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Feb 06

The Ultimate Question – Roll or Point Buy?

Some people like randomness and risk, others like security even if it means missing out a perfect scores or deal. Safety and smaller rewards for what little risk there is versus bigger risks for bigger stakes. Putting a bet on Red or Black vs.the 2nd dozen or an individual number. Fixed rate mortgage versus tracker mortgage. Real Madrid vs. East Fife. Some are safer than others, some are more fun that others but if we’re going to roll the dice we need to know the boundaries we’re playing within.

Randomised = different!

Randomised scores can give a bit more variety, force you to find ways to explain why your character has an unusual ‘dump stat’ and can make things a bit more different that a 32 point buy where you know you can have a few 16s and avoid having any negatives. On the other hand, in 3.5 D&D there are guidelines to help you avoid having too many problems if you roll badly (if your total modifiers are +1 or less, if your highest stat is 14 or less, etc.) but you might still end up with a 15/10/11/10/11/9 compared with your friend’s 18/16/14/11/17/13. I’ve seen a wide range of potential solutions from 2nd edition’s method VI stat generation (all stats start at 8, you roll 7d6 and can add those d6s to stats, but all the points on one dice must be added to the same stat. If you can’t make 18 with an exact combination, then you don’t get an 18) to everyone rolling a set of attributes and everyone agreeing on one set to use as an array, meaning everyone has the same stats but in different orders to reflect their classes/needs/backgrounds.

Point buy = stability!

Point buy systems give you stability, a level playing field and the knowledge that Bob doesn’t have a better character than you because he got lucky with his first dice of the campaign. But on the other hand, if you don’t know the system you might make mistakes that haunt a character (buying stats when skills are more important, taking 80 points in Other Language (Zulu) rather than some points in Spot Hidden for a Call of Cthulhu campaign) and might still end up vastly inferior to another character despite the levelled playing field by merit of someone else knowing the system better or happening to stumble upon a better combination that will become the template for any future characters in that system. Really, that’s my worry with a purely point based system – that there’s some way to optimise it, some better combination that someone’s found. Don’t get me wrong, we all optimise to some degree (I have an 18 and am playing a fighter, should I put it in strength or intelligence? Might go with strength…) but that’s a discussion for another day. Today, it’s about point buy versus rolled stats. Both styles have survived for years, decades even but what if we take a third option like the shared rolled array?

A third option?

In The Great Clans for Legend of the Five Rings, there’s an interesting optional variant for the heritage of your character – was your ancestor a venerated war hero? Have you inherited an object that you were told was very powerful but never to use it? Did your ancestor succumb to the taint and lure of the Shadowlands? Here’s my problem with those heritage tables – the advantages cost nothing, the disadvantages give you nothing (one of my players ended up with Bad Fortune: Lingering Misfortune, which means once in the campaign I get to say that he’s failed at a particular task and doesn’t even get a chance to roll for it. Normally he’d get 3xp for that disadvantage but because it came from the heritage table, he gets nothing back for it just the knowledge that one day he’s going ot fail something vital. He could’ve gained an ally in another clan if the dice had fallen more kindly). Since then, I’ve considered alternatives to the heritage tables (pay 2xp for a random illustrious past that might be anywhere from 1-6xp normally, gain 2xp for a random shameful past or take a mixed blessing for free), or trying to find ways of adding that little bit of randomness to a fixed point system (and stability to a random system) to find a happy medium. I’m still working on what it will be for various systems that I’m running and want to run in the future. It might be something as simple as giving Dark Heresy characters a +5 for any one stat or training in a background skill (i.e. something different than what that class would usually have), 2nd edition Method VI for D&D/Pathfinder or expanding heritage/background tables for L5R with a fixed price but wide range of advantages/disadvantages in terms of cost.

I’ve sure nearly everyone has their stories of when a randomly generated character screwed them over, or when they picked the wrong skills/spells for a campaign and felt like dead weight to the party. Why not share your stories here and recall the good and bad times those characters had? Even though you have the good stories from them, how would you make it so everyone can feel valued, like they’re making a contribution but most of all unique?

1 comment

  1. conradw

    There is another option: the Array. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    I find that point buy systems often boiling down to a system of stat arrays. Because there’s only so many ways you can fold your points and get your 18 without having points you can’t spend (and players HATE wasting points).

    Arrays have the advantage of making sure that everyone has a playable character, and it makes it harder for new players to completely mangle character generation. It gives you a lot of options from the outset as well: will this be a munchkin/min-max campaign or a rounded, rp focused one (while the two aren’t exclusive, my experience is that when players have an 18 stat, as far as they’re concerned they only have 1 stat – give a fighter 18str and a hammer and everything starts to look like a nail).

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