Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Balancing Act in Character Creation - Lady Luck vs. Point Buy

A primary design goal of 3e and 4e was to achieve game balance - balance between the classes, encounters that balance with the level of the party, saving throws that are balanced vs. a spell's chance to succeed, and the list goes on.  3e may not have succeeded particularly well at balancing the classes or saving throws, but it was a design goal.  4e does a much better job at achieving this aim, and one interesting side effect became apparent to me when I was thinking about a comment that Jeff Rients made on my post about 4e and the ever expanding "core rules".

In reference to my point that the 4e character generator allowed you to make a character in a relatively short time, Jeff said,

"'Quick with a computer' just doesn't light my jets the same way 'quick with dice' does."

4e has not done away entirely with using dice in character creation, but it might as well have.  The 4e Player's Handbook does pay lip service to random stat generation with the 4d6, drop the lowest method.  However, reading the rules, using the character builder and looking at the careful math that has gone into making sure that you will have exactly such and such a chance to hit as long as your primary stat is within this range and your secondary stat is within that range, it becomes apparent that 4e's designers expect you to use one of the point build options presented in the Player's Handbook when making your character.  It is hard to have a truly balanced game when you could roll up a character with a 4 Strength, 6 Constitution, 5 Dexterity, 9 Intelligence, 5 Wisdom and 14 Charisma, for example.

Lest any of my "old school" readers take exception, let me make it clear that I am not advocating for balance in the sense that every character is expected to be as competent as every other character, and I am certainly not advocating for the abandonment of random dice rolls in character creation.  I am just noting that 4e has moved a long way in that direction.

I personally have always loved the moment of letting those dice fly and seeing the new character start to take shape with each toss.  I love getting that high roll on 3d6, and I love trying to make a character work and make sense with those inevitable low rolls.  Heck, I often have more fun when playing a character that "sucks" statistically.

Of course, attributes meant much less in the older versions of D&D than they do now.  In OD&D they were almost meaningless except for the experience bonuses you could get for your prime requisite.  They might be called into play by an individual DM asking for an attribute check or making a ruling on your ability to perform some action, but all in all it didn't really matter if you had a pathetic strength score.  Fast forward to 4e, and you might as well just slit your throat if you were the character with the rolls described above.  You would almost never hit anything in combat, you would be, for all intents and purposes, useless outside of combat (even that 14 Charisma is not a high stat by 4e standards which expect every starting character to have at least an 18 in one or more attributes!) thanks to 4e's reliance on skills and skill challenges and you would be extremely vulnerable thanks to the transformation of Saving Throws into defenses directly tied to your attributes.  This would be particularly painful if the rest of the group used the standard point buy method - you would be a giant millstone around their necks.

I am currently running a Mutant Future game.  Mutant Future might be the antithesis of the 4e trend toward balance - not only is it a "roll 3d6 down the line" kind of game, it is a "roll some random mutations and deal with the freaky results" kind of game.  One character might be able to fly at a ridiculous speed, completely possess another person merely by thinking about it or reflect damage back to its source, while another might take double damage, be twice as slow as normal, or emit an odor that attracts dangerous predators!  Take that, Balance Police!

While I am not sure what exactly my point is, I am sure about one thing - character creation in Mutant Future is WAY more fun than character creation in 4e... dare I say it is funner, because everyone knows that "funner" is more fun than "more fun".  Don't believe me?  Download the free .PDF of Mutant Future and roll up a character, then talk to me about balance!  Who cares about balance, honestly, when you are a sentient, mobile, mutant aloe vera plant or a bipedal porcupine that can shoot frickin' gamma rays from its eyes?


  1. I think this is connected to how in OD&D your character was rather expendable, especially at low levels, while in later games your character was a unique and precious snowflake.

    Is your character more important to you because you spent so much time generating it? Or do people choose games with complex character rules because they want to love and cherish one character for a long time?

    There definitely seems to be a correlation, but the causation is just as unclear.

  2. That is what is so interesting to me in this context - char gen in 4e is actually pretty quick and painless, when using the character builder! I don't think the precious snowflake syndrome is soley a consequence of how much time is spent building the character. I have been wondering if the causation doesn't flow the other direction - if the less likely you are to die in a given game, the more likely you are to view your character as a precious snowflake (not the more you view the character as a precious snowflake, the less likely it is to die in a game).

  3. It's not all huggie-feelie sentimentality, guys. Don't forget min-maxing. ;)

    If I know that a GM is likely to kill a few PCs off each session, why should I invest in a character? If, however, I know that the GM is dedicated to a 'dice as they fall' impartiality, I may want to take more time and care with my interface to the game world --provided I *care* about the setting, and not there just to roll dice and eat junk food. Lastly, if my GM says, 'I want to run a game that feels like Amber, and your characters will be scions of Amber in power level.' you bet I'm going to think about my choices and not simply roll 3d6 6x in order.

    Different sorts of games, regardless of edition/system, deserve different treatment.
    --Or are the D&D games only meant to be dungeon-crawls and coin-collection runs?

    My girlie sentimentality cropping up again. ;)

  4. "Heck, I often have more fun when playing a character that 'sucks' statistically."

    ME TOO!

    This probably has to do with where you want to invest the most of your energy and time: In character-building? Or in game play? I prefer the latter, so don't want to spend endless hours tinkering with stats and feats and skills (BORING!!). I happen to appreciate and enjoy a certain amount of randomness in the char. gen. process as well. Hence I play Labyrinth Lord and not 4e.

  5. Balance Shmalance, the first PC death in my current Mutant Future Campaign was a 17' long wolverine with a boat load of HP that did 3d6 with each of his 3 natural attacks. The character with but the 2 mutations of Increased Intelligence (mechanical aptitude) and Bizzare Appearance (she glows, even in the day) barely took any damage in 3 sessions.

  6. @JDJarvis

    I have one player who rolls up characters as a hobby (he has dozens and dozens) and then picks out the most bad-ass ones to play. He is also the player with BY FAR the most character deaths, five and counting with several more retired with crippling injuries! It ain't the mutations that matter, its how you use 'em.


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