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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


The other way I've seen is to bid for attributes, which is a modification of the point-buy system, making it competetive. This is what's used in Amber.

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Under point buy, players who prefer randomness could always use a random system to generate their choices. I've never seen anyone do that tho.
A player in miy group did something like this when we played an AD&D one-shot: I had an option to choose rolling or points, and he chose rolling for stats, and then rolled race, class and alignment randomly. From memory he ended up a half-orc cleric.


My group has a number of active campaigns.

For our Classic Traveller campaign, in the first session the players rolled their PCs - stats, then the dice-driven lifepath system that is one of the centrepieces of that RPG. Each player started with two PCs. After they'd rolled their PCs I rolled the starting world.

In our Prince Valiant game each PC choose starting Brawn and Presence (the rule is that each can be between 1 and 6 and the two must sum to 7). They also chose their starting skills. Random generation would be pretty silly in this system.

In our Cortex+ Heroic games I built the PCs as pre-gens: character generation in Cortex+/MHRP is neither random, nor points-buy, but rather about using the system resources to model the character envisioned. So in our current LotR games it's probably fair to say that Gandalf is mechanically more powerful than Dwalin.


Gary always dug the dice and said choosing a characters abilities was silly. I like that when playing "old school", but I'm also a fan of a player having as much control as possible in the creation of their character. Some campaigns, I literally have them choose ability scores based on character concept! But all in all, I think it doesn't really matter and one campaign can be different from another without too much fuss.

I'm in favour of point-buy or array choices. Random rolling can lead to players feeling left behind and generally dissatisfied with their options.

I remember joining a Pathfinder 1e game with a randomly-rolled half-orc druid, Beastwizzard (spelling intentional) Brak, who had some ridiculous scores like 20 Strength, 17 Wisdom, and very good Constitution, Dexterity and Intelligence. Not only did he do plenty of problem-solving with his spells and wild shape (like turning into a dugong and swimming under a pirate fleet to cast Warp Wood on critical planks in the hulls), he was also pretty formidable in melee. My friend Doug, who is known as a very characterful roleplayer who always puts stats and optimization second, got very mediocre stats for his human Cavalier by comparison, and often failed to make any contribution in combat while I was clearing up the field with the help of summoned bears.

Our GM finally took a look at our respective stats and calculated there was a nearly 40-point difference between the two of us, if you used point-buy. After that, he swore off random stat generation for his campaigns!

I should also note my displeasure at Call of Cthulhu for remaining behind the times with its random stats. Plenty of other horror games have point-buy presented as the first option. A pity, I liked CoC back in the day.

The other way I've seen is to bid for attributes, which is a modification of the point-buy system, making it competetive. This is what's used in Amber.
Bidding can be hilariously fun when done right.


I have two slightly different ways to roll for stats while still getting the same total number. My players in the past were very satisfied with the results. You start with 6 in each attribute, roll 6 dice and put them into your attributes in order, then flip the dice over to the opposite side and choose where they go for the last part. The two methods are slightly different in how much choice you have over where the dice go.

BARFLIP (some choice in die placement)
GRIDFLIP (no choice in die placement)

You can download sample versions for free using the full-size preview last I checked.

There's also a web version of GRIDFLIP that does it with a press of the button on Itch
GRIDFLIP Attribute Generator


Another method I saw for OSR was background dice.

You started with 3d6 and rolled the events in your background.They gave you d6 for certain stats. Survived a deadly injury? Get an extra d6 for Con.

This could result with characters with 5d6 Con and 3d6 Wisdom or whatever but it worked OK. I added a few "free dice" two or three depending on power level which I though worked OK.


See, honestly, the problem I have with die rolled characters is that it's simply a way to beat the average. If the average array is 27 points, for example, dollars to donuts, if you have 10 die rolled characters in front of you, 8 of them will be better than 27 points.

You can often spot the inveterate die rollers because they turn up their nose at standard array as being a "weak" character.

If you're going to die roll, you might as well just set a 32 point buy and you'll get virtually the same results most of the time.

I do find the "variety" argument tends to fall apart on examination because, again, with exceptions, no one plays a die rolled character that came up with lower than standard point buy. Even equal is a rarity.

I mean, heck, poll your current group if you die roll. Add up the stat values of the characters and, I'll bet dollars to donuts, the majority of the characters will be above the standard array. If die rolling was truly "fair" then there should be significant numbers of PC's under the standard array value.


On the argument that in real life you don't choose so why should you in the game?

In real life you don't choose the circumstances of your birth, and depending what those are you may have only modest or perhaps no choice over the context and content of your socialisation, education and training.

Converesely, you probably do have some choice over how much effort you put into your fitiness, your reflexes, your pratice at rhetoric and singing, etc.

So I don't see any strong contrast between "ability scores", "race" and "class" (the three classic components of PC building) in this context.

Of cousre once we move into more "modern" RPGs that don't draw those distinctions that particuarl argment becoms even weaker.

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