Let’s talk about stats baby

Let’s talk about stats baby. Let’s talk about you and me, Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be. Sorry. You caught me channelling a little Salt’n’Pepa back there. Where was I? Oh yes. Stats.

Stats maketh the game. How you generate your PC’s attributes, more than anything else, define where along the power curve your game is playing. They matter more than levels, more than magic items, and more than all the demons in the world. Deciding how the players generate the attributes is the single most effective method of setting the campaign tone, bar none.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

Let’s take a look at Derek Generic. Derek is a Human Fighter in a hypothetical D&D campaign. If we use the standard 4e D&D stat array (10,11,12,13,14,16) he looks like this:

Derek Generic, Good Male Human Fighter-1
STR 18, CON 14, DEX 12, INT 11, WIS 13, CHA 10

Speed 5, Init +1
AC 17, Fort 17, Ref 12, Will 12
HP 34, Bloodied 17, Surges 8×11/day

Athletics +9, Endurance +7, Heal +6, Streetwise +5

Combat Challenge, Combat Superiority, Two-Handed Weapon Talent
Action Surge, Toughness. Languages: Common, Dwarven

Cleave/w +8vsAC d10+4 (4 to adjacent), Sure Strike/w +10vsAC d10, Reaping Strike/w +8vsAC d10+4 (4 on miss)
Covering Attack/e +8vsAC 2d10+4 (adjacent ally Shift 2)
Brute Strike/d +8vsAC 3d10+4

Adventurer’s Kit, Scale Armour, Greatsword

Derek is your typical 1st level Fourth Edition Fighter. He’s blond haired, blue eyed and loves surfing when he’s not slaying furry things. Clad in Scalemail and posing with his Greatsword, he cuts a dashing sight. Shame about the bad breath that knocks his CHA down to 10. Guess you can’t have it all, Derek.

So, that’s Derek in his guise as a Hero of awesome proportions. This is the default setting for 4e D&D where Our Heroes, even at 1st level, are larger than life protagonists, the central characters in a story of their own making. It’s a good place to be if you like your heroes to be heroic and able to cut their bloody swathe through any level-appropriate challenge you thrown at them (bad dice rolls notwithstanding).

Use any of the 4e standard arrays or the 22-point buy and you’ll get much the same power-level of character, albeit with a different shift in emphasis between primary and secondary abilities.

Now do the wavy thing with your hands in front of your eyes. We’re going to shift to a different reality.

Meet Derek Generic from a grittier campaign. He’s exactly the same as Heroic Derek Generic, except he’s been generated using an array of 8,9,10,11,12,14. That’s a whole two points off each and every stat.

Derek Generic, Good Male Human Fighter-1
STR 16, CON 12, DEX 10, INT 9, WIS 11, CHA 8

Speed 5, Init +0
AC 17, Fort 16, Ref 11, Will 11
HP 32, Bloodied 16, Surges 8×10/day

Athletics +8, Endurance +6, Heal +5, Streetwise +4

Combat Challenge, Combat Superiority, Two-Handed Weapon Talent
Action Surge, Toughness. Languages: Common, Dwarven

Cleave/w +7vsAC d10+3 (3 to adjacent), Sure Strike/w +9vsAC d10, Reaping Strike/w +7vsAC d10+3 (3 on miss)
Covering Attack/e +7vsAC 2d10+3 (adjacent ally Shift 2)
Brute Strike/d +7vsAC 3d10+3

Adventurer’s Kit, Scale Armour, Greatsword

Ouch. That’s effectively dropped Derek a whole level. Compared to Heroic Derek, he’s now Level 0! He’s not going to equal Heroic Derek until 2nd or even 3rd level. This is Gritty Derek who is going to have to work just a little harder to survive. Those 500XP worth of Goblins he and his allies are facing in the alleyway don’t look quite such a pushover now, and the players will have to up their game (ie, think tactically and be willing to run away) if the going gets tough.

Unlike Heroic Derek, this Derek is missing a few teeth. His hair is dirty and he’s never even seen the sea, never mind owned a surfboard. This is backstreet Derek who eats rats on sticks to survive when the pickin’s are lean. Which is most of the time.

While dropping the stats here didn’t make a difference to the selection of Feats (hey, I planned it that way), lowering the stats mean that some Feats that are accessible at 1st level to pretty much anyone – I’m looking at you, Feats with a Prerequisite of 13 in an attribute – become more difficult to attain. That means fewer multi-classed characters; those who do manage to hit the Feat requirements are that bit more special. Failing that, multi-classing is something to aim for later in the career.

And those characters with a 20 in their prime attribute? Ain’t gonna happen. Ever. Thank gawd.

If you think 4e D&D can’t do gritty, just drop the stat array to this level (or even lower). You’ll be surprised just how large an impact it has on the game.

Time for one more reality shift. Do the wavy hand thing again.

Derek Generic, Good Male Human Fighter-1
STR 16, CON 6, DEX 13, INT 8, WIS 13, CHA 9

Speed 5, Init +1
AC 17, Fort 16, Ref 12, Will 12
HP 26, Bloodied 13, Surges 6×7/day

Athletics +8, Endurance +3, Heal +6, Streetwise +4

Combat Challenge, Combat Superiority, Two-Handed Weapon Talent
Action Surge, Toughness. Languages: Common, Dwarven

Cleave/w +7vsAC d10+3 (3 to adjacent), Sure Strike/w +9vsAC d10, Reaping Strike/w +7vsAC d10+3 (3 on miss)
Covering Attack/e +7vsAC 2d10+3 (adjacent ally Shift 2)
Brute Strike/d +7vsAC 3d10+3

Adventurer’s Kit, Scale Armour, Greatsword

Meet Classic Derek. This time, Derek’s player rolled 3d6 in order for his stats for their beer’n’pretzels old school megadungeon campaign. The DM kindly let him shift his highest roll to STR as the player really wanted to play a Fighter, but apart from that the dice stayed where they fell.

That CON 6 has terrific comedy potential. This is Derek with the hacking cough and allergies, which I guess explains his reasonable Heal skill too. As I’ve said before, 4e D&D is the first edition of the game where it’s possible to generate low stats and still have a fair chance of survival. Derek’s Hit Points aren’t that bad, but his low number of Surges means he’s going to want to party to stop for breaks regularly. Allergies suck.

His compatriots are likely equally flawed, and that’s a large part of their charm. This is Classic D&D territory where you find Wizards with club feet, Rogues too weak to lift anything heavier than a dagger and Clerics with the charisma of a rabid dog. It’s misfit D&D where your characters aren’t so much heroes as they are folks unable to do anything else in life. Me, I love it.


Three different campaign styles, yet all Fourth Edition D&D. And all done merely by changing how the starting attributes are generated.

Any questions?

7 Comments on “Let’s talk about stats baby”

  1. In favor of other games, I have not picked up a D&D book since 1990, but I have followed the shifting tides over the intervening decades.

    There is a lot of stridency in posting about 4e which is pretty tedious to read as someone who has moved away from ‘The Grand Old Lady’ of games, and must be extremely frustrating for those who are invested in it.

    I enjoyed reading this post precisely because it offers solutions instead of invective, and options instead of complaints.

    1. Agreed. And yes, it’s very frustrating.

      I would much rather offer solutions – moaning serves no purpose and Fourth Edition is a flexible enough beast to be able to handle any amount of tweakery.

      As written, the 4e Core Rules offer one possible way of playing the game (heroic, combat heavy fantasy), but that’s far from being the only way. My own group favours more intense role-playing with just one or (at most) two combat encounters per session. 4e delivers just what we need to do that, in spades. It’s all a matter of presentation, really.

  2. 4e is most certainly not the first edition of the game where you can stand a chance of survival with low stats. Check out the original game sometime… the stats have almost no effect whatsoever except to qualify for certain classes and as guidelines for roleplaying your character. That’s why 3d6 in order was perfectly fine for that edition.

    1. Checking my copy of Molvday (ever in armreach!) to make sure I’m not dreaming, a low CON score does lower your hit points/level. With a CON of 6, Classic Derek the Fighter would have had (at most) 7 starting hit points.

      I think I misworded though. What I mean to say is that in 4e D&D, a starting character with stats of 3d6 in order begins the game with a reasonable chance of surviving his first combat encounter. In Classic D&D (or any edition where the heroes gain 1HD/level), that’s not always the case. When it comes to playing with a group of gamers used to Classic D&D’s ways (ie, they’ve got a batch of backup characters on standby) that’s a part of its charm. For newer gamers unused to this though, that hit point buffer could well be a godsend.

      Hope that clears it up a little :D

  3. One of the things that puts me off of 4e (and most other games that do it) is the lack of random character generation. There’s something magical about “rolling” up a character. I really don’t understand why point buy has become the gospel. There’s lot of other games to do point buy with, but D&D should be random. That’s part of the charm of the game IMO.

    1. One of the options for generating stats in 4e is still 4d6, drop lowest. It’s in the PHB, page 18 offered as Method 3 (the other two being use the array, and points buy). You can do it in the Character Builder too, though I’ll admit it’s a less popular option than it was before.

      Like you, I miss that rolling up characters isn’t the default any more, but I can see the benefits that using an array brings. It does level the playing field between characters and put an end to those players who “somehow” manage to roll 18s far to frequently to be statistically possible :D

    2. fortunately, that’s not really inherent to the game, and trivial to change. 4e with stats rolled on 3d6. magic, done.

      my current campaign is that way, it’s working out fine.

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