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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By this I'm referring to systems that give you a pool of points with which
to purchase abilities for your character.
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.
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.
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.
Please post your comments
on this article on the General Discussion Board.
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