Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Grognard's Grimoire: Ability Scores

Prior to the character selection by players it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order to rate each as to various abilities, and thus aid them in selecting a role. Categories of ability are: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. Each player notes his appropriate scores, obtains a similar role of three dice to determine the number of Gold Pieces (Dice score x 10) he starts with, and then opts for a role.
This is how Volume 1 of OD&D describes the process of character creation. Aside from the proper arrangement of the ability scores, which was lost to D&D in the Second Edition era, the quoted passage is noteworthy because it states that it is the referee rather than the player who determines each character's starting ability scores. I only just noticed this little wrinkle and I can honestly say that I have never played the game in this way in nearly three decades of experience with D&D. I am intrigued by the idea and might give it a whirl one day, but I have no plans to do so anytime soon.

On the other hand, what I have every intention of using in my next campaign is a straight 3D6 roll in order for all ability scores. There are several reasons why I want to do this. First, OD&D is much less obsessed over high ability scores, either mechanically or philosophically, than later editions of D&D (or indeed most other RPGs). The great sage Philotomy Jurament speaks at some length about this here and I don't have a lot to add, because I agree with his perspective. Second, one of the things I know very well from my own experience as a player is that I tend to fall into ruts when I create characters. That is, I tend to find a comfortable role and personality and stick with it, molding all my charcaters in roughly the same image. People generally consider this a great failing in a writer and I think it's just as great a failing in a roleplayer. So, random generation helps to encourage players to create characters who are perhaps a little different than those they'd normally have created if they were given free rein to weight their dice rolls or assign scores as they see it. I think that's a good thing, especially if it encourages the playing of flawed or even mediocre characters who nevertheless persevere and achieve great things. In some sense, that's what D&D is about.

That said, I do want to allow for a small degree of customization on the part of my players, but customization that works hand in glove with the strongly archetypal nature of the character classes and races. Thus, I allow each player to replace the result of a single dice roll with a 6, depending on his race. Thus, if a player rolls 2, 4, and 3 for an ability score, he may choose to replace one of those rolls -- presumably the 2 -- with a 6 for a single ability score associated with his character's race. The races and their associated scores are as follows:

Dwarf: Strength or Constitution
Elf: Intelligence or Dexterity
Half-Elves: Intelligence or Dexterity or 1 derived from the Prime Requisite of the character's chosen class.
Halfling: Constitution or Dexterity
Human: Any 2 -- 1 derived from the Prime Requisite of the character's chosen class and another of the player's choosing.

As you can see, this provides human characters with a distinct advantage over demihuman ones, but, because of the lesser importance of ability scores overall, it's not an overwhelming one. Of course, I also intend to enforce rather strictly a limit on the number of demihuman PCs -- no more than one per four characters. My campaign is intended to be a human-dominated one and demihumans, though present, are rare and adventuring demihumans are highly unusual. I am still uncertain if I will simply eliminate the level or increase it somewhat over the OD&D suggestions. While I'm not at all philosophically opposed to level limits, I think D&D's traditional stance is largely incoherent, given the number of exceptions, special cases, and random oddities found in the literature.

Coming Thursday: Goblins as a playable race.


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  2. I read OD&D for the first time a couple months ago, and that passage stood out to me more than any other as pretty much the opposite of what ANYONE has ever done with the game. Can you imagine the cold sweats your typical tweaker/min-maxer would get if you told them you would be rolling their ability scores for them?

  3. My first -- so far *only* -- OD&D character was rolled by the DM, but this was for a PbP game for which the DM was rolling all of the dice. It would be very unusual face to face.

    Your point about getting stuck in a rut playing a certain character type is well made. It's great fun make the most of 3d6 in order -- especially if combined with that Encounter Critical quote you posted. Sometimes choosing to play a fighting man despite a puny strength or a dopey wizard is great fun.

  4. Sometimes choosing to play a fighting man despite a puny strength or a dopey wizard is great fun.

    I agree. I've seen some truly memorable characters whose entire existence is owed to bad dice rolls when generating ability scores. And when I say "memorable," I don't just mean joke characters who are fun precisely because they're so incompetent. I'm talking about characters like a peasant boy who ran off to become a mercenary only to find he wasn't quite cut out for it or the cleric whose utter lack of piety and spiritual insight made him the perfect candidate to be sent off by his hierarchy to explore dangerous ruins with a bunch of ne'er-do-well adventurers.

  5. In my recent campaign, my wife playing Fighting-Woman role. Here's her character's stats:

    STR 6; INT 15; WIS 8; DEX 13; CON 11; CHA 12

    She - in later editions - don't even meets requirement for Fighter class. I decided, she can't wear chaimail or plate, she's very good at bows (you know, +1 from DEX - it's big advantage in OD&D). She's at 5th lvl - it means, she's known hero around, but not yet legend.

    Above all - it's very interesting character, pure role - playing challange and unique to later versions / editions!

    Sum - OD&D rlz. ;)

  6. Btw. I placed last handful of ads on my Demons & Dragons blog (post "Reklamy"):


    Pity, with no Elise... *sigh*

  7. I agree. Being able to create yuor own concept entirely can be a great thing, but it doesn't really jibe with the idea of D&D, which always seemed to be about taking what you get and using your wits and luck to survive, maybe even prosper.

    There are games much better suited to creating a Hero, who strides off to trample thrones beneath his sandaled feet. D&D can do it, obviously, but it's a little like using a hammer to put in a screw.

    Similarly, it's amazing how attached one can get to a randomly rolled guy. How much effort you actually have to put into to make sense out of him. Kind of a bonding experience.

  8. Fascinating! My reading of that passage is that the DM was expected to roll up a number of characters, and then players would select one from the pregenerated pool. Suddenly the list of characters, each defined by a single stat line, which always appeared in the back of old modules makes so much sense! It is there to relieve the DM of this standard pregame chore.