Fairer Ability Score Rolling, Addendum

I’ve been discussing the virtues of rolling ability scores versus points-buy, and it’s interesting to consider the reasons people prefer one or the other.

In terms of fairness, players are better served by points buy than rolling. Whereas most rolls a player makes only affect the outcome of a single action, ability scores affect a character over his or her entire adventuring career. Too much is decided by a single incidence of chance. It’s like flipping a coin to decide who gets the best chair in your weekly D&D game* - it’s fairer to flip again each week than to flip once and stick with the result. After all, we don’t force players to roll once at character creation to determine their Initiative rolls, their attack rolls or how lucky they will be when they find magic items. If one single roll has too great an effect, it becomes bias, rather than luck, which is not the effect dice should have.

Points buy is often considered fairer since it gives players a way to compromise between power in different areas. That’s essentially what’s done with other character choices - picking a character class is a compromise between abilities such as magic aptitude and combat skill, and choosing feats is a compromise between which talents you wish to improve upon. Point-buy changes ability score generation from random chance to a kind of resource management, which is a big part of strategy in D&D. It becomes a matter of choice, rather than luck.

Why do many players still prefer to roll their characters, then? A big factor is that when you roll a good score by chance, it’s like finding a piece of treasure. By random chance, it’s possible that you’ll come up with several high ability scores that points buy couldn’t have afforded. Of course, the risk is that you can also end up with low scores. But then, that only make it more exciting. It’s almost a sort of gambling, in that you risk loss for the hope of winning big. The payoff is worth it.

Another reason is that characters come out more “natural” when rolled. Points-buy characters almost always have even ability scores, since an odd score is no more beneficial except when ability scores are used as prerequisites for feats. Points-buy systems usually allow no ability score below an 8 (since useless ability scores would be dropped lower to beef up the good ones), so characters tend to be either boringly well-rounded or all eights and eighteens.

Points-buy: it’s fairer and less open to cheating, but it’s more work and less exciting.

* It is dungeon master’s opinion that the “good chair” is naturally reserved for the dungeon master himself.

Comments (8)

Phrank (April 17th, 2007)

Great blog, Jonathan. It really has poignant articles on real D&D topics.

Anyway, since we’re on the topic of rolling ability scores, I want to share what my group does. We feel that rolling characters is a pivotal and exciting part of the game and try to add a little flair to it. We use the usual 4d6 drop the lowest method. But, when it’s time to roll new characters, we each go around the table and roll individually. When it’s someone’s time to roll, they will only roll 3d6, then add up those numbers before the final d6 roll. The moments before the final d6 roll adds a level of suspense and “action” to the rolling of characters. Everyone is always bent over the table, awaiting that last roll.

That last d6 roll can be the difference between a 7 or 12, or between a 10 or 15. A lot falls on that final d6 roll, and it’s always fun to make it more “game like.”

Just thought I would share. Keep up the great posting!

Patrick (April 17th, 2007)

I’ve found a “Wild Card” option for point-buys that I’m hoping to experiment with for my next campaign. It avoids one of my DMing pet peeves: PCs with all even scores or all 8’s and 18’s.

Is it any good? You tell me.

Leo235 (August 7th, 2007)

Thank you for putting up that blog.
Im from ghermany and interested in improving my GM-style. Your a big help there.

For abilities I go like this:
1: I decide how many points my characters should have all in all
2: I distribute(is that the right word?) the points on 6 values, but I dont say “this is the strengh value and this is that” and write those values down.
I do that 4 times ( 4 characters in my group)
3: I hand the papers out to the group and let them make out who gets wich paper
4: then they can decide how they stick their 6 values to their attributes

That way I can prevent 8-18 characters and still allow my players to have a little control over what they get

KasraKhan (July 19th, 2008)

I play a high powered campaign, roll 4d6 nine times, drop the lowest d6 each roll and the lowest 3 total.

In my campaigns, the players are the center of the town or cities attention, at 15-20th level the continent’s attention, and they draw even the eyes of gods at epic levels. It helps them think they matter, and I easily compensate in being a completely sadistic DM.

DDDepressionnn (November 20th, 2008)

There has come winter :(
It became cold and cloudy!
Mood very bad :(
Depression Begins

DDDDepressionnnn (November 21st, 2008)

Depression Depression Depression aaaaaaaa
HEEEEELP :( :( :(
I hate winter! I want summer!

wintervssummer (November 29th, 2008)

I very much love summer :)
Someone very much loves winter :(
I Wish to know whom more :)
For what you love winter?
For what you love summer? Let’s argue :)

grand admiral thrawn (March 2nd, 2009)

my dm stole the chair i brought to our game!

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