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Why Points?

Copyright Kevin Wilson 2000

Although there are a number of different ways to create characters in RPGs, one of my favorites is the point-based system. I have two reasons for this: character variety, and what I like to call "screen time". Screen time refers to a system's ability to produce characters that can all share the spotlight without getting in each others' way. No one wants to sit by while someone else disarms all the traps, kills all the monsters, breaks all the curses, and then makes off with the treasure. So, with these two things as the primary criteria, here's why I like point-based systems.

Random Generation Systems

By random generation, I'm referring to systems that let die rolls determine a number of important aspects of the character, such as attributes, social class, or even race.

Character Variety

Random character generation has little trouble providing character variety as long as it has sufficiently developed random charts to roll up your character on. Things like a Past Chart, where random events in your character's past are generated, can be a big help to players who don't know what they want to play this time around. These charts are best when they're optional, such as the Destiny Spread in 7th Sea. It adds a little touch of randomness to the game and provides some adventure hooks and roleplaying crutches for the players and the GM to develop together.

However, this breaks down when the player knows exactly what kind of a character he wants to play. Random results can be staggeringly inappropriate for a character concept, and the lack of a non-random alternative for character creation can stifle a player's creativity. Why bother planning out an elaborate background for your mighty fighter if you then roll an 11 for his Strength? Sure, it can be fun to play with such a handicap, but not if you wanted to play a skilled, incredibly strong fighter. Worse, in some games, low or even mediocre random results can shut you out of certain character concepts entirely, such as the paladin in AD&D. Without a 17 Charisma, you aren't allowed to play a paladin unless your GM scraps that rule or makes a special exception for you, and not every GM wants to spend time or effort thinking through the repercussions of doing that.

To sum up, random generation needs fairly elaborate charts to provide character variety, and worse, often displays a lack of player control that can lead to interesting character concepts getting discarded because the dice aren't falling where they're supposed to.

Screen Time

Here too, random generation can create problems for players and GMs alike. If I'm playing a fairly average character in a party of Straight 18 combat monsters, odds are that I'm going to be watching them do most of the fun stuff. All it takes are some poor rolls on my part and some good rolls for another player. House rules have sprung up around most such systems to protect players from really bad results, but I've never seen a system that protects me against another player generating a character that can easily dominate the game thanks to his superior die rolls. Let's have another look at the paladin in AD&D. Because the player made some good rolls, he has access to a character who will almost certainly dominate a campaign. He has excellent fighting skills, healing magic, and special abilities not available to those players who don't have the die rolls necessary to play a paladin. Compared to a fighter or mage, the paladin is useful in more situations, and typically just as potent as a specialist in any of those situations. If another player is playing a more generalized character, he should not be as potent as a specialized character is in his area of expertise, but often, a random character generation system can lead to just that.

Template or Chinese Menu Systems

By this I'm referring to systems that give you a mostly completed character and let you decide a few key things about the character, often by choosing among special abilities, or mixing and matching several descriptors, such as race and class. Think of it as choosing one from column A and one from column B.

Character Variety

Template games suffer tremendously in this area. Because the player is only influencing the design of the character through making a few key decisions, characters begin to look alike just as soon as all possible combinations of decisions are used up. If there are ten races and ten occupations, then there are only 100 distinct characters to play unless other customization techniques are brought in. Worse, many of these 100 characters will closely resemble one another. After all, how different is a human archer from an elven archer when you really come down to it? I have seen successful template systems created by using random or point-based elements in conjunction with the templates, but on its own, a template system does not provide enough character variety for my tastes.

Screen Time

I've found that template systems typically provide well-balanced characters for purposes of screen time, as long as the templates were carefully tested during development. A street samurai from Shadowrun often gets just as much screen time as a mage or hacker. The problem can come when players begin to clamor for new templates in order to alleviate the lack of character variety template systems suffer from. Often, the new templates get rushed through development and manage to upset game balance, which then ruins the screen time benefits of a template system. This then further destroys character variety as players rush to play the one or two most powerful templates. Without significant care during testing and non-template customization techniques, template games just don't meet my criteria.

Points-Based Systems

By this I'm referring to systems that give you a pool of points with which to purchase abilities for your character.

Character Variety

Point based games really shine in this regard. Since the number of choices you make during the character creation process is so high, there is a great deal of variety between characters. Of course, poor playtesting or design can reduce this, with the players flocking to certain very cost effective abilities, but I feel that these systems have the greatest potential for character customization and therefore give me a great deal of variety.

Screen Time

Again, point based systems are strong in this regard. By keeping a watchful eye on the relative merits of different abilities and pricing them accordingly, point based systems can produce characters who can easily co-exist without struggling for the spotlight. After all, everyone gets the same pool of points to draw from. Certainly, players who are more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of a particular system will be able to squeeze more out of a point based system, but GMs can easily ban or modify portions of the game that they feel are broken without injuring the rest of the system. This is often very difficult to do with other types of game systems.

Conclusions

As you can see, I clearly feel that point based systems offer the best combination of character variety and balanced screen time currently on the market. Of course, a better system could come along at any time, and I hope it does - I'm always up for a new system.

Editor's Note

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