Yesterday I went on a bit of a rant about random stat generation. That’s fine; rants are good for the spleen, after all. But today i felt I’d like to talk about that a little bit, and start clearing up in my own head why it is I feel this way. You can come too! Everyone’s invited!
First, let’s define a few terms. When I say random generation of attributes, I mean that certain fundamental characteristics of a character are decided using dice or another randomizer, like cards or what have you. Specifically, this is a concern over statistics of a character, not over actions of a character… using dice to determine how many HP a character loses is totally fine, but using dice to determine how many HP she HAS to lose grates upon me. Likewise, randomly determining skill levels and attribute values is frustrating, even if every use of those skills and attributes involves a dice roll. Random equipment and appearance factors and mutations and whatnot… that’s potentially here as well, unless there’s a dang good reason I should step into the world with random stuff in my pocket and DNA (Gamma World, for instance, where mutations come and go with the breeze and most equipment is laughably useless). And just for the record, even when the randomization is heavily weighted–“Roll 5d6, dropping the lowest two, eight times, dropping the lowest two, and put them in any order, and if there’s anything still under ten reroll the whole process again”–I still hate it.
Why? Well, let’s start by rescinding something… yesterday I called random generation a pennyfarthing: i.e.: an outdated technology which is notable only for its ridiculousness to modern eyes. Well, that’s unfair of me. Random generation has its place, and makes perfect sense, for people who see character generation as a part of gameplay. You see… a set of game mechanics creates a world, after all, one which operates on a set of rules and which, more often than not, features an element of chance in every interaction. Obviously, then, an element of chance exists when you come into this world; just as a person doesn’t choose who or what she is born as, a gamer shouldn’t be able to choose exactly what his or her statistics are. Like a real person, she just makes do with what she is given, apportions her energy as best she can, and runs with it. Fine. That makes for certain challenges, both for a person whose rolls average low, and the person who is forced to take a dump stat for one preposterously minimal roll. Even the high-roller with two 18s has to figure out how to play their character as the superhuman it is, and some folks love that roll-playing challenge. That’s fine. That’s dandy.
… that’s simulationist. UGH, it pains me in the gut to even bring up the term, to talk of that triad of simulationist/gamist/narrativist, but reductive as it is, it really does apply here. Random generation makes sense for a game that is about presenting a World that is meant to be, in its own terms at least, realistic. You know what, though? Screw realism. Screw it! I don’t want it here!
(Aside: I know that my viewpoint here is biased but I am utterly, utterly baffled by people who disagree with me. In RPGs and video games as much as in more traditional media, I am a fellow who craves stories because I value what they can offer BEYOND mere realism. Mamet can tell us all about how life is a desperate and pathetic struggle, but Beckett can do it better. The various Counterstrikes can be visceral and exhilarating, but never as much as Team fortress 2. Stylizing the world can purify it, cutting off the dross and leaving behind an idea more powerful than one which sits in a simulacrum of the real world.)
I am (heavy sigh) narrativist in my viewpoint. The story is the thing… the progression of characters and plot, not according to the rules of the world but according to the confines to the drama. To me, an essential part of this is separating character creation from the game, because the character is NOT a part of the world. No, no, a PC exists in the Abstract Story, which is an external affair. She is crafted, and has a journey put in front of her, and a purpose in life, and all that good stuff which is anathemic to random generation. What if I don’t want to tell the story of the guy with a 3 in Charisma? What if I don’t want to tell the story of the lady with three 18s? It’s not a balance issue, it’s an ownership issue: she is my creation, so I cannot help but take umbrage when control is taken away from me, just as much as I would if the GM declared that she walked into an obvious trap against my will.
When do you gain ownership of the character? DnDNext makes it clear to me that ownership begins at step two, after the attributes are generated but before they are assigned. That’s not okay with me… I want ownership from moment one. I don’t think that makes me unnecessarily greedy–I’m not opposed to playing a character who is weaker than his associates–but it does make me controlling. I’m okay with that.
You disagree? That’s fine too. Play however makes sense to you. But I am going to be a little perplexed and, yes, annoyed when a game I have some emotional investment in makes it clear that they don’t stand with me.