Thursday, January 30, 2014

Unplayable character? What is that?

A recent conversation about character attribute rolling brought up the concept of "unplayable character". What is that? A character with such poor attributes it can't be played? But why can't it be played? And why is it allowed to exist in the game?

One thing is to take a character with some limitations and play it leveraging its strengths and overcoming its weaknesses. Another entirely different thing is to have a character with all low attributes. Such a character is an uncommon, but nonetheless possible outcome of the character generation process. This is what was called an "unplayable character". A character so limited in its attributes it is very hard to play since it does not allow the player to play the type of character or class they wish to play.

This situation has lead some players to shun random rolls as a means to determine attributes. My question is this, are "unplayable characters" the product of the random process itself which should not be used, or is it the product of a poor game design that allows for nonviable characters? In other words shouldn't games select these random rolls in a way they don't allow for low and "invalid" values? The software equivalent of user input validation.

Select another die roll or adjust what those values represent to the game's mechanics. If a game's mechanics call for attributes between 1 and 20 why not roll 5d4 which ensures values between 5 and 20? Or roll 2d6 + 8. That ensures values between 10 and 20 with most landing around 15. This eliminates the possibility of a "unplayable character" while still allowing for some low attributes which are challenging and fun to play.

I'm a strong advocate for random values because they take me out of my comfort zone and make me play with values I might not consciously select. Humans are creatures of habit after all. A little bit of randomness goes a long way to help me find new attribute combinations that are interesting to play. Yet this is only fun if the values fall within playable limits.

Advocates of point buy say they prefer this mechanism because it allows them to play what they want. Does it? Do they get what they want? I'd say they get less uncertainty as to what they'll end up with as a character. They're more secure in the thought they won't get something bad, but at the same time they're limited as to how good a character they can get.

The 8 + 2d6 random generation process I showed above does allow for the most unfortunate character to end up with all values of 10,  but it also allows characters to end up with all values between 15 and 17, or all 20s (with the same odds of having all 10s). You can't get that with point buy. To get a character with all attributes equal or greater to 15 by means of a point buy mechanics the game designer would have to give enough points to raise values to such high number and then everyone would play with all attributes above 15. Who would forfeit the remaining points to deliberately have low values in some attributes. No one. Every single player would use up all points and end up with super powerful characters.

So from the point of view of a point buy system those characters that were rolled up with 8 + 2d6 and ended up with low attributes sure look shitty. On the other hand from the point of view of random attribute characters that were rolled up with 8 + 2d6 and ended up with high attributes those point buy character sure look shitty.

Looking at it from this angle point buy isn't really giving me better characters, it's actually giving me fewer options.

Pros and Cons of each...

Point Buy

  • Player has greater control of character attributes.
  • Characters don't end up with very low stats.
  • Less attribute value combinations available to players. Can't have all max values.
Die roll
  • Player has less control of character attributes.
  • Character may end up with very low stats. This is solved by a better selection of the roll mechanics.
  • More attribute value combinations available to players. Can roll all max values.


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