The forgotten magic of 3d6

There’s a certain enchantment to rolling dice. I’m not talking rolling a single solitary d20, but the rattle of multiple dice where the bones clickety-clack in the palm of your hand before rebounding and rolling across the table, just waiting to be added together and turned into something special. Like attributes, for instance.

In the latest edition of D&D, the recommended (but not only) way to generate a characters’ stats is to use an array – a pre-selected list of numbers that you’re free to arrange as you like. I’ll confess that we did the same for Third Edition too, using 10,12,13,14,15,16 for all of our PCs. Using an array is, we are told, a “good thing” as it ensures a level playing field where all of the PCS will have high scores where they need them (STR for a Fighter, INT for a Wizard, etc) but not be penalized for having a low score elsewhere.

Of course there’s nothing to stop you mixing things up – having a high STR Wizard or a high INT Fighter, for example – and very often doing just that is more fun then merely playing to type. One of my favourite characters from our Middle Earth 4e D&D campaign was a Beorning Wizard with STR 18 and INT 13, and his stats were straight from the standard array.

But if you really want to make fun characters, nothing beats rolling dice. I’m not talking namby-pamby 4d6 & drop lowest neither. That’s for wusses who don’t like the challenge of character generation and would rather take an early step along the road to munchkinhood. No, I’m talking about rolling 3d6 in order and playing however the dice fell.

The key is to learn how to read the dice. It’s a fine art that’s sadly dying in this computerised Character Builder age, and it’s a darned shame. It’s a shame because 4e D&D is the first edition of D&D where you could feasibly generate a character with low rolls right across the board and he’d still have a reasonable chance of survival. Rolling 3d6 for stats also has the happy side-effect of taking the high-power edge off 4e D&D – it’s a rare and lucky Rogue with DEX 18 (let alone DEX 20!) and the players will need all of their wits to play the game. Again, I’m banging my “old school with 4e D&D” drum loud and clear.

But back to the dice.

Roll 3d6 and allocate them in order. In 4e’s case, that means STR, CON, DEX, INT, WIS, CHA. Then (and only then) decide the Class. The obvious route is to pick the Class based on your highest stat, but the best way to do it is interpret what the dice mean, then choose a character class based upon that. It might mean that the most important stat for the class could well end up only being your second or third highest score (or even lower), but the goal is to create a FUN character, and that’s not necessarily an optimal one.

Add a Race according to taste and character concept, and I guarantee you’ll end up with a character you’ll enjoy playing far more than your average boilerplate Character Builder auto-built maximised munchkin fodder, or your money back.

Here’s a handful of examples using Actual Dice rolls. Actual Dice are available from all good RPG stockists. As for them by name.

13, 9, 13, 10, 10, 13
Stronger and more agile than average, and quite likeable too. Constitution is a little on the weedy side but nothing debilitating. Perhaps it’s a sign he’s been living rough on the streets for too long. That’s why he’s had to toughen up a touch too. He’s on the run! He’s A Half-Elf Sorcerer/Rogue who was indentured to an evil master until he found his chance and fled. Now, he’s afraid he’ll be recaptured and would welcome being part of a big, strong adventuring party.

13, 3, 11, 11, 11, 14
Ouch. 3 CON! Good CHA and decent STR though, which speaks of a skill at pleasing crowds and a talent for combat. He’s an ex-gladiator (Dragonborn Fighter) who is recovering from a horrific injury inflicted by a rival stable. Rather than bring shame and be a burden to his manager he’s set out on his own, eager to find a way to regain his health and reputation. Then pound the opposing gladiatorial stable into the ground.

9, 15, 8, 11, 6, 7
The dice hate me, but that’s all a part of the fun – making viable characters from even the most difficult of rolls. Lemme see…..

High CON, average INT and low everything else. This is a Dwarven survivor of a dungeon expedition that went horribly wrong. Being a Dwarf gets his CON up to 17 and WIS to 8 (which is a darned site better than 6!). His mind is shattered – he was once a Cleric of Moradin but that’s long gone. Now he’s an Infernal Pact Warlock and his previous ties to his god have been severed. Only a battered and burned holy symbol hanging around his neck speaks of times past. Good luck with this one.

Now it’s your turn.

Roll them dice, keep them where they fall and tell me what they say. Practise, as they say, makes darned interesting characters.

UPDATE: Still not convinced? Here’s full character sheets for Wil, Scarr and Vondal built with the stats and concepts above.

11 Comments on “The forgotten magic of 3d6”

  1. Bravo. This is something I’ve been trying to instill in our gaming group–that dice rolls can be a source for inspiration.

  2. The reason to roll 3d6 in order — the entire purpose of the system — was for variety. Of course gamers could tweak things and some early rules suggested rerolling a defective character (with one or more low scores or all avergae scores and so on.)

    Add to that : early games didn’t stress ability scores that much. They were used more by interpretation than as an intrinsic part of play. The very first games wer played — we completely forgot about ability scores once we started playing, because playing was all our fun. Our character sheets were one page long and had almost everything we needed to play. Perhaps with a peice of notebook paper tacked on for equipment.

    A low score, which wasn’t very common, meant a -1 or -2 to a roll. And it meant looking for some magic to raise the score, if desired since not all scores had much effect on actual play.

    Or: the most fun thing of all, playing the character until it got killed. Then roll up a new one and see what it was like.

    What happens with newer games is that the variety is lost. And players begin paying more attention to trvia and minutae than playing the game. They build characters, play with character statistics. Every ability has numerous in-game effects.

    They loose the innocence and pure fun of going through a wizards lair taking on challenges without a care in the world about the numbers on the character sheet. The sophistication of modern gaming has robbed many a player of the pure fun of playing role-playing for the adventure. And that is a shame.

    I’d suggest to anyone who hasn’t done it: find any simple game, make up a character simple and easy (including rolling 3d6 in order, taking what you get), then seeing how much fun they can have by shutting the rule books and playing.

  3. We did this for an OD&D campaign a couple of years ago and we loved it. Mind you, some of those characters lived very short lives, but they certainly had personality!

  4. Str 9, Con 10, Dex 5, Int 5, Wis 8, Cha 12

    Leah Hedgerson was never more than an average wizard’s apprentice, capable of mastering a few cantrips and destined for a life of fetching spell components and pulling levers. Desperate for more, he searched through his master’s arcane library. He uncovered an ancient tome of horrors, and through it forged a pact with nightmare beings from beyond. The pact has left him a quivering, unintelligible wreck of a human, but deep within, his shattered mind revels in his new warlock powers.

  5. Your prowess with the dice is clearly superior to my own. I used the 3d6 strait up technique for many years in my AD&D days and a typical result would be something like this:
    7 5 9 11 8 10 4

  6. Str 18, Con 18, Dex 18, Int 18, Wis 18, Cha 18

    Awesome McBloodaxe is the last scion of a line of conquerors and kings. He is armored with plate forged from the scales of the ancient red wyrm Firetoes, who devastated the Western Kingdoms until he was defeated by King McBloodaxe XI, and wields Demoncleaver, a great golden axe whose blades were forged by the gods from the halos of angels fallen in battle. Awesome has recently…

    What? No, I totally rolled those. Yes, on my normal dice. What? You can’t do that! No, it’s not fair. Screw you, and your stupid campaign. I’m leaving. Prick.

  7. When I’d play with my brother and his friends, we’d roll 4d6, reroll 1s, drop lowest, and force him to roll 3d6 (and sometimes in order). …He still got better rolls than we did.

    Man, that kid was a munchkin among munchkins, but it was fun to see the DM try (often unsuccessfully) to screw him over in return. (Like night ambushes so he wouldn’t be wearing his full plate.)

    I agree that the 3d6 in order method allows a certain amount of personality–and interpreting the scores is fun, but I’d say the DM would have to modify monsters accordingly, or perhaps just run lower-level monsters.

  8. Let me see:

    12, 9, 10, 8, 12, 15

    Hmm. Trixie the Valley Girl Cheerleader! Ye-Gods, you don’t think I’m going down there, do you? I’m way too popular to explore the icky-caves with you conan types. Besides, all I can do is dance!

    Trixie is a Dervish, a dancing sensation that dances while she casts her bard spells. She’s popular, she’s hip, she doesn’t have any talent except good looks. She’s a total ditz, until she finds the Codex of Atlantis and becomes — a Thrallherd.
    .-= Elton´s last blog ..Please, don’t annoy the Lamia =-.

  9. One of the most memorable D&D characters from games I’ve played in was the rogue with a DEX of 5. Granted, he didn’t live too long, but it was a very memorable character.
    The only problem with strictly keeping to what’s rolled is when a player really wants to play a certain class and doesn’t meet the minimum requirements. Haven’t read 4e so I don’t know if that’s still an issue, but even when assigning random rolls to where I want them, I missed out on certain classes multiple times.
    Not that that’s all bad. I remember rolling up a Cthulhu character with a friend, and he had a pretty clear concept of what he wanted. Once the dice were rolled, though, it was a pretty far cry from that concept. So he altered his concept, just enough, to fit what the dice dictated. Worked out pretty well.
    .-= Ray´s last blog ..Ars Magica (5th Edition) =-.

  10. There aren’t minimum requirements for a class in 4e, but then 4e does not assume any version of ‘3d6 in order’ will be applied. Even back in the 1e days, my experience was most often ‘3d6 arrange as desired’ or ‘4d6 drop’ and other variations. We didn’t like the dice telling us what to play. Then again, when I’ve been stuck for a concept over the years, I have sometimes rolled scores in order and work from that.


    As soon as Rory turned 12 he started working as a farmhand in his village. He had an easy manner, and people took to him, liked having him around. ‘Plucky’ was used by those who cared for him. The day came, when he was but 13, that the King’s soldiers rode into town conscripting cannon fodder for a battle. The lad was tall and strong enough to hold a sword, so they took him away. The problem was, Rory survived the battle. Even worse, he was one of the only ones who did, the battle seeing the kingdom fall to the forces of Chaos. Worse than that, Rory found the dead kings fabled sword and so was claimed by Destiny. Destiny wasn’t happy, but she work’s with what she gets.

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