Have you ever played a character in 4e D&D without optimized stats? A Fighter with a Strength score below 14 or a Wizard with an Intelligence under 14? I think it’s safe to say that none of us have done it. Why would you? The game assumes that you’re going to have a decent score (16+) in your primary ability from the outset and to ensure this we use the point buy system to assign the numbers as we deem appropriate. Add to that racial bonuses and there’s really no reason you’d even have to play a character with a low score in their primarily ability.
As long as players use point buy to assign scores we’re always going to see fully optimized stats. All Fighters will have exceptional Strength. All Wizards will have exceptional Intelligence. The base foundation on which characters are built (the six ability scores) will be similar, if not identical, when comparing characters of similar classes. The mechanics of 4e almost demand that this be the case. It’s not to your advantage to play a PC with sub-optimized ability scores. If you want to be on par with the game’s power baseline you have to optimize the numbers. A character with a 14 in his main ability will be less powerful than his allies. But is this really a bad thing.
Some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever played have not had exceptional ability scores. All of these characters were created using older D&D mechanics. We didn’t assign ability scores, we rolled them. When I first began playing D&D everyone made characters using the old 3d6 method. You rolled 3d6, added them up, and that was your ability score. There were a few variations but in the end the ability scores were determined by random rolls and the luck of the dice. It was extremely rare to have an 18 in any ability score at level 1. Even two scores of 16 or more was practically unheard of.
Rolling your abilities randomly really added something to the character creation process that has disappeared with 4e. Today if I’m making a character I do it on a laptop, in the comfort and privacy of my game room. The social atmosphere that used to accompany character creation has long since disappeared, assuming it was ever present in 4e.
When I make a character in 4e I don’t need to consult with the other players in my group about what everyone’s playing. There is such balance in 4e that a party can get by with almost any group of characters as long as their all optimized. It’s certainly easier if the four roles are represented, but an experienced group can be just as effective with an unbalanced party. Because of this there is no need to make the character creation process social.
Rolling for ability scores changes how you make a character. It doesn’t just add a new step that requires you to rolls the dice a few times, it encourages community. Before 4e I never made characters by myself. It was a shared experience. You’d invite the gaming group over and often you’d spend an entire session making PCs. One of the reasons for this was to keep everyone honest. If I was lucky enough to actually roll and 18 or two I wanted witnesses. I didn’t want anyone doubting that my ability scores were indeed what the dice gods provided me with.
Even the way I made decisions during character creation was different when I rolled my scores. Today I usually choose class first. Then I find a race that has suitable racial modifiers in the abilities I think I’ll need most. Then, using point buy, I assign the points to the abilities that I need for my class. The result is usually one score that starts at 18+ and one that starts at 16+. Of course there are times when I simply want to play a race/class combo that doesn’t mesh perfectly, but I again make up for the shortfall when I’m assigning my ability scores.
When abilities are determined by the dice, I do all the rolling first. If I’m using the method where the stats are recorded in the order rolled than I need to see where the dice fall before choosing a class. I’m less likely to play a Fighter if my first total is only a 9. Usually I wait to see where the highest number ends up and then choose a class that relies on that ability. A high Wisdom means a Cleric, a High Dexterity is a Rogue or Ranger; you get the idea. If the numbers are relatively flat then this is when race can help make a good score a great score or to shore up a low number in a secondary ability. If we use the method where we roll the six scores and then assign the numbers to the six ability scores as we see fit, then I’ve got a lot more options when it comes to class and I’m less likely to pick a race just because it will bump a low score.
When you rely on the dice to determine ability scores it’s entirely possible that the party won’t have anyone with a high Strength. Does this mean you play without a Fighter or that someone plays a less optimized Fighter? By making character creation a social exercise you can figure these things out as a group.
The social experience that accompanies character creation is certainly a strong argument for using rolling over point buy, but there is an even better reason – character diversity. As I mentioned above, characters with average numbers, or even below average numbers, tend to be more interesting. They’re not perfect. They may be really good at one thing but terrible in most others. And isn’t this a more accurate representation of real life? I realize that many people play fantasy role-playing games to escape reality but I want to have fun when I play. If everyone PC is the very best at what they do it often makes for a less exciting experience.
Look at the characters in Harry Potter as an example. The stories take place in a school full of Wizards. If these characters were all created using the 4e point buy then they’d all have an 18 or higher Intelligence at the outset. However, it’s clear that Hermione has a much higher intelligence than Harry, and Harry probably has a higher Intelligence that Ron. Had all three been equally intelligent the stories would have been pretty boring. The fact that they all have different strengths and weaknesses makes them a more interesting adventuring party, despite the fact that they’re all Wizards.
The greatest disadvantage of rolling dice to determine ability scores is that it’s impossible to ensure equality between characters. While diversity is actually something to be encouraged during a home game, it can be a nightmare during public play. And this is where point buy has a clear advantage over dice rolling methods – point buy levels the playing field. This is vitally important during public play. Any elements left to chance will be abused. You know that you’d constantly see characters with six 18s. “I swear that’s what I rolled. My dice were red hot that night. Ask my mom, she witnessed it!”
With the next iteration of D&D currently being developed and play-tested it will be interesting to see how ability scores are determined. Will players have the choice to use point buy or roll dice? Will the system support both methods equally or will point buy still be the preferred way to determine ability scores? If Wizards of the Coast is truly looking to bring back the best elements of previous editions then I for one hope they do encourage the old 3d6 method for determine ability scores. Looking at the bigger picture I see this as an important element of D&D that was lost with 4e. Point buy works for the game that 4e is today, but with changes on the horizon I think there’s room to bring back this tried and true method of character creation.
What are you thoughts on using the 3d6 method to create ability scores? Do you think bringing it back will help D&D or do you think that point buy is the way to go? Can you see a system that allows players using either method to sit at the same game table and feel like their on level playing field? Do you think there any method that involves dice rolling should have qualifiers like no more than one 18 or reroll any ability score under 8?
- Playing Characters With Low Ability Scores
- Adventuring With A Sub-Optimal Party (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4)