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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"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

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Rolling for attributes is exciting for the five minutes you spend hoping to beat the odds. After that, you'll spend the rest of the campaign with the outcome, good or bad, and eyeing everyone else's sheet to compare their results. Nobody ever really goes into this method hoping for less than or average numbers, and many will come up with numerous ways to circumvent the odds to ensure better results anyway, like more dice, discard low numbers, arrange the order, etc.

Point buy makes more sense to me. Everyone is given the same pool of resources and freedom to make decisions for themselves. If players want to play with low scores, it's determined by their choices, not chances.

I guess I could have just hit "Like" on this one. To add to it, I will say I played a lot of GURPS, and that swung me over to the points buy method. I could also see a points buy method being applied to the skills and attacks.
 

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Ulfgeir

Hero
Prefer pointbuy, If you have enough points. Though random can be interesting some times.

My old group used to do this: for each stat, roll 3d6. Keep at least 1. If you kept 1, reroll, the other two dice, keep at least 1, then reroll the last die. If you kept 2 dice in the first step, you had 2 reroll on the last die.

We also had roll two sets of stats, take the set you liked best (The whole set, no mixing between them). If you were still not happy, roll a 3rd set (or more), but you had to lower the total value of your stats by a cumulative -2 per extra set beyond the first 2 free ones. We had one guy ending up with a 4 in strength (on a 3-18 scale).
 

Envisioner

Explorer
In my campaign world, it's an important plot point that every being in the universe has the same point-buy total. The gods themselves wanted life to be fair, or at least as fair as was possible, so they didn't permit any individual to be born with suboptimal characteristics. (There are a few builds which sabotage slightly, but this is generally the equivalent of having made poor life choices at a formative age, rather than being actually born with less of a chance, although this does vary a bit by species.)
 

Worrgrendel

Explorer
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.

There is an easy way to prevent cheating and still allow everyone to roll their stats. At session 0, everyone rolls their stats out in the open in front of everyone else. Then you could take if further and if someone rolls atrociously bad, then the group could decide on a reroll perhaps. That's the way we used to do it. Now I'm pretty much a point buy guy these days.

Incindentally, I used to have a player in my old group that still tried to circumvent this and during the campaign. We busted him using a set of dice that had all the "1's" on the die replaced with the highest number for that die. He tried to claim it was an "accident" and those dice were just for fun and got mixed in with his "regular" dice. Needless to say we put an end to that and he eventually was kicked out of the group for other issues as well.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
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. . .

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?

How is rolling dice unfair? Each PC has the same odds of getting the same scores. That's like saying the guy who won the lottery had an unfair advantage because he picked all the right numbers.

Another Method:
All scores are predetermined by the GM. The players pick their classes (if you're into that sort of thing), and then the players must negotiate which character gets which of the scores. Interestingly, the list of scores is not evenly distributed for the number of players (e.g. there is not one 10 score for each PC).

My PCs roll 3d4+3 for their scores. If they don't like their results, they can take a set that's just a hair worse than completely average rolls (which is probably still an improvement if they didn't like the first set). The dice-gods will not be ignored.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
How is rolling dice unfair? Each PC has the same odds of getting the same scores. That's like saying the guy who won the lottery had an unfair advantage because he picked all the right numbers.

It's one of those things where "fairness" is being used as shorthand for different terms by different people, in this case equal outcome (i.e. you end up with the same point-value of ability scores), as opposed to having equal opportunity at something (i.e. everyone rolls the same number of dice the same number of times). Sort of like how people can use "realism" to mean either "functions according to real-world physics" or "follows internal logic and self-consistency."
 

atanakar

Hero
Equal chances of being unequal when rolling. Characters at both ends for the curve should be rejected when using random rolls. Not just the weak ones. Uber ones should also be discarded. If you are going to use all kinds of dice shenanigans to average the randomness of results towards the middle of the curve, just use Point Buy.

I didn't get to choose my stats when I was born. I'm sure as hell not going to impose random rolls on my fantasy characters or those of my players.
 
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Li Shenron

Legend
I like rolling stats only for my own PCs. I can take bad rolls. It depends on the edition, but in 5e I've even played spellcasters with a negative modifier on their spellcasting stat, and it's doable. I don't care if it's more difficult, it only makes me more proud when I succeed and less guilty when I fail. I also don't care if I roll so badly that I die in a few sessions, there's always another character concept I want to try out anyway. It helps that usually I do not like planning my character's 20-levels career in advance.

As a DM it's a whole other story. I don't want to hear players whine each session that they can't play like they want because they were unlucky at character creation. Luckily I always have newcomers so that I have a reason to provide pregenerated PCs, and those are a great excuse to use standard arrays ("otherwise I would have to recalculate everything") which are even better because they are the fastest and hardest to cheat with. If a player really wants to roll, I allow it but I give no second chance, they are warned.
 


billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
I still make my players roll in the D&D games I run. I like it as a player because I like to discover my character rather than always fall into the same patterns with point buy - so I make my players discover their characters as well. And if that means they have to reconsider something - so be it.

With the latest PF campaign I'm running, I did have the players all roll and then we recorded everyone's results and gave everyone the choice of picking which rolled array to take. It has been an interesting experiment and I'll probably try it again. You don't have to deal with players whining about one being luckier than another because they all could have chosen the array they personally thought was best. And the array generated isn't bought by trading points back and forth between stats so nothing has been dumped to boost something higher and the familiar patterns of point buy may not appear.
 

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