The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Three Stages of Character Definition

Coming up with challenges and rewards that are appropriate for your players is itself a challenge; making sure that the peons are in fact easy kills, and making sure that the great villains are in fact difficult to defeat can be hard work; making sure that the players receive rewards that are meaningful and yet not unbalancing to the game is daunting.

One important tool for keeping your game is check is an understanding of where characters get their power (or lack of power). There are many game systems which all follow a pattern of character development. In these games characters have three distinct stages.

Stage 1 – Power From Attributes

When characters are first created they are given a set of values that represent their raw natural talent in a number of broad areas. Called attributes in many games these numbers are the defining features of a new character. Attributes are so important to new characters that good attributes can make up for any other kind of deficiency, and bad ones can cause any positives to be meaningless.

Taking West End’s Star Wars Role Playing Game as an example, a player can assign up to 5 dice (or 6 for certain aliens) to a given attribute, and as many as 2 dice to a given skill. When the character goes to take a certain action his skill dice and attribute dice are added together (note: in practice the two values added together are just referred to as the skill, but effectively it works as I have described). Whether a player chose to put zero or one or two dice in a skill is far less consequential to the success of the action than was the player’s choice of attributes.

Similarly in Dungeons and Dragons at first level nothing will give the character as big a bonus as having an 18 or higher in an attribute. High attributes give combat bonuses, bonuses with skills, bonuses to saving throws, extra spells, extra hit points and extra skills. A first level wizard with all 18s could very easily stand his ground in melee against a fighter with all 12s, despite the fact that the general logic of the game is that wizards don’t stand a chance in combat.

Attributes are the most important part of a new character.

While in this stage skills and possessions may be on the players’ mind, but they have only a small impact on the game. For this reason the best way to keep your game balanced is to give your players extra skills, not attributes if they feel their characters are under powered during the character creation process (and you are prone to pleasing), and for rewards never give out anything that would increase an attribute.

You can look at your PC’s attributes and get a pretty good idea of what the party is capable of, especially in situations outside of the norm. Remember that high attributes will make the characters capable of handling foes that other new characters might not be able to deal with. On the other side don’t forget that if your characters have very low attributes you may need to send only weak opponents against them.

Finally, because attributes are so important with new characters, don’t let one person in the party have ones that are too different from the rest of the group. A character with much higher attributes than the rest of the part will dominate all situations, and one with much lower attributes will be practically invisible.

Stage 2 – Power From Skills

The thing about attributes in most games is that they either never increase, or increase so slowly that skills quickly out pace them. Skills while unimportant when the character was first created, through gradual increases come to dominate a character’s capabilities. This is the second stage of character definition, when skills dominate. (note: by skills I mean anything that is inherently part the character but is not his attributes)

Taking the SWRPG as an example again, a character starts with 18 dice of attributes and 7 dice of skills. Depending on the generosity of the GM, and how the player chooses to spend his skill points, he may earn an extra die of skills every adventure or two. Within seven or eight adventure the allocation of skills will have become as important as the allocation of attributes. After this time the choice of skills will become more important.

Returning to Dungeons and Dragons and the example of the fighter with all 12s; while at first level he may have fallen victim to wizard, after gaining several levels no first level character, regardless of attributes, could possibly hope to challenge him.

The skills which D&D (3.x) actually labels as skills follow a similar pattern to those in SWRPG. When the character is first made, up to four ranks can be bought, and up to four more might be had as a consequence of the characters attributes. But while the attribute bonus stays the same over time, the number of ranks possible increases with every level. After not long the most important factor in the success of a skill check is the number of ranks the character has.

Locking picking is an example of power from skills.

This stage of development is the easiest for GMs to plan for because the true capabilities of the characters are so overt. Things like character levels are obvious ways for pigeon holing the power level of a group of characters, and factors like attributes and possessions are not a huge factor. Furthermore since parties tend to branch out and gain a broader base of abilities, it becomes much less likely that a group will get stumped when they come across a situation that demands uncommon abilities.

However, the ease of planning enemies does not translate into ease all around, it is important to keep a trio of things in mind when planning rewards. First, never do anything that will grant a major skill bonus to just one player, as this can be hugely unbalancing. (though a minor one might be okay, depending on specifics) Second, understand that equipment that is not exceptional will likely have little impact on game balance, and so there is no need to keep players from getting it (i.e. it makes a great reward that will barely affect the game). Finally, attribute increases will be a valuable reward at this level of play, but will probably not be unbalancing if done in moderation.

Stage 3 – Power From Equipment

Most games have some manner of diminishing returns with regards to skill advancement. In some games this amounts to it becoming more and more expensive to raise skills to a higher level, while in others the practical value of raising a skill beyond a certain point is little. Regardless of which manner is used to slow advancement, in time players will become frustrated and either with help from you, or on their own, they will seek to improve their character by obtaining extraordinary possessions. Over time the importance of these possession will out weigh the character’s skills; this is stage three.

Looking a final time at SWRPG, the number of skill points it takes to raise a skill by one die is equal to three times the current number of dice. When a skill is at 4D, raising it to 5D can be done in a reasonable time frame, however, raising a skill from 9D to 10D is a serious investment that can take many sessions. Further, the number of situations where such a high skill is required is few, making it even less tempting to spend the skill points. But, since any character who has worked a skill all the way to 9D probably has a fair number of resources available to him, the player can probably find, purchase, or build equipment that would add one die to his skill long before he could save up the skill points. A great example of this would be obtaining a sophisticated targeting device for a blaster weapon.

Magic swords are the quintisential example of power from items.

Dungeon and Dragons is a game where countless rulebook pages are devoted to extraordinary items. The magic item lists found in the Dungeons Master’s Guide and elsewhere give near endless possibilities for specially empowered items. Not only can magic items raise characters skills and improve rolls, but also they can grant powers that no skill could ever match.

When characters reach this stage in their progression the only thing that could truly imbalance the game is an item that is a little too powerful. Giving rewards of bonus skills or attributes can be a useful tool at this point for making a reward seem larger than it truly is. Even grossly large bonuses are unlikely to upset the game because the equipment the characters are finding is so much better. (what’s an extra +1 to damage from a raised strength when you have a weapon that is +4?)

How to Use the Three Stages

The three stages, attributes, skills, and items, are not defined by exact moments, but represent a progression over time, with each gradually leading into the next. The stages are sometimes further blurred by particular game systems or styles of play. However, despite the fact that a campaign that completely follows this model exists only in theory, understanding the model can be a great asset to any GM.

Armed with an understanding of the source of characters’ power you can much more easily create a campaign that stays the course. When you know what to look at to determine how powerful characters, and their enemies, are you can create the match ups you want, when you want them. When you understand which rewards truly are powerful, and which ones just sound impressive, you can give out zirconium to keeps your players happy, and keep the diamonds for special occasions. This should lead to the challenge of making things work be easier for you.

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October 5, 2010 - Posted by | RPGs | , , ,

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