Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 20, 2014
Back in the old days of D&D, that was how your character was created. 3D6 created ability scores, from a range of 3-18, with 10 being defined as “average.” In the most hardcore tradition, you rolled six sets of scores and assigned them to your character in the order in which they appeared, giving you a completely random character. Then you’d pick a class your character might qualify for (with a ‘fighter’ — or ‘fighting-man’ — really having no qualifications necessary) and off you go. If your character was truly pathetic, you might hope to have ’em die quickly so you could create another character. Creating a new character in old-school D&D took only a few minutes, so it wasn’t a big deal.
At some point, people decided that those who took the adventuring lifestyle ought to be at least somewhat better than your average pig-keeper (never mind that heroic fantasy does have a place for even assistant pig-keepers), and opted for more generous probabilities, and the ability for a player to choose which scores went to which abilities. In the AD&D days, the preferred method was to roll four six-sided dice for each score, but to ignore the value of the lowest die. This still yielded scores in the 3-18 range, but with a higher average, and it was still possible to get a really weak score in one or two abilities.
D&D – and most other game systems – eventually moved away from randomized stats in favor of “point buy” systems. Players no longer needed to fear a bad set of dice rolls! While it sounds great on the surface, the problem is that player characters all end up with very similar sets of stats, min-maxed for their chosen specialty or class (and if it’s a classless system, it’s even worse).
The problem is that it’s hard for players to voluntarily play weaknesses. Maybe it’s part of the dividing line between narrative and game raising its ugly head again: Overcoming weaknesses (or succeeding in spite of them) makes for a great story, but even in a non-competitive game, people don’t like being saddled with a disadvantage out of the starting gate.
The old random generation system forced the issue. You were almost always guaranteed to have a character with something awesome, like a 16 and a 17, but have a 5 somewhere else. And admittedly, playing a complete weakling or an imbecile can get tiresome after a while, and modern games don’t have the rapid character turnover (read: high character mortality rates and rapid character generation) of the original D&D.
Of course, modern systems do try to encourage players to take weaknesses. With point-buy, you can get a higher top stat if you accept a lower weak stat. Or, in some systems, you can take a character disadvantage in exchange for extra build points. But these, too, tend to get min-maxed, and only very rarely will players voluntarily take a serious disadvantage, opting instead for those weaknesses that are either very minor or have a low probability of affecting them in any dangerous way.
Again, this runs contrary to what makes a good narrative. It’s always more exciting to cheer the underdog, not the guy who has all the advantages. It’s also fun to start with a character that isn’t completely under your control, as it encourages you to adapt your play-style a little bit, think a little bit outside the box, and come up with a custom personality (in tabletop gaming) to match.
So while I don’t mind that the hard-core, purely random character generation remains an artifact of the oldest of old-school RPGs (and a few modern Roguelikes), there were definitely some advantages. I’d like to see more games experimenting with ways to bring us the best of both worlds.
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