Thursday, May 20, 2010

Storyteller: Using Stats to Create Balanced Characters

Today is the first of the character creation section, and like any RPG, we’re starting with character stats. For the uninitiated, a character’s stats are the bare bones of what they’re good at, usually divided into categories like strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution and charisma (a sample blank character sheet is below, which I found here). New characters are either given a number of points to distribute across these stats, or the player makes a set of dice rolls to determine them.

Each character class relies on a specific stat, and that’s the stat that needs the highest number—wizards need high intelligence in order to cast more spells, fighters need high strength to deal more damage, etc. But unless you rolled really well, your character is going to be good at some things and average or below average at others. For example, we have my warlock in World of Warcraft.

Her stats are inside of the red box, with her main stats in green. You’ll notice that while she’s strong in stamina, intellect and spirit, her strength and agility are pathetic. This is normal of a spellcaster. She can rain down hellfire, but she can’t really fight hand-to-hand. (And isn’t that robe ugly?) Though a warrior might be strong enough to slay every orc in the room, he can’t cast spells or heal his wounds. This is where the importance of a group comes in: each character has a specific role, and together they’re a strong unit that can clear out any dungeon.

In terms of writing, one character’s weaknesses should be balanced by another character’s strengths. In romance you’ll often see this as the big, burly hero protecting the delicate flower heroine from danger, but she’ll be smart enough to figure out a clue that the hero can’t. While that’s a cheesy example, the point is that the hero and heroine are stronger together than they are apart (think “You complete me”). Deciding what the character’s strengths and weaknesses are can help you, the writer, figure out what they need to work on in the course of your story and what they can learn from each other.

I’m going to go through each stat, and as you read it think of what number you’d assign to your heroine, 1 being the worst, 10 average, and 20 the best. (Yes, you can have higher than 20 in a d20 system, I know, but we’re starting simple here.)

INT: Intelligence and wisdom often get confused, but to boil it down, intelligence is book smarts. If you’re good at Jeopardy! you have a high intelligence. This stat determines how many spells a wizard can know, how many he/she can cast, and how much extra damage the spell does. In traditional epic fantasy terms this is the wizard that carries a spell book and is well versed in arcane knowledge. Need a spell to open a magic door? There’s an app for that. Err, I mean he’ll have the spell for that. If your magic users need to do a great deal of studying, they should have high INT. If you’re looking to make a wizard’s life difficult, give him an average INT. Then he’ll have to work twice as hard.

WIS: Wisdom is street smarts, but it’s also knowledge of the natural world. Druids and clerics typically use wisdom for their magic—they don’t need to go to Hogwarts to study, because their wooj is natural or divine. Like the Force. Though casters often have high numbers in both stats (like my warlock’s INT and SPIRIT), they don’t always go hand-in-hand. The husband and I often joke about characters that are high INT but low WIS, like a character who figures out the difficult mystery but doesn’t think twice about walking alone down the dark alleyway.

CHA: Charisma covers a lot of bases. It’s the oomph behind a paladin’s holiness, the power of a bard’s performance, and the fast-talking persuasion of a thief’s bargaining. It’s a character’s good looks, and their ability to be charming. Every character needs a lot of this, right? Well…no. For a romance writer it’s easy to fall into the trap of having a hero who is the most gorgeous and charming man on the face of the earth or the heroine who is stunningly beautiful. Charisma doesn’t necessarily mean good looks; it can mean a strong presence. Someone who commands attention. Someone who people want to be around.

DEX: Dexterity. Every rogue’s friend; it’s the thing that makes her quick like a bunny. Need to pick a lock, throw a dagger, shoot a bow or dodge an attack? Then you need high DEX. This is for characters who are quick and wiry, not strong and brawny. In some games this is called agility (like in the WoW stats above). If you have a low DEX, you’re clumsy. Awkward. I’ve often read stories where the hero or heroine is clumsy as a way to make them imperfect. “Oh he’s gorgeous and smart, but he’s a klutz.” Yeah…resist the temptation, my friends. It’s been done.

STR: Strength, for when you need to slaughter every orc in the room. High STR lets your Wookiee tear the arms off people when he doesn’t win. It lets your hero pick up the heroine, throw her over his shoulder, and haul her back to his man cave o’ love. Low STR makes your heroine hit like a girl when she protests. If a character ends up with low STR, like a wizard who doesn’t need it, you might want to consider story reasons explaining why he/she doesn’t have it. Are they nobility, and thus manual labor is beneath them? Was your heroine born petite, and no matter how hard she works out she just can’t manage a bodybuilder’s physique?

CON: Constitution. No, not the document. We’re talking a person’s physical health. A high CON means you have a boatload of hit points and will be able to make it through a long battle. A low CON means you’re going to need a medic before you bleed to death after two hits. Or one hit. (I’ve had that happen in WoW, one minute you’re casting a spell and the next bam! Dead!) In romance, heroes tend to have a high CON, and heroines have a low CON (how many heroines have you seen get bonked over the head by a bad guy and are out like a light?). Constitution is also related to a character’s endurance and stamina. If she is swimming or running a great distance then she’ll get a CON check to make sure she can keep going and not collapse.

Reader participation time! Take one of your characters and assign them stats, and post it in the comments. You have 75 points to spend. I’ll start: Catherine Baker—INT 15 (she’s college educated and knows a thing or two about magic), WIS 12 (she’s not as street smart as she thinks she is), CHA 17 (if by charisma you mean snark, because Cat has some good lines), DEX 14 (she can handle a rapier by the end of the book, but she’s no expert), STR 9 (yeah, she’s not going to be punching through walls anytime soon), and CON 8 (Cat has a fainting problem, she may need physical therapy).

Next week we talk adding skills, feats, merits and flaws. All the good stuff to specialize your character.

1 comment:

Diana said...

I suppose I'll do this for Ken, because 1) you told me to, and 2) he amuses me.

INT 14: He's not dumb, he's done med and nursing school, but he does have to work at it.

WIS 12: He is able to make some intuitive leaps when it comes to magic, but he's not good enough to get the full picture on what the heck he's doing without some outside instruction.

CHA 12: He's cute, but more likely to scare someone into doing what he wants than persuade them.

DEX 15: Not a klutz, has decent hand/eye coordination and balance.

STR 17: Rrarh! Ken SMASH!

CON 16: Helped by the fact that he is his own medic.

I would have done Thea, too, but I don't think I can discuss her CON stat without spoilers. ;)