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Pros and Cons of Character Generation Systems

By Jeff Sproul -
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 Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, the Lord of the Rings Online, Guild Wars 2, many others

Pros:

  • 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 calculated.
  • 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.
Cons:
  • 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 "build."
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 Online, Neverwinter Nights, Fallout's S.P.E.C.I.A.L., The Elder Scrolls I - IV, other single-player RPGs, some sandbox-style MMOs

Pros: 

  • 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.

Cons: 

  • 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 deal-breaker.

Where It Might Pop Up Next:

Chances are pretty good that the forthcoming Pathfinder Online 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 RPGs

Pros:

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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 comments!

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