Greatest Hits 2012: The Advantages of Using 3d6 Over Point Buy

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 18, 2012

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2012. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

Most gamers I’ve met like rolling dice. And most gamers I’ve met like to power game. So when you ask gamers if they’d rather roll their six ability scores randomly or assign them and get the most optimized stats possible you’re unlikely to get a consensus. Personally I like rolling 3d6 for abilities. It makes you play the character and not the numbers. In my experience this always makes for more interesting characters which in turn makes the gaming experience more enjoyable.

I’ve found that experienced gamers are the ones who are most open to the ides of rolling their abilities. This could be in some part because they’ve likely played previous editions of D&D where that’s just how it was done, so they don’t see it as a big deal. I also think experienced gamers are more open to rolling their ability scores because they realize that there is something to be said for randomness. They realize that it’s not the extraordinary scores that make your character interesting, but the lower ones. Rolling your stats makes you intimately and immediately aware that a character is more than the raw numbers on the page; something many newer gamers have a hard time understanding.

By rolling your stats you’re more likely to be appreciative of that one good score, even if it is only a 14. And in cases where an ability score is particularity high, say an 18, it’s going to have a big impact on the PCs and the game. In a world where most people have relatively flat ability scores, anyone with an 18 will be truly extraordinary. Just think of how people will treat a guy with an 18 Charisma? This super-Charisma guy is going to be a spectacle for all the right reasons. His 18 makes him special. However, if an 18 Charisma is extremely commonplace, as it is when everyone uses a point buy system, it denies everyone that chance to feel special because they happen to roll something statistically improbable.

I’m not suggesting that we completely abandon point buy; it certainly has its place and serves a practical purpose. But I think that we should all realize that there is something to be gained from trying the 3d6 method of generating ability scores as anyone who has participated in the D&D Next play testing can attest to.

From January 24, 2012, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: The Advantages of Using 3d6 Over Point Buy.

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 an 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’s 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?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe Lastowski December 18, 2012 at 11:36 am

The only historic troubles I had with rolling were when it restricted class choice. My first D&D experience was with 1st ed, and we went straight down the character sheet with the rolls. My first 3d6 roll HAD to go to Strength, the next HAD to go to Dex, etc. That was really frustrating, because classes had ability score restrictions, so if I didn’t have a certain Intelligence score (for example), I couldn’t play a Wizard. That was in a time when 18 was probably the highest anyone could get (except for the 18/00 percentile increases for strength). Even in the rules books, they described a random creature who’d have a score at each level, and 18+ was typically the realm of dragons and gods.

In 4th ed, I don’t mind rolling, because they’ve balanced the math a lot more. I prefer 4d6, dropping the lowest, because it gives players a better chance to not have an ability score of 3-7, which is pretty abysmal.

In our NEXT playtests, though, I’ve felt like I need to use the point buy system, to make sure that I have a Constitution high enough to get enough HP not to be killed by one hit, or a high enough Strength score to be able to hit with my own attacks, etc.

In a retro system like NEXT, I think point buy is the way to go. For more balanced and modern systems, like 4e, I say roll away!

2 ramanan December 18, 2012 at 11:46 am

I am fine with both approaches, but since attribute scores and bonuses are more important in a game like 4e, I think purely random dice rolling is less appealing here. I like 3d6 because you can end up with wonky attributes that suggest interesting characters.

3 Edward W. December 18, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Nope, I have no idea what the hell you are talking about. I first played D&D back with the original around 1978. The two things that made it totally suck were rolling 3d6 down the line for stats and suicidally low HP at first level. That’s why I abandoned D&D after just a couple sessions of play. The game sucked. You’d almost always be forced to to play a class you didn’t want and die quite quickly–forcing you to go back to rolling up yet another crappy character you didn’t want to play either. It was straight up cruel, farcical, tabletop masochism: “Thank you sir, may I have another!” What we ended up doing is rolling character after character on a piece of scratch paper (to stay within the 3d6 down the line rules) until we finally got scores they liked and then played that one. Just a huge waste of time either way. To me one of the most important choices in an RPG is picking the class you want to play. With the 3d6 method players only rarely get to play what they envision. That sucks. Bringing back 3d6 is a terrible idea. It was one of the worst parts of the older versions of D&D. It was dragged out behind the barn and put down with prejudice for a reason: it sucked. Don’t reinvent the square wheel.

4 benensky December 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm

With dice rolling I find many people roll up numerous characters and only play the ones with the best stats. (for example with 3 or more ability scores with 18). They dominate the game over the others who only did one roll. I feel it is cheating. Overseeing your players character creation is an alternative I would rather not do since it sucks up so much time and some players who do not like there stats intentionally kill of their character to get another chance to roll. Point buy is a simple way to eliminate that cheating. However, if you like rolling, more power to you.

5 wrath December 18, 2012 at 8:04 pm

I have been playing D&D since 1978 and I prefer point buy for the most part. I found in the past too many people fudging or one guy rolling horrible and one guy getting super stats. If its a short game (one off or only a couple sessions) then rolling is fine, but for a long campaign or for organized play… point buy.

In 4e, gamma world had a nice take. Give you a primary stat of 18 and a secondary of 16 (if you only have one stat you get a 20 I believe) the rest are rolled 3d6. This was a good balance between play-ability in the system and role-playing.

6 Rewolf December 19, 2012 at 8:26 am

I never played D&D before the 4e, but I have some experience in rolling scores in Baldur’s Gate (which uses 2nd/Advanced D&D rules?). Either way, in Baldur’s gate the game sometimes just wasn’t fun at all since you could just get shit scores in which case you just kept rolling till you get something you liked. This consumed time and ‘did’nt really gave you the feeling of living the character, but just the feeling of playing power/meta-gaming. The advantage the game had though, was the ability to distribute the points between abilities you rolled.
Continuing from that line I think 4e has the nicer option of rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest d6 for the score. This way the results are still randomized, but the chance to get an suck score (1-10) is smaller than before. In our group we roll only, because of the random chance excitement and to make you live the character more (we do allow to choose where you want which score though!). This is imo the best option for rolling scores in the game

7 Ameron (Derek Myers) December 19, 2012 at 11:43 am

Based on some of the comments left here I feel that I should clarify a couple of things.

First off, I’m not suggesting that we do away with point-buy. I like point-buy and I think it brings a much needed balance to D&D, especially for 4e and especially for public-play. I’m merely suggesting that there are advantages to trying the 3d6 method and that if your entire group is on board with it you might want to try it for a change.

Secondly, when I say 3d6 it’s really a “catch all” term. I don’t think anyone is saying that you have to roll 3d6 (and only 3d6) and assign the scores in the exact order they’re rolled. You could try this but I don’t think it would make many players happy. When I’ve used 3d6 in the past we’ve set a few ground rules to ensure some balance between characters. Here are a few of our variations.

  • Assign the abilities in any order, not necessarily the order in which they’re rolled.
  • If all six ability scores don’t fall within a set a minimum and maximum total, you roll all six ability scores again.
  • Roll 3d6 seven times and take the best six.
  • Roll 4d6 for each score and discard the lowest die.
  • Roll 3d6 but reroll all 1s (although this tends to lead to much higher ability scores).

The point is that there are so many variations on the 3d6 method that groups interested in trying this approach should be able to come up with some variation that works for them and ensures a certain level of balance and practicality.

8 wrath December 19, 2012 at 8:03 pm

The method we used back in the day was roll 4d6 (drop the lowest) six times. Do this three times. Pick the array you like the best. We even added in bonus dice for one stat, so you get 5d6 drop the lowest two. This was for meeting prerequisites like that 17 (or was it 16) cha for the Paladin.

9 =j December 20, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Long and long ago, we had a house rule that allowed 20d6 assigned however you like (max is 18, all attributes must have at least 3). You want to lump five of your dice together to get a high score? Fine, just be sure you have enough to get your “dump” stats to at least 3. I do not recall if it was borrowed from another system, gleaned from an issue from Dragon, or fell out of the DM’s fevered imagination.

Our group at the time included both serious RP and min/max people. This system allowed for enough randomness to avoid the cookie-cutter feel that you get from point buy, yet allowed a fair amount of flexibility on what sort of character you were building.

10 Edward W. December 20, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Thanks for the reply. Sorry if that came across badly. I was more venting my horrible memories of OD&D than properly addressing all the points in your article. However, there are people who really do want to go back to the straight 3d6 rolls down the line. Yes, I do support offering various methods for doing attributes. I feel that games should include several methods so that DMs and players have choices and alternatives to consider.

11 Rewolf December 21, 2012 at 5:32 am

I believe that in the 4e the rules for rolling dices are actually quite similar to the rules you use for rolling Ameron!
The Player Handbook gives you 4d6 to roll for ability scores, discard the lowest dice and if the ability modifiers before Racial adjustments is less then 4+ or higher then 8+ the DM can let you roll again because you would be to weak or to strong!

12 Brian December 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm

I’m a big fan of point buy, especially in a system like 4e. I like to be able to allocate my stats as I see fit, especially if I’m going for an oddball build which may have tricky stat requirements for feats and powers, such as a recent Fighter/Seeker which I pretended was a striker.

One advantage to point-buy is that it makes 18s available to everyone at the start of character creation so that one can play an unusual race/class combo for roleplaying reasons (for example, my warforged bard, Jerusalem S.L.I.M.), buy an 18, and not be too far behind the curve. Or, in your example, when you don’t roll any outstanding stats, you’re more likely to go for a race/class combo that gives you the stat bump you need.

I’m not convinced that rolling stats does anything to improve role-playing, mostly because your stats aren’t connected to anything in your character’s personality. The only thing stats determine is modifiers for various d20 rolls and a couple other things. None of which have anything to do with role-playing.

As one example, I am playing in a current campaign with a 20 INT wizard. He roleplays his character as the dumbest person in the group. Or for the Harry Potter example, you could make three mechanically identical wizards, all with 18 INT, and simply role-play Ron as Ron, Harry as Harry, and Hermoine as Hermoine.

Rolling in order is an abomination. I don’t want to show up to a session wanting to play a fighter, but being stuck playing a wizard because I rolled an 8 before I rolled a 16.

And, I wasn’t a fan of the character creation sessions as a group. As both a player and a DM, I like to start off with action. Especially at convention games and one-shots where time is limited, I think it takes too long and involves too much rifling through books to do it then and there.

And finally, most of the time when I did rolling for stats, the DM would look at everyone’s stats and adjust them anyways because at least one person would have really hot or really cold dice for those six points. At that point, we might as well go to point buy and drop any pretense of rolling.

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