About This Guide
At the request of several people I have composed this how-to tutorial for character building in Fallout 3. With this guide even experienced players may find ways to improve their builds and help create that "perfect" character. My objective for this tutorial is to assist in character planning and to help avoid creating a character that "sours." I hope you find this useful, or at the very least somewhat interesting.
Easily the most important decision in creating your character is the one of what your character is going to be. As Dad stands over you and strains his eyes to see if you're a boy or a girl, you'll also want to be thinking about what sort of character you'd like to play. Now I know some die hard role players will criticize me for planning the general playstyle of my character, but you needn't even plan that so much as just know about yourself and how you like to do things.
First think about what sort of theme you want for your character, and then think about how you most enjoy killing things in video games. Do you prefer to pump them full of lead? Energy weapons strike your fancy? Grenades your personal favorite? Or perhaps a little hand-to-hand combat? The type(s) of weapons you use is going to be the most influencing factor in the selection of all your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes as well as your skills and perks. This is not a decision you want to botch and end up switching from mini-guns to energy weapons at level 7, as this will end up "spoiling" your character, resulting in a significantly weaker character than you could have at that stage.
Once it's clear in your mind what sort of weapons you generally enjoy dispatching opponents with, proceed to the next step.
Choosing S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Values
If you really don't know anything about the game than allow me to enlighten you. Your SPECIAL values are your Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck attributes (see what they did there?). These are your base attributes and each one affects your character in a different manner. Unlike skills, which you get to raise every level, your SPECIAL attributes will remain relatively constant from level 1 to level 30. As you're an innocent baby crawling around the vault, you'll be able to decide just how lucky or unlucky you'll be, as well as every other SPECIAL attribute--and decide well! If you fudge this up you won't be able to fix this once you've left Vault 101. To help you decide on which attributes are most important for you, I'm going to provide an in-depth look at each attribute and how significant their derived stats are. If you already have a handle on what each stat does, you can skip over this list.
You're strength determines (what else) how strong your character is. Unlike the other SPECIAL attributes, your strength only affects one skill (Melee Weapons). However strength is quite useful for all characters in that it increases your carry weight, which thus allows you to carry more stuff to trade to vendors, or a wider array of weaponry in lieu of maintaining fewer weapons. The most important aspect of the Strength value is that it directly increases the amount of damage you do with melee weapons (not unarmed), and I don't mean just by increasing your skill. Every 2 points of strength adds 1 melee damage, so having 10 strength and 100 melee weapon skill will allow you to do the highest possible damage with melee weapons.
Perception affects your Explosives, Energy Weapons, and Lockpick skills. Higher Perception gives you a higher starting value for these skills, but outside of skill affectation your perception directly affects the range at which you detect enemies on your compass. When an enemy is within your detection range, it will be marked by a red line on your compass (this includes through walls and obstructions to line of sight). This can be pretty useful in environments where you can't see far, and can allow you to easily get sneak attacks at range. Do not overlook the potential importance of this attribute.
The derived skills for Endurance are Big Guns and Unarmed. Outside of skills Endurance will affect your Hit Points, Radiation Resistance, Poison Resistance, and Oxygen timer. Contrary to popular belief, this attribute does not affect damage resistance. The most useful statistic controlled by endurance is hit points, but personally I find the Endurance value overall to be somewhat useuless. High Endurance will allow you to take more hits, wade in irradiated waters longer, or pick fights with Giant Radscorpions with less trepidation. The fact of the matter though is that there will never be a portion of the game that is significantly more difficult to do with 1 Endurance as opposed to 10 Endurance. If you choose to set your Endurance to the minimum you may have to be a little faster with the Stimpaks, but it's not a big loss.
Charisma has perhaps the most obvious benefits. It affects your barter and speech skills. Aside from affecting these skills, there isn't any benefit to having a high charisma.
This value controls your Medicine, Repair, and Science skills. In addition to increasing these skills, you will get an additional 1 skill point per level for each point of Intelligence you have (e.g. at 1 Inteligence you'd get 11 skill points/level, at 10 Intelligence you'd get 20 skill points/level). If you're on the fence about what sort of skills to get, having a high intelligence can help max out more skills early on. It should be noted however that whether you have 1 intelligence or 10 intelligence you will most certainly be able to max out critical skills, and this attribute has no value once you reach the level cap.
This attribute controls your Small Guns and Sneak skills. More importantantly your agility determines your A.P., or Action Points (determines the number of attacks you get when using V.A.T.S.). Even expert shooters benefit from having a lot of action points as you take less damage when engaged in combat with V.A.T.S. It is also worth noting that any perk which increases accuracy only affects your accuracy in V.A.T.S. so it's never a bad idea to go with high agility and use V.A.T.S. as frequently as possible. Even after obtaining Grim Reaper's Sprint high agility is useful for taking down the more powerful enemies.
Sadly there is no in-game explanation of what Luck does, so this stat may be a mystery to some. Well it's pretty simple, and quite useful. Each point of Luck will increase all your skills by 1 point (13 skill points for 1 SPECIAL point). Even better than that is the fact that each point of Luck increases your critical chance by 1%. Now at first glance 1% crit chance may seem pretty measley, but it's not, since this is added to your base critical chance. The way Fallout 3 determines your actual critical hit chance is by multiplying three factors together: Base critical chance * Weapon Critical Modifier * Weapon Condition %. In short this means that for some weapons in good condition that 1 point of luck can now mean 0% to 5%, or even 100% on a couple rare weapons. A weapon in 100% condition and a player with 10 luck and the finesse perk is looking at a 75% chance to score a critical hit with a sniper rifle. Or with 1 luck and no finesse perk and the same weapon it would be a 5% chance to score a critical hit. Getting as high a critical chance as possible is going to make the higher levels of the game much easier, do not pass up this opportuninity to greatly increase your damage (regardless of weapon).
Prioritizing S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Attributes
Now that you know what all of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats do, we can discuss how to decide which ones to take. Firstly it should be noted that the raised skills from having a high SPECIAL value is a one time and permanent increase. For example, if you had 8 Charisma you would get a permanent +16 bonus to your Speech and Barter skills at level 1, but no bonus after level 1. Since you will undoubtedy be able to max out several skills without much effort it is inadvisable to increase a SPECIAL value purely because a skill you want is derived from it. With this in mind, one should look at the permanent and persistent effects of each stat to decide how important they will be. My personal evaluation of the importance of each stat from most important to least important is as follows: Luck > Agility > Strength > Perception > Intelligence > Endurance > Charisma. When selecting the values of your SPECIAL stats for the first time the most efficient and effective setup is to lower unneeded values to 1 (they can't go lower than 1) and then raise important ones to 9 (Do not raise them to 10 as you can find bobbleheads ingame which give a permanent +1 increase to a specific stat, and it should also be noted that the quest "Those!" yields a reward of a permanent +1 bonus to either Strength or Perception). For example, my most recent character which specializes in sneaking, melee, and small guns had a starting SPECIAL values as follows: 9 Strength, 8 Perception, 1 Endurance, 1 Charisma, 3 Intelligence, 9 Agility, and 9 Luck. After I completed the Quest "Those!" as well as obtained some bobbleheads my stats were 10, 10, 1, 1, 4, 10, and 10 respectively (the earlier you get the Intelligence bobblehead the better). It is theoretically possible to have this setup at as low level as 2, and will make your character exceptionally more powerful than it would be otherwise.
The worst thing you can do for your character build is to spread around your stat points or try to make a "balanced" character. If you do this then you won't have an opportunity to raise many skills to 10 until level 30 with the Almost Perfect Perk, which would effectively gimp your character for the majority of the game.
Note: Having a high value in any SPECIAL attribute will open special dialogue options, but they are not mentioned here since they are rare enough that they should not be a major consideration in character development.
Selecting Tag Skills / Prioritizing Skill Leveling
Now that you've completed the grueling task of weighing the pro's and cons of each SPECIAL attribute, it's time to move onto the simpler world of skills. All of your skills have a minimum starting value, which is adjusted up based on which SPECIAL stat it is derived from (e.g. more Charisma = higher starting skill for Speech and Barter). The important thing to remember here is that you will be getting a minimum of 11 new skill points to distribute each time you level up (and a maximum of 23). This means that regardless of what skills you want, it's going to be capped in no time. You'll also start with the ability to "tag" three skills for a permanent +15 bonus, and to help you choose which skills to invest those delicious points in, I'm going to give a quick categorical summary of which skills are useful, which skills to stay away from, and which ones are somewhere in the middle.
The most important skills (and the ones that I always get first myself) are Science and Lockpicking. These skills will allow you to hack computers and open locks, but the importance of these skills goes beyond the obvious utility of cracking safes or stealing ammo. Each time you successfully hack a computer or pick a lock you will receive experience, and as we all know, experience is yummy. Having these skills at a minimum of 75 early on will allow you to get more experience, which in turn allows you to level faster, which in turn allows you to raise your other skills more quickly.
Next to your hacking and cracking skills are your equally important dismembering ones. Weapons skills (Small Guns, Energy Weapons, Explosives, Melee Weapons, Big Guns, and Unarmed) will determine your effectiveness with the appropriate weapon. It's somewhat obscure as to exactly how significant these stats are, and for different weapons the effects are different, but sufficie it to say with higher skill you can expect to see increased VATS accuracy, tighter weapon spread outside of VATS, and less weapon sway. Unarmed, Melee, and Explosives(?) all give increased damage with higher skill. The difference between these skills being raised from 1-2 and 99-100 is the same, so it's not too critical to raise these skills quickly (but don't neglect them either otherwise you'll end up high level with no weapon proficiency).
Note: Try to focus on only one or two types of weapons, attempting to master all weapons will only serve to starve your other skills.
Somewhat (but not terribly so) Useful Skills
Sneak, Medicine, and Repair fall into this category. These are the skills that you'll want to level up, but shouldn't hurry to do so. A high Sneak skill will help you land sneak attack criticals (the most powerful method of damage dealing available). Medicine increases the amount of health you gain from stimpaks. This isn't too important since you'll probably have a steady source of stimpaks, but if you're playing on higher difficulties then you can easily deplete your stimpak supply quickly. Repair is probably the most useful of the somewhat useful skills, but only if it's at 100. All your weapons and armor deteriorate with usage, and will need to be repaired either by an NPC or by yourself. The higher your repair skill, the higher max percentage you can raise weapon/armor condition to (to a maximum of 100%). This is important because a weapon's critical chance is multiplied by it's condition percent, so a weapon at 50% condition would only have half the critical chance it would at 100%. Weapons in good condition also do more base damage, so keeping weapons in good repair will also keep your damage up.
The Not So Useful Skills
These are the skills you're probably going to want to level last, if at all. Speech falls into this category, purely because you can save and reload infinite times making it possible to pass every desired speech check with dedication. You do gain experience for passing speech checks though, so it's not a bad idea to raise this skill just to get the experience from interacting with NPC's (but do not sacrifice more important skills for it). Barter is easily the least useful skill in the game. Your barter skill allows you to sell items to NPC's at a higher cost, as well as buy items from NPC's at a lower cost. The main reason this skill is useless is because NPC's have a limited amount of caps (currency) which is periodically replenished. It is very easy to be carrying so many items that you want to sell that the NPC will not have enough caps to pay you for all of it. Having a high barter skill only exasperates this problem and clogs your inventory. If you are really strapped for caps than it means you're not looking in the right places or selling the right things.
Pick your skills wisely, and don't let any critical skills fall behind. Keep your weapon skills in check and don't splurge on barter so that you can finally get that Nuka-Cola machine at half-price. Also try to keep in mind the availability of skill books, bobbleheads, and skill raising perks, so as to avoid wasting skill points.
Note: There are some dialogue options or encounters which require having a high enough skill, but they are not mentioned here (like 65 science or explosives to disarm a slave collar).
Perks are definitely the most interesting aspect of character development, but there are too many perks to list them all here, so here's what you need to keep an eye out for.
Quite simply there are some perks which are extraordinarily useful, and others which are just plain useless. An example scenario for the latter is the Rad Tolerance perk which removes the effect of minor and only minor radiation poisoning, which is a whopping -1 Endurance. One could just as easily take the Intense Training perk and give themselves a permanent +1 boost to Endurance, which would be much more effective. These are the types of things you want to watch out for. Each time you take a perk, you need to think about how useful it's going to be, if there are alternatives, and what you're sacrificing to get that perk.
The best perks to get are ones that give permanent bonuses. Finesse is an example of a great perk because it yields a permanent +5% base critical chance. Other perks like this are Cyborg, Adamantium Skeleton, Commando, Gunslinger, Pyromaniac, Sniper, etc.
The perks you'll want to stay away from are ones that only give a temporary benefit, or benefit that can be attained with patience. An example of a perk like this is the Gun Nut perk, which gives +5 to the Small Guns skill and +5 to the Repair Skill. The total benefit attained is less than that of just waiting to the next level, not to mention these skills can easily be maxed out given time. It's perks like these which should never be taken if there is a more useful perk that is immediately available. Other examples of perks like these are little leaguer, thief, daddy's boy/girl, Tag!, scoundrel, fortune finder, and scrounger. These are all perks that don't actually give you anything you wouldn't get anyway, but only give them to you sooner. As stated earlier, these perks should only be taken in lieu of a better alternative.
There are also a number of special effect perks. Usually these yield unique dialogue options, or can make fighting a specific type of enemy easier. Personally I never take these perks as their utility is questionable, and it's very hard for me to envision myself being in a situation where that perk means the difference between success and failure. However sometimes it can be good to take these perks just to change things up a bit on your fifth play through the game. Perks like this are Lady Killer/Black Widow, Child at Heart, Robotics Expert, and Entomologist.
Must Have Perks
Then there are the perks that are just so good you got to have them. These perks could easily be considered overpowered and will greatly improve your character. I'm going to list these perks here with brief descriptions.
- Silent Running: Normally you're chance of successfully sneaking is affected by several variables. This perk removes the variables of foot speed and armor weight, allowing you to sneak just as effectively stumbling around in power armor as if you were crawling in the dark in your birthday suit.
- Finesse: Though already briefly stated above, I'd like to reiterate the effect of this perk. With a 5x critical multiplier weapon (like a sniper rifle) you can yield up to 25% more actual critical strike chance. At higher levels with more powerful weapons in better repair you're looking at a lot of extra damage with this perk.
- Better Criticals: Coupled with perks like Finesse and Ninja, as well as a high Luck factor, this perk can be absolutely devastating. Bonus damage from critical hits is increased by 50% (including sneak attack criticals).
- Ninja: Only useful for melee/unarmed oriented characters, this perk adds a +15% base critical chance for melee and unarmed weapons, as well as an additional 25% damage to melee sneak attack criticals. It's worth playing a melee character just for this perk.
- Grim Reaper's Sprint: This perk will fully restore your AP whenever you kill a target in VATS. The utility of this perk should be obvious, and smart usage can allow you to take down large groups of enemies while taking reduced damage.
- Almost Perfect (Broken Steel Only): This perk will raise all your SPECIAL stats to 9. This is good if you fudged your SPECIAL stats early on, and usage of this perk in conjunction with bobbleheads makes it possible to raise all your stats to 10.
- Nuclear Anomaly (Broken Steel Only): This perk will cause you to erupt in an atomic explosion should your health fall too low, doing massive damage to enemies around you as well as irradiating the area. Your heath will also be restored shortly after the explosion, but for players on higher difficulty and with lower endurance it is possible to die before the health is replenished.
Educational and XP Related Perks
I often get asked what my feelings are on perks like Comprehension, Educated, and Swift Learner. The short answer is Yes, Yes, and Maybe.
Comprehension allows your character to gain an additional skill point whenever a skill book is read. Every player is bound to come accross these skill books once in awhile, and for each book read the benefits of this perk is realized a little more. Comprehension will most certainly gain an average player more skill points total than they would gain from any other perk (even tag), and if someone was so intrepid as to collect every single skill book in the wastes they would yield an astronomical 324 more skill points from this perk than they would without it. Considering that this perk is available early on when the perk pickings are slim, there's no reason not to get it.
The Educated perk gives you 3 extra skill points each level. If you have the Broken Steel addon and reach level 30, this translates into a potential of 78 more skill points than you would have otherwise. Considering the choice of perks available at the same time as this one, this perk should definitely be picked up early on.
Now the Swift Learner perk is kind of situational. I would not recommend the perk for players playing without the Broken Steel addon, but it can be useful for those that are playing with a level cap of 30. The simple fact of the matter is that Broken Steel only adds a few worthwhile perks, but grants you 10 extra opportunities to choose perks. Ontop of that, the XP requirements in the higher levels can get irritating if you're trying to get Almost Perfect or Nuclear Anomaly perks (plus Broken Steel adds a few extraordinarily powerful but not uncommon enemies to the game, which can be hard to dispatch when they first appear). Whether or not you should take this perk and/or how many ranks is really going to be determined by how many special effect perks you take. For a character that only has the bare minimum of useful perks achieving 3 ranks of swift learner is not a problem at all. It should also be noted that this perk is going to be much more effective for players that are playing on Very Hard difficulty than it would be otherwise. On the other hand, you're also giving up the amount of skill points you could obtain by taking perks like Gun Nut or Tag! (so not very many).
Note: Many perks have S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and skill level requirements before they can be taken. Make sure to check what those requirements are in advance so that you will be able to take them once they are available.
Obviously a player is going to want to choose a difficulty that suits them (not too hard, not too easy), but in Fallout 3 there are some more practical reasons to choose a different difficulty than you would otherwise. Playing on a higher difficulty yields more experience (50% of normal at Very Easy, and 150% of normal at Very Hard). This means that choosing a difficulty is actually a strategic choice in character development. For example, a character playing at Very Hard is going to get 150% normal XP. Now lets say that the same character also has 3 ranks in the Swift Learner perk, which adds another 30% (keep in mind this is calculated after difficulty, so you end up getting 30% of the 150% XP, or 195% of normal XP as opposed to 180% XP), then if your character is well rested you get another 10%. These effects are not additive, but rather multiplicative, meaning that a player with all these effects could gain 215% of the normal XP gains. In real terms, it means that a player killing a Super Mutant Master on Normal difficulty with no XP increasing effects would gain 50 XP, and a player with all possible XP adding effects would gain 108 XP. The result is that the higher difficulty is offset by a faster leveling process, making it actually easier in some respects than it would be otherwise.