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D&D General Character Generation, Advancement, and Tasha's

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is an edited repost- I am testing a theory.

Two different, yet independent, thoughts have been swirling in the tiny penne pasta that I call my brain. The first was prompted by a post by @Maxperson and @Umbran in the Cheesecake factory thread- where is the fat & butter post about D&D?

An idea I've been noodling around with for a few weeks is trying to understand not just "Why 5e," but .... "Why 5e?" To put it more bluntly; it would seem obvious (to me, at least) that D&D has been having a cultural moment, and capturing the zeitgeist, in a way that hasn't been seen since the prior so-called golden age of the late 70s and early 80s. Maybe moreseo; I mean, it's like a full division at Hasbro now.

But why? What are the special ingredients that make D&D so ... tasty? What is the fat and butter for D&D?

The second thought came in an exchange when discussing a particular "rules-lite" system, when I noticed that the rules-lite system didn't have any rules whatsoever for the character. It was basically ... whatever, man. Play what you want, describe what you want. To me, that didn't allow for meaningful differentiation in the characters, while for another person, it did - because they could just play whatever they wanted.

There are a lot of different elements that make D&D fun, and a lot that is fundamental to D&D. Whether it's lore, or classes, or fireballs, or tentacle-y mind flayers sucking out your brains, D&D has very specific tropes that tend to be easily identifiable; these tropes don't exist in all D&D games, yet they are intertwined in what is D&D. But then, because I apparently have nothing better to do, I kept thinking about restaurants. How they taste so good. If you've worked in the kitchen of a restaurant before, you know that the secret of many restaurants is simple- butter, and fat (or just butter, because, um, it is fat ... by the way, I am trying to make a general analogy here, if you need to chime in about vegan restaurants ... well, of course you're going to). Those tastes just go to the lizard part of our brain. What is it about D&D that goes to the lizard part of our brain? Is there some "essential" part of D&D that we often take for granted? What is the fat and butter of D&D that keeps so many people coming back for more?

Thesis: Character Generation, and Leveling/Advancement, are the Heart of the D&D Experience.

Let me first address a few necessary caveats- I am not discussing TTRPGs in general. There are many great TTRPGs that do not have an emphasis on either character generation or advancement. I am not making any normative claims about whether this is "good" or "bad" in terms of TTRPGs in general, or D&D specifically. I am not saying that anyone who plays D&D that has modified the rules to remove one or both of these experiences is playing it wrong, or not playing D&D.

What do I mean by this thesis? There are a number of different, great TTRPGs out there, and have been since the beginning. But two fundamental aspects of the "D&D" experience have always been the creation of a playable alter ego (the character) through a set of rules that involve some level of choice, including tradeoffs and/or restrictions, and the ability to advance the character you create through play via leveling and the acquisition of in-game "stuff" (gold, items, power, social clout, etc.) - the "zero-to-hero" phenomenon. Both "chargen" and "advancement" have been an inextricable part of D&D since the beginning, and the influence of these D&D-isms quickly expanded to the burgeoning world of videogames (from Wizardry to Bard's Tale to Ultima on through Diablo and innumerable CRPGs) to the extent that we often don't notice it at all except in its absence. Examining the two in turn:

A. I wish the first word I ever said was the word "quote," so right before I die I could say "unquote."
Some editions of D&D have required more work to create a character, some have required less. But all editions of D&D have had rules for the creation of your character. Importantly, these rules involve meaningful choices and tradeoffs. The simplest example is the first one most people think of- every edition of D&D has used the "class" system. Your choice of class, in every edition of D&D, is meaningful, in that it both provides your character a great deal of their initial state (from abilities to money, for example), as well as providing your character their future path for advancement. But the choice of class also comes with a tradeoff/restriction,- by choosing that class, you cannot be any of the other classes, and you have foreclosed other options.

There is, traditionally, one other large component of chargen- the choice of race. In addition, there are other components that matter more or less, depending on edition; backgrounds, skills, money, equipment, and so on. The pleasure many people get doing chargen is that various meaningful choices can lock out other choices depending on edition; if you want to be a dwarf, you can't be a magic user (1e); if you want to be a druid, you can't wear metal armor (5e); if you want to be a bard, you can't be a good person (all editions).

While chargen is often described as a hurdle to getting involved in TTRPGs in general, and D&D specifically given that you have to know the rules in order to create a character, I would say that the rules and minigame of chargen is a central component of D&D that is absolutely required for the core game; yes, you can have pre-gens for one-shots and there is no requirement to go through the process, but it is a fundamental part of the overall D&D experience; it is impossible to imagine an edition of D&D shipping that did not provide that experience.

B. I started as an assistant pig farmer.
Advancement is addictive; this is a lesson learned (too well?) by any number of phone game makers. D&D has the idea of advancement, and the reward loop inherent in that, baked into the rules. You play the game, and your character (the "PC") advances. The PC gets more stuff. The PC advances in level. And then you get to make meaningful choices for the PC. Do you spend the stuff on better armor? Do you use magic sword A or magic sword B? Do you take an ASI (and if so, what abilities?) or do you take a feat (and if so, what feat?)? What new spells or invocations do you want? What subclass do you want your PC to become?

Of course, this doesn't end. There is always the next level, the next choice, the next magic item to find. It's remarkably ... fun! It's the same cycle that is stripped down in a videogame like Diablo, but still exists. Go out. Get stuff. Level up. Make choices. Rinse, repeat. Eventually, it ends, but then you start the process with a new character. And you enjoy the experience of building up the new PC as well.

C. It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man.
So why bother making what seems to be fairly obvious and banal points about D&D? "Yes, Snarf, D&D has chargen and leveling; what next, a 300,000 word essay on why water is wet?" There are two primary reasons; the second of which I will go into as the secondary thesis, below. The first, however, is that because this is so obvious and banal, it is often overlooked as a differentiating factor as to why so many people enjoy D&D. D&D has always been the proverbial 800lb gorilla in the TTRPG market; even now, we get headlines like the recent one posted by Morrus acknowledging that 5e has increased its percentage of Fantasy Grounds to 71% (yes, I know you can use the Roll20 figures, or other figures, or whatever ... go with the flow, the exact numbers don't matter so much as the difference between D&D and the other TTRPGs). But what's impressive is not just 5e's absolute dominance of the market; it's that "D&D games" completely dominate the market. Using the FG stats, the top three games are "D&D" - 5e, PF, PF2 (combined 83%). But when you look at the other games, you see that 3.5e, 2e, and 4e each have enough games going on their own to dominate most TTRPGs. And while those numbers might be a little different depending on the source, the gist will remain the same; D&D and D&D variants (like PF) are absolutely dominant. I would say that part of this revealed consumer preference occurs for a simple reason; while the act of playing (the RP) is often discussed, we tend to overlook how much enjoyment players get from the chargen and advancement that is inherent in D&D. Or, to put in back in terms of the title, we all sort of know that the restaurants are cooking with the butter and the fat, but we don't seem to understand why people enjoy the food at the restaurants so much. But on to the other issue ....

Secondary Thesis: Many D&D Debates are Mostly, or Partly, about Chargen or Advancement.
This is going to be a little more interesting, as I'm going to start with an obvious point and then move to the more provocative point. Because chargen and advancement are so integral to the experience of D&D, most of debates that we have about D&D are really about chargen or advancement. The core of this issue goes to the idea of meaningful choices and tradeoffs/restrictions. If we assume that this is correct, then every debate about classes (or abilities) being "overpowered" or "underpowered" or attunement or weapon damage or background or spells is really about whether or not players are being provided with meaningful choices. Even when the conversations are cloaked in other language (such as "fluff" v. "lore"), the conversations, at the highest level of abstraction, are about these meaningful choices and tradeoffs/restrictions. For example:
Is the monk a viable class? Is the monk a meaningful choice at chargen?
Is the warlock just pew pew pew? Is there a meaninful choice for Warlock other than the EB spam route?
Do we need to expand attunement and/or create magic item shoppes? Can we make magic item acquisition a more meaningful choice for the player during advancement?
Are feats underpowered compared to ASIs? Are feats a meaningful choice instead of ASIs during advancement?
Why bards? Why? Does the existence of bards prove that the universe is fundamentally devoid of meaning?

The Tasha's Chargen Issue

But I would go further and say that these conversations are often within other, separate conversations. One example I am thinking of is the recent Tasha's Lineage conversation. I would start by saying that, for many people, this is a conversation that is not so much about game mechanics, but is really about fundamental issues of fairness and appropriate presentation for an inclusive gaming environment. However, the inclusion of Tasha's lineage is, in a certain way, somewhat similar to the decoupling of alignment. A quick explanation:

Alignment used to have profound mechanical aspects in D&D; everything from spells (Detect Evil, et al) to languages (Alignment Languages) to magic items (which would work or not work depending on alignment) to ... class. As such, alignment was a core component of the chargen and advancement process; not the most important, but a big part. It was one of those variables (like race) that provided meaningful choices and tradeoffs/restrictions; if you wanted to play an evil character, then you could play an assassin but not a druid (for example), you would be restricted with certain items in the future, you would be "detectable" as evil, and you would not be in a party with a Paladin. 5e's decoupling of alignment with mechanics means that the choice of alignment is no longer a meaningful choice; there are no major tradeoffs, there are no major restrictions with the rules.

Applying this to the issue of race (I will use "race" as the term give its historical antecedents with prior editions; by this, I mean race, lineage, culture, or ancestry, depending on the preferred term that you have, and I am only referring to "race" as the D&D construct), we see that it has traditionally been the second-most important "choice-point" when it comes to chargen in D&D. Other than class, the selection of race provided the most meaningful choices and tradeoffs/restrictions when you are creating your character. Putting aside the "race as class" versions of D&D, early versions of D&D could often make these tradeoffs in a very harsh manner; races were often granted extraordinary abilities (additions to their ability scores, infravision, languages, bonuses with weapons, ability to multi-class, immunities, and so on) in exchange for drastic limitations (they could not be certain classes, were limited in their advancement, had "max" ability scores, and so on). Over time, the advantages and tradeoffs have been lessened, especially when it came to the drastic limitations ... which, admittedly, many tables did not want to enforce. By the time of 5e, race remained the second-most important choice-point in char-gen, but it became a question of what advantages you wanted for your character; it was still a meaningful choice, but there was less of a tradeoff; it was more "your ability score bonuses will be less useful if you choose a class that doesn't take advantage of X."

When it comes to the changes in Tasha's, then, the mechanical issue is that it decouples race (as alignment has been decoupled) from the chargen rules, in that it no longer involves meaningful choices and tradeoffs/restrictions. In full, by allowing you to switch, mix, and match your ASIs, languages, and proficiencies, it allows the choice of race to no longer have the same meaning within the rules. This isn't meant to be a negative remark about the choice people make; for example, if you've been waiting for these variant rules to play your Gnome Berserker, that is wonderful! But this optional decoupling, like alignment before, means that this is no longer a meaningful choice point. To use an analogy- if D&D published a ruleset that allowed players to just choose from any class ability, at each level (for example, when you reach level 2, you can select any second-level class ability), that would be wonderful for people that have wanted to "mix and match" gestalt characters; but by removing the class system, you no longer have that meaningful choice because there are no restrictions or tradeoffs.

The reason I put this as a secondary thesis, and use the Tasha's example, is because I think that it could be a move in the right direction to decouple race from the chargen process (and, for that matter, to move away from the term "race" in D&D). But because chargen is so fundamental to the game (IMO), I also think it might be wise to replace those meaningful choices and restrictions with some other set of meaningful choices and restrictions. Looping this back to the beginning, there might be very good reasons to decouple race from the chargen process and just let people declare their PC's race, like they do the name. But then it would make sense for it to be replaced with a new method to inject meaningful choices into the chargen process.

Anyway, that's long enough. I'm sure that there is something in this you will be able to disagree with, so I am going to end it here. :)
 

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" but by removing the class system, you no longer have that meaningful choice because there are no restrictions or tradeoffs."

I'm not sure that's strictly true. You ALWAYS have an opportunity cost. "You can choose A or you can choose B, but you can never choose both" still provides a meaningful choice in the moment.

What it DOESN'T do is dictate any future choices. Which is something that 5e deliberately tried to get away from when they almost entirely eliminated the concept of feat chains and prestige class prerequisites.
 






Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
" but by removing the class system, you no longer have that meaningful choice because there are no restrictions or tradeoffs."

I'm not sure that's strictly true. You ALWAYS have an opportunity cost. "You can choose A or you can choose B, but you can never choose both" still provides a meaningful choice in the moment.

What it DOESN'T do is dictate any future choices. Which is something that 5e deliberately tried to get away from when they almost entirely eliminated the concept of feat chains and prestige class prerequisites.

To be more clear, there is a distinction (IMO) between the following two things-

1. Choosing a name. Once you choose a name (Really, Derek, you're calling your character Heywood Jablowmi again?), you are foreclosed from choosing any other name.

2. Choosing a class. Yes, once you choose a class, you are foreclosed from choosing other classes. But that is a meaningful choice because it involves tradeoffs and restrictions.

If you had a class-less, pick an ability system, I think you remove a lot of the restrictions and tradeoffs that make it interesting for many players.
 

But I will add this: I think they're in a bit of a bind in terms of loosening up race rules, since most races really don't have major features to distinguish them. Take away culture and ability mods and dwarves are left with poison resistance, at most. Elves don't sleep, but that's a ribbon. And orcs just have better eyes.
 



Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
But I will add this: I think they're in a bit of a bind in terms of loosening up race rules, since most races really don't have major features to distinguish them. Take away culture and ability mods and dwarves are left with poison resistance, at most. Elves don't sleep, but that's a ribbon. And orcs just have better eyes.

I do sympathize, which is why I wrote, at the end, that they should come up with some other, secondary, system. Maybe even just seriously beefing up "background", but something.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
To be more clear, there is a distinction (IMO) between the following two things-

1. Choosing a name. Once you choose a name (Really, Derek, you're calling your character Heywood Jablowmi again?), you are foreclosed from choosing any other name.

2. Choosing a class. Yes, once you choose a class, you are foreclosed from choosing other classes. But that is a meaningful choice because it involves tradeoffs and restrictions.

If you had a class-less, pick an ability system, I think you remove a lot of the restrictions and tradeoffs that make it interesting for many players.
I've played games that were entirely point-buy, and there are different trade-offs there, and advancement is ... not really congruent with level-based advancement, most of the time.

I don't entirely agree with the idea that removing ability modifiers removes race as a decision. It just turns it into a decision of less mechanical import. The folks who are heavily into optimization will probably hate it; the people who are more interested in "what kind of story would emerge around, e.g., a Forest Gnome Berserker?" will probably not hate it.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I've played games that were entirely point-buy, and there are different trade-offs there, and advancement is ... not really congruent with level-based advancement, most of the time.
There are definitely trade-offs in point-based systems, but I think Snarf’s thesis is basically that having a few big choices that narrow your advancement path is D&D’s secret sauce. There’s something about your character advancing in ways other characters just can’t that is... if not necessarily more appealing than a more a-la-carte system, at least more “D&D”.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A side factor to all this is game-mechanical enforcement - or lack thereof - of choices made.

Time was, you chose your alignment and then if you didn't play to it there'd be penalties to follow; and changing alignment also carried costs and penalties. Alignment now has been reduced to little more than fluff with few if any consequences for deviation or even outright change.

Similar arguments can be made around choice of class (much more overlap between classes, less niche protection, started with 3e) and race/species (fewer mechanical differentiators, starting quite recently).

Net result: a lot of the once-significant choice-making during char-gen has been either a) been made less important or b) delayed until later advancement. Whether this is good, bad, or neither is open for debate, of course, but it's worth noting regardless.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
There are definitely trade-offs in point-based systems, but I think Snarf’s thesis is basically that having a few big choices that narrow your advancement path is D&D’s secret sauce. There’s something about your character advancing in ways other characters just can’t that is... if not necessarily more appealing than a more a-la-carte system, at least more “D&D”.
Yeah. I was really thinking that in a total point-buy system, advancement is an entirely different thing from in D&D, and hard to get right (some over-reward tight focus, others under-reward it, IMO). Of course, getting level-based advancement isn't bone-simple, either.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
A side factor to all this is game-mechanical enforcement - or lack thereof - of choices made.

Time was, you chose your alignment and then if you didn't play to it there'd be penalties to follow; and changing alignment also carried costs and penalties. Alignment now has been reduced to little more than fluff with few if any consequences for deviation or even outright change.

Similar arguments can be made around choice of class (much more overlap between classes, less niche protection, started with 3e) and race/species (fewer mechanical differentiators, starting quite recently).

Net result: a lot of the once-significant choice-making during char-gen has been either a) been made less important or b) delayed until later advancement. Whether this is good, bad, or neither is open for debate, of course, but it's worth noting regardless.
I don't disagree, but the people I played 1E with treated alignment as descriptive, not prescriptive, and rarely if ever enforced it.

I think the changes are (and have been) more in a direction of allowing the player/s to define the character/s as they see fit. I think choices still matter, but I think they matter differently than they once did.
 

Mort

Legend
I've played games that were entirely point-buy, and there are different trade-offs there, and advancement is ... not really congruent with level-based advancement, most of the time.

I don't entirely agree with the idea that removing ability modifiers removes race as a decision. It just turns it into a decision of less mechanical import. The folks who are heavily into optimization will probably hate it; the people who are more interested in "what kind of story would emerge around, e.g., a Forest Gnome Berserker?" will probably not hate it.
Thing is, Tasha's didn't "remove" ability modifiers it just made them entirely floating. So actually, some races (mountain dwarf and Half elf in particular) become even more attractive to optimizers not less. Tasha's changes the decision math it does not remove it.

Non optimizers will be happy because they can pick a race and not be subject to strict ability guidelines. Optimizers will be happy because they can optimize even further. People who don't care just take the default. In theory everybody wins. Also in theory the secondary characteristics of the races become that much more important in the decision process.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
I think the changes are (and have been) more in a direction of allowing the player/s to define the character/s as they see fit. I think choices still matter, but I think they matter differently than they once did.
There's definitely been a move towards making chargen rules more flexible so that people have an easier time realizing their vision, but not a similar move towards making the game point-buy instead of using classes. Classes definitely provide some utility, but I think a complete theory of why they're popular is difficult. I think it's because starting with a blank slate for a character is harder than riffing from a known concept.
 

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