Pros and Cons of Character Generation Systems

The character generation screen is our first foray into a new game world. We look at the pros and cons of the three main types.

Pros and Cons of Character Generation Systems

The character generation process is a player's first taste of how a
roleplaying game will work. In some games, it serves as an introduction to
the background math that determines the abilities and potency of the
character. In other games, it's not much more than putting a custom skin
on a generic package. 

There are three types of character generation systems in the MMO world,
and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. We'll take a look at each
one - where it can be found, what are its merits, and what makes the other
systems better.

1. Fixed Stats

Character Generation Systems - Fixed stats (SWTOR)

In this system, the player selects from a few standard options such as
race, gender and character class. These factors alone determine the
character's stats, skills and combat specializations. Actual player input
into the functionality of the character is limited - mostly, this system
focuses on choosing hilarious mohawk-and-moustache combos and picking
awesome facial tattoos.

This is the most commonly-encountered character generation system in
"themepark-style" MMOs, where balance and fairness are of paramount
importance. Everyone has the exact same opportunities and players don't
need to be armed with spreadsheets and scientific calculators to be good
at something. 

The numbers that are used for stats can vary pretty widely. Usually,
stats increase with level, and the specific increases depend on the
character's class.

Where It Can Be Found:

World of Warcraft,
RIFT, Tera
, Star Wars: The Old
, the
Lord of the Rings Online
, Guild
Wars 2
, many others


  • Uniformity - If all characters of the same
    type start out with all the same stats and abilities, everyone is on the
    same level playing field. This makes it easier for designers to create
    content for specific level ranges because relative power can be easily
  • Ease of Use - This is the least complicated
    of the character generation systems, at least from the player's point of
    view. Choices are simple, everything is explained with detailed tooltips
    and there is little risk of accidentally creating an unplayable
    character because of poor choices.


  • Gear Dependency - Particularly at high
    levels, standout character performance relies heavily on gear. The guy
    with the purple-quality +10 Flaming Uber-sword of All-Smiting will
    always have a big advantage over the same-level guy with the
    green-quality +9 Meh-sword of Genericus, regardless of relative player
    skill level.
  • Inflexibility - Players have no choice in
    how their character is put together. And while players usually have a
    fair bit of leeway with cosmetic choices, fresh toons have no
    individuality. At low levels, there is not really any such thing as a

Where It Might Pop Up Next:

It seems very likely that this system will be used by the
Elder Scrolls Online
. The single-player games all use a
point-buy character generation system, but the MMO game will be more
heavily-focused on character classes rather than freeform, sandbox-style
characters. And while the MMO may keep the single-player gimmick of
leading the player through character creation via a prison-exit story as
has always been done in Elder Scrolls games, chances are that it will end
with simply picking a class and using sliders to make your dude really fat
or buff and sporting an hilarious muttonstache.

Pros and Cons of Character Generation Systems

2. Point-Buy

With the Point-Buy system, players tweak their stats with pluses and
minuses, distributing points at the player's whim. Often, a character's
stats will start out at an even, low-average number, and points are drawn
from a pool to increase these stats as the player sees fit. This can also
apply to combat skills, where points are drawn from a pool to increase
specific combat abilities in preference to others.

This one is more common among "sandbox-style" MMOs, where player freedom
is valued over uniformity. It's also quite common in single-player RPGs
like the Elder Scrolls series (except for TES V: Skyrim), and in more
recent 3/3.5 Edition D&D-based games. 

Character Generation Systems - Point-buy (DDO)

Point-buy systems may find use later in a game as a progression tool,
even if they are not used for actual character generation. Even in games
with locked progression paths, talent or skill trees use a point-buy
system for incremental increases every level. This is technically not part
of the character creation process, but it does show the flexibility of the
system - it can be used for anything.

Where It Can Be Found:

Dungeons & Dragons
, Neverwinter Nights, Fallout's S.P.E.C.I.A.L., The
Elder Scrolls I - IV, other single-player RPGs, some sandbox-style MMOs


  • Min-Maxing - By allocating as many points as
    possible to main stats and combat skills, players can create characters
    that are exceptionally strong in very focused areas. This can
    potentially create weaknesses elsewhere, but those weaknesses are
    usually offset by that one overpowering strength. For example, a melee
    fighter type trading mental stats (Intelligence, Will, etc) for physical
    stats (Strength, Endurance, etc) will have slightly lower resistance to
    mental attacks and/or fewer skill points, but he will hit super-hard and
    have more hit points.
  • Flexibility - The point-buy system allows
    for a much broader range of playstyles. Generalist or atypical class
    builds are possible right from the start. This gives players much
    greater and more specific control over their characters.


  • Math Is Boring - It can potentially take a
    lot of research and experimentation to figure out what, exactly, all
    those numbers actually do. For some systems, the higher one increases a
    stat, the more points each increment costs, and it can be tedious
    figuring out optimal point distribution.
  • Potentially Unbalancing - Even with checks
    and balances in place - stat caps, scaling point costs, etc. - players
    always find ways to exploit synergistic powers and skill combos to
    produce characters powerful enough to "break" the game. This isn't such
    a problem in single-player games where it doesn't affect players who
    want to experience the game straight, but in MMOs it can be a

Where It Might Pop Up Next:

Chances are pretty good that the forthcoming Pathfinder
will use this system. Point-buy has proven to work
very well with the d20 ruleset, which is at the core of the Pathfinder
system. It is also quite likely to be used for Elder Scrolls character
progression, using points to increase combat skills every level.

Pros and Cons of Character Generation Systems

3. Random Number Generator

Generating stats via random number generators (RNG) used to be a lot more
common than it is nowadays. This system mirrors the tabletop D&D
system of rolling actual dice to determine stats. This style has fallen
out of favor in recent years, but back in the day it was a part of nearly
every D&D-influenced RPG. 

Character Generation Systems - RNG (Neverwinter)

This system is often combined with a point-buy system, allowing players
to randomly roll a set of stats and then reallocate the points. In the
Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series, it was possible, usually with
dozens and dozens of re-rolls, to get a set of maxed-out (or nearly so)
stats with an average of 16 - 18 across all six stats. Most often, though,
the player ended up with an average of 12 - 14, with a couple of high
stats and everything else average or lower.

Where It Can Be Found:

Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, other old-school 2nd Edition D&D-based


  • Same As Tabletop - Random number generators
    make a game feel more like tabletop RPGs that use physical dice to
    perform the exact same function. This is why veteran MMO players refer
    to the process as "rolling" a new character.
  • Possibility of Super-Characters - There's
    always a chance, if you re-roll enough times, that you will get a
    character with a "perfect" set of attributes of all-18's. Such a
    character, while not actually indestructible, has essentially every
    advantage that a freshly-rolled character could have.


  • Likelihood of Useless Crap - The
    chances of rolling a well-below-average character are far higher than
    the very slim chance of rolling a super-character. It's very possible to
    roll characters with nothing but penalties. This is why most RNG-based
    character creators also use point-buys with redistributable points - you
    can pad those pesky 6's up to 10's by taking a point here and there from
    13's and 15's.
  • Random Does Not Equal Control - Players are
    at the mercy of chance and fate when they roll their characters with a
    random number generator. Even with redistributable points, you could end
    up with a sucky character because that's what the RNG gave you. 
  • RNGs Are Not Dice - Ask any long-time
    tabletop roleplayer, and they will assure you that RNGs do not behave
    the same as actual, physical dice. Real dice do not use wonky
    probability algorithms to generate a number. And if a "lucky" d6
    suddenly starts rolling strings of 1's, you can swap it for a different
    die. That is not an option for RNGs. 

Where It Might Pop Up Next:

As dated as it may seem now, this system will be used in Neverwinter.
But only for actual character generation - the new character progression
system, which will be in place for open beta when it starts on April 30,
uses point-buy for training new and improving old skills.

Everyone has a favorite character generation method, but it is important
to remember that no one system is perfect. And no one system is going to
appeal to every type of gamer. But each type certainly has its place.

What's your favorite character generator, and why? Let us know in our

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