Thursday, December 9, 2010

Screw Average

"Average is dumb."
Harvey Pekar, American Splendor

I have been thinking about this for awhile, after receiving a year's worth of comments about how this stat or that stat was just a point or so off average, and therefore I had no justification for penalizing a 7 intelligence or charisma.  Now I'm not going to write a screed about it - R, for one, wouldn't be happy with me (a shame he doesn't have a real profile).  Instead I'd like to point out a few pertinent things regarding the angle the game plays on 'average' stats, high stats in general and the anxious desire of players who want their characters to live.

I have those kind of characters.  The survivalist types, those that get upset when their characters die.  They might not throw things about or scream and whine about it (they're adults, after all), but they don't shake it off in five minutes, either.  Believe me, I appreciate it.  I think if there's anyone I'd rather not have playing in my campaign, it's someone who sees their character as nothing more than scratched, impersonal numbers and words on paper.

I don't see any reason why a character can't become a living, breathing entity in the player's mind - there's no difference between this kind of 'creation' and the creation of believable, wonderful characters from literature.  If Peter Pan, Conan, Nicolas Knickleby, Lazarus Long, Benjamin Braddock and Rorschach can feel real enough to be tangible in our imaginations, why not Frith the Thief, Leothan the Mage and Mavis Blackwater, assassin extraordinaire?

There may be an argument to be made that some who have come into my world to find the players deadly serious about survival - which is really just character development by another name - a problematic expectation.  They don't wish to invest so closely in something that a die can kill ... and would rather keep all that personal involvement off the table.  In other words, they would rather mess around, play the game at arm's length and spend the session in sarcastic, snide, superior strutting splendor.

Or so I have noticed.

Now that's fine, for those that play that kind of game, who spend most of the session with others of the same ilk, topping one another in wit and genius.  And for those players, who I know are out there (many a blog testifies to it), a 7 or a 17 wisdom doesn't mean a whole lot.  Their characters can get a good rip off the NPC head guard's dialogue regardless.  And that, for them, is what the game's all about.  The measurement of fun is, I believe, recorded in PPH: puns per hour.

But we who want to live resent most heartily our 7 wisdoms, because we know that stat is going to be the death of us.  It is going to be the roll we have to make at the most critical time possible, the one that keeps us from walking into an empty mine shaft when the doors opened.  And we'll fail.  Epically.  And that will be the end of Mavis, Mavis that we loved and whose body was never found.  Oh, sure, we'll roll up Ikhnaton the Mage, but he'll just be a placeholder for four or five levels, the inadequate stand in for our poor, lost Mavis.  Excuse me, I need a few minutes.


Okay.   I'm fine.  I want to make the point that a 10 of anything is a lousy, worthless stat ... not just because it won't let us slaughter a dozen orcs in a dozen rounds, but moreso because it is the weakest point in the chain that is keeping us alive.  The roleplaying pundits can ramble on all they wish about the pleasure they find in character roleplaying a bad stat, but that same bad stat will also limit the lifespan of that wonderful roleplaying.  Yes, there was something lovely about Mavis' lack of wisdom.  True, she was a marvellous carouser, she did get drunk and stagger home after curfew on quite a few memorable nights, and there was that pregnancy scare that ended when she got fireballed and the undetermined fetus didn't make the saving throw.  But the whole time that shaft waited, patiently, not going anywhere.  Given the choice, it would have been much nicer if Mavis' wisdom had been 9 ... the number the d20 actually showed.

Now, Iknaton's not bad.  Lowest score's a ten, I think.  And after awhile, I think I'll get to like him quite a bit.  I think I can find some very interesting qualities to absorb into his higher stats just fine.  I don't think every defining character trait needs to be a flaw.  In fact, I kind of like Iknaton's 17 dexterity.  Keeps him from getting hit quite so often.

If survival's the thing, that average 10 stat is going to get you killed 50% of the time.  You've always got to remember that, and play around it, so you're not put in the position of running away from a monster when the mine shaft door opens.  Which limits, really, what your character can hope to accomplish.  Speaking for myself, who runs every character as a megalomaniac bent on taking over the world - why else would you play? - I hate having to play around limits.  But that is the game.  I haven't been lucky enough to roll six eighteens yet.

But someday, I will.  And damn, will I love that character.


Wickedmurph said...

Best gaming moment I've ever had were players accurately roleplaying low stats. I've had players who would walk through the shaft doors voluntarily, because hey - wisdom 5.

Well, not quite that bad, but pretty close. Going out in the woods drunk and alone at night while a werewolf was on the loose leaps to mind. I actually regret killing Duryn the Bandit.

One of my co-dm's once advised me "never kill a player for good role-playing". Which is debatable advice - there are some things which are good role-playing and also deserving of horrible death.

I like my characters to live, though. Especially once they've had enough time to develop a personality. I think the game suffers if your players are't invested at least that much.

Nicholas said...


Stats are all relative. What's important is not that you have the highest stat but that they are on par with whom you battle (in an aggregate sense).

If survival is your thing, stay at the inn. They've got bottomless ale and a funny bard on stage. There are millions of NPCs, all surviving just fine. In fact, if you're hired on as a half-decent server, the innkeeper might give you free room and board so that you'll never need to adventure again!

Any rule system can be modified to guarantee that one's character survives and thrives (or dies horribly). What is interesting about RPGs is that your character is making decisions within the fictional setting. The only characters I find interesting are the ones with a passion. And what is interesting about them is how they work their way toward their goals.

It is somewhat irrelevant whether or not they survive.

Zak S said...


Do you really think Alexis is just gonna go "Oh shit, you're right".

Obviously the man is playing the game a different way than you are.

Either you have failed to notice 2 years worth of in-depth posts re-iterating the seriousness of this person's attachment to however they play the game or you are just baiting the bear for no good reason.


JDJarvis said...

"I haven't been lucky enough to roll six eighteens yet.

But someday, I will. And damn, will I love that character. "

Yeah but such a character is just begging to get shot in the back of the head by a younger gunfighter out to make a name for himself.(to use the gunfighter analogy)

but that's cynicism speaking.

As a GM a player with too many high stats only sucks if the player is an unambitious toad that doesn't add anything to the campaign and uses high scores to minimize risk instead of using them as a means to seriously rock.

Oddbit said...

Having low scores can serve to stagnate the party as well when the entire party is doing their best to avoid their weakness and minimize risk.

The whole point of playing a game rather than taking a katana down the street and hacking up your neighbors for their 'mad loot' is the idea that you can take the risk. The game is boring if all the players do is play it safe.

I'm not necessarily saying 'go big or go home', but do something dangerous, take risks, love your character and eventually lose them so you can love another.

Dan said...

Nice post.

But it got me thinking about pros and cons and trade-offs. Maybe low stats can have an advantage. Maybe high stats can have a disadvantage.

For instance, maybe low Wisdom can make you more resistant to fear (fools and heroes right? Not mutually exclusive). Maybe high Intelligence makes you more at risk of, oh I dunno, depression. Or high Charisma makes you more at risk of unwanted attention or even kidnap. Low Charisma can make you better at scaring small children (and elves).

I think there's some mileage in that for both fun and naturalism. But I'm just thinking out loud here.

C'nor said...

I've never seen a character with six eighteens, but someone I know did get one with their lowest stat as a 16

Anonymous said...

"One of my co-dm's once advised me "never kill a player for good role-playing". Which is debatable advice - there are some things which are good role-playing and also deserving of horrible death."

Baiitng the authoer or not, the above sentiment is directly at the heart of what I dislike about some role playing. That is, the ubiquitous idea that the DM is expected to manipulate events to suit their whims. I know, I know... every DM is in some way doing so, but isn't establishing a premise or environment enough? There is enough power vested behind the screen without having to fudge rolls for good or ill, isn't there?

I'm on board with the folks in this comment thread that speak about players taking risks being oart of the game. If you're going to spare a player the natural consequences of their acitons because their playing up to your sensibilities, where's the risk exactly? simply in not pleasing the DM?

Wickedmurph said...

Um, James.. you talk as if gaming contained "events" that actually happen. As if there was some in-game reality which can either be manipulated or be allowed to just "exist". And that "sentiment is directly at the heart of what I dislike about" some lazy schools of game thought.

There is no reality here. Well - check that - Alexis has actually created a reality, primarily by obsession/hard work.

As the DM, I decide what happens. It's MY decision. "That's what would have happened" is the fallback position of dick DM's who have made a jerk decision. You have plenty of flexibility as a DM to decide on events to include a few considerations other than "what will make the character's life harder"

There is nothing in my post which advocated not to let the dice fly high, or not abiding their results. Indeed, there was nothing about not meeting risk-taking with actual risk.

That being said, I game with my friends. And it is a game. So what kind of social maladroit makes his decisions about a game purely based on his opinion of the verisimilitude of an imaginary place, populated by imaginary people? Alexi, probably, but that's his bag.

Your attitude on this is one that I see crop up pretty frequently in the "old-school" movement, and I can't abide it. The only real place here is my gaming table and group of friends, and I'll make decisions appropriate for that location, thanks.

Anonymous said...

You are, of course, free to make whatever decisions you want, wickedmurph. But if you're going to post about them on a blog be prepared for them to be commented upon.

I also play with my friends and we also recognize its a game. I suspect that Alexis does too, by the way.

There precisely was something in your post advocating not letting the dice fly.

"never kill a player for good role-playing"

That statement expresses two things. One, that the DM should ultimately decide whether players live or die and two, that said decisions should be based upon or influenced by how well they have role-played. You yourself pointed out the flaws in that, so I'm not sure why me doing likewise raised your hackles.

For me what it comes down to is if a player knows ahead of time that role-playing well will provide them a means of not dying it ironically undermines the sentiments that the role-playing was based upon. For instance, if sacrificing my character for the good of the group despite the time and effort invested is met with some miraculaous, last minute "save" then it undermines the impact of the sacrifice. Talk about a great, missed moment of role playing.

It also means the players are playing more to the DMs sentiments than they are the "reality" of the game. If that's the sort of thing that you and your friends enjoy, rock-on.

Wickedmurph said...

Actually, it's the fact that you managed to totally misunderstand the idea that raised my hackles. That and I find you condescending.

Why would anyone consider pandering to the DM to be good roleplaying? Good roleplaying, I think most people would agree, is acting in a manner consistent with that of your character, including making bad decisions.

And it's the conscious bad decisions we're talking about here. If your character sacrifices himself to save the party, what's the benefit to anyone to save him? Arguing ad absurdum doesn't benefit anyone here.

I'm not in total agreement of the idea itself, but when you're considering the ramifications of a PC's actions, something done in the service of good roleplaying deserves the benefit of the doubt, I say.

As for your last comment, stick it.

Having this argument in this forum feels to me like arguing about the feeding habits of bears right in front of a cave you know contains a male grizzly. Either of you might be right, but that doesn't mean much if the bear wakes up.

Alexis said...

Snnggg ... growl. Snort.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ...

Alexis said...


Once you have established an indefineable quality - "good roleplaying" - as the measure of play, you have thrown out any pretext of impartiality. 'Good' here is defined by the bias of the DM or the table - a bias that will not fit every table.

If a DM will "never kill a player for good role-playing," it is clearly implied that a DM shouldn't hesitate to kill a player for 'bad' roleplaying. Perhaps not in your mind, Wicked, but certainly in somebody's mind. That is not a far reach. However anecdotal your personal experience, I believe the issue here is not how you play with your players, but how any individual ought to play, in terms of ethics. On those terms, a DM ought not to penalize any player for failing to roleplay adequately to an hoc measure, if that player is satisfied to make decisions, describe their actions and role dice when appropriate.

If we reflect upon that simple decency, we must acknowledge that rewarding, tangibly or intangibly, any player for roleplaying well on the basis of opinion (and there is no other basis) is in fact a favoritism practiced towards those who fit the mold, and by association a degrading of those who do not.

That should be obvious to fairly anyone.

Nicholas said...

@Zak S
I find myself constantly reminded how much of a message is lost or miscommunicated when we are limited to text.

You make two good points. First, I am new to this blog, so I have not read a representative sample of his two years worth of posts. Second, there is no real reason to expect that a total stranger will give a damn what I think.

My only thought is, if Alexis did not want honest responses to his posts, he would disable the comments feature, or stop posting altogether. Presumably, by sharing an opinion an author is inviting responses, both positive and negative.

In my mind, the suggestion to "never kill a player for good role-playing" comes from the idea that an RPGs primary goal is maximum enjoyment for the players. If John Doe really likes playing his halfling fighter, and his roleplaying excites and energizes everyone else at the table, it would be a great loss for the players (GM included) to kill the character, thus draining the fun out of the room until John (or someone else) brought new excitement in from a new source.

It is definitely favoritism, and it does mean that some poorly defined divine power is protecting that character for undefined reasons.

I don't like that it is stated as a universal never, but I think that on occasion a time comes for every GM where they have to either punish the players in a very real sense by literally killing the joy, or briefly suspend a single rule (secretly, I presume) and risk coherency of the world and system.

I can't fault either choice, and think I would be willing to choose whichever made the most sense at the time.

Anonymous said...

Wickedmurph, it truly wasn't my aim to be condescending. Perhaps, like you, I'm just naturally an asshole and can't help it. Until just then I truly thought I was limiting my comments to the content of your posts, which I understood perfectly each time you posted them. I simply disagree with you. Since Alexis already said anything I would have I'll just leave it at that.

Wickedmurph said...

Well, I have my asshole days, that's for sure. Seems like that was one of them.

I'd say that Alexis' argument is probably the most cogent one against the idea that I've seen. I would note that although I think it's bad form to kill a player for "bad" roleplaying, I'm pretty sure I've killed characters for "dumb" roleplaying.

While I do think a measure of impartiality is important as a DM, I feel that I still have a lot of wiggle room. If the characters are invested in the campaign, things like loss of in-game resources, magic items, allies or a variety of other penalties can easily be used, as appropriate.

I'd also argue that not encouraging "good" roleplaying can easily lead to metagaming, min/maxing and constant attempts to "outflank" the DM, rather than playing in-character.

While I'm fairly comfortable in my ability to balance these considerations, I have to agree that in-general, impartiality is a better guideline to work with, and that "never" is far too strong a word to use in this context.

Anonymous said...

Likewise, not one of my better days.

My sentiments aren't really that far off from yours, Murph. I think we just differ in how we approach the role of DM.

What I have found works best for me personally is rather than allow myself best-intentioned wiggle room in terms of determining consequences I strive to make the environment of the campaign internally consistent. If my own rulings are continually based on that consistency vs. notions of fairness, fun or good play then the players will have both a basis for reasonable expectations and no reason to suspect me of being partial to a particular style of play or player.

Also, if I'm having another bad day I won't come across as a total asshole. Well, that's actually unavoidable... but at least its not coming across in the game.

Do I always achieve this? Of course not, I'm only human. But it is what I'm striving for. Any approach to the game that downplays this in favor of DM fiat will be one I personally take exception to, no matter how good-intended the DM or even how enjoyable the actual results. That's what I was trying to express before.

Wickedmurph said...

Well, I've had my technique bite me on the ass a few times, and I've found that I'm moving the direction of how you do things, so mayhap I doth protest too much.

Using your example of the character who sacrifices himself for the party, though - here's how I'd do it (once, at least).

I'd make the death off-camera, have him roll up a new character and continue. Then have the party uncover hints or rumors of a prisoner. If they decide to go after the prisoner, they might recover the old character, who the player can elect to play again, or not, as he prefers.

It's relatively easy to do this kind of thing, and I don't feel that it harms the player/DM dynamic or introduces elements of favoritism. Certainly, it takes a bit more work and thought, and has more potential for abuse, but I feel that it's worth the risk.