What You Get

Posted by on Dec 15, 2009 in Creativity, RPGs | 15 Comments

My four-year-old son has a saying: “You get what you get / And you don’t throw a fit.”

He brought it home from daycare. His teachers say that he didn’t learn it from them, so I can only assume that another kid in his classroom picked it up from parents who’re wiser than my wife and I. It’s a great saying.

I try to avoid reading forums like RPG.net. I imagine that a certain segment of said forum is currently soiling itself with distaste for the new Dragon Age RPG‘s ability generation method, which boils down to randomly rolling 3d6 for the game’s main abilities. Its single deviation is that you’re allowed to swap two of your rolls once you’ve generated all eight. Rob Donoghue has written intelligently about this on his blog; make sure you continue reading down into the comments if the topic interests you.

My local gaming group has been playing Dragon Age for a little over a month, now. I’ve had the rules since August, when I started helping Chris Pramas develop material for the game. Set 1 was essentially locked down when I signed on; I’ve been working on downstream products.

On the day we created characters, one of my players (Hi, Kevin!) pointed out that RPG designers pretty roundly rejected totally random characteristic generation, oh, about 15 years ago, and were phasing it out well before then. Others were more sanguine about the idea that unexpected characteristics sometimes provide interesting roleplaying opportunities—your proverbial grain of sand giving rise to your proverbial pearl.

I definitely appreciate the benefits of both build systems and random systems. Random generation gives you fast character creation, and unexpected results that can provide rewarding opportunities, the kind of creative limitation that often leads to really great stuff. But randomness can also completely hose you in critical gameplay situations. A character who’s bad at combat in a deadly game is often screwed from the get-go. Build systems can be fun mini-games of their own, and there’s no doubt that they let you get excited and make just the character you want.

Each approach’s basic benefits and drawbacks aside, I think the characteristic generation system in Dragon Age is exactly correct for the game that it is. The basic premise of Dragon Age—the roleplaying game if not the computer game—is that you make moral choices that matter. But the choices apply inside the setting, not outside it. In Thedas, you’re dealt a hand—and sometimes it’s a crappy one, where all the options are bad—and you make choices about how you’re going to play it out. What are you willing to give up? What are you going to champion even if it literally kills you? Which of two horrible options are you most okay with?

Put another way, the Dragon Age world isn’t a “point-build” setting, and so Dragon Age characters aren’t point-build heroes.

You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.

15 Comments

  1. David Dunham
    December 15, 2009

    I remember using that saying when we had a 4 year old in the house, about 8 years ago. I think we might have even come up with it ourselves, though I doubt it’s really original. It is a great saying.

    In a broader sense, a lot of games are what I call “crisis management” — often dealing with random events. I hadn’t really considered character creation as one of these, but it’s sort of an existential crisis…

    Reply
  2. Will Hindmarch
    December 15, 2009

    Existential crisis indeed. I know I deal with my own random-chargen issues every day, IRL, so to speak.

    If we think of random char-gen as being something akin to a random starting place, it’s easier to swallow. For sure, though, I like Jeff’s argument for why Dragon Age has a random-generation method.

    For me, I like the unexpected inspirations that sometimes come from random character generation — it feels a little more like discovering a character and a little less like creating one, and that has its own benefits and drawbacks.

    Reply
  3. David Hill
    December 15, 2009

    I think Bioware would have used random generation if there were a realistic way to do it. It’s just not reasonable in a video game. I remember sitting around, clicking “roll” on my Eye of the Beholder characters until they had a few 18s.

    I’m rather excited to try randomness. I haven’t in a number of years. I’ve developed a lot as a gamer since. I’d like to see how a character blossoms.

    Reply
  4. Tommi Brander
    December 16, 2009

    Does Dragon Age, via rules mechanics or setting design or some other way, make play where characters make tough moral choices easier or more compelling or attractive? How does the game support its design goal?

    Reply
  5. Kevin Matheny
    December 16, 2009

    Hi Jeff. 🙂

    I don’t mind randomness, but I do mind unfairness. As cool as it was to have that character with the 18/96 strength, it still sucked when your next character had nothing higher than a 15 and three stats under 10. “He wandered off into the woods as a small child and was eaten by bears” was uttered on many occasions during character generation in my gaming circles in those days, as someone would erase that set of numbers and roll another.

    Especially in Dragon Age, where the characteristic test is *the* fundamental game mechanic, and the stat value has a linear impact on a bell-curve roll, the impact of different stats on gameplay is really significant.

    As a parent myself, I appreciate “you get what you get” but we’re not dealing with “Jenny got one more cookie than me!” This is more like telling the developmentally disabled kids that they can just suck it up and work harder.

    I agree that there is an interesting roleplaying opportunity that is (or can be) created from random stats. But I don’t think that having characters be notably more or less powerful than one another, especially at first level, is a particularly fun experience for the players.

    I also don’t think that rolling stats is easier than an array system based on character class. If it was simply “you are a Mage? Take these scores, now add one point to any three that you want to modify” that would be about as fast as rolling, if not faster due to the lack of looking-things-up-in-a-table-to-convert-3d6-to-a-score.

    Reply
  6. Rob Donoghue
    December 16, 2009

    The problem with using fixed stat distributions is that there’s no useful information in them. Randomness provides us with messy information that triggers the pattern matching chunk in our brain, and we end up creating a narrative that makes sense of it. That’s some really powerful mojo, and while it absolutely comes with dangers and risks, sometimes those risks are worth it.

    There’s also an interesting point where the gambling component increases identification with the character object, but that only works with newbies. Once we get jaded enough to keep rolling until we get something good, then yeah, that’s when switching to points becomes a good plan. But before that, when things are still new, each set of stats rolled is a unique _opportunity_, and that novelty is really wonderful for as long as you can hold onto it.

    Plus: eggs.

    -Rob D.

    PS – Thanks for the kind words, Will.

    Reply
  7. Rob Donoghue
    December 16, 2009

    Jeff even. I am too tired today.

    Reply
  8. Jeff Tidball
    December 16, 2009

    I think you’re right that the question of unfairness is at the heart of it, Kevin. It seems to me—and this is just one man’s interpretation of the world—that Thedas is cool with being unfair.

    No worries, Rob. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Kevin Matheny
    December 17, 2009

    I’m okay with a deliberate decision to have story triumph over fairness. Life is like that, to your original point.

    I do want to reiterate, though, that the mathematical relationship between ability scores and success on die roles is pretty darn significant, and I think may be creating more unfairness than was intended. And unfair turns into unfun very quickly.

    Other comments seem to be more appropriate for the discussion over on Rob’s blog, so I’ll post them there.

    Reply
  10. Jeff Tidball
    December 17, 2009

    Does Dragon Age, via rules mechanics or setting design or some other way, make play where characters make tough moral choices easier or more compelling or attractive? How does the game support its design goal?

    In terms of mechanics, the answer is basically that it does not. In terms of general world design, I see certain elements of Thedas as created by BioWare—the social station of elves, the political formulation of the Chantry, and even the relative egalitarianism of Fereldan culture—as supporting if not calling for tough moral choices. In the scenario design I’ve been a part of, there’s been direct effort to place PCs in dramatic situations where they’ll have to make such choices.

    But to be clear, I’m not an authority on DARPG’s design goals. I wasn’t there when it was designed and I’m not involved with its market positioning. My point is limited to suggesting that this particular ability-generation mechanic meshes well with my personal interpretation of the world of Thedas as revealed in the computer game, first tie-in novel, and tabletop RPG’s background material.

    Reply
  11. Trilly Chatterjee
    December 18, 2009

    Though I have no experience of Dragon Age beyond a passing encounter with Origins, the issue of fairness in stats and fixed-point vs. random chargen does interest me.

    Its always seemed to me that the difficulties that arise in these situations emerge from the unbreakable bond stats create between the roleplaying and mechanical facets of a game. Certainly, there’s a purpose to that we’re all familiar with – characters can’t be good at everything, so there needs to be some formalism of character ability within a probabilistic framework, which in part creates the spontaneous experience we all enjoy – both in creating characters and during play. Players need to have enough control over this formalism to feel their influence in the character’s birth and progression is significant.

    One mechanical idea that this discussion gave me was to give ‘poor’ chargen rolls a more active part in character development.

    Imagine a system in which a threshold was set for ‘poor’ stats rolls. Each poor roll provides a player with the opportunity to either re-roll or, if they decide to stick, take a ‘perk’ or roleplaying benefit. The magnitude of the perk would be proportional to the difference between the poor roll and the threshold – so effectively the more you ‘lose out’ by accepting the poor stat, the more you gain from the perk.

    The sort of perks I’d use here would represent other ways the character has benefited from sacrifices they’ve made or hardships they’ve endured – perhaps the ones that forced them to neglect the area of development represented by the poor stat.

    If you have the option to re-roll or take a perk, you might think less about re-rolling and more about how interesting you could make your character. If the system was balanced right, and the perks were geared toward RPing rather than simply another way to boost stats, it might take the sinking feeling out of getting consistently poor stats rolls.

    The option to re-roll is there as a reckoner, if you’re having one of your ‘bad roll days’.

    Comments?

    Reply
  12. Kevin Matheny
    December 18, 2009

    @Trilly, I like that idea. It would make character generation a somewhat more complex process, and would require some testing to ensure game balance, but it would offer both a fun “reward” for keeping a low roll, and a nice parallel to the common fictional trope of the idiot savant, where a weakness is offset by an unusual but specific type of strength.

    In keeping with that and with the mechanics of the current rules, one thing that occurs to me is that you could simply offer a character a free Focus within a given stat when the initial roll is a -1.

    Reply
  13. Jeff Tidball
    December 18, 2009

    In keeping with that and with the mechanics of the current rules, one thing that occurs to me is that you could simply offer a character a free Focus within a given stat when the initial roll is a -1.

    That’s a cool idea, and nicely simple.

    Reply
  14. JDCorley
    December 25, 2009

    I gave up random character generation systems when it became clear that my wife’s bad dice luck would result in (using the Dragon Age example) all stats being between 5 and 7, and then when that character died, the next would be the same way. She wouldn’t even have time for the hit point space on her character sheet to be worn through – they’d die just that fast.

    Reply
  15. Jeff Tidball
    December 26, 2009

    One interesting thing about DARPG’s chart-based random-rolling is that results of 6, 7 and 8 all give ability scores of 0 (i.e., no bonus or penalty to tests made on that stat). Obviously not the score you’d choose, but it also doesn’t seem as punishing as a negative score.

    Reply

Leave a Reply