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RPG Rants

Brony Number 42


Random Stat Generation


I do not like games where you randomly determine your character's statistics. Dungeons and Dragons is the most famous example of this, and that is the game I will be talking about for the most part. There is a fatal flaw in creating a character this way. The problem is you could end up rolling a really bad character. Who wants to play a character with bad stats? Some will claim that this is not a problem because you could also roll a character with really good stats. But just because you have the possibility of rolling well doesn't justify the case when you roll poorly.


Let us review the concept of averaging over many rolls. Consider rolling for an attack. Sometimes you hit and sometimes you miss. This doesn't matter as long as you win on average over many attacks. Failing the roll a few times doesn't matter that much. If you miss this time, you know that you will hit at some point in the future. But this is not the case when rolling your initial stats. For these rolls, you get one chance. Therefore, there is no averaging process. Over the course of many campaigns perhaps you play many characters. In this case then maybe you have some weak and some strong characters. Maybe only in this situation do you find consolation in an average. But who plays with the philosophy, “It's ok to have a crappy character this time because maybe next time I will have a better character”?


Some people have said that they like playing flawed or weak characters. They claim that the characters are more interesting to play. This makes no sense to me. I'm not talking about a personality flaw. I'm talking about a weak stat. So I'm talking about the numbers. Perhaps I can understand someone having fun playing a character who can't lie. But what is so fun about playing a character with a low wisdom score? I think someone claiming that this is fun is simply justifying a bad game design. For example, consider a game with a point-buy system. Players are given a certain number of points to assign to their ability scores. Would you decide to throw away one or more points in order to purposely make a weak character? I can't imagine someone doing that on a point-buy system, yet someone would justify that on a random roll system.


Another part of this discussion is the idea that you should come up with a character concept first, then come up with the numbers. What happens if your randomly rolled numbers don't match your concept? Why would you let random dice rolls dictate your character? I am not so interested in a character concept, as such. Meaning, I'm not so interested in a background story. Why can't my concept be that he is a fighter? If the DM tells me that I need a back story then I will come up with the bare minimum that he wants.


Getting back to the idea of having a weak character, would you choose a weak character over a strong one? In D&D, the stats can range from 3 to 18. If the DM told you that you could choose your stats, wouldn't you choose all 18s? I see no reason not to. The older editions of D&D are notorious for being difficult and deadly. Having a maxed out character does not really make the game too easy.


Combat Without A Map


Put simply, it can't be done. More accurately, it can't be done well. Of course people play this way, but the combat has to be simplified. You can't have more than about two enemies attacking each character. Any more than this and it would be too awkward to keep track of where everyone is. You also can't employ advanced tactics. For example, one strategy is to know what your range is on a ranged weapon, the distance to a target, and the target's movement. You can put yourself at a distance such that the enemy can't reach you in his next turn. You can also flank, calculate area of affects for spells, environmental effects, and other things. There is no way you can do these things without keeping track of character positions.


Having high detail in combat does not preclude role playing. People have used the term “theater of the mind,” as if this were inherently better than miniature combat. I think this is a cop out. You lose too much when you can't employ tactics. A game, by definition, has rules. The rules are meant to adjudicate actions. How can you have a situation where the DM just makes it up as he goes along?


Wizard: “I target my fireball so that it hits the orcs but misses my allies.”
DM: “Um, ok, I'll say that your allies are out of range.”
Archer: “Wait, if I'm out of range of his fire ball, then am I still in short range with my bow?”
Thief: “But I'm at the door trying to pick the lock, wouldn't that put me in the blast radius?”
DM: “Um, I don't know.”


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I agree with some of the sentiment around the first point - certainly in a game centred around head bashing, not having the stats to bash heads in (the hypothetical all-3 statline in D&D, for example) can be annoying. I have played a few characters in similar positions though, and I will say that there is an interesting challenge in finding solutions without rolling when you know that you won't win a head-on conflict*.

I don't like point-buy systems though, as it tends to produce stat lines that are so very predictable - paladins always have 18 charisma + racial bonus (probably one that gives a +2 in charisma), so on and so fourth, and I see random rolls as the lesser evil. That's partially a matter of taste, I suppose.

Now, there is one rather nifty method I heard of a little while ago that gives randomised stats whilst also ensuring that all characters have an 'equal' statline. It also requires a symmetrical distribution (which the standard D&D 5th edition doesn't have - although as the 4d6 discard lowest is designed to avoid low-statline characters through sheer weight of probability, you could probably switch it to a 3d6 per attribute and then use this system) and it also requires an even number of attributes (though that can be worked around.)

What you do is you roll half of the attributes, then for each value take the equally probable value from the opposite side of the distribution curve. For 2d6, for example, the mean is 7. That means that if you roll a 7, a 9 and a 6 then the additional numbers you generate are 7 (from 7), 5 (from 9) and 8 (from 6.) Using this method, you are guaranteed to get an average of 7 but the results are still random - kind of nifty, really. Now, it will produce a more limited range of outcomes but that kind of shows it as it is - the half-way house between no randomness in generation and complete randomness in generation; I find that it's generally best used for games with more attributes, or that have a greater range of attributes.


As to maps, I think that stating that you can't do combat well without one is untrue. As a counterexample, the Skyward Steel naval combat expansion for Stars Without Number has really good ship-to-ship combat, with crew-members manning stations and choosing which actions they take to buff their ship or debuff their opponents. The system doesn't use a maps as they aren't considered necessary for the system - the focus is on the crew's choices on board. You could try and throw in Homeworld-style positioning combat, but that would add rather a lot more work. This extends to many other systems - as a rule of thumb combat should be as complex as it needs to be, but adding more can make the system worse by slowing it down without adding enough benefit. I agree that in a lot of cases, such as D&D, a map can add a lot - but that is system- and situation-dependent^ rather than an absolute statement.

To put it into a more abstract sense, I propose that one should add physical dimensions to combat when motion in that dimension has sufficient benefit (in terms of improved gameplay) for the cost involved (the cost being complexity.) Quite when that is varies by group.

For some situations, one dimension might be enough (a chase, for example, where the only real measure is distance from the target) whilst squad-based tactics appreciate two or even three. Whilst the idea of a four-dimensional combat, in which characters move through their timeline (say) and you can mess with cause and effect, sound really fun, I can't imagine how you would implement that in a practical manner on a tabletop (a good idea for a computer game, perhaps, because computers can handle a lot of complex systems without bothering the players with them.)



*probably my favourite was a 40k Only War campaign vs the Tau. Smart missiles, pulse rifles and railguns made combat a really nasty business for our squishy guardsmen, but a variety of tricks and clever ideas allowed us to achieve our mission regardless. 

^a good example is Legend of the Five Rings, which has a very interesting duelling system where a map is completely unnecessary, but it still has quite good depth to it (it's all about choosing when to strike.) 

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That stat generation method guarantees you will have crappy numbers and good numbers. My hang up is in the idea that I could have had a better roll, theoretically. If the rules require that stat method then I guess I can't argue with the rules. But the end result is not much different from a point buy. You have the same total number of points in both cases, and in a point buy where you don't have enough points to have all max stats (else why even have points) the result is the same. In other words, if I spend enough points to get a 12 then it means I have to leave a stat at 2.

I played Legend Of The Five Rings one semester and I hated the game. Mostly because of the style and not the mechanics. I disagree that you can have good combat without a map. What you have is strategy, but not tactics. An abstract board game can have strategy. Rock paper scissors has strategy. But in a combat oriented rpg what I want is combat simulation.

Consider a minis war game. I want to place my units to utilize their abilities, which simulates real combat. I do NOT want to abstract that out to a point where we roll dice in a vacuum and declare that a battle had been won. I see no fun in merely looking at a page of numbers and buffing or cursing the numbers on a target's page. My ability X defeats your ability Y. I want to know that I won or lost because of my ability to manipulate the complex interacts of a physical environment and character ability. I want to actually flank a target, not play a card from a deck that says "Flank. Add 2 to your die roll." You could argue that a round of Magic The Gathering and a battle of Warhammer 40k both simulate a fight, but you can't say they satisfy the same desire of play.

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