Down with Point Buy and Dump Stats!

I hate the concept of the dump stat with the blazing passion of a thousand fiery suns. To me, it smacks of this new fangled concept of character design, min/maxing and our obsession with the game’s mechanical aspects.

Tumbling Dice by Justin D. Russell

 

I much prefer the old-fangled method of rolling dice to determine my character’s stats. True, rolling dice puts my fate in the hands of the capricious gods of chance. I might not get the stats I need to play the character I want to play. Such is life. I’ll struggle through.

And in any event, part of the joy of gaming is the creativity it sparks. Didn’t get the stats I wanted? Can’t play the character I’d planned? What shall I do? Deploy my creativity!

What I’m surprised at (outside organised play) is the rise of the point buy system. I get that people want to play the character they want to play. That’s human nature. But I think designing every aspect of your character ironically can actually stifle creativity.

I also think the rise of point buy is to do with min/maxing. Since D&D 3.0, it seems D&D (and Pathfinder) has moved toward being more of a skirmish game. We have become obsessed with making our characters as “hard” as possible. We forget they are actually people. If I see another clumsy cleric, ugly fighter or impressively weak wizard, I’ll scream!

How I Like to Do It

It’s pretty simple. Roll 4d6 and list the stats in the order rolled on the character sheet. Decide on a race and apply racial modifiers accordingly.

This method often creates an interesting mix of stats that forces me to be creative both in terms of the character’s mechanics and its history, personality and future development.

Bob the Wizard

To illustrate my point, here’s a Pathfinder character. I rolled the following stats:

  • 14, 18, 12, 15, 10, 9

That set of rolls screams rogue or wizard. Given I love playing spellcasters, I’m going with wizard. I shall call him Bob.

Behold, Bob if I assign the stats in the order I rolled them:

  • Bob #1: Str 14, Dex 18, Con 12, Int 17 (includes human’s +2 stat modifier), Wis 10, Cha 9

Now here’s Bob if I assign my rolls as I see fit:

  • Bob #2: Str 9, Dex 15, Con 14, Int 20 (includes human’s +2 stat modifier), Wis 12, Cha 10

Sure, the second version is “better” in that I’ve got higher modifiers in the stats that are important for a wizard. However, I’d argue (voraciously and at great length) that the first character (the “sub-optimal” one) looks more interesting. Blimey—Bob’s a strong, dextrous fellow! Why? That simple question forces me to think about his background, upbringing and proclivities. If Bob is better “qualified” to be a rogue, why didn’t he go down that route instead?

As I ponder these questions, Bob becomes more than a set of statistics; I’m beginning to see him as a person and not just a killing machine. Elements of his background might already be emerging in my fevered brain. Already, he is beginning to become more distinct than the last wizard I ran.

In this particularly instance (where for me I rolled insanely well—typically there was no one around to witness the actual rolls) I also get some unexpected benefits. Turns out, Bob is pretty good with ranged weapons and can hit pretty hard if he must. He can even carry more in his backpack than his spellbook! Perhaps I’ll even multi-class if his experiences warrant it. We’ll see.

Compromise Method

If you like this in no way revolutionary idea, but really want a bit of flexibility, here’s a compromise. Roll the stats and assign them in the order you rolled. Then, swap one pair. This gives us a slightly different version of Bob:

  • Bob #3: Str 14, Dex 15, Con 12, Int 20 (includes human’s +2 stat modifier), Wis 10, Cha 9

As you can see, I elected to swap Dexterity and Intelligence. He’s still dextrous and strong, but now he’s a mental colossus!

(This compromise method also helps the creation of the so-called balanced party, which is rather handy for D&D and Pathfinder groups and enables players who absolutely must play a certain class to fulfil their dark desire).

The Final Word

While Bob #1 may be less great at casting spells than his designed alter-ego he is already more distinct to me. And, if he’s already more distinct to me—and assuming I roleplay—he’ll be more memorable and fun to play at the table.

To me, that’s the point of the game.

Let me know what you think, in the comments below. (And if you want to read the counter argument, check out Stephen Radney-Macfarland’s counter argument).

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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32 thoughts on “Down with Point Buy and Dump Stats!

  1. I like best 3 of 4d6, 6 times, assignas you like. I generally have an idea of the sort of character I feel like playing, Like last time I was creating a replacement character so want to fill roughly the same role. Five moderate rolls (9,9,9,13,14 (not in that order)) then on the last roll 18 😀

  2. I’ve been letting my player’s choose how to roll stats. I set the rule of 4d6, pick best 3 dice, roll either 6 or 7 stats. If 6 stats, then the player gets to rearrange them how they want, dump-stat rules essentially. If 7, then the player has to take the first 6 how they fall, and they can switch out any one of the 6 stats, for the 7th

  3. 50/50. For the right players in the right group, sure. And you make an excellent point about creativity and inspired character design resulting from the randomness.

    However I DM for several groups often with a mix of role-playing experience and ability. If someone rolls generally pretty good or even 2 really good stats, they can be unbalanced. Especially if they’re sort of a power gamer cause they know how to take advantage of it. Conversely, if your rolls are total butt, even if you role play great, you might find you’re not as good at your own specialty as the person who just rolled better and it can marginalize your roll in the party.

    If you can roll with it, great! But some of my players are playing tabletop for the first time. And newbies can be, and have been, very sensitive to being outshone. They don’t have the role playing chops to handle bad rolls or even very good ones if they find they can steam roll without ever learning to strategize or cooperate.

    So yeah, I do point buy/standard array because I like people to have a strength they can lean on and necessarily a weakness they have to cover or rely on others for. I find that the role playing and creativity is made up for by discussing character flaws at character creation and requiring that every character have a couple. That, and a variety of challenges that maybe slightly punishes the character every once in a while for dumping something or rewarding them for having a good stat atypical for their class.

    For new players or mixed groups, I feel like rolling can lead to unbalanced play which can lead to unbalanced roll play.

    But for the right group, the 18 str, 15 int wizard has the potential to be a fantastic character.

  4. The problem I have with rolling is I generally end up with stuff like 14,10,10,9,11,12 which doesn’t fill me with much excitement, but which then turns into irritation when everybody else gets 17,17,12,9,14,14 or similar.

    We had some success at one point with just getting one person to roll the ability scores, which then apply to everyone (arranged as they liked),

    Nowadays it seems like 20 point buy is the minimum most players will accept and there is a distressing trend of characters with stats (after racial adjustments) of 20,16,10,7,7,5 or some similar abomination.

    • I feel your pain. I’ve actually rolled illegal characters before; that’s how bad my d6 skills are!

      I totally agree with your point about the 20, 16 etc. character. That’s beyond one-dimensional.

    • So much this. I have the exact same problem rolling stats. Although I’m lucky if I rolled that high. (I never play a spellcaster because minimum fireball damage sucks.) And all I get are laughs and jeers from the rest of the table that I just need to accept my lot in life. It sucks so very much.

      20 pt buy is the minimum I like because it’s what you get used to with PFS, and it’s more survivable vs dick GMs than 10 pts. Just rule you’re not allowed dump stats. Simple.

  5. Depends on how I’m feeling, if I know what I want to roll I’ll assign stats. If I don’t know what to play I’ll place the stats as rolled and choose a class. Then sometimes I place as rolled, then create a way to roll for class (and sometimes race too). Some of the best games are the ones where you have a low-ish intelligence wizard that you multiclass into something else. I find sometimes you need some limitations to be most creative.

    Ultimately I never point buy. No fun.

  6. I started implementing point buy in my campaigns for the opposite reason – not to allow characters to optimize (as I adhere to a fairly low point total), but to keep the party from resenting each other’s stats.

    This began after I played under a “3d6 straight down” style DM, and the characters were fucked. Most notably the the druid with no score higher than a 12 and the wizard with five 18s.

    Do I miss the random chance of rolling? Sure. But its more important to me that my players feel like they’re starting on more or less equal footing.

  7. Ever since the rise of 3.x D&D, the curve for stat bonuses has been “fixed”. The oriiginal reason so many groups used 4d6+drop was because in AD&D the stats only give bonuses starting around 15, and give penalties around 8. This meant that an “above average Joe” with all 13s would be indistinguishable from a truly “average Joe” with all 11s. This trend caught on and became codified in 2nd Edition AD&D.

    When they reset the bonus curve in 3.x, I had to wean players off of the 4d6 system, because characters with artificially high stats were throwing the game play off. A character generated with the 4d6+drop method made them artificially 1-2 levels higher than their “average” counterparts.

    The method I have been using, and continue to use into 5th Edition is the following:
    Roll 3d6, arrange as desired.
    Add all of the stat bonuses, both positive and negative, together.
    If the net modifier is not at least ‘+1’ or higher, the player may trash the character and reroll – heroes are always a bit above average.

    Examples:
    Rolls are 11, 12, 10, 8, 14, 13. Bonuses are 0+1+0-1+2+1 = +3. You must keep this roll.
    Rolls are 7, 7, 11, 18, 10, 10. Bonuses are -2-2+4+0+0 = 0. You can keep that 18 if you want, but you have to accept all of the rolls. Otherwise, start over rolling.

    Whatever method you use, just keep in mind that the 4d6+drop system is a stop-gap fix used to help players out that were getting frustrated with the steep bonus curves in AD&D. The authors pointed out that not all characters should have bonuses, and that having a bonus was supposed to be exceptional. But the landscape of gaming being what it is, those statements were ignored.

  8. I agree with you on this, however It would seem that a few of the folks I game with can’t be trusted. Every time they roll for there stats they seem to always roll at least two 18s and never get anything below a 13. (Admittedly, one friend was convinced that the rules as stated in the players was if you get a number below 13 re-roll that stat. And told other newer players to do the same.) So whenever I DM I have everybody use the point buy system just to level the playing field, and I can double-check their math without being so obvious that I simply don’t trust my friend.

    • As a group we agree how we are going to roll stats and then roll them at the table together. It keeps us all honest (and everyone can laugh at me when I end up with terrible rolls). The last bit–particularly–keeps everyone else happy.

  9. I see the beauty of what your saying but I have had to rely on point buy for about 14 years dues to the fudged roles and players always complaining about the guy who rolled “good enough to have a 2nd edition Paladin”. In my defense it seems to force my players to actually role play their stats more, but the min/max thing does limit your options because most players have repetitive character builds. I do miss rolling for the stats though.

  10. When I run D&D/PF, I let the players generate their character stats by whatever method they like. I want them to have a character they will enjoy playing.

    • Sean I’m intrigued by this. Do you let players use different results at the same table or do you all decide how you’ll roll characters for that particular adventure or campaign?

      • I do the same. I haven’t found too much of a problem. If there are huge gulf between characters, I make sure the weaker one finds a magic item that makes him or her competitive early on. The other thing I do is sometimes cross out a player’s roll and write a higher number on their character sheet to make them competitive. Remember, it’s just a game and these people are choosing to spend hours of their life with you. Anything that supports group fun is fine by me. Making sure someone has a 15 or 16 in their prime stat isn’t game breaking and it definitely makes it more fun for the players. The designers assume you have a +2 or +3 in your prime stat to start.

  11. I’m not a fan of the 4d6 drop method because it results in a lot of 11-13 rolls, and maybe a few greater than that. I don’t like my character being above average at everything. The min of min/maxing has some appeal to me in terms of role playing. However, I do get where you are coming from. The benefit of 5e is that stats don’t matter quite as much.

  12. Personally, I don’t use dump stats because I want my character to be able to function in the adventuring world. None of the intellectual stats makes a safe dump stat, only an idiot dumps Constitution, and when an Athletics or Acrobatics check might happen at any moment in a dungeon, that rules out all your stats.

    But I do like point-buy. For me, the best challenges in playing a character come from playing against type (say, a Mountain Dwarf bard or a Dex-based Tabaxi cleric), or from dedicated roleplaying. When I sit down to play a character, I try to become that character – an experience that no amount of min-maxing can replicate. I use point-buy because I want to challenge myself with intelligent, creative tasks, not a random act of chance.

  13. I’ve watched from the sidelines as people complain about low scores.
    “Low scores” in this case being what the rest of the world calls “average.”
    You have a fighter who only has a 12 in strength? Yep, not the best, but that doesn’t mean your character is bound for the charnel wagon. It means you’ve got a challenge, and we play this game to overcome challenges, not to engage in some silly power-fantasy where we get to be amoral super-heroes collecting gold and magic.

    I get that a lot of people want to play amoral super-heroes, and I’m waiting for someone to just come out and admit that they want to put “18s” in all their stats. After all, that’s what it really comes down to. “I don’t want to be not-great at something.”

    It’s one more reason I like old-school games. In fact, I’m tempted to go zero-edition old-school – where the bonus is +1 if you have a high ability score. That’s it. You want to live to enjoy all that gold? Then you better play smart. There’s a reason 10-ft poles exist, and they’re to keep your amoral treasure-hunter alive until he gets back to the village to spend his ill-gotten gains.

    Much as in real-life, the fate of your character should be based upon the decisions you make, not an algorithm of (IQ * how much I can bench-press/personal magnetism).

  14. No point buy allowed at my table. None.

    Our experience has shown that Point Buy is a far easier system to ‘game’ than rolling 3d6 in order. And of course, some players being able to game the system better than others is just as prone to imbalance and hurt feelings as better role playing ability.

    Also, as the DM, I reserve the right to tell someone they can roll a second set of stats if the first is truly horrible.

    Does this result in an uneven RP group? Sometimes, but we deal with it. Do some players not have the ‘chops’ for the role playing? Sure, some new players joining have lacked this. But we work hard to encourage it as a group, and I give big rewards for RP. People learn surprisingly fast if you immerse them in the situation.

    Other systems we have experimented with are:

    -Every player gets one 15 stat to place in their desired ability first and then they fill in the rest with 3d6 rolled in order. If they happen to roll an 18, they are stuck with it in its place. This once resulted in an Illusionist, Blackstone, with an 18 Constitution and a 15 intelligence. He also turned out to be a much beloved PC, one we still talk about today (he was 3rd edition).

    -roll 4d6, reroll all ‘1’s and then drop the lowest, keep in order and see what you can play: This was our old 2nd edition system and seemed to make players the happiest of all systems we’ve used. For what it’s worth, I miss prerequisite ability scores from the earlier editions. True creativity, in my experience, comes from the imposition of boundaries, not the removal of them.

    Finally, all stats are rolled as a group with the same dice (my old, blue d6’s). Always. We go around the table and put the numbers up on our dry erase easel. While your character is yours and can be as secret as you want, we all start with stats rolled openly. This stemmed from a very untrustworthy player who no longer games with us but the procedure became tradition. I don’t understand why players and DM’s tolerate those stats rolled outside of everyone else’s presence and (miracle of miracles !!!) someone comes in with multiple 18’s and 20’s right at first level. Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely?

    Um, yeah: Not quite

  15. Points buy systems force stereotypical characters optimised to the profession, which if you get your kicks out of beating the system is great, but why roleplay? I don’t mind the odd stat tweak in exceptional circumstance, but I really like playing with the idea that what you roll is what you get. Life doesn’t give you a chance of a genetic tweak because you want to be a high level sportsman or grandmaster at chess. Like most walks of life, adventuring must be littered with the wannabes, cast-offs and didn’t-quite-make-its (alive or dead). So why not pick up the baton of the less-able and figure out how they might manage to survive nightmare scenarios at least for long enough to weave themselves into the group folk-lore. You never know they might acquire enough skills to make a decent reputation for themselves.

  16. Great article. This is one of the reasons I went to DCC. I enjoyed a conversation between two of my players with pregenerated characters (using 3d6 down the line) the fighter was tickled that his intelegance was so high , that’s when the wizard pointed out his strength was higher than the Warriors. It’s a breath of fresh air.

  17. No.

    Point buy let’s me make the character I want, and I pick the trade offs.

    Seriously, we spent 2+ decades getting rid of the only option being random stats. Let’s not devolve.

  18. Point buy is fine if you are the kind of gamer who comes to the table with a fully fleshed-out character concept in mind already. If you’ve already spent hours (or days) in the head-space of Bob the Wizard, you are going to be really disappointed when you have to roll stats and end up with an INT of 9.

    On the other hand, if you have no concept at all of your character going into the game, random stats are a perfect way to kick-start your character concept. You might have a surprisingly intelligent Fighter and that informs your character concept, but if you had been doing point-buy, all the Fighters would look pretty much the same.

    So it really depends on whether you have a character concept in mind already or not. Both are valid approaches and appeal to different kinds of gamers.

  19. Creighton has some great points in this article. Rolling was how it was done when I started back in the age of dinosaurs. I did point buy in my homebrew, but, did some tweaking. If I had it to do all over again, I would have had everyone roll instead, then switch 2 of the rolls. When we now create a new player we design it around what we want to be, not what fate hands us. Yes, there is still some creativity, but, we always seem to end up with the character we want, never ever what we were fated with by the die rolls. Like he states, our created PC is a person as well. On the other side of the coin, when we are born, we have years to develop ourselves to be the person we want to be. So, with this in the mix, maybe point buy is a valid way as well. Anyway, what do you, my friends, think? Just a few of my thoughts.

  20. “But I think designing every aspect of your character ironically can actually stifle creativity.”

    I always found not getting to build a character like you want to actually stifle creativity myself. On top of that it seemed to stifle quite a bit of the fun as well.

  21. OK, so “choosing to put low numbers via point buy in an area that is not important to my character” is bad, but “rolling and getting numbers where I might actually have to put a worse number in that same stat because of simple bad luck” is somehow good for roleplaying? Pass. Like dial phones, rolling up stats was fine in its day, but we have better ways of doing things now. If you want a quirky character with stats that aren’t straight out min-maxed, then build him/her that way. Nothing’s stopping you other than perhaps other party members getting irritated that you’re making it tougher on the rest of the group.

    • I’m not sure I’d want to play with people who felt they could dictate to me how I build my character. (And I’d never dictate to someone else how they build there PC-I’ve seen people constantly criticise other people’s builds and they come across as nothing but jerks)

      Sometimes people make suboptimal choices because they want to; that’s cool with me. A wise GM knows the group and builds/modifies challenges for them. For example, in a recent campaign I ran one of the players is a great role-player, but not great when it comes to the actual tactics of playing the game. I kept this in mind when creating encounters so as not to “penalise” him (or the rest of the group) for him playing the way he wanted to play. I think that’s the duty of any half-competent GM!