Friday, August 12, 2011

Character Generation: A Method to The Munchkin Madness

Okay, I don't know of the RPG blog that hasn't covered the topic of "how do you roll up PCs?" So here is my obligatory foray into that most controversial of realms. Some don't see it as so controversial. I suppose in the end it depends on the GM and the players in question. But it's rare to find a system that makes everybody happy. So what I thought I'd do is examine the most common PC creation methods and see if we can develop some idea why you would choose one over another. I'll also make my case for what some consider the most brutal: 3d6 in order.

Alright first let's consider the most common methods in use today:

  • 3d6
  • 4d6 drop the lowest
  • Roll 3d6 for 12 PCs and pick the PC you prefer
  • Roll 18d6 and pick 3 at a time for each stat until all dice are gone
  • 5d6 drop lowest 2
  • 2d6+6
  • 1d6+12
  • 75 + 1d6 point allocation
  • Straight 80 point allocation
  • More complex point buy systems

And the variations that can be added to any of the above
  • Reroll 1s
  • Reroll 1s & 2s
  • In order rolled
  • In order of choice
  • Point shift methods
  • Set maximum number of ability points (80, 90, 100 etc.)

So what I did is roll some dice. Lots of dice. I could have grabbed my statistics books and done some stats to more accurately assess the power of each method. But there's nothing like the real thing. And, heck, I'm a gamer ... I like rolling dice. My little experiment consisted of going through each of these methods and rolling up ten sets of stats. Nothing like looking at actual character stats to see the strengths and weaknesses of each method, eh? I'll leave analysis to the end, so here are my results:

4d6 drop the lowest
Theoretical Average      =  12.2

11, 15, 11, 14, 8, 15    =  12.8
7, 11, 9, 10, 5, 7          =  8.2
16, 13, 16, 13, 15, 16  =  14.8
15, 8, 17, 15, 8, 7        =  11.7
15, 10, 17, 11, 11, 10  =  11.3
12, 8, 14, 15, 15, 10    =  12.3
15, 13, 13, 15, 16, 14  =  14.3
15, 14, 12, 11, 7, 10    =  11.5
10, 11, 17, 7, 3, 17      =  12.5
15, 12, 12, 14, 5, 13    =  11.8

Experimental Avg         =  12.2

Theoretical Average    =  10.5

8, 9, 15, 9, 16, 17      =  12.3
11, 11, 12, 9, 10, 10  =  10.5
10, 11, 11, 13, 9, 7    =  10.2
10, 14, 10, 9, 14, 10  =  11.2
13, 12, 9, 9, 13, 7      =  10.5
11, 12, 12, 6, 7, 3      =  8.5
13, 11, 9, 11, 10, 7    =  10.2
12, 9, 13, 5, 8, 12      =  9.8
9, 14, 8, 9, 13, 9        =  10.3
8, 9, 12, 3, 12, 4        =  8

Experimental Average = 10.2

Theoretical Average  =  10.5

18, 12, 8, 8, 8, 5  =  9.8
9, 11, 11, 7, 10, 5  =  8.8
16, 14, 9, 9, 5, 4  =  9.5
11, 9, 9, 10, 11, 12  =  10.3
11, 11, 11, 11, 8, 7  =  9.8
16, 15, 10, 10, 8, 5  =  10.7
17, 12, 15, 10, 8, 6  =  11.3
13, 13, 11, 12, 9, 9  =  11.2
18, 17, 15, 12, 11, 8  =  13.5
11, 10, 11, 11, 10, 8  =  10.2

Experimental Average  =  10.2

2d6 + 6
Theoretical Average     =  13

13, 12, 12, 13, 14, 15  =  13.3
9, 8, 16, 16, 10, 12      =  11.8
12, 16, 15, 15, 15, 17  =  15
13, 13, 14, 16, 15, 16  =  14.5
16, 8, 16, 16, 12, 12    =  13.3
13, 10, 14, 12, 16, 10  =  12.5
12, 14, 12, 14, 13, 14  =  13.2
16, 9, 15, 11, 12, 15    =  13
11, 12, 16, 14, 13, 13  =  13.2
15, 16, 15, 14, 14, 13  =  14.5

Experimental Average  =  13.4

1d6 + 12
Theoretical Average     =  15.5

16, 16, 17, 13, 17, 17  =  16
18, 17, 13, 13, 17, 18  =  16
15, 17, 13, 17, 16, 14  =  15.3
17, 15, 18, 16, 18, 18  =  17
16, 17, 18, 13, 17, 17  =  16.3
14, 18, 15, 18, 18, 17  =  16.7
18, 13, 17, 14, 14, 13  =  14.8
18, 18, 13, 16, 14, 14  =  15.5
16, 14, 18, 15, 17, 17  =  16.2
15, 13, 18, 17, 15, 18  =  16

Experimental Average  =  16

75 Points + 1d6
Theoretical Average  =  12.2

15, 15, 12, 12, 12, 11  =  12.8
12, 16, 12, 11, 12, 12  =  12.5
8, 10, 11, 12, 12, 13  =  12.6
10, 10, 10, 15, 15, 16  =  12.6
8, 12, 18, 10, 15, 14  =  12.8
13, 13, 13, 13, 13, 15  =  13.3
18, 18, 14, 10, 10, 10  =  13.3
12,16, 12, 14, 12, 13  =  13.2
16, 16, 16, 16, 8, 6  =  13
12, 13, 12, 12, 10, 14  =  12.2

Experimental Average  =  12.8

Now, before my opinionated analysis, we have to recall that almost all games in the D&D family use the same stat base. That is, 3 to 18. What some D&D gamers forget is most people fall into the average range. 10.5 is the attribute average for the system. To give you some idea of what this means: you could lift 105 pounds over your head; your IQ would be 105 (90 to 110 is average in our world), which means you likely did well in school and probably attended college; you would enjoy average health and stamina, which means you could run about a mile without overly taxing yourself, and you are sick about 5 days out of the year; you would enjoy reasonable dexterity able to juggle three balls with practice or catch a falling glass about half the time; of average looks you would enjoy a moderate circle of friends, and be capable of leading or managing a small team of of 4 to 5 people; you would find learning another language or two easy, and in fact may be bilingual already; you also could memorize your parts in a play or several mathematical formulas for easy recall; you are fairly well grounded, possess common sense, and your gut instincts are right about half the time.

Put in this way we get the picture of a person who could do just about anything he put his mind to. So let's take a very ordinary man, myself, and examine his stats:

Strength: 8 and that's on a good day. I used to lift weights, fence and do martial arts, but now I'm an overweight, asthamtic 42 year old with a largely sedentary job. Having fought before on the mat I know I could not hold my own as a fighter right now. Sad, but true.

Intelligence: 12 If I have any redeeming quality it is this (thank heavens there's at least one). The last IQ test I took rated me at 120. I have four degrees: Anthropology, English Literature, Mathematics and Education. I speak fluent Spanish, Portugeuse and can read Latin and Ancient Greek. I am also teaching myself Old English.

Wisdom: 11 I get one extra point above 10 for having been religious all of my life. And heck I'm middle aged. That at least gets me one added for age : - )

Dexterity: 9 I can still juggle three balls, but my quickness and speed have diminished. All I have to do is step on the fencing mat to know that's a fact.

Constitution: 8 I suffer here from being out of shape as well. I'm sick about twice the average (around ten days a year--unless I get my flu shot). And I've developed asthma due to really bad seasonal allergies. I don't handle stress well and hot weather wipes me out in no time (I'm prone to heat exhaustion).

Charisma: 9 People say I have natural leadership ability, but I hate leading. Absolutely despise it. So I make a good first impression, am a good public speaker (but stress for days after having to do it) but really don't make the long haul when it comes to Charisma. And my looks aren't anything to write home about either.

You might say I'm being modest. But honestly I think I represent the average American 40 something male fairly well. But here's the kicker: I go camping, canoeing, horseback riding and hiking with our local Boy Scouts. I was a fencing instructor and have belts in three martial arts. I fly-fish in the mountain streams near our home. I am the department head for our department at the school where I teach and am responsible for managing 11 employees. I teach classrooms full of children and personally manage the casefiles of over 25 special needs children. I frequently attend and testify at court cases as a professional witness. Am on three different leadership and steering committees for math instruction in our district. I am (modestly saying) a popular speaker at church, teach our congregation's Sunday school class and was at one time a pastoral leader of over 400 local members. I am also an amateur paranormal investigator specializing in monstrous phenomena and have networked with noted UFO researcher Junior Hicks (Utah UFO Display). I served in US Army Intelligence and was an expert marksman. I am a passable tracker, can identify most local mammals, birds, insects and regional fauna; and have significant wilderness survival skills. I have lived in Korea and Paraguay, South America for years at a time. I have examined petrolgyphs of bygone indigenous peoples on two continents and can speak a smattering of two Indian Dialects. Our family runs an orchard of over 200 fruits trees and manages a small farm including husbanding uor stock. In the summers I work as a biological field technician and spend my days traipsing all over creation in the woods and foothills of the nearby mountains.

The point of mentioning all of this is not to toot my own horn or post an online resume. We could all make lists like that of our own lives. I'm no different from the rest of humanity in that regard. My point is that an average guy with very average stats does an awful lot of interesting things and leads a very full life. And my second point is that I'm not hopeless as an adventurer. Back in the day I might have rated an 11 strength and dexterity and a 10 con but doubtfully any higher. Could I enter a dark cave and manage myself as an intrepid adventurer? Sure I could! I think, given my innate strengths, I would have chosen Mage as a class and done passably well as one. The critical thing wasn't that I could memorize tons of spells you see--I'm fairly limited in that regard. But that I used my native wit to employ the spells I did possess with savvy and cunning guile. That is the idea old school D&D is based upon. Normal men doing extraordinary things.

If anything my purpose is to champion the average man. It is average man that rules the world. Now, let's take some extreme examples and compare.

Truly great power-lifters do max standing presses at around 500 pounds. The current world record for the clean and press is somewhere near 531 pounds. Which, according to 2e rules, which have more info on max press vs just lifting above the head rule, places their strength at somewhere around 18/50. (1e reads slightly differently.) But max press for 19 is listed as 680 pounds. So the strongest men in the world are below 19 strength. And most lifters max out in the range of 200 to 300 pounds which puts their strength at around 16 or 17. These are very strong men.

Mensa requires that you must score in the 98th percentile of the IQ test. Which varies slightly from test to test. But generally is above 130. Which means that their intelligence ability would be 13. Given the standard curve, only two percent of the civilized world would qualify. However, there are those rare few that go higher. Stephen Hawking is 160, or intelligence 16. World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov scores 190 or a 19 intelligence. And the Guinness world's record for the smartest man goes to Kim Ung Yong from Korea with an estimate of over 210. That's one smart mage at 21 Int. And keep in mind that most college professors and PhDs (the equivalent of our world's schools of magic and home to wizards and sages) tend to score from between 125 and 140. That's 12 to 14 intelligence.

Wisdom is difficult to measure, but let's give 18 wisdom to the founders of the world's major religions (assuming we are not going to subscribe divine stats to them), which number about 200 over recorded history (a very rough statistic at best, but I'm being generous). Now, since recorded history began (figuring from the Sumerian Era) there have been about 60 billion people live on Earth. Let's double the number of people with 18 wisdom to account for those we might have missed which give us .000007 % of the world's population over time have had 18 wisdom. That's 7 millionths of a percent. The math here is extremely rough, but we can expect one person every 145 years to have 18 Wisdom. We might expect the Saints and major figures within the world's religion to have wisdom from 14 to 16. Monks and Nuns would be expected to score from 12 to 13.

Are you beginning to get the picture? If 18 is to be the pinnacle of human development attribute-wise it is going to be very rare. Even from an extremely generous standpoint. Now, this makes some assumptions about how you play D&D. We are talking real, old school D&D here. 3 to 18 were mortal scores. When you transcend 18 you were entering demigod status. Hackmaster 4e and 2e reflect this ethos well. I don't think the original game took as much time thinking about relating game scores to human scores other than saying that was the case. But even 4e reflects human maximums at close to 18 (check out this site).

But yet in many D&D games PCs run around with one or two 18s, and few scores below 12 or 13. They might as well be walking Gawds! Exceeding human norms on so many scales they are literally freaks of nature. Even real world examples of humans with an exceptional stat have absolutely normal stats elsewhere. An Olympic powerlifter might look something like this:

Str: 17
Int: 10
Wis: 9
Dex: 10
Con: 12
Cha: 7

Or even a champion MMA fighter

Str: 15
Int: 10
Wis: 9
Dex: 14
Con: 12
Cha: 10

Which would both make stats of darn good fighters. But ask most players and they might consider such PCs unplayable. Methods of die rolling that encourage inflated and grossly misrepresented stats detract from what the game was meant to achieve.

The common argument for such extreme measures is that players don't get to play the class they want to if we expect them to only roll 3d6. Well there's a reason for that too. Paladins, Druids, Illusionists, Monks, Assassins, Cavaliers, Barbarians, Acrobats, Bards, and Rangers are designed to be very rare game classes. They only come along once in a blue moon. The standard classes are classes just about anyone can qualify for: Fighter, Mage, Thief and Cleric. You ever wonder why it only takes a 9 in a prime attribute to qualify for such classes. Because they are the foundation of the game. The only unplayable PC you can roll up is a set of stats with Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom and Dexterity ALL below 9. That one you get to re-roll. D&D has a built in assumption: you are playing in a D&D world. If we let everyone pick the class we want first and then use a method which generates the stats they need to play that class, we are playing in some other game world. Sorry but that's just the way it is.

Which brings me at long last to my analysis of the above methods. One can quickly see the 4d6 drop the lowest method raises the average by a full two points. That is simply not reflective of the concept explained above. 18d6 maintains the 10.5 average but allows players to assign one or more outstanding attributes. That too is unrealistic and should be avoided. Other more cheating oriented methods, and they are as many as the days of the Sun, only compound the problem. I have chosen 2d6 + 6 and 1d6 + 12 but these raise the averages horrendously and we are dealing with freaks of nature again. The game becomes a parody of itself in this case. Heaven forbid we allow rerolls of 1s or even 1s and 2s.

Point buy methods are seen as a way to "balance" characters. But one of the tenets of old school is to forget balance. And honestly it is a gross misrepresentation of the natural biological balance of life. 75 attribute points + 1d6 is the only method I chose but you can see that it generates an average or 12 or 13 and again allows players to assign earth-shattering abilities in one or more areas. Other point buy methods can lower the average, but you still have the ability to assign too frequent unbelievable stats. Some examples of other point buy spreads are.
  • 60 points = an average score of 10
  • 63 = 10.5
  • 65 = 10.8
  • 70 = 11.7
  • 80 = 13.3
  • 85 = 14.2
  • 90 = 15 (and if you have even got close to this far you should go play Rifts or something)
So, we can see that such methods simply skew the game. Thus 3d6 makes for the best method for rolling up characters in line with the game's objectives. Given the spread above for the ten sets of stats generated with 3d6 every character class is possible except for monk. If you feel the need for magnanimity the furthest I would go would be the Method IV in the DMG which allows the generation of 12 separate characters rolled by 3d6 from which the player can pick. Anything else screws with nature.

Nature presents us with complete packages. We are not genetic engineers selecting for certain attributes when we build characters. We take what nature gives us. Which is the reason I prefer recording stats IN ORDER. Nature doesn't favor strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence or any other factor. Nature shoots for a median. Occasionally you get an exception in one or another area. Maybe strength is high but wisdom is low. Or vice versa. That's nature man. But you can expect a statistical mean over time. 3d6 gives us this in game terms. We go screwing with Mother Nature and things get all out of whack.

So when players come to my table they are choosing to be born into a D&D world. They don't know what body they are going to get anymore than we do when we leave the womb. It is what it is. And playing an average person striving to become a hero is inspirational. It's moving. Sure we are all inspired by Conan and Batman and Spidey. But the fact is none of us are like them. None of us ever will be. But average people becoming heroes translates to our world and inspires us here and now. What if i got translated to a fantasy world now, today? Could I make it? That's what the game gives us the chance to experience. We can overcome great odds, even though we are at best average people. It is yet another case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. We rise above our native ability and do great things. I mean take a PC with 2 or 3 18's and every other stat above 14. Who wouldn't expect such a Wolverine type mutant to conquer the world?! If he dies it's his own stupid fault. Nature gave him everything! He can't blame the heavens for cursing him with mediocrity. This is the ethos original D&D was built upon. It is the old school way. And this has been my bid to get rid of all the other cheating methods and simply roll 3d6 in order and go out and make history.
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