Leveling up and customizing your character in Fallout 76 will work much differently from the way it did in Fallout 4. Three key figures on the project's development took the stage to present new material and field community questions at a QuakeCon 2018 panel on Saturday, with game director Todd Howard, project lead Jeff Gardiner, and development director Chris Mayer going into detail on how players will create and customize their characters in play.
First things first: the SPECIAL system is still around, but it's evolved even further from the old turn-based RPG days. Players will start with one point in Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck, and every level they can add another point to one stat. All normal so far. But on top of building up your stats, you'll also be able to choose a single Perk Card every level.
Perk Cards are the new way to build out and specialize your character: they have their own SPECIAL requirements, but as long as you meet them, you can add that card to your collection - no random rolls whatsoever (though there are also randomized Perk Packs you get every few levels). Each card has its own point cost based on how powerful it is, and how many points you can equip is determined by your rank in the associated SPECIAL You can swap in any cards from your collection whenever you want.
Here's an example: say you hit level 2 and you put a point into your Strength stat, bringing it up to two. Then you pick the Gladiator Perk Card, which increases your melee weapon damage by 10 percent. Gladiator costs 1 point, so you can equip it and one more point worth of Strength Perks. You can also power up cards by combining them, though that will increase their point cost too. It keeps going like that until level 50 when you stop getting extra SPECIAL points for multiplayer power balance reasons, though you can keep picking new Perk Cards forever.
The fun thing about those random Perk Packs is that they'll encourage you to try out character paths you might not have invested in otherwise - sometimes their equip requirements will even be a few levels ahead of you, which might change your character advancement plans if you really like the sound of the card. Perk Packs do seem like prime loot-box-style microtransaction territory, but Bethesda didn't say anything about plans to sell them. The company has only mentioned plans for cosmetic microtransactions so far.
Speaking of cosmetics, Fallout 76 will offer the usual in-depth character customization at the start of the game - and also whenever you want later on. Bethesda doesn't want to lock players into any aspect of their appearance in this new online world, from hair color all the way to sex. So don't worry about spending three hours in character creation then having to toss the whole thing out when your Vault Dweller looks like a weirdo in the actual game. Though you may end up a little weird anyway when you get some mutations going, character-tweaking effects that you incur by spending too much time in radiation (like "bird boned," which reduces your carrying capacity but lets you jump higher). Bethesda mostly left the details of mutations for another day, but they sound like weird fun.
Check out why Fallout 76 nukes probably won't ruin your day for more info on the game.