Thursday, June 10, 2010

Slaughtering Sacred Cows

There are three different things I wanted to write about today…I’ll see how many I get to. All pertain to my supers game (working title: B/X Supers), which is taking shape a lot faster than anything else (mainly due to the lack of IP infringement inherent in an original non-derivative work). They are:

- Random character generation
- Attack-less combat
- Minor heroic characters

This post will address the first item.

I almost started this as a poll: which do you prefer, random or non-random character generation? Or rather, “chargen” as we call it “in the biz.” But then I got to thinking : just how random IS random chargen anyway?

For the most part, early edition D&D…held up by many as the shining star example of random chargen…isn’t all that random. In B/X, OD&D, or AD&D “random-ness” consists of exactly 8 dice rolls, possibly 9 if you are a magic-user and your DM has you dice for the spell(s) in your spell book. The basic eight are:

That’s it for OD&D and B/X. AD&D has some other stuff if you’re using the Unearthed Arcana (Comeliness, Social Class, Birth Order, etc.) as well as the optional “Secondary Skill” roll in the DMG (which I don’t see used all that much).

Chargen itself consists of quite a bit more than those random rolls…and none of it is random.

  • Choice of class
  • Choice of race (some editions)
  • Choice of alignment
  • Choice of equipment
  • Choice of spells
  • Choice of proficiencies (some editions)
  • Choice of deity (some editions)
  • Naming the character
  • Crafting a character history/back-story (some groups)

Considering a 1st level character can get killed by misfortune at the drop of a hat, that’s quite a bit of non-random work (especially for an AD&D character). And these choices and options have just gotten MORE cumbersome over time for “the world’s most popular RPG.” Weapon mastery, non-weapon proficiencies, skills, feats, religious spheres, ranger specialties, future mapping (for prestige classes), etc. It raises the question “with all this CHOICE what’s the point of random rolls at all?”

I know that as a DM in my youth, I often did away with random rolls in chargen. Yeah, you heard me. As a DM I’d ask: “what do you want to play?” Player: a magic-user. Me: “okay, you have a Strength of 9, Intelligence 18, Wisdom 14, Dexterity 15, etc.”

Hit points? Same deal. “Let’s see you have a 5th level fighter. That’s a hit point range of 5-50…call it 32 hit points and add your Constitution bonus.”

As a DM, I wanted to GET GOING with the “actual play” stuff…other players already had characters (some of whom were also “non-random” creations), so all the random stuff would be assigned by Yours Truly and off we’d go on the adventure. The player would still be “buying” (selecting) equipment even as we were getting into the first monster encounter. What can I say? I prefer to move at a brisk pace.

[hmm…I could probably write a whole series of posts on playing “fast and loose;” maybe I’ll do that next week]

Here’s the thing (or one of the things): I liked to get to the action AND I liked the threat of imminent death. And the way you get that threat is by not being afraid to kill players…in traps, in combat, in random freak dungeoneering accidents. And the only way THAT can work (and still be fun) is if players don’t end up side-lined too long due to a terminal arrow through the gullet.

[a note on resurrection and raise dead: this type of powerful magic (including wishes) was generally reserved for only the longest running, most beloved characters. When chargen is fast (even for making an experienced character; e.g. “you’re 12th level you have X hit points and the following 5 magic items”) it’s generally more expedient to make a new character than march the party several days journey to the nearest temple with a high priest or whatnot]

Expedience is the most appealing part of random chargen. At least for me…I’m not really sure why else it’d be desirable. Because you want to be “surprised” by how the character turns out? Because you really can’t decide what character class you want to play? News flash: you’re going tohave to make a choice about the latter, regardless. And if you’re playing B/X, those choices are wide open (there are no minimum qualifications or pre-requisites for any of the human classes).

So assuming expedience is your thing (and not just the “suspense” of what you’re going to roll), is D&D random enough? Should class be rolled randomly (as it is in the Warhammer Fantasy RPG)? Should back-story be determined by dice rolls (like Cyberpunk’s “Lifepath” system)? Should even skills/abilities/advancement be determined randomly (hello, Traveller!)?

Okay, let’s check out the “non-random” type of chargen: the path of all choice.

[there’s also a 3rd type of chargen, something I call “the competitive form,” but I’ve only ever seen it in one game: Amber Diceless. Hmmm…maybe Baron Munchausen, too, whose whole game is one big chargen process]

For me, the biggest example of the all choice/non-random chargen system would be White Wolf (mainly because I’ve never played GURPS or Champions). Assign points for abilities. Assign points for skills. Assign points for powers (or spells or whatever). Assign points for willpower. Assign “freebie points.” Assign “flaws” to gain more points. Use bonus points to get “merits” or boost other stats.

Chargen in White Wolf takes a LONG-ASS TIME. Longer still, if you don’t have affirm character concept in your head already. Which, added together, makes most of their games fairly lame for me…because it cuts down on the action by taking character death off the table.

I say this from experience. I enjoy action and danger and challenging characters (or mauling them might be a better way of putting it)…I like swift and violent games more often than not. But if a character gets killed (or even knocked into “extended torpor” for a Vamp chronicle) what happens?

The player ends up sidelined for a long, long time.

Having a character offed in play is punishment enough…forcing a player to sit out because chargen takes so bloody f’ing long is ridiculous. Of course, it never actually comes to this as the “concept character” is SOOO beloved to the player (the player had to think long and hard, and delicately craft their fine creation) that allowing a character to die isn’t really an option. Too much drama and heartbreak down that road…and unlike D&D there’s no “raise dead” or “resurrection” spells.

I look at chargen in a game like Werewolf (which is nothing if not a combat game), and think, “now THIS should be a MMORPG.” Or Sim-Werewolf or something. Let players spend hours crafting the perfect character, and then they can tool about their deathless little virtual worlds to their hearts content, pretending to be, well, whatever.

But noooo, MMORPGs don’t allow your character concept right off the bat…you have to get to “level 60” or some such before you can be a plate armored knight on the back of a horse (WoW)…or “level 40” before you can fly through the air with a cape or have a character with super-speed (City of Heroes). Lame.

Like most Americans, I’m not much for delayed gratification…and extended choice in chargen delays my action-oriented game play more than I can stand.

Now having said all THAT, I think that SOME choice (and extended chargen) is important in any Supers RPG.

a) In general, superheroes are a lot less mortal than D&D characters (they may die 2-3 times in a couple hundred issues, but that’s a pretty slim amount). Likewise, they have a tendency to come back…either as clones, or robots, or updated with new costumes, or magically or whatever. So it makes sense that players put a little thought into a character they want to have around for the long haul (i.e. a continuing series).

b) Random power selection, in my opinion, generally turns out to be ridiculous more often than not. Some character conceptualizing is appropriate to the genre. One thing about Marvel that always irritated me was the random power selection…especially when I had a character concept in mind.

All right, that’s enough design stuff to chew on for right now. Your thoughts are appreciated.
: )


  1. In those dark days when I played White Wolf games, the best time I ever had was when the GM handed me a character I had zero input on. I quickly realized that I had nothing to lose, so I look risks both in game and in characterization. In the end, I loved that character more than any of the crap concepts I came up with on my own.

    Any Superhero RPG should be flexible enough to allow a player to pull off some semblance of their character concept AND allow those of us who love random rolls (or are in a creative slump and can't think of anything) to have their way, too. Personally, all the best Champions characters I ever had came about through the random tables of V&V or MSH. This method requires some amount of massaging, of course. Not all powers rolled should stay — this allows for players to get rid of those pesky ridiculous pairings one finds in MSH.

  2. You have hit upon the main reasons to roll 'em: expedience, detachment.

    Add thereto the avoidance of the min-maxing and power-gaming you so often get with complicated points-based system.

  3. Totally unrelated comment. I was in a used bookstore today and saw issue #2 of KRULL comic book. I know you raved about that film and book a few months ago. Thought you'd want to know.

  4. I also often do away with random stuff in char-gen, I trust my players and as such I can just tell them "Make something fun you want to play" Of course for some players "random" is part of the fun and thats fine too

    I also give Greyhawk Average Hit Points (Max at L1 plus Middle Number on the die Plus +1 after) so thats dealt with.

    As a player I also have been known to just make stuff up. Especially HP where low rolls are not good at all.

    Funny enough my DM's don't complain (or at least they haven't) since I never make anything that would take away fun from other people.

    I guess thats just being a grown up

    OK yeah I know all my MU's look like 10/18/10/10/16/13 or so but thats actually OK too -- its playable at a lot of power levels and it works.

  5. @ Fr. D: With my recent return to B/X role-playing, I have become a complete stickler for leaving as much randomness as possible in the chargen process...I force all my players (and myself) to roll 3D6 in order and deal with the results. I probably should have noted that I feel B/X has the "right" amount of randomness AND choice (as compared to most later editions of D&D which throw in far too many choices) up to and including a limited spell list AND a limited table of equipment. This is the same spirit I hope to bring to my future game designs.

    @ Roger: Completely forgot about cutting out the min-max power gamer. Yeah, that's another good reason to include at least a little random in chargen. Here's another reason: au natural.

    In real life, people are born into the world with different degrees of natural ability. God given, karmic related or whatever, to us material folks it appears, well, random. Random chargen helps model this.

    And just like in real life, it generally doesn't stop us from attempting to pursue our career of choice...
    : )

    @ Sax: I wish I could get the whole series in trade paperback.
    : )

    @ 5Stone: Being older, wiser, and more mature sure does have advantages. For me, I could (hardly) care less whether or not I rolled a "3" in some ability score (check out my recent character post where I rolled a natural 3 for Constitution and decided to go with a fighter anyway!) just gives me more room for creative interpretation and role-playing. Plus if the character dies, I can always create a new one, right?
    ; )

  6. I so agree with your reply to 5stone. I've got a dice rolling app on my ipod and roll up characters at idle moments. Last week I rolled 7,8,5,3,6,4. Terrible rolls, but I was rather excited and wanted to play that character.

  7. Even in Traveller, which has a lot of rolling in chargen, I find the choices I do have really do have an impact on the outcome.

    The thing about rolls in chargen is that they can affect the probability of something better than choices. If you give a choice, sometimes you find everybody picks certain options and other options never get tried. You can tweak things to counteract that, but with a roll you don’t have to. You can also stick something really cool in there but make it very rare.

    I like that some PCs have “good stats” and some don’t. Of course, it probably helps that ability scores tend to not have a huge affect in my games.

    OTOH, I’ve been really surprised that when you give players the freedom to pick their scores, they don’t give themselves straight 18s. Although, if they I said, ability scores usually don’t have a huge affect in my games.

    BTW, I have rolled for race & class & other things in D&D before. (When I’m feeling particularly indecisive.) Also, my favorite MSH characters have been completely random. Honestly, I’ve found some of the combinations of powers of actual published heroes stranger than them. ^_^

    One thing I like is to have rolls for stuff that the character wouldn’t be able to control and choices for things they could. I usually find that is a nice balance of randomness vs. choices.

    On another note, I’ve come to the position that players shouldn’t be silenced when their PC is not present or dead. Why shouldn’t they—as players—be allowed to advise other players about how to play. No other game that I can think of makes such a rule.

  8. I must be the minority here. Rolling random characters is fun once in a while, but I don't always want to have my character dictated to me. I like to have some control over what my character is so I have an attachment to him and I feel like I can invest time into his story. If it's just a random character that I don't care about, sure I'll take a lot more risks, but that doesn't seem realistic to me. I mean, if you were a loser in real life (which I am btw, would I value my life any less and run through on coming traffic just to grab a $10 bill someone dropped? Probably not. I like having a character that I want to stick with and see where he leads me, and with that in mind, I'm more protective of him. @RobertFisher is right when he says that given a choice, most player won't give themselves straight 18's. If they do, they're probably not very good players to begin with. Most times, when I make a character and just assign number, I usually give him a 16 for a prime requisite and the rest are typically rather average.

    Randomly rolling a character have a greater chance of generating a character that I'm not interested in, not because he's not powerful, but because he's not what I envisioned. So I prefer making up the character I have in my head rather than "seeing what happens"

    Having said all that, I love making random characters in Marvel Super Heroes for some reason, although he usually ends up rather wacky and lopsided. For example, a long range blaster type character that is better off punching things because his Strength is way higher.

  9. I forget--did I already mention my random roll super-heroes thing? If not

  10. @ Brian: Hey, man...I love a dissenting opinion. : )

    There are certainly games where random chargen isn't the best choice...and games where character mortality is either un-called for or called for in only the most dramatic of circumstances (when it is ESPECIALLY appropriate). And there are certainly times when *I* personally want my character to be crystallized in writing exactly as I conceptualize it (is that a word?).

    That being said, I like my action adventure characters to be a little Well, mortal anyway.

    @ Matthew: You have posted this link and I HAVE checked it out...I currently have your wonderful tables saved on my desktop! Um...I may not have gotten around to commenting yet (on your blog) but I will, I promise!
    ; )

  11. Sorry all--I didn't mean to over-sell the thing.