Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Sense of Wonder

Last night I had the pleasure of helping a friend introduce his oldest son (8 years of age) to D&D. To do this I broke out my magenta (pink) D&D Basic Set (D&DB). We sat down around his dining room table - he and his son, me (DM) and my two boys along with two (adult) neighborhood friends, the latter two never having played D&D before - and proceeded to created characters for the upcoming adventure to the Haunted Keep.

The character creation process was such that it vexed my oldest son. He has been a player of AD&D3.5 for roughly four years now. He had a particular notion in his head about 'how things should be'. To help illustrate this let me breifly explain the character creation process for D&DB.

  1. Roll 3d6 6 times and assign the values in order to the abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma)
  2. Look over the scores and see which is highest (this indicating suitable class choices) and deciding whether the character is eligible to be a demi-human (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling). Choose class/race (more on this in a moment).
  3. Adjust ability scores (lower non-essential abilities to raise a Prime Requisite)
  4. Roll 3d6X10 for starting gold and buy your equipment

What troubled my son was his rolls. Only a couple were in the double digits. While this did not disquilify him from any class he felt that fate had delt him a poor hand. Added to this was the fact that the demi-human races were each a Class (note the capital C) unto themselves, and he felt he was greatly wronged ("What do you mean there is no Halfling Thief?"). I did let him re-roll his stats and start over and he did get stats more to his liking. But this got me thinking about the wonder of character creation in D&D.

Creating characters in the manner described above lends itself to a process of discovery rather than one of sculpting a character to meet some predefined expectation. This is probably why point-buy systems are so popular: Want a super strong fighter? Pay your points and you got it! But when these random numbers are there staring you in the face, you have to ask yourself, "what can I do with this?"

In some cases it is obvious. One player had a fairly average set or rolls except for an 18 in Intelligence. His character seemed predestined to be a Magic-User, which is what he chose. However, there was absolutely nothing keeping him from playing a Fighter, Cleric or Thief (other than Experieince point bonuses there is no real drawback to playing a class with a low Prime Requisite ability score; no limits on spells due to low intelligence or wisdom). In this case he was playing to his strengths: high intelligence = Magic-User.

But what if his stats were more middle of the road? Really, he could be anything he wanted to be; it was all in what those numbers meant to him. This is where the wonder comes into to play. Let's look at the character with the high intelligence again. Sure, the logical choice is Magic-User, but what about the other classes?

  • An inquisitive Halfling traveling far from home to explore and catalogue the known world
  • A brilliant Fighter that relies on strategems rather than strength of arms
  • A knowledgable Cleric who had memorized the holy scriptures at a young age and wished to apply those teachings to the world
  • A quick-witted Thief seeking to pit his incredible intellect against all the puzzels and traps the world could throw at him
  • A cunning Elf that sought to perfect the combination of magic and arms into a formatable fighting style
  • A clever Dwarf out to use his exceptional intelligence to invest his earnings as an adventurer and turn it into a comfortable retirement

Being open to the possibilities, no predefined set of expectations - this is the beauty and magic of wonder: anything is possible. I did notice this to some degree with several of the newer players. They listened to the possibilities then chose a class that somehow spoke to them through those ability scores. For the more veteran players, especially schooled in the art of min/maxing, it can be more difficult.

Now, I don't think that players should ignore party balance and factors that would cause friction in the group (alignment and Barbarian/Magic-User coflicts leap to mind). I had one player wait until everyone else had picked their class before he decided what he was going to be. He has always been one to fill in the gaps in party balance. But I can't help but wonder how much more fun it would be if he played the first character that popped into his head after rolling the stats.

Try this yourself. No matter which version of D&D you are playing, use the character creation steps above (especially the first two steps) and see what those ability scores say to you. Feel free to post the outcome in the comments of this article; I'd love to hear what you discovered.

Follow Your Bliss,

PS. For those interested in the outcome of the adventure we played, I ran the sample dungeon out of the back of the D&DB book. The party fell into a pit trap, listened at lots of doors, avoided a water hazard, were surprised by a band of Hobgoblins, slayed all but one, made him reveal the location of the prisoners, defeated the Hobgoblins guarding the prisoners, and made it out of the Haunted Keep with only a few bumps and bruises. All had a great time and look forward to playing again soon.

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