Worlds of Design: Rolls vs. Points in Character Building

Let’s talk about methods of generating RPG characters, both stochastic and deterministic.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
"Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will." Jawaharlal Nehru

When creating character attributes, there are two broad approaches to generating them: stochastic and deterministic. The stochastic method involves chance, while the deterministic method does not. Most any other method is going to be one of the other, whatever the details. The pros of one method tend to be the cons of the other.

The classic method is rolling dice, usually D6, sometimes an alternative like percentage dice. There are various ways do this. For example, some of the old methods were to sum the roll of 3d6 six times in a specific order of six character abilities. A variation was 3d6 and change the order as desired, another was roll 4d6, don’t count the lowest die, and then you might be able to change order or not; and so forth.

What are the pros of rolling the dice? First of all and primarily, variety (barring cheating). You get a big range of dice rolls. Dice rolling promotes realism, you get a big variation in numbers so you get some 3s, in fact you get as many 3s as 18s, and with some methods you have the opportunity to play characters with “cripplingly bad" ability numbers. Further, it's always exciting to roll dice, whether you like it or not. (Keep in mind, when I first saw D&D I said “I hate dice games.”)

One of the cons of rolling dice is that it's unfair in the long run, a player can get big advantages lasting for years of real-time throughout the campaign just by getting lucky in the first dice rolls. This can be frustrating to those who didn't get lucky. Perhaps even more, rolling dice encourages cheating. I've seen people roll one character after another until they get one they like - meaning lots of high numbers - and then they take that to a game to use. That’s not possible with point buy. Another con is that you may want to play a particular character class yet the dice just won’t cooperate (when you’re rolling in specific order).

The other method which I believe has been devised independently by several people including myself (I had an article for my system published a long time ago) is the one used in fifth edition D&D. A player is given a number of generic points to buy ability numbers. The lowest numbers can be very cheap, for example, if you are using a 3 to 18 scale, when you buy a 3 it may cost you one point, while an 18 may cost 20-some points. You decide what you want, for which ability, and allocate until you run out of points.

Point buy is very fair (FRP is a game, for some people). No one need be envious of someone who either 1) rolled high or 2) rolled many characters and picked the best one. It prevents the typical new character with sky-high abilities, it prevents cheating, so the player has to supply the skill, not rely on bonuses from big ability numbers. Of course, the GM can choose the number of points available to the players so he/she can give generally higher or lower numbers on average as they choose.

But point buy lacks variety for a particular class. The numbers tend to be the same. It's not exciting, it’s cerebral, and as such it takes a little longer than rolling dice. That's all the cons I can think of. Keep in mind I'm biased in favor of point buy. It's clean, fair and simple.

I haven’t spent much time trying to figure out yet another method of generating a character. The only other method I can think of that isn’t one or the other is to have some kind of skilled contest determine the numbers, such as pitching pennies or bowling. Then the question becomes why use one kind of skill over another?

Do you favor one method over the other? And has anyone devised a method that is not stochastic or deterministic?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

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Elder Thing
I absolutely adore rollong dice. It's exciting, it's tactile, and the sound itself is addictive.

It's also cripplingly unfair as an ability generation method. But I also dislike point buy, because it is, be definition, min-maxing. It also relies on luck to make a successful character: a person lucky enough to have game experience or the assistance of someone with game experience will make a very different character than a total newbie.

What I find best mitigates the situation is what I call Standard Array +2. Everyone uses the standard array and has two additional points to allocate as they see fit. This method allows some flexibility and eliminates "useless" characters, but maximizes fairness by presenting everyone with almost the same numbers and options.

I've had some mild grumbling through the years, but generally my players seem to like it too. Fewer choices makes character creation faster, easier, and less stressful for everyone.

There can be a balance between the two.

For example, instead of rolling up each Ability or Characteristic (or whatever) separately, you could roll all the dice at once and then pick and choose how they are ‘spent’ to build up seperate scores.


I knew rolling would produce problems from the start. So I tried to come up with a whole system of them rolling a pool of numbers from which they all then draft. It was too complicated, not thrilling, and not well received. I abandoned it and let them go with 4d6h3 * 7, dropping lowest one.

What's resulted is an OP party. They punch above their CR consistently. It's my problem to deal with, which I am happy to do as their DM, but it's still an ongoing challenge for me. I've since gone back and averaged the point buy cost of their stats, which was 37. Any characters entering the game now use point buy with that 37 points.

But you can bet that when I started my other campaign, this time BGDIA, I allowed them to pick standard point buy or the standard array. And sure enough, balancing is much easier.

I would allow rolling for one-shot characters in the future. But for any long-term game where consistent balance is important, I will probably never have them roll again.

One of my favorite characters used the roll method, and was terribly below average. The dwarf next to me seemed like a minor deity. ;) We all had a blast.

That said, there are many game groups I've played with where that would not be the case. People would constantly be in a state of envy or questioning how the player was able to have +10 in their acrobatics roll or whatever. That is never a good state for a table that's supposed to be storytelling to be in.

So why risk it?

Maybe, just maybe, you want your characters to represent the gritty reality of life. (a la, I will never be near the level of any Olympic track athlete no matter how hard I train.) If that's your table's objective - go for it. But, unless everyone agrees to that specific objective, it should be flat out no.


Even during the Basic and AD&D 1e era my players wanted to shoe horn their stats in the best positions. This is not a modern thing.

We quickly abandoned the official method. Players chose class first, then rolled. Considering we were going for the long haul and the number of XPs was gargantuan, I don't blame them. I believe we used roll 5d6 keep best three to avoid having «useless characters» from the get go. Attributes didn't raise with levelling in those days. You had to find Magic Tomes or Stones to raise them.

I switched to point buy as soon as it became available. The problem starts if one player insists on rolling the dice but whines because his score are less optimal than point buy. But doesn't whine if he gets high rolls. All players should use the same method.


Rolling is fine for one-shot games. For a campaign, my preference in point-buy, every time. In fact, I'd go further - in a campaign, dice have no place in character generation or advancement, period.

That said, I don't consider that an absolute deal-breaker, on either side of the table. For the right DM, I'd be willing to play even if they insisted on random rolled ability scores (much less so for hit points). Conversely, if a player really wants to roll, I'll allow it - but the condition is that they accept the rolls they get, and play the resulting character in good faith (that is, no suiciding the character so you can roll again).

(All IMO, of course!)


Conversely, if a player really wants to roll, I'll allow it - but the condition is that they accept the rolls they get, and play the resulting character in good faith (that is, no suiciding the character so you can roll again).

Yep! Character suicide was a thing with random attribute rolls. Charging mindlessly into combat to get killed on purpose.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I love organic characters such as D&D rolled in order - ones where you don't have the most efficient ordering.

However, in D&D 5e, I love the Faustian bargain of ASI vs. feat. Specifically where (a) it's a meaningful choice (not too low or two high of ability scores) and (b) everyone in the party has the same choice (not some with high ability scores and some with low). So I definitely like point buy for that.

Point buy also works better for the minigame of creating characters - something you can do even without an imminent need for a character. The number of Champions (excuse me, Hero System) characters I've made without a Champions game on the horizon could be shocking.

Which brings us to another category, similar to Deterministic but not based on the description given since it can vary between characters in the group. It's a point buy or similar, but coming from a pool where non ability scores are also impacted. This could be Hero System, where the same points are used for your characteristics, skill, and powers. It could be something like Shadowrun where you prioritize different character aspects so you get more or less points for a point buy scenario.


The problem in actual campaigns is that groups often have a person or two willing to cheat while the rest of the group rolls honestly, which rewards bad behavior for months or even years at the expense of group members who play by the rules. There are ways around that, like having each player roll for the person to their left or having the DM roll for everybody, but those methods defeat the purpose of having players "feel like" their die rolls are creating their characters.

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