"How can I avoid problems that arise from rolling ability scores?"Rolling ability scores is a time-honored tradition across many editions of D&D. However, it can sometimes cause problems for players and/or the DM. For example, one player character may end up much weaker or much stronger than the rest of the party, which can result in a poor experience for some of the players. In other cases, a player may have their characters repeatedly commit suicide-by-monster so they can try to reroll for higher stats, which can be quite frustrating for the GM and other players."What approaches are available to mitigate these problems?"Note: Answers should ideally be able to prevent both the "Joe rolled all 7s, and his character is useless" problem and the "Karen rolled all 18s and her character makes everyone else's character useless" problem. That is, an answer that only avoids very low average/total scores is not as good as one that avoids both very low and very high average/total scores."
I don't answer these questions on the site, any more than I normally answer questions on Reddit or any bulletin board ~ because these discussions invariably devolve into baiting questions or whataboutisms. There is an answer to the above question; and it begins with first understanding what's being described.
The "problem" is that the DM, the game as it is played, the usual expectations created by company modules and contest events, perceive that a character with very high ability stats is a "superior" character, as compared to those with average stats ~ and that one with very low stats is, predictably, "inferior." And this is true, (A) if the DM runs a game that includes a high number of success/fail rolls based on the character's ability stats; (B) if the game itself focuses excessively (more than ordinary) upon bonus/penalty modifiers to those stats to determine success; (C) if the modules being played prepare the DM to focus exclusively on both (a) and (b); and (D) if the mass event includes a feature that rewards "play" based upon the party's success in completing the official module being presented.
If you build the game specifically that way, where every decision being made by the player is followed by the DM saying, "roll to see if you succeed," then obviously we should expect that players able to consistently roll against 17s and 18s will perform fantastically better than those who must consistently roll against 12s and 13s. If I ask you to play craps, where the rules at the table apply to everyone the same except you ~ because, for you, a 3, 6 and 9 are automatic losers ~ then, yeah, you're going to resent how the game is tipped in favour of those who can roll a 6 without losing all their chips.
I should think most of my readers already know that 5th Edition has been nerfed so hard that this problem was managed by getting rid of players rolling for their character stats. Essentially, the game writers found the imbalance so insurmountable ~ as told by the game's general audience, who were asked for their input ~ that their only "for sure" correction had to be that every character's stats had to be perfectly balanced with every other player. After all, equality is the highest virtue. We need equality to settle, once and for all, the right of every player to feel effective and useful when the game is played.
Those of you playing 5th Edition: experiencing a lot of equality at the game table?
All that's happened, of course, is that ability stats have become less of a go-to excuse to complain about the lack of fairness that persons feel when something (like the die) goes against them. But as humans, we don't need ability stats. We can always find something.
That is because, as humans, we are not equals. Most of us expect this, accept it and, by the time we cease to be children, move past it. I'll prove it. I think it's safe to say that if Ken Griffey Jr. showed up at our company softball game, we'd be glad to meet him, to shake his hand and to let him play. Obviously, we'd want him on our team ... but we'd also realize that if he were playing, the score on either side wouldn't mean much, as it would depend mostly on how seriously Griffey played. But here's the thing: in D&D, there is no other team. There is ONLY our team. The DM isn't a "team." If we sat down to play with the "Ken Griffey of D&D," it ought to be pretty obvious from the start that it wouldn't matter what character class he played or what his stats were ... and it wouldn't matter if our stats were higher than his. He's going to out-think us, out-innovate us, be six jumps ahead of the DM ~ and he'll be funny, clever, charismatic, encouraging, supportive and an all-around helluva guy; because he'll get, like the best players in the game, that while there might be some rivalry between party members, we're not competing against each other to see who "wins." No one wins. We all win. Winning is not what the game is about. And those who carp and moan about, or lord their lucky rolls over the ability stats of their fellow party members are having bigger problems with their personality than that they need to win at a game without a winning line.
I want to emphasize that many DMs and the public social culture behind D&D push this winning narrative ~ by pressuring us to laugh at players who experience bad luck, or to stand up and scream at the DM upon rolling a 20, "In your FACE!" And like behaviour that suggests that other players are a personal threat to our comfort and that the DM is the embodiment of the game's persecution of players. The player who feels they've "got it made" because they've rolled high ability stats demonstrates that we're emphasizing the wrong things in game play. D&D isn't craps. It isn't strictly about rolling dice. It is about setting oneself and one's party up so that when the dice are rolled, we've prepared for bad luck. We've thought this through and made contingency plans ... and none of us need high stats to make those plans. None of us should think that high stats will guarantee that a plan works. And all of us should know that, inevitably, with experience and more levels, those stats are going to mean less and less compared to the battle ready creativity we can bring to any situation. We're all going to gather more power as we go, according to our real life efforts, smarts, bravery, good sense and willingness to take bad luck into account.
And yet despite that, despite the personal experience hundreds of thousands of players have had trying to solve puzzles or survive against enemies without the wisdom to run when a TPK threatened ... we still think that ability stats are a "problem" because some people will get more and others will get less. These same people who should have realized that Karen with all her 18s can't be everywhere, and that obviously she is not a one-person army, and that she is bound to draw the greatest amount of direct attacks once she begins to kick ass in a general melee, so that the rest of us are plainly not "useless." Not everyone on Ken Griffey's team is Ken Griffey ... he's going to need someone at 1st base to throw to. Granted, at 50 years of age it's possible he can pitch well enough to stop us from ever getting a hit (he's an outfielder), and we'd probably never get him out, but that's beside the point. If I do catch hold of a pitch, that ball is going way over his head. My point is that he can't be everywhere; no one can. Karen isn't going to solve every puzzle, she needs to be healed occasionally (speaking of editions where healing isn't a stupidly easy nerfed thing), she can't fly, she can't breathe under water, she's only one person. The rest of us are only "useless" if we choose to view the game as a competitive pissing contest ... which it isn't, because if Karen kills half the enemy, we all move ahead. Not just Karen. If Ken Griffey Jr. hits a home run and wins the game, the whole team wins. Not just him.
If Joe throws all 7s ...
[never seen that, but yeah, could happen; never seen all 18s, either, but using 4d6 to roll stats makes rolling an 18 almost as easy as rolling a 7 ... but I digress]
If Joe throws all 7s, then suicides by monster over and over, the "frustration" should absolutely be addressed. That is, Joe's frustration, not that of the DM and the other players. Clearly, if Joe is suiciding by monster, Joe has reason to think that if he doesn't have a character with higher stats, he isn't going to be useful, it is because the game is making Joe with his all 7s feel useless. I am more apt to believe that this opinion of Joe's is not coming from Joe ~ and I am just as inclined to believe that everyone else INSISTS that it comes from Joe. In other words, that Joe's dissatisfaction is more likely to be ignored and belittled, and that he is bound to be further humiliated for having the poor taste to roll poor numbers, than that Joe is spoilsport. Given the emphasis that DMs and players DO put on high numbers, and the game balance described above that forces every player decision to become a success/fail roll, Joe has every right to protest and throw the game in the face of his peers.
Either Joe should have the right to re-roll his character, to obtain an accepted minimum (which I do, partly because I have had Joes in my campaign who have been hurt and cannot reconcile themselves with poor rolls, no matter what my campaign awards), or else Joe needs to feel that his numbers aren't really that important. This requires that everyone at the table feel the same way. Including the DM. But it is ridiculous to create a game where Karen's high stats are viewed as making everyone else feel useless, only to then turn around and disparage Joe for not sucking it up and playing his crappy, extra-useless character. There is something broken here, and it isn't just the game.
Beyond the structure of roll-heavy game designs (and fracturingly competitive game designs), and beyond the win/mock sentiment of game pissing contests, I put the third blame on game campaigns that demand the one player/one character model in game play. Why shouldn't Karen also have a second character who does not have all 18s? And why shouldn't Joe also have a second character who does not have all 7s? Why can't players manage multiple players all living at the same time, allowing parties the freedom to exchange, mix and match different character combinations to different adventures ... so that in this adventure, Karen's second is standing side-by-side with Joe's prime, and in the next adventure Karen is taking on the roll of protecting Joe, giving Joe a chance to prepare, harass the enemy verbally and most of all survive until those ability stats matter less and less in the face of Joe's other gained abilities? Must we forever look at this game like children in a bus with square wheels? Can we never look at what's really going on, and reconcile predictable human behaviour with the way we deliberately design games to be confrontational and abusive?
It is really not that hard to change our positions on these things.