Worlds of Design: Rolls vs. Points in Character Building

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

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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One method I've used before is roll with boundaries. You roll 2d6+5 five times, and the 6th stat is 75 minus the sum of the other 5 stats. (You do some adjustments is the last stat is out of bounds for a viable stat.)

I like that! Nice idea.


Victoria Rules
I didn't get to choose my stats when I was born.
Exactly; and in the game-world your character didn't get to choose its stats when it was born either.

Some people are just plain overall better at everything. Fact of life.

And there also seems to be a (to me, new-school) assumption and expectation throughout this thread that the character you roll up at session 0 will be the character you play for the duration of the campaign.

How dull. :)


Exactly; and in the game-world your character didn't get to choose its stats when it was born either.

Some people are just plain overall better at everything. Fact of life.

And there also seems to be a (to me, new-school) assumption and expectation throughout this thread that the character you roll up at session 0 will be the character you play for the duration of the campaign.

How dull. :)

Please tell me how to cast spell, in real life !!! I really want to learn how to do it!:p


A lot of it is system dependent. To use D&D as an example, I usually offer point buy or rolled; after the roll you can choose to take the standard array. This prevents "useless" characters, since you can choose to take the array, or you can not take the risk of rolling, using point buy to make the exact character you want. Personally, I'd much rather offer several arrays, basically premade point buys that prevent mix/max nonsense, but my players much prefer rolling.

A good system that splits the difference was the original Deadlands. You randomly generated your ability scores by drawing cards, then you get a number of points to buy advantages, skills, or increase your ability scores. The lower the ability score, the cheaper it is to raise, so if you draw badly, you can forsake some of your skills to raise key abilities.

Another option involves having less of a range on the ability scores. For example, in the AEG version of Legend of the Five Rings, everyone started with a 2 in each ability, and normally gained +1 in two different ones. You could spend points to raise them, but the cost was exponentially expensive. Thus some characters might get a single ability to 4, but most would rather have more 3s, since the 1 extra die rolled and kept was better over multiple abilities, and a single one.


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.
In the case of a lottery, you test your number against the system ONE TIME and no set of number is "better" than any other set of numbers.

In the case of rolling stats, you test your numbers against the system potentially tens of thousands of times and some numbers are better than other numbers.

If you wanted to make these cases closer to equal, it would be like saying everyone born is given a lottery ticket for life. Each day a lottery result is generated. In the hopper are balls marked 1-100, and the number on the ball is the number of balls of that number placed in the hopper. So there is 1 #1 ball, 2 #2 balls....and 100 #100 balls.

Would you rather have ticket 1-2-2-3-3-3 or 100-100-100-100-100-100?


Seeing a lot of folks saying "unfair" when they mean "unequal" in the thread. Rolling is just as fair as point buy is, assuming that every player is given the same particulars and no one is using loaded dice - but rolling produces unequal results.

That aside, I find my own preference sways one way or the other based on other details within the system. For example, I will happily roll scores if the ability modifier range mirrors TSR-era D&D (so the most likely to occur scores don't have much impact on game-play) or if there are ways to mitigate the impact of not rolling well like in the Hackmaster RPG (where there is both a floor for acceptable scores, and scores can be improved via build points and rolls over time).

But if a system gives out easier access to ability modifiers and the game math figures you have a particular non-zero modifier, I heavily prefer non-random score generation. The PF2 system being my current favorite since it has elements of point buy, elements of story-driven determination, and doesn't actually involve doing math for how many points you've spent where.

Ian Danton

Am I alone in remembering the release of the original Unearthed Arcana? (Page 74 if anyone has it). Getting excited at the table of contents and seeing that the dice methods for character creation had been expanded. Finally, my method of cheating was official! Want a Paladin? Just roll 9d6 for Wisdom, and 8d6 for Charisma. Brilliant!

Guess what, even then I did not always get the required 17 to become a Paladin.

Hmmm, maybe if I rolled 17d6..........

Great article Lewis. Nothing beats rolling for excitement. Nothing destroys fun faster than being the one who plays the Fighter because the best you rolled was a 9. At least you died young..... (or learnt to run...).


Both methods work fine though my personal preference is to use point buy which is fair for everyone.

Of course there is a 3rd way, at least if you trust your players. Let them decide what states they want for the character and what is appropriate. This doesn't work if you as a DM aren't experienced enough to adjust challenges (toss an extra goblin or two against the high stat guy) or if you player's aren't decent.

And note it does work with an entire group (including DM here) of power gamers. As the saying goes if everybody is incredible nobody is incredible.

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