Saturday, June 14, 2008

3d6: Intro

I’ve fallen in love recently with the original D&D convention of rolling characters using the straight 3d6 in order method. This might sound silly, me calling this a recent revelation, coming from someone who is supposedly a member of the Grognard club. Let me explain.

In the past, and when I say the past I mean ALL the way back to the late 70’s and early 80’s when I immersed myself in AD&D, me and my cronies always used the roll 4d6, drop the lowest method. AND, to top that off, we normally arranged those six scores however we pleased. The result? Pretty much every player character was superhuman in original D&D and real world terms. Now, I understand that in modern D&D, it is assumed that the player characters are indeed supposed to be superhuman. I don’t like it, I don’t buy it. I think pretty much everyone involved in my games appreciates the fallible hero theory, that true heroes are those that we as readers or players can relate to, who overcome the odds and along the way become heroes in their own right, regardless of shortcomings. Those very shortcomings that make them ultimately identifiable. I liken it to the approach Stan Lee used back in the early days of Marvel Comics. In the face of Superman and Batman, Stan Lee rewrote the way us teenagers read and appreciated comic book heroes. The Marvel heroes were fallible, and this stroke of genius made Marvel ten times better than DC, until DC latched onto this idea when the AWESOME Frank Miller changed sides and took on the Dark Knight series.

Anyway, I digress. I love the straight 3d6 in order method. Might my former AD&D crew of players shudder and scoff at these initial player ability scores? Yep. Although I have emailed each of them their personal 10 line stat block from which they will create their first 10 characters. The choice is theirs as to whether they will use that ‘best’ character immediately, or wait for a bit. They see the possible stats available to them, and I think they understand that this is not the D&D we played back in the early 80’s.

I’ve been trying to consider other ways that I might introduce the bell curve of 3d6 into my OD&D games. Cracking open what is still my fav-o-rite RPG resource ever, the Dungeon Masters Guide, I refer to page 9-10, DICE. It explains linear and bell probability curves. I’m no mathematician, so I always appreciated such user friendly articles by Mr. Gygax. In looking at the illustrated bell curve for rolling the ubiquitous 3d6, we can see that the most common outcome is 10.5, which is easy to ascertain as it is the average of 1d6 times three. The average of any die is the sum of it’s low and high range divided by two. Simple enough. Based on the fact that my readers are gaming veterans, there is probably no need for me to write this out, but there it is. 3.5 times 3 is 10.5. Got it.

The ultimately relevant point is the actual percentage chance of rolling, with 3d6, a natural 3 or 18. Now, the chart provided in the DMG simply shows this chance as something along the lines of "less than 1%”, and in looking at the chart, it appears to be around 0.50% chance (in fact it’s 0.46%) . Cool. The article then goes on to discuss the almost limitless possibilities of different combinations and applications of dice. Something I think that has been lost in modern D&D. The DM was empowered in this article with the knowledge of exactly how to use the dice as a tool to construct whatever possibility might be desired (something I am doing with my What Price Glory RTH method, which, by the way, is how my gaming group rolled to hit for decades. We just used a d6 instead of inking or using crayon in the days before there was a d10, and we used a d20).

The article ends thusly:

In closing this discussion, simply keep in mind that the dice are your tools. Learn to use them properly, and they will serve you well.
Let’s not loose sight of this little nugget of wisdom proffered by Gary. Thanks to the preceding article, we might move closer to learning to use them properly. I love the fact that this section of the DMG is truly in line with Gary’s preceding work in the OD&D LBB, that we, as DM’s and referees, SHOULD be exercising our knowledge of the dice.

Now, as I mentioned, I’ve never been a true numbers cruncher. I can grasp basic understandings and probabilities. If I am doing the math correctly, that chance to roll, naturally, an 18, with 3d6, should be 6 to the third power. That is, 1in6 chance for a 6, then a further 1in6 chance for another 6, then, a further 1in6 chance for a third 6. The dice do not perform in a simple 1in18 chance when used in conjunction, so, the chance of a natural 18 is therefore 1in216. We had 17’s and 18’s all over the place back in the day. It was almost to the point that if you didn’t have an 18, you were somehow ‘inferior’. There’s something wrong with that line of thinking.

And what do you get for such a feat in my Solstice campaign? Not much, unless that 18 is in Charisma, in which case you are able to have up to 12 Hirelings, each with a Loyalty Base of +4 (don‘t laugh, this is a HUGE modifier). Oh, and a cookie.

I love OD&D.

Supplement I, Greyhawk, went into depth in regard to rewarding such unusually high ability scores with various modifiers. Me, I enjoy the simple fact that in the original rules, there are three prime requisites and three character defining abilities, but that the game truly asks for the player to play, and not rely on these abstract numbers while controlling their characters. So, when a player in Solstice reaches the lofty experience level of 6, and looks back at a stat line of 9-13-7-11-8-10, he will know that it was HIM, not the character, that conquered the obstacles in Ulin Uthor.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


noisms said...

3d6 in order was always the way I used to play when I ran my solo (i.e. me as the DM and the player) games as a kid. It's always been my preferred method - the dice are the Gods and they'll give you the character they want, and you just have to deal with it. Like life, in fact!

Brian Murphy said...

I like the idea of 3d6 as well, and frankly, I like even more the role-playing opportunities this method of character generation creates. A 6 Dex cleric? Fun RP opportunity. A 7 int fighter? More good times.

My only complaint with it is that you have a good chance of geting stuck with a character that you might not want to play. For example, if you have in mind that you want to play a fighter but roll a 6 STR, you're out of luck (at least according to the rules of Basic D&D; I've heard OD&D places much less emphasis on ability scores).

Still, as long as your players know that this is the method of generation they'll be using going in, I think it's fine. And it would certainly be a refreshing change from the superpowered-character mentality that pervades many D&D games.


Visit moi's blog for the Glory Grog video.

Anonymous said...

For my AD&D game I've been using six sided dice to do ability score checks for actions outside the basic rules - I assign a certain number of dice (4, 5 or 6 depending on difficulty of action) everyone seems to like it except the half ogre with 6 dex. I think I found this method on the OD&D Discussion board. I like it a lot better than using a d20 for ability checks.

Sham aka Dave said...

Noisms: Mucho respect! I feel that folks who stayed the course all these years were indeed ahead of the curve, and visionaries. Odd as that might sound.

Brian: Indeed. It's hard to role play someone who is above average, or at worst, average, in all six abilities. As far as being 'stuck', aside from the lack of an experience bonus, a low PR isn't too hateful in OD&D. I do allow the (debated) OD&D swapping method, which does help in this regard. In addition, I give starting players in my campaign a 10 stat line block of characters from which to choose. There's a viable line for each of the three classes in each.

Tor: Cheers!

Ligedog: This is a good system for ability checks, and allows the referee to determine the relative difficulty on the fly. I've read about other referees using this type of system for OD&D, so I agree. Much better than the straight d20 system, imo.

Anonymous said...


Love this post (and your blog in general). I really must get back to the original rolling method in my own games. The idea of a 10 stat line block that you're using seems particularly inspired. Do you mind if another player pinches the idea?

Sham aka Dave said...


No need to ask! Please use any ideas I toss around here, that's why I share them.

Glad you like the blog.