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Non-random character creation for Dark Heresy

 Post subject: Non-random character creation for Dark Heresy
PostPosted: Tue Jan 27, 2009 10:40 pm 
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What exactly is the benefit to a random character creation system? How is the game improved by arbitrarily making one character strong and another weak? How is the game improved by wrecking character concepts, or by creating inept, unbalanced groups of PCs?
To me, these are rhetorical questions. The answer is simple: Random character creation is simply the product of lazy or inept game design, and there are no benefits to it.

- In a really excellent RPG, all players should have an equal opportunity to participate and contribute to the group's success. Random character creation ruins this by making the characters unbalanced. In extreme cases, it can make some characters into pivotal superstars and others into feeble gimps that have to struggle to contribute anything.
- Being able to create and play a really interesting and enjoyable character is at the very foundation of a good RPG experience. Random character creation ruins this by wrecking character concepts and forcing you to play something else. (You really wanted to play a crafty Administratum Adept, but the dice gave you a doofus who can barely spell is own name? Tough luck, the dice have vetoed your character.)
- Random character creation also invites people to cheat. There are always people out there who will cheat to make their characters better than everyone else's... you probably have known a few of them yourself. Where the method of character creation is inherently unfair and unbalanced, they have their chance to take advantage.
- Randomly created characters are also campaign-specific due to imbalance and the likelihood of cheating. Maybe this isn't a big factor for most gamers, but... If I show up at a convention or join a new campaign, I can show up with a character already made that is 100% legal, fair and balanced. At least that's true if I am playing Shadowrun, Mutants & Masterminds or any number of other games with deterministic character creation. If you show up with a randomly created character and claim you rolled it, your odds of it being accepted are not too good.

So, what can be done about this criminal lack of good game design? Well, I'm afraid it's a case of house rules to the rescue. This won't fix that last point, since asking a GM to accept someone else's house rules can be quite a trial, but it does a good job on the other points. This system identifies where random rolls are used in character creation and replaces those mechanics with a deterministic system. In the case of minor items I don't specifically deal with (like the Tech-Priest's 1d10 spare parts on page 27) just use the average (6 in this case).


CHARACTERISTICS (Dark Heresy, Page 23)
Dark Heresy has 9 characteristics rolled on 2d10. They are rolled in order and you cannot arrange them to suit. You can reroll any one roll but you must keep the result even if it is worse. This is a lot like playing 1st Edition D&D. The dice will literally determine what kind of character you can play competently.

"Low Powered" Option:
A basic deterministic system would be to give each character the following set of rolls to be allocated as the player sees fit: 4, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 18. This averages out to 11 each, which is the same average you would get by rolling randomly. However, a character created with this method would be somewhat better than the random characters the game designers intended, since you can place the stats where you need them to make the character competent.

"High Powered" Option:
Most RPGs assume that player characters are somehow a cut above the typical man on the street and give them better characteristics to reflect this. Dark Heresy characters are the hand-picked agents of an Inquisitor who can demand the best in everything, so it makes perfect sense that they would be unusually skillful and competent. Why, then, does the character creation system churn out such mediocre slobs?

If you look at any of the sample acolytes from Shattered Hope you see exceptionally talented individuals at the top of their game. Mir, for example, has 309 characteristic points (30 better than average) including 40, 47 and a 50! Jericus has 311 points (32 more than you could expect to really roll) including a 40 and two 38's. Dang, where does my character sign up to get stats like these? Even if you assume that 5-10 of their points came from advances or good divination rolls, the characters are godlike compared to what you might expect to roll randomly.

Another factor to consider is that skill rolls are very difficult in Dark Heresy. A character is likely to fail any roll he makes, even if it's something he should be good at. For example, if your typical Cleric (Intelligence 31) is called upon to make a Common Lore (Imperial Creed) check, he has a mere 31% chance to succeed. And this is his life's work we're talking about. Even if he were a certified genius with 40 INT he would still most likely fail. It's mostly up to the GM to moderate the "whiff factor" by adjusting difficulties, but I don't think it hurts to have characters who know what they are doing.

So, for the high-powered method, simply use a higher range of numbers like: 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20. This set of numbers is 16 points higher than average, which is roughly in the same league as the weaker Shattered Hope sample acolytes.


SANCTIONING SIDE EFFECTS (Dark Heresy, Page 26)
If you are playing an Imperial Psyker, your character is subjected to an extra randomization step to determine what horrors he experiences while being trained to use his powers. The game-mechanics effects are generally trivial or non-existent, but the roleplaying effects can be quite severe. Basically your character concept is again at the mercy of the dice. You may not want to play a character that's been forcibly spayed or neutered, or a deranged wretch who gibbers nonsense and wakes up screaming every night.

My advice would be to make up your own sanctioning horror story or just choose something off the list but ignore its game effect. If it's important for the sanctioning to have a real effect, the player and GM can come up with something that works out to have zero net effect on game balance (gain 3 points in one characteristic but lose 3 points in another, or gain insanity points in exchange for a free trait, etc.).


WOUNDS (Dark Heresy, Page 28)
Wounds are rolled using 1d5 plus a modifier based on your home world. So, a void born character could have 7 wounds, or 11, depending on the whim of the dice. I would simply assume that all characters automatically roll 3, which means:

Feral World.............12
Hive World..............11
Imperial World.........11
Void Born.................9
Forge World............10
Mind Cleansed........11
Noble Born..............11
Schola Progenium...11


FATE POINTS (Dark Heresy, Page 28)
Fate Points are determined by rolling 1d10 and consulting a chart for each origin. Almost everyone is likely to get 2 fate points, though the specifics vary. The values below assume you rolled the most common result:

Feral World.............2
Hive World..............2
Imperial World........2
Void Born................3
Forge World............2
Mind Cleansed........3
Noble Born..............2
Schola Progenium...2


STARTING WEALTH (Dark Heresy, Page 29)
A new acolyte's starting funds are randomized with a variety of die rolls. The variable in most cases isn't a lot of money, but the fair method would be to assume everyone just had the average amount they could have rolled:

Adept..................106
Arbitrator..............61
Assassin..............137
Cleric...................328
Guardsman...........76
Imperial Psyker.....53
Scum.....................13
Tech-Priest..........156
Adepta Sororitas...81


DIVINATION (Dark Heresy, Page 34)
Characters who wish to have their future divined with the Emperor's Tarot before they begin their careers as acolytes can roll on this table. Rolling grants the character a cryptic prophecy and a real game effect, usually a small bonus of 2 or 3 characteristic points. Since this is a completely voluntary step and most of the results are fairly trivial in game terms, you could just leave it as-is if you don't have the time and energy to improve it.

If it were my campaign, I would probably make up some in-game plot element to happen to that character in the future and then give the character a cryptic hint about it. The key here would be that the cryptic prophecy really will potend something in their future instead of being a meaningless sound bite with a bonus attached. There would be no game effect at character creation, though the workings of prophesy might twist things a bit when the actual event happens.


I think that's it. All the other random features of character creation are voluntary and have no real game effect. I would just add one footnote:

Why not have a point-buy system?
I have noted that a few people out on the Internet have put forth point-buy systems to replace the characteristic rolls using in Dark Heresy. I have a couple of problems with these systems however:
1) Point-buy systems encourage min-maxing. Characteristics tend to mysteriously home in on the "sweet spots" where extra bonuses can be had (like having a stat of 30 or 40 to cash in on the characteristic bonus). Point-buy characters also tend to have maximum stats in the areas that count, and super-low stats in other areas deemed less important.
2) There are a lot of random things in Dark Heresy character creation aside from characteristics. If you really wanted to make a system that was fair and non-random, you would need to come up with point values for things like wounds and fate points. This could certainly be done by someone who had a keen understanding of the game mechanics, but it's more convoluted than I think is really desirable.

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 28, 2009 2:09 am 
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The best way I can respond to this without really trying to start a debate on the issue is simple:

The reason the limits on character stats comes from, I believe, a way of illustrating the limits of what humans can do. Maybe scores of 40 are the best humans can hope to achieve, short of being mutants or whatnot. Honestly, I rather enjoy that PCs can't be ungodly powerful (short of Daemonic Pacts)...it makes the game that much more challenging, and reinforces the idea that in this grim, dark universe, you can just be snuffed out, like THAT.

I think the game depends a lot on the GM not being a moron and knowing when to use circumstance bonuses and penalties.

Plus, as far as stat rolling goes, you don't HAVE to roll straight down the chart. Sure, that does allow for min-maxing, but if that's what players want to do, so be it. Besides, characters have to have SOME flaws, otherwise they lack character themselves! If my character is good at EVERYTHING, then there's no benefit in putting him on a team to help compensate for what he's NOT good at (since, in this scenario, he can be a one-man act). I can think of very few examples where one class is good at something it shouldn't be (ex: Shepherd Book from Firefly/Serenity...a preacher, sure, but clearly is hiding some sort of military/special ops background...makes him more interesting, provided it doesn't always steal the spotlight) normally, and still have it balance the game...

While I don't have my NPCs in front of me (the sheets are in another room), I have a wonderful example off the top of my head. I have a Feral World Psyker (homeworld randomly generated) that has a rather high strength score, in addition to a moderate intelligence and high willpower. While he's not a combat monster, the high strength helps reinforce the notion that he's from a warrior tribe, even if he was just the tribe's merchant before being whisked away on the Black Ships. He was created by rolling straight down the chart, replacing only the lowest roll (or the one I thought needed to be replaced, even if it wasn't the lowest).

I truly do think that players, if creative enough, can overcome any "random character generation" flaws...and I reward them nicely if they do. Worrying about character sheets takes away from the game in the first place, and kinda defeats the purpose of playing at all. Hell, I'll even go so far as to give my characters "useless" skills, just to create a more interesting character! :D

So, to answer your first rhetorical question in a rather long-winded manner (lol)...maybe the challenge of randomly generating characteristics IS the benefit.

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 28, 2009 8:28 pm 
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mafiacheese wrote:
The best way I can respond to this without really trying to start a debate on the issue is simple:
Oh but it WILL start a debate. Since I suspected you might be the only person to respond to this thread, this is what we have to discuss! Besides, I find your points irrational and contradictory, so prepare to do battle!

One key point that I think you misunderstand is fairness and balance versus power level. You complain about "ungodly powerful" characters and characters that have no flaws and thus no character. These things are flaws of the random system which my system fixes. It's like your car has a flat tire but you are leading a campaign to outlaw tire irons.

POWER LEVEL
Switching to a non-random system doesn't inherently make the party more powerful or less powerful. The power level can be whatever the GM decides it should be. I gave two examples myself: one set of characteristics that matched the average, and one that was more powerful. If you really loved the idea of weak merely-human characters you could even make the numbers lower. The huge benefit of the non-random system, as it relates to power, is that the GM can choose the power level for the game. In a random system you have no such control. If most of your players roll up ungoldly characters with no weaknesses, then that's what you're stuck with, even if that's not the game you wanted to run. Non-random is clearly superior.

FAIRNESS AND BALANCE
The real key to the non-random system is that it makes all the player characters balanced against each other. All the characters are automatically at the same power level so that everyone has a fair and equal chance to contribute. Everyone still has strengths and weaknesses, but they are fair and balanced instead of being unfair and unbalanced. In your random system one character may have no flaws at all, while his companion may be nothing but a pathetic pile of flaws. If one of your players really wants to play a crippled incompetent gimp who always lives in the shadow of his godlike co-worker, great, he's welcome to it. But nobody should be forced to play that character by the whim of the bouncing polyhedrons. I see ZERO benefit to unfairly crippling one character while making another one godlike. Again, the fair and balanced non-random system is totally superior.

==========

mafiacheese wrote:
The reason the limits on character stats comes from, I believe, a way of illustrating the limits of what humans can do. Maybe scores of 40 are the best humans can hope to achieve, short of being mutants or whatnot.
Since you can start the game with a 50 (or even higher) and then improve it into the 60's with later advances, I think it is safe to say that 40 is most definitely not the limit of human of Human achievement.

mafiacheese wrote:
Honestly, I rather enjoy that PCs can't be ungodly powerful (short of Daemonic Pacts)...it makes the game that much more challenging, and reinforces the idea that in this grim, dark universe, you can just be snuffed out, like THAT.
Well, it's impossible to make an ungodly powerful uber character with my non-random system. But there is a simple way it CAN happen: just use random character creation and wait for someone to get lucky. Let's see how the two systems compare on this issue:

Random: Does nothing to protect game balance or enforce a suitable power level. Allows abusive / unrealistic uber characters to be created.
Non-Random: Protects game balance and insures that characters match the desired power level of the campaign.
Winner: Non-random.

mafiacheese wrote:
I think the game depends a lot on the GM not being a moron and knowing when to use circumstance bonuses and penalties.
Absolutely. And knowing when a task is so routine that no dice are needed is an equally valuable skill.

However, as long as you allow an unfair and unbalanced character creation system you will forever be making things artificially easy for the gimp characters and trying to hold back the god-characters. OR you will have a god-character that steals every spotlight while the weak loser characters constantly fail. Frankly, both ways of dealing with the problem are unspeakably lame. I recommend starting with fair and balanced characters so no bizarre artificial "fixes" are needed.

mafiacheese wrote:
Plus, as far as stat rolling goes, you don't HAVE to roll straight down the chart.
Well, if you want to play the game as written, then yes, you DO HAVE to roll each stat and keep them where you rolled them. Allowing players to arrange their stats to suit is a house rule. It's a house rule that I fully endorse to reduce the randomness of the system, but a house rule nonetheless.

If you doubt me on this, please quote the rule that says you can arrange your stats to suit. Also note the example character they created. They wanted him to be a Guardsman that was good with guns but his BS ended up being his lowest stat. This would obviously never have happened if he could have arranged them.

mafiacheese wrote:
Besides, characters have to have SOME flaws, otherwise they lack character themselves! If my character is good at EVERYTHING, then there's no benefit in putting him on a team to help compensate for what he's NOT good at (since, in this scenario, he can be a one-man act).
As previously noted, I think this point is a misconception that somehow non-random characters are "ungodly powerful" or lacking in flaws. This is simply untrue.

mafiacheese wrote:
I can think of very few examples where one class is good at something it shouldn't be (ex: Shepherd Book from Firefly/Serenity...a preacher, sure, but clearly is hiding some sort of military/special ops background...makes him more interesting, provided it doesn't always steal the spotlight) normally, and still have it balance the game...
The crew members of Serenity are a well-balanced team in which everyone has something useful to contribute. That's what non-random character creation insures. In the random system Shepard Book might end up as a godlike ultimate hero who fixes everything while the rest of the team watches in awe, or he might end up as useless baggage with nothing really useful to contribute due to his bad rolls.
Again, random character creation is what CAUSES the problem of unbalanced spotlight-stealing uber characters. Deterministic character creation is what fixes the problem.

mafiacheese wrote:
While I don't have my NPCs in front of me (the sheets are in another room), I have a wonderful example off the top of my head. I have a Feral World Psyker (homeworld randomly generated) that has a rather high strength score, in addition to a moderate intelligence and high willpower. While he's not a combat monster, the high strength helps reinforce the notion that he's from a warrior tribe, even if he was just the tribe's merchant before being whisked away on the Black Ships. He was created by rolling straight down the chart, replacing only the lowest roll (or the one I thought needed to be replaced, even if it wasn't the lowest).
It's great that you randomly generated a good NPC. However, it was an accident, not a benefit of the system. A randomly created character is nothing but a jumble of numbers that you have to try to shape into something with a personality, goals, etc. This is putting the cart before the horse and creates characters that are, at best, a compromise. A really excellent character is all about the concept, personality and storytelling first and foremost. The numbers should simply be plugged in later to fill in the game mechanics requirements.

mafiacheese wrote:
I truly do think that players, if creative enough, can overcome any "random character generation" flaws...and I reward them nicely if they do.
So which is really better: Driving down the road with a flat tire and congratulating yourself on how well you managed it, or just fixing the flat tire? There are very serious flaws to the random system. You have already tried to fix one of them yourself by allowing players to arrange their rolls where they want them. Just fix them and the game will be FAR better than a broken game that people must "overcome".

mafiacheese wrote:
Worrying about character sheets takes away from the game in the first place, and kinda defeats the purpose of playing at all. Hell, I'll even go so far as to give my characters "useless" skills, just to create a more interesting character!
Actually, you're the one who thinks characters should be based first and foremost on the random bouncing of dice. My system is the one that embraces roleplaying and storytelling. You seem to be accusing me of power-gaming, but you've got the wrong guy. (There are no useless skills in a role-playing game.)

mafiacheese wrote:
So, to answer your first rhetorical question in a rather long-winded manner (lol)...maybe the challenge of randomly generating characteristics IS the benefit.
Can't you see that all the things you claim to hate are actually the flaws of the broken random system you are defending?

Unbalanced characters based on random die rolls = bad.
Balanced characters based on concept and story = good.

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 28, 2009 11:38 pm 
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Every time I try to make a rebuttal of some sort, it feels like it's coming out as an attack...which is both retarded and a logical fallacy, so I'll keep my response short and civil.

I guess what I was really getting at is that following the rules, either the broken random ones or the "fixed" non-random ones...is pretty silly. Strict adherence to rules...it really just takes the fun out of things.

I guess we'll just agree to disagree. I'll use BI's "broken" system and play around with it as I feel like, and I'll have fun...and you can use your system and have fun too.

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 29, 2009 10:53 pm 
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mafiacheese wrote:
Every time I try to make a rebuttal of some sort, it feels like it's coming out as an attack...which is both retarded and a logical fallacy, so I'll keep my response short and civil.
I do post these things with the intention of discussing and debating them. When I make comments like "Random character creation is simply the product of lazy or inept game design, and there are no benefits to it." I'm throwing down the gauntlet and inviting people to disagree with me, if they dare. So, as long as your attacks are merely directed at my horribly ill-conceived house rules and not at me personally, feel free to fire away. Bearing in mind, of course, that I may defend my position vigorously.

mafiacheese wrote:
I guess what I was really getting at is that following the rules, either the broken random ones or the "fixed" non-random ones...is pretty silly. Strict adherence to rules...it really just takes the fun out of things.
For me, better rules make a better game. Knowing and following the rules makes the game universe consistent and understandable for everyone involved. I know what my character is capable of and how to do it. Muddy rules, or freely violating the rules, hurts the game. When I run a game the players can count on consistent, fair and understandable rules that work the way they expect them to. As GM, I do fudge things to help keep the game on track, but it's invisible to the players.

Back in the 90's some of my co-workers and I formed a gaming group and tried to roleplay. We had never played with each other before and all came from different gaming backgrounds. We ended up playing Mage (White Wolf). The GM seldom cracked open a book and didn't really seem to know or care what many of the game mechanics were. She might resolve the very same test differently on different nights. I couldn't even tell what my character was capable of or how to do it, and the GM seemed offended when I asked. Every time the GM violated the rules or changed her own made-up system in mid-game, it just made the whole thing more inconsistent and frustrating. That game drove me insane and it (obviously) wasn't much fun. Still, it was the correct and normal way to play a fun RPG where our GM came from.

mafiacheese wrote:
I guess we'll just agree to disagree. I'll use BI's "broken" system and play around with it as I feel like, and I'll have fun...and you can use your system and have fun too.
Yes, we can agree to disagree and both have fun playing the game. I just pray one of us never ends up GMing the other.

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 30, 2009 1:11 am 
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Venator wrote:
I just pray one of us never ends up GMing the other.


Lol. That'd be a bit hard to do, seeing as how we're nearly on opposite ends of the country. :P

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 30, 2009 6:31 am 
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To me, I think a random character creation system is for those who are new to the system and/or want to create a character, but are currently lacking in inspiration. Me, I'd manually create a character each and every time.

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 01, 2009 11:43 am 
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Personally, I like the campaign my friend is running at the moment, as we have an assassin with 60-odd ballistic skill and twin autopistols, meaning most things die in the first round of combat, and a techmarine with 20-odd intelligence - most of the other characters figure out what devices are and tell him, not the other way around.

While it annoys the techmarine player no end, as he's a bit of a power player - he sold off as much of his starting equipment as possible just so he can save up for power armour - we love him having to do intelligence rolls, with comments such as "My intelligence is 3? OUTRAGEOUS!"

I, on the other hand, am playing a fairly average arbites character with green hair and black complexion - which I look and act nothing like in real life.

Random char rolls actually annoy me, personally, but I understand how, as in real life, everyone is different in the Imperium, and it can make a change to play someone different every once in a while.

You can always throw your character into a certain death situation and hope your next char is more to your liking.


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