Thursday, May 20, 2021

Wow. I FINALLY Get It!

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. 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.***


  1. This is what I put in my OD&D clone, Adventures in the Green, for Strength:
    "Strength aids all classes in forcing Open Doors and other related activities. For each 3 full points of strength above 9, clerics may consider their prime requisite (Wisdom) 1 higher for the purpose of gaining experience."

    I put similar language into INT and WIS.

    1. @ Patrick:

      Yes, I think your comment at Grognardia is far more succinct than my long-winded blog post.

      I'll have to check out Adventures in the Green. Thanks!
      ; )

  2. Thank you! Now I don't have to think it's only me :D

  3. Oh my. Thank you for this post. I never heard this interpreted like this, but it seems right.

  4. Man, sometimes trying to understand the bad writing of some RPG's is an art. I really like your interpretation.

    Someday we will talk about the AD&D spells.

  5. This will not do!

    I am reading D2 at the moment and it is interesting to contrast Gygax's treatment of gods, in the form of the chtonic deities Bildoolpoolp or Thaarizdun, with Cordell's treatment of Maatzecorian or Illensine. The former is much more ineffable, yet another practice largely lost to the modern OSR.

    1. *sigh* I know, I know. My apologies, Prince, but I shall get to it.

      Um...who's Cordell? Do you mean Bruce?

    2. Bruce Cordell. Underappreciated in the 2e era I think. He didn't quite make classics but he did good work in the last days of Wotc 2e.

    3. [checks wikipedia entry]

      Ah, yes. Wrote Return to White Plume Mountain. The only 2E adventure I've read, played, enjoyed, and retained in my collection. Some really excellent encounters.

      And the 3E Epic Level Handbook! That's a great one, too...still on my shelf collecting dust with the other 3E stuff. Tome and Blood was a big dud, though. Man, I hate 3E.

      He lives in Seattle? Huh. Haven't bumped into him.

  6. Yeah wow, never really questioned the exchange rules; this is different than anything I ever considered. I think it might make more sense just to present the scores and the % bonus as opposed to a paragraph of prose for each class.

    1. In EGG's defense, it WAS his first time trying to write an RPG...
      ; )

  7. Wow. This is a revelation. I am tempted to use this in context of racial limitations in AD&D as well, since so many level limits are dependent on Prime Requisites. For example, Dwarves are limited to 7th level Fighter if their Strength is less than 17. With this understanding of how to figure Prime Requisites, I could still have a Dwarven Fighter with a lower Strength, but still qualify to go beyond 7th level...Yep, this interpretation is officially awesome.

    1. Yep, though I hadn't thought about that before. But yes: with this ruling the idea that you simply MUST have that 18 stat (to obtain max level) is greatly diminished: your heroic dwarf or elf can make up for a lesser score with brains or wisdom. Totally valid.

  8. VERY intriguing. The symmetry around the three classes and three Attributes .. well, almost, but that's why M-U get 2:1 for Wis 'cause an M-U getting use out of Str does not fit the concept...

    (scribbling madly in another window about how he'd use this with Old School Essentials Advanced...)

  9. I've spent the last year doing a deep dive in to OD&D +Greyhawk (Supp 1), with an eye to running such a game for my group.

    I also discovered this 'virtual' point swap and came to the same conclusion - despite the less-than-clear explanation.

    I do like that intelligence can help a fighter, or wisdom can aid a thief.

    I'm also glad that I wasn't the last man on earth to actually understand it....

    1. “Slow but not stupid” is an apt enough description of this blogger’s musings.

  10. Yep, and agreed. I also like how your post had a nice giddy energy. It's pretty fantastic how this game continues to do that for longtime players. I've been enjoying the posts on the topic over at Grognardia and Nine & Thirty as well.

  11. best solution is to ignore the scores altogether and always assume that the character deserves the increased XP.

    They went down and earned their treasure like everybody, there is no reason to scam them some XP just because they are 1 point too weak

  12. You know, I never cared to delve too deeply into the Men & Magic version of this rule because it was so incoherent. The Classic D&D 2-for-1 swap is easy to understand. The original D&D rules are bafflingly unclear about whether the secondary and tertiary abilities are actually being lowered or not — because, if they aren't, why in the name of all that's clear and understandable do we have language about "bring[ing] that category below" 9!?!? *That* line makes no *bloody* sense at all if the score isn't actually being altered!

    And yet, I really don't like the Moldvay rule. I use it; I've used it for years. But it does disturb the simple beauty of 3d6 in order in a way that rubs me wrong if I pause to think about it for even a moment.

    This interpretation, though, is *beautiful*. There's no other word for it: it's BEAUTIFUL. The rule is elegant, quite simple, and makes sense.

    Curiously, it also has the effect of putting a seventh "ghost stat" on the character sheet. There are SEVEN abilities in OD&D: Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha, and PR. You calculate Prime Requisite by deriving it from the other stats, but its mechanical effects stand separate from your Str or Wis or Int. (Also, this formulation won't work in AD&D where classes can have multiple primes.)

    I'm having lots of wild thoughts right now. I'm going to have to sort this out.

    1. Right on, man. Though to be honest, I must say I’ve always considered the “seventh stat” to be the 3d6 roll for gold (call it Starting Social Status, or SOC for short). Like CON and CHA, it is *not* a prime requisite.
      ; )

  13. Like you, growing up with the box sets, where it's explicit that you lower a score to raise another, I also always assumed that's what OD&D was talking about (once I finally had a chance to peruse OD&D as an adult). It definitely colored my interpretation. I guess I assumed, since Tom Moldvay and especially Frank Mentzer worked closely with Gary, that that was what was intended.

    I like this interpretation much better. But as Jack pointed out on my blog a while back, the XP bonuses rarely have an effect, while at least in versions of the game post OD&D without supplements, the bonuses to combat, languages (and spells knowable, if you use that), or saving throws are probably more sought after.

  14. Hmmmm.....that makes sense to me! I dig it and will be using that from this point forward.

  15. The '74 ODD retro-clone DELVING DEEPER made me revisit this exact wording because it has a bit under WISDOM when any class can use high WISDOM to count toward their prerequisite for determining experience.

    Like you, I was like "OOOOOOOOOHHHhhh, that makes sense! And a good use of WIS"

  16. Yep, another one of OD&D's gems that comes up from time to time on forums, like in this thread:

  17. Definitely one of the most coherent and interesting interpretations of rules which simply don't make sense. This is a prime example (pun intended) of how OD&D is frequently a Rorschach test in which each reader is mechanically inspired by near meaningless babble on the page.

    For example, there's simply no way to interpret "bring that category below average" if you are not, in fact, actually changing ability scores.

    One thing that tends to get missed in these discussions is that in OD&D the original prime requisite scores (Str, Int, Wis) had no mechanical function except providing an XP bonus. Even the concept of an ability score check didn't exist in the rules as written.

    This changes in Supplement I (where Str and Int suddenly enhance performance). But contrary to what yo say, Supplement I is also where this interpretation of the rules is even more flatly contradicted. There's simply no way to interpret "increase their raw dexterity score" to mean "but don't actually change their Dexterity score."

    (This is also probably why the other prime requisite scores begin accruing mechanical benefit: It's logical for the Thief to use Dexterity as a prime requisite, but now they get both an XP and mechanical bonus from their prime requisite. Shouoldn't the same be true of other classes?