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I'm working on a pen and paper RPG of my own, and have hit a snag on determining stats for beginning player characters (such as Strength, Intelligence, Perception and the like); I'm not sure whether the better approach would be for players to roll dice to determine their PC traits, or if I should give them a set number of points to spend on traits.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of random attribute generation (i.e. dice) versus planned generation (i.e. point buy)?

I'm less concerned with individual person's preference than an as-close-to-impartial-as-possible explanation of the benefits or drawbacks of either system.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How can I avoid problems that arise from rollling ability scores \$\endgroup\$ Sep 19, 2023 at 1:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Currently the way this question is worded I'm afraid is likely opinion based -- there are games that use either method (and some like 5e offer all of them), so it is largely a matter of taste, each with advantages and disadvantages. As for the last question, that is both impossible to answer other than in general terms without knowing your system, again depends on what kind of power level you have in mind (e.g. 5e offeres different amounts for different level of heroics) and a separate, different question to boot - I'd recommend to remove that. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 19, 2023 at 1:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jason_c_o there are known properties of rolling dice and other stat generation methods. Tweaking the specifics does not change those properties. You could roll a 1d10 or 3d6 to generate stats - those do have differences but almost irrelevant ones when it comes to comparing to point buy. The question doesn't ask to compare specifics but which approach leads to where. Which is completely answerable. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Sep 19, 2023 at 16:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jason_c_o would you rather there be multiple different questions "What is the difference between rolling 1d10 and point buy system?", "What is the difference between rolling 3d6 and point buy system?", "What is the difference between rolling 7d8 and a point buy system?", etc., etc.? Because you seem to be arguing in that direction that the question cannot be a general one and each one should have a specific answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Sep 19, 2023 at 16:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe what you wrote is an answer, not a comment. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Sep 20, 2023 at 5:23

3 Answers 3

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What is your Goal?

Determining "best" requires a defined metric to judge "best". You have to have a known goal to find the best fit for that goal.

What goal is your stat generation trying to achieve? This doesn't affect my answer but it does affect your final decisions.

Random Stats

Randomly generated stats (using dice, cards, or some other method) are best for creating unequal characters. If inequity of ability is a theme of the game, or reinforces a core theme of the game, then this is a feature.
Do note that random stats can lead to table issues, including:

  • Rapid character turnover to get a character with "good stats".
  • Frustration at the ease of challenges, when a character's abilities are exceptionally high.
  • Frustration caused by jealousy of another player's high character abilities. Even a strong character can be overshadowed by an exceptional character.
  • The frustration of feeling like the party is 'carrying' one character, due to terrible stats.

Fixed Stats

The other extreme is to hand out a fixed array of stats that all player characters use (example: Str 15, Dex 12, Con 14, Int 13, Wis 10, Cha 12). This enforces equity, and ensures that character differentiation will be by personality and special abilities.
This can have issues as well:

  • Characters may "feel the same" because all their core stats are identical.
  • Players may be frustrated that the fixed array is "sub-optimal for my concept" or "bad for my build".
  • The array may be too beneficial, easily overcoming the expected challenges of the system.
  • Some players won't be satisfied unless they roll dice to determine stats.

Fixed Array stats (ex: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8) are an attempt to use the benefits of this method while avoiding the most obvious drawbacks. A largely successful attempt.

Known Variable Stats

Or Point Buy, if you prefer. Players have a pool of resources, and spend those to set the stats exactly as desired (within limits). Popular in many games, but not perfect.
Issues include:

  • Possibility of a "bad build". Assigning points into an ability that is bad for the character concept / class or even the campaign, making the character functionally useless at character creation.
  • Determining correct point costs, to encourage ability scores in the desired range. This is a design challenge, rather than a play challenge.
  • Mental fatigue during character creation. Every piece of math, every choice, is a drain on the minds of your players. A chance for them to get frustrated or tired, and stop playing.
  • Some players won't be satisfied unless they roll dice to determine stats.

Summary

Figure out your goal for having ability scores. Why did you include them? How important are they for your system? Do they need to be in a specific range? What thematic element of the game are they reinforcing?

Once you have your goal determined, review the methods I describe and pick the method that fits most of your goals.

Tweak the specifics of the method, including play testing, until everything works.

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    \$\begingroup\$ All of this, plus think about all the different existing RPGs you play and how stat generation ACTUALLY happens. If you roll, do you often throw away rolls/whole sets of rolls? If you point-buy, do you often haggle with the GM for more points at the price of something else? All of these indicate that the system isn't appropriate for your playing style. (And "your" is key here, they may perfectly work as written for others.) At the end of the day when you're designing a new system, the important thing is for it to work for you, cos if it doesn't even work for you, what is the point? \$\endgroup\$
    – biziclop
    Sep 19, 2023 at 9:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ The opening paragraphs of this answer neatly explain why this question is opinion-based and should be closed: Without knowing anything about the game being designed, there's no way for us to judge what the advantages and disadvantages of each method are. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Sep 19, 2023 at 21:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would add that while all your points focus on builds and efficiency, there are also players who aren't focused on those things at all. Those will have different approaches to character creation (what I've seen is players who roll stats and base their RP/backstory on the results, and wouldn't care for any non-random method). In other words, I think that "Some players won't be satisfied unless they roll dice to determine stats" could be more developed. \$\endgroup\$
    – DunBaloo
    Sep 20, 2023 at 7:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe Inaccurate. While knowing the system would allow us to identify the "best", the benefits and drawbacks of attribute generation methods are objective facts. Just because I don't know your education or economic situation, I can still describe the advantages and disadvantages of various investment options - your details may make some of those irrelevant, but they remain unchanged by your circumstances. Same for this question. \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Sep 20, 2023 at 12:37
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Let's take a quick look at several generation methods, and how they are employed, before we discuss how each of them impacts the character generation. I speak from more than a decade of experience here.

Roll for Stats

Rolling dice to generate a spread of numbers that represents the stats of the character has been a classic since the earliest days of D&D.

In some games, such as The Dark Eye 3rd Edition, you just roll your stats, choose a class that your statistics fulfilled the requirements for, and then copy the skill list over, you're done. In other games, such as D&D 3.5, after statistics and class choice, you need to make some more choices, such as distributing your skill levels.

The general benefit of Random statistics is the relative speed at which you can generate characters. It also allows characters to be very different from one another. The biggest downside is the randomness itself: you might end with very much sub-par characters just as much as too good ones.

In some games, you also might end with an array that can not qualify for the class you wanted, for example in TDE3, if the class requires a 16 in one statistic and the highest you ended with is a 15, you can not take that class at all and have to choose a different.

To alleviate the problem of characters being too different, common houserules address when you can reroll stats (e.g. "if your total is lower than X"), extra rolls to choose from or even communally creating the array of stats for all characters.

So, the lesson here is that randomness can be quick, but severely limit the choices and can lead to disparate characters.

Standard Array

The counterpart to the random creation of statistics is a standardized array. Everybody gets the same numbers, only distributing them differently. You can not change that array. For example, Pathfinder 1st Edition did suggest this method and (iirc) used it for organized play.

This method is intended to result in very comparable characters, and indeed manages to do so by pretty much robbing them of any variation in this step: everybody gets the same array, and even if you add some kind of race modifier, the resulting characters are very similar and easy to compare. By designing the game properly, you can end up with all characters having stats in a somewhat narrow band of statistics. This can make encounter design much easier for DMs in the long game. As the standard array + modifiers are easy to verify, character generation can happen separately from the actual game session without much trouble.

The downside is, that the array might not be perfect for a min-maxed character, and usually, the array contains a very distinct "dump stat". This could be alleviated by offering multiple arrays to choose from that are deemed equivalent by the designer, but finding such arrays can be hard.

Point Buy statistics

Going a step further to free generation of the stat array, you could go one step further: You get a number of "Build points" and from that pay for your statistics according to a specific key. Again, Pathfinder 1st edition did offer this method together with rolling for stats and the standard array in their core book, making it a very well-known method.

The main benefit is, that players can tinker with their statistics to their heart's desire, and if properly done, high statistics have a well-designed cost so that someone with an exemplar statistic needs some lower one(s), and that the resulting statistics end in a specific band.

A side effect is, that GMs usually don't need to oversee character generation if this is the only part where build points are used, but it might be more time-intensive than the array.

This leads directly to the downside: figuring out the perfect array is time-intensive and can involve a lot of math, and optimized characters will often have extremely similar statistics but for occasional choices.

Standard Array To Buy Statistics

In a twist, let's take a look at the Storyteller and Storytelling system, which combines both standard array and point buy.

You get a standard array for the statistic block of the sheet made up of three categories: Physical, Social, Mind. Your array reflects (7/5/3) free points that can be distributed 1:1 onto the three attributes in each category, and each attribute already starts at 1 usually (some splats might alter this). For example, the physical category is commonly Strength/Body/Dexterity. You are free to distribute those points as you wish, as long as you stay with 5 or fewer points per attribute.

Then, at the end of character generation, you have "freebies" and spend a number of those to add additional points on attributes.

The benefit here is, that characters can be very tailor-made, but due to the system itself, there are some setups that are clearly superior to others, due to how skills later interact with the statistics. For example, Appearance is one of the least used attributes, and notoriously tricky.

The method is usually easy enough for even complete newbies to create a character they can identify with, but masters of the system can create characters that are much more capable than others. Also, these methods need a much more narrow band of statistics to keep characters in any way comparable - the two systems strive to keep the statistics between 1 and 5 in general and 0 to 10 in extremes.

Priority System

Shadowrun employed a rapidly different approach to the standard array. In 1st to 3rd and 5th editions, the standard character generation method was the priority system. In 4th edition, Priority was a later option.

The SR priority system offers usually 5 categories with priorities A to E, and you choose to assign each category one of the priorities - A was the best, E was the worst. By choosing one or another level for the Attributes or Skill category, you then were given a number of points that you could distribute 1:1 onto the Attributes/Skills respectively. The other categories unlocked species, magic and cash according to their priority. Each species also had a baseline and limit for Attributes with a hard lower limit of 1 for all attributes.

The main benefit of this is, that it speeds up the calculation of characters and characters, speeding up character creation and verification, but some combinations of priorities always were better than others due to the impact. As an offshoot of point buy, most of the things said there also apply.

Buy everything

And now we go off the rails: Why just generate your attributes ("stats") with a point buy system? Games like Legends of the Five Rings 4th Edition, The Dark Eye 4th Edition, and Shadowrun 4th Edition natively generate characters by using a Point buy system where the buy points are not just for the attributes:

  • TDE4 has you pay for species, culture, profession, attributes, benefits and flaws from the same pot. Then, calculate your skill baseline by summing up the boni from species, culture, and profession. Then, calculate the skill point pool and use a complex spreadsheet to buy up your skills from the baseline you calculated a step earlier. Due to the nature of the beast, this is extremely detailed but also very complex and very hard to verify at times. Even someone who knows exactly what they do can spend hours to just make a baseline character without computer assistance.
  • L5R 4e has you make a couple of choices that determine a baseline, and then you pay for all advances from that with points to gain merits, flaws, and increases on skills and stats all from the same pot. This gives characters a lot of variance, no two "Kakita Bushi" I ever saw were exactly the same sheet, especially because every skill is useful in some way or another.
  • Shadowrun 4 natively handed you 400 points and a price list. You paid for your species to get a baseline attribute spread, then paid from the remainder for all the attributes, skills, merits, flaws, and cash you might want on the character. Due to linear costs, this very much benefits one-tick ponies and creates at times very gappy characters. But characters can be extremely different, even if very much optimized.
  • The alternative Karma system for Shadowrun 4 replaces the build points with pretty much XP, and the payment structures, especially for higher numbers, are shifted to mirror the in-game progression. The resulting characters are often much more well-rounded than the normal SR 4 Point Buy.

In summary, "Buy Everything" systems are very complex but result in characters that can be extremely fine-tuned to a player's desires. A downside is, that a GM might have trouble following the character generation after the fact if the system is too german (TDE4). A very complex buy-system can also shock new players, and they generally don't work too well with class systems unless you use the class as a baseline to work from.

Abort Chargen for direct play?

In some rare cases, you could abort Chargen and instead go to play the characters in an incomplete state. Of the systems mentioned in this category, only two actually could facilitate that:

  • L5R 4E, in theory, leaves you with a rudimentary, playable character right after choosing the family and school, at which point you'd begin to play with all rings on 2, two attributes that received a raise from family and school respectively (and possibly a ring that is 3 as a result), 7 skills from the school and 40 XP that can be spent just like experience in game later. Just, all characters of the same school are the same in this state.
  • SR4 using Karma Generation usually grants 750 Karma (=XP), which is the same as in the game. Only a select number of choices (species, buying of certain merits such as magician, setting the attributes) actually are fully required to get to a state you could play, and then spend the rest of the balance ad hoc in game, but that can very easily lead to a very messy game.

No More Numbers

Now, some games, such as Fate and Powered by the Apocalypse engines, (almost) totally abandoned numerical values for character generation. Instead, they use descriptors or keywords (Fate) or playbooks (PbtA) where you choose one of several sets of pregenerated stats. In effect, often these are really fast to generate characters with (find good keywords or choose a playbook, make one or two choices and you are done), but those are made from an entirely different than the other, more traditional systems I explained above.

Freeform Roleplaying - MUSH edition

Something that you might encounter a lot in online RP settings are freeform systems, where you go into character generation with just the equivalent of a pen and paper and your ability to convince the people organizing the game that you are a well defined character. Often, such games have a distinct theme and you explain your traits to whoever would look at your sheet.

For example, take the following wording for an "Athletics" skill:

Physically fit, [the character] is equivalent to a skilled sportsperson. [The character] would have little trouble to pass the physical fitness exam for the military without extra training.

A whole character could be made up of snippets like those, but writing them often uses a lot of time, as you need to make sure that all those people unfamiliar with your character get an idea what you are talking about. Often, games that work with such sheets are totally freeform and could be more described as cooperative storytelling than traditional RPGs though.

Making it up on the fly!

In a game that shuns traditional sheets, as VLAZ correctly noted, you could totally not generate the character at all before the game starts, but discover or explain things about your character in game, until the sheet is fully filled in. However, this is not exactly an easy thing to design your game around.

Personal Note

As someone who started RPGs with a couple of rounds of The Dark Eye 3, I learned to love the point-buy-everything system of The Dark Eye 4/4.1 for its intricacy and deep character building. The system is complicated and many players use a computer assistant tool to keep calculations straight, but there is something that is neat about how they set it up.

As horizons stretched, I gravitated over Shadowrun 3 and 2 to 4 and 4A, and there to the Karma system, for it would fit my style of making characters best. I learned to love Legends of the Five Rings 4th Edition as one of my main systems currently not just for the background, but also because it somehow managed to make the whole character generation both carry meaningful choices, create varied characters but also be reasonable fast.

Next to those, I love the Storyteller/ing system from the World of Darkness and Exalted 2.5/3, though the latter two have so many options to choose in some steps of chargen, that making a character is an exercise trying to fight choice paralysis when it comes to charm selection. The former however manages to feed both my detailed character options need as much as being a fast system, without bogging down with decision paralysis by simply limiting the availability of options for later.

While I have played my fair share of D&D 3.5, I found that character generation in Pathfinder 1 was easier for me, mostly for streamlining reasons that were made. While I understand the draw of D&D 5e and I have dislikes for many of the design choices made by WOTC, I must admit that they managed to get Character generation quite well down, though to me, characters made in all those often feel flat and stale to me. At least they do compared to the intricate characters that I craft with other systems.

But that all comes down to personal preference. All systems have their benefits and drawbacks, and personal appreciation is one of them. Choose your stat generation to fit your design goals and make sure it just feels right for the game you write.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The point-buy method does have more upfront cost on character generation. However, it can be alleviated somewhat by building the character as you go along. Fate (or one of the sub-variations?) did this as a suggestion. Maybe you start as a blank slate of a character or only pick a few places where you spend your points. And during the course of the game, you can allocate more. Maybe you are fleeing and come up against a lock door and then "reveal" your character was actually good at lockpicking. Makes for some interesting stories and offers more flexibility. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Sep 20, 2023 at 15:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ That is a can of worms that does not work for most systems, as game progression is usually tracked in a different type from build points, or your attributes are used to determine difficulties for some things. Fate gets away with that as it does nor at all use numeric stats but explanatory keywords. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Sep 20, 2023 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ or to illustrate, let me give some exaples: In L5R4e you'd need to do at least at least the choice of clan and school, ending with a rudimentary character that has all stats at 2 but for two incrases from clan and school, 7 skills from the school, and 40 XP. At that point you could in theory start RP as a normal character and spend the XP to reflect "I actually trained that!" in the game. But choosing school and clan/family impacts the game a lot besides the mechanics, and should to be done before game start. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Sep 20, 2023 at 15:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ For Shadowrun 4 this works only if you use the KArma system, as that explicitly uses the same scaling as normal gameplay, while the point-buy system is extremely different from in-game progression. The Priority system even would break down at the Fate approach: it requires to choose priorities in the very first step, Then the species, and only then you can handle the other 4 categories in any order or risk having problems (as species have different baselines and ceilings for attributes) \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Sep 20, 2023 at 15:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a remarkably detailed and thorough answer, especially the part about personal preference mattering a lot. I'm partial to the storyteller type system myself, but I do understand how people might prefer others, especially if they need fast character generation. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 20, 2023 at 16:48
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The two basic methods for generating stats are:

Deterministic

With deterministic methods, you calculate. You have fixed values, or points or categories whatever it is. There is no uncertainty involved, no luck, draw or anything of the sort. Anybody else can build the exact same character you did.

This method gives a lot of control to players, both objectively and subjectively. They can build the character they want, they are not restricted by artificial, arbitrary constraints not under their control, like dice rolls or draws.

It also gives players a fair system so that each character can potentially be equally powerful, or at least equally engaged with the world in terms of success and fun playing.

It gives game masters and players the option to have a fair game if they prefer fairness over storytelling.

While it gives players control, it also means that excerting control takes time. Building a character takes time to make those choices in a fashion that they are maybe not optimal, but at least competitive. If they are not, it destroys the fairness aspect above.

Non-Deterministic

With non-deterministic methods you use an element of luck. Rolling dice, drawing cards, some aspect of it means you cannot replicate one character build exactly the next time you build a new character.

This method removes a lot of control from players. If you rolled an 8 for Strength, I guess you won't play a warrior this time.

It introduces inequality between characters. One character can objectively be made more powerful than another, even if the players make the exact same choices, because one of them was luckier on the roll/draw than the other.

With characters not being equal on any level, a single game/campaign can by definition neither be fair between characters, not between characters and the environment. It can still be fair on a meta level, where you play the same game/campaign multiple times with different characters, like poker where you get dealt multiple hands, and some are good, some are bad, but if you don't want to play that kind of game, if you want to play a campaign once, it is a gamble. The same game might be too easy for some and too hard for others depending on the hand they got dealt at character creation.

With little to no choices, non-deterministic creation is fast. You roll for Strength, it's 13. Done. You don't need to think about whether that is good or not, whether you should change it or not, you rolled, you got a result, done. It doesn't get much faster short of making everyone in the universe a grey puddle of goo with the same stats.

Anything in between

Obviously you can mix and match those basic methods. D&D has experimented with this over the years and editions. Roll some values, then use them for a deterministic method. Make deterministic choices with rolls, like rolling and only afterwards deciding which roll goes into which stat. Rolling only some aspects, but not others. Make choices available, even if rolled badly. The list goes on.

Conclusion

There is no best method.

But people tend to play roleplaying games over watching Netflix or reading a book because they are drawn in by the agency that a game gives. They want to make choices that are reflected in the story instead of passively consuming it.

Make sure your generation method leaves them enough choices to be happy with their game.

I have seen very early games that were heavily focussed on non-deterministic methods, and being forbidden from playing the character you want to play, because you rolled badly that one time two weeks ago is really crappy and not fun.

You have to decide whether "stats" in your game are meant as a starting point from which to develop the character, or a relatively fixed set.

For example in the Warhammer universe, you often start with stats between 20 and 30 and are expected to develop them into the 70s for important, but at least into the 40s for secondary stats. Whether you start with 22 or 24 is not that important overall. While in games like D&D you realistically start with somewhere between 10 to 18 and even if your character becomes an epic hero, many stats may not change at all, while the most important ones will go from 16-18 to maybe 20-24. It is important whether you start out with 16 or 18.

Your decision, whether stats are very fixed or very fluid has an impact on whether things can be considered "enough control" or not.

If you can change stats later easily, control over them at starting is not as important as it is when they are basically fixed for the foreseeable future.

Focus on what will make your game fun. Players making decisions is the core of any game and being locked into decisions a randomizer made for the player weeks ago is not what is considered agency. So either remove it, or make it so those decisions do not matter as much as the decision the player makes down the road.

A Test

Take your generation method. If every player had the best of the group and the game in mind and acted accordingly, could there be a case where through sheer dumb luck the characters will not be fun to play as a group?

If the chance exists, however small it may be, your generation method is broken.

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