So earlier in the week I talked about Random Character Creation and some of the strengths and weaknesses it has. In the interest of fairness I'm going to do the same thing today, only looking at that other most popular of character builders, point buy. Now point buy comes in a large variety of forms, but in essence how it works is you are giving a pool of points, and you go through and spend those points to buy your characters stats, skills, abilities, and other such things. Now, this is my in general preferred style of character creation, and it is important you know that as it can color my arguments. That being said, it is not without its weaknesses.
Much like I did with the Random Character Creation, I figure I'll start with the weaknesses so that we can end the article on a positive note. Most of these I'm sure you'll find are just the opposite of the weaknesses that come with Random character creation.
While, once you get used to it and at some point values it can go fast, in general point buy systems are slow. They are slowed down for a number of reasons. 1) usually different things cost different amounts meaning you are constantly doing math. 2)You need to be careful you don't under or over spend, meaning you are constantly doing math. 3) Newer players, or people who are just not as sure need help at which point you need to explain 1&2 to them, meaning you are constantly doing math. I'm sure you see the trend, but point buy is all about the math. How much have I spent there, how much do I have left for here? Can I just move those things around. Now, it does get faster when you get used to the system, but I'd be willing to bet that I could randomly create 3 characters in Icons, all unique and varied, in the time it took someone to make just 1. Possibly even more.
Point Buy in a lot of ways simply isn't fair, there is a synergy present for certain combos of abilities and stats in most systems and not everyone can see them. People with more experience with the system, knowing when things unlock, are going to make characters that develop into their power at a much steadier rate. Newer people who don't receive a lot of help, are likely to make characters who - despite having the same points - are just not as effective in what they do due to bad building strategies. As such, if you are playing a game with experienced and new players, you need to be careful and help the newbies along to have characters that can hang with the more streamlined builds.
Prone to Twinkery
Speaking of streamlined builds, you know those synergies I was talking about? Yeah, they're definitely there and with a point buy you open the door to twinking and min-maxing in a way that Random just can't match. Choosing where my points go, and what is developed how much for my character means I can literally cut off all the fat and side stuff off the character and make someone who is truly a beast in what they specialize in. Who needs an average charisma when I can shoot the wings off a fly at 3 miles with a pistol? Not this character! Now, not all players will do this, but some will, and you can be prepared for people who just can't help but find the most stream lined way to make their character as good as possible - maybe not even with ill intent - in the hopes it'll help them last just that little bit longer, or do just that bit better.
The last weakness I'm going to talk about is accidental cheating. You remember all that math you're doing? Well guess what, points are very easy to lose track of in some things. Go to Mutants and Masterminds, with a standard character you are playing with 150 points and buying things that can cost as many at 10 points/rank and as few as 1 while hitting everywhere in between. It is ridiculously easy, especially as you tweak and refine your build, to lose track of points and end up either over spent or under spent. This isn't even intentional, it is just accidental math and then one session your GM goes over the sheets and realizes that you somehow have 10 more power points than someone else. It's not a lot, sure, but it can be significant, and rebalancing the game once you've found one of these issues is a game in and of itself. Even with four people checking a sheet I've seen someone come out with being over or underspent, and some of the people involved in the checking were math majors and engineers. Bad math just happens sometimes sadly.
Point buy isn't all weaknesses, if it was who would like it? In fact some of the Strengths point buy have will very quickly explain how it became so popular.
Make What I Want To Play
With a point buy system I am not reliant on the dice to tell me what I can and can not play, I can play the character I want. In fact, I can custom tune the character to be exactly the one that I want. If I want a bruiser who is also intelligent, I can do that. A charismatic idiot? Done. By buying the points individually I can custom the mechanics to the person I want to play for the kind of story I want to be in. This is probably the biggest strength point buy has, the ability to let players play the character they want, not what a random roll of the dice tells them.
Harder to Cheat
Now, I know I said accidental cheating is a weakness, but intentional cheating is harder to do in a Point Buy system. See, the GM knows how many points she gave out, and she knows how much XP has been earned, which means that at any point she can go back and check over character sheets and do the math up. When she does that, she's going to see if someone has more points than someone else, and just how many points that is. At which point she can fix the issue, and if it is consistently one person whose abilities are just creeping up higher, she can speak to the person and address the issue.
Now, this isn't exclusive to point buy systems, but most point buy systems tend to do this. With everything being done point buy, the concept of levels gets thrown out. As such, you get to constantly develop your character with small amounts of XP earned each session. This is important, as the feeling of constant progression gives a sense of regular reward for the players, and is likely to keep them happier. It also makes for a smoother growth curve for the GM, enabling them to scale up difficulty a little at a time instead of having to deal with sudden growths in power that happen at various intervals.
While experience can matter in building a character, generally speaking characters should be about equal when it comes to ability in a point buy system. Perhaps in different ways, perhaps one is more stream lined than the other, but in general two 150 point characters should be about even when it comes to capability. The most likely differences in ability to show are going to be specialized characters versus more generalist builds. Where one character never hits the heights of ability of another character but makes up for it with the amount of things that they can do compared to the other. It needs some checking sure, but point buy will lend itself to more balanced and even characters than random made characters.
Like I said, there are strengths and weaknesses to both ways of doing things, and neither system is perfect or even good for all games. There are also a lot of strengths and weaknesses I didn't list here for point buy. In a lot of ways though the strengths of one address the weakness of the other, so you should be able to get an idea of things I missed by checking out the weaknesses and strengths for the other one.
The close to being opposites though is a good thing, and if you can make yourself a system that can do both, you probably should and give players and the GM the choice of how they want to do it. Either way, just be aware that we've yet to make a perfect system, just systems some people really love. Make sure the game you are building is using the system of generation that does what you want it to do, and does it well. Have fun.