Saturday 13 August 2022

Probability and Personality

A week or two ago I reviewed Henry Hyde’s Wargaming Campaigns. It has also been reviewed on JWH’s Heretical Gaming site. There the issue is raised about how personalities are created for your campaign. Now, I do not want to turn this blog post into an exposition of mathematics and probability. I am sure we all recall those lessons from school with a shudder, but I do think there is a bit of a point here, and I do, of course, have my own suggestions.

Along with most other authors, HH has a method of creating personalities for your wargames and campaigns. In this case, 1d100 is rolled for each personality trait of an individual. As JWH observes, this can lead to some rather extreme people populating your armies and countries. One of HH’s examples (p. 271) has Corporal Sheffield having an intelligence of 12 and a health score of 99, along with a charisma of 5. While this might be an amusing element of a campaign, it does indicate that perhaps the creation system is slightly out of kilter, unless you revel in such.

In a similar way, C. S. Grant’s Wargame Campaigns uses a 1d6 roll over a set of characteristics to create personalities. Again, this seems like a method for generating extremes, such as a rash invalid, or a self-centered incompetent. Again, a few of these might enliven a campaign, but quite how a self-centered incompetent is played slightly baffles me. Are they incompetently self-centered and therefore behave in an altruistic manner?

Perhaps the earliest personality creation system, certainly the earliest I have seen and used, is in Tony Bath’s Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, which is perhaps getting on a bit now but is still a worthy read, bubbling over with ideas. Bath uses a playing card system to create characteristics. Having tried this a long time ago I can say it does work but the characters can feel a bit ‘same-y’ and the meaning of the characteristics is a bit vague and how they are incorporated into the campaign is a bit lacking in clarity.

I do not want to tell people how to run their campaigns and personalities, of course, but I do think that single dice rolls are probably not the way forward. I think the idea comes from Dungeons and Dragons, but there are other ways of character creation. JWH suggests a 2d6 roll to obtain some averaging, and that is a distinct improvement, but I would go a bit further.

In the recesses of my mind, I recall my old role-playing game days where the Runequest system used 3d6 rolls for the base attributes of each characteristic. This does have advantages. The average roll on 3d6 is 10.5 (the range is 3 to 18) and the distribution is peaked around this value reasonably strongly. Therefore you get a strong average for a human characteristic – most characters you generate are going to be average in some quarters. They might also have some serious flaws or outstanding features, but these are going to be rather nuanced by the other, more average rolls.

Of course, in Runequest and other games, there are also non-human characters who get different dice rolls, or at least a different number of dice to be rolled. I shall ignore them here except to note for your fantasy or science-fiction game you might like to consider them.

The second advantage of the Runequest system is that the basic characteristics allow you to derive other skills from them. So, for example, your chance of spotting something hidden is given by your intelligence, while your initial ability to pick locks is determined by your intelligence and dexterity, and so on. You can also improve specific skills by use.

As I have been banging on a bit about Flashing Blades a bit here recently I can say that it has a similar system, and some useful skill sets that can be derived from the characteristics of many personalities in wargames. The soldier's career path has basic skills, such as shooting and swordplay, but also things like generalship and strategy. These would be handy for a budding general, and the initial scores can also be improved by training and practice.

The other useful trait of the 3d6 system is that by multiplying the number by five you have an immediate percentage chance of success. Thus, if your character is of average intelligence, say 11, they have a 55% chance of doing the intelligent thing, whatever that might be. If they have an initiative of 12 they have a 60% chance of doing something given a stimulus, and so on. While it does entail a little mental arithmetic, it is a useful basis, I find, for using the personalities I create.

Alternatively, you can use a 1d20 roll. I find that a bit less useful as the results are less fine-grained. You might want to know, for example, by how much your character has failed the intelligence test, or how badly their charisma lets them down in inspiring their men. A 1d100 roll gives you a more finely-grained answer than 1d20.

In both cases, however, there can always be a chance of success (a 1 or 01-05% in my system) and a chance of failure (20 or 96-00). I have also carried over the critical hit and fumble outcomes from role-playing days. The 1/20 of your probability of success at the lowest end counts as a critical roll, so you not only succeed but succeed as well as you can think, so if your roll is 50% you get a critical on a roll of 3% or less (being generous). The top 1/20 of your roll is a fumble (97% or more in the example) which results in the most egregiously silly or stupid thing being the outcome. In the Jersey Boys campaign just started, the Parliamentary land forces commander picked his units for the first wave, fumbled his intelligence test, and chose the forces with the most cowardly leaders. It may not matter, but it causes some amusement, and that is surely why we have personalities in campaign games.


  1. An interesting post on an interesting subject, many thanks. I am forever messing around with different systems for various forms of character generation, mostly for RPGs but sometimes for wargame battle and campaign purposes. In theory, this is one area that the most recent research and writing on psychology could actually be incorporated. I should get around to writing a post myself on all this...

    1. Thank you. I am trying out a system at the moment which generated some interesting results so far, including the captain of the flagship being sacked on the spot for incompetence. That might lead to consequences...
      I have no real feel for contemporary psychology, so anything you can come up with would be interesting.

  2. At the risk of stating the blinking obvious, a 'self-centred incompetent'? Wouldn't that be your basic Boris Johnson?

    1. Fair point. But we wouldn't want too many Borises in our world. They make an awful mess.