Monday, August 5, 2013

Stat numbers and the nature of a hero, or, Do You Really Need That 18?

Most of the gamers I've ever met have tried, at some point, to stat up their favorite heroes and villains from books, tv, or other games. The problem with this is that heroes, in fiction, are generally pretty good at everything. Protagonists tend to be strong, fast, healthy, smart, perceptive, and charismatic. That's why reading about their adventures makes for good escapist fantasy. But it's easy to throw up your hands and say “you can't make [that hero] in D&D, the point buy numbers are too low.”

But are we setting the bar too high?

I'm going out on a limb and guessing that anyone reading a blog called “Kill it with Dice” is probably fairly familiar with the Firefly universe.

On the Serenity, it's easy to pick out who has the highest intelligence (Simon), charisma (Inara), dexterity (River), wisdom (Shepard Book) or strength (Jayne) but it's not so easy to stat up Malcolm Reynolds or Zoe Washburn, the leaders. They're good at everything. But the important thing to recognize is that they are not as good at anything as the crew's resident specialists (that's why the specialists are hired in the first place).

Mal and Zoe are the kind of people who, in an rpg, have a 13 or 14 in most of their stats. They won't hit with every bullet or succeed on every check, but that's part of what makes watching them so much fun.

Now consider the kind of people who have 18s. Since we're already discussing the Firefly universe, consider Mr. Universe (maxed int), or River (maxed dex). Or how about this guy? Who's more interesting to watch in that clip? The guy with 18 str and 16 con, or the guy with a 14 in both of those, but with some int to boot?

People with 18s are some dysfunctional, odd people. When I see a character with an 18 in a stat, I wonder what other stats and personality factors they're giving up for that level of specialization. I'm always interested to see whether the player will use the idea that their character is better in their chosen field than 99% of the human population in their role-playing.

It's generally accepted in tabletop rpgs that the PCs are heroic specialists, people who are amazingly good at what they do. Most parties are built with an eye toward “balance” and an assumption that each character will be remarkable at what they do and pretty terrible at everything else. When someone brings a charismatic fighter or a strong sorcerer to the table, eyebrows are raised. Mechanically, there's no reason to put any points into those stats.

But I'd like to throw this out there: maybe characters don't need to be specialists, and maybe specialists don't need to be the pinnacle of human possibility. Unless your game is the kind of party vs GM stat-fest where you really do need to squeeze every last +1 out of every line on your character sheet, it's probably worth it to build the character that you want to play. I've often found myself making a character and thinking “it's too bad the build doesn't have room for a positive int modifier... it would be fun if this guy was kind of smart.”

It's interesting to remember that a lot of the heroes that we love to watch or read about aren't the smartest, fastest, or strongest out there.

What do you think? Is it viable to play Malcolm Reynolds in your game? Is there room is modern fantasy role-playing for a generalist with a primary stat less than 16?


  1. I love playing "average" characters and characters with huge weaknesses. However, I more often than not find myself in a gm- AND player-world where to do so is to walk into failure.

    Being killed by suped-up monsters is one level of failure; feeling useless because all the other characters at the table are optimized is another kind of failure.

    So I feel like it is a pact that must be made by the table and can give a cohesive feel to the whole thing.

  2. I think it's also important to realize that in the PF/d20 system, it's possible to optimize/hyper-focus a character without maxing out stats. If you recall, a friend of ours managed to roll up an uber-tank simply by making a dwarf in plate mail with a tower shield. He was the best AC-tank I've ever seen and his highest stat was a 14. And he still made himself a credible threat on the battlefield using Bullrush and Cleave.

    I expect I'll have more to say on the subject in a few months, when our Shattered Star game progresses into mid-level play. Beck, the Summoner I'm playing, has a high stat of 15 (Dexterity) and is primarily a support caster and archer. His Eidolon, Ox, is a secondary tank. As I type this I realize I'm classifying them by the roles they play in the party, which I suppose is what they're "focused" at. But I wouldn't consider either of them optimized within their roles. They don't have anything like an 18 in any of their stats.

    I certainly think it's possible to build characters who are good at what they do without min/maxing or optimization. Suped-up monsters is more of a GM-related issue than an (un)optimized one. And players learning to share spotlight is a separate issue entirely, independent of ability scores.

  3. I see adventurers as special forces or Olympic level athletes. They are the quintessential example of a 'specialist'. If you want to be a good mage or cleric or druid, you *need* that 19 in your casting stat. Want to be a truly great archer? Pump up that Dex as high as you can go. I have no problem with player characters being specialists.