Sorry. This has nothing to do with whimsy, "gods in D&D," or Dragonlance in any way, shape or form. But I just had an amazing...nay, mind blowing epiphany that I wanted to share.
For those readers who don't follow Grognardia, James has been writing about D&D ability scores lately. Musing about them really. Anyway, todays post was about the weirdness of the OD&D trade-off for prime requisites, a subject I thought I'd long since answered to my own satisfaction based on the instructions given in the Moldvay Basic book. In brief, my conclusion was: ability score adjustments are a means of offsetting low dice rolls in order to play a better version of the character class you've chosen for your PC.
But was it always meant to be that way?
Moldvay's mechanic is a streamlined version of OD&D's system, and in this context (helping out a low roll in one's prime area of expertise) it makes sense. However, Talysman from The Nine & Thirty Kingdoms had an incredibly astute observation. He wrote:
I think Gygax and/or Arneson had two conflicting ideas here:(1) Although each class has a prime ability, other abilities should improve performance in a class (smart and strong fighters should advance a little faster than those who are just strong.) This explains the different point ratios and why M-Us can't use Strength to improve earned experience.(2) An actual point swap, to reduce the risk of bad rolls.The problem is, they should have gone with #1 without #2, or #2 without #1. Trying to hang on to both leads to confusing language about lowering other ability scores, but only "for purposes of earned experience". Are we lowering the scores, or not?
To which I have the answer: they're not.
Gygax has penned a magnificent mechanic in OD&D that has been completely lost in his inability to express it coherently. Here is what he wrote:
Prior to the character selection by players it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order to rate each of the various abilities, and thus aid them in selecting a role. Categories of ability are; Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. Each player notes his appropriate scores...The first three categories are the prime requisites for each of the three classes...Strength is the prime requisite for fighters. Clerics can use strength on a 3 for 1 basis in their prime requisite area (wisdom), for purposes of gaining experience only. Strength will also aid in opening traps and so in.Intelligence is the prime requisite for magical types. Both fighters and Clerics can use it in their prime requisite areas (strength and wisdom respectively) on a 2 for 1 basis. Intelligence will also affect referees' decision as to whether or not certain actions would be taken, and it allows additional languages to be spoken.Wisdom is the prime requisite for Clerics. It may be used on a 3 for 1 basis by fighters, and on a 2 for 1 basis by Magic-Users, in their respective prime requisite areas. Wisdom rating will act much as does that for intelligence.[insert table that shows adjustment to earned experience based on prime requisite]Note: Average scores are 9-12. Units so indicated above may be used to increase prime requisite total insofar as this does not bring that category below average, i.e. below a score of 9.
The problem here, with my previous interpretation, is that I was using my knowledge of Moldvay (the B/X system I learned the game from) to infer the way the mechanic works in OD&D. In B/X a character's ability scores are exchanged...i.e. spent...in order to increase its prime requisite. That's not what Gygax writes. His term is USE.
A cleric may use strength on a 3 for 1 basis...Both fighters and clerics can use [intelligence]...[Wisdom] may be used on a 3 for 1 basis by fighters...Units so indicated may be used to increase...
"Use" does not mean "spent" or "exchanged."
What does that mean? It means that if I have a fighter with a 15 strength and a 13 intelligence, then my prime requisite is treated as 17 for purposes of gaining experience only. I can USE my intelligence on a 2 for 1 basis in my prime requisite area (strength), insofar as this does not bring the category below average, i.e. below a score of 9.
In other words, I can only USE those points that exceed 9 when calculating my prime requisite, and only on a 2 for 1 basis (if we're talking about a fighter and her intelligence).
Why? Because a strong fighter that is SMART will advance just a bit faster than a fighter that is only strong.
This is the reason for the different rates of "use." Strength cannot be "used" by a magic-user (no exchange given) but by a cleric. Intelligence (smarts) are useful for both clerics and magic-users. Wisdom is more useful to magic-users than the (bold, courageous, incautious) fighter.
And, yes, this STILL makes sense when you add in the thief class from Greyhawk (Supplement I): the prime requisite of a thief is dexterity. "They may use 2 points of intelligence and 1 point of wisdom to increase their raw dexterity score so long as they do not thereby bring the intelligence and wisdom scores below average." Smarts and caution/insight aid the thief in advancement, not strength. Makes perfect sense.
This is not an expenditure of points to improve an ability score. In answer to Talysman's query: NO, we are NOT "lowering" anything. We are USING points in excess of an average score in CERTAIN abilities (depending on class) to adjust a character's CALCULATED prime requisite to model the advantage of PCs that excel in multiple abilities deemed important for their profession.
Gygax just had a hard time saying that. And later he axed the mechanic from the game and simply said: roll 4D6, put them in order and if you have a 16+ in your prime requisite we'll give you a 10% bonus. Period, end of story.
Very simple. Fine for a game. Less of a model of "reality."
Man, I like OD&D more and more.
***EDIT TO ADD: And as Fr. Dave points out, the side benefit of this is that racial level limits can be increased (using these rules) withOUT the need for an 18 ability score. Your elf or dwarf fighter can make up for a lesser strength score with smarts or wisdom, de-emphasizing the imperative of high (rolled) scores.***