Friday, 7 February 2014

My Dice Don't Lie

Painting of the Havocs finally restarted last night after a long lull due to gaming, holiday booking, mould making, mould pouring, roleplaying..... I have been a negligent Chaos Lord!  But I'll post up some progress photos soon as the unit takes shape.  I am determined to have them ready soon because I really want to add them into the mix for my Apocalypse game on the 21st.

However, so that you don't go too long without content of some sort, I want to share some thoughts I've had on RPG character generation - in particular, inspired  by the recent generation by Ailsa of a new character for our Pendragon game.

"Right!  Now for a complete change of mood...."

This Arthurian game allows players to create the sons of their previous characters, allowing family trees to develop: when we started playing Ailsa's first character Sir Rhodri was a 21 year old beginner knight and Arthur hadn't even been born yet, but nor Sir Rhodri is 53, Arthur is a young King married to Guenever and Rhodri's son Rhodric has just rode out as a 21 year old beginner knight.

Sir Rhodric determines some of his character sheet numbers based on his fathers - he is more likely to have a high Hate (Saxons) score because Rhodri has a high Hate (Saxons).  However dice are rolled for these passions so while the average result should be about the same as the father, the far ends of the bell curve can produce very high or very low results.  In particular, Ailsa rolled an even higher Hate (Saxons) than her father, who was already ranked very higher - 24 rather than 20 - but her new knight's Honour score was a rather underwhelming 7 compared to her father's score of 15. 

Plus a 2 and a 3 on the other dice.

This wasn't quite what Ailsa had in mind: how can she resolve this with her idea of a still heroic character?

Part of this is understanding that character generation in different games can be very differnet, with varying different ratios of randomness to choice.  Some games eschew all randomness and have every element chosen by playres, such as GURPS or Mutants & Masterminds; some games are mostly choice with a small amount of randomness somewhere, such as D&D's rolled stats; some games have stronger randomness to them, such as Traveler where you choose what career you'll do in each four year term but most roll randomly to see how well you perform in that career.  Some games have differeing amounts of randomness, offering players and GMs a controlled average or the chance to risk the dice; Pendragon is one of these: you can choose standardised point buy with Attributes like Strength, Personality Traits like Generous and Passions like Loyalty (Lord) or you can trust to your dice and see where they take you.

In some ways, calling these different system by the same name of "character generation" is a misnomer.  The more  player-choice-centric systems could be better described as "character modelling" - you come in with an idea and the rules allow you to create that idea. For example you decide you want a superhero who has no powers but, like Batman, is a skilled martial artist - you then work out how best to assemble that with whatever selections the system offers you.  Meanwhile, the more random systems truly are "character generation" in the sense that even if you start with no firm idea of what you want to play, when the dice have stopped rolling a character has been created.  I sat down once to make a Traveler character who would be an older ex-Wet Navy type from a rough industrial city, but little idea beyond that: by the end of it a fully-formed character had emerged who had been denied promotion several times for his common background but whose skills had eventually seen him commissioned and awarded a place in a privileged special operations team whose extreme training made him an ideal choice for a new space travel program.

Maybe Mordred's player just wanted to make a generic hero and let the dice fall where they may?

Much ink has been spilled and many electrons-miles flown over the various benefits of both systems and suffice to say it's very much a "taste may vary" thing.  Ailsa's plight highlights the perils of randomised character generation elements when they end up rolling for things you already have an idea for - it's fine if you haven't decided how honourable Sir Rhodric is and just leave it to chance, but if you've got a mental image that Honour 7 doesn't fit then a problem emerges.  I've seen a Traveller character generation session where characters were rolled up who developed surprise amputations and dishonourable discharges from careers which were, again, just a step don't far.  And of course there's the various random stat generation systems for D&D which have so many arcane steps, re-rolls, averaging, number swapping etc that they effectively become point buy but for some players they insist on the mental construct of "we roll our stats for D&D because that's what D&D looks like".

My advice on how best to gain enjoyment from random character generation systems involves misquoting Shakira: My Dice Don't Lie

Pies Descalzos herself
 Basically, you need to go in knowing the system is randomised and approach your character with as little baggage as possible.  Until it's been rolled, it isn't true; when it has been rolled, the job of the player and GM is to rationalise it with all other determined facts.  When Nicky wants to create a Wizard for 1979 AD&D but the Intelligence he rolls is very low, perhaps he's a actually a wannabe wizard with no formal training or someone who has a natural magical talent but struggles with the practicalities.  When George's naval pilot gets kicked out of officer academy as a teenager - well, logically, that pilot could still join the navy at the bottom and try to work their way up, and maybe they got kicked out for political reasons rather than skill ones?  If you have an idea before-hand and the dice preclude it, you have to accept that My Dice Don't Lie and adapt your idea.  Real people often have odd skills that aren't perfect matches to their job, strange knowledges they acquired for no clear reason and histories with some events that seem out of character to how you know them - when the random rolls don't make sense, in an odd way this can be seen as making characters more "realistic".

Obviously this won't work for some people who enjoy the act of creating up characters in advance or who have very specifics things they like and dislike in a character.  If you are determined to play a Wizard because you find D&D Fighters boring, but random stat rolls mean playing a Wizard is impractical and a Fighter is much easier then it's little consolation to be told "Hey, man, REAL roleplayers would play it regardless".  (I wouldn't deny you the right to punch the due that said that in the face, in fact. )  If your game group has specific niches that need filled but randomised character generation complicates that -you need a new starship pilot but random generation refuses to give you the rolls you need so you get stuck as an accidental medic - then the entire group can suffer from a lack of a vital skill.  Most random system still have a fair bit of player choice, but for some people it isn't going to be enough.

Yeah, I'm an awesome non-white female Cleric.... but I was trying to roll Conan the Barbarian.
As for Ailsa's problem?  Well, we nattered a bit about exactly what can reduce an Honour score in play.  Sir Rhodric's sister, Lady Ruth, is a known sorcererss - and handling magic is a dishonourable act for knights.  Is his close relationship with what his Christian knights would call a "pagan Witch" what's lowering his score?  He does have the Chivalrous trait, so clearly he isn't cowardly or deceitful or anything: but perhaps not casting out the outspoken and wanton Ruth earns him some demerits from his peers.

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