In Defense of “3d6 (or 4d6-) in Order” Stat Rolls

Over and Papers and Pencils, LS has a post up with an incredibly awesome and useful stat rolling system that bakes in racial ability modifiers. It’s a very neat little thing that wraps racial modifiers into a nice simple package, so go read and enjoy, then come back.

Are you back? Good. Did you see the most important (IMHO) paragraph in that post? If you blinked you probably missed it, and it’s so subtle I doubt even he saw the genius in it. Allow me to quote:

Typically, the first thing I ask my players to do is to roll their ability scores. Which means that their first glimpse of the game is “Roll these dice, record the resulting sum. Repeat this task five more times, then assign one score to each of these six abilities, the functions of which you probably don’t fully understand yet.”

Generations of D&D players have chafed at the original proscription that ability scores should be rolled 3d6 in order. Gary Gygax himself appeared to prefer 4d6, drop the lowest and arrange to taste. Other systems use point buy, or more lenient rolling systems and it all sort of culminated in 3.5/Pathfinder and 4e with the “standard array”, eliminating the randomness entirely for pure calculated consistency. And for experienced TTRPG players, this is perfectly fine and acceptable. When you know what you want in the game or from your character, there’s no reason that the rules need to prevent you from playing the character you want.

But take a moment, gentle reader, and consider the humble new player. The beginner. The n00b. Imagine you are brand new to the game, you don’t know what AC is, THAC0 sounds to you like a brand of potato chips and the last +1 anything you saw was a social networking button on a web page. You sit down at the table ready to roll up a new character and your DM starts throwing numbers and jargon at you and tells you to assign the scores to these “attributes” which makes only a small amount of sense in that you know what each word means on its own. Sure the GM tries to help, but really, how important is it for your character that they have a 14 DEX vs that 13 that you rolled? No one knows until your character is fully fleshed out, but this assignment is the first thing you need to do (or perhaps the second after you made a bewildering whirlwind tour through the list of races and classes).

Now, gentle reader, imagine instead you sit down at the table and your GM tells you “OK, roll 3d6 6 times and write the numbers down one after the other. Those are your attributes, don’t worry about what they mean right now, we’ll get to that later. Now based on your scores, here are 2 or 3 classes you’re eligible to play with this character, pick the one that sounds coolest to you.” Suddenly character creation is a lot easier, a lot quicker and ultimately a lot less intimidating, and because you didn’t get blasted with learning a whole bunch of jargon and attributes and classes and races and how they all relate together so that you can make an informed decision, you’ll feel much more comfortable with the idea of “simply” rolling up a new character if you don’t like this one.

Ladies and gentlemen, looking at it from this perspective, the seemingly restrictive and punitive character creation system in OD&D was a thing of simple elegance and genius. It was a simple and un-intimidating way to approach what is in reality (and certainly as the generations have worn on) a complex and interlocking system with plenty of room to experiment and grow. In a world without optimization forums, character builders or in many cases even an experienced DM to show you the ropes, the original character creation method was a brilliantly simple device that allowed players to jump right in by hiding complexity and flattening the learning curve. Even better, unlike a pregen character, it allows a small amount personal choice, just enough to invest you in your character without requiring you to understand everything first.

Going forward I think I’ll require all of my new players to generate their character randomly and in order. Let them get to the good stuff first, and then if they want to change things around later, once they have a feel for things, they’re free to do so. They can discover the character creation mini game later, for now, it’s time to buckle some swash.

  1. #1 by AncientToaster on April 16, 2013 - 11:20

    I can testify that this is entirely true, from rolling a Basic Fantasy character with my not-at-all-RPG-savvy girlfriend. Indeed, I’ve started to wonder if any choices are really necessary for a first time player, which is where I think a character funnel ( can be incredibly handy.

Roll for diplomacy!

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