Rolling under the stat expresses Baker's three insights

andreszarta

Adventurer
Let me preface:

This is a conversation starter; a distant cousin to Why do RPGs have rules? I seek more to learn than to preach. I don't think what I'm about to write is revolutionary by any means, but maybe you can see how some of the ideas here are original? This is like a first draft.



Vincent Baker argues that when designing a role-playing game, you are adopting three stances and expressing three distinct opinions: an opinion about the theme or literary genre of your game, a perspective on role-playing games as a practice, and a position on human nature. Your 3 Insights.

Today, role-playing game designers are capable of imprinting these three stances, with varying degrees of precision and skill, into the body of their mechanics. This might or might not be a requirement of good game design. (Is it a fruitful lens?)

Of course, it is unfair to measure the pioneers of the medium, Gygax, Arneson, et al., with the same yardstick of "aesthetic excellence". Nevertheless, I believe it is discernible to see how the subtle workings of these principles were immediately visible in the design decisions of the early editions of D&D.

It is my particular contention that what we observe next is a manifestation of this phenomenon in one particular game mechanic: Rolling dice under the stat.

Gygax had specific opinions about how the probability of events external to the characters in the fiction should be modeled. A linear distribution was more suitable for simulating the events of a game of heroic fantasy. (Read The paragraph on avoiding 'goofy bell curves'). He had stances on role-playing games as a practice and the genre of fantasy adventuring.

Gygax and Arneson eventually settled in rolling 3d6 as the method for generating statistics, assuming the stance that in the population of player characters, the rogues in the adventures, abilities should follow a "normal" distribution. They had stances on role-playing games as a practice, the genre of fantasy adventuring, and human nature.

The early DMs of oD&D, we know Arneson initially in Blackmoor, Gygax many years later, and explicitly authors like Holmes, Moldvay, Cook, Metzer, responded to these two aforementioned facts, and discovered that by combining them they generated gameplay that was aesthetically desirable. Rolling dice under the statistic resulted in a range and sequence of desirable outcomes that proved to be fertile ground for roleplaying and added positively to the decision space in the game. Probabilistically elegant, easy to read, generative, etc... They had stances on role-playing games as a practice and the workings of human nature.

In what seems like a fragmented alchemy, an emergent game mechanic was born, one that was surprisingly resilient in the popular practice of D&D until the arrival of 3rd Edition, and continues to be in the OSR. (It is that 'resilience' that originally motivated this entire post.)

That's part one. See, I told you it wasn't revolutionary: That rolling under the stat is game mechanic that expresses three insights. Because it expresses three insights, in varying degrees of depth, by itself, it's a source for continuously fertile gameplay and emergence. That what it says, how it directly maps the stat to the in-fiction competence, how it transparently communicates odds to the player, generates gameplay that is qualitatively different than any other alternative. That 'it' is the opposite of arbitrary; it's filled with intentionality. It just so happened that, in this case, it was not the thinking of a single author but rather the product of a larger play culture.



Part Two is even less surprising:

We know, of course, that these opinions evolved over the years, and in their evolution, subtle changes in these foundational stances rippled into more profound transformations. In AD&D, for example, we see how Gygax abandons 3d6 generation in favor of higher statistics. He wanted to eschew the probability range higher. His argument rested on the unviability of characters generated with the original method for the kind of adventuring they would soon embark on. He subtly seemed to imply the overall inadequacy of these types of characters in other forms of traditional gaming.

Gygax's change in stance created a more heroic game and, incidentally, divided the game into two equally valid branches of fantasy adventuring: AD&D and B/X, which would go on to evolve and continue to inform roleplaying for generations.

I'm not arguing that the reason for the (already well documented) historical segmentation of the two branches of D&D was because of a change in the stat baseline. We know this to be a multifaceted phenomenon, most notably one that was economically motivated. It's not like it divided the game. Rather it created a division in the game. Specifically that in one branch our characters are slightly larger than life and, in the other, they are plain average. Do you see how the ripples of this division affect our thinking decades later? Do you see how subsequent designers bought into these respective stances? (I'm also not saying that this is THE THING. Most likely it is just one of many historical accidents of whatever you may think is 'the real thing', the real rupture. My claim is that it is traceable and discernible, which makes it valuable as evidence.)

What I'm clumsily hinting with this is that when we look at game mechanics we are not just looking at naked procedures devoid of implication. We are looking at opinions and stances people have about some or all of the three converging forces in our interactions at the table. Being more aware of these opinions, being more questioning, more discerning, more ELABORATIVE about how game mechanics express people's stances can only enhance our gaming, and for those mad enough, our designs. It gives us a useful lens to interrogate design and stand with our feet on the ground to question it. What does this mechanic say about fantasy adventuring, about roleplaying as a practice, about human nature?

..and finally, it is a useful reminder to contemporary game designers to, MOST importantly, not have your insights contradict one another.

Opinions, thoughts and criticisms to my thesis are most welcome!
 
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Jack Daniel

dice-universe.blogspot.com
It's worth pointing out, I think, that "roll under the stat" is not a commonly used mechanic in any 70s or early 80s expression of the OD&D or AD&D rules as published by TSR. We see it used once or twice in early modules like B1 (where it's expressed as d%, 5% per point of ability score to overcome some very situationally-specific challenge — one of countless many resolution mechanics that only ever exists in one dungeon room of one module); and it's offhandedly mentioned in Moldvay Basic as an optional, miscellaneous task-resolution mechanic; but it's not really codified into a rulebook until the non-weapon proficiency systems in the Survival Guides circa 1986, which doubtless in turn inspired the general skills mechanic in the late 80s D&D Gazetteers. (OA's NWP system from 1985 used a roll high system.)

I, for one, never use "roll under the stat" when I run Classic D&D. I just don't like the mechanic at all, and I much prefer to run the game without it — as, apparently, it was originally so designed.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
@andreszarta

First, thank you for your provocative thesis. I always appreciate people who put thought into their posts!

That said, I have to agree with @Jack Daniel and will add some additional thoughts.

As has been correctly noted, I do not think that "rolling under your ability score" was widespread. It's very hard to make general pronouncements about OD&D given the widespread differences in styles of play at that time, and also because of how OD&D was, itself, so incomplete. That said, the first official mention of that method in any "core" rulebook was an offhand remark in Moldvay (1981) that was buried at the end of the book; in addition, it was after Moldvay first discussed using percentiles to resolve issues. The use of "rolling under" was certainly not a part of AD&D until 1986 and the Survival Guides, which were not widely adopted in play AFAIK (and contrasted with the OA system) and, regardless, only existed until 2e (1989).

Instead, the early period of D&D had a plethora of different adjudication methods. A lot of it assumed that there would be specialized and bespoke methods for common issues (such as breaking down doors or lifting items- such as the AD&D tables for strength). Others preferred more free-flowing methods, but there wasn't any common way of dealing with them; everything from percentiles to rolling under using d20 to rolling under using 3d6 to opposed rolls to "DM Decides" could be, and was, used. While my anecdotal experience is just that- anecdotal- I don't recall seeing "roll under ability score" used until the 90s. It's more common in OSR than it was at that time.

So the first issue is that I don't think you can say that this was a deliberate design decision.

The second issue is that I also don't think you can ascribe the change in rolling ability scores to this, either. Instead, it has a much more simple explanation. Well, two.

First, people like to be special. While the OD&D had some perks for higher ability scores, they weren't that good. By the time of AD&D, high ability scores got you everything from XP bonuses to massive modifiers (percentile strength, anyone?) to the ability to play the class you really want.

And that gets to the second issue. As I've written before, the trouble with the Gygaxian gatekeeping method was pretty self-evident. In order to keep people from getting into a class (for example), it was gated by high ability scores. For example, to play a 1e Paladin, using the 3d6 method you had a less than .01% chance of rolling the abilities. If you wanted to play a UA Paladin, you had a .0002% chance.

In effect, the game system itself quickly made it such that people were looking for alternate ways to make characters, because the "3d6 in order" would keep people from playing classes they wanted to play, and would result in such diametrically different powered characters- something that wasn't that much of an issue in OD&D.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Good post.

An interesting side note, re: whether characters are larger than life or plain average. One statistical phenomenon you'll tend to see in OD&D, B/X, and other editions in which characters roll 3d6 to start, is that there is a survival bias toward those characters with better arrays (and starting rolls for HP, naturally). So that after 1st level, you'll tend to see higher numbers among the surviving characters.

As shown in Dan "Delta" Collins' statistical modeling, from a few years back.


Dan actually incorporates this into his Original Edition Delta set of house rules for OD&D, so if you're generating a character at higher than 1st level, you incorporate some additions to the baseline 3d6s.
 

Voadam

Legend
Just for reference here is the Moldvay Basic reference to roll under as a mechanic.

Page B60:

"There's always a chance." The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing up a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task to +4 for a difficult one). A roll of 1 should always succeed, and a roll of 20 should always fail.

A couple things jump out at me here.

1 "The DM may want to." Very 5e in that it is optional and up to the DM.

2 Climbing a rope is considered a difficult task for an adventurer. This is setting a baseline of how heroic and competent PCs are, and what level of task would require a roll.

3 remembering a forgotten clue. A mental ability of a character not handled by the player but with mechanics but presumably only as a backup after player skill has failed (forgotten clue).
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
It's worth pointing out, I think, that "roll under the stat" is not a commonly used mechanic in any 70s or early 80s expression of the OD&D or AD&D rules as published by TSR. We see it used once or twice in early modules like B1 (where it's expressed as d%, 5% per point of ability score to overcome some very situationally-specific challenge — one of countless many resolution mechanics that only ever exists in one dungeon room of one module); and it's offhandedly mentioned in Moldvay Basic as an optional, miscellaneous task-resolution mechanic; but it's not really codified into a rulebook until the non-weapon proficiency systems in the Survival Guides circa 1986, which doubtless in turn inspired the general skills mechanic in the late 80s D&D Gazetteers. (OA's NWP system from 1985 used a roll high system.)
Which seems odd, because we were using roll-under long before 1986 and the idea had to come from somewhere (and I doubt we independently stumbled on to it ourselves!).

Personally I think it's an excellent "catch-all" mechanic for when there isn't a more refined mechanic available to resolve something.

There's also many other instances in 1e as written, usually involving d% rolls, where rolling low is what you want. Bend bard-lift gates, system shock or resurrection survival, and all thief skills are examples that immediately leap to mind. A corner case is the bizarre saving throw against Phantasmal Killer, where the target needs to roll under its own Intelligence on 3d6 in order to succeed.
 

ichabod

Legned
Which seems odd, because we were using roll-under long before 1986 and the idea had to come from somewhere (and I doubt we independently stumbled on to it ourselves!).

I would note that Melee, the first part of The Fantasy Trip RPG , was published in 1977. It was totally based on rolling under your stats. That was all written by Steve Jackson when he was working for Metagaming.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
It's worth pointing out, I think, that "roll under the stat" is not a commonly used mechanic in any 70s or early 80s expression of the OD&D or AD&D rules as published by TSR. We see it used once or twice in early modules like B1 (where it's expressed as d%, 5% per point of ability score to overcome some very situationally-specific challenge — one of countless many resolution mechanics that only ever exists in one dungeon room of one module); and it's offhandedly mentioned in Moldvay Basic as an optional, miscellaneous task-resolution mechanic; but it's not really codified into a rulebook until the non-weapon proficiency systems in the Survival Guides circa 1986, which doubtless in turn inspired the general skills mechanic in the late 80s D&D Gazetteers. (OA's NWP system from 1985 used a roll high system.)

I, for one, never use "roll under the stat" when I run Classic D&D. I just don't like the mechanic at all, and I much prefer to run the game without it — as, apparently, it was originally so designed.
That's not entirely accurate. TSR did use it for the 2e AD&D psionics. The powers were rolled under stat or stat-X.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
That's not entirely accurate. TSR did use it for the 2e AD&D psionics. The powers were rolled under stat or stat-X.
How does that contradict Jack Daniel's assertion that roll under stat didn't get codified as a common mechanic in the rules until the nonweapon proficiency rules, starting in 1986?

AD&D 2E came out in 1989, and the 2E Complete Psionics Handbook came out in 1991.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
Which seems odd, because we were using roll-under long before 1986 and the idea had to come from somewhere (and I doubt we independently stumbled on to it ourselves!).

Personally I think it's an excellent "catch-all" mechanic for when there isn't a more refined mechanic available to resolve something.

There's also many other instances in 1e as written, usually involving d% rolls, where rolling low is what you want. Bend bard-lift gates, system shock or resurrection survival, and all thief skills are examples that immediately leap to mind. A corner case is the bizarre saving throw against Phantasmal Killer, where the target needs to roll under its own Intelligence on 3d6 in order to succeed.

Well, there are two things here.

First, I always find it important to really interrogate assumptions. Memories are incredibly fallible. I have seen a number of people make claims about things that happened that, quite literally, could not have happened because they played a certain way for a long time and they read that back into earlier times. Or they get dates confused. To call out my own fallibility, for the longest time I remembered that I played in a module ... but it was only recently that I bothered checking the dates and realized that it was actually impossible for that to have been the module I played in because the module was published years later. To this day, because of my fallible memory, I still can't tell what I played, but I do know that it wasn't the module I thought it was!

Second, it is still entirely possible that you used that method. As has been outlined, Moldvay mentioned the method in Basic (1981). While it was certainly not widespread, and it wasn't part of the rules of AD&D or OD&D, it did exist as an ad hoc table rule (alongside many other possible table rules) prior to that.
 

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