Sunday, June 22, 2008

3d6: The Rules

There’s something engrossing about creating stat lines for D&D, using the standard straight 3d6, in order, method. The results and combinations that this method produces can give D&D characters a truly unique personality. But what exactly do these ability scores mean? We always bandy about the term “abstract combat” in our Grognard circles, but what about abstract abilities?

Consider the odds of rolling an 18 using 3d6. It’s 1 in 216. Like me, you probably say “Wow!” when a natch 18 is rolled with 3d6 (and an equally emphatic “Ugh!” when a natch 3 is rolled). It’s almost as if the mindset in D&D is that an 18 in any ability is somehow superhuman in nature, but when we look at the chance of rolling an 18, we realize that this is hardly the case. Think of it this way; take a large body of people you have observed in real life…High School or College, or even an arena filled with fans for a concert or sporting event. Now, think of the way you might envision a D&D character with an 18 Strength, and realize that in High School, the chances are that 10 classmates had an 18 STR, in College 140 had 18 STR, and at an arena 350 fans had an 18 STR. Not so superhuman now.

We know that somewhere, there is indeed a human being who could lay claim to the title of the Strongest Person in the World! His STR is 18, too. Does this mean that 1 in every 216 people out there is as strong as the Strongest Person in the World? Of course not.

My use of the Strength ability to prove this point should be expounded upon in these terms. Strength, at least in my campaign, is not strictly a measure of physical might. It could more aptly be called Prowess, but since the might aspect of the score does come into play at times (when opening doors, for example), Strength it is. In my games, it’s more a measure of one’s ability to employ combat expertise.

The same odds exist for every person in regard to the other five abilities, as well. Therefore, Einstein was as smart as every 216th person out there in the D&D world. Either the D&D world is truly filled with exceptional beings, or we must accept the fact that even with the seemingly odd 18’s and 3’s out there, these numbers are abstract in nature; that is, they are a measure of those six abilities as they apply to the gaming rules of D&D, and nothing more. They are and should be descriptive to a certain extent; one of the joys of rolling characters is allowing the six ability scores to help define that persona. What the numbers show us is that these scores are all relative, and that even the extreme numbers aren’t truly rare in the grand scheme of the world in which our adventures take place.

OD&D has a nice simple treatment of exceptional ability scores; there’s really no difference, except in the case of Charisma, betwixt those higher ability scores. All such scores, in game terms, are exceptional and receive a small bonus. I’m not looking for a more detailed, power creep treatment of these abstract ability scores ala Greyhawk and AD&D. It works well as is, and deemphasizes the actual numbers themselves. I don’t want to worry about my Fighting-Man being one of the 1 in 21,600 people that has an 18/00 STR. OD&D’s abstract ability system keeps it simple and logical. After all, should such a person really receive a bonus (+4 to hit and +6 damage, per Greyhawk) that is better than every magic item in the game? Think about it.

All of this is my attempt to point out that the range of ability scores, from 3 to 18, is relative. It doesn’t mean that someone with a CON 3 is an invalid, or that someone with a DEX 18 is Jackie Chan. It boils down to superior, above average, average, below average and inferior; it doesn’t mean superhuman or abysmal at either extreme. As a matter of fact, having a STR of 3 in OD&D will not lower your melee effectiveness at all. It will only reduce your experience gain if you play a Fighting-Man. Clearly, a STR of 3 was never meant to convey the fact that your character couldn’t fight effectively.

We are to assume that any score, whether it’s a INT 3 or a DEX 4, is sufficient for that individual to perform perfectly well on an adventure. How often these ability scores comes into play is entirely up to the referee, but as presented in OD&D, DEX does nothing more than give +1, +0 or -1 on missile attacks. Nowhere in those rules is there a system provided for ability checks. I do allow DEX 15 to receive a +1 on Sneak attempts. I also plan to incorporate Xd6 checks rolled against one’s ability score; in this regard I am making ability scores a wee bit less abstract. That said, such rolls will only be made when the player can convince me that one is deserved.

The method I plan to employ is not my own idea, I actually have seen such a system across the internet at various forums; it allows the referee to set a difficulty level by adding d6 to the roll. The player must then roll equal to or lower than his own ability score with the prescribed number of d6.

I plan on something fluent like this when I even need to resort to rolling dice for such things:

Simple: 2d6
Standard: 3d6
Demanding: 4d6
Challenging: 5d6
Daunting: 6d6

Again, one of the things I enjoy about OD&D is the fact that the referee can ignore or adjust the Crunchy Meter to his own taste.

I doubt I’ll use this roll against abilities method often, but if a player has earned it, I might allow such a thing from time to time.

In this way, I’ve taken the OD&D abstract abilities and added some crunch; some low level impact for those who were particularly lucky when making their character, but nothing that will make them a walking +4/+6 magic sword.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Dwayanu said...

That was the usual method in The Fantasy Trip, published in 1980. I don't know, but I'll bet it had already been used in D&D campaigns.

Sham aka Dave said...

I have a feeling you're right Dwayanu. As I mentioned I've seen various versions of the adjustable d6 method, so it's probably an old reliable house rule. It was 'new' to me when I read about it recently, though.

I actually played some TFT/Melee games back in the day, but we're talking about 1979 or 80 if memory serves.

Anyhoo, thanks for the comment.

wulfgar said...

Very interesting. Of course you assume that everybody in the world gets to roll 3d6 for their stats. Not so sure that's a solid assumption under OD&D rules. The character generation rules are for adventureres- Fighting Men, Clerics, Magic Users. The vast majority of people at a High School, College, or Stadium would simply be Normal Men- who are techinally "monsters" and don't even have ability scores. So if you look at as one in 216 ADVENTURERS has an 18 ability score, then it becomes a bit more impressive. Not saying your way of looking at it is wrong at all, just offering an alternative.

Sham aka Dave said...

Heyas Wulf

I've always made that assumption, yes. Simply because it doesn't actually state anything to the contrary in the rules. I think in later editions, the 'cut above' mind set was formed, and is reflected in the 4d6, drop lowest and other 'stacked' methods of determining abilities.

Good points, and a solid alternative view, Wulfgar.