For an aspect of the game laid out so straightforwardly in the rules, character generation seems to have quite a variety of house rules. How you roll for ability scores is one of the most varied parts of rolling a new guy that I’ve encountered on the internets. (Yes, all of them.)
Standardly, the game has players roll 4d6, drop the lowest d6 and arrange the results of six such rolls as desired. Back in the mists of time the game used to use a straight 3d6, which led to a lot of average characters. This is the reason why no matter what rolling method you use, ability scores have always ranged from 3 to 18. Second edition AD&D had something like five different ability score methods, wherein the DM could pick which one he wanted to use. I think the modern system of “4d6, drop lowest” is fairly elegant.
Still, it’s not without its drawbacks. Most notable is that you’re deciding a lot of your character’s ability and limitations based on a single set of rolls. While most rolls only affect you in the short term—failing a poison save will generally only punish your character for a few days—a lucky or unlucky roll in character generation will last your entire adventuring career. You might create two otherwise identical fighters, one of whom is far more powerful than the other simply because he was lucky enough to roll an 18 or two. It’s exciting and random, prone to creating power gaps between two player characters, and rewards players who cheat (which is easily done). (I once did a statistical analysis of your chance of rolling at least one 18; I’ll have to see if I can find it.)
Point buy is a good solution, with the drawback that it’s not quite as interesting or exciting because it’s not random. However, it’s more tactical—since point buy systems are generally weighted to make high ability scores much more expensive, players often have to choose between a single 18 or multiple 16s. Another drawback is that there’s a lot of futzing about with points and points-weighting charts, and that the standard points value tends to create characters that look a little pale in comparison to the 18-wielding heroes that come with rolling ability scores.
More straightforward are standard arrays of ability scores which are arranged as desired. My own array, designed to allow ridiculously powerful characters to compensate players for losing out on the excitement of rolling, is 18/16/16/14/12/10. Standard arrays are picking up popularity on the internet, making me wonder if I’ve helped propogate the meme in some way. Another popular array is 18/16/14/12/10/8, although I ditched the 8 myself because I don’t like heroes running around being less charismatic than commoners. My own array’s double 16s also reward players who play dwarves —what we used to call demihumans—who can use this array to start with a highly coveted two 18s.
Here are some more specific variants that I’ve seen used:
- 5d6 drop lowest two is a higher-powered variant on the traditional rolling system. You get a higher distribution overall with this method, so characters tend to be powerful.
- Reroll ones, an idea that can be applied to any rolilng method, helps prevent the problem of rolling low numbers. Any dice which come up a ’1′ are rerolled. Generally, ones are only rerolled once each.
- Points shift is a method my former DM used consistently before he moved away and forgot to get his copy of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil back from me. This rolling variant allows you to move a certain number of points, usually one or two, from any ability score to any other. Naturally, the minimum of 3 and maximum of 18 (before racial bonuses and penalties) still apply.
- Iron Heroes points buy is a simplistic, but versatile system—I would expect nothing less from Mike Mearls. Simply put, you begin with ability scores of all 10 and have a certain number of points to raise those on a per-point basis. However, raising an ability score above 15—15 to 16, or 16 to 17—costs 2 points, while increasing a 17 to an 18 costs four points. This is the system I currently use; I offer 26 points, but you may prefer either more realistic or heroic ability scores than my players.
So which should you use? Dice are more exciting, plus it really means something when you roll high ability scores. Points buy is fairer, but can be more time-consuming. Standard arrays are quick and easy, but tend to favour classes that only need one good ability score rather than multiple average scores, and players might crave the excitement of rolling characters randomly. Which on you choose really depends on what kind of game your players will enjoy the most—try to pick the right one for your game.