Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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RPG Design: Random Starts, and Playing Weaknesses

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 20, 2014

meteord63D6. For those unfamiliar with dice-and-paper gaming, that means rolling three standard 6-sided dice, and adding their values together.

Back in the old days of D&D, that was how your character was created. 3D6 created ability scores, from a range of 3-18, with 10 being defined as “average.” In the most hardcore tradition, you rolled six sets of scores and assigned them to your character in the order in which they appeared, giving you a completely random character. Then you’d pick a class your character might qualify for (with a ‘fighter’ — or ‘fighting-man’ — really having no qualifications necessary) and off you go. If your character was truly pathetic, you might hope to have ’em die quickly so you could create another character. Creating a new character in old-school D&D took only a few minutes, so it wasn’t a big deal.

At some point, people decided that those who took the adventuring lifestyle ought to be at least somewhat better than your average pig-keeper (never mind that heroic fantasy does have a place for even assistant pig-keepers), and opted for more generous probabilities, and the ability for a player to choose which scores went to which abilities. In the AD&D days, the preferred method was to roll four six-sided dice for each score, but to ignore the value of the lowest die. This still yielded scores in the 3-18 range, but with a higher average, and it was still possible to get a really weak score in one or two abilities.

D&D – and most other game systems – eventually moved away from randomized stats in favor of “point buy” systems. Players no longer needed to fear a bad set of dice rolls! While it sounds great on the surface, the problem is that player characters all end up with very similar sets of stats, min-maxed for their chosen specialty or class (and if it’s a classless system, it’s even worse).

The problem is that it’s hard for players to voluntarily play weaknesses. Maybe it’s part of the dividing line between narrative and game raising its ugly head again: Overcoming weaknesses (or succeeding in spite of them) makes for a great story, but even in a non-competitive game, people don’t like being saddled with a disadvantage out of the starting gate.

The old random generation system forced the issue. You were almost always guaranteed to have a character with something awesome, like a 16 and a 17, but have a 5 somewhere else. ¬†And admittedly, playing a complete weakling or an imbecile can get tiresome after a while, and modern games don’t have the rapid character turnover (read: high character mortality rates and rapid character generation) of the original D&D.

Of course, modern systems do try to encourage players to take weaknesses. With point-buy, you can get a higher top stat if you accept a lower weak stat. Or, in some systems, you can take a character disadvantage in exchange for extra build points. But these, too, tend to get min-maxed, and only very rarely will players voluntarily take a serious disadvantage, opting instead for those weaknesses that are either very minor or have a low probability of affecting them in any dangerous way.

Again, this runs contrary to what makes a good narrative. It’s always more exciting to cheer the underdog, not the guy who has all the advantages. It’s also fun to start with a character that isn’t completely under your control, as it encourages you to adapt your play-style a little bit, think a little bit outside the box, and come up with a custom personality (in tabletop gaming) to match.

So while I don’t mind that the hard-core, purely random character generation remains an artifact of the oldest of old-school RPGs (and a few modern Roguelikes), there were definitely some advantages. I’d like to see more games experimenting with ways to bring us the best of both worlds.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • Infinitron said,

    You’re making an assumption here that the existence of one canonical “power build” to be min-maxed towards is inevitable.

    Drop the pseudo-simulationist stat systems. Make pumping your Fighter’s strength to 18/00 painful, because all the other stats are genuinely useful to him too. Problem solved.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    No matter how hard you try (and I’m not sure it’s a desirable goal), if the stats are truly different and interesting, there are going to be imbalances leading to more optimal builds. Sure, the old eighteen-double-aught might be too painful, but there’s probably some combo in there that hits a sweet spot of maximum effectiveness for minimum pain.

    So… I agree with you insofar as you don’t want easy optimization, and that you want all of the attributes to be meaningful. But I dunno… it seems to me that if you balance it perfectly, a lot of players will simply make characters with near straight averages, so they don’t have any noteworthy ‘weakness.’ Maybe I’m wrong there, but that’s been my experience.

  • Felix said,

    In skill-based systems, there’s also the problem that in time all the characters’ skills end up maxed, making everyone the same. Except… you can always set up the rules so that you *can’t* max out everything. Force the player to choose a couple of specializations. If there are enough of them to choose from, and each of them has some use… well, let’s just say not all players are min-maxers.

    Another idea is to make all characters start up average, apart from one boon players can choose (or is given to them randomly), and have them specialize based on how they handle a first mission or some such. The players’ own personalities will make the difference.

    And sure, that could mean that I always end up playing a rogue, and a certain friend of mine a priest. But you know what? That’s what we *like* to play. And if the results depend at least in part on random early challenges, there should be enough variation as well.

  • McNutcase said,

    One of the most fun convention games I’ve played in was old-school D&D, with the option of placing scores or going “Ironman” and taking them as they rolled. Peer pressure being what it is, everyone went ironman, which is how we wound up with three cleric-types (one managed to be lucky enough to go druid!), one of whom had one hitpoint at first level. Amazingly, everyone made second level, and some even made it to third.

    I’m not sure I’d want a weekly game in that vein, but for four hours, it was a blast.

  • Michael A. said,

    I agree with most of what you say here, though I’m not sure it’s all that much of a problem. A mail I got one day after I had implemented a feature that made my game harder has always stood out to me in this context; paraphrased, it said: “If I want to deal with real life, I’ll do so. When I play games, I do so to have fun.”

    For many people, playing games is about fulfilling power fantasies. Saddling them with weaknesses in that context that they have not chosen themselves essentially works against the purpose of the game. I don’t think this is really a problem narratively, though it does affect how the narrative is constructed.

    Also, don’t forget that for many players the character creation is itself a significant part of the game.

    Finally, I don’t think that there are very many people who actually like random character generation. They exist – of course – but I think they are a minority. In a face-to-face game – sure, it can be fun. In a game you are playing with yourself, as in a CRPG? I doubt it. Raise their hand anyone who never rerolls “random” characters in a single-player CRPG/roguelike. Anyone?

    As you say, it can be tough to balance point systems for character generation, but I don’t know whether it matters all that much – as long as there is a reasonable balance (the thing about power fantasies again).

    Personally, I like the systems where you define your characters through narrative (I recall a number of old CRPGs did this, including a few of the Ultimas?). I found that this approach tended to counter-act my tendency to MinMax – I’d rather play a character whose background fit the values I wanted to play with, than something completely optimized for the game system.

  • McTeddy said,

    *Raises my hand* Technically, I give myself 20 rolls to build a party of 4… but I limit the rerolls to make it an interesting decision of WHETHER I reroll the character.

    I’m actually toying with a random generation system with a hidden FATE variable. The less you re-roll your characters the more likely you are to get critical hits, find valuable treasures, and random “Miracle” effects in times of need.

    I highly doubt anyone will notice it and it’ll be the last time I use it… but I’m curious to give it a shot.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    McTeddy – I dunno, I like that solution, but I’d make it visible to the player. It’s basically one more stat that is non-random and diminishes each time you roll for stats until you accept a character through completion. You may need to do some work to prevent it from being gamed too easily, but that *would* make it an interesting decision, at least.

  • Darkbridger said,

    I’m not sure I see a difference here. While I played a lot of original D&D and all iterations since, even in truely random generation, you optimized in the other direction… class choice. No one chose to play a Fighter if their Strength score was 5. And no one chose to play a Wizard with an Int of 5. Wizards with low Str or low Con sure, and Fighters with low Int, Wis and/or Cha absolutely. Even if you somehow ended up with a Fighter that had a middling Strength, they ended up optimizing to their other strengths (assuming they had any)… be it lots of hit points, lighter/faster attacking weapons or ranged combat, etc. Also, Fighters and Thieves were a LOT more common in original AD&D. With point buy, people actually got a chance to play Rangers and Paladins.

    Sure, Point Buy really brought the optimization to the forefront, but it’s still not required to play the game. I’ve played games of “underdog” in Pathfinder and 3.5, where everyone had lowish stats, but generally, they weren’t more fun, just different fun. Most players like to play certain things, and point buy makes it easier for them to do so. There are plenty of ways to curb optimization if needed. But even with random rolls, optimizers will optimize, whether it be stats or classes or abilities/weapons.

    The reason weaknesses have lost their narrative power (as someone else alluded to, and I would argue it was never there) is that most systems have at least 1 (and often 2) stats that any given class or build can completely ignore and use as their “weakness”. Also, in most games magic using classes are completely immune to actually having any stat based weakness at all beyond early levels. So triumphing despite a weakness for them is difficult, if not impossible to portray. For anyone else, these games are about a group and/or team. One man’s weakness is another’s strength. The Fighter won’t overcome his lack of Charisma, his Cleric or Sorcerer buddy will. This, again, was true even in original AD&D, except for those guys that liked to play Thieves that stole from the group.

    For computer games, assuming there is only 1 character in your random start RPG, you have make sure the weakness remains a weakness AND that there is some reason for even playing the game that way. You need to present/explain benefits up front, otherwise, everyone is just going to hit that re-roll button. What do I get for playing with a Cha of 5 and basically surrendering every dialogue/npc interaction benefit for the duration of the game right from the get-go? And how much of a benefit do you grant before it basically becomes a non-weakness all over again?

  • McTeddy said,

    Keeping it invisible is to help avoid direct gaming… and serve a secondary thematic purpose.

    It’s an occult/horror dungeon crawl with a siding of religion. Players are tasked with cleansing evil spirits or demons from each location.

    Even after the game begins you’re actions will influence your fate levels behind the scenes.(I suspect the starting fate will influence GROWTH rather than a starting value)

    The NPC’s will tell you that “Good deeds are rewarded” and “Even if you don’t see god, he is with you.” Yet, there will be very little “visible” proof.

    As the game passes you’ll be given options that will visibly reward selfish or even evil action. Do I take this massively valuable family heirloom from the corpse while claiming it was missing or return it to the family?

    This is to create a “Temptation vs. Faith” dilemma. Does the player trust the NPCs and the virtual God enough to make sacrifices despite seeing no immediate benefits. Do they still go to the church and pray despite nearly always seeing “Nothing happens…”

    Late in the game, one player will have good standard gear that he purchased with his reward money and stolen items.

    The other player will be stumbling on “Holy Weapons” and spontaneously healing when he was supposed to die.

    Both valid options but they fit the theme of faith protecting you.

    But, this is pure theory and I’m not sure how much of this will shine through in the final product.

    I’m building a decent Dungeon Crawl engine so that I can try this in an upcoming Game-A-Month.

  • Michael A. said,

    McTeddy – it’s an interesting mechanic, but as RC suggests – if its not visible to the player, what is the point? And to be honest, I’m sceptical even if it was visible to the player.

    If – as a player – I want to reroll, I WILL be able to reroll. What is to prevent me from simple exiting the game, and then restarting it – wiping memory of the reroll. If you maintain states across restarts, I can always backup the application and restore it between restarts. If you try to implement a way to prevent that… why would anyone actually be spending resources on trying to prevent this, rather than spending it on gameplay? I realize this is reductio ad absurdium, but that is how I often feel when playing games that try to enforce a certain playstyle on the player (the same goes for permadeath in roguelikes. as Jay’s next blogpost discusses). Why put obstacles in the way of letting the player enjoy the game on their own terms?