Change in attitude regarding ability scores throughout different editions…

Posted on May 5, 2009 by


While I seem to be an unabashed fan of 4th Ed., the truth of the matter is that I am probably  more of  a  fan of  the game I happen to be playing at the time.  Right now, it’s 4th Ed.  I like it.  I’m into it because it lets me roll dice with my buddies and have a good time.  The point of any game, I think.   Are there things that I don’t like about it?  Sure there are.  Let’s talk about one:  The way it treats ability scores.

In the quest for game balance zen, the designers chose to implement a system to generate ability scores very different from previous editions of the game, esentially killing off one of the sacred cows of character creation for my friends and I, the rolling of the dreaded 4d6, dropping the lowest die.  Instead we got some crap we just ignored, and continued rolling.  Good for us.  The point of this, it’s my wild guess, was to ensure a balance accross the table for all the PC’s in the game.  It ensures equal chances of success for all the characters in the party.   I say a loud MEH! to that, Mr. and Mrs. Game Designers.

The day of a dopey dwarf with an 8 INT, 8 WIS, and 9 STR are gone, unless you houserule him in.

The day of a dopey dwarf with an 8 INT, 8 WIS, and 9 STR are gone, unless you houserule him in.

Back in the day, the game rules encouraged players to hold on to characters that were not given a good chance at survival, based on their initial stats, and even went as far as calling them “fun and interesting to play.”  Of course, today’s min/maxers will take that crappy guy and hit re-roll on their automatic character generator, thereby deniying themselves the opportunity to flesh out a great story-arc of survival and zero-to-hero adventures for their character.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, ultimately you play the guy you want to play.

Unfortunately, the game today does nothing to foster that type of relationship between player and character.  In fact, the game now encourages abortion in the first trimester of character creation if the scores are pathetic, describing characters with low scores as “virtually unplayable” (pg. 18, PHB 4th Ed), and asking the player to be mindful of strengths as compared to other characters.  What is this?  A clone army?

The Players Handbook of the 2nd Ed. of the game, written by David Cook, takes an entirely different approach, and in my opinion the correct of the two.  It takes a sample character with bad ability scores, and through personality alone, shows the reader how he could be made a worthwhile character.

“Although Rath is on good health (Con 13), he’s not very strong (Str 8) because he’s just plain lazy-he never wanted to exercise as a youth and now it’s too late.  His low Wisom and Charisma scores (7, 6) show that he lacks the common sense to apply himself properly and projects a slothful, ‘I’m not going to bother’ attitude (which tends to irritate others).  Fortunately, Rath’s natural wit (Int 13) and Dexterity (14) keep him from being a total loss.  Thus you might play Rath as an irritating, smart alecky twerp forever ducking out of range of those who want to squash him.”

Rath is given a chance in 2nd. Ed., while he’s aborted before birth in 4th.  Not a good way to introduce new players of the game to the concept of roleplaying I think, huh designers?

So there, while I love me some 4th Ed. goodness for its ease of preparation, nicely laid out monster stats, and quick and easy encounter creation, I can also find its flaws.  And this attitude regarding the initial abilities, versus previous editions, is certainly a big one.

So what can you do, DM’s looking to encourage both roleplaying and interesting characters in your party?  Well, for startes disregard the advice given in the PHB about low ability scores.  If a party isn’t balanced then so be it.  Life isn’t balanced.  The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t balanced.  Too bad.  Roleplay it out.  Why is Belgar’s Dex so low?  He walks with a limp since birth, as he was born with a bad leg.  What’s up with Rungar’s extremely high Charisma?  The dude looks like a medieval Brad Pitt and women love him while men want to be him.

Roleplay it out.  Have fun.  Abortion kills potentially interesting characters.

Random plot hook of the day:  A young  apprentice to a local wizard accidentally ventured into an ogre cave, and in his rush to run out, dropped his magic book.  Now, the ogre shaman is attempting to read the book, and in his gibberish he is setting off all sorts of stupid spells, causing minor disturbances to the nearby town.  He already turned a farmers’  wandering dog into a half dog-goat thing.  Hurry, find that spell book!