Following on from discussions here and here, I've been thinking about stats. Specifically: what is the relationship between stats and social status in a quasi-medieval society? Are all peasants cursed by their poor upbringing to a lifetime of dimwittedness and ill-health? Do all kings make the best use of the opportunities available to them and become highly educated and physically perfect? Does genetic inheritance limit ones horizons and capacity for social advancement?
I've written before about epistemic arrogance, and one of my pet peeves in life is the tendency towards know-it-all-ism on the part of academics, journalists and political commentators. (To hear talking heads rambling on about the future of the global economy - as if something that complicated is within the grasp of one mind to understand.) In fact, human society is grotesquely, exhuberantly, vastly, incomprehensibly complex. So much so that great thinkers from Weber to Marx to Luhmann have devoted their entire lives to attempting to explain how it works, and failed. The more you burrow into it the vaster it appears, and it grows, tardis-like, in complexity with each layer of its onion that you peel. The idea that one could make statements about "serfs" and "labourers" and "artisans" and "merchants" (or whatever social strata you care to name) as single discrete units with defined characteristics, other than those that are very simple and banal (e.g. labourers perform labour, merchants sell things) is hopelessly misguided.
What rolling 3d6 for stats for everybody (arranging to taste) in a given society does, is reflect great complexity in its beautiful simplicity. It denies that we can map social status to ability in any coherent way, and instead allows us to represent the fact that we can never really predict human ability by social class, beyond what we know by common sense (labourers perform labour and will therefore likely be strong, etc.). We can't expect that kings, guildmasters, priests and marshalls will have higher-than-average stats across the board than merchants, fishermen and soldiers.
What 3d6-for-stats also does is allows the DM to riff. The party encounters an innkeeper; the DM rolls 3d6 for all his stats. One of the scores is 16; the DM has to put it somewhere and decides to put it in Intelligence. So the next questions are: Why is this bar-room genius an innkeeper, and is there more to him than meets the eye? What is his role in the village? And why isn't he doing something else? Next they come across a guildmaster who ends up with a host of crap scores, including an Intelligence of 8 and a Charisma of 5. How come this guy came to the position he is in; is he the tool of powers behind the scene, or is it due to nepotism?
There is great creative power in random generation, particularly random number generation, that is not adequately tapped into by players of D&D (and I include myself in this). Embrace randomness, my children, and discover the secret of everlasting life.