Friday, July 8, 2011

B/X Charisma & Henchmen (Part 1)

This may get long and will probably jump around a lot, but please bear with me.

It is quite possible, upon reflection, that I have been a bad B/X Dungeon Master.

Not meaning "jerk" or "mean" and not even meaning "incompetent." I think I can still rate passable in the DM category (I still have players showing up). But inaccurate in my portrayal (or rather, "running") of the B/X system.

Having got that off my chest, let's take a couple steps back.

I play and run B/X for the same reason most of us (except for my players, who are kind enough to indulge my weirdness) play whatever edition/clone of the D&D game we do. Namely, I play B/X because it works for me and does what I need/want it to do.

There are folks who enjoy tinkering and house-ruling and such, but everyone starts with a foundation and builds from there. The choice of a particular edition is the choice of that foundation. Do you want a game where everything is sculpted out from the beginning of your career to the end? You may be playing BECMI/RC. Do you like the semi-occultic writing of Gygax and its absolutely huge amount of pre-made monsters, spells, and magic items (not to mention the option of playing halfling thieves and half-orc assassins)? Then AD&D is probably your game. Etc.

I play B/X instead of OD&D or BECMI or AD&D because it works the way I think D&D should work. That's just me, okay? For me, I don't need anything else because B/X sets a foundation of play...even my B/X Companion is nothing but a supplement built from that foundation based on the material in the B/X books. I'm big enough to admit that.

I'm likewise big enough to admit I've been leaving out a large chunk of the B/X game...specifically, Henchmen and (by association) Charisma.

I'll speak to that in a moment; let's talk ability scores for a moment. I know much ado has been made about the Sacred Six ability scores over the years...specifically their importance (for better or worse) to the mechanics of the game. In the Little Brown Books of OD&D they did precious little...but since that first publication of D&D, they've grown and grown in importance until you have the 3rd edition/Pathfinder era (and presumably 4th edition as well), where they drive everything outside of a random D20 roll. And with their growth in importance, ability scores have grown in range, with the ability to continuously add more and more points to your stats until you wonder what exactly they model at all.

[people don't just continuously get bigger and stronger over time...only the Hulk does that]

Because of their mechanical importance to later editions of the game, there have been many methods used to up players' chances of getting desirable, high scores. Beyond 3D6, new methods of rolling scores using multiple dice and even "point-buy" systems have been introduced to the D&D game. Back when I was a kid playing AD&D, you'd roll until you got a set of stats you liked and then you worked like hell to keep your PC alive (or else bring him back if he died), so you didn't have to go through that again.

For the sake of expedience in my current B/X campaign, I recently introduced a (limited) point-buy system to speed chargen of viable PCs (our group is at a high enough level that newly created characters are coming in at a level greater than 1st, more often than not). After a couple of character deaths we had our 1st introduction of point-buy PCs into the game.

Two of the three PCs had a score of "3" in Charisma.

The players assured me they weren't attempting to game the system, but had needed the points for other abilities and fully intended to role-play their characters. I don't believe I said boo to them, but later felt more than a little steamed. More at myself and my chargen "house rule" than at the players. I provided them a means to "dump" in one stat, and they took it...that they both chose Charisma for that dumping shows that I had made the ability score so weak as to not necessitate putting points into it.

[the odds that any given player rolling a 3 for CHA using the standard 3D6 in order method is 1 in 1296. The odds of seeing two in the same party is 1 in 1,679,616, adjusted downwards depending on how many party members are present and rolling randomly. What a gyp]

All ability scores should be equal; there should be NO "dump stats." If there's a useless ability score in a game, than the game is probably better off without it...or it needs to be changed. I've been playing a lot of chess this week down in Mexico, a game where pieces have been changed and re-developed over centuries. In Spanish, the bishop is called the "alfiel," which is an Arabic translation of a Persian translation of Indian sanskrit from when the piece was an elephant that only moved two spaces diagonally. It was judged too weak and was changed to the bishop in the 1500s or so...but this was after the Moorish people had conquered Spain and brought their own version of chess to the Iberian peninsula.

Whatever. The point is, the elephant sucked and needed to be changed and the bishop rocks.

Now back to what I said towards the beginning of this post: I play B/X because it does what I want it to do. It gives me what I need in a fantasy RPG. Moldvay did a pretty genius job of his Basic set (as even Holmes points out), so maybe I needed to go back to Moldvay and see just what the hell Charisma was good for.

Aside from parleying with monsters...a tactic that's only useful when PCs and monsters speak a common language...the MAIN operative mechanic is in the interaction of PCs and henchmen, aka Retainers. Counting the section on retainer morale in the Encounter chapter, and the portion of character generation pertaining to Charisma and its effects on henchmen, Moldvay devotes nearly an entire page to henchmen/retainers.

In a 64 page rule book, that is huge.

When you are creating an entire set of rules on a 64 page budget, you do not waste space on unnecessary subjects. Trust me, I learned this when writing the B/X Companion. You can always fill white-space with an illustration, but generally even space for illos are at a least in a book designed to be a "complete" game, that includes beneficial examples of play, glossary, random tables, etc.

Let me give you some perspective on this: one page devoted to henchmen is more than the Cook/Marsh rules devote to castle construction OR spell research and magic item creation...fairly large subjects, right?

Do you know how much space Moldvay devotes to traps? Not counting the thief section (where there disarming receives minimal mention), we get about three paragraphs, split between the Adventure section and the DM Info chapter. Three paragraphs...compared to a full page.

How prominent are traps in your D&D game? How often do they come into play?

Compared to traps, how much attention do you give to henchmen and retainers. If you're like me, the answer is "not very much." Which is why O why, Charisma becomes a dump stat. If you run a B/X game and forget one 64th of the rules. That's like knocking out three or four pages of rules (NOT color text) form your D20 Players Handbook. Where do you want to take those from? Spells? Equipment? Removing 3 pages could mean removing 2-4 entire classes from the rules.

I've been doing B/X a disservice by NOT paying more attention to these rules.

All right, that's the teaser...I hope to flesh this subject out more in my next post.


  1. Definitely looking forward to part 2... This is going to sound terribly sexist, and that's not my intention, but I have two female players in my group and if their characters don't get a high Charisma (I'm talking 11+) they are pretty grouchy...

    I find that my players haggle with NPCs and monsters quite often so Charisma is quite useful in my games.

    I only use 3D6 in order so high scores are not the norm.

  2. @ Hogscape:

    Back in the AD&D days of my youth, we had many male players that would get quite grouchy if they didn't have a Charisma AND Comeliness of 13+...and even THAT might not be acceptable for some (bonuses to Comeliness brought a whole new desire to create elf and half-elf characters, and a whole new reason to spurn dwarves and half-orcs!)!

    Oh...and my current batch of players DO negotiate and converse with NPCs and monsters alike. But they generally let the dudes with the highest Charisma scores do the talking. That means 6 of 8 players have no reason to carry a high CHA score.

  3. I have a whole series of posts on why I think an ability score a 3 is unplayable (ie such low scores are reserved for NPCs or magical effects). A three is simply so much worse than can be imagined or role-played by your players. Six is my minimum for PCs.
    Looking forward to the next post JB.

  4. For 3D6 in order, the chance of CHA 3 is 1 in 216. The chance of any two specific, random characters having CHA 3 is the square of that, or 1 in 46,656. However, the chance of two or more characters in a party of 4 having CHA 3 is about 1 in 3933, because any two of the four characters could have the low value.

    I believe strongly in retainers, as that was how my very first character survived (at level 1) a very dangerous, high-level adventure (Tomb of Horrors), while most of the rest of the (higher level) party did not. Admittedly, the DM did not really understand how to use retainers (seriously, even with them, a first level MU should not likely survive ToH), but the concept has stuck with me ever since.

  5. All good points, bar one:

    Elephants rock! I'd rather have elephants in my chess army than bishops. It's a frickin' elephant!

  6. If you like random stats but hate seeing guys with 3's then consider 2d6+6. Minimum score of 7 and less difficult to get an 18 (you only need 2 sixes instead of three).

    I am a little confused by the term B/X. I thought it meant BECMI.

  7. DM is definitely at fault if CHA is marginalized as a stat to the point of becoming a dump. I don't let parties get away with having the high charisma carry the load at all times. You are judged by the company you keep, after all. As far as I'm concerned social interaction should be as or more abstract than melee. Thus, if sir Justin the Cool is jiving the queen with his 16 CHA mad skills, doesn't do his cause much good if the scurvy lot he rode in with is cutting farts and cutting up in the background, picking their noses or otherwise acting uncouth. And I presume characters with below average CHA are behaving thusly, plus are certain to be dressed inapropriately. Pretty simple, really.

  8. @ Imago

    I would not presume anything, almost seems like character control. Charisma is well here read this (JB you as well)

    I do agree wholeheartedly that is a group effort in many cases and the differences need to be considered.

    Rather than relegate low charisma character behavior to what you PRESUME, allow the players to express/roleplay their lack of charisma. Some players may choose fart, some may just remain aloof, some may tell bawdy jokes or make racial slurs, some may brag, some may talk with their mouth full, some may even stare at folks uncomfortably, some may be coldhearted, others harsh and prickly. Let them have control over this aspect of their characters and you will create more options inspire more interaction and banish the specter of control.

  9. In 0d&d a good charisma score meant the possibility of getting a dragon, ogre, pixie, or any other "monster" as a players retainer--literally any creature you met was up for grabs (the text literally tells you this is te means of getting non 0-level hirelings).

    I'd bet the 3 cha player will kick himself if he saw that sir perceval with his 17 cha convince a brass dragon to be his henchman and mount.

  10. Anath--No need to go all caps. My eyes work fine. Nor am I hard of hearing. I'm not advocating dictatorial control. I'm refering to the abstract nature of huge swathes of the game. Also, if players who are suffciently munchkin to dump down to a 3, I highly doubt they are going to be mature enough to roleplay the consequences. If so, problem solved. But JB already expressed that his crew leaves the talking to the high CHA character. So the deomcratic, touchy-feely solution you propose doesn't seem viable in this case.

    In any event, we have reaction rolls, jus as we have melee rolls, for a reason. Players can say they cut off the dragon's head in one swipe, or convince the princess to drop her panties with a wink and a smile, but so what. Likewise, a bunch of louts loitering about with CHA of 3-5 can say oh, we be cool, all they want. The NPCs might disagree, eh?

  11. We basically agree but I will say this - leave as much action and power in the hands of your players.

    Players may believe their low charisma characters are trying to be cool and roleplay it, however a roll is made - maybe modified by how they went about it through their roleplay.

    Some folks regardless of how nice or suave they think they are come off as creepy, sycophantic, pandering, aloof despite their attempts otherwise.

    I believe this is empowering and encouraging as opposed to presumptuous.

    In regards to JBs game, and again we agree, so 17 charisma Alextor saunters over to the female elf ranger. Great! He roleplays, and rolls, the wink and the nod and easilly lands the hottie in the sack err on his side. Regardless how much the elf likes Alextor, she may have serious reservations about the rest of his low charisma companions. So much so that despite the fact she would love to follow him, she refuses.

    This is something I would have roleplayed. Hottie likes Alextor, joins the group. She starts to interact with the others - rolls are made - and gets creeped out, and tells Alextor she must leave maybe after a last passionate night of errr discussing plans in private.

  12. Heh. Hottie Elf: You're sooo dreamy, but I'm frightened of that motorcycle gang you're rolling with...

    There's a country tune in vogue about a guy courting the singer's daughter. He tells the kid, don't mind me, I'll just be up all night cleaning my gun. My brother was watching the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Viggo and Liv are kissing at ye elf hall. We noted how tough it must be win approval to date the daughter of the high lord elf. And my brother said good old papa was probably singing, "Don't mind me, boy, I'll just be up all night loading my wand..."

  13. Yeah, running 1E here, and I break things out into CHA and COM, but my players have learned that CHA (and COM to a lesser degree) is a important stat - it determines how all the NPC's view and interact with you.

    Have a high Charisma, and even when you flub that bit of role-playing the NPC's forgive you where I, the omnipotent DM, might not. Just like real-life, high Charisma people can get away with saying some remarkably stupid crap. With a low Charisma, everyone tends to interpret what you can say or do badly...


  14. I let my characters role play their characters, not their stats.

    A high intelligence means you can read, write, know extra languages, and get an experience bonus (depending on class).

    A high wisdom means you have a bonus to magic based saving throws and get an experience bonus (depending on class).

    A high charisma means you can have more retainers, they are more loyal, and people and creatures you meet are more likely to view you in a favorable light.

    You can have a high charisma and be an ugly, scruffy, foul mouthed mouth breather - but people like you. You can be an analytical genius that is witty and sly, but have a 7 intelligence and not be able to read or write (background or whatever).

    I keep the rp way way way out of numbers. Now, some of my players will use the numbers to add to their characters persona - For example, Murray the Dwarf with a 5 int and a 7 wis spoke in one syllable words, was gullible, and devoted to killing bandits; He'd never seen an owlbear bandit before, but his friends wouldn't lie to him.

    When the guy carrying your lantern and sack of rare and valuable jewels flees the first time he sees a troll because you have a 6 charisma, you might not quite think of it as a dump stat after all... No treasure (so little xp) and in the dark... I'd rather have been charismatic. Or after 3 rough adventures, you've bought him a suit of plate mail and he's using a magic spear... but he decides enough is enough because he fails his morale roll.

    Charisma is nice and easy and very, very important. At least in my game.