Friday, April 17, 2015

The Big Six

As I look towards writing a "new" Fantasy Heartbreaker (or, more accurately, converting a conversion of a conversion), I find myself looking back at D&D editions over the years to see how ability scores were handled. Of course, I always start with OD&D (the Little Brown Books) because, well, that's where it all originates, yeah?

So in looking at the Big Six ability scores I notice something that I have (of course) noted in the past: namely that the Great Three Prime Requisites have absolutely zero effect on characters other than "rate of advancement" (i.e. XP gain). Which, just for the record, is no MINOR mechanical effect, BUT is really small potatoes compared to the mechanical effects of later editions and the incredible importance and weight these attributes carry. Things like attack and damage bonuses, number of spells known, and potential power limits of spell-casters.

I hate all that.

I especially hate the whole Strength bonus thang, not the least-wise because it got me into stupid trouble in the past. Nope, I hate it because The Game is soooo combat-oriented that it is just a matter of time before one's character gets embroiled in a melee and the importance of being able to hit and inflict damage gains life-and-death importance and thus becomes a paramount mechanical adjustment for ALL characters. When really, the only thing I want to use to model attacking ability is: A) character's training (class), and B) experience (level).

[there's also the issue of the resentment I've seen at the table due to the random strength roll. The fighter with the 13-15 STR, for instance, who looks at the cleric with the 16 STR and sees that healer is a better melee fighter for three levels of play, despite the focus of their careers. In reality, there have been plenty of small statured warriors who were better at inflicting damage with a single blow than incompetent, larger individuals. Ask any U.S. marine about that sometime!]

SO...since I wasn't planning on using Prime Requisites in the FHB, I thought I might simply DROP the whole stat from the character sheet. Just ix-nay the issue all together in a Gordion Knot kind of way. If there's no mechanical bonus to be derived from the attribute, why bother rolling the 3D6? Issue resolved.

Likewise, I figured I could do the same, axe-wise, with Intelligence and Wisdom. After all, I've decided to take a hint from folks like Alexis (and 3rd Edition Pendragon) and just realize that the whole "challenge" of not being able to speak another sentient's language isn't all that fun. Or rather, it detracts from an aspect of what IS fun: namely, being able to negotiate and bargain with potential allies and adversaries encountered. If a creature is sentient, it's going to speak the language of the region, not some weird "other tongue." Besides, do creatures with a split-tongue and a mouthful of fangs or tentacles really have the ability to form words like a "foreign human" would? It's all just fantasy, yo...let 'em talk "real people speak." Give 'em an accent, if it suits you.

So...axe, axe. The Lesser Three attributes were a different story. Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma have ALWAYS carried in-game mechanical bonuses: Dex adjusted missile attack rolls, Con adjusted rolled HPs (and "surviving adversity"), and Cha adjusted maximum number of hirelings and said hirelings loyalty base. Since I was trying to move away from ability scores adjusting combat rolls, I was pretty certain I wanted to cut Dexterity from the game.

IN ADDITION, I had to consider the "new" ability scores I'd dreamed up back in my last go around with this project: Agility (which had replaced DEX), Learning (which had replaced INT), Spirit (which is really its own thing), and Wit (which had...more or less...replaced WIS). Of these, I really only considered Spirit a "must have" really represents something new that I want. And Agility and Learning were tied to classes (and class abilities) that I've kind of decided to do away with. Oh...and I find myself hating Dex/Agility bonuses to Armor Class (whatever you call it in your game) these days. Just armor, folks. Just armor. Axe.

SO, I found that I only really had three ability scores I wanted to use in the new FHB:


But was I getting too far away from the roots of this fantasy adventure game?

The designer in me would say that such is an irrelevant question. BUT...even if I don't like the mechanical benefits derived from most of these ability scores, as simple NUMBERS, they still provide a ready, short-hand description of one's character. Something that could quickly identify (as in "create an identity") the words on the paper into an image in a player's mind. And those three by themselves, really aren't enough.

Then I came across GusL's abstract encumbrance mechanic based on Strength that I mentioned in my earlier post, and I realized that maybe there was a way to make a descriptive number of the stat useful without being mechanically overwhelming (i.e. by not being of benefit in combat, but of retaining a mechanical advantage for exploration, as described in the follow-up post). Strength added back. It also turns out that Wit, then, still proves useful for abstract accounting of items brought along (previously, I had thought I'd need to go back to old school, granular, encumbrance and resource accumulation to model the treasure acquisition that would be the focus of the new FHB iteration). All of a sudden, I was back up to five ability scores...and if I was going to get all "traditional" like that, why not just find a sixth to complete the batch.

GusL's "skill tree" system (my term not his)...which I have yet to blog about...convinced me to add back Learning, and develop my own similar system (it's not a super-original take...see both 1st edition Empire of the Petal Throne and World of Warcraft, but in a simplified way it adds a nice little variety). I haven't yet talked about "classes" (that's another post), but the return to "roguish" roots has meant that the heroic "everyone-gets-magic" idea has been dropped by the wayside. Acquired skills ("dabbling") puts a little bit of this back, and having a LRN stat models the characters who benefited from early education (its availability and/or their level of focus) over those who did not. Which I like.

OKAY: we've got Strength (for representing that strong back). We've got Learning (instead of "Intelligence"). We've got Wit (instead of "Wisdom"). We've got Spirit (my own, personal deal...but one that I really like). And we've got Constitution and Charisma, largely unchanged...

Wait a sec...Constitution? No, no...we can fold its traits (and mechanical bonus of +1 HP per level) into Strength. Back down to five.

So...still looking for that sixth trait apparently. And there's ol' Dexterity staring me in the face. I don't want Agility because (again) the game has moved away from the heroic swashbuckling I once envisioned (and the help of uber-AC bonuses I was...previously...going to provide).

[sorry Boris Vallejo hero-types...y'all need real armor in this version]

What the hell exactly was "dexterity" back in the days before it became the second most preferred combat stat (after strength)? Well, Gygax's description in Men & Magic states simply:
Dexterity applies to both manual speed and conjuration. It will indicate the character's missile ability and speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.
No chainmail bikins. DEX is speed only.
This is all very nice, but with the exception of missile fire (+1 to attack rolls for DEX >13, -1 for DEX <9) absolutely none of this is mechanically modeled within the OD&D books. Chainmail (the default combat system for OD&D) has no such "speed" rules in it; first attack in combat goes to the dude with the longer weapon or that is behind cover (like a castle wall), or else (if neither of those apply) then whoever attacked first (i.e. whose turn was it that decided to move into melee). It isn't till Holmes Basic, that DEX really starts to see the mechanical benefit as applied to "speed of action." In addition to the aforementioned missile fire adjustment (which remains the same in Holmes), melee combat is determined in order of descending DEX.

This inclusion of "melee speed" as part of dexterity's purview is a Holmesian addition, and not a terrible one. What I think is especially interesting is the part in Holmes where
if dexterities are within 1 or 2 points of each other a 6-sided die is rolled for each opponent and the higher score gains initiative - first blow.
Which is actually different from what is portrayed in Holmse's combat example (where Mogo the Mighty with DEX 9 simply strikes after the giant spider with DEX 10). I like the idea that two folks, close in natural "speed" ability have a more-or-less chance of getting their "go" before the other. Of course, I also like Arrowflight's spot rule that in cases of ties (with regard to speed) the guy with the lighter armor gets first go ( Arrowflight reference. That might be a first for this blog!). Yeah, probably some combination of all these is what I'm going for...

Aaand...I suppose that means dexterity is back in the game.

So there you have it...I went from "my own" five, up to six (with Charisma), down to three, back up six, almost all of which are the same as the original "Big Six" of D&D:

Learning (in place of Intelligence)
Wit (in place of Wisdom)

I'm not sure they'll appear in exactly that order (alphabetical makes a lot more sense, don't you think?) but that's where I am at the moment. Cue snickers and usual jibes about "reinventing wheels."

Just wait till I get to my post on the classes that are going to make an appearance.


  1. I agree that the random generation of scores can be frustrating for players (especially new players and especially especially kids).

    With regards to the language issue you brought up, almost all intelligent monsters should speak the same language as the PCs for exactly the reasons you brought up. Sure it removes some of the usefulness of being a demi human or having a high intelligence but I can live with that if it means more meaningful encounters.

  2. I like reading your process. I use:
    Mettle- to hit and dmg bonus for most weapons. also fear saves.
    Brawn- to hit and dmg bonus for heavy weapons. Also old str type tests and old con type tests.
    Dexterity- to hit and dmg bonus for finesse & ranged weapons and regular dex stuff. AC bonus.
    Wits- intelligence and wisdom. spell bonus.
    Charisma- same as always.
    Perception- thought it was useful enough to get its own stat.

  3. Searchers of the Unknown dumped the stats completely. I don't think it suffered for it.

    1. @ Stu:

      I am unfamiliar with Searchers of the Unknown. However, I did toy with the idea of dumping stats completely...I just like the idea of abilities as "descriptive" (of a character) too much.

      Though I also considered doing different random tables to describe a new PC.

  4. Why is it that nobody ever brings up Strength's role in Ego checks in OD&D? Considering how important magical swords are to fighting-men, you'd think that'd be seen as worth mentioning

    I've been wanting to mess with ability scores as well. Intelligence and Wisdom are great stats and all, but they've contributed to the shift from first- to third-person roleplaying. I'd like to at least change their names. I also like the idea of switching to something less abstract, like age, height and weight

    1. @ Prof Oats:

      See my response to Stu Rat. I was mocking up some tables for things like appearance, bearing, etc. but I'm also a great believer in players using their own imaginations to describe characters with just a handful of descriptives.

  5. I am glad you liked the skill system I cobbled together a few years ago - I will say though that in actual play it was far too cumbersome and susceptible to metagaming and min-maxxing. I've revised it to a level based tier system where a player gains one skill/subclass and advances through 4 tiers as they level with the ultimate skills gained at 10th level (my level max). Otherwise it's just too much of a beast to keep track of.

    Bonuses in B/X and after are way overwhelming and help create the awful AC race where smart players can manage to have really low ACs really quick. I don't go fully OD&D limited bonus (+1 to HP for CON and +1 to ranged attack for Dex) but rather give a +1 or -1 for high and low stats. This keeps things simple and allows me to cap AC at 18/2 which allows certain armor and weapon decision and makes combat against monsters with high HD very scary (they don't miss much, but neither do fighters).

    I use Int as the Initiative bonus stat now for individual initiative because it keeps INT from being pointless - A high Int fighter has a bonus - especially as heavy armor and two handed weapons reduce initiative by -1.

    1. @ GusL:

      In all honesty, it doesn't surprise me that the system proved cumbersome in play. My own riff on it is a lot more streamlined, and I'm STILL wondering about it. I hope to write about this Monday or Tuesday

    2. Whoops! That went out before it was done. Just wanted to add that after playing a LOT of B/X over the last few years, I've also come to the conclusion that the B/X bonuses are probably "too much."

      I've REALLY become enamored of the Holmes Basic edition. recently.

  6. Have a look at Prince Valiant by Greg Stafford. It boils everything down to Brawn and Presence, and a handful of skills which may interact with the former two. It's a brilliant piece of design.