Thought Experiment: Directing the Character Generation Process Through Costs

This one isn’t really a proper article, but an expansion of an idea that occurred to me recently. It’s just a bit of idle musing for the moment, but I think it could eventually go somewhere quite interesting. With that said, let’s dive into the meat of it:

Character generation systems that use a “point-buy” approach (meaning that a PC’s capabilities are acquired by spending from a pool of assigned points)  often use a different set of costs or even an entirely different pool of points between the initial creation of the character and later advancement in the game. Exalted used Bonus Points for character generation and Experience Points for later advancement. Certain editions of Shadowrun had the option or requirement to use Build Points at first, before moving on to Karma. Aberrant had two separate currencies just for character generation, Build Points and Nova Points, in addition to Experience.

This approach frequently causes problems as the game progresses. By applying a different set of costs at different times, it incentivizes the players to spend their points based on what will be the most useful down the road, rather than what makes sense in the here and the now. For example, if you apply a flat cost of X points to buy a new rank of some characteristic with multiple levels at character generation, but use a multiplier later on (something all the above systems have been guilty of in at least one place, and usually more), then players who want that characteristic to be a high rank are encouraged to buy as much as is possible before the multiplier kicks in. A classic example is Essence, in Exalted–a very powerful characteristic. Solar Exalted pay 7 Bonus Points for increased Essence at character generation, or a multiplier of (their current rank x 8) Experience Points later on. This multiplier is out of proportion with the multiplier on, say, Skills, which stay cheap even after character generation thanks to a x2 multiplier. This not only places a disproportionate weight on the value of Essence in character generation, but actively punishes characters who don’t invest in it early but do later on, as their equal number of points becomes able to buy far less.

A system that does it differently is Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, which uses the exact same costs and pool of points in character generation and later advancement. I generally prefer this method, but it did occur to me that the flaws of the other approach could actually serve a purpose if handled right. Here’s where we get to the actual thought experiment, having set up the background. My question is “What if the disparities in character generation and advancement points were deliberate, and intended to push the PCs to develop along paths that supported game balance or appropriate themes?”

Now, I’m not generally a fan of developers telling people how to run their games or build their characters, but this notion intrigues me. You could support well-rounded characters over hyper-specialists by making it cheaper to acquire new skills early on than to invest heavily in one set. Similarly, you could give cost breaks to skills that are core to the setting. Now, the obvious way that a lot of games have handled this sort of thing is to either restrict the initial degree of specialization possible (Edge of the Empire does this, with a cap on your initial skill ranks) or by giving free ranks of skills that every character should have (Exalted: The Dragon Blooded did this…sort of. Homeworlds in Rogue Trader do something similar). However, this is something of a straitjacket, and requires even more developer input into the character generation process than the careful weighting of costs. I think this idea could strike an interesting middle ground in that respect. It would have to be done with care, but it would be interesting to see how it played out!

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About Jordan Goldfarb

I am a freelance writer working in the Role-Playing Game industry. My goal is to bring passion, creativity and intelligence to whatever I do, wherever I do it.
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