GMing Mistakes 9 – Randomized Characters

I’ve heard all sorts of reasoning. “Not everyone is equal in real life.” “It doesn’t matter how good your character is, there’s always something to do.” “Its in the rules.” “I want to push the players to do something different.” Well, these are true. I can’t argue with that. What I can argue with is that these aren’t very good reasons. There are a lot of things that are true, but you wouldn’t really want it that way.

So, lets start with going through the four reasons above.

“Its in the rules” is just weak. Most systems do have alternative ways to create characters and you can come up with your own anyhow.

“I want to push the players to do something different” seems like a good idea, but that isn’t easy. Pushing the boundaries of people is an art that’s very difficult to master. You have to guide the people along to the point where they are ready to do it. You can’t just tell them to do it. And even if you were good at it, why would you want to force people into it? Seems like you are giving yourself power you shouldn’t have over other people, unless they are willing to give you that power. If they came over just to have a fun adventure, don’t take freedoms.

“Not everyone is equal in real life” is not understanding what games are about. They are escapism. They are not about class struggles (although they might be, if you want to). This excuse works sometimes, but it should be more of a planned thing, that’s brought out in special circumstances. PCs aren’t supposed to be equal. They are all supposed to be able to be the protagonists in the story. If they don’t have the stats to follow up on that, what’s the point?

And lastly, “It doesn’t matter how good your character is, there’s always something to do” is thin as well. If one player rolls badly and has a poor character, they might have something to do, but they’ll definitely be limited in their options. Players are your resources. You can use them to create a fascinating story. Then, when someone rolls badly in their character creation, you fucked up one of those resources. He can’t participate in the same way the others can. Why would you ever want to do that?

Now, let me be clear here. I’m all for randomization if its justified in some way, but its not easy to use it. The nature of probability is such that you definitely don’t want to put one player into a major disadvantage over a long period, unless that is part of the concept. That really, really needs a reason behind it. One-shots… sure. Why not? They are supposed to be a place to test things.

Also, I’m not opposed to limited or controlled randomization. Like for example a game devised by a couple of people I’ve been playing with recently. In their system you get to choose most of the things, but people have certain random stamps related to the abilities they choose to be good at. Works quite well. Also, contacts are randomized. That doesn’t matter too much, so its fine.

I’ve also been a proponent of using various random elements to either create a background or having a set amount of points, but putting them into different attributes randomly (which I’m pretty sure I’ve written about, but can’t find it right now). These don’t mess with the characters abilities to function (at least not too much), so they are safe.

Still, all randomization in the character creation should be used carefully, because all mistakes here are hard to correct over the campaign.

6 thoughts on “GMing Mistakes 9 – Randomized Characters

  1. As a player, I prefer random character generation. Being the protagonist in a story is not really important to me (and many stories do have protagonists with unequal power levels).

    Character balance only really matters in a game of scripted mechanics-intensive mini-games (such as D&D 4 combats), or in a power fantasy where the main point of the game is for players to feel good at the same time or one at a time in special encounters (I understand a fair bit of Dungeon world and FATE play goes to this direction).

    • First, I have much more sympathy for your stance, because its you and I know you have a better handle on probabilities than most people. And, of course, my intention is to provoke people into thinking about these things, even if I can only change their thinking a little.

      I think the most important message in my post was in the end. I want peopel to understand what they are doing when they choose to use randomization. They should understand what it actually does to the game. Maybe I should’ve give explicit calculations on probabilities in certain cases, but number 10 is going to about that anyway, so I’ll get to that later.

      Another key here is that when you need to take into account all the players, I feel the problems that might arise from randomization for different players should outweight the problems with not doing it. Of course people who like the randomization have a bias, as I do against it, but given the four example cases above, I think I’m on the side of good on this one.

  2. Funnily enough, I completely forgot one reason you shouldn’t randomize, which is that randomization can put you in a situation, where the players don’t have any control over what the group would look like, which can be problematic in some situations. Maybe I’ll use that in some other article in the series.

  3. I think you debunk reasons which are quite rare (or are they commonly used in your local gaming scene?). Don’t the games which use randomized character creation usually have a reason for it? Maybe it’s to differentiate characters as the stats don’t matter much anyway (old school D&D, Paranoia) or to create a feeling of a random ragtag group of adventurers (Warhammer FRPG)?

    • While reading these Mistakes you need to remember that they are mistakes from Aki’s point of view. He tends to provoke (as he stated) to cause discussion. He is also very blue (blue/black) by the definition of MtG’s colors. ^_^

    • If differentiation of characters is the goal, I would like to see it on a very different level. If there are multiple people with exactly the same stats, does it mean they are the same? (Maybe in HeroQuest, but that’s different.)

      My main point should probably be read as non-random should be the default position and you should only move away from it if you have a particular reason to do so. The history is such that its often seen as other way around, but to me that seems harmful.

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