Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
I don't want to trash my players. They're good people, one and all. At least one of them even drops by to read this humble blog. But... what a bunch of crybabies they can be when the results of my more than generous "4d6, drop the lowest and arrange to taste" is met with blank, horror-stricken looks as a single score is saddled with a minus on the ability adjustment... or they lack a single +2. Ruination, they cry.
I don't think this phenomenon is unique to my group. In fact, take the very concept of "character builds" and point buy systems that are now the default for modern RPGs. Often described as "new school" my belief is that they have actually been around since the day after the very first D&D player rolled a crummy character and was forced to keep it. These strike me as the logical evolution of the underlying, universal feeling on the part of the players: They want to win.
DMs that write blogs and who embrace the "old school" can wax poetic about the purity of straight 3d6. They can correctly point out how the successful players will generally play the game wisely and well despite their ability scores. They will indicate specific examples of adventure or encounter design where player skill and not high ability scores were required. Their arguments will be well-founded but meaningless. You see, our players simply want to kick the game's ass and high ability scores help ensure that... at least in their minds.
The player that doesn't fit this mold is the exception to the rule. They are either too new or too unconcerned with mechanics to worry about that AC bonus... or their day job is DMing the "real" game. This latter group can respect "The Game" with that imagined, egalitarian zeal one with no great stake in the outcome may adopt. Players, the real players, love high ability scores. When they roll their characters together, they crane their necks to see what's going on down the table. As a result of what they find they either stifle their smiles like poker players with bad tells or begin a series of facial gestures reminiscent of one's first bout with a shot of tequila. This depends, of course, on their relative position in the group in terms of rolls. Worse than both combined are the mopers.
I used to require all ability rolls to be made in my presence, if for no other reason than to watch the craning necks and sour faces. When that was consistently applied, the player characters all had remarkably similar scores in terms of the net sum. Of course there was the lucky or unlucky outlier, but the curve was predictably bell-shaped.
But we are adults now, and worthy of the benefit of the doubt. We are busy, and play infrequently enough that yes, you can show up early at Dan's place and roll up a guy. I'll be there on time to look over your character and then get the game going. Yes, this is perfectly reasonable and over time, yes, that nice bell curve became misshapen... leaning more and more to the right with each new character. As the ability scores got better and better it was obvious the players were in collusion. They were watching one another like crooks splitting up a stash of loot. One for you, one for me. Don't spend anything until the heat is off. We don't want to attract attention and spoil a good thing.
Yeah Jim, I watched him roll up his guy, everything was kosher.
So, after noticing this trend over time I decided to have one player roll his new character with me and live with the results as-is, provided the net result of his bonuses and penalties was a positive number. I was challenging the now established status quo. Things predictably came to a head. He hemmed. He hawed. He ground his teeth and squirmed in his chair. I think he might have cried had I not let him off the hook. I called him a big baby and let him re-roll. Which he did. Without shame.
I don't even blame them really. After all, I've got all the cards as DM, don't I? So, I've learned to love the bomb. As long as nobody is stupid or ballsy enough to show up with nothing lower than a 16 I'll pretend that the bastards aren't rolling and re-rolling ability scores until they find a satisfactory set. There's an unspoken agreement not to embarrass one another. There's a certain status quo to maintain here, is there not? Don't disrupt it and you may keep the 5th set of rolls you made in the 15 minutes I wasn't watching. And you know what? I'm OK with it. I do hold all of the cards. Successful players WILL need more than high abilities. I WILL display specific examples of adventure or encounter design where player skill and not high ability scores will be required. Let them have their tartar sauce.