Wednesday, March 17, 2010

3d6 in order

At the heart of my interest in the old-school-renaissance is the concept of characters rolled with 3d6 in order. There is a freedom in the surrendering to the whims of fate that 3d6 in order brings, letting the dice fall where they may, and imagining the hell out of it from that starting point.

When I was young and played 2nd edition AD&D, our Silver Age assumptions and diet of high fantasy led us to the assumption that a character rolled with 3d6-in-order was not going to be the legendary hero who would save the world from the evil threat while looking impressive and competent and cool.

Our assumption was that our characters and our adventures were going to resemble the models set out for us in those execrable TSR novels and the images that illustrated our game and the Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta posters that adorned our walls. There was a powerful force at play in the world we inhabited that declared "your characters must be brawny and lithe and attractive and well-liked". In order that our characters in some way resembled those icons of our culture we used various other means of generating ability scores. I seem to remeber the 2e PHB having a bunch of them, each more twinky than the last. I believe we were prone to using the twinkiest of all. It was a rare fighter indeed who didn't have percentile strength (what an odd conceit that was, it made sense back in the day, I guess).

The aesthetic style, then, dictates to some extent the mechanics of the game. This can be seen very clearly in the relationship between the imagery and the mechanics of later versions of the game. Illustrated characters all have that suave insouciance one sees in contemporary action films, where the protagonists strut and pose their way through hyper-stylised violent acts without apparent moral consequence. 4e chit-chat on the web centres around the construction of mechanically efficient characters, like in the pictures, like in the movies - characters whose stats make them hyper-capable machines.

3d6-in-order transports you into an entirely different world. Characters are not, can not be, emulations of gym-sculpted model-turned-actors or their kinetic caricatures in digital paintings. Characters become people. People who are sometimes stupid or weak or clumsy and are vulnerable. This vulnerability, this frailty, this lack of choreographed slickness makes old-school, for me, a far more appealing option.

The Middenmurk campaign dungeon setting will be made with the assumption that characters are going to be rolled up in the old school way. That was the thing that sparked the idea in the first place. Some of the characters will be frail and foolish and ill-favoured and yet still they will face dire peril, still sometimes they will succeed against all odds. Then their stories will be worth telling


  1. I completely agree. I got caught up in the "must have high stats" BS for a few years, but coming back to Classic D&D and 3d6 in order just adds so much to characters that rolling a bunch of high stats and coming up with 2-3 pages of back story just fail to do.

    It's a lot faster than writing those 2-3 pages after character creation as well.

  2. Great post! Sorry for the necro, but I just discovered your blog and wanted to give this entry a thumbs-up. The flawed or limited character, potentially unremarkable but for the adventurous things that are about to happen to him is part of what brings me back to the vintage rulesets. While I enjoy 3.x, Pathfinder, and 4e, I enjoy them for different reasons, and the sort of "You have a stick and a potato" nature of old-school rules scratches a different but vital itch for me.

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