Thursday 16 February 2017

Sophie the Muscle Wizard and the joys of random character generation

The Team Tsathogga group finished playing through Death Frost Doom this week, and one PC didn't make it out alive. The session ended with the party heading for a nearby magical academy in the hope of selling the wizards some of the creepy magical junk they'd found during the adventure, so the dead PC's player quickly rolled up a replacement character, reasoning that there might be someone at the academy whom the party could recruit to bring them back up to full strength. Rolling 3d6 in order, she got:

Strength 16
Dexterity 13
Constitution 4
Intelligence 10
Wisdom 4
Charisma 7

She considered these stats for a few moments, and then said:

'My new character is called Sophie. She was a student at the magical academy, but she wasn't really clever enough to keep up and kept getting disappointing grades. (Int 10) Thrown into depression by a failed exam, she tried to make herself feel better by pumping iron at the college gymnasium. (Str 16) Unwisely (Wis 4) she devoted herself to extreme workout routines which ended up completely wrecking her health. (Con 4) After trying and failing to justify her powerlifting obsession to her tutors (Cha 7), she was thrown out of the academy, and is now looking for adventure!'

And thus Sophie the Muscle Wizard was unleashed upon the world.

I imagine her as looking kinda like this.

One of her fellow PCs is an equally extreme case. With Strength 5, Dexterity 8, Constitution 9, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 10, and Charisma 18, Jack the Fighter seemed doomed to an early and ignominious death; but sixteen sessions after his player's eyes first widened in horror at the stats he'd just rolled for his new character, he's still going strong. (As strong as one can with Strength 5, anyway.) Weak, clumsy, unfit, and amazingly stupid, Jack is just so damn pretty that he seems to be able to get away with almost anything, and he's more than once provided vital contributions by sweet-talking guards, traders, and other NPCs into doing things that they know they shouldn't, simply because they couldn't resist the power of his innocent, dopey smile. We mostly play him as Derek Zoolander in D&D-land.

Image result for zoolander miner
Jack the Fighter descends into yet another dungeon...

These examples are comic, which isn't accidental - incongruity is one of the basic elements of comedy - but I'm confident that you could take the same stats and come up serious, and even bleak, interpretations of the characters they represented. And you would almost never get characters like this using point-buy methods - not because they're impossible to build (although under some systems they might be), but because you'd probably never come up with them in the first place. With a whimsical enough player, and a sufficient lack of emphasis on powergaming, you might get as far as 'bodybuilder wizard' or 'dim-witted prettyboy'; but in each case there are other elements (like Jack's physical weakness or Sophie's catastrophic lack of wisdom) which result purely from the whim of the dice. But the odd combinations of traits that sometimes arise from random character generation create characters who won't fit neatly into their predefined niches, and whose mere existence thus forces the game to unfold in less predictable ways.

Much though I love the sight of people rolling 3d6 in order, I don't think it's inherently superior to other ways of generating characters. If you're keen on power balance, or heroic characters, or just on giving players control over what kind of PCs they end up playing, then completely random character generation is obviously a terrible idea. (This is part of the reason why, in my current group each player has two PCs: it ensures that having one weaker or less serious character isn't such a big deal.) But random chargen does have a charm of its own, a charm which is rooted in the very things which probably led most groups to abandon it in the first place: the danger that the dice might give you a weird, weak, flawed character rather than the awesome Conan or Gandalf knock-off you'd been building up in your imagination, and consequently force you to go off-script.

To put it another way, I already know how Conan will approach being dropped into D&D-land: the kind of adventures he's likely to have, the ways he's likely to deal with problems, and so on. I've been gaming for a long time now, and there's not a lot of mental stimulation left for me in watching another Mighty Warrior do Mighty Warrior Stuff. Sophie the Muscle Wizard, by contrast, represents a combination of traits which I've never seen before, and in consequence I find I have no idea how she's likely to respond to her upcoming adventures. I'm very much looking forward to finding out, though!


  1. Nice write up. I've never used "3d6 in order", but I've always liked the idea. As you say it does seem like it would create vastly more interesting/flawed characters.

    But what effect do you think this has on the tone at your table? Does having a muscle wizard skew the mid too much? Asked another way, can you think of a game you would want to run that this wouldn't be appropriate?

    1. Like I say, it does lend itself easily to comedy. That's fine for the Team Tsathogga game, which doesn't take itself too seriously at the best of times, but you'd need to keep a tight reign on it in more serious games.

      I think you could run a serious game with completely random character generation - in fact, in some ways, I think it might be easier to run such a game with flawed, human characters than with a bunch of off-the-peg paragons - but you'd need to make sure your players were on the same page. The same stats which produced Sophie and Jack could be read in much sadder and more serious ways, but for most players that's not going to be their first response!

      And, yes, there are lots of games that I wouldn't use totally random character generation for. Anything properly heroic, for a start...

  2. I also remember rolling for starting money. I once rolled up an ad&d human thief with 20 gp. After buying armor and supplies I realized I didn't have enough for a weapon.

    1. But, on the plus side, you had an excellent excuse for making use of your thieving skills!

  3. I've been having my players roll 3d6 in order with the option of swapping two stats; if the player had a certain class in mind, this allows the player to at least not suck at it (hopefully!) by swapping their highest roll into their "primary" stat, while still preserving most of the good things you point out above. Players without a desire for a particular class can, of course, simply look at the rolled stats and choose a class based on them, too.

    1. Yeah, that's perfectly reasonable. As are the various 'raise one stat by lowering another' rules found in early editions of the game. Strict 3d6-in-order is mainly suitable for a game where part of the point is seeing how a crew of mismatched oddballs somehow manage to survive in a hostile world...

  4. I'm a big softy I let the players roll 3d6 in order 7 times. Any two scores can be swapped and the extra roll is dropped. It allows a bit of customization but mostly the dice have their say and not every score is a good one (or even average).

  5. What I've done in the past when using strict 3d6 in order is have each player generate three characters. They keep one, hand one to the player on their left, and hand one to the player on their right. Then each player gets to keep one to use and one as their first backup character, and the third character gets handed to the DM for use as an NPC. It serves a few purposes:
    1. A hot set of dice doesn't cause as much jealousy if a good set of stats gets handed to another player
    2. Likewise, a dismal set of stats can be discarded by giving it to the DM
    3. It gives the DM partially pre-made NPCs, which is always nice