While these days I tend to play games where PCs are built from beginning to end, I sometimes wax nostalgic for the old days when I never knew what I was going to play. Grognards like me (okay, I’m more of a neo-grognard) can recall our earliest days of (Advanced) Dungeons & Dragons, when we used to roll 3d6 for each of the six ability scores in order.

Today most gamers I know tend to look back on that model as harsh and ruthless; certainly many nigh-unplayable PCs were generated that way. Yet there was something awesome about getting one or two high scores (16+), even if they didn’t fall where you wanted them to. And, just as often, you’d roll up a fairly decent PC that was stuck with a low score in one or two abilities.

It didn’t take long for my groups to use the various alternate methods of rolling up PCs to increase the chance of high scores while minimizing the pain of low ones. Rolling 4d6 six times, dropping the low die for each, and arranging in any order you like was a particularly common one at my table. Lately, the Pathfinder group in my gaming circle has taken to assigning scores from a spread determined by the GM. In addition to increasing the chances of a more robust PC, these alternate methods have something else in common: they enable you to shape the character rather than let the dice do it for you.

Upon reflection, I wonder if we haven’t lost something along the way. Reflecting on what some have termed “the iron man method,” I’ve come up with some advantages to using it.

It keeps the power level where it’s supposed to be. It may surprise some of you young whippersnappers to know that the earliest versions of Dungeons & Dragons offered no bonuses to hit or damage in melee, no matter how high your Strength scoreAD&D allowed some variance, but usually you had to roll pretty high (15+) or low (7-) before you’d see a +1 or -1. Most characters were average, and that was the power level that published materials assumed.

It makes entry-level play easy. Even seasoned gamers sometimes balk at having to assign points to an unfamiliar character sheet; imagine how a newbie must feel when tasked to assign numbers to six ability scores. Yet everyone can understand “roll to see how strong/intelligent/agile your character is.”

It creates a background. One of the things I find myself doing subconsciously when rolling randomly straight through is creating my character’s life story around the rolls. “Wow, low strength? Obviously this guy wasn’t eager to sign on for guard duty. He has a high charisma, though; he’s probably used to talking his way out of trouble.” I didn’t need separate advantages or disadvantages to do that for me.

It encourages you to try new things. If you’re building a PC you may always tend towards the elven swashbuckler, but the dice may encourage you to try a dwarven priest instead. Sometimes ideas we’d never consider pop up as the result of a die roll. That’s how I created my first cleric!

Getting a high score is something special. If you max out on two ability scores for a character, you’re more invested in playing her and keeping her alive if you can’t just do the same for the next one. Additionally, there may be opportunities that only come along when the dice go your way. Sticking with AD&D, being able to play a monk or paladin necessitated a good set of rolls and insinuated that these classes were rare in the campaign world.

It forces creativity. Sure, your group intended to include the four food groups, but now you’re stuck with three warriors and a mage with no healers or experts. You’ve no choice but to compensate by thinking creatively. Three warriors are rarely going to wade into tough conflicts without enough healing powers to go around.

So what say you? Do you play in a group that uses random generation and, if so, do you use the iron man method? Would you consider it? Obviously, there are drawbacks to the iron man method; is there something in particular that keeps you from using it? As a GM, would you like to see more random generation in your games or do you find it to be too much of a headache?