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.

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?

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Darth Solo

Explorer
The world isn't fair. Random rolls fit any game a group chooses.

On point-buy, it isn't fair either: there's a level of system mastery that goes into making competent PB PCs. Players more knowledgeable about GURPS or Shadowrun or HERO or Savage Worlds or Mutants & Masterminds will build BETTER characters than a player with limited knowledge of the system .

So sometimes the dice are kinder than not knowing which level of ability, skill and power you need to make a capable character.

Plus, everyone knows you use 2d6+6 Ability rolls for D&D-esque games. Give the PCs some teeth.

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pemerton

Legend
The world isn't fair. Random rolls fit any game a group chooses.
I don't follow,

(1) Why roll for stats but not race or class?

(2) How would random rolling work in (say) Burning Wheel? Apocalpyse World? 4e D&D?

Darth Solo

Explorer
I don't follow,

(1) Why roll for stats but not race or class?

(2) How would random rolling work in (say) Burning Wheel? Apocalpyse World? 4e D&D?
Again, random rolls work for a given group that are fine with them. Never played BW or AW or 4e. Do they allow random ability rolls? If so, the group would decide if they wanted to use them.

Benjamin Olson

Hero
I've never not rolled for D&D. Someone can roll crap stats or someone can roll amazing stats, it's not really that important. Some people also seem to get consistently lucky or unlucky on rolls in general. Perhaps some people would prefer a game where your character just get a "standard array" of rolls to apply to skill checks throughout each game session.

But more seriously, I totally understand why people would like point buying or standard arraying or whatever. If you are someone who likes theory-crafting (and I do) it works way better for that. Often closely related, if you are someone who shows up with their heart set on one and only one character concept to a group that would insist you play even with rolls where that character really wouldn't be viable then it may be a real bummer. In D&D 5e were you to not get a positive modifier for the spellcasting stat on a wizard, cleric, or druid then you would not only have less effective spells but you would barely be able to prepare any.

But most people I play with are either newbies whom the group would all agree to let reroll truly bad stats so that they have a good first experience or else long time players who are bristling with a half dozen or so different character ideas they want to try out so it has never been an issue.

I'm less sympathetic to the "everyone needs equal power levels" school of thought. That's the adolescent "Timmy got a cookie and I didn't. Where's my cookie!?" theory of fairness, and life is happier once you outgrow it.

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.

Or if the standard array were "fair" it should equal the average array of rolls for 4d6 drop the lowest. Or maybe straight 3d6 (with average roll of 10.5) is truly fair and standard array is for people who want overpowered characters. Fundamentally fair is whatever arbitrary values we set. But yes, someone much better then me at math determined the average rolled array would with 4d6 drop the lowest would be 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, which puts three stats one point above the 5e standard array, though the 9 and 11 are functionally the same as an 8 and 10 for most purposes, unless you are someone who invests in evening out your dump stats. In D&D 5e the main "unfair" advantage rolling gets you is the strong chance of starting with an 18 after racial bonus, and the low probability of a 20, both of which under the standard array are impossibly high to achieve, in a game where one or two stats tend to hold outsized importance for any given characters. But if starting with a +4 or +5 instead of a +3 to your main stat is unfair or gamebreaking then so is starting at any level after an ability score increase.

Darth Solo

Explorer
Preference is preference.

Can I as GM design tight NPCs that might overwhelm novice and even experienced Point-Buy players?

Yup. I know ALL the kinky munchkin twists. Is that fair? If the novice PB player designs a nice warrior who's outclassed by the warrior PC of a more experienced player, is that fair?

Where's the "unfair overlap" across the two build systems?

Tell me.

JiffyPopTart

Bree-Yark
I'm less sympathetic to the "everyone needs equal power levels" school of thought. That's the adolescent "Timmy got a cookie and I didn't. Where's my cookie!?" theory of fairness, and life is happier once you outgrow it.

Dr Evil: Riiiight

pemerton

Legend
Again, random rolls work for a given group that are fine with them. Never played BW or AW or 4e. Do they allow random ability rolls? If so, the group would decide if they wanted to use them.
Well, that's my point: if a game doesn't allow random ability rolls, or doesn't have ability scores at all (eg Cortex+ Heroic) or doesn't have any context in which random rolls make sense, then it's not true that random rolls fit any game a group chooses.

Take another example: Prince Valiant, There are two "abilities": Brawn and Presence. These are rated from 1 to 6. The rating tells you the number of coins (or dice) you add to your pool in action resolution (often combined with further dice from a relevant skill, gear, circumstances, etc): heads (or evens, or whatever) are successes. And successes are compared against either an opposed roll or a difficulty number.

At PC build, a player gets to allocate 7 "points" to Brawn and Presence. It would be ridiculous to use random generation. It would add nothing to the game, Whereas by choosing allocation a player is choosing to play a more physically- or socially-inclined character.

Similarly, very few D&D games start with rolling PC level on (say) a d6 or d10.

Darth Solo

Explorer
Well, that's my point: if a game doesn't allow random ability rolls, or doesn't have ability scores at all (eg Cortex+ Heroic) or doesn't have any context in which random rolls make sense, then it's not true that random rolls fit any game a group chooses.

Take another example: Prince Valiant, There are two "abilities": Brawn and Presence. These are rated from 1 to 6. The rating tells you the number of coins (or dice) you add to your pool in action resolution (often combined with further dice from a relevant skill, gear, circumstances, etc): heads (or evens, or whatever) are successes. And successes are compared against either an opposed roll or a difficulty number.

At PC build, a player gets to allocate 7 "points" to Brawn and Presence. It would be ridiculous to use random generation. It would add nothing to the game, Whereas by choosing allocation a player is choosing to play a more physically- or socially-inclined character.

Similarly, very few D&D games start with rolling PC level on (say) a d6 or d10.
Duh. If the game doesn't allow it, then YES, you can't exercise that option.

You seem to think "fair" is every RPG allowing you to do everything.

Please design & publish THAT game (lol).

JiffyPopTart

Bree-Yark
Duh. If the game doesn't allow it, then YES, you can't exercise that option.

You seem to think "fair" is every RPG allowing you to do everything.

Please design & publish THAT game (lol).
In case you weren't aware, it's free to treat people respectfully. Perhaps even welcomed.

Hussar

Legend
/snip

I'm less sympathetic to the "everyone needs equal power levels" school of thought. That's the adolescent "Timmy got a cookie and I didn't. Where's my cookie!?" theory of fairness, and life is happier once you outgrow it.

Ahh, ye olde ad hominem. How I missed thee. Particularly in view of this:

Or if the standard array were "fair" it should equal the average array of rolls for 4d6 drop the lowest. Or maybe straight 3d6 (with average roll of 10.5) is truly fair and standard array is for people who want overpowered characters. Fundamentally fair is whatever arbitrary values we set. But yes, someone much better then me at math determined the average rolled array would with 4d6 drop the lowest would be 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, which puts three stats one point above the 5e standard array, though the 9 and 11 are functionally the same as an 8 and 10 for most purposes, unless you are someone who invests in evening out your dump stats. In D&D 5e the main "unfair" advantage rolling gets you is the strong chance of starting with an 18 after racial bonus, and the low probability of a 20, both of which under the standard array are impossibly high to achieve, in a game where one or two stats tend to hold outsized importance for any given characters. But if starting with a +4 or +5 instead of a +3 to your main stat is unfair or gamebreaking then so is starting at any level after an ability score increase.

So, you agree with me that the only reason to die roll is to get higher stats than the baseline, but, apparently it's childish to simply use the baseline for chargen.

Additionally, no one said it was game breaking. Although, what generally happens, is that you have an entire group with higher than presumed stats, meaning that the entire group is punching above its weight class. Which does make more work for the DM. And, honestly all it does is raise the bar a bit on encounter prep, unnecessarily. So, no, it's not game breaking or unfair to die roll. It's pointless and typically a way for powergamers to powergame without raising any complaints of powergaming, but, no, it's not game breaking or unfair.

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