Thursday, February 18, 2010

Oh, so that's why they don't like randomly generated characters...

Going through Theo Dudek's Ultimate Game Master, I stumbled upon his take on why some players seem to object to randomness in character generation. I found his post interesting as it takes a contrary view to my wholehearted acceptance of the application of such randomness. Examples of this dynamic in action include Traveller (wherein Theo cited James M.'s earlier post) and perhaps even more extremely- Mutant Future. In both Classic Traveller and Mutant Future, I admit I enjoy the game-within-a-game random aspect of character generation. In fact I even enjoy character generation as an end in itself using these systems.

Amongst the things said by Theo on this are:

"But perhaps the real reason people object to random stats and random character backgrounds is not “fairness” but that it is too similar to what we have to deal with in real life. Determinism based on biology or upbringing is not most people’s chosen form of escapism (unless it is ‘good’ determinism and they are “destined to be awesome because they are the chosen heir of the throne of blah blah blah” etc.) In real life, we don’t get to choose who we’re born to or where we grow up or whether we have Asperger’s or diabetes. But in RPGs, we at least look forward to having an idealized and personally chosen backstory, even if we may get eaten by a dragon or something shortly after actual gameplay begins. In the gray area before actual gameplay begins, in our epic memories, we can all be heroes. It’s when the dice start rolling that the drama and tragedy and mayhem starts."

While I may not share Theo's side on this matter, I nonetheless thank him for sharing this as it gave me some additional insight on how some of my players may be feeling about random character generation (and the every-present risk of turning up what they may consider a 'loser' character). Reading the above-quoted post brought back at least two separate conversations I had with a couple of my players wherein they just about told me the same thing. At that time, I really could not understand where he was coming from but now, I think I do.


  1. Random die rolling to create a character in D&D often ended up with a lot of time used up as we tried to roll up our ideal characters, this was because our stats dictated in a large part what our character would be. In Traveller we were happy enough that our character would pass muster to join our chosen branch of service. It does end up as a mini-game to ensure our character's survival from his creation to his mustering out. Initially I was happy with the GURPS point system but later on I felt a lot of the characters end up as bloody cut throats due to the system which most of the players don't act it out but have to be reminded that they are bloody cut throats and have to roll the die to act as one. Due to my limited time I am thinking of actually solo playing instead. Maybe I will end up writing a blog to chronicle my solo game of Traveller? Maybe I might end up getting my daughters interested enough to play with their Dad. 8-)

  2. Theo's points are good ones.
    --I am encouraged that you are now more sensitive to your players' time investment in their gaming.

    That said, sometimes it is fun to switch things up and allow for a more designed set of characters, and I encourage you to try it once and see if things do, in fact, spiral out of control, or ramp up a power-curve too quickly for your GMing style/tastes.
    --What harm can come of it apart from possibly giving them a taste of 'the good life'? ;) :D

    Best to you,

  3. I'm running a post apocalypse Earth Mutant Future campaign where the players can design their own character, and a Metamorphosis Alpha Mutant Future campaign where they have to use the random tables. I think both are fun.

    One thing I notice is that when they get to pick their own mutations a lot of characters end up with the same ones over and over. People quickly catch on to the powerful ones, and they all choose them. There are some mutations that never get chosen. Sometimes because they seem weak, other times I think it's just because the explanation in the rulebook seems vague.

    When mutations are randomly rolled we have to figure out how to deal with those less desirable, unexplored mutations. Sometimes we change them significantly, and they become popular in the other campaign, but we would have never done that unless forced to take the mutation.

  4. @Joseph - I guess our group's problem when we took to Gurps was the sudden paradigm shift in character generation- from the randomness of AD&D and Traveller to the massively crunchy point-buy system of Gurps. Both types of character generation systems have their respective merits in the same way that they both can be subject to absurd interpretation and abuse. As to Gurps, you did see how some munchkins we gamed with tended to min-max their characters in our games leaving us with veritable Sauron Supermen :) I guess in the end, it comes down to player maturity to enable good play regarless of what system you use. Note how Justin at Game In The Brain has always endeavored to maintain a level of 'grounding' and rationality in the Gurps character generation system (although admittedly, he favors more realistically-themed games).

    Good luck in starting a game at home. I'm sure your daughters will give this a chance. Let us know how things pan out. Starting a game blog isn't a bad idea too.

  5. @Timeshadows - thank you, hearing this from you makes me feel I am not too set and grumpy in my ways as I get older. :) Yes, I definitely see your points. Considering that my players, despite their occassional mistakes, really take the effort to invest time and emotion in our games, these concerns do merit more consideration from my end. And yes, I am seriously considering trying out a switch and letting the players try some custom designing of their own. It generally worked out for us in Gurps and I can see how it will work in Mutant Future. In fact, a friend of mine who would love to play (but can't right now, due to work and familial obligations) suggested to me a character concept for a customized mutant using the basic MF rules. Surprisingly, alongside the potent beneficial mutations he selected were really interesting mutational defects he also imposed on his character- all in the interest of good roleplaying and gaming. All this reminds me so much of Gurps but hey, given good players willing to give things an even shot, almost anything is possible eh?

  6. @Matt- I do believe I will try an MF game wherein the players do get to choose their mutations. Given my current group, I think the core players have immersed themselves quite sufficiently by now in the rules to allow them to make intelligent choices in generating customized characters. As I mentioned earlier, all this reminds me somewhat of the advantages and disadvantages system in Gurps character generation. This is particularly true in your experience where players tend to single out certain popular mutation choices. I had the same experience in Gurps where people tended to favor certain 'must have' advantages. I have a feeling I'll be seeing some of this in MF too :) That said, I agree with you that randomly-rolled mutation tend to expose the players to learning more about the less-known ones in the rules. Maybe it is also about a player's comfort zone- sometimes the random factor in the dice is what is needed to drive the player to try something new and unknown?

  7. spielmeister: I'm glad. :D

    The 'happy medium' would be to allow them to pick half of their mutations. Easy as pie. :D

  8. Exactly! I was thinking of this as well. Half and half. :)

  9. Cool. :)

    Looking forward to the report. :)

  10. I understand the temptation to "build" one's character, so you are playing the character you are happy or comfortable with.

    I always thought it would be an interesting social experiment to allow everyone to bring their character to the table, and then say, "now pass your sheet one place to the right", and make another player play that character.

    Does wanting to do that make me a bad person?

  11. Paladin: No. That's cool.
    --It'd be a lot of fun. :D

  12. Setting aside the D&D and Traveller influence, the two polar opposites of character creation come from two of my favorite RPGs -- Call of Cthulhu and Champions.

    I never really had an issue with rolling up the Call of Cthulhu character and not "getting the character I wanted", and I certainly was not put off by the point-buy mechanics of Champions.

    Ultimately, I felt that both were reflections of the games / game philosophies they were representing. In Call of Cthulhu, you're just a poor human, using what you've been given to stay alive and sane and just maybe stop the nameless horrors from overrunning the world. In Champions, you try to build the exact heroic character you want.

    Then again, Call of Cthulhu does have a limited point-buy mechanism for skills...

  13. I prefer a mix of randomness and point buy system, like you find in the original Hackmaster RPG. You roll your stats but you can buy improvements later during charakter creation, you can roll your quirks or you can choose them - which gives you less points to buy improvements. There's something for everyone...

    But I have to admit that the Warhammer FRPG 2nd Ed is one of my favorites, too, because the players even roll their classes. I let them choose the general direction (academic, warrior, common, etc.) and their race, but they have to make a roll for their starting carreer. Come on: Who would play a ratcatcher if he didn't have to... ;)

  14. I dunno man, I was shooting for Ratcatcher when I was playing it...