Archive for November 28th, 2009

28
Nov
09

The Character-Making Mini-game in AD&D and 4E

Making pre-gen characters for my Anonycon games made me think about how the mini-game of character creation has changed from AD&D to 4E. Comparing these particular editions is an especially apt comparison because both are shaped by the desire to accommodate organized play at convention tournaments etc., where the players might bring characters created in one campaign to another run by a DM with whom they have no common history or mutually developed set of assumptions about how the game works. (OD&D’s heavy reliance on creative interpretation and house-ruling is poorly suited for such an environment. Tim Kask: “Finding 30 DMs to run a tourney for us was a big task in and of itself; finding 30 that played the game the same was impossible as each one ran his own campaigns as he saw fit.“)

The AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide has an Appendix P, Creating a Party on the Spur of the Moment, which lays out the AD&D approach to an organized play environment where the players often won’t already have characters that are the right level for the adventure the DM has prepared. Gygax notes that the process of making characters “takes up valuable playing time,” but he never endorses the modern time-saving solution of having the DM bring pre-generated characters from which the players can choose. [1] Instead, he writes: “In order to reduce this to a minimum, the following system, one which I have developed perforce from DMing many conventions, is suggested…”

Gygax’s Appendix P system involves rolling for your character’s stats (4d6, place in any order desired), hit points, and magic items. You then choose your race, class, alignment, languages spoken, mundane equipment, and spells if applicable. The results are highly random; it’s possible to have substandard ability scores and hit points and no magic equipment, or great innate advantages as well as phat gear.

Making an AD&D character for a tournament is a gambling mini-game. There are few meaningful choices, all related to risk. You can only roll once for magic armor: does your fighter want to try for plate, a 5% per level chance, or the safer choice of chain at 8% level? The system is geared for speed of use – fewer choices means less dithering over options – and interesting unpredictability. The paladin I rolled up for Anonycon failed at his attempt to get a magic sword, but did wind up with a +2 dagger, +3 vs. larger than man-sized, which inspires a Sir Able concept of a hater of giants who has taken a vow that involves fighting only with his knife. I wouldn’t have come up with that on my own, but it instantly sketches a character I’d like to play.

The AD&D character creation mini-game is meant to be played at the table. Doing so is necessary because having others witness your rolls is the only way you can prove that you came by your good fortune honestly. It’s fun because gambling makes a good spectator sport; I enjoyed running through the Appendix P procedures a lot less when I did it alone than when my son and I made characters together, where we could cheer on one another’s good rolls and commiserate over the bad ones. And the social nature of the mini-game helps build party cohesion. Everyone sees your rolls, knows what they mean, and can act accordingly. If you roll great equipment and hit points for your character, the other players will look to you to be more daring and aggressive. If they’ve seen that your dice are cursed, they’ll appreciate why you want to hang back and think of creative ways to avoid combat.

The 4E character creation mini-game is very much the opposite. There are many choices, which makes it fun as a solo activity. Making good decisions requires time and thought, which makes it boring to do in a group. There’s no need to have the other players watch to see that you’re doing it honestly – the lack of randomness in character creation means they can check whether you followed the rules, and if you’re using Character Builder you can easily share the file that confirms that it’s a “legal” and not “house-ruled” character. The process doesn’t facilitate understanding one another’s characters; there are too many decisions, and the implications of each one are too subtle and complex, for you to discuss each one. You’re better off talking as a group about the  kinds of characters you want to make and the party synergy you want to develop, then splitting up for solo play of the character creation mini-game, and then maybe meeting again to describe your characters to one another.

One major change in the character-making mini-games is that AD&D affords a much wider range of variation than 4E. Because it includes randomness, the Appendix P system will produce some characters that are, on a purely mechanical level, much better than others. 4E’s character creation process features choices instead of randomness, and one of its design goals was to balance all the options available to choose between, eliminating the hidden good and bad choices that were supposed to reward system mastery in 3E.

So it’s possible for an AD&D character to suck more than a 4E character. To me, the more important change is that if my AD&D character sucks it’s not my fault, it’s the dice. On the other hand, if my 4E character sucks there’s no one else to blame. (I might still complain that the designers didn’t provide good choices for my class or build, but in the end I’m still responsible for choosing to play that kind of character.) I like having choices in character creation, but I don’t like the effect that making things personal in this way has on the social environment of play.

This is the idea of hierarchies I was talking about in “Tell me how to play OD&D and 4E (so I can ignore it).” Let’s accept for a second that we have some mechanical yardstick for ranking characters from better to worse. I like AD&D’s approach because if the yardstick shows I’ve got a below-average character, everyone can appreciate it if I’m nevertheless doing whatever I can to help the party’s chances of survival.

Because the players’ choices are what determine their positions on the 4E yardstick, there’s a tendency to beat people with that stick. Some of this is pure ass-hattery of the “I’m better than you” variety. It can also be justified as pro-social behavior. If I make choices that lead to having a substandard PC, either through inexperience or an insistence on making decisions on a concept rather than mechanical effectiveness, I’m actively hurting everyone’s pursuit of success.

There are probably more 4E players who don’t think about this than those who do. But when online discussions about character building become heated, I think it’s because you can take choices personally.

[1] This approach was used in plenty of tournament modules of the AD&D era, which (probably to save space) present the essential stats in table form rather than giving you pre-made character sheets. As we discovered at Ropecon, just re-translating these one-line descriptions into a usable character sheet form, picking spells and equipment, calculating ability modifiers, etc. can still take 30 minutes to an hour. Note that this would be quicker if we were highly experienced AD&D players.

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