Worlds of Design: Rolls vs. Points in Character Building

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

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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.

Stochastic
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).

Deterministic
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

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
I think the whole "they all have a maximum primary attribute" makes me question the point of having the attributes at all, skipping over that part would make for a cleaner rules set. Then again it could be set for PC's are max'ed out, and NPC's attributes are lower; depending on how "heroic" of tone of the game one wants to play.
 

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Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I have said this elsewhere, but I tend to prefer either fully deterministic ability scores (if character design is an important feature of play) or organic rolled in order ability scores. I think roll and assign gets you the worst of both worlds. I also believe games should be designed for one or the other.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
To me this is a reflection of how bland D&D 3.X and earlier were that you get such a limited number of character builds and that mechanical +1s are arguably the biggest point of difference between two characters of the same class.

If you look at two AD&D fighters they are almost mechanically the same other than their weapon proficiencies and possibly their weapon specialisation (and/or mastery). The only thing that's different about them is their equipment and their favourite weapons. Worse than that the weapons aren't equal and it's a deliberate design decision that swords are the best and also the most common sort of magic item, so any sensible fighter is going to be a sword wielder. About the only mechanical things they can be different in that's not pure equipment is where +1s go - their stat selection and (in 2e) their non-weapon proficiencies. Oh, and their alignment and race.
And none of this matters in the slightest provided players bother to give their Fighters enough character and personality to set them apart from the other Fighters. (one can replace "Fighter" both times here with any other class name, the point remains the same)

Ideally you could have two characters mechanically be exactly the same - same class, stats, race, proficiencies, everything - and yet be immediately able to tell in play which is which by their personalities, quirks, mannerisms, voice, speech patterns or catchphrases, etc. etc. to the point where the mechanical similarity would become invisible and the characters wouldn't look similar at all.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I have said this elsewhere, but I tend to prefer either fully deterministic ability scores (if character design is an important feature of play) or organic rolled in order ability scores. I think roll and assign gets you the worst of both worlds. I also believe games should be designed for one or the other.
To me roll-and-assign is the compromise that gives the best of both worlds - your numbers are random but you've some control over which goes where.

Roll in order can be OK too.
 

And none of this matters in the slightest provided players bother to give their Fighters enough character and personality to set them apart from the other Fighters. (one can replace "Fighter" both times here with any other class name, the point remains the same)

Ideally you could have two characters mechanically be exactly the same - same class, stats, race, proficiencies, everything - and yet be immediately able to tell in play which is which by their personalities, quirks, mannerisms, voice, speech patterns or catchphrases, etc. etc. to the point where the mechanical similarity would become invisible and the characters wouldn't look similar at all.

Indeed. You don't actually need rules for roleplaying. You can just go freeform.

That said if I'm going to pay for rules I expect them to do better than that and to actively enhance characters. When the biggest mechanical difference between fighters isn't how they move or how protective they are but what weapons they use then I find it fails the "improves on freeform" bar.
 

Hussar

Legend
At the end of the day though, roll and assign, or roll in order is no different from point buy. The class you play will have the highest score(s) in the ability that makes the most sense for that class. So, if you roll a 15 or 16 in Int, and all your other scores are lower (which, if you're rolling 4d6-1, they should be) you play a wizard. If your highest roll is Strength, then you play a fighter type. So on and so forth.

After the characters are created, it is virtually impossible to tell if that character was die rolled, placed in order or uses point buy. Well, except for those characters who are created using "creative" die rolling methods resulting in higher powered characters.
 

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