Until the 3rd edition came along, the dice "officially" determined what race and character class you could play. If the ability scores you rolled weren't high enough or placed in the right stats, you were prevented from choosing certain races and classes for your character. My experience was that Dungeon Masters manipulated the dice rolling methods until they found one that generally allowed people to play their character of choice. Some DMs replaced dice with a point-buy system, for determining ability scores, and the rules officially assumed this method in 2008 with the release of 4th edition.
red box", first printing in 1983), there are ten steps to making up a new character. 1) Roll for ability scores: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. 2) Choose a class: Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Halfling, Magic-User, or Thief. 3) Exchange ability score points. 4) Roll for hit points. 5) Roll for money. 6) Buy equipment. 7) Figure out your Armor Class, THAC0, and Saving Throws. 8) Note adjustments for ability scores: pick languages and jot down Charisma-based adjustments. 9) Give your character a name and alignment. 10) Get ready to play: select spells if your character can cast magic spells.
The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player's Handbook (1989) establishes ten steps in order to create a character. 1) Roll for ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. 2) Select a player character race: Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-elf, Halfling, or Human. 3) Fill in the details of your character [optional]: gender, name, handedness, height, weight, age, hair color, eye color, body shape, voice, noticeable features, and general personality. 4) Select a character class: Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Mage (including specialists like the Illusionist), Cleric (including priests of specific mythoi), Druid, Thief, Bard, or one of thirteen possible multi-class combinations (availability based on demihuman race). 5) Choose an alignment: Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Good, True Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, or Chaotic Evil. 6) Determine proficiencies [optional]: weapon proficiencies, nonweapon proficiencies, and/or secondary skills. 7) Roll for money. 8) Buy equipment (and, if using the optional encumbrance rules, note the effects of carrying your equipment). 9) Ask your Dungeon Master to tell you which spells are in your initial* spell book [only applies to mages and specialist wizards]. 10) Figure out your Armor Class, THAC0, and Saving Throws.
The D&D 3rd Edition Player's Handbook (2000) sets out eleven steps to create a beginning, 1st-level character. Some of those steps encompass more than one activity and they even included "Step 0: Check with your Dungeon Master". 1) Roll for ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. 2a) Choose character race: Human, Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-elf, Half-orc, or Halfling. 2b) Choose a class: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, or Wizard. 3) Assign and adjust ability scores. 4) Review the starting package for your character class. 5) Record racial and class features. 6) Spend skill points. 7) Select a feat. 8) Review "Chapter 6: Description" and "decide [those] details now or wait until later." 9) Select equipment: "if you don't use the equipment in the starting package", roll money and buy equipment. 10) Record combat and skill numbers. 11a) Choose an alignment: Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Neutral, Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Evil. 11b) Fill in the details of your character: religion [optional], name, gender, age, height, and weight. Note: In this edition, the player of a Wizard or other arcane spellcaster gets to choose which spells his character knows.
The Player's Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (2008) instructs the player to follow nine steps to create a character. 1) Choose character race: Dragonborn, Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Half-elf, Halfling, Human, or Tiefling. 2) Choose a class: Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, Warlord, or Wizard. 3) Determine ability scores: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. 4) Choose skills. 5) Select feats. 6) Choose powers. 7) Choose equipment. 8) Fill in the number. 9) Flesh out your character with details about [its] personality, appearance, and beliefs. Note: "Spells" from previous editions are broken into Powers (combat spells) and Rituals (noncombat spells); players chose their powers in step six and also get to choose their own rituals (if they qualify to have any rituals at creation).
We see complexity growing over time. Skills went from optional in 2nd edition to mandatory (or at least assumed) in 3rd edition. New elements are added and carry forward: notably skills and feats. The 4th edition made the most changes:
- No longer roll dice to determine ability scores
- No longer able to roll dice to determine starting gold used for buying equipment
- Gnome and Half-orc were removed from the list of character races
- Dragonborn, Eladrin, and Tiefling were added to the list of character races
- Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk, and Sorcerer were removed from the list of character classes
- Warlock and Warlord were added to the list of character classes
- Alignment was changed (making it closer to the three Basic Set options)
As we look forward to D&D Next, it is hard to know what we're going to get. Until the feedback on 5th edition starts coming back to Wizards of the Coast, probably no one truly knows what features will make the final cut to be in the Player's Handbook. Different groups of players have different tastes.
I want the most inclusive material possible for character creation that will fit in one book. Give me all of the 3rd edition character race choices plus the three new races in 4th edition. I'd like all eleven 3rd edition character classes, both new 4th edition classes, plus the ability to make specialist wizards and priests of specific mythoi. It is very easy to exclude character races or classes your group doesn't want to see in Dungeons & Dragons.
Options like skills and feats are difficult to exclude if they're involved in the delicate balance that game designers try to create between character race and class choices made by the players. The easiest solution is to give all characters the same number of skills and the same number feats as each other. Again, this is only necessary if you want play groups to have the option to exclude skills or exclude feats from their game. Another option, that seems workable to me, is to make feats a default part of the game but give each character a default feat choice every time a feat slot is available while allowing players (such as those interested in customization) to swap the default for any feat of their choice. I don't think you could use the same "defaulting" method with skills so I think they'll have to balance skills as a completely separate subsystem.
I can't wait to find out what we'll see in D&D 5th edition.
* Page 81 of the AD&D 2e Player's Handbook says, "...your character begins play with a spell book containing up to a few 1st-level spells. Your DM will tell you the exact number of spells and which spells they are."