The Dire Rust Monster

In the comments on my Rust Monsters: Not For the Wuss of Heart post, several people claimed that they disliked Rust Monsters because they didn’t represent any real challenge: once you knew the trick of dealing with them, it was just a tedious process of beating them to death with non-metal weapons.  I think that betrays a lack of imagination on where and when they might meet Rust Monsters, but for them I have created:

Dire Rust Monster
Armor Class: 2
Hit Dice: 5*
Move: 120′ (40′)
Attacks: 2 Claws/1 Club Tail/1 pair antenna
Damage: 1-8/1-8/1-8/special
No. Appearing: 1-4 (1-4)
Save As: Fighter: 3
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value: 400

Looking more like an ankylosaur with antenna than an armadillo, the Dire Rust Monster share with its lesser cousin a voracious appetite for metal.

The special antenna attack is the same as a Rust Monster: non-magical metal armor or weapons crumble to dust; magical metal armor or weapons lose a plus (10% per plus chance of resisting the effect), once it loses all its pluses the next hit crumbles it.  A successful hit on the monster with any type of weapon means the body was hit, and there is no ill-effect on the weapon.

Now it’s just as challenging as an Owl Bear (since it’s statted like an Owl Bear, except for its AC, a lower Morale and a different special ability, and a whopping XP bonus) and those who were bored by the original Rust Monster should be all eager to go up against it, right?

Rust Monsters: Not for the Wuss of Heart

    • Some people are really pissed that Wizards of the Coast cut the Rust Monster from the new 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. This creature was one of the original, classic creepy creatures from the old school pre-AD&D days.

While we’re on the subject of Fear in RPGs, the Rust Monster represents a particularly pure instance of Challenge Fear.  The only threat that the Rust Monster represents is to your character’s efficacy.  An encounter with a Rust Monster challenges you to avoid or defeat it without risking your precious equipment, or to face subsequent encounters at less than full strength.

Players who think that isn’t fun are wusses.  Or, to put it slightly less pejoratively, are either seeking the illusion of challenge without the actual possibility of significant set-backs or shouldn’t be playing a challenge-based game.  Players who are interested in interacting with the world will roll with the punches: if that’s what the setting says happens, that’s what happens.  Players who are interested in creating an exciting story might actually seek those situations out: if John McClane has to run through broken glass in his bare feet, putting him at a disadvantage for the rest of the story-line, that’s great, it ups the tension.  Players who are genuinely interested in challenge might curse their luck, or their lack of foresight, but those are the breaks that make the game worth playing.  But players who complain that it’ll leave them at less than their recommended wealth-and-equipment amounts for characters of their level, throwing off the challenge ratings for level-appropriate encounters until the GM throws in enough loot to restore the balance….  well, I can’t help feeling that they’re playing not just the wrong system, but the wrong kind of system.

There are plenty of systems out there that are explicitly built around the notion that the PCs will triumph and kick ass, and play is about giving them the mechanics to describe how they kick ass in really cool and awesome ways (Feng Shui and Exalted come to mind, or in a different vein something like Amber).  Taking a system that in its essence is about all kinds of ways that PCs can fail (poisoned, turned to stone, level-drained, killed, polymorphed, etc.) and putting foam padding on all the dangerous bits is…lame.  Go too far in that direction and even sword wounds will just seal themselves right up after a few moments… oh, wait, that’s 4e Healing Surges.

Really, I can understand and enjoy styles of gaming where the only setbacks are player imposed or player veto-able.  But if players want that, they shouldn’t fool themselves about what they’re doing.  If losing your +2 Flaming Broadsword is going to ruin the campaign for you, getting rid of the Rust Monster isn’t nearly enough–the GM’ll have to get rid of thieves, Dispell Magic, really any kind of situation where you could be knocked unconscious and stripped of your possessions… You’d all be much better off with a system where having that flaming broadsword is part of your character schtick, with explicit script immunity.

Fear in RPGs

As I see it, there are three kinds of fear in RPGs.  I’ll call them Visceral Fear, Challenge Fear, and Character Fear.  Visceral Fear is fear that the players actually feel; Challenge Fear is fear that players experience for the character’s safety and well-being; and Character Fear is fear that the characters experience but the players do not.  The names are a little clunkier than I’d like, but I’m trying to get at something I think is an important distinction between fear felt by the player as a human being, and fear felt by the player as a player of a game, both of which could reasonably be labeled “player fear.”

Visceral Fear

Visceral Fear is fear that the players sitting around the table actually experience in their own body; it’s not actual fear for their own safety (or it had better not be) but it’s the kind of fear that you might experience while watching a horror movie or reading a book.  It’s fear that’s caused by empathy with the character, but the physical reactions–goosebumps, chills, startlement, disgust–are your own.  Visceral Fear is regarded by some gamers as the ne plus ultra of fear reactions possible in RPGs, even the whole point of running a horror scenario.  But visceral fear is very hard to achieve in a table-top role-playing game, which is much less immersive than a movie or a first-person computer game, and is something that a lot of people really object to experiencing even in horror scenarios.  By definition, it’s not a pleasant experience as it’s happening, though in retrospect you might be quite pleased that it occurred.

Generally, the way to achieve Visceral Fear is to up the level of immersion in the game.  Some GMs will resort to music, dimming the lights or replacing them with candles, sound-effects recordings, props and the like; sometimes this works, but sometimes it just comes across as cheesy.  A lot can be done by increasing the amount and vividness of the descriptions you give.  Many GMs neglect senses other than sight and sound in their descriptions, so making sure to include smells, heat and cold, touch and so forth will make everything easier to imagine.  Another piece of advice is that imagination is much stronger than description, so less is more.  No detailed description you’re likely to come up with of a tentacled horror is going to be half as scary as as what the players picture if you describe their fingers groping in the dark brushing against cold rubbery flesh that pulses and slithers away.  You want small concrete details, not paragraphs of purple prose that make them giggle or gives them time to let their minds wander. Also, describe things, don’t label them.  “You see three Zombies” isn’t viscerally frightening.

Another piece of advice is try to pay careful attention to the level of tension.  You want to ratchet it up higher and higher as the scenario progresses, but people generally can’t take a lot of unremitting tension.  They need breaks from the tension, and if you don’t provide them, they’ll provide their own by breaking character and cracking jokes.  You are aiming for an ebb and flow of tension, with each successive crest higher and scarier than the last, until you reach the climax which is hopefully the scariest part of the scenario.  The climax of an adventure game will often be a big, bloody battle, which tends to ruin the mood as far as Visceral Fear goes; that’s ok…it’s time for Fight instead of Flight, and this is the players’ pay-off for letting you scare them all this time. It’s pretty much impossible for them to stay creeped out when the dice are flying.  The ending may turn out to be entirely down-beat, with all the PCs mad or dead and gibbering horror unloosed upon the world, but in the moments leading up to that where the players are making the decisions that will or won’t lead to that outcome they are not going to be feeling the horror–the mental modes required are incompatible.

Challenge Fear

Challenge Fear is the fear that players have for the well-being of their characters, or their ability to achieve the victory conditions (which may be quite nebulous or personal when it comes to RPGs).  It’s fear in the same sense that a chess player might fear losing his Queen. It may be completely cold-blooded and rational, based on their objective assessment of the characters’ chances of emerging unscathed; it may be as silly as feeling that the dice have been against them all night, so they had better avoid combat.  But it’s completely separate from any Visceral Fear the player might have because of the imagery or the horror aspects of the scenario.  The person who is playing might experience a lot of Visceral Fear even when as a player he experiences none at all for his character’s ultimate success, such as in a story-oriented game with complete script immunity for his character.  (In fact, that may be the raison d’être of horror scenarios in story-oriented games.)  Or a player might experience a high degree of Challenge Fear in a completely prosaic dungeon crawl where no attempt whatever is made to convey any atmosphere and the character is not directly threatened with any physical harm, such as a Fighter with a cool magic sword and armor confronted with a lowly Rust Monster.

Challenge Fear is probably the most common and useful kind of fear in an RPG.  Visceral Fear is something that a lot of people just don’t want to experience in their games. Challenge Fear is something that the majority of RPG players want, or at least claim to want, at least to some degree.  Even the worst munchkins would hesitate to admit that they want the rules to be reduced to “whatever you attempt, you succeed” and the GMs job to just describing stuff for them to succeed at.

So why do I even call it Fear, and not merely Challenge?  It has to do with what I mentioned in my previous post on Scary Scary Monsters, with what I called “having skin in the game.”  Something can be very challenging, in the sense of being unlikely to occur or hard to pull off, but still have trivial consequences if you fail; if they’re trivial enough, then success can be robbed of any interest or triumph.  If you get a basket from more than half the court away when you were just standing there hucking balls at the backboard all afternoon, you might be amused, but hardly jubilant.  If you sink one from the free-throw line with $500,000 on the line, you’d be inhuman if all you had to say was, “well, isn’t that nice.”  And even if you have an 80+% free throw rate, if you had $500,000 at stake you might very well choke just because of that.  Having something at stake changes the game, and makes you fearful of losing.

Now, I’d say being fearful of losing is a good thing.  Too much fear can rob you of the fun, so even if you succeed you feel nothing more than relief and anticipatory dread of having to do something similar again later.  Nobody is going to want to play an RPG like that.  But too little fear can make playing tedious, and I think that’s a lot more common.  I think a lot of players are used to games where the stakes are too low; when the loss is purely imaginary, it seems to me that you ought to be willing to risk a lot more to make it more interesting.   “Ho hum, another gibbering tentacled horror from beyond the stars” is not something you want the players to be thinking, even in a game of Grand Adventure with steely-eyed, square-jawed heroes who never flinch in the face of danger.  The character might think that, but you never want the player to be ho-hum about anything.  Even in games where you have script immunity from death (and I admit that a lot of the games I GM are like that in practice, even if in theory the system allows for you to die), you can increase the tension and make the players more invested in the outcome by putting things that are important to the players about the characters and the setting at risk.  Note that it’s not enough, IMO, to have the risk be something that is theoretically important to the character; for a lot of players, losing that is just gaining a story opportunity and spotlight time.  There’s nothing wrong with players getting story opportunities and spotlight time, but if that’s the biggest downside, it’ll make them more indifferent to the outcome.  Ideally you want them to care, a tad short of desperately, how the events in the game unfold.  You want them to fear the bad and rejoice in the good.  You want the challenges that they face to have distinct permanent (or nearly so) outcomes, good or bad, so that they remember damn well forever after whether they met that challenge or not.  If an encounter with a wandering monster isn’t going to give them more than a few wounds they can magic away or a few xp and a sword to sell at the next town, then you’re wasting everybody’s time and an opportunity to have something memorable happen (unless you’re running a sandbox game and you and they regard this kind of thing as time well-spent in establishing the texture of the world–and even then you might ask yourself whether it’s actually worth playing out rather than jumping to the inevitable end of the encounter).

Character Fear

Finally, there is character fear: the fear that the character experiences that isn’t shared by the player personally or the player qua player.  This might be caused by failing a Guts check when confronted with some rotting horror, by the Fear spell of an enemy Necromancer, by a character phobia, or even perhaps by the player deciding that in the given situation it would be in-character for the character to be frightened.

I don’t have a lot to say about Character Fear.  Some systems use it more than others, some genres call for it more than others.  Many players regard it as a complete nuisance, and act as much as possible to minimize its scope and effect.  Even if completely player instigated, it will usually greatly reduce the player’s scope of action; when system instigated depending on how it’s handled it can remove a player from play just as completely as if the character were knocked unconscious.

I guess I would generally prefer that Character Fear be more or less congruent with player fear, so that if the character acts afraid it’s because the player is experiencing a moment of Visceral Fear or has correctly assessed that given the stakes and the likely outcomes there’s good reason to be afraid of something genuinely regrettable happening, but I wouldn’t want to make any rule about that–even a rule of thumb–because I recognize that there’s a lot of chewy roleplaying goodness to be had when the characters are afraid.

Also, there’s a fairly strong tendency in RPGs for characters to be irrationally, even suicidally brave.  PCs will often fight to the death, not only disregarding the likely outcomes in the setting and system, but the likely motivations of the characters and even the biology of human beings.  Sometimes that’s why people play these games.  That’s fine, but occasionally things that will at least remind them of what sane creatures would likely be feeling at that point can be valuable for the verisimilitude of the setting and genre and the survival of the characters.

Scary Scary Monsters

  • So I’m busily populating my Points of Light hex map with encounters and threats, and I’m having a really hard time with monsters. Gryphons and harpies and werebears…they’re all so quintessentially fantasy, but they don’t scare me — and I worry they’ll have a similar effect on my players.

Here was my comment:

My gut feeling is that if your players aren’t scared (or at least scared for their characters) by the monsters, they don’t have enough “skin in the game.”

Step 1: Have permanent effects. If whatever the monsters do (perhaps even including killing the characters) can be reversed, it’s just not as scary. The easier it is to fix, the less scary, but as long as there’s a known fix, getting effected goes from horror to nuisance. The monsters are just bags of hit-points when the PCs are just bags of hit-points that can be restored with a couple spells or some rest. Monsters that you want to be scary should have some good chance of permanently changing the characters for the worse. Death counts if there’s no resurrection, but too much and the players will just avoid identifying with the characters if they still agree to play at all. Level Drain, destroying stats (e.g. the slashing, filthy claws of a Harpy disfigure the victim and remove 1 point of CHA on a critical hit), inflicting curses, chronic disease, phobias, destruction of precious possessions (yay, rust monsters!) are all ways to make the players fear the outcome of the battle even if “victorious.”

Step 2: Be Unfair. Fairness isn’t scary. It may or may not be exciting, but if you think you’re evenly matched, you may feel bad about losing, but you won’t dread even getting in the fight. You gave it the old college try. Monsters are scary when you’re their prey, not their equal. If your harpies are too tough for anyone under 20th level to take on (perhaps they really are death spirits embodied, as in Greek mythology, and immune to missile fire and spells), or just too numerous when they do show up, then you can get your players to cower under the trees whenever a flight of them wheels through the sky.

Step 3: Use sparingly. Unless you’re running Call of Cthulhu you probably want your players to play brave adventurers. It’s easy to accidentally overdo it and cause them to “turtle” because the outside world is just too scary.

I’ve been thinking about fear in RPGS a bit recently, but I’ll save that for another post.

When Ought A GM Call For A Dice Roll?

    • And this is something I’d thought about before: What principled ways can a GM call for a dice roll? This is the philosopher in me being concerned that I’m merely using intuitive feelings to decide when it’s appropriate to ask players for a dice roll and not a rational principle. If a GM asked players to roll for everything, this would be principled. It would also be tedious and turn role play into nothing more than a dice game.

My own answer to the question is the GM calls for a dice roll when:

  1. Either the player or the GM asks a question about the setting for which there is no predetermined answer
  2. the answer will make a difference to a decision a character (PC or NPC) is faced with
  3. the GM wants the answer to be unbiased

1. A Question with no predetermined answer.

This is the main thing.  In my game, rolls are almost always triggered by asking a question, although the question might be implicit in an action that appears to be a declaration: I swing my sword at the monster (did I hit?).  Sometimes the GM is asking the question (do they notice the ambush? does anything noteworthy happen as they travel down the road?), sometimes the players (do the guards try to stop us from entering the town? Is the princess impressed with my singing?), but if there’s no question, there’s no reason to roll.

But there’s also no reason to roll if the GM already knows the answer. If the players come to a gate and want to know if it’s guarded and the GM has either noted specifically in the description of the gate that there are two guards or has established as a general rule of the setting that gates into town are always guarded, then there’s no reason to roll.

2. The Answer will make a difference.

Lots of questions, implicit and explicit, get asked in the course of a game session, and rolling slows things down–particularly if there’s a chart involved.  If it’s not important, and I define important as being information for a decision the characters are making (or I anticipate they might make), then the time-honored technique of “making stuff up” is the way to go.

If the player wants to know what color clothes the guards are wearing, or anything else that has no particular bearing on something the player has to decide…perhaps just to help flesh out the picture of the setting in the player’s mind, there’s no reason to roll anything unless as a GM you just have trouble improvising.

3. An Unbiased Answer

If you don’t need an unbiased answer, then even if there are charts and skills that would be appropriate to the situation…you still don’t need to roll.  Making stuff up is faster and just as good.

The reason for dice in the first place is to pick a random answer out of a list of possibilities.  You want a random answer when there’s some reason that a biased answer (even if only possibly unconsciously biased) is unsatisfactory.  It might be unsatisfactory because it’ll give players the wrong idea about how common certain things are in the setting. E.g. bandits are supposed to be rare enough that commerce is possible without every caravan needing a host of armed guards, but in order to keep things interesting it seems like every time the players pass a caravan it’s under attack by bandits.  It might be unsatisfactory because you’re risking taking something significant away from the players (such as one of their characters) and you want it to be clear you’re not just doing it for plot reasons or to demonstrate that your setting is deadly.

Times not to roll

Note, though, that there are many reasons that you might want a biased answer.  In that case, it’s a mistake to roll the dice.  If failing to notice a secret door will stop the adventure cold, then having the play session end with a 5 in 6 chance is unacceptable.   If a character is supposed to be an expert with lock-picks but keeps failing the rolls, you should probably make him stop rolling for a while and just have him open the damn locks.  It’s true that if the skill and difficulty are set correctly, by the law of large numbers if he just keeps trying to open locks, eventually his record of success will match how good he’s supposed to be…but  by Rule 2 where you’re only rolling if it’ll make a difference (or even if you roll every single time), the character may not have enough tries for that to work out.  It can be very disheartening for a character to always fail at his signature talent.  My home-brew actually borrows a concept from CORPS where you don’t even roll if the difficulty of the attempt is equal to the character’s skill; D&D 3 introduced the concept of Taking 10 and Taking 20 for pretty much this reason.

Rerolling

Don’t.  Seriously, if the characters can always reroll for a success, then eventually they will succeed.  Contrariwise, if the GM can keep asking for yet another roll to confirm the success (e.g. asking for a stealth roll for every 5′ covered) you can guarantee a failure.  If it’s a task that the character can eventually succeed at with enough tries, then don’t roll for success, roll to see how long success will take (or how much money it’ll take, or how much damage they’ll take, or whatever resource they’re expending on each attempt).  If it’s a task that the character could in theory simply not be skilled enough perform successfully, then treat a failed roll as indicating they just can’t do it unless they can bring something more to bear to increase their chances, e.g. coming back with better tools, having another character aid them, going away and training the skill some more.

The middle ground, and the only place (IMO) where you could consider allowing rerolls is where failures make success harder to achieve or can be addressed by the player choosing to spend resources (either meta-game resources like bennies in Savage Worlds, or in-game resources like potions in D&D), so the failure or degree of failure is an input to further decisions by the character.  A typical case is trying to page through a book to find a specific passage while combat is swirling around the character; without the time pressure the character could certainly do it, but as GM you might not want to roll and say it will take 2 minutes–by which point the combat will be long over.  In that case you could allow a roll each turn, so that the player could decide after a couple turns to try something else (or you could roll secretly to see how long it’ll take on the first roll and then let them know when they find it if they keep electing to spend their turns looking).  In either case, the way that events continue to unfold around the character means that each decision about whether to spend the turn searching is a new one, and it’s worth giving the player the opportunity to make it.

This Is So Going Into My Next Game

  • An enormous amphibian that lived 240 million years ago in Antarctica could really sink its teeth — all three rows of them — into prey, considering it had an extra set of large, sharp teeth on the roof of its mouth. Its tooth-packed mouth, 2.75-foot-long head and 15-foot body help to explain how this beast, Kryostega collinsoni, was Antarctica’s top known Triassic predator.

And if it turns out to be Modern Day, so much the better!

Balance, Shmalance: Free-form Character Generation

It might seem odd, but besides life-paths my other favorite way of letting people generate characters is completely free-form: just describe your characters in terms of the game mechanics.  For this to work, you need reasonably mature players (or at least players who would be ashamed to be revealed in front of the other players to be complete power-gaming munchkins) and you need a system where it’s relatively clear what the different stats and abilities amount to, relative to the game world.  If the players can’t tell whether STR 18 on a scale of 3-18 is literally something that 1 in 216 people have (so they might not even be the strongest person in a good-sized village with a 17) or if it would make them the strongest person they’ve ever met, or perhaps the strongest person that anybody they’ve ever met has encountered, then it’s really hard for them to be fair–even where fairness is just defined as being true to the character concept.  Often, though, the GM can elaborate a bit on how he interprets the system to help fill in that information.  (Will he literally roll 3d6 to determine the STR of a random NPC or does he assume that PCs are more variable than the population and they’ll travel far and wide before they ever encounter another person with a score that high.)  With my homebrew I explicitly rated attributes and skills as to how common they were, e.g. a hobbyist level of skill, a dedicated hobbyist, a professional who used the skill regularly, a professional who used the skill daily, top ten in the world, etc. but there’s no reason you can’t assign descriptions like that after the fact to practically any other system as long as you’re willing as GM to put some effort into making it true.  No fair telling your players that Rank 5 is equivalent to a working professional if every professional they ever meet just happens to have Rank 8 and beats the pants off them in any contest.

But what about balance?  Well, here’s the dirty little secret of RPG systems: point-balance is by-and-large a crock.  Even when determining pure combat-effectiveness, which is something that can actually be play-tested, most systems don’t go through enough play-testing–particularly blind play-testing–to actually balance the options and the myriad ways they can be combined against each other. And when it comes right down to it, combat balance may be the least important aspect of balance in any RPG.  D&D didn’t even attempt it for decades (and despite 4e’s attempts might not have it today)–it was simply true that for almost all battles until very late in the character’s progression Fighters were better in combat than MUs.  And Thieves never caught up.  They weren’t supposed to.  Early on, D&D didn’t even try to give everybody something useful to do in combat;  Mentzer’s Basic D&D straight-out advised low-level Thieves to avoid it.

D&D wasn’t badly designed in that respect, IMO, it simply recognized correctly that to the players “spot-light time” is much more important than effectiveness at a single task.  To the extent that being ineffective at combat is a problem, it’s a result of nothing more than spending too much time in combat compared to other things.  At least in the beginning, combat was only one–and often not the most time-consuming–of a number of activities that were essential parts of exploring the dungeon: mapping, searching, dealing with traps, negotiating with the denizens of the Dungeon (yes, back in the day by-the-book play involved rolling to see each monster’s reaction, and it wasn’t always hostile). And once campaigns broke out of pure dungeoneering it became entirely possible to have a complete and satisfying game session where not a single to-hit role was made.

As an aside, one of the side-effects of 3e making combat a lot more involved, with a lot more rules for specific choices per round, was to make it take a lot longer and make having a character who basically hid during combat a lot less palatable.  By reducing more of the out-of-combat stuff like attempting to disarm traps to straight die-rolls that take hardly any time to resolve, it tilted the balance further towards combat being the activity for the evening.  So characters not having a roughly equal number of roughly equally effective combat options became a design flaw….hence 4e.

But, to get back to my main point, spot-light time is something that it’s almost impossible to balance through specific character abilities.  It depends almost entirely on the scenario, and how the GM and the players approach handling it.  If they actually act out important conversations, then negotiating with enemies or allies can provide a huge amount of time for the characters to be involved and do their thing; this could let socially ept characters totally dominate if the GM lets skills and character abilities dictate how things go…or it could provide fodder for everyone to strut their stuff (even if their stuff is to be rude and socially awkward providing interesting complications for the delicate negotiations).  If they just roll vs. Persuade, then not so much.  You can try and build systems where the main activity is going to be talking and negotiating, or investigation, but those are going to be the exceptions.  Most of the time you just can’t predict when the characters are generated how much time is going to be spent with the spotlight on various kinds of character activities.

You could say that it’s the job of a good GM to try and spread the spotlight around evenly, and to play up the activities that the players enjoy doing and have built their characters around, and I’d agree with you.  But there’s just no way a point-buy chargen system is going to help you accomplish that.  Declaring that a +1 in fighting costs 1.5 times as much as a +1 in Persuasion, and 2 times as much as +1 in Crafting: Pottery doesn’t make it so for your particular group of players and campaign.

One of the things l like about Savage Worlds as point-buy chargen goes is that it takes a big step towards acknowledging this by subsuming almost everything that might fit into the character’s back-story but only come up in play rarely under Common Knowledge; they further recommend that anything that won’t come up on the average of at least once a play session not be broken out as a separate skill.  They still like to pretend that, say, a +2 in Charisma “balances” against a -1 to be hit with ranged attacks, but actually as a quick-and-dirty way of saying “This is what’s notable about the character” it’s not half bad.  At least we’re spared the GURPS insanity of making strictly more effective (same in all the skills, but with higher stats) characters cheaper to buy if you know the tricks of the system.

Compared to point-buy, and sometimes even random-roll, free-form character generation saves a lot of time.  And I mean a lot, as in players whipping off new characters in the first five-ten minutes of a session instead of having to allocate half or all of a session to creating a new party.  Moreover, the GM rarely has to do anything more involved than give the character sheet a once over to make sure there’s nothing particularly outrageous there and to make note of any secrets or special abilities he needs to keep in mind; no time is wasted double-checking math or making sure the character is “legal.”  The character is legal if the GM and the players agree it is.  It does help if they agree that the GM has some leeway to change his mind and ask to them tone something down if it proves to be more of a problem in the campaign than he first anticipated.

And here’s an interesting thing: in the four or five years now that this has been the primary way of generating characters in our main ongoing campaigns (for one-shots I usually just pass out pregens) power-gaming and munchkinism have been less of a problem than ever before. Not that my players were particularly prone to it, but there’s something about a point-buy system that seems to ask for players to push it.  This is really striking with people playing Champions, and to a somewhat lesser extent GURPS, but it seems like such a system carries with it an implicit guarantee that because all these things have points assigned to them and there are all these (sometimes elaborate) rules on how you can spend them, in what order, how to get more points, and so forth whatever you do will be a reasonable “balanced” character and you are sacrificing effectiveness for no good reason if you don’t strive to optimize.

On the other hand, if you tell players “make a reasonable character, don’t worry about the points”, then that’s what they do.  They don’t give the character eidetic memory if they don’t see him as having eidetic memory, even if that would save a boatload of points on the knowledge skills.  At least with my players, I’m far more likely to look at the resulting character and tell them they can beef it up if they feel like than have to ask them to cut back so they’re a little less “best in the world at what I do–and what I do is everything.”  The only minor issues I’ve had have been with players new to the group who’ve just come from gaming groups where it was a badge of honor to go for everything the GM will let you get away with, and they really have been minor, not requiring anything more than my saying “Most of the other PCs aren’t anywhere near that good.  Maybe one skill at Expert, and another couple at Professional.”