I Hate Choice

X-COM Second Wave Select ScreenA long time ago I wrote a series called “Pathfinder Class Analysis.” Basically, I would read over an individual Pathfinder class, then I’d write outlandish blog posts about what I would do differently if I were the one designing it. At the time I probably would have said I was criticizing Pathfinder because I loved it and wanted to see it improve. In retrospect, the whole series was kind of my parting shot at the whole 3.X family of systems. I had already started to play in OSR games at that point, and was enjoying the hobby more than I ever had before. It wasn’t too much later that I stopped writing about Pathfinder entirely.

But in many ways, Papers & Pencils is still much more popular as a Pathfinder website than it is as an OSR one. The Class Analysis posts in particular draw a lot of traffic, and produce a lot of comments. Some are surprisingly positive, but nearly all of them posit some serious disagreement . The most consistent criticism is directed at my frequent assertion that some class choices ought to be made randomly, rather than left to the player’s discretion.

It’s a belief I’ve only doubled down on. Many of the classes I’ve drafted for you this year have randomized powers, The Windmaster and The Slasher are two examples that come immediately to mind. I love randomized class options, but a lot of folks seem to think that’s a pretty weird thing to love. So lets dig into just why I love them.

There are two arguments I find compelling in favor of randomizing character options. The first is an argument against choice, the second is an argument for randomization.

Choice is good. But like all things, it’s only good in moderation. The human brain is really only capable of weighing so many options before it reaches a point of choice paralysis. This is doubly true when the effects of those options aren’t readily apparent. If you’re trying to learn a new game, you can’t know if +1 to your Blamf is better than +1 to your Flumph.

Most players don’t enjoy creating their character. Oh, sure, there are some who do. They’re the sort of folks who go online to talk about their favorite games. The ones who just can’t get enough D&D. They get together on forums or subreddits and it’s easy to assume they represent the entire player base for tabletop games. But I don’t think I’ve ever met one of those people outside the Internet.

Every player I’ve ever played with in real life just wants to play the game. Every choice the character creation process gives them is an extra step they have to take before they get to do the thing they actually want to do. But they won’t rush the choice, because they don’t want to make a bad choice. So they agonize over options they don’t really understand, that are too numerous to be explained to them in any meaningful way. When they finally do choose, it’s more out of exasperation than anything else. Then they spend the next several months asking the referee “so…what does this do again?”

This is not because players are lazy. This is because complicated, choice-heavy character creation is only fun for a small minority of people. For everybody else, you might as well gate the fun behind tax forms.

None of this is to say that character creation should never include any choices. Far from it, I think a small number of options that can be made quickly and understood easily are a great way to make a player feel like their character is really their own. But many rules-heavy games labor under the false assumption that more choice is always better. Quite the contrary, too much choice is poison to fun.

Courtney Campbell is particularly adept striking a good balance with this. Many of his games fall on what I would call the rules-heavy side of the spectrum. But his character creation processes strictly control the number of choices a player is asked to make at first level. I wish I could talk more about his upcoming “Perdition” in this post, as it really exemplifies this design philosophy. I’ll have to settle for telling you to be excited for its upcoming release.

So that’s why I don’t like (excessive) choice. It’s a barrier that prevents new or casual players from enjoying the game. But what makes randomized options so appealing?

If there’s a list of 10 class options, and the player is allowed to pick whichever one they want, they’re going to try to pick the one that will give them the most success in the game. That’s a completely reasonable thing for them to do. It’s what I would do. Most likely 1-3 of those 10 options will seem obviously superior to the rest. It’s not that any of the options are bad, but no array of powers are all created equal. Not unless they’re painfully bland. (+1 to attack during the day, +1 to attack at night, +1 to attack underground, +1 to attack indoors, yawn.)

If, on the other hand, the player must roll a d10 to determine their power, then there’s a good chance they’ll end up with something they don’t have a good idea of how to use. It’s a perfectly functional ability, there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s not what they would have picked, and now they need to figure out how to make the most of it. There is a true artistry and beauty in figuring out how to excel with the cards you’ve been dealt.

If you’ve got a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. And in a world full of nails, you might be inclined to pick the hammer every time. But what do you do when someone hands you a hacksaw instead? Maybe you cut the nail in half, maybe you cut the board that’s supporting the nail, or maybe you realize some of your problems were never nails in the first place.

In other words: you get creative.

Randomization breeds creativity in players. It forces them to be clever. To think. To explore options they never would have considered otherwise. That creativity is the kind of thing they’re going to be proud of, and tell stories about.

So that’s why I said the Sorcerer’s spells should be randomized in Pathfinder. It’s also why anyone playing a Slasher in my games wouldn’t get to pick their own quirk. Choices made during character creation are a slow, alienating, unnecessary process; and randomized character options elevate play to artistry.

Come at me, bruh.

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5 thoughts on “I Hate Choice”

  1. I think some people are afraid of randomness because it means some of the control they have over a character is taken away, meaning they might be stuck with something they don’t like.

    However, I think these people are kind of missing the point. The beauty of randomness with character generation, as you pointed out, is that you might get something you were expecting and have to figure out how to make that work.

    1. The problem there is you can get stuck playing something you *really* don’t want to play. (You want to play the party melee tank – what you end up with is some sort of dodge based archer, or you want to play a confidence trickster rogue, but thanks to randomness you’re now playing a stealth/murder rogue because you got the sneak/backstab abilities not the talky ones.)

      Or you can end up with something practically unplayable (or weaker) compared to the rest of the table, and thus less able to participate in the challenges side of the game. Sometimes random just isn’t going to give you a viable, or competent character. I’ve rolled characters in random systems and then looked at the character and it’s just not been worth playing them – they’ve had fewer, and less effective, powers than the rest of the party. I don’t mean “more situational”, I mean “less effective”.

  2. I’m one of those people who really loves character creation – as a GM I spend way too much prep time statting out minor NPCs. I can see the appeal of randomness and in fact I’ve started to randomize NPCs a bit to keep them fresh (rolling race, gender, or stats in order). However as a character generation mechanism I’d want some kind of limitation to prevent randomness from severely undermining a character concept, like a pacifist sorcerer with a spell list full of Magic Missile and Fireball, or a battle oracle with the blackened curse (-4 to hit with weapons).

    You mention using bloodline spells for this in the sorcerer analysis, which isn’t a bad idea since it makes sure you know you’ll have at least one spell per level that fits your concept. Other options include a limited ability to re-roll (you learn 3 spells per level and may re-roll one), or a way to limit the options before rolling if you wish (like being able to choose the school of magic to roll from, or specifically exclude one curse).

    Also, if you want to introduce to a skeptical group you could allow players to select options or to roll, but incentivize rolling – for example by letting a sorcerer learn one extra spell if they roll instead of selecting. I might consider doing that with my next PF game…

    1. I usually wouldn’t dream of coming up with a character concept before level 2 or 3 anyway. For me the character is created out of their experiences, not out of some idea I come up with before play even begins.

  3. I’m all for creating a character during play, but I wouldn’t dream of starting a character without at least a seed concept for that character to grow out of. One of my favourite, best developed characters started as “nomadic triceratops herder.” I didn’t even pick an alignment until several levels in – but when I did, it grew organically out of the seed concept (“I seem to be physically interposing myself between danger and the weaker members of the ‘herd’ – guess this character is good-aligned”).

    I’m honestly having a hard time imagining what playing without a seed concept would be like. I already feel like I spend the first few levels trying to get a feel for the character, and doing that without a seed sounds frustratingly disorienting.

    I don’t think any of my 20-ish gaming friends would start playing a character with at least a few words to describe that character beyond their starting mechanics. And that includes the friends who prefer rules-light systems like Powered by the Apocalypse.

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