The Joy of Random
Role-playing games in the ‘80s were typified by two things: random character generation, and big-ass tables. Only the trendy systems used point buy. Rolling up your character meant literally rolling up your character where Actual Dice were thrown onto a flat surface and the result recorded on a character sheet. Crazy, I know.
And you know what? I miss those days.
Some rule systems were less random than others and you used a combination of Sound Judgement and dice rolls to guide your virtual person down certain paths. In Traveller, for example, you can choose which career to try for – but it’s up to the dice whether enlistment succeeds. In the much-loved Teenage Mutants Ninja Turtles a combination of dice and batshit-crazy could result in you playing a Pigeon Samurai, Weasel Bomb Disposal Expert or (heaven forbid) Cyborg St Bernard.
Character generation wasn’t the thing you did before the game; it was a part of the game – almost a meta-game unto itself, ideally suited for solo and group play alike. We had entire sessions of Marvel RPG where we did nothing but roll up heroes and villains. Some of them still survive to this day as Mutants & Masterminds characters. Arguably, they are the best character we’ve ever made.
And that’s the thing. Random character generation injects a spark of life into a character, something that’s beyond the control of the player. It’s the voice of Fate saying “Yes, I know you want to play a Magic-User. That’s why I made you roll INT 4. Deal with it.”. Your role-playing skills are put to the test as you learn to read the attributes, forming a character from the raw numbers on the page. This, my friends, is role-playing. Putting an 18 in one stat and using another as a dump stat, frankly, isn’t.
I’ve said before that 4e D&D is probably the first edition of D&D where it’s possible to roll stats using the “3d6, in order” method and still create a character that has a reasonable chance of survival. Rolling in this manner also has the happy side-effect of turning the game from one of high-powered Heroes to a game that’s far more gritty and street-level. Anyone who complains that 4e D&D isn’t for them ought to try it sometime.
Over in the world of superhero gaming, my one regret with Mutants & Masterminds is that it doesn’t support random character generation. There is a system for it in the Mastermind’s Manual but it doesn’t work well. Those times I’ve needed a little random inspiration, I’ve used the excellent Zan’s Character Generator for Marvel RPG and ‘ported the resulting character across to M&M.
The huge advantage of random character generation for Superhero gaming is that it eliminates the problem where everyone ends up playing Batman/Superman/Iron Man clones. When you can end up with a power combination such as Astral Body, Telescopic Vision and Gravity Manipulation the challenge is to come up with any kind of viable concept which links them together. (Astra the Star Boy! See how this works?)
Which leads us in a roundabout way to ICONS. This is the new Superhero game from Steve Kenson which unashamedly brings random character generation back in from the cold (there is a point-buy option for the wusses out there too). This is the ‘80s, reborn – a four-colour testament to the Superhero role-playing games of a previous age. It’s lighter than Mutants & Masterminds so perfect for those folks intimidated by that system’s crunch, but still has a fresh and modern feel in it’s design. The best of both worlds? We’ll see.
Make no mistake.
Random is back, and it’s the new black.