Character creation alternatives in RPGs: am I just simply stats and rolls?
Today I wanted to mix it up, and leave Ika for the weekend to investigate Character creation alternatives in RPGs. I want to look at the problem from two perspectives: role-playing games and writing. In role-playing games, a set of rules guides the process of making a player’s character – we’ll be looking at D&D specifically today, but in many ways the underlying rules are consistent across games (I know, there are differences, but they’re surface-deep at a philosophical level.) In this post, I’m going to review the classical RPG method of constructing a character, and then look at a useful alternative.
This isn’t just for role-players: writers can really benefit from having a character generation process, especially if they write sweeping epics with 50 characters. It helps keep the characters balanced, real and plausible in comparison to one another in a simplified, numerical fashion!
The traditional system: ability scores
Wizard’s of the coast can introduce ability scores better than I can, so I will refer to their website first:
Strength. Intelligence. Wisdom. Dexterity. Constitution. Charisma.
These are the basic building blocks of your character. Some roleplaying games are abstract—you just describe what you want to do and you do it. D&D is a little more rules-heavy than that, and some of the elementary ways to describe your character are in terms of their ability scores. How strong are they? How smart? How quick? These are represented in the game by your ability scores. If your Strength is high, you will have a much easier time breaking down doors and bashing monsters in the head than if your Strength is low—you can still attempt anything you like, but your ability scores will have a lot to say about how successful you are at the attempt.
…An average ability score is 10 or 11. If your ability score is higher than this, you will get a bonus to die rolls related to that ability (for example, weapon damage for Strength, Knowledge skill checks for Intelligence). If it is lower, you will suffer a penalty to die rolls related to that ability. The basic range of abilities for humans is 3 to 18, though other kinds of creatures… can go above and beyond this; see the lists of example creatures for each ability score for some comparable creatures at each range of ability. So, a human with an 18 Strength is as strong as a minotaur, and one with a 6 Intelligence is as dumb as an ogre.
As you notice, ability scores are six key “factors” that describe what your character is capable of in a comparative fashion. Strength. Intelligence. Wisdom. Dexterity. Constitution. Charisma. The bold sections are particularly important: ability scores give you a comparable baseline, much like IQ or running speed or other metrics used in real life to measure success at a task. Generally speaking, characters buy their abilities by spending points to increase them: this keeps every character balanced, as they have the same total ability score (say, 70) distributed differently amongst the six possible attributes.
D&D’s ability system, the first of its kind and incredibly useful and inventive when it was first introduced, is now ubiquitous and heavily replicated. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense.
D&D is, after all, a game and not a narrative generator. Because of this, the ability system emphasizes balance of characters over plausibility. For example: in the actual world, strength, dexterity and constitution are positively correlated. This makes sense: more often than not, getting stronger involves an increase in overall health. Yet in D&D, they are essentially forced into mutual exclusion – a player can’t afford to increase their character’s dexterity AND strength AND constitution. It’s costly, and so they end up being super strong and as tough as weak wind and the speed of two turtles tied together. Again, this is necessary for the game’s balance, but it simultaneously generates very implausible characters. This is easy to expand on: Ability scores fail to account for the fact that, as someone gets stronger, they tend to become more confident (and by extension, charismatic). Most people tend to find the physical signs of a stronger body (tone, etc) attractive, which is a key element of D&D’s concept of charisma. Intelligence should increase one’s potential for wisdom, and again wise and intelligent people have their own unique charm about them.
D&D’s 4th edition tries to remedy this issue, but it does so in a heavy-handed way. 10 is the lowest an attribute should be for a player character; in 4th edition, 10 is also higher than your average non-hero is likely to achieve. Thus player characters are faster, stronger, handsomer and smarter than the average person; their individual ability scores just simply measure the magnitude of superiority. It saves you from having strong people with no constitution, or wise people with no charm, but in a way that voids the whole world’s sense of authenticity.
The case for multiple intelligences as a character-building system
As I mentioned above, the classic “ability” system from D&D has permeated much of the role-playing world. It’s also been employed by several fantasy authors, by their own admission, to generate the basic outline of their characters.
I’ve been considering alternative system a lot lately, and I want to make the case for basing a role-playing game (or story character system) off of the theory of multiple intelligences. The theory, first proposed in 1983 by developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, is a model of intelligence that views intelligence as a modal instead of binary system. And as everyone knows, Derek loves his modalities. Instead of being a singular scale with two ends – a 0, not intelligent end and a 300, intelligent end – multiple intelligence posits that there is a wide range of cognitive abilities, and they should be understood as their own individual intelligences. Especially because, according to Gardner’s theory, the correlations between these categories are very weak.
[Also, by understanding characters as a modal system, they integrate easily into my modal understanding of fictional worlds more broadly… but that’s just a selfish extra little goodie!]
According to Gardner, the kid who learns math quickly is not necessarily more intelligent than the kid who struggles with math. The teacher’s pedagogical approach is incompatible, or the child is more intelligent at other fields, or perhaps the child is slowly working through understanding math at a deeper or more fundamental level. Maybe the kid who excels at math is good at memorization, but has trouble when it comes to analysis of theoretical thought.
Now, to be clear, the multiple intelligence theory receives a lot of flack in the psychology community. I am in no way trying to support or deny the value of multiple intelligence theory as a scientific or psychological tool. I know nothing of those things. Most of the research post-1983 has found high correlation between types of intelligence, unlike Gardner’s prediction. But being scientifically dubious doesn’t change the usefulness of the theory in application to character creation. It allows you to keep characters balanced, but at the same time removes D&D’s arbitrary and sometimes bizarre combinations of character attributes. The primary intelligences posited by Gardner are:
- Logical-mathematical: logic, abstraction, reason and critical thinking. Also, maybe most importantly, this intelligence allows a person to comprehend causal relationships. Consider the intelligence ability of the D&D system, and you’re on the right track.
- Spatial: visualization and understanding of spatial dynamics. Comparable to the “aiming ranged weapons” aspect of D&D’s dexterity
- Linguistic: facility with words and language, and memorization. Has element’s of D&D’s intelligence, wisdom and charisma.
- Bodily-kinesthetic: control of one’s bodily motions and the skillful handling of objects. This type of intelligence would allow for the easy increase of strength, constitution and dexterity as they relate to each other exclusively.
- Musical: This area has to do with sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, etc. Basically, bards.
- Interpersonal: intelligence in navigating social situations. Very much related to D&D’s charisma.
- Intrapersonal:introspective and self-reflexive knowledge. Very much related to D&D’s wisdom.
- Naturalistic: innate understanding of one’s natural surroundings. In D&D, druids use wisdom to relate to the environment, so this is similar to the druidic wisdom.
- Existential:a debated intelligence in Gardner’s system, existential was basically Gardner’s way of including spiritual knowledge without committing to spirituality as an intelligence due to his own beliefs. We are not, however, considering this system for actual usage. We’re looking at it to classify and make characters! It’s useful for us, for clerics and the like. Especially in fantasy worlds where there are gods interrupting people’s days now and then.
Consider the same sort of scenario as D&D’s character generation, but instead of choosing between the six abilities, we choose between these 9 intelligences. Let’s arbitrarily set “10” as unimaginably intelligent and “0” as completely oblivious, in whatever imagined metric we use to measure these intelligences. When we build characters, we will spend points to increase the value of the intelligences inherent in them. Everyone starts at 3 in any intelligence, for now, so we can compare humans to dogs or cats. To raise a character’s intelligence by 1, we spend “1 point” as we create them. Once any given intelligence reaches 8, it costs 2 points to raise it to 9, and 2 again to raise it to 10. If we spend 20 points on our characters intelligences when we create them, what will it look like?
Case 1: a fighter
Our fighter is a member of the militia. They’re not known for their smarts – they didn’t go to the academies – but they fight well with a sword, they can find their way across long distances, and they make good snap decisions on the battlefield. In D&D, a fighter would look something like this:
Strength 18 / Dexterity 10 / Constitution 14 / Intelligence 8 / Wisdom 10 / Charisma 10
If we try our multiple intelligences experiment, we may develop a fighter who looks like this:
Logical 4 / Spatial 5/ Linguistic 6/ Bodily 8/ Musical 3/ Interpersonal 6/ Intrapersonal 5/ Naturalistic 6/ Existential 4
What you’ll notice immediately is that a character created this way, by very design, has far more personality implied. A fighter, as we described him, is going to need good spatial awareness (sword-fighting dictates it), good bodily knowledge, strong interpersonal skills to work with his team, at least decent understanding of himself to keep calm in the face of battle, and a good communion with nature to track and find his way long distances. This character is balanced because he was generated through spending points, but at the same time he isn’t a one-trick pony with weird limits. Most importantly, he’s not stupid by necessity. A D&D fighter NEEDS strength and constitution, and so they NEED to be really bad at something. Most choose intelligence. Our fighter has enough wiggle room that, if the author wanted a more intelligent character, interpersonal, natural, linguistic or even spatial skills could be sacrificed without the character losing their fighterness.
Obviously, not a perfect system, but it’s important to re-examine how we represent and create characters in games and in narratives.