Organized play versus random ability scores

Legacy of the Green RegentWhen fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons arrived, many players saw an attempt to bring the play style of computer role-playing to the tabletop. That may be true, but I saw an effort to create a game that delivered a consistent public-play experience. By the end of third edition, Living Greyhawk, Legacy of the Green Regent, and similar organized-play campaigns dominated the game to the extent that third-party books of character options no longer sold because their options were not legal in organized play.

Unlike, say, a Magic the Gathering tournament, the players’ enjoyment of a public D&D game hinges on the quality of the DM.

Perhaps aiming to deliver a consistent, fun organized play experience, the fourth-edition designers created a game that minimized a dungeon master’s influence on the game. When you sat at a Living Forgotten Realms table, players could count on the same experience no matter who took the dungeon master’s chair, at least in theory. Potentially, a 4E DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For actions outside of combat, 4E presents the skill challenge, where the DM only has to decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance. For more, see “D&D Next empowers DMs; players stay empowered.”

A focus on organized play extends to character creation too. Fourth edition became the first D&D edition that presented a point-buy system as the standard method of rolling—make that creating—a character’s ability scores. For the first time, the standard characters worked for public play.

So nothing about the fifth edition surprises me as much as the return to rolling ability scores as the standard method. This reversal shows the designers aiming to bring the game back to its roots, to create a game for the kitchen table first, and then offering public play as an alternative.

Too bad the game does random abilities scores wrong.

In fifth edition D&D, players generate abilities scores by rolling 4d6 and add the three highest dice to generate each of 6 scores, and then they assign these 6 scores to the 6 abilities in any order.

Plenty of history backs this method. It first appeared as the first recommended method in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. The method carries through second and third editions.

The best quality of random character generation comes from the interesting but not quite optimal characters created. 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.

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.

4 thoughts on “Organized play versus random ability scores

  1. Groumy

    I remember seeing somewhere on the web a random ability generation that created both balanced and organic characters.

    I didn’t thought to keep the link in my bookmarks, so I can’t gave credit to the guy, but the system was simple.

    Instead of rolling Ability Scores, you rolled to discover your ability modifiers. The authors suggested that you roll a bunch of d6s, sort them by dice value and count the number of dices for each and assign that number as the ability scores, in order (ones are STR, twos Dex, threes CON, etc) and if one stat got bigger than a given threshold, the exceeding dice can be assign freely.

    So, to be more explicit, to mimic the relative power of the starting array suggested in Basic D&D (15 (+2),14(+2),13(+1),12(+1),10(+0),8(-1)) that result in a total of +5 (2+2+1+1+0-1 = 5).

    To ensure that character could have negative modifiers, let’s start each stats at -1 (like in the “point-buy” system) and let players roll 11d6 (+5 of the array and 6 more to overcome the ability starting at -1). and the max modifier should be at +2, so if the player roll four time the same value it will get one freebie.

    For example I just rolled 11d6 over at roll20 and got :

    So that player would have
    STR = 0
    DEX = +2
    CON = +1
    INT = -1
    WIS = +2
    CHA = +1

    That mimics the Array but was determine randomly.

    One advantage of that kind of character generation, is that you can tweak the average power level by adding/removing die to that dice pool or rising/lowering the threshold.

    1. Groumy

      Damn, forgot to specify that the starting ability should be revert engineer form the modifiers than add the race modifiers.

      So before choosing race the previously rolled character would have been
      STR = 10
      DEX = 14
      CON = 12
      INT = 8
      WIS = 14
      CHA = 12

      As you see, I assign only even ability scores, but since only the Srength Score is use in the rules for encumbrance and Heavy armor speed penalty I consider the actual score to be totally unimportant and let races bonus fiddle with them.

      Alternatively, using a system like that, Ability scores could be easily “house-ruled” out of the game at all !

  2. Hylianknight

    As someone who has always rolled scores this way, being brought up on 3.5, I think you do it a disservice when you say the method is the worst of both worlds.

    Let’s take the benefit of random ability scores. The variance that comes from the randomization. The organicness of the characters that you mention. The fact that it’s far simpler and a lower barrier to entry when creating characters.

    The negatives? That it has the potential to harshly restrict player choice. When you roll the scores in order, you need to come up a character AROUND your scores. That’s a very different process than creating a character, or just an idea of what kind of character you want to play, and then finding out what their scores will be. When you have to do it in order, you may or may not get to play it. ‘Ohh I want to play a Wizard.’ Well you better hope you get a 15 or better on a single die-roll. ‘Maybe I want to be a smooth talking criminal, better at talking his way in and out of situations than fighting.’ This 11 roll says that ain’t happening.

    Assigning random ability scores take benefits of the randomly generated roll, and reconciles it with the desire to actually think up characters in a roleplaying game.

    Finally, yes Point-Buys work best in organized play…where it should be the default. For at home play (especially, in introductory products like the Starter Set) the ability rolls should be the default, with the point-buy an option for more experienced players.

    1. Ninjariffic

      I have to disagree with your point about the negatives. With David’s method one could always play a wizard if one wanted to because one can make a switch between any two scores. So one could always make Int their highest score.

      Furthermore, it’s a little less important in DnDN how high one’s scores are since each class grants a minimum of 10 points to increase them.

      If a character ends up with truly abysmal attributes, then they can be granted a minor magic item or something to start with if they can’t just suck it up. Use your own discretion. I feel that a re-roll is warranted only if a character has a summed bonus in the negatives.


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