This very post got me thinking again: 3 to 18: Why do we really need it?
It’s an interesting question to ask. In fact, its so interesting that a lot of people have been asking it over the years. Lord knows the 3-18 ability score stat block has been iconic D&D, a sacred cow of sorts. Designers have added more material to the values, but all the while the ability block remains basically as it was first presented.
Let’s see if we can take a different stab at it from a game designer standpoint. As it’s a good tie in, let’s look at this in the light of what I’d do if I was asked to Redesign D&D.
The usual ground rules:
Try to remember that this is just an exercise in what I would have done. Everything here is opinion. Feel free to disagree, consider me an idiot, whatever. If 4E works for you and your gaming crowd, then by all means play it to your hearts’ content. I applaud all fun had in this hobby. However, as I’ve stated numerous times, 4E doesn’t work for me or my gaming crowd. As a result of this, I would not have made the same changes to the game that WotC did. What follows is where I would have focused my changes and where I would have gone with the intellectual property. My methodology in the process will be guided by a short list of principles:
- Rules should be simple guides, with options to be expand by the DM.
- Rules should lead to interesting options.
- Rules ignored should be rules removed.
- No Rule is sacred.
- No inspiration forbidden.
For this process I’ve decided that my jumping-off point with be trying to turn 2E into a better version of 4E by removing the bloat of the 3.xE versions of the game. Today’s focus: Ability Scores.
Let’s start with a question: Which is important to the player?
- That her character has a Strength of 15?
- That her character’s Strength of 15 grants her a +1 bonus to melee chances to hit, damage, and opening stuck doors?
Obviously the answer is #2. Players are more interested in how the numbers on their sheet help them interact with the game world. In some cases, the numbers actually help the player define and understand their limitations as well as their opportunities. What’s important to the player isn’t the Strength of 15, it’s the subsequent ramifications of that Strength of 15.
Of course, that begs the question asked in the post linked above:
Do we really need the 3-18 ability scores?
Well, sort of… Without the 3-18 ability score generation, we can’t determine those benefits and drawbacks to the character. Without them, the player is “flying blind.” So what’s a game developer to do? Well, let’s take a look at how we might simplify the character generation process without changing the “expected outcome” from a player point-of-view.
The atomic flaw of 3d6: No real difference between scores
One of the tenants of our redesign is that rules should lead to interesting decisions. So allow me a moment to prepare a straw man argument in the form of a question for you…
What’s the difference between a Wisdom of 13 and 14?
…. Nothing. Not a single actual playable difference. So why have the difference if realistically both scores interact with the game in the same fashion? Why no atomic difference in ruling but the need for conglomeration in scores?
To uphold the All-Mighty Bell Curve of course, the true sacred cow of ability scores… and the true flawed rule we already ignore.
The true flaw of 3d6: Player Expectation v. The All-Mighty Bell Curve!
The majority of RPGs are geared toward heroic, above-average roles. Players expect to play heroes since that’s typically the foci of RPGs.
- Corollary 1: Players expect to be heroic figures, not normal people.
Ability scores generated via the tried and true method of 3d6 yield a really neat-o bell curve for abilities with a presumably equal chance for a statistic with a score of 3 and an 18…
But who in their right mind wants to play a character with a majority of scores hovering around 9?
Who wants to play Normal, Average, BORING?
Not many. That’s why nearly every D&Der knows the Alternate Methods of generating ability scores.
- Corollary 2: As a tool, 3d6 is less than optimal for generating heroes.
But wait! Those corollaries are incongruous! How can the expectation of the players be met with the flawed methodology of the tool? How do we square the two?
The usual answer, barring the use of an Alternate Methodology to bypass the issue altogether, is to just throw away any character that doesn’t meet “Minimum Heroic Standards” for the campaign and start over.
It’s a credit to our hobby that those Alternate Methods even exist. They’re proof of something significant; we care more about the expectations and enjoyment of those at the table than we do about the rules. Kudos fellow gamer, that’s the spirit.
But that too begs the question:
Why are we using a system if we’re going to ignore the results?
The obvious answer is simple. We shouldn’t.
Consider the chart of “As written in the rules” Ability Scores v. the “As played in reality” Ability Scores:
|As written in the rules||As played in reality|
Which demonstrates that the true scores played by the majority of gamers using the 3d6 method actually ranges from 8-18, not 3-18 as indicated by the rules.
Eliminating the flaws
I propose, since they’re already ignored, we remove the lower range of scores (from 3 to 7) for players. I further propose we logically shift the remaining 8-18 scores down to 1-10. The numbers are arbitrary so it really doesn’t matter their range. Doing so leaves us with the following table:
With the understanding that it isn’t the score that the player is interested in, but the modifier, we can further replace the Score header in the column with a d10 Result header and include another column for Point Buy Cost. Doing so allows us to hide the portion of the ability score that is pointless to the player.
Finally, our final result looks like this:
|d10 Result||Modifier||Point Buy Cost|
In this analysis, the actual values of the statistics aren’t necessary on a character sheet. Because in the end, the actual score isn’t what’s important, it’s the modifier the score subsequently demonstrates that is used in play.
So why not use this method (or something similar) and just record the modifiers?
Nope, we don’t.
In fact, we don’t really need ability scores. Given the opportunity, I’d remove them leaving only the modifiers.