Friday, August 29, 2014

Revising B/X Ability Scores (Oh, Boy!)

Ah...ability scores. Love 'em or hate 'em, you just got to have 'em don't you?

Well, actually, no you don't. If I remember correctly, FATE (and its derivatives) don't use "ability scores." Neither does Tim Morgan's Ellis: Kingdom in Turmoil (a more traditional RPG, it defines characters mainly through skills selected from a finite list).

But most RPGs have some sort of "set attributes" that describe their characters. Even something as abstract and narrative-y as Rod Edwards's Trollbabe uses a number that helps describe/define the character's capability (the number in Trollbabe simultaneously describes the character's fighting ability, magic ability, and effectiveness in social interaction). This idea of having a number or numbers that express a character's basic abilities is as old as...well, as old as D&D. And no matter how "innovative" we get, game designers are always throwing it out there as part of character creation, sometimes even to the point of redundancy in game play: does Dungeon World really need ability scores at all?

Abilities are a useful tool to have, though, and not just from a mechanical perspective. It's valuable to be add some structure to an imaginary construct, to codify the archetype in your mind. Even very imaginative people who have little trouble coming up with crystal clear character concepts might need a little help every now and then. And it's useful to have a trait against which character's can measure each other (is Jill stronger than Bob? Is Rick smarter than Phil?)...we establish all sorts of pecking orders in real life (even if only in our own minds for our own benefits), and doing so with the members of an "adventuring party" just increases the "reality" (i.e. the immersion/escapism) of the players as they take a normal world behavior (gauging themselves against others) and transplant it in the fictional world.

[what, you think that's a stretch? I've seen this behavior in all sorts of games with all sorts of players. Kids are especially straightforward about it, but even mature adults will give each other a "good-natured ribbing" about whose character has the most pathetic ability trait]

I like ability scores (as they're called in B/X...I prefer the general term attributes from my old Vampire days), when used in moderation. Since most of my game designs of the last few years have started off a B/X base, I generally start with the standard B/X scores ("The Big Six"). The most recent heartbreaker, a kind of Holmes/BX mashup with a specific objective of play is no different, but in "building from the ground up" I took a really hard look at the ability scores, not just because I wanted to make sure they were appropriate, but in how they interacted mechanically with the game.

So once again: welcome to my thought process.
: )

First you look at where the Big Six came from: OD&D, yeah? There were no ability scores in Chainmail (the game Arneson originally used as the mechanics for delving Blackmoor). Characters were defined by class, but class was pretty much limited to fighting men plus (maybe, with expansion) wizards and elves (not necessarily in that order). To me, the ability scores in OD&D reflect this history: they feel "tacked on." They don't do much.

That is to say, considering the RANGE of possible ability scores, they don't do much. A score of 3-18 for each, and yet the prime three (strength, intelligence, and wisdom) carry no bonus aside from an XP bonus, and the other three carry a (very small) assortment of additional bonuses. The designers could have easily said:

"Roll D6 for the following traits:

  • XP bonus (regardless of class)
  • Missile adjustment
  • Health (HP) adjustment
  • Reaction adjustment

"If your XP bonus is a 1 or 2, you have a penalty to earned XP; if it's 5 or 6 you have a bonus. For the other scores, you only receive an adjustment if the score is a 1 or 6 (down or up respectively)."

Right? I mean, there's no other mechanical bonus. Oh, sure...number of languages. But that's easily addressed by saying, "roll D8 for the number of languages you speak. The first one MUST be common, the second MUST be 'alignment' language." Easy shmeezy.

[though I have to admit that in recent years, I've come around to Alexis's thinking on the whole issue of language barriers in D&D, i.e. "not very interesting"]

Anyway, that's OD&D where the main purpose of ability scores would seem to be flavor. Are you a strong adventurer? A smart one? What's your fitness look like compared to your fellows? Since then ability scores have become much, much more important with mechanical bonuses and blow-the-top-off escalating scores (ability scores go up and never come down). The most recent edition (5E) seems determined to scale this back with its maximum limit (hey, 5E...already done that), but also seem bent on removing the flavor by reducing ability scores to their straight mechanical bonus.

Where's the soul in that?

Haha...just being facetious, folks (kind of). In recent years, I've felt B/X to be a nice "middle ground" for ability scores. You get the nice flavor range (3 to 18) with only minor adjustments (+3 or -3 maximum)...not over the top and yet more than nothing. Lately, though, I've still found myself dissatisfied, and here's why (four things):

Breakpoints, first and foremost. As B/X stands, the adjustments for ability scores can be summed up as follows:

3 = -3
4-5 = -2
6-8 = -1
9-12 = 0
13-15 = +1
16-17 = +2
18 = +3

A character with a Strength or Intelligence of 15 is just as smart as a character with a score of 13, even though only 4.5% of the adventuring population achieve the former score as opposed to nearly 10% of the latter. Sure, it's a matter of expedience to have breakpoints, but when you are able to self-adjust prime attributes (as you can with B/X...drop 2 points to raise your prime 1 point) you end up with a lot of adventurers sporting 13s and 16s because those are the breakpoints for "the next bonus." And that lack of variety grows tiresome to moi.

There's also the issue of people being disappointed when they can't achieve a particular breakpoint. "I wanted to play a fighter, but the best I can raise my strength to is 15...and I'm already at 13. And all my other scores are 'average' or worse." Been there, done that, pal. There is a certain lack of variety that comes with baseline B/X play (one of the things I tried to address in The Complete B/X Adventurer. What you just thought it was all new classes and spells?).

Utility is another issue. There's just no denying that, while every ability score can be useful, not all of them are as useful as others, or as useful to all classes. It depends a bit on the style of play, of course. But usually any B/X PC is going to appreciate a high strength or dexterity over a high charisma at low levels of play, even for players determined to "talk to every monster they encounter" (you still need to speak the monster's language, and there's a LOT of languages out there).

No Helmet = Low WIS
And wisdom? Just about outright useless at low levels. Considering their quick rate of advancement, people rolling traditional "fighter stats" (high strength, constitution, etc.) would do well to consider the clerical class...without worrying about raising the prime requisite.

Redundancy. Just no real way around it. Do you need a "strength" AND a "constitution" score? Considering my recent Blood Bowl post on the difference between "strength" and "durability," well, maybe...but dungeon delving in a pseudo-medieval setting isn't really the same thing as suiting up on the football field. Considering the lack of "sport science" (as one of my readers pointed out), I'd just as soon consider strength and constitution to be an overall measure strength.

I mean, unless you really want to nuance your ability scores...have a "manual dexterity" and an "agility" and a "speed." Have a "knowledge" versus "common sense" versus "linguistic talent" (or whatever).

But, of course, combining strength with constitution (and the associated bonuses) just makes an "uber ability" (see utility above)...the overall usefulness of strength is one of the reasons it received more weight in racial bonus consideration (see D&D 3rd Edition).

Penalties. Last but probably not least. I've just decided penalties ain't really fun for anyone...not even a cackling, sadistic DM like myself. The penalty adjustments applied from low ability scores simple mean characters become less effective...and low-level characters are already pretty ineffective

[consider this: even with a 16 strength, a fighter of levels 1st through 3rd only hits AC 5 - chain mail - on a 12 or better. That's less than a 50% chance, meaning the character is going to spend more than half of all combat rounds "whiffing," on average. Kinda' sucks, don't it?]

Why make a hard life even harder? Besides, aren't these characters supposed to be heroes?

Oh, wait, no. "Scurrilous rogues" is, I believe, the proper OSR term for adventurers. Except for DDC in which you're even a step below THAT to start (goat herders and whatnot). Well, in my new heartbreaker (designed for "basic" play) I've made the design choice that characters ARE supposed to be heroes. My other two games currently under construction (and based on a B/X system chassis)? Characters are just supposed to be 'really proficient' types...not shmoes.

[my shmoe game uses a different system]

Still, I like the 3-18 range for humans...I just prevent player characters from having ability scores in the low end of the range. We'll get to that in a second.

Hmmm...but now that I'm looking over the length of this post, I might need to do a "part 2." Um,'s what I'll do: I'll outline my thoughts or, rather, objectives when it comes to retooling ability scores. They were:

  • Breakpoints: if a high ability score can be defined as 13+, each point of the ability should show an increased measure of effectiveness (not just 13, 16, and 18). Every point counts, diversity is good, at higher is better.
  • Utility: every ability score provides bonuses cool enough that all players will want high abilities in every category, regardless of class.
  • Redundancy: all abilities adhere to a different and distinct arena of mechanical adjustment that makes sense within the setting.
  • Penalties: don't like 'em for heroic types. You're either average or better.

Got it? Oh, more thing:

  • Don't tread on class abilities in major ways. We'll talk about that one, too.

But all that's for the follow-up post. I'm sorry folks...I had an extremely busy day and it took me a while to find the time to post all this. I'll try to get the next part up before the end of the weekend, but don't count on it.


  1. i use stat more - use for skill rolls, i have int bonus provide skills, bonus spells for all classes, i have a second chance points derived from wisdom (foresight/divine help) and cha derived followers - strength is now the dump stat - get a strong follower istead

  2. Sounds so very much like my B/X homage game. Stats 8-18 for PCs but 3-18 for general population.

    In my 0e homage game, there are no stat numbers, only the modifiers, and only -1 to +1. PCs start with 1 or 2 exceptional stats (random roll, but heavily weighted to only one) arranged to taste. They can take an inferior stat to boost a normal one to exceptional too.

  3. Personally, I love having penalties in the game. I always enjoyed having one or two for every character, though no more than that and I didn't like scores to be lower than 6. Penalties would really suck if they overrode player skill, though ("your character's too stupid to think of that!")

    I've always felt 4d6 drop the lowest produces scores that are too high, but they should work for heroic characters, especially if players can arrange scores to taste (I preferred the organic method). 3e allowed rerolls if your character failed to get at least one score higher than 13 and a positive sum of all your modifiers, which helped to spread the stats out a little more. I'm considering something similar, but with lower minimums

    If you want every point to count without letting the modifiers get too high, I'd suggest having each stat adjust multiple traits, but the modifiers change at different points. Alternatively, two scores might share the same modifier, but one also acts as a prerequisite for some kind of special ability

    I suppose the doesn't really help you, but I just have to gush about OD&D for a sec. Rewarding you for stats other than your prime encouraged more diverse characters, as opposed to Basic's encouragement that all fighters be strong and dumb, all clerics wise but frail, etc. You could theoretically even have character whose highest score of the three primes isn't the prime requisite of the class he'd advance fastest in. Unfortunately, that's pretty unlikely. I thought about tweaking the numbers to make this more prominent, but the same thing can be achieved by dropping the experience bonus and just having those stats adjust things just like the others do

    1. Oh God, that looked so much smaller when I was typing it! Sorry for the wall of text

    2. Regarding OD&D, I think I'd disagree. Since the prime three ability scores lack any mechanical bonus besides XP adjustment, there's no reason not to lower your non-primes and raise your prime, making for a 'stereotypical' character. Remember, only STR, INT, and WIS can be lowered in OD&D (same as B/X) which doesn't interfere with any o the bonus-awarding abilities.

      (no worries on the long post, BTW)
      : )

    3. We're interpreting OD&D differently here. The way I read it, you don't actually adjust your stats at all ("for purposes of gaining experience only"). For example, if you rolled up a fighting-man with STR 13, INT 11 and WIS 12, all those stats would stay the same, but he'd get a 10% bonus to experience rather than 5%

  4. @ ProfOats:

    Hmm, yeah...we are interpreting that differently. I'd say the "for purpose of gaining XP only" means you can't adjust the prime score unless it's going to change the rate at which you gain XP. But the scores are still adjusted.

    Otherwise the later section (bottom of page 11) doesn't make sense:

    "Units so indicated above may be used to increase prime requisite total insofar as this does not bring the category below average, i.e. below a score of 9."

    1. Crap, my reply disappeared into the aether. Damn you, Google!

      Basically, what I said was that the prime requisite itself isn't being increased, while the other scores are more debatable. I interpret that "Units so indicated" passage as meaning average or above scores in those abilities contribute towards the rate of progression, partly because of the language that one can use an ability in their prime requisite area, and partly because magic-users don't benefit from strength. It sounds like a convoluted way of saying each class has one score which, high or low, contributes totally towards the rate of experience, while the others only count if they're average or above, and even then it's to a lesser extent

      Admittedly, I could be wrong about all this (you make a good case when you say "you can't adjust the prime score unless it's going to change the rate at which you gain XP"), but I happen to like this method more than any other I've heard. Even if I became convinced that I was wrong, if I'm going to adjust experience points for stats, I'd still use this method. I find the characters it produces, and the choices it creates, more interesting

    2. @ ProfOats:

      There is plenty of stuff "open to interpretation" in most editions of D&D...look at all the different rulings on cleric turning prior to 3E! You should always run with what's most appropriate (and, yeah, interesting) for your table and group. Regardless of what pseudo-intellectuals (like moi) might say is "the right way" to play.
      ; )

    3. Oh, believe me, I know! I consider that part of the fun in D&D, and I've found OD&D to be especially rewarding in that regard (especially once you ditch any preconceptions based on later editions). Nobody can seem to agree on multi-classing, hit dice or how to incorporate Chainmail, and I love reading all these different viewpoints. It really gets one's creative juices flowing

      I bring up my interpretation not so much to argue what the "right way" is (though original intent is certainly an interesting subject in its own right), but to spread the exposure of different ideas. Even if you don't buy my interpretation, you might decide you like it better, or I might be influenced by your thoughts; even if we reach an impasse, we've still had an interesting discussion on the matter, which is something I didn't get much from the 3E community (especially after that horrible revision)

  5. The breakpoint issue disapears with direct ability checks against the score itself and ability damage (if you want to bother with that).

    1. @ JD:

      Absolutely. But in the new FHB I've only got (maybe) one creature that does AB damage, and only to Strength. And I'm trying to get away from the D20 under AB mechanic. Not because it's not useful but because:

      A) it (again) lends more value to ability scores than I feel they warrant,
      B) in a good (IMO) game, they shouldn't be called for too often, mainly due to them
      C) having a relatively high chance o failure (which isn't a terribly cool way to reward a player who came up with an interesting thing to do outside the standard rules).

      : )