I am having a hard time with the obsession in a large part of roleplaying game design of enjoying, embracing and desiring what is basically an extremely limiting, unrealistic and annoying concept. The Pencil.
The Pencil is what defines a character and channels their development once place begins in DIP systems, and is usually centered around a Class, Profession or Vocation. It limits what skills a character can have, what background they can have, what attribute values they may have, what unusual abilities they may have and how they will improve overtime, even what their morality and ethics should be in some cases.
The Pencil is sometimes also used in other ways, such as a 'Clan', a 'Racial Package' or a 'Blood Line'.
Pencils are found throughout D20 based systems, as well as Rifts, White Wolf games (Exalted, World of Darkness etc.), etc. It is used to a lesser degree in Ironclaw, Iron Gauntlets, Ars Magica, HARP, Rolemaster and even Call of Cthuhlu, Runequest, and several other systems.
The Pencil limits. The Pencil Binds. People complain that The Pencils are artificial. Yet there are people who cannot find a way of playing without this aspect of game system.
There are games that lack The Pencil: MIA (Memorize It All) and MIU (Make It Up), for example, both officially lack The Pencil.
The Pencil claims to serve certain advantages: Fast Character Generation, Reduction of 'Heavy Thinking' in character choices, System Balance, Future Growth Direction, Ability to Predict what others can do based on knowing their Pencil, Quick Adaption of Stereotypes rather than having to be unique, easy understanding of who and what you are. System Balance. Niche Protection.
The Pencil stifles creativity, forces repetitive processes of action, limits possibilities in game play, encourages rules lawyering and reduces roleplaying.
It lies about system balance. The Pencil structure as implemented in most games rarely actually achieves anything like balance, or even the illusion of balance.
It lies about Niche Protection, as there is no preventing someone else from choosing the same Pencil. Or, in the case of D20 and other systems that allow taking multiple Pencils over time, from adding the same Pencil later.
Fast Generation? Well that depends on the player as well as the system. And how many Pencils there are. In D20 with it's great mounds of Pencils that have been added along the way (dry erase markers, highliters, etc.) an inexperienced player can be just as overwhelmed or even more so by a stack of books describing specific Pencils as they can with a 2 page list of skills to choose from.
Predictability? Yes, it provides that... and stagnation.
Reduction of thinking? Yes, but other simple methods of such exist in non-Pencil games. I know one player who's played the same character 5 times under 5 different game mechanics, with only the slightest of real variation, some of them Penciled and some of them non-Penciled. It's easy to reduce your thinking if you want extreme predictability, no need for Pencils there.
So what do The Pencils do? What real good are they? Why do they predominate the gaming market these days? If you prefer Pencils, why?
I'm curious, as usual, as to why other people think the way they do. Talk to me. Why do you embrace The Pencil?