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23 June 2013 @ 08:28 pm
Dungeons & Design 7: Lethality and Random Character Generation  
How are those concepts connected? Well, I'll explain!

One of the problems I frequently run into in the games I like to run and play is how long character generation takes. It's an unavoidable problem with any system that allows a wide variety of player choice--they'll have to figure out what they want to play, figure out what abilities they want to take that fit their concept, spend those leftover points on things that might be useful, go back and forth with the other players on what the proper distribution of character resources should be, etc., etc. I don't want to knock group character generation, or even spending a session doing so, because some of my players really like it. I don't blame them, either. Part of the reason I like more complex systems is that I like the give-and-take of planning out a group and trying to cover for all eventualities in skill and power selection.

The thing is, this directly disincentivizes killing characters. Or, I suppose if you want to have less agency ascribed to it, it disincentivizes running a game with high lethality. If anyone dies, in addition to all the normal headaches of integrating a new person into the group, you now have to wait for the dead person to create a new character, which will take the same length of time as before. Even if they really have a concept nailed down and know the system, they'll still have to spend all their points, make sure everything adds up, and so on, and that's time they're not playing. There isn't really any way to get around this without reducing the number of choices necessary for character generation.

I realized that part of the reason I don't like games with assumed lethality probably has a lot to do with this problem. I like games with a lot of widgets and mechanical crunch to get my teeth around, but I don't want to kill people off because that complexity directly feeds into the annoyance of making new characters. I tend to get around it by adding narrativist mechanics like Luck/Drama Points, but there's another way to reduce the problem: random character generation.

I'm not talking OD&D-style 3d6-in-order character generation, because that leads to characters of widely-varying power level in any system where stats actually matter (admittedly, that's not OD&D). However, something like Reign's One-Roll Character Generator is pretty amazing. The chart's in that link, but you roll a certain amount of dice--eleven, by default--and check the matches on the various categories and adjust your attributes as described, and check any non-matching dice on the events table (there are three in the rules--only one is listed there). The rules specifically give you the option to take some dice and set them aside in a set already, so someone who knows they want to be a mighty sorcerer can set aside five 9s and roll the rest to see what happens. In addition, each die of the set provides 5 points worth of abilities when compared to the point-buy method, so all characters are balanced and it's easy to adjust the power level of characters up or down as desired.

This is amazing. It's probably the best random character generation system I've ever seen and half has me tempted to just throw all this out and use Dragon Reign, the D&D-esque fantasy conversion for Reign, but I've spent a bunch of time on this so far and I don't want to just give it up. So, how can I replicate a system like that?

Reign's One-Roll Character Generation works because everything has a fixed value so it's easy to set things up to map to the dice. That goes directly against the idea that Advantages would have different costs, but then again, Advantages having different costs makes character generation take longer as well so maybe that's a bad idea. As long as I can avoid the problems of Toughness vs Improved Initiative, then I'm not wedded to either cost structure.

Speaking of Advantages, Reign uses them too, but the One-Roll Character Generator doesn't. Only a very few options give you Advantages, so that's something I want to take into account.

Another option that doesn't require everything to be quite so meticulously balanced is a lifepath system, the way Fading Suns or Traveler or Burning Wheel do. So, for example, someone who wants to be a court wizard would take the Raised in the Lap of Luxury Path, that gives +1 Charisma and +1 Intelligence, and then +1 Empathy, +1 Lie, +1 Persuasion, +1 Etiquette, +1 Lore (Nobility), and the "Noble Birth" Advantage. Then they'd move on to the Young Noble Path, then the Apprentice Sorcerer Path, picking up Stats and Advantages and Skills along the way. This lets me tailor things specifically to the setting and tells a lot about one's character before they start, plus it provides a good selection of skills and prevents the kind of direct focusing that you tend to get with pure point-buy if the system isn't set up to discourage it, such as with geometric costs or other balancing factors. The obvious disadvantage here is that I have to write a bunch of lifepaths. Then again, I'm not sure how much of a disadvantage that would be for me...

I could even add an option for random lifepaths, too, if people can't decide. Beyond the Wall, a OSR game about a group of childhood friends who go off and have adventures, designed to emulate YA books like The Chronicles of Prydain or The Earthsea books, has something similar. Because of Beyond the Wall's focus, the lifepaths are designed to determine who lives in the characters' town, what buildings are there, and how the characters know each other. It's extremely well designed.

If I want to run any kind of dungeon bash or hexcrawl game where lethality is assumed, I'll need to do something.
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