(Note: This post started as a house rules system for Ability Scores and turned into a theory ramble when I couldn’t get that to work out. The management apologizes for a long theory post in place of a gamable system : ) .)
A Steadily Different Game
A thought finally gelled when reading this post on original D&D ability score generation (the classic 3d6 in order). Part of my dislike of random ability score generation in D&D is because they have become more and more important in the success of a character as editions have progressed. In modern editions, a character without at least a 16 in his main ability score (aka “prime requisite”) is seen as unplayable in a way that it just wouldn’t be when the game was invented.
The linked post includes a quote from Gygax mentioning that even as early as AD&D a high score in the prime requisite was becoming too important to leave up to a 3d6 roll that centered on average. In 3.0, stats were changed to be a linear and consistent progression across all abilities, and often the bonuses from raising an ability by 2 points rivaled the bonuses for leveling up.
My other problem with rolling for stats is that, in modern D&D, it can permanently stick a player with a character that’s sub par relative to the group. In older editions the chance at a weaker character seems to have been balanced by the high risk of death: if your character sucked, you’d probably be rid of him and get to try again soon enough. If your weak character managed to hang on for a while, you’d get to claim some kind of competitive kudos for clever play with an almost literal handicap.
But I’ve never played with a group that does D&D the way I understand old school is supposed to go: random death has been practically nonexistent in my experience. If you roll up a weak character, you’re very likely stuck with it for the life of the campaign until you can convince the GM to let you reroll. Story-based D&D requires persistence of party individuals in a way that restricts GMs from killing PCs out of hand.
I Won this 18 in the Lottery
Point buy solves most of my problems. Effectively, it does it by removing the linearity inherent in the attribute progression: going from 17 to 18 costs more than going from 13 to 14. Players have a meaningful choice between having a higher total bonus spread across several ability scores or by having a really high bonus in the prime requisite. That it makes sure nobody feels like they’re quantifiably weaker than their peers is a bonus.
But I get why people still enjoy rolling. An 18 purchased through an only slightly confusing transaction mechanism isn’t nearly as exciting as one wrung from the cruel mistress of luck. A dice-created character may wind up completely amazing based on the vagaries of chance. In one of my last games, a player, via 4d6, rolled up a character that would have cost 43 points in the point buy method: one score at 11 and nothing else lower than 14.
Of course, in the same game another player rolled up a character that would have cost 16 points in point buy. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the character. Before racial modifications, all of his scores ranged from 10-15. But the rest of the party rolled better, and he immediately started asking for a reroll to try to get a character that was a better match for the party.
As the linked Grognardia article mentions, a dice rolling method for Barbarians initially suggested rolling 9d6 keep the best 3 for Strength, and he wonders “why not just state upfront that all barbarian characters have 18 Strength and be done with it?” But I can understand: to a player than enjoys random character generation, an 18 even won out of a highly likely dice pool is still more exciting than one gained from a mechanistic system that omits randomness. Even if TSR’s designers stopped using 3d6 in order very quickly in favor of systems increasingly likely to curve high, they still wanted something random. And nearly any random system, even one designed to give you results in the high teens, can still give you a character that faces a huge lack of stats compared to other party members.
These Roots go Deep
My initial thought was that the solution would be to simply try to go back to the raw basics: in OD&D, an example character has an 11 in his prime requisite and it’s considered playable. In 3e, a fighter with 11 Str probably wouldn’t be able to carry his basic weapons and armor without being encumbered. A wizard with 11 Int can’t even cast 2nd level spells. The most basic feats to start feat chains often demand a 13 ability score.
But even if you eliminate a lot of these prerequisites, it’s hard to get past the sheer utility of +1. A Fighter with 18 Strength has an effective four level bonus on a fighter with 11 Strength as far as chance to hit and damage goes. Having that much of a difference in Strength is exactly like having a +4 Longsword while the other guy has no magic weapon at all.
You could reduce the bonuses and remove the linear +1 per 2 ability score points, but doing this has a lot of system ramifications beyond just moving the breakpoints for +1. Is a Belt of Strength +6 still worth as much if it’s not effectively a guaranteed +3 to attack and damage? Do you need to rethink difficulties for a lot of skill checks and combat maneuvers? Is it even worth the headache of having to recalculate every monster? Is there even a world where rolling 18 is both exciting and not so much better than an 11 that the guy with an 11 is going to feel weak?
Ability bonuses are simply too thoroughly used throughout the system for any kind of simple houserule to address the problem without making tons of new ones.
The Way Out is Through
Perhaps the problem is simply the one I mentioned at the outset: random character generation is a lot more tolerable if terrible characters can simply die off early and allow you to reroll. Beyond any tendency of GMs to weave long-term plots that would be ruined by a PC dying while still tied to plot threads, there’s simply a much higher level of overhead in a finished starting character. In OD&D, after you rolled ability scores you were pretty close to done with the character: pick a class, roll HP, buy gear, name your guy. In modern editions, the work left after rolling ability scores is still pretty extensive: adjust based on race, pick a class, roll HP, figure starting skill points, figure class skills, buy skills, write down class abilities, figure class ability stats, buy feats, calculate feat bonuses, calculate saves, buy gear, calculate gear bonuses, etc.
Are we simply frontloading too much in character generation?
Even beyond the work done to make all the choices and calculations, 3e is still full of hidden traps and opportunities. Several of my players like to plan out their entire leveling path to 20 before the game even starts: if you’re going to do anything with prestige classes or high-prereq feats this is almost required to make sure you’ll be able to buy what you want when you want to buy it. This isn’t great for having a character that might grow in response to events in the game (“Sorry, while your mage order sounds fantastically neat, I’ve had my heart set on Arcane Archer since level 1, so there’s no way I can fit in your prestige class.”). This is even worse for new players: even if they’re willing to make their way partially educated through all the choices to make a new character, they have little idea how much less effective they’ll be by mid-levels compared to the more experienced players at the table. New players dislike being second stringers in the party by mid-campaign almost as much as they dislike having over-helpful pros dictating how they should build their characters.
Is there something to be learned from MMO design? Modern MMORPGs can end with high-level builds orders of magnitude more complicated than a level 20 D&D character, but they start out simple enough for a player that’s never played the game before. Complexity is added level by level such that important choices aren’t made until there is enough context to make them.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t like 4e because it was a drastic change in systems while OD&D to 3e had been a pretty steady, incremental evolution. But maybe that kind of drastic change would be required to recapture the feel of OD&D with modern design improvements. Whether or not you enjoy the latest editions of D&D, it’s easy to see that they’ve iterated into something very different from the game’s inception, particularly in the level of overhead required to make a character and run a game.
Maybe there’s a hypothetical 5e that starts you with a mechanically simple character and uses its exceptions-based mechanics to gradually expand out complexity. Maybe those mechanics aren’t even dissociated, but equally attractive to grognards and newbs alike. Maybe the way out is through: somehow manage to once again make a universal D&D by creating something totally new out of the core gaming desires across the playerbase.
Or maybe that’s how fantasy heartbreakers get started, and the gamer market is destined to fracture largely along lines of which edition introduced you to gaming and whether you liked it or hated it. There certainly seems to be a swath of people quite content to stick with their favorite edition, and, thanks to the OGL, these can be supported indefinitely even despite WotC wanting everyone to upgrade to whatever is new.
But I feel like there have been strengths of the old game lost along the way as new strengths have been gained, and there’s no simple way to graft the strengths from one edition onto another. If it’s going to happen at all, it will require an extensive change at the core level of the system. You can’t just houserule yourself home again.