Tag Archives: ability scores

How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores

The earliest character sheet for the game that inspired Dungeons & Dragons includes 8 character traits: Brains, Looks, Credibility, Sex, Health, Strength, Courage, and Cunning. The character comes from Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, which launched in 1971. See A History of D&D in 12 Treasures from author Jon Peterson.

The sheet organizes these traits under the heading, “Personality,” and measures of personality dominate the list more than abilities like strength and health. The Blackmoor campaign represented Charisma with three scores—Credibility, Looks, and Sex, as in “sexual prowess.”

Blackmoor evolved from miniature wargame campaigns. These games only represented individuals when they served as commanders for military units or as leaders of countries. When the referee needed to determine how well a commander followed orders or honored an alliance, measures of personality such as courage and loyalty mattered. One early campaign adopted a system for generating life events such as marriages and sickness for important characters. You can imagine how health and even sexual prowess could factor in such a game. Abilities like strength never figured in play.

Blackmoor started with players controlling single characters who would act in political intrigue and as leaders in battle, so the game emphasized traits for personality and leadership. The characters could fight solo or learn magic, so Strength, Health, and Brains found a place in the game.

In the Blackmoor campaign, Dave used ability scores as the basis of tests that resemble modern saving throws or ability checks. “Players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, to see if they were successful at an attempt,” writes Blackmoor scholar D. H. Boggs. For example, on page 28 of The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Dave describes how characters had to roll under their Dexterity score to remove their armor before drowning in Blackmoor Bay.

That example cites D&D’s Dexterity attribute, a score the original Blackmoor characters lacked. If Dave and his players used ability scores for saves, how did the rules omit a score for dodging? For his game, Dave also borrowed the saving throw categories from Chainmail—a 1971 set of rules for miniature-figure battles. Boggs speculates that these types for Dragon Breath, Spider Poison, Basilisk Gaze, and Spells covered enough cases to make a Dexterity attribute unnecessary.

How did Blackmoor’s personality traits turn into D&D’s six ability scores?

In 1972, Dave introduced his Blackmoor campaign to Gary Gygax, the author of Chainmail. Dave’s game transformed bits of Chainmail into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.”

In the case of ability scores, Gary reworked the Blackmoor attributes into D&D’s. For example, Gary never favored simple, informal terminology like “Brains” and “Health,” so he opted for Intelligence and Constitution.

Gary consolidated Credibility, Looks, and Sex into Charisma. (Later, Unearthed Arcana and other roleplaying games would experiment with splitting Charisma back into traits for charm and beauty.)

Gary’s early games paired players with gangs of followers, so Charisma helped recruitment and retention. As play styles turned away from henchmen and hirelings, Charisma became less important. The 1977 Basic Set provided no rules crunch for Charisma.

On the Blackmoor character sheet, Cunning looks like a late addition. In both Dave and Gary’s pre-D&D campaigns, Cunning became the prime requisite for clerics. “Cunning” suggests a faith-healing charlatan more than a priest who’s spells worked. Still, the first cleric character, as played by Mike Carr in Dave’s Blackmoor game, had working spells. So eventually Cunning turned to Wisdom and became a measure of spirituality.

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear archetype in the fantasy tales that inspired D&D. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and Van Helsing. These clerics made an awkward fit in the pulp-fantasy world of D&D and lacked a place in other games. In 1975, when TSR adapted the D&D rules to different settings to create Metamorphosis Alpha and Empire of the Petal Throne, the games dropped clerics and their Wisdom attribute.

Instead designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength.

Apparently, these games led Gary to see a need for a similar rating for D&D characters. Instead of adding a new attribute, Gary broadened Wisdom to include willpower. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook grants characters with high wisdom a bonus to saves against “mental attack forms involving will force.” Only a strained definition of wisdom includes willpower, but until then Wisdom only served clerics. The broader scope gave Wisdom similar weight to the other attributes.

Years later, Wisdom would gain an association with perception. Games without Wisdom tend to associate perception with Intelligence.

Dexterity arrived to the game last. Gary must have felt that Strength needed a counterpart for characters wielding crossbows, so Dexterity showed aptitude for ranged weapons. After the original books reached the public, the Thief entered the game and took Dexterity as a prime requisite.

Even though the original D&D release turned the scores from measures of personality into measures of ability, the game still says that the scores aid players “in selecting a role” like one of those personality tests that help students select a career.

When Gary wrote D&D, he never explained how to use ability scores for checks. In his own game, Gary preferred a loose method where he decided on a character’s chance of success and improvised a die roll to match. For saves, Gary just elaborated on the system from the Chainmail rules.

So according to D&D’s original rules, ability scores counted for little. The abilities barely deliver any game effects: At most a +1 to hit or an extra hit point per die.

These slight effects mean that early D&D characters in the same class all played much the same. But ability scores ranging from 3 to 18 seemed to promise bigger game effects than a mere +1. With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Wisdom and Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on.

With that development, D&D started down the road to the modern game, which builds on ability scores as the foundation for every check and save.

Related:
The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing.

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells

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.

A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons

Through second edition, Dungeons & Dragons handled perception with a mix of mechanics: To find hidden objects, players said where they wanted to look, and the dungeon master said if something was there. To find secret doors, the DM rolled a d6, and then considered the character’s elven parentage. Listening also hinges on a d6, with everyone but humans gaining an advantage. To spot an ambush, the DM resorted to the surprise system, which by AD&D, no one understood.

Runequest second edition

Runequest second edition

Third edition D&D would replace this mess with a system taken from Runequest (1978). Except from prior editions of D&D, Runequest serves as the dominant influence on third edition. RQ based perception on three skills: Listen, Spot Hidden Item, and Spot Trap, which became Listen, Scan, and Search in the game’s 1985 edition. A character’s intelligence boosted these skills.

When the 3E designers adopted Runequest’s perception skills as Listen, Spot, and Search, they had to decide which ability scores would match the skills. Runequest used Intelligence, and for Search, that fit. But how did intelligence help you listen? Does intelligence make you more alert?

Wisdom makes you alert

Unlike Runequest, D&D possessed a Wisdom score. Although Wisdom improved some saves, virtually no skills relied on it. The 3E designers saw a chance of broaden Wisdom’s portfolio of traits to include an awareness of more than the spiritual, but also of the hushed voices in the next room and the flash of steel through a window. While this interpretation strained the dictionary definition of Wisdom, it improved the game by making the value of Wisdom match the other ability scores.

Like RQ, third edition continued to base Search on Intelligence, but Listen and Spot stemmed from Wisdom.

Both D&D’s fourth edition and Pathfinder’s designers dispensed with the distinction. In both games, Search, Spot, and Listen all become a single Perception skill based on Wisdom. While I understand the urge to simply, Spot and Search get used frequently enough to merit separate skills. Search isn’t Use Rope.

The advantages of Search and Spot

D&D Next undoes some of the simplification by splitting Perception into two skills: Search, based on Intelligence, and Perception, based on Wisdom. The D&D Next Perception combines Listen and Spot. The rules make the analogy of comparing Search to Sherlock Holmes’ use of intellect to observe clues, and comparing Next’s Perception to Tarzan’s alertness.

I think the Next designers erred by calling the combination of Listen and Spot “Perception.” The skill shares a name with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception, but it covers fewer tasks. It should have been called Awareness or something. To further compound the confusion, the section of the playtest document covering Perception and Search is titled “Perception.” When the final rules appear, I will rate the editors’ performance on whether this stands.

Having separate Perception (Awareness) and Search skills offers two advantages:

  • Both Wisdom and Intelligence gain value as they boost the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game. Without a Search skill, Intelligence only contributes to knowledge checks, which someone in the party will probably make anyway.

  • The two skills more closely simulate the real world of brilliant but inattentive professors and of alert creatures with animal intelligence. Some dogs notice the smallest disturbance, but can’t find the kibble making a lump under the rug, even though they smell it somewhere.

On the other hand, Listen remains part of Perception (Awareness), an improvement on 3E. When Listen and Spot exist as separate skills, they can apply to the same situation, leading to confusion. For example, when you might both see someone creeping in the shadows and hear them, do you make a Listen check, a Spot check, or both?

By settling on Search and Perception, D&D Next finds the optimal set of perception skills, if not optimal names.

The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing

In original Dungeons & Dragons, what did Wisdom represent? Knowledge gained from experience? Not at first level. Good sense or judgment? Perhaps, but those qualities are normally under the full control of the player, so why bother with an ability score?

Wisdom entered the game because Gary Gygax needed a prime requisite for clerics that seemed less sinister than Cunning, the cleric’s original prime requisite. At first, Wisdom seemed to measure spirituality because only clerics benefited from it.

With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on. Except for Wisdom, every high ability score delivered benefits to every character. Even Intelligence brought additional languages. Wisdom started to look like an oddity, the lone stat only good for one class.

Many fantasy role-playing games followed D&D. My table of games up to to 1983 features 14 games. All these games adopted ability scores descended from the original six scores in D&D. Sometimes the names change—only the term “Strength” remains constant—but the essential traits remain. Except for Wisdom.

Cover by Erol Otis on any  early printings of the Arduin Grimoire

Cover by Erol Otis on an early printing of The Arduin Grimoire

Aside from D&D, Wisdom only appears in two games: Arduin Grimoire (1977) and Chivalry & Sorcery (1977). Dave Hargrave’s Arduin Grimoire hardly counts as a separate game. It began as a brown-book addition to D&D, an indie successor to Greyhawk and Blackmoor. Only the threat of legal action seemed to drive Dave Hargrave to claim that Arduin was a completely different game. Gary would adopt the same stance for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, another completely different game that includes Wisdom.

Why does the Wisdom ability score have so few descendants?

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear fantasy archetype. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and  Van Helsing. While the cleric has a Christian flavor, D&D eschews the sort of Christian worlds that would make the class seem at home. Instead, D&D and other fantasy RPGs draw inspiration from the sort of fantasy polytheism imagined in the Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes supplement. The gods of Lankhmar, Melniboné, and the Hyborian Age all seem more at home in D&D than a cleric sworn to wield blunt weapons. If not for the cleric’s traditional healing role, the class might rank in a third tier with druids and assassins.

If D&D featured religion similar to historical Christianity, Clerics would make a better fit. For example, Clerics and Wisdom fit easily in Chivalry & Sorcery, because the game recreates the culture of feudal Europe, complete with Christian priests capable of miracles.

Arioch from Dieties & Demigods, first printing

Arioch from Deities & Demigods, first printing

The designers of D&D’s other competitors stuck more closely to the fantasy archetypes set by Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, and Moorcock. So they never imitated D&D’s cleric or adopted an ability score like Wisdom.

Meanwhile these designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha (1975) swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength. Arduin adds an Ego ability score as a measure of willpower. In 1978, with the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary expanded Wisdom’s portfolio to include willpower. After that, every fantasy RPG features an ability for willpower.

In AD&D, the recommended technique for generating ability scores allowed players to rearrange scores any way they liked. Wisdom only delivered slight bonuses, so it became the place to dump your lowest score. No one needed wisdom except the poor cleric, who had to favor it over one of the other, broadly useful stats. With no compelling reason to opt for a high wisdom, character creation offers one less interesting choice.

This situation remained until third edition, with the invention of the Will save, and with Wisdom offering bonuses to the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game.

Next: A short history of perception in D&D

Ability scores in fantasy role-playing games up to 1983

While researching some posts, I looked at the ability scores in the fantasy role-playing games published from 1974 to 1983. My notes grew until they became the tables that appear here.

These tables encompass nearly every fantasy RPG published between 1974 and 1983 that I happen to have, and I must have almost all of them. I cannot find my copy of Lords of Creation from 1983. Sorry LoC fans.

The table lists a 13 character traits from strength to beauty, and indicates the ability score each game uses to represent the trait. To decide on the mappings, I drew on each game’s description of an ability, and on the ability’s mechanical effect in the game. If more than one score contributed to an ability, I mapped the score with the biggest contribution.

Trait Blackmoor
(1971-1973)
Dungeons
& Dragons
(1974)
Tunnels &
Trolls
(1975)
Empire of
the Petal
Throne
(1975)
Metamorphosis
Alpha
(1975)
Arduin
(1977)
Chivalry
& Sorcery
(1978)
RuneQuest
(1978)
Adventures
in Fantasy
(1978)
Advanced
Dungeons &
Dragons
(1978)
The Fantasy
Trip
(1977-1980)
RoleMaster
(1980-1982)
DragonQuest
(1980)
Bushido
(1980)
Swordbearer
(1982)
Hero System
(1981)
Palladium
Role-playing
Game (1983)
Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical
Strength
Stamina Health Constitution Constitution Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Fatigue Health Mass Constitution Physical
endurance
Health Constitution Health
Durability Endurance Body
Magic ability Brains Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence   Intelligence Intelligence Power Intelligence Intelligence IQ Reasoning
Memory
Magical aptitude Will   Intelligence IQ
Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Wit Intelligence
Search ability                   Intuition Perception  
Awareness                    
Willpower       Psychic
Ability
Mental
Resistance
Ego       Wisdom Self Discipline Willpower Will   Ego Mental
Endurance
Spirituality Cunning Wisdom       Wisdom Wisdom       Empathy          
Precision of
movement
  Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity   Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Manual
Dexterity
Deftness Agility Dexterity Physical
Prowess
Quickness   Agility Quickness Agility Speed Speed
Charm Credibility Charisma Charisma   Leadership
Potential
Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma   Presence       Presence Mental
affinity
Beauty Looks
Sex
Comeliness Comeliness Personal
Appearance
Comeliness
(Unearthed
Arcana
)
Physical Beauty     Comeliness Physical
Beauty

Throughout all the years, fantasy RPGs adopted ability scores descended from the original six scores in D&D. Sometimes the names change—only the term “Strength” remains constant—but the essential traits remain. Some games split one of the original ability scores into narrower abilities: Dexterity splits into an attribute for precise movements and one for quickness. Constitution splits into attributes for endurance and resilience. Charisma splits into attributes for charm and beauty. With Unearthed Arcana, AD&D experimented with the Charisma and Comeliness split.

Not all games represent every trait in an ability score. When no ability applies to a trait, the cell appears in yellow.

The table omits a few odd ability scores that share no comparable scores in the other games. Tunnels & Trolls includes Luck, which apparently gives players a chance to roll all their saving throws at once. Chivalry & Sorcery includes Bardic Voice, for your Feudal Idol campaign. Arduin adds Mechanical Ability and Swimming Ability because no one had invented skills yet.

These games come from an era when most designers worked to simulate game worlds more accurately than D&D. In the games that appeared in the early ’80s, this quest for realism shows in burgeoning numbers of ability scores. Powers & Perils appeared in 1983 and reaches a pinnacle for the situationist era of ability scores.

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils uses scores for Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Will, Eloquence, Empathy, Constitution, and Appearance. If designers had borrowed Bardic Voice from C&S, they would have covered everything. The game drops combinations of these 10 attributes into formulas for various factors used in the game. For example, to find your character’s Hit Point Value (HPV), calculate (S + St + C)/4, using Strength, Stamina, and Constitution. The game includes pages of similar equations, and thus defied my attempts to match abilities to my table. By 1984, unpopular RPGs such as P&P and Lords of Creation drove Avalon Hill to write a check for the RuneQuest license.

Meanwhile, The Fantasy Trip came from Steve Jackson’s man-to-man skirmish games, Melee and Wizard, and used just three ability scores. As the first RPG to use a point-buy system for ability scores, the abilities in TFT needed to be equally valuable.

The first Hero System game, Champions, also featured a point-buy system, but the system never balances the value of abilities. Instead, more valuable abilities cost more points. Other games on this list never needed to balance ability scores; players rolled the dice and took what chance gave them.

For comparison, D&D Next’s ability scores map as follows.

Characteristic Dungeons & Dragons
Next (2014)
Strength Strength
Endurance Constitution
Health
Durability
Magic
ability
Intelligence
Intelligence
Search
ability
Awareness Wisdom
Willpower
Spirituality
Precision Dexterity
Quickness
Charm Charisma
Beauty

In the games that followed D&D, only the Wisdom ability score stands with few clear descendants. The story of Wisdom is a subject for a future post.

How Dungeons & Dragons gained its ability scores

In History of D&D in 12 Treasures, Jon Peterson shows a character sheet from Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, the game which inspired Dungeons & Dragons. The sheet includes 8 personality traits: Brains, Looks, Credibility, Sex, Health, Strength, Courage, and Cunning.

The sheet organizes these traits under the heading, “Personality,” and measures of personality dominate the list more than abilities like strength and health. The Blackmoor campaign represented Charisma with three scores—Credibility, Looks, and Sex, as in “sexual prowess.”

Blackmoor evolved from miniature wargame campaigns. These games only represented individuals when they served as commanders for military units or as leaders of countries. When the referee needed to determine how well a commander followed orders or honored an alliance, measures of personality such as courage and loyalty mattered. One early campaign adopted a system for generating life events such as marriages and sickness for important characters. You can imagine how health and even sexual prowess could factor in such a game. Abilities like strength never figured in play.

Blackmoor started with players controlling single characters who would act in political intrigue and as leaders in battle. So the game emphasized traits for personality and leadership. The characters could fight solo or learn magic, so Strength, Health, and Brains found a place in the game.

How did these many personality trait turn into D&D’s six ability scores?

Gary Gygax never favored simple, informal terminology like “Brains” and “Health,” so he opted for Intelligence and Constitution. Even though “constitution” sent a young DM David to the dictionary, I prefer Gary’s more precise word choices.

Gary consolidated Credibility, Looks, and Sex into Charisma. Unearthed Arcana and other role-playing games experimented with splitting Charisma back into traits for charm and beauty, but Sex had to wait for players of the Ironwood RPG.

On the Blackmoor character sheet, Cunning looks like a late addition. In both Dave and Gary’s pre-D&D campaigns, Cunning became the prime requisite for Clerics. “Cunning” suggests a faith-healing charlatan more than a priest who’s spells actually worked. Still, the first cleric character, as played by Mike Carr in Dave’s Blackmoor game, had working spells. Eventually Cunning turned to Wisdom and became a measure of spirituality.

Dexterity arrived to the game last. Gary must have felt that Strength needed a counterpart for characters wielding crossbows, so Dexterity showed aptitude for ranged weapons. After the original books reached the public, the Thief entered the game and took Dexterity as a prime requisite.

Even though the original D&D release turned the scores from measures of personality into measures of ability, the game still says that the scores aid players “in selecting a role” like one of those personality tests that help students select a career.

The abilities barely deliver any game effects: At most a +1 to hit or an extra hit point per die. In the early days, ability scores counted for little. Gary’s early games paired players with gangs of followers, so Charisma helped recruitment and retention. As play styles turned away from henchmen and hirelings, Charisma became less important. I started with the 1977 basic set, which provided no rules crunch for Charisma.

Despite different ability scores, early D&D characters in the same class all played much the same. But ability scores ranging from 3 to 18 seemed to promise bigger game effects than a mere +1. With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Wisdom and Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on.

With that development, D&D started down the road to becoming a game like D&D Next, which builds on ability scores as the foundation for every check and save.

D&D Next brings back random ability scores and loses their charm

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.

Signed Greyhawk CoverIn 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.

Champions role-playing game from 1981

Champions role-playing game from 1981

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.