... or, Ability Scores Beneath the Broken Moon
Like a lot of people old enough to have had a "good-old-days" of the hobby but not quite old, aware or hip enough to have played them from little brown books, I cut my teeth on D&D in the early to mid 80's with a combination of the basic box (first Moldvay then Mentzer), an AD&D DM's guide and a Fiend Folio. These foundational items were of course later augmented with modules, Dragon articles and eventually an AD&D Player's Manual. It was the last of these that I remember having the most profound impact on how we played the game; way more profound than the DM's Guide of many misty-eyed blogger remembrances. It wasn't just the new classes and the new, shiny powers packed into that slim, hardbound volume... it was the implication... no, the expectation that now ability scores needed to be much higher than what we were used to for a character to be viable, let alone good.
I'm not saying that my 10 to 12 year old self and his peers were dice purists. I'm sure we were incorrigible cheats at times. But I do remember the time before really playing AD&D proper when playing a fighter with a 14 strength wasn't seen as a hopeless proposition. One might have looked on jealously at the fighter lucky or unscrupulous enough to have rolled an 18 strength, but one didn't feel superfluous. Whether it was AD&D's added percentile strength for fighters or the rather hard prerequisites for paladins or rangers, a significant shift in our players' expectations for ability scores occurred when that Player's Manual hit our group. These expectations would continue to be reinforced through our experience with 2nd edition and 3rd and all of the home-brewed permutations and other games from that point forward including, rather significantly but often not mentioned, computer-based RPGs which we all (my group, at least) by now have played as much or even more than any of the PnP games.
Even after returning to the feel of an older edition via first my own stripped down 3.0 rules set, then actual Basic, Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy Role Playing in that order... these past several years I still haven't been able to shake this notion from some of my most veteran players: that 3d6 down the line is a recipe for disaster and disappointment. Honestly, when considering as far back as AD&D it's hard to argue that it isn't. The luckiest rollers will be happy and the unluckiest rollers miserable and no amount of "buck up, old chap, and embrace the role-playing opportunity your 13 strength Fighter presents to you!" will do any good. It's easy for me to take a philosophical view, I'm not stuck playing a schmo next to the guy that can do 9 points of damage with the leg of a stool.
My previous response to this has been to say that ability scores are only part of the game and that good players will always find ways to overcome difficult obstacles and while all of that is true... nine. points. of. damage. with. a. stool.
AD&D really can't be played using the 3d6 generation method. You need the alternate methods, at least.
You see, it's not just that a DM should expect his players to embrace the results of randomly generated character abilities, but that the players should expect the DM to present a game wherein lacking a maxed out prime requisite does not detract significantly from one's enjoyment. You can start by doing away with prime requisites and corresponding XP bonuses all-together. You can continue by sticking with the pre-AD&D +1/+2/+3 bonus scale and reducing a lot of in-game resolution to a simple 1d20 ability check, where anybody above a 10 (or say, average) has a 50/50 shot of pulling something off. You've got all of these numbers between one and fifteen. I say why not actually use them?
Many of you are way ahead of me in this. You're already playing this
way and have players already accepting the playing this way. Me, I've made
concessions to the players while rebooting a lot of other assumptions. Ability scores was one such concession. It's tough working against the past 20 or so odd years of built up player expectation. And so the DM such as me sometimes allows them to continue rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest... and/ or arranging them to taste. And of course charisma continues to be the dump stat and "14" is somehow considered an "average" score, as was stated this past Saturday during an exchange between two of my players.
But all will be new beneath the broken moon. Fresh start. New world. New 1st level mooks. New expectations. We're starting right at the beginning with 3d6 down the line but I am allowing players to make one swap of scores in order to qualify for their class, which seems to me more than reasonable. As we'll be using Basic Fantasy Role Playing (a sort of Basic Box foundation with a handful of 3rd edition conventions, if you're not familiar) as the chassis for my bolt-on world beneath the broken moon, this approach means that a 14 strength fighter can not only be viable, but really good.