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I'm designing my own RPG system and I want to avoid the most widely-recognized flaws, loopholes, and exploits that build-point character creation systems usually suffer from.

What are the most common ways players exploit point-based character creation and advancement systems?

So far I have precision based damage limited based on maximum build points so people can't just sink everything into that, and spell level access as well. Actions per round face a hard-and-fast cap at four (there's a base of two), and when switching between 'classes' (essentially just discounted rates on cost for a certain collection of abilities) there's a cost. How much should someone be able to max out their health? Mana? Weapon specialization? Two-weapon ability? I don't need an extensive list, just the most crucial game-breaking things.

My first play-test will be with my friend who is a notorious power-gamer and I'd like to already have the trivial loopholes tied off.

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This isn't an answer, because it's a reading-rec rather than a flaw to avoid. But, anyone thinking of doing fancy stuff like caps or segregated point pools with a point-based design owes themselves to read Burning Wheel. It's a multiple-pool point-buy design, but how the different pools' totals a determined is especially clever. The actual game isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it's a modern classic, and a must-read for game designers. – SevenSidedDie Sep 15 '12 at 3:14

10 Answers 10

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I can't give you a definitive list, but the immediate exploit I've seen, used, and inadvertently codified into my first BASIC chargen (on a CoCoII c. 1986) by proxy12 is the what I'll call the "mimeograph."3

The "mimeograph" is where having an otherwise optimized build in point spend, the next character is exactly the same as the first... to the point. Change the name, background, or other fluff detail, and the player is right back in the game.

1 the program would spit out the randomized or custom build and the player could just reuse the point spend manually, over and over, without ever returning to the source (figuratively and literally).

2 the game, Twilight:2000 1e by GDW

3 mimeograph does date me doesn't it. How many of us remember the pale blue/purple "dittos" from elementary school c. 1977?

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TL;DR the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts; but point-buy systems only ever price out the parts.

  1. The first rule of min-maxing is: certain abilities are worth more in combination than individually. For example, a powerful attack that leaves you vulnerable sounds like a fair trade-off. But if you are also invisible, then that mitigates the downside; so the powerful attack + invisibility together are more valuable than the individual prices would suggest.

  2. The second rule of min-maxing is: trade non-combat abilities for combat abilities. This is why fighters dump Charisma. If your system allows this, expect it to happen, and expect this to be less fun. The combat-heavy PCs will have little to do outside of combat, and the ones who are great outside of combat will find fights boring. A little bit of trade-off is OK since players have different preferences, but if things become too uneven, most groups will not enjoy it.

  3. The third rule of min-maxing is: Mitigate any disadvantages you have. (In a way this is a specialized application of the first rule.) For example, if you get points for lowering your speed but then buy teleport, or get points for having an enemy but then buy "untraceable," or be vulnerable to some damage type that you'll rarely get hit with (e.g. holy energy), or get points for a vow/compulsion to do something you want to do anyway ("compulsion: help the innocent", "vow: fight evil"). This is totally OK if the entire party is doing it! (See: GURPS.) In practice, some will get more free points than others.

In a class-based system, abilities are often packaged in such a way to minimize min-maxing. Like, in D&D 3.5/PF, if you want full sneak attack progression, you can't also play a fighter and get full attack progression. (Barring imbalanced Prestige Classes of course, which is why some people do not like PrCs.)

Point-buy systems let you take whatever you want and attempt to balance abilities with points that equate to the usefulness of the ability. This turns out to be very hard due to the first-rule of min-maxing. Point buy systems also allow the second rule of min-maxing in spades.

The best example I've seen of a point-buy system is Mutants & Masterminds because it very explicitly caps your attack/defense/damage/Toughness. It's very easy to hit the caps and very hard to get around them -- this puts the PCs on a very even footing, while still having points left over to spend on non-combat stuff. M&M also very clearly requires the GM to approve all characters to look out for players trying to get free points or side-step the caps. (For example, invisibility sidesteps the cap on defense by making you impossible to hit.)

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Point 2 is easiest to deal with: Just limit the proportion of build points that can be spent on combat stuff. (Anima: Beyond Fantasy is a good example of this, though it's not purely a point-buy system.) Some games go even further, and have separate build point pools for both combat and social abilities. – GMJoe Sep 21 '12 at 3:36

Disadvantages that don't provide any disadvantage. For example, Taking the no-eyes disadvantage, then taking the ability to see without eyes.

Another example: Taking a wounded leg disadvantage, then taking the ability to fly 1 cm above the ground with perfect manoeuvrability, resulting in a net game of points.

A number of games (Champions I believe, and possibly GURPS) work around this by stating any disadvantage that is fully negated provides no points.

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This is an complex flaw. I almost want to characterize disadvantages as something akin to proto-aspects a la Fate/Fudge. Consider that many disadvantages are taken to get more points ostensibly for in game, role-playing "pop." But they never get invoked, by player omission or referee distraction. Thus the advantages and disadvantages of the PC are like aspects that should be "taggable" (careful on using the mechanics, nouns, and verbs...I'm only drawing lines for clarity). "No point earn for disadvantages" or making them cost is nice, but somehow requiring use in RP is necessary too. – javafueled Sep 13 '12 at 15:23
@javafueled; GURPS (explicitly in 3e relebook, and implicitly elsewhere) expects the GM to penalize a character who games the system to negate a disadvantage, by reducing earned character points if your disadvantage 'should' have affected the session: the minimaxer ends up worse off than the rest of the party. – TimLymington Sep 20 '12 at 15:01

With most point based system gamers tend to equate points with combat effectiveness. That a 400 point character is X times more effective than a 200 point character. Which in practice proves to be false. I could make a 400 point sage character with 90% of his points into knowledge skills who would be slaughtered by a 100 point fighter.

So the key thing is to come up with something that points represents. For example in GURPS 1 point in a skill represents 200 hours of instruction. Now GURPS doesn't apply this across the board as they make judgement calls on the relative utility of various options particularly for advantages particularly those used to build powers.

My recommendation that the varying point costs should reflect the premise of the genre or setting you are trying to emulate. Trying to build for utility or combat effectiveness will lead down a road of design toil unless you are creating a simplistic design. The more items a design has the more funky ways they can interact and it will quickly multiply beyond what resources you have.

By designing to a setting and genre you can make explicit WHY points are assigned the way they are. Magic is expensive because the game is about low fantasy, and so on. Also this approach naturally limits the work you need to do to balance the points cost of the various options.

A comment on disadvantages. There is no right way of doing this. In GURPS disadvantage, including ones like honesty, represent limitations on the scope of the character's ability to act. In contrast in HERO System disadvantages are a source of roleplaying complications. A subtle difference but it is why having allies in GURPS is an advantage and in HERO System a disadvantage.

Finally don't make points the sole means of creating NPCs/Monsters. In GURPS the advice of many is to just simply create the NPC or Monster with the desired elements without worry about the exact point cost. The problem is that there is little advice or aide on doing this this in the actual GURPS book.

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+1. BESM (multi-genre anime game) deliberately created different skill costs for different genres, so that the most expensive skills are the ones that are most useful for the genre. Ranged Combat was expensive in, say, a game about war, but was dirt-cheap in a game about the relationships of high school students. – Paul Marshall Sep 13 '12 at 17:48

Not as much of an exploit of build-point systems, but a weakness: when playing a build-point system, I've found that they require a lot of GM input, along with expert knowledge, to make balanced characters. I don't know if I've bought too much strength/damage/hit-points/magic/speed/other, or too little. It's very easy for inexperienced players to miss out on an important statistic, or inadvertently create glass cannons that have no staying power. It takes a lot more effort by the GM (and any other expert players) to ensure that all of the characters are viable.

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Be careful of buying extra actions-per-combat-round. You can easily hit the point where X points will give you 10% more damage on a particular attack, or you can spend X points to buy another action-per-round, which gets you much more.

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One of my GURPS characters is now at a point where buying another point of DX or IQ gives more skill benefits than increasing all (those) skills individually. Doesn't mean I'm doing that (mostly because there's still a good reason to buy new skills or inrcease some specific skill quicker than waiting to get a stat increase) – Vatine Sep 15 '12 at 20:20

Several point based systems I've played lack room for growth. This makes it hard to play a specialist.

I'm mostly talking about GURPS here, but it applies to my experience with WoD and to a lesser extent, Deadlands as well. When I play a character he usually has a significant amount of skill in something because I like playing characters who are competent at what they do. The problem with this is that if you start at the top, there's nowhere to go. In GURPS, if I have 18 in a skill and there are no penalties, there's no reason to ever buy the 19th point. In actual play there will be penalties, but you'll figure out what those are and stop there. There's almost always a sweet spot that you can reach to be effective and anything beyond that is just showing off.

What bothers me about this is that it rewards the generalist too much and lets the other characters catch up. I don't mind this from a power level perspective, but it bothers me when I try to have a character with a distinct niche. If I'm playing a specialist with nowhere to go in my specialty, by the end of the game I'm a generalist since all the other players have caught up. I want to feel like my character has gotten better at his favorite activity and the opposite happens in most point based games.

The one exception I've found is Dark Heresy. DH is a hybrid between point based and class based. Everyone gets a class and your class determines which skills and stats you can buy and how much they cost. This rewards the specialists without pigeon holing you too much and fixes the sweet spot problem I mentioned above, since each class will have its own set of sweet spots.

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I find that all modifiers that tend to end up applying means I have a character with Guns(rifle) 19 and a rifle with an accuracy bonus of +6 and still end up having 14-15 as my target number. – Vatine Sep 15 '12 at 20:23
There are two parts to this problem. The first is the difficulty of tasks not increasing as the game progresses, meaning that there's no reason to continue advancing a skill past the maximum effective level, and thus little reward for specialising. (Not all point-buy systems have non-scaling difficulties, but it is pretty common.) The second part of the problem is that there is no penalty for not specializing - and since the primary advantage of a point-buy system is not being bound to specific combinations of abilities, it's hard to do anything about it. – GMJoe Sep 21 '12 at 4:00

Compare Legend of the Five Rings 1st/2nd Ed to 3rd and 4th. In the early editions, the points encouraged min/maxing to a nauseating degree. With 25 points, you could spend 8 for a trait which, yes, is a third of the points without disadvantages but provides a staggering bonus. Raise a single trait twice, and the XP you save (since it is scaled to level) is already earned back. Therefore, starting with a ring at two levels higher (maybe after a couple disads) provides you a large step in the direction of the next level of techniques, and you get to splash the XP you save into skill points left and right.

3rd and 4th corrected this by scaling even the creation points. Ultimately, in 4e the build points cost exactly the same as the XP with the caveat that they were "CP", and thus divisible. Where this becomes important is that you can say "You get a starting character plus X amount of XP to pad it", forcing them to make a balanced starting character because of (dis)ads.

Always be wary of min/maxing unless you want an extremely niche-based game.

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Not a hole for a power-gamer or munchkin but every time I play a point-system game, I come up with a character concept that I think will be strong, put the numbers in places to back up my concept, and end up with a weakling that can be decimated by another character in one round.

Don't know how to fix that problem... I've been trying to figure out why this bites me EVERY POINT BASED SYSTEM I HAVE PLAYED. I create a fighter who gets beat up by the 98 pound weakling. It wouldn't be a problem if I sunk points in X attribute that I never use, but most of the time I end up using every stat on my sheet, and my character still gets turned into something resembling chunky-salsa.

GM Joe's comment brought to my attention that maybe I didn't answer from the perspective of blunting a munchkin/powergamer. If you have players with the same number of points and widely different power levels, then you have to either tailor the opponents to the powerful player, or the weak player. Tune to the munchkin, and the weaker character dies every combat. Tune to the weaker player and the munchkin gets bored/frustrated that they put all these points in powers they don't need to use.

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I am not sure this will help a lot, but I'd like to give my 2cents anyway.

Are you trying to design a "generic" system? Like GURPS?

If not, maybe there are elements of the world universe that could be used to mitigate the min-max problems. Usually minimaxing is mostly about combat (plus some niche cases like people putting a billions points in Force Power: Persuasion in a Star Wars game and then just converting everyone in an ally).

As others noted, in the thread, gamers tend to identify a winning combo of stats/skills, and then tend to repeat it ad-nauseam.

What if you could encourage a more balanced approach with in-game reasons? I am thinking of stuff like CoC Sanity, Unknown Armies madness scales and Cyberpsychosis in old editions of Cyberpunk RPG.

I.e. introduce a mechanism that makes uber-powerful munchkin characters starting on the verge of psychosis, and if they go over the threshold they either become NPCs, or have to take some time off (like, in a Asylum) before adventuring again.

Bonus point: using non-combat skills helps relaxing and reduces the risk of going bonkers. So you need to buy (and use) some extra skills. Of course the better you are at these skills, the better results you will be able to roll (for example, as a painter... or cooking, etc.) and the more you will be able to take off from your Psychosis Index value.

Would this be too heavy-handed for you?

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