... now with 35% more arrogance!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

3d6 in Order

Recently at the Temple of Demogorgon, Brunomac wrote about what he calls "Fuddism", meaning a playstyle where the players are stuck with characters who are pathetically underpowered, which they pit against overwhelming odds in a dungeon run by a DM who plays the role of Bugs Bunny, constantly getting the upper hand in a game the players can't win. I'm a little doubtful about the existence of pure Fuddism, although I'll acknowledge there occasionally are DMs fond of what I call "screwage", as exemplified by a recent Dragonsfoot thread about teleportation errors and what to do about characters getting partially embedded in walls.*

But one of the main examples of Fuddism (according to Brunomac) is the insistence on rolling 3d6 in order for ability scores. It's his argument that this approach leaves most characters less competent than ordinary villagers, unless the players are extremely lucky with their rolls. As someone who obviously likes random attributes, I have to disagree, primarily on two grounds.

First: ordinary is not pathetic. What you get when rolling for random attributes as opposed to point-buy, re-arrangement of scores, or weighted rolls (4d6 drop lowest) is most likely an ordinary person. Well, as ordinary a person as you can get, when you're able to use absolutely any weapon and attack multiple opponents simultaneously (Fighter) or cast spells (MU, Cleric.) What sets PCs apart from the rest of humanity as "adventurers" is not their superior ability scores, but the fact that they choose to face danger for potential reward instead of doing what's expected of them.

Ordinary is definitely not pathetic the way I interpret scores**, but it's also not pathetic under the original rules. The only effect Strength, Intelligence and Wisdom have on adventurer actions is to increase or decrease earned experience: you can play a Strength 3 Fighter, you'll just earn 20% less experience than a Strength 9 Fighter. There are no damage bonuses for Strength, or even encumbrance adjustments. Intelligence does affect the number of languages learnable, but otherwise, it's just a rating that has little quantifiable effect. And if you absolutely can't live with "little quantifiable effect", there's an exchange rate to allow you to trade Strength for Intelligence, or other exchanges.

Beginning with Supplement I, that changes, and as time progresses, the bonuses, penalties and restrictions of the ability scores become more pronounced, which is why we also see more schemes to lessen the blow of rolling "bad" scores. Around the same time, there's a huge influx of new players, which means more variation in play preferences... and we start seeing more people who simply can't stand the idea of playing someone ordinary. The non-amazingness of average ability scores gets exaggerated as being pathetic; Joe Average gets transformed into Elmer Fudd.***

Second: loss of control is not malice. Aside from saying "you have to roll 3d6 in order", the DM isn't controlling the outcome of character creation or deliberately crippling PCs any more than the players are. The whole point of random rolls is to create fairness and surprise by removing human intervention. They allow the unexpected to happen, and allow players and the DM to create something they otherwise probably wouldn't have thought of.

And I don't mean here that random rolls make you a better role-player. I'm not necessarily in favor of playing an Int 3 character as Lennie Small, since I think this is an overinterpretation of the meaning of Int 3. However, rolling a low Strength and high Intelligence, when you want to play a Fighter, forces you to consider what your best solutions to problems should be, perhaps encouraging you to be more of an Odysseus than a Hercules.

Together, these two principles mean a more interesting game, to me. I'd rather see players running ordinary joes who take risks and use the resources they've been dealt by playing cleverly, eventually becoming formidable heroes, than a predictable set of characters based on the latest popular action, sci-fi or fantasy movie or comic book engaged in a game of power-collecting.

* It's my opinion that, by the rules as written, partial embedding in a wall simply can't occur unless the DM specifically sets out to screw the players. I've talked about dick rulings before, but maybe I'll post something about the kinds of screwage that would actually fit into Brunomac's Fuddism description.

** And, in fact, I don't even think players should automatically assume Strength 3 is a feeble weakling unable to lift a dagger, or Intelligence 3 is a moron, barely able to speak. Unless they feel like it. But for me, those are clearly labels, above and beyond the meaning of the scores themselves.

*** Besides, Elmer Fudd isn't incompetent. He's a naturally meek person who absurdly chooses to project himself into the role of Mighty Hunter. He's trying to prove his manhood with cruelty towards animals much weaker than he is. This is why Bugs teases him mercilessly. And Bugs is only able to do so in accord with the Cartoon Laws of Physics: "For every vengeance there is an equal and opposite revengeance."


  1. I missed Brunomac's post, but just once again just used 3d6 in order with a new player - particularly in OD&D, the modifiers (positive or negative) aren't that big of a deal. I've been tempted recently to allow the player to switch two attributes, but once more decided against it. There's something about the lottery of the dice that I really like. We've dealt with the genetic fate we've been handed in real life, why not in the game also? The fact that we have a second (or third, fourth, etc.) chance to be something different than ourselves in the game I've always thought should be enough.

    This is one of those topics that will continue to come up in our corner of the RPG world. I ran a poll on this a while back and was actually surprised at how many respondents still used 3d6 in order (26%).

  2. > It's his argument that this approach leaves most characters less competent than ordinary villagers,


    Where exactly do characters come from if not villages? Are they sprouted from the foreheads of gods? Born with superpowers beyond belief? Perhaps with anime style blue hair and titanic, monkey gripped swords?

    I also agree abilities are really a very minor facet (depending on edition). A few levels or a couple magic items (or even a few game sessions of player experience/learning) have far more of an effect than high or low stats.

    But this whole argument is stupid. There are people who do want to play superheros. They roll 4d6 or point buy or whatever and play their "super hero" games. The only wrong way to do it is to start believing your way is the only way.

  3. I'm with Norman.

    I ideally like to represent characters of fiction--and mostly the sort of fiction that inspired D&D (which I find a little interesting you don't mention in your post). Fafhrd & Mouser, Elric, Conan, and Kane are heroes, and are statted accordingly, but they aren't Batman (well, maybe Kane is).

    However, I can see the appeal of more gritty realism, in the same way I can see the appeal of a flashier, more cinematic approach.

  4. @Norman: the problem I have with Brunomac's post isn't that he's in favor of a different play style, but that I think his characterization of average or truly random characters as incompetent "Elmer Fudds" is an unfair exaggeration. He thinks that forcing players to roll 3d6 in order is tantamount to forcing them to play prootwaddles.

    If you want to play a specific character concept, it's better to go with a point-buy system. Original D&D is meant to to be played with the character concept growing organically from play.

  5. I've played 3d6, 4d6-L, 2d6+6, point-buy, and a million other variations.

    I keep coming back to 3d6, but to each his own.

  6. I've been running my solo dungeon project with characters rolled up on the Dragonsfoot 1e generator and as can be seen from the jpegs, each is rolled on the 3d6 method. I give myself three tries and if I don't go for numbers one or two, I have to select number three.

    Granted the first group got TPKed by a pack of giant rats but the second one is doing very well, having killed off eight kobolds, eight orcs and an indeterminate amount of rats. Dirk Average, the apparently weediest one of the gang acquited himself admirably, as did Chumley the magic user.

    The point is that even average characters, played well and with dice luck on their side can perform exceptionally well. A string of low rolls can spell doom even for someone with no scores below 11.

    Another problem that I have with anything else than 3d6 in order is that allowing players to move their scores around, use dump stats, etc, smacks of character building.

    "...rolling a low Strength and high Intelligence, when you want to play a Fighter..."

    So play a magic user already! Going into the character rolling process with a firm idea of the character you want to play is almost guaranteed to lead to frustration. If that's the attitude, why not ask the DM for a pre-rolled fighter? A great deal of the fun for me when I pick up the 3d6 is that I never know what I'm going to get. Sure, a paladin would be great but what's the challenge in surviving whatever a dungeon can throw at you when you've already got such a great head start?

    Many of my characters of old came as gifts of the dice; I think my playing experience was heightened as a result thereof. If we're willing to accept the diktats of the dice when it comes to combat, hit points, cure lights and even the damage a magic missile does, why do we shy away from accepting what they have to say when rolling up characters?