Star Wars Wednesday - Designing Stats

Last week, I discussed the pitfalls of stat block creation for public use/publication(mostly for Star Wars Saga Edition, but applicable to other systems as well).  Keith "Nar" Kappel of followed up with a good question I wanted to address here.

The one subject you seem to have overlooked is in the design of the actual character. I would be curious to hear some of your design philosophy behind statting. How do you approach a canon character vs an original character? Do you go in with a game mechanic notion, or a character concept notion? How much do you let individual instances from research influence a block, vs achieving an overall effect that provides the feel of the character? How much do you let the title of feats or talents influence your selection or non-selection of them vs being purely focused on the mechanic provided?

It could probably be an entire additional block like this one on its own, but I would be very curious to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Actually, I was concentrating on the mechanical aspects of the stat block itself, rather than the mechanics of character creation. The difference is, in the mechanics, there is almost always a correct solution dictated by the game rules or simple mathematics. When creating a character, opinion and focus come into play, so it's much less cut and dried.

There are several ways to approach this discussion, but I'll try taking the questions in order:

Canon character vs. original character, character concept vs. game mechanic concept

Canon characters are essentially characters already in-universe, from names everyone knows, like Luke Skywalker, to those in outside the realm of mainstream pop culture conciousness, like the Moomo Brothers. Original characters are those created specifically for an adventure, a sourcebook or other work. Original to the RPG. Some generic canon characters overlap this somewhat, like a Rebel trooper or smuggler.

With a canon character, it's all about encapsulating the character's best known and most important abilities within the confines of the game rules. I rarely build a known character with a specific mechanical trick, unless that game mechanic was created specifically with that character's abilities in mind.

With original characters, I'm usually creating them for a specific adventure or purpose. There I will build them mechanically to achieve a certain goal or use specific skills/talents/feats. They may not have well-rounded abilities, but they're not usually supposed to. In neither case do I try to "optimize" the character's game mechanics to their most efficient. They must meet the story needs first, and mechanical needs second.  

Individual abilities vs. overall character concept

When creating a canon character, research is required. You really need to know the complete history of the character to accurately describe them in game terms, otherwise, you'll leave out a skill or important ability, or assign one that doesn't fit. This will also tell you which skills are most used by the character, and what their aptitude is (just because they do something a lot, it doesn't make them great or even good at it). Individual abilities win out when they're central to what the character does often and well. However, just because a character succeeds in a particular action once on screen, that doesn't mean they're always entitled to a special ability related to it. There are degrees of importance here, and often it comes down to what aspect of the character the designer wants the focus on.

An example: When we were writing previews for the Star Wars Miniatures game, we created RPG stat blocks for them to expand their usefulness. For some reason, the various versions of Han Solo were often used in the previews. This lead to variations on the base Han Solo stat block from the core rulebook. The variations inevitably swapped out some of his abilities for versions focused on what abilities the mini version was highlighting.

In short, you don't normally want to stat a character around a single ability, or even include a specific ability, just because it shows up once in your research....unless it's what the character is KNOWN for.

Occasionally, a character might end up with an seemingly out of character ability because it is a prerequisite for a needed feat, talent, etc. This situation occurs less in Saga Edition than in d20 Revised Core Rules, but it can happen (class starting feats, for instance). If the ability is essential, or the situation unavoidable, just include it and move on. Just because a character CAN do something doesn't mean they will, and its not normally wildly out of place.

Titles of feats/skills/talents/classes vs. their actual mechanics

Resist the temptation to give a character a certain feat, skill or talent just for the name. If it matches mechanically, great. If not, skip it and move on. This also works in reverse. Just because something is named oddly for the character in question, don't skip it on that basis. This is why some Sith have levels of Jedi, even though they were never actual Jedi themselves. There is no Sith base class - Jedi covers the mechanics. This is less true for Prestige Classes, however, as they're more specialized. 

Now, going beyond the questions: Class, Level and ability scores.

A character's class and level are the first decisions to make. For me, I try to work out the level first, class makeup second. Approximate the level by comparing the character to known characters in the core rulebook. Is the character as powerful as the Emperor or Yoda? Ok, you're up around 20th level. Are they likely to be knocked out by a passing generic stormtrooper? Level 1 or 2 it is. Wait, though, should they logically be more experienced than that? Time to think about classes...

First question: heroic or nonheroic? If the character is CLEARLY a hero, skip the nonheroic class and move on. The nonheroic class is useful for a lot of things in gamemaster character much so, I'll cover it next week. For now, if the character hasn't always been a hero, or you need to cut the character's power down, give them a few levels of nonheroic.

Next, think about the class makeup. Divide the levels among the classes and prestige classes the character logically should have. Multiclassing is hugely useful in Saga, so don't shy away from it. You can get fancy and decide which classes are taken in exactly what order (switching between them as needed), but you can often achieve the same thing by just grouping them together, one class at at time.

Finally, ability scores. You'll be tempted to over-stat the character's most prominent abilities because CLEARLY THEY'RE THE BEST at what they do. Well, not always. Resist the temptation. Compare your character with similar characters from the rulebooks. At a minimum, start with the standard array from the core rulebook and work from there, though single number stats are rarely appropriate. For simplicity, figure out what ability scores you want from the beginning, and assume all bonuses or penalties for level and species are already applied. Keep in mind the bonuses stats give at certain numbers - 13 is often important, for instance, for certain feats.

To sum up - for me, character concept comes before mechanic optimization. Characters have flaws, and it is ok for their stats to reflect this. You can get into discussions about specific feats or talents, but if the character's expected abilities are covered, they'll work well within the game. If a GM wants to highlight a specific aspect of the character, it's relatively easy to swap out a talent or feat for one they prefer to focus on.