Last week my dear friend and brilliant designer Creighton Broadhurst unleashed a diatribe against the point-buy method of generation of ability scores and min-maxing. I’m here to tell you he is dead wrong. And I believe I can prove it.
March of History
The generation of ability scores has a fascinating history that slowly creeps toward choice rather than randomization. Consider the first method to determine ability scores found in Men and Magic, starting on page 10. It’s a straight 3d6 in order, let the chips fall where they may. And comparatively, you didn’t get much from your ability scores, except prime requisite scores, Constitution, and Dexterity, what a high ability score meant was almost only descriptive and sometimes incredibly vague. Take for example one of the “benefits” of having a high Intelligence or Wisdom.
“[The ability score]…will also affect referees’ decisions as to whether or not certain actions would be taken.” (Men and Magic page 10)
The remainder of the history of the game is a steady march toward ability score definition and blunting the effect of randomization in their generation. Greyhawk and Eldritch Wizardry gave more for abilities to do, and as early as the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (and likely even earlier in Dragon Magazine) many and much more lenient ability score generation methods saw print. Creighton’s favored method is a more stringent version Method I in that book, which is the least lenient method presented in that tome. Why did Gygax abandon the first, more stringent method, still used in the D&D game? He offers this explanation:
“While it is possible to generate some fairly playable characters by rolling 3d6, there is often an extended period of attempts at finding a suitable one due to the quirks of the dice. Furthermore, these rather marginal characters tend to have a short life expectancy – which tends to discourage new players.” (AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide page 11)
The first systems have a hard time just making viable characters, and softening the curve when it comes to the random generation of ability scores is only progress of a kind. While it is less likely to create a truly crap character, it is indeed possible to do so. On the other end of the spectrum, it is possible to create very over powered characters, which I think is at the heart of all nostalgia to roll for ability scores. It’s the gambler’s dream. This time I’ll win big, but it is more likely to live with disappointment, mediocrity, or mere contentment. Its harsh reality is the day-to-day malaise of the casino: big winners are a rarity, and long-term winning comes only in a lifetime of dwarfed peaks and shallow valleys. Creighton even expresses such doldrums with the following statements:
“I might not get the stats I need to play the character I want to play. Such is life. I’ll struggle through.”
Instead, my worthy opponent has contented himself not with the character he wants to play, but one that he now intends to play because he is forced to by the “capricious gods of chance.” And like some shrill parent imploring us to eat our blanched and limp boiled cabbage. But like those parents just attempting to inject some scant amount of vitamins in our system, Creighton has reasons that he thinks are good for us, but all of them talk about the creativity of absence rather than the creativity of options. While it is true that creativity can be given a nudge though limitation or randomness, those should be exercises rather than the main impetus.
Creighton then argues that you should place the ability scores in the order that you rolled. His scheme is Method I from the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide without the flexibility of putting the scores where you wish toward the end of reducing min-maxing, but many players will just make an elf rogue instead, and min-max without the satisfaction of creating the character they originally wanted to play. He says this in an effort of destroying the hated min-maxing in the game and forsaking the love of the mechanical parts of the game, but good luck with this. As with life, it’s within everyone’s self-interest to capitalize on what we do well and to avoid what we do least well or find some way to shore up those weaknesses. In short, he is asking players to go against their gut toward the ends of creating a “real person.”
Of course, when creating a fantasy RPG character, we are not creating a real person. We are creating a hero in a story that is larger than life. Min-maxing is a way to do this. You create a hero that achieves great heights and possesses a set of weaknesses by comparison. From Homer to Martin, this is the formula of the genre.
But enough of merely bludgeoning my friend’s arguments. It’s easy enough to tear something down, but that should not be a genuine test of my argument. My argument is that point-buy is the best method for the game in general, and while I have softened the contrary opinion, I have not yet argued that point.
First off, Gygax in his opening before unveiling a host of rather liberal generation methods in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide provides one argument for leniency while determining ability scores. Imagine yourself as a ripe youth, playing your first game of D&D. You follow the rules outlined in Men and Magic, or either of the Basic Sets (up to Mentzer’s Red Box) chances are you’re going to roll an abysmal character. Not only that, when you realize that, you’re going to roll again. It’s a trick that more experience players have figured out, and roll with relish. After all, none of the rules say you have to play the first character that you roll, and even the more liberal AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide methods seem to embrace and put limits on such practices. Eventually, you’re going to get a character you’re happy with, and it’s going to have over average scores. Even Mentzer’s Red Box embraces this to a lesser extent, instructing you to reroll any character with a high score of less than 9 or one that has two scores less than 6.
These games have depth and can seem and often are quite intimidating at first blush. The new player is going to do a lot of things “wrong” be the mistakes are real or imagined by the crunch monkeys. Starting out with either substandard or meh stats is the wrong way to go. If anything, you would want to give new players above average stats. Consider it a handicap of sorts.
Why is this important? First impressions are important. RPGs are about fun, and the less fun you have your first time, the less likely they’re not going to come back. I know RPGs can be a cliquish tribe, and some folks out there are saying something akin to, “good, we don’t want those mouth-breathers playing,” but shut the hell up. Games, especially RPGs create fun. They are not nor should they be treated like some elitist country club. Some folks may not find them their cup of tea, but we should never passive-aggressively kill enthusiasm.
I submit that, short of using some handicap scheme for new players, a point buy method with clear guidance to the new player is a better way to go toward that goal.
My second reason may seem a bit more obscure but is near and dear to my heart. Over the design of 5th Edition D&D, you heard a lot about bound accuracy. There’s a good argument that in 3.5, 4.0, and Pathfinder as a character reaches higher levels, accuracy gets very swingy. The problems start to manifest as low as 3rd level and get worse with each level. This has everything to do with the bonus economy in the game and a lack of good design principles on the game’s back-end. While there are many factors to the issue, one of the main issues involves the core percentage spread intrinsic to ability scores and the fact that your highest one will continue to rise, and your lower stats stay stagnant. The 5th Edition’s solution is shallowing the spread of bonuses outside the ability scores and to throw magic items to the wind and submit their balance is DM’s job.
Believe it or not, point-buy methods help to reduce this problem. Given that most point buy systems start at the average and add points to it, it shallows percentage divides coming from Ability scores. You may find that “unrealistic,” but I’ll counter that realism and RPGs don’t mix well. Don’t we get enough realism in our life? It’s heroic fantasy for [censored] sake.
Which brings me to my last point: fantasy games are escapism. We escape our normal bounds and play a hero or villain that might be somewhat similar to us in personality, but is capable of things that we are not. Creighton’s argument boils down to if you can’t have the one you love, love the one you’re forced to be with. This argument is nothing more than the grumblings of a grognard shaking his fists at the kids for not walking to school in the pouring rain and driving rain because the school buses saw invention and implementation.
It’s obvious that the momentum is moving in the opposite direction of Creighton’s desires and has been for about 30 or so years.
Path to the (Far) Future
This summer sees the release of Starfinder, a new RPG that takes the Pathfinder franchise into the realms of science fantasy. In that book, the main method for generating stats is point-buy with optional rules for rolling presented as a variant. But the point-buy method used in that game takes another shot at solving the problems that the divergence of ability scores causes at higher levels, but you are going to have to wait until this summer to see how.
Time will tell, but I think as these games progress we’ll all find that this is the best way to create the character that you want to play and flex your RPG creativity to new and greater heights.
A Note From Creighton
Thanks very much to Stephen for taking the time to putting the counter argument. As always, a thought provoking read from my yank chum.
But what do you think? Let us both know, in the comments below!