non-random point-buy. Lets my players make their desired character right off the bat, no shenanigans required. As a group that runs long-term campaigns, this is critical to getting party buy-in for the experience.

#2 Comment By pak21 On November 24, 2010 @ 10:22 am

Generally, I’ve done random stats in the past, with DM fiat being allowed to let any player reroll if their character is particularly bad. Never gone particularly badly wrong, but the groups have tended to be more roleplay than rollplay; I’ve never done it with a real powergamer.

#3 Comment By Padre On November 24, 2010 @ 10:57 am

Dragonquest allows you to generate a pool of points for designation of stats. The biggest random factor is race. Some races are awesome and others just average, but I try to balance out the average races by the insertion of a random bogie chart that can further enhance a character. I chuckled at the red shirt comment, there are often too many of them. The lesson learned from random generation is how fun it can be to play an average Joe that becomes a hero instead of some tricked out uber-character.

#4 Comment By DMN On November 24, 2010 @ 11:04 am

My players love randomly rolling characters, probably because they want total control of their characters. I understand this, but it does make it harder to GM with a high attribute spread. For my up coming Pathfinder game, we even voted on the method of character creation, and to a man, they wanted to roll randomly, even though I was (softly) pushing a point-buy method.

Fortunately, none of them are power-gamers/rules-lawyers (that’s me), so they are happy with any imbalance that invariably occur. They’ve also never pulled a stunt like trying to get their character killed just to reroll a new character. They do spend some time on creation of their characters and feel invested in them. As a GM, I try to reward them by not killing the character, or at least giving them an opportunity to avoid death.

#5 Comment By BishopOfBattle On November 24, 2010 @ 11:13 am

I’ve found it hard enough creating a balanced party where everyone gets a fair shot at the limelight even with Point Buy type creation, I can’t imagine how difficult it might get when one or two members of the party could end up with a “red shirt”. 🙂

I could see using random character generation for a one shot or for a campaign with a high rate of PC turnover. In fact, the latter might be kind of fun with a setup like an Army sending in squads of soldiers into a “meat grinder” like the Tomb of Horrors. Those that survive begin to become the “Veterens” and may survive longer due to their stats while the rest of the “regulars” or “red shirts” tend to get chewed through very quickly.

#6 Comment By hattymchappy On November 24, 2010 @ 11:28 am

I’ve always liked the idea of completely random stats, although I’ve never played with others who want to give it a shot. I’m pretty much the only non-power gamer in the group that I play with. I really like the idea of being “born with certain traits.” I think it would make for much more interesting character development and, in turn, better roleplay. But then again, I find myself being the only one who really wants to get into his role anyway, so I guess that explains that. 😀

#7 Comment By Clawfoot On November 24, 2010 @ 11:37 am

I leave the stats up to the players — I’ll even let one player roll for them and another player build using points, if everyone agrees to it.

What I like to use random rolls for is in the old ElfQuest RPG, there’s a random personality trait table, and I find myself going back to that often for NPC traits. Sometimes the combination of random traits comes up with some extremely interesting and challenging characters. You roll a d6 for the number of traits you get, and then a d100 for each trait. I’ll roll it up right now and see if we get anything fun:

# of traits: 4
1: Lucky
2: Generous/helpful
3: Lazy
4: Naggy

Slap that on an NPC and away you go. Sometimes you get some at-first-glance contradictory traits, but if you think about it, they can really work out well and make a really interesting character.

#8 Comment By Harald On November 24, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

For my part, I have two concerns when a new party/character is created. 1) The player needs to be satisfied with the PC, and 2) the PC needs to be able to do the job.

Most games I run these days are heroic scenarios, hence I want characters who are a bit tougher than Pete the Peasant. Players also seem to get bored if their characters suck.

The two systems I use currently are Pathfinder and nWoD. For the first I’ll use (4d6x6)x2, drop lowest die and lowest set, for the second I’ll start the characters with extra XP.

I’ve run so many neonate-games in my time that I feel like I’m done with that. If I now start the party young, it’s only to give them a prelude before moving up to a level where the action can begin.

#9 Comment By Orikes On November 24, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

I have mixed feelings about the random generation style characters.

Back in the day, I was delighted to finally find a points based system (Champions) so I could get past the whole “aw, sorry, you don’t have the stats to play the character you wanted” issues of D&D. I never thought I’d want to go back.

At the same time, sometimes it’s nice to have that creative kick in the rear to HAVE to come up with something that’ll make the random character work.

I find that nowadays, I enjoy a random character generation if it’s for a rules-light system. This way, it’s not as crushing if you get bad numbers and someone else is lucky that night and gets good ones. Rules-light lets the GM give everyone a moment to shine and you’re not as tied to the chaotic randomness of the die roll (or card draw or… whatever).

#10 Comment By Razjah On November 24, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

I tend to not prefer the random generation. I think that the chance of getting screwed far outweighs the fun flawed character you can run. Also my girlfriedn plays with my group and she always manages to roll at least 2 killer stats. She roles up Superman and the rest of the table goes from Spiderman to Well Trained Cop Man. Not exactly fun for Cop Man.

I have run a Pathfidner game with one role assigned, the rest are in order, and you get one swap. It would have been a lot better without the group rolling crazy well. The “worst guy” had straight 16s and one 13. Rolling tends to re-set the “bottoms line” if everyone has at least a +1 stat then the +1 becomes bad instead of the best of good people.

#11 Comment By Roxysteve On November 24, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

It, of course, depends on the game being played, and the players’ buy-in to that game.

Old-school Call of Cthulhu often draws the kind of player who will handle a STR 3 character with aplomb, and be very creative with him or her.

D20, not so much, especially in the high fantasy and heroic fantasy games using it.

So as a GM I offer the players a choice at the outset with all my games: do they want the chance of a gimp stat, or are they only interested in heroic characters?

This has nothing to do with “party balance”, which I *never* consider and never force. The players build the party. If the balance isn’t there, it is their problem to deal with in-game by either compensating for missing roles as they progress through experience or by rebuilding the party around their own core concept of what ability mix is best with new characters.

It has everything to do with giving the player no real cause for complaint. Whining players are not why I’m there behind the screen (or not: I’m running a lot of Savage Worlds and Dresden RPG games of late and I like to sit out with the players “round table” style for them).

But I’m also not fond of overly complex “solutions” to the low score issue.

My method for D20 goes like this; A player can either use the canonical 4D6 and discard lowest method, or they can use 3D6 and reroll any ones, or they can use my own so-called “heroic” system: D6+d4+8. This guarantees no stat bonus less than 0, and averages out in the 13-15 range.

(For those that care there is a 1/24th chance of a 10 or an 18, 1/12th of 11 or 17, 1/8th of 12 or 16, and 1/6th for the sweet spot 13-15).

Players seem to go for this scheme a little more often than the old 4D6 system. From my side of the screen it equates to no losers, no demi-Gods.

#12 Comment By LordVreeg On November 24, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

Boy, do I have opposite experiences, or what? At last versus the majority.

We use a complete homebrew, but it includes rolling for attribs, race, social level, and background items/skills.

Then we get to use all these clues to create a cohesive background, And that is one of the most fun parts.

It’s funny, because a lot of people have mentioned that the players have problems with weaker characters, etc, but the most memorable PCs in my current campaigns 26 years were the ones that were the most mundane or the most broken.
But this is also based on a multidimensional RPG. The less varied the game (especially encounter-centric games), the harder it becomes for the more quirky characters to thrive.

I always have ascribed to the theory that the reward is commensurate with the risk and accomplishment. I know I’m very Old-School with this, but I’ll always look at point buys and such as losing part of the game.

#13 Comment By theEmrys On November 25, 2010 @ 8:04 am

We use the random gen and love it. We’re playing HackMaster Basic and that system really embraces random stats. Now I’ll also point out that the system works well with it, in that average stats really are average and there is not an expectation in game that you’ll be above average. In fact, my feeling is that the system itself it built to have “average” people earn their way to being heroes by their action, not their stats. For the 7 stats you roll 3d6. Now they did work in a nice feature where if you want to reorder, you get 50 Build Points for the rest of character creation… if you only swap 2, then you get 75, but if you leave them as they are, you get 100. This is a nice blend for us but I’ve yet to see anyone do other than the leave them as they are option.

What really appeals to us about this is that we’re all experienced roleplayers (everyone in the group has been playing over 20 years) and we’re finding we’re liking the challenge of playing the character you roll. Over the years we’ve gotten to play most of the types of characters we would choose… so now part of the fun is seeing the stats (and other randomness of character gen) and “making” an interesting character around it.

As another point, although I understand the point buys creating balance for everyone… I don’t really want that in my game. I like the idea that I can roll exceptional… or poorly. In the games we play though, your stats really don’t overshadow your actions at all and have less impact than in some other games, so having lower stats really isn’t crippling.

#14 Comment By E-l337 On November 25, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

One of the guys in my group loves point-buy, and I can see why. It eliminates the whole issue with ‘party balance’ because everybody is on the exact same page: all the PCs get the exact same stat array so that they are all granted with whatever strengths and weaknesses they want.

However, I personally have an issue with point-buy: Every time I (and several other players) make a character, they tend to be well-rounded characters. Point-buy only further encourages the munchkin-ing of character creation, or it makes everyone rather similar – all the PCs but the fighter/tank type have balanced, well-rounded stats, and are equally good/useless at whatever tasks are presented.

Now, that can be good for certain things. 4E is a pretty good system, and I can’t for the life of me imagine it without the point-buy system. That’s just how it works best. But part of me misses the old random generation. A lot of my best characters were rolled that way, and came about as a result of using what I was given – my Shifter Artificer in 3.5 Eberron, or my ‘useless’ ninja whose stats were best described as barely ‘mediocre’ (also in 3.5). Heck, even my AD&D Bard/Ranger was barely useful in fights until much later, when he started cross-classing in Ranger and taking revenge for his murdered wife.

There’s a place for all the different generation types out there, and I personally can’t say what’s best. But I love a little bit of randomness once in awhile – and, in fact, I rather prefer it over cookie-cutter point-buy builds. Because then I can feel proud of myself when I wind up with near-maxed stats, or pleased to have something interesting to work with when presented with what most would consider an unbuildable stat array – those to me are the most fun, not to mention the most challenging.

Of course, I’m also the same guy who made a first level sorcerer out-melee the party barbarian in the only game we played, but my point still stands I hope: that I love a challenge, and there is more challenge in not having a lot of control over your character’s starting characteristics.

I’ve recently started beta-testing a game a friend of mine helped co-develop on the internet based on a rather popular anime/manga series universe, and a good portion of that is random rolling everything. Without the random generation, I probably would have come up with a boring, cookie-cutter-type combat character. Instead, I have a lazy genius who is hopelessly addicted to karaoke. Which is probably a lot more fun than anything I would have come up with on my own.

#15 Comment By Knight of Roses On November 25, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

I am to the point where I want my players to be happy, so however they want to generate their character is cool with me when I GM Pathfinder.

Though in my L5R campaign, which is an entirely point based system, I have been sticking with that.

#16 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 26, 2010 @ 12:19 am

As a Savage, I pretty much embrace point buy.

But I do miss the “what the heck can I do with this?” aspect of random stats.

#17 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On November 27, 2010 @ 9:35 am

I use point buy systems almost exclusively. I say “almost” because there are some games where the random roll for stats is really the first part of the buy-in for playing the game (Warhammer FRPG and its 40K relatives, for one), and it sets the tone for the rest of the setting. For those games, it helps immerse the players and me into a world where fate is not kind, and the rules of fate (the system) reflect this with oddities of task resolution.

For the rest, the point buy ensures that everyone can play the concept they have in mind while simultaneously placing some sort of balance between the characters my players have created. Often it is not perfect balance, and it is up to the GM to make sure everyone has a moment to shine.

#18 Comment By BryanB On November 29, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

I appreciate point buy or choosing from arrays but I also miss a random method at times. Many of my favorite D&D characters had some pretty low stats in WIS, INT, or DEX. You don’t quite get the same patterns in point buy or arrays since the really strong or really weak scores are kept within a certain range.

One option, however, is a random roll with point buy modifications. One of the better systems I’ve read about was to roll 4d6 drop low for all abilities and then find what would have been the total point buy value for each PC. If a PC was below the group average due to poor rolls, they could then spend X number of points to bring them up to the party average. It rewarded those who rolled well, but also helped keep those who didn’t roll well from being too weak. And they could still leave a fairly weak stat where it was for purposes of character design.

#19 Comment By Rhamphoryncus On December 1, 2010 @ 10:58 am

Random stats in D&D/Pathfinder is more psychological than mechanical. It makes you think you’re getting an organic character, but you’re really building to a specific concept, and if you accepted those red shirt roles you’d fail to meet your concept (as well as having severe imbalance issues.) The correct mechanical approach is just to have around three different arrays to pick from (pointbuy is overcomplicated and prone to abuse.)

If you really want to be organic then you need to be deliberately vague in your concept. Start with arcane, divine/healer, or martial. Maybe pick a race. Then roll. Then figure out if they’re smart, charismatic, nimble, tough, etc. Do they do ranged or melee? Hybrid (paladin/ranger/druid/bard) or specialist (fighter/rogue/wizard/sorcerer/cleric)?

Once you give up the predetermined concept and stop worrying about MAD then all you really need is a single good stat; you might as well start with a 16 and roll 5×3d6 for the rest. You could have a special rolling method for that 16 as well, but that’s psychological again: mechanically, you need it to be in a certain range, so you might as well set it there and move on.

Test-rolling a slight variant I came up with these stats: 17/12/9/8/4/3. So many awesome characters you could build with that.

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#21 Comment By Squeejee On December 12, 2010 @ 4:32 am

[1] – This. I also find that any kind of “different” stat generation is immediately blamed for misfortune in a campaign – example, I ran one very memorable campaign where every PC was a kobold with the elite array. However, using the EA in another campaign was immediately blamed for a PC death in the first session, despite the fact that they had proven that a high stat of 15 (and a -4 strength… seriously, wth?) wasn’t a crutch at all when you played smart. Since then I’ve stuck with 4d6 drop the lowest – if they need to lie on their character sheet to make something they like, then they will probably not last long in my very RP-heavy group anyway.

#22 Comment By Kitchen Wolf On April 26, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

The main problem with the Gygaxian random characters is that the randomness is so very fickle. You get to be awful, or you get to be awesome, or more likely than not are dead average with no control or mitigation on your part. Sounds like high school all over again, and that just didn’t go well for most of us geeky types. What would be more interesting is if the random numbers generated choices from equally balanced options (class, race, random superpowers, etc.), or otherwise balanced out (like the racial stat modifiers for 3e D&D).