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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

On the "Neutering" of Ability Scores...

I remember what it was like to make a D&D character back in '78 (or '80, for that matter; we were still rubbing the 70s out of our eyes).  You rolled 3d6 in order and knocked on wood, praying for an 18 somewhere, preferably in a prime requisite.  Now this could be fun because you never knew what you were going to get.  But it could also be a bummer if you wanted Conan and got Steve Urkel.  This wouldn't stand, especially as non-wargamers entered the hobby, attracted to the idea of roleplaying and storytelling.  Inevitably, such players came equipped with a character concept, and Mr. Gygax, always good at divining the zeitgeist, was quick to address this in the Dungeon Master's Guide...  

The rule of the day (well, option is more like it) was to roll 4d6 and pick the highest three, arranging to taste.  This wasn't the only option on offer, but it quickly became the most popular.  It was certainly the most popular at my table and for the inevitable pickup games at conventions (back in my young and single days, you'd meet people and end up playing upstairs and completely off the schedule).  And as an idea it really holds up.

But like so many things in life, the other shoe always drops eventually...

And a side effect of this (very good) idea was neutered (and inflated) abilities.

Obviously, you gotta take the good with the bad, and this method also served to address the problem of hopeless characters.  Don't get me wrong, I love D&D (and strongly prefer its original iteration to its later incarnations).  But when you can actually fail at character creation by rolling a hopeless character, something's broken in the machinery.  The optional rules certainly helped here because you were generally assured a workable result.  But it also lead to a sort of "stats inflation" and, in general, less varied characters.  The fighter always had their highest score in Strength (given a choice, you'd be out of your mind not to prioritize this way) and the magic user in Intelligence, etc.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Sure, you could always assign scores to have a fighter who's more intelligent or wise than physically strong, but again, why?  Especially when the AD&D Player's Handbook placed such a premium on good prime prerequisites.  Your viability (and survivability) depended on it!  

If you wanted to get the most from your magic user (for instance), you needed a high Intelligence or you'd be shut out of spells you aspired to eventually cast.  D&D was always a speculative venture (although maybe less so now).  You built your character on what they could do right now, but also on what you hoped to be able to do in a few levels...

Okay, so you got characters who were predictably gifted.  But you also got many scores clustered around the average (or slightly above).  On the one hand, this was more realistic than Borg with the 3 Intelligence.  Mind you, that's a 30 IQ if Gary's to be believed!  If my tenure in the Army taught me anything, it's that going even 10 miles with a 30-pound pack is extremely difficult.  The stereotypical weak magic user wouldn't stand a chance.  And the fighter doesn't get off much easier, for while the dumb barbarian is ubiquitous in the popular imagination, Conan was anything but, and fighting requires a keen intellect.  Characters probably shouldn't be too deficient.  But when most of your scores are clustered around an average (with a few predictably placed outliers), small differences become meaningless, even with roll-under mechanics.  And ability scores feel increasingly "neutered"...      

Note: With roll-under mechanics, each point of attribute works out to a 5% difference, so having a 12 dexterity instead of 11 matters.  I get this.  Each point is like a +1 magic sword by way of analogy.  Still, variety comes from having a few lower scores and, possibly, an exceptional ability or two, although this comes with its own baggage.     

And so back in 2002, as I was scouring my memories for how my old-school games ultimately felt to me, I opted to treat characters as basically average across the board with one or two superior attributes.  No scores, no rolls.  Just pick (or roll for) the ability you imagine your character excelling at and go from there.  And abilities were more like perks than anything else (preserving randomness for those who wanted it).  Moreover, there were no prime requisites.  Your fighter could be wise above all else, with no one rewarded (or penalized) for anything but the quality of their play (in as much as possible).  The result was Pits & Perils, not a retro-clone, but a spiritual one for sure.  One born from years of play spent reflecting on how D&D tried to manage what it was becoming.  Let us know what you think about all this.  House rules?  Modifiers?  How did you keep your ability scores virile?         


  1. This is actually one of the things I quite like about P&P. I suppose, too, that it's one of the things I really like about OD&D too, since modifiers range from +1 to -1, and I do my skill checks on a 1d6 roll with that modifier applied. Granted, that ranges from a +17% to -17%, but no further. And most people have +0 most of the time.

    I have been tempted though, due to the wide range of actual scores (3-18) to just do away with the scores entirely and just say "everything is average across the board except one stat, which is +1, rolled for randomly on a 1d6."

    Haven't actually put that into play yet though.

  2. That's how I started with Treasure Hunters. It might have been inspired by Pits and Perils come to think. You got a +1 or a -1, or a +0. The actual stat number was meaningless.

    I think there is some merit to minimizing the effect of big and little scores; allowing them to be qualitative rather than quantitative.

    A while ago I did a series on "So you rolled a 3" for each ability and tried to imagine what that 3 means.

    This was the 1st (earliest) one:

    1. Insightful! OD&D certainly implied something different and actually created some compelling options...

  3. Have you taken a look at DUNGEONPUNK RPG? There is a certain Zen when you forget that there are rules and it`s story and flow!