On my first look at the Dungeons & Dragons Next playtest, the first page of rules stunned me. The Next rules instructed players to roll dice to set their ability scores.
Most D&D Next players will likely generate characters using the optional point-buy method. But when the D&D Next designers opted to default to random ability scores, they made a forceful statement that they planned to look beyond fourth edition and beyond organized play to D&D’s roots.
In original D&D, your ability scores barely mattered. Gifted characters received a 10% bonus to experience and maybe +1 somewhere, but they earned few other perks. In a game without ability checks or bonuses, character ability scores hardly affected play. But as soon as the 1976 Greyhawk supplement granted fighters bonuses to hit and damage, ability scores started growing in importance to their current role at the heart of the game.
The growing importance of ability scores increased the difference in power between characters generated randomly. Most players dislike playing a character inferior to the others at the table. And if you honestly rolled a prime requisite of 11 while the other characters at the table boast scores in the teens, then you feel like a chump. Apparently, all the other players spent an afternoon rerolling characters until they could cherry-pick supermen.
This problem led role-playing game designers to give players a set number of points to buy character ability scores.
In 1977, two games introduced point-buy methods for character creation, but neither Superhero ’44 nor Melee fully-qualified as role-playing game. Superhero ’44 limited player actions to a menu of patrol activities and lacked descriptions of superpowers—in a superhero game. Steve Jackson’s Melee started as a man-to-man combat game that would become an RPG with the release of Into the Labyrinth in 1980. In 1981, Champions popularized point-buy systems. Champions proved so influential that most newer games turned to relying on trading points for abilities.
In 1987, the Living City campaign introduced a shared campaign world to D&D. The shared campaign dealt another blow to random ability scores. Unless you want tables that team Superman with Clark Kent, random ability scores won’t fly. Living City required players to use a point-buy method to generate D&D characters. The point-buy method appeared in third edition as an option, and then became the standard in fourth edition.
Even though random ability scores bring drawbacks, with the right crowd, they can be fun.
Random character creation provides a lively activity. Rolling up characters provides a fun, group activity where you sit with your friends and everyone rolls. This way, when you throw an 18, you have witnesses, and when you roll a weak, ugly, clumsy half-wit, you can lobby for a fresh start. Everyone works together to assemble a party.
Die rolling provides an easy start for beginners. When new players roll their first character, they immediately throw dice, which feels like playing a game. Have you ever tried to help a new player create a character using a point-buy system? Instead of rolling dice, you explain ability scores, explain which abilities benefit various character types, explain point values and totals, and more, while the new player looks for a polite excuse to leave. You promised a game and started with homework.
Random characters provide engaging role-playing challenges. Some players enjoy the challenge of making a hero from a wretch, while many role players enjoy turning a miserable characteristic into a defining trait.
Random characters don’t all look alike. Random ability scores can create characters that feel organic—that break the optimal recipes of good ability scores and dump stats. For example, your randomly-generated fighter might have a high intelligence and a weaker constitution. These unusual combinations can fuel both role-playing and play strategy.
D&D Next offers this character-creation method: (1) Roll 4d6 and add the three highest dice to generate each of 6 scores. (2) Assign these 6 scores to the 6 abilities in way you like.
Plenty of history backs this method. It first appeared as the top-recommended method in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. The method carries through second and third editions.
Despite history, this method offers the worst of both worlds.
The best aspect of random character generation stems from the interesting but sub-optimal characters created. Allowing players to assign scores to any ability keeps the worst part of rolling characters—uneven character power. Then the method throws out the best part of rolling—interesting and organic characters.
I get the method’s purpose: Players can assign rolls to suit their chosen class. While some old-schoolers may find this decadent, the game should allow enough latitude to choose a class. Even in original D&D, where the referee rolled the characters, players could choose from a pool of candidates.
Rather than allowing players to shuffle rolled ability scores into any order, I suggest players roll scores in order, and then swap two scores. This system keeps characters organic and interesting, while giving players flexibility to choose a class. Plus, new players only have one decision to make. If you want to compensate for the less-flexible scores, allow players to reroll one bad score. That’s decadent enough.