Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Optional Rules:  Rolling for Ability Scores   

Back in the day, there was no system for "buying" ability scores in Dungeons & Dragons.  You had three six-sided dice and you rolled them and added the numbers together.  That was your Strength score.  Then you continued down the list, in order (which back then was Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma), with no substitutions and no re-rolls.  And then you figured out what character classes you "qualified" for, based on those numbers.  It was kind of a risk!  And, at the same time, it wasn't, because invariably when I showed up to run a game, everyone would mysteriously have rolled a lot of 18s...  It was an adolescent system for an adolescent game, and that was fine at the time.

The "new school" games, as I am calling them, really wanted characters to be legitimately more powerful, not just "randomly" more powerful (meaning that you rolled characters up over and over again until you got the one you wanted).  Moreover, they wanted to spread out the bell curve of a 3d6 roll so that the middle ground was more interesting. Instead of bonuses starting at 15, they started at 12, for example.  The point-buy system had an enormous impact on the game.  From a gamemaster standpoint, it meant that I didn't have to worry as much about players complaining that their character was useless, or that someone else's character was over-powered.  It also meant that low scores were valuable, because they were used to directly offset high scores.  Granted, under the holdover 3-18 scale, odd numbers were significantly less valuable, but could at least be seen as potential for growth when you were able to (gasp!) increase your ability scores as you leveled up.  It put power over character creation into the hands of the player.

But, admittedly, point-buy is kind of boring for some folks.  There's only a few ways to optimize it, and it becomes very clear for experienced players how to do that, depending on what they want to build.  In the meantime, new players who haven't memorized feat requirements and spell charts often feel like they are making less-optimal characters, and that can feel a bit like a trap for the unwary.  As much as I love complex games, I like them more when there are many different ways to play and succeed.

One way I have addressed this in my house rules is by getting rid of some of the more onerous and unnecessary feat requirements.  But I've also come up with an (optional) system for folks who would like to roll their ability scores.

Rolling as a Group

Everyone in the party starts out as just about average, with exactly a 10 in every ability score.  Gather together 7d6 of one color, and 2d6 of another color, and roll them as a group.  You may choose someone to roll, or distribute the dice however you'd like.  Don't give any to me, I have terrible dice luck.  Everyone shares all of the resulting dice rolls.  (It is easier if each player takes their own d6 and sets them to the same numbers as those rolled by the group).  This means that everyone should have seven positive dice (the first color) and two negative dice (the second color) with the same numbers on them.  Each player may now place those dice on any ability score of 10, to raise or lower it.
  • Positive dice raise an ability score.
  • Negative dice lower an ability score.
  • Dice cannot be divided between two or more scores (e.g., a six cannot be divided into two threes).
  • Multiple dice can be added to the same score.
  • You don't have to put a die on a score at all, you can leave it as 10.
  • Positive and negative numbers cancel each other out.
  • And finally, at the end, any ability score lower than 3 becomes a 3, and any ability score higher than 18 becomes an 18.
To give an example:  the party rolls the following numbers:
  • Positive dice:  6, 5, 3, 3, 2, 2, 1
  • Negative dice:  -5, -3
I decide that I want a high Constitution, so I add the 6 to my base of 10, giving me a 16.  I'm okay with a low Charisma, but not too low.  I add the -5 to my base of 10, but I also add a 3, for a total Charisma of 8.  I don't want another low score, so I put both the -3 and the 5 on Strength, giving me a 12.  I place both a 3 and a 2 on Dexterity, so that becomes a 15.  Finally, I have a 2 and a 1 left over, which I place on Wisdom and Intelligence.  My final ability scores are Str 12, Con 16, Dex 15, Wis 12, Int 11, Cha 8.

The other players use the same numbers, but they make their own decisions about where to place the dice.  One player may not want to have any scores below 10.  Their ability scores may end up as: 16, 13, 12, 12, 11, 10, 10.  Another player may want to maximize a few scores.  They may end up with something like: 18, 18, 10, 10, 10, 8.

How the System Encourages Good Story

First, rolling dice together and sharing in good luck (or bad) is a bonding experience for the players.  Add to that the fact that they know they are all starting out with the same potential advantages and disadvantages, and it further brings the party together.  This method is especially useful when the players have a shared origin, such as all being from the same small town.  You could even further gamify the character creation process if you wanted, having each individual die roll represent a formative year in their lives (feast or famine), and having each player describe how that changed their character for better or for worse.

Second, moving numbers around is more satisfactory when it is tangible.  When you actually have physical dice to move and play with, it feels less like calculating and more like building.  The six-sided dice are literally the building blocks of your character.  Being attached to your character early on is good for producing interesting stories.  Character creation is when players are thinking about motivations, backstory, and other foundations for the beginning of character growth.

Finally, the absence of a curve gives more options for character creation, resulting in different sorts of characters.  In the point buy system used by Pathfinder, for example, the first set of ability scores described above would be worth 20 points.  The second would be worth 18 points, while the third would be worth 32 points!  The point buy system is a curve, because it is modeling the bell curve of the results of a 3d6 roll.  But the ability scores themselves are not valued along a curve any more (as they were in earlier editions of D&D).  Instead, an ability score of 12 is worth +1, 14 is worth +2, 16 is worth +3, and 18 is worth +4: a linear progression.  Having two scores of 18 simply isn't anywhere near 150% more useful than the other sets of ability scores, and it shouldn't cost that much.  What the point buy system does is encourage characters to be somewhat better than average, but not exceptional, at everything (and to not be worse than average at anything).  This method, in contrast, allows more options and strategies for building your character, resulting in characters that are really great at some things, and terrible at others.  It is exactly these sorts of characters that have the most interesting stories.

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