Saturday, February 25, 2012

On Hopeless Characters

OK, DMs and players, where do you stand on the issue of a "hopeless" character? Reroll it, or see it as a role-playing opportunity?

Let's let Professor Barker and Zeb Cook weigh in on opposite sides:

"Should a player roll a totally unsuitable character, the referee (at his option, not the player's) may allow the player to roll over for a totally new character. Re-rolling individual basic talents is NOT allowed, nor is it possible to transfer points from one talent to another. If one rolls a puny weakling, thus, or a hopelessly stupid clod, it is best to let him or her wander off into the sunset and roll for a new persona!"
-- M.A.R. Barker, Empire of the Petal Throne, 1975, p.12. 

"Don't give up on a character just because he has a low score. Instead, view it as an opportunity to role-play, to create a unique and entertaining personality in the game. Not only will you have fun creating that personality, but other players and the DM will have fun reacting to him."
-- David "Zeb" Cook, 2nd Edition AD&D Player's Handbook, 1989, p. 18.

Gotta say I'm with Professors Barker and Holmes on this one. Reroll until the PC has at least one ability score to get excited about, and no very low scores.
As a player, I have found Cook's advice to be cold comfort as I suffer the presence of the other players' paladins and rangers while I'm stuck with "just a fighter." If it's another player who has the hopeless character, I tend to find it annoying to put up with the PC's weaknesses unless the player is brilliantly clever or entertaining. As a  DM, I get bored when heroes become thespians -- I'm really more interested in moving the plot along at a good clip and providing tactical challenges and moments of wonder than in watching improv theater.

Most D&D campaigns I've DM'd or played in featured fudging or re-rolling during character creation outside the guidelines of the RAW. Of the dozens of people I've introduced to the game, many have scratched their heads about the whole process. In my ruleset you get a character with optimal stats for his or her role, and you can individualize the character in play as you level-up. I've had no complaints so far, but would any of you strongly object to all PCs of a particular class starting with the same stats, and why?


  1. I'm with you on this one. If a PC is pathetic, I allow my players to re-roll. When we're playing B/X, for example, I make the players keep any PC who has a "Net +1" or better on his abilities, but allow them do ditch a poor PC. Put simply, if he has more "positive stats" then "negative stats," he's a keeper.

  2. As a DM I'm happy to allow my players to dump a truly hopeless character and try again. As a player I'm happy to play one.

  3. I can't remember ever discarding a PC as hopeless, even back in my softer (4d6 drop the lowest, re-roll ones, arrange to taste) 2E days. Then again, it's pretty hard to roll bad scores with that method.


    Now I would much prefer either using a pre-generated "fair" array or writing down whatever numbers are desired over having a complicated hopeless heuristic.

    As is frequently the case, Jeff Rients said it best:

    1. The heart of Jeff's post, if you're too lazy to click the link:

      "Personally I loathe all the canonical cheating methods. I think there are two and exactly two legit ways to generate scores for D&D characters:

      1) 3d6 in order
      2) write down whatever numbers you like"

      I think "you get what you get and you don't get upset" works best in older iterations of the game, where only the stats at the very ends of the bell curve generate penalties or bonuses to get excited about. When there's practically no difference between a score of 7 and a score of 15, everyone can be the Buddha.

  4. I wouldn't like all fighters to have the same stats because:

    1. Often it's fun to play a character against type

    2. Sometimes optimal is not obvious (e.g., is con or dex the proper secondary ability for fighters?)

    3. Another example: maybe a fighter with a high cha with lots of retainers would be fun (more like a tactical commander)

    4. I like the feeling of individuality that more varied scores provide

    The 4E method of giving an array and allowing it to be arranged (no rolling) is a reasonable compromise (and it's fast, unlike point-buy systems).

  5. Jeff's right. Either roll it straight, or don't.

  6. I pretty much don't care how players get their numbers. If they are unhappy with what they rolled there's not much I can say that will change that, and they will grumble. That's not a good attitude to have going into a game.

    Personally, I am fine with 3d6 in order and vastly prefer some random method, because that is where I get my ideas for who the character is. I don't choose a class/role first and then make the numbers fit, as that assumes I already have a character in mind. I don't, and don't find that fun. I want to roll something and get that spark of inspiration before imagining the character.