Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Musings on Ability Scores

Firstly, thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts in yesterday's post on this question. It's both good to see I'm not alone in my apprehension and that there are a variety of different solutions to the "problem" I see in the rules as written.

As I've said before, I have no issue with changing OD&D's rules. I've done it before and I'm likely to do it again. Through play, I've found that some rules don't work as well as I'd like and so I've altered them so that they do work more to my satisfaction. That's par for the course with OD&D and one of the reasons why I find the game so enjoyable these days.

Nevertheless, I try very hard not to change rules too much. That is, I prefer it when my house rules are recognizably derived from OD&D, as opposed to being completely out of left field. Furthermore, I'm of the opinion that, while OD&D is far from perfect, it's generally a good idea to avoid changing rules with abandon, because it's often not immediately obvious what repercussions might result. That's why I'm philosophically opposed to rationalizing OD&D's rules, even if I'm sorely tempted to do so quite often.

My gut tells me that, like a rug with a bit of fraying at the edges, pulling a loose strand in order to improve the tidiness of the whole could just as easily result in the whole thing's coming apart. I've seen too many attempts to "fix" Dungeons & Dragons over the years -- sometimes from official sources -- that, in the end, had adverse effects on other parts of the game. I don't want to participate in that sort of game mechanical vandalism, which is why I'm so reluctant to make big changes, even to mechanics, like ability scores, that, on first blush, seem in need of fixing.

This is why I am deeply leery of turning ability scores into the locus of a skill system or universal mechanic of any kind. Such mechanics "break the frame" for me when playing D&D. In my opinion, old school games are (generally) characterized by the use of several systems that exist side by side but nevertheless work in tandem rather than by a single system. So, perhaps it might be possible to construct a collection of related systems that use ability scores in a more substantive way, but I instinctively recoil from any attempt to introduce a single, overarching system that uses ability scores to cover a variety of in-game situations. Call it irrational, if you will -- and I recognize that, on some level, it is -- but a universal mechanic is deal breaker for me when playing OD&D. It just doesn't feel right.

So where does that leave me? Well, I've pretty well decided to eliminate the XP bonuses from high scores. I think it's a problematic rule on many levels and its loss won't make a huge difference in the final analysis. I've also decided that, much as I think a Strength 18 Fighter ought to get more of a mechanical benefit from his great strength than a Strength 10 Fighter, too much of a benefit turns the game into an ability score "arm's race." That's one of my big beefs with AD&D. This is made clear early on in the Players Handbook where Gygax notes that having 15 or more in no fewer than two ability scores is "usually essential to the character's survival." This approach places too much emphasis on ability scores in my opinion, so I'd like a more "toned down" approach, where +2 is the top modifier and it's not limited to characters with 18 in their ability score.

Related to this is another concern. My feeling is that, in any game calling itself D&D, class and level should mean more than ability scores. Whatever mechanical benefit ability scores give, they should be more along the lines of "icing on the cake" rather than the cake itself, if that makes sense. Ideally, these benefits would be broad and small enough to be universally applicable, not just to one class or a group of classes. I find myself reminded (once again) of Empire of the Petal Throne, where several abilities, not just Strength, gives bonuses to hit and damage, so that a clever but weak magic-user, for example, might nevertheless be an effective combatant. If the bonuses are kept limited, I think this would go a long way toward making ability scores relevant without making the game revolve around them.

More thinking is needed, though.

36 comments:

  1. I hesitate to utter what might be considered blasphemy ;), but D&D 4E allows one of two ability scores to inform both attack and defense bonuses. Perhaps, in this one instance, it might serve as a good model for what you are looking for.

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  2. My 2cp is that the Moldvay/cook ability score modifiers are the way to go.
    If you think that +3/-3 is too wide a range change the modifier of 18 to +2 and the modifier for a score of 3 to -2.
    It should be enough to make attributes matter withot breaking the game.
    Otherwise you may have the score of 18 impart a +3 modifier only if it is placed in the Prime attribute, but then what of Charisma or Dexterity?

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  3. I've always thought that XP bonuses for high ability scores were bass-ackwards. Higher scores should make combat (a primary source of XP) easier, not harder. So I would argue that you "learn" less from them (if that is, in fact, what XP should be representing).

    When I DM'ed, I was actually more inclined to give bonuses for the weak (ability score-wise) players who found creative ways to deal with the perceived weaknesses of their characters.

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  4. This is why I am deeply leery of turning ability scores into the locus of a skill system or universal mechanic of any kind.

    Here, here!

    My feeling is that, in any game calling itself D&D, class and level should mean more than ability scores. Whatever mechanical benefit ability scores give, they should be more along the lines of "icing on the cake" rather than the cake itself, if that makes sense.

    Perfect sense. That's why I'm not a fan of "Stat checks" that use the stat number itself (3-18). That puts too much emphasis on the Stat. A better system (I think) is to base these sorts of rolls on class and level, and let the stat modifier (if any) apply to the roll. A +1 or +2 on a d20 is helpful, but not controlling.

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  5. "This approach places too much emphasis on ability scores in my opinion, so I'd like a more 'toned down' approach, where +2 is the top modifier and it's not limited to characters with 18 in their ability score."

    After long analysis, I think that's exactly the sweet spot for OD&D mechanics (same as GigaBoy above). Hence we use 3-5: -2, 6-8: -1, 9-12: 0, 13-15: +1, 16-18: +2.

    Some other advantages: (a) This is easily extensible to higher ability scores if you want to go there (as opposed to any other TSR-published system). (b) The increment of 3 just happens to be the standard deviation of a 3d6 roll (really 2.96), so as a statistician I can say that the ability modifer is equal to the "z-score" of the ability.

    OD&D max bonus of +1 is admittedly too small, BXMI max +3 and AD&D max +4 really seem too large. Max of +2 (increment every 3) is really where it should be.

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  6. Sorry to come to this late, but thought you'd like to hear from a swordsman who teaches swordspeople.

    People who are already agile learn the moves more quickly and execute what they learn with greater flare.

    Training can bring out somebody's physical competance, but doesn't make them as agile as somebody who is naturally so.

    The ideal system to reflect this would differentiate between what you know and your ability to do it.

    So, if you are a lummox, you could still learn to attack at Level 6, but you'd have almost no chance of pulling off a level 6 move in a fight.

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  7. In full agreement about universal mechanics. I'm not sure what the real impetus is for it's popularity. It seems simplicity is the starting point, but then there is so much effort in making a system fit onto it.

    Even if you've a great hammer, when you have a box of screws, you need a screwdriver.

    IMHO, many universal mechanics require hammering screws at one point or other, simply to retain the simplicity or elegance of one mechanic.

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  8. This is why I am deeply leery of turning ability scores into the locus of a skill system or universal mechanic of any kind.

    Rightly so. Skill systems and universal mechanics have a tendency to move the game away from player freedom and player skill towards a game where the focus becomes the mechanic itself. The end result is a game where player freedom and skill both get shackled.

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  9. I prefer to use the BECM table as-is... or, more precisely, I use the BB/RC table, since I like how Denning/Allston made the Dex mod to Initiative and the Cha mod to reaction rolls conform to the same table as the other scores' modifiers.

    That said, I prefer it when my players start a game with bonuses not higher than +1, since it prevents the "bonus arms race" with other players and with magical items that they find (which really ought to mean something special). Usually, of course, the simple 3d6 roll takes care of this itself. Outliers (scores below 6 and above 15) are quite rare in practice, if you don't habitually give your characters mulligans on stat rolls.

    Even still, sometimes I prefer to dispense with the dice and just let the players create the characters that they want to play... but instead of doing this with some kind of min/maxable a point-buy method, I do it with a standard spread. 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. No penalties, three nil modifiers, and three +1 bonuses, placed where the player wishes. I find that this makes the players happy enough without being too powerful, and different enough despite the artificially enforced equality.

    Incidentally, I also dropped XP modifiers for prime requisites pretty much as soon as I came back to classic D&D. I never liked it; I thought that the stat mods should be their own rewards or penalties. So I tweaked them in such a way that they were all "balanced" in my view.

    - STR: mods melee hit and damage, chance to open doors.

    - DEX: mods missile hit and damage, AC, and individual initiative (which is rolled on 1d12 rather than on a smaller die, thereby lessening the "weight" of the Dex modifier)

    - CON: hit points per hit die

    - INT: Languages known and number of starting general skill slots (I always use a skill system, although I base the mechanic itself around "roll low on 1d6", not on ability checks)

    - WIS: All saving throws and, when used, starting weapon proficiency slots

    - CHA: Reaction rolls (plus the score's miscellaneous effects on number/morale of henchmen)

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  10. In general, I grant a +1 for stats of 15 or better. In OD&D, I don't go higher than that because I'm using d6 damage and hit dice for everything. A +1 bonus works well with OD&D's default scale. It's the advantage of a magic sword, it's the advantage of being one of the strongest men around. Consider that an ogre does 1d6+2 damage, and an ogre is bigger and stronger than the buffest man on the planet. Given Ahnuld the Mighty a +1 makes sense when an Ogre gets a +2.

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  11. I've never used xp bonuses, in any edition, in any form. It also seems like an odd sacred cow in the OSR, with its emphasis on "DM judgement" over strict adherence to the rules. If I award extra xp, it will be for an action performed, not because the rules say this character should always get 10% more than everyone else.

    As a replacement, I've considered (but not yet tested) giving characters a +1 to the ability score bonus of their prime requisite, so that a fighter with str 10 has a +1 bonus, and a thief with str 10 has a +0 bonus.

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  12. My thoughts on "ability checks" is this- it's a handy way to adjudicate situations where the results are not assured and where character skill should have a role to play. I don't have to look anything up, I don't have to invent a system on the fly, it's simple, it gives the PCs some idea of what to expect, and I've found that it works pretty well.

    As far as ability checks undermining class/level, as someone pointed out yesterday and as you seem to be concerned about, James, I figure I let class and level take care of the things explicitly stated in the description- better attacking ability, more spells, higher savings throws. As far as I'm concerned, that's plenty for level increases to cover, and I don't necessarily think it *should* make a difference in any other area. I don't mind a fifth level fighter with a 15 strength having more trouble forcing a door than a 1st level cleric with an 18 strength.

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  13. So if you were to use all of the attributes for combat benefit, I'd do something like this:

    Str: Bonus to Hit in melee
    Con: Bonus to Damage in melee
    Dex: Bonus to AC
    Int: Bonus to Hit at range
    Wis: Bonus to Damage at range
    Cha: Bonus to Initiative

    Second of all, I've always wondered why a "skill system" hasn't been patterned off of the BAB/THAC0/Combat Matrix formulas.

    If a "skill" is in the purview of my class its my full Level, if its something my class could have some training in its 1/2 my level. If its something I feel is from my characters background or hobby its 1/4 my level.

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  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  15. That said, I prefer it when my players start a game with bonuses not higher than +1, since it prevents the "bonus arms race" with other players and with magical items that they find (which really ought to mean something special).

    In B/X, you can raise your prime attribute by dropping certain other scores, and this can lead to a preponderance of high scores in the PCs' prime attributes. I don't mind the effect this has on play because it provides a disproportionate mechanical advantage to fighters and thieves, who I feel could use a bit of an edge.

    Usually, of course, the simple 3d6 roll takes care of this itself. Outliers (scores below 6 and above 15) are quite rare in practice, if you don't habitually give your characters mulligans on stat rolls.

    As to low scores, my anecdotal experience indicates that they aren't so rare in practice. Looking at Constitution alone, we've had 5 out of 45 PCs with scores below 6. Of course, such characters quickly remove themselves from play...

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  16. I've been playing around with combing D&D with The Simple Games System's character generation. Basically, there are 9 possible attributes(e.g. Strong, Clever, Agile etc.) and a character is considered average in every one except they get three picks to be superior; and one pick to be inferior (weak, dumb etc.). You can double pick one to be 'very xxxx' or use a pick to offset your weakness. Or take another weakness to get another superior attribute.

    So if you are Strong +1 damage, Very Strong +2 damage, Weak -1.

    The Simple Game System
    http://tower.newcenturycomputers.net/tsgs.html

    Stuart

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  17. Call it irrational, if you will -- and I recognize that, on some level, it is -- but a universal mechanic is deal breaker for me when playing OD&D. It just doesn't feel right.

    I wouldn't dare call it "irrational," but it's certainly a matter of taste. I'm the opposite of you and believe that ability scores were way underused in the game and that the multiple unrelated subsystems often feel clunky -- or "irrational?" ;-) That's probably why I drifted toward Chaosium-style games, in which I think abilities are more elegantly used.

    Like I said, "Tasters Choice." :)

    Security word: "Evera," yet another nonsense name made up for a female Elf wizard PC.

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  18. In fact, the status of abilities score is very unclear:

    - few modifiers, which seems to fit better 1d6 chainmail system, still fits 2d6 man-to-man combat, but are better translated in d20 fighting in the Moldvays system (+3 on d20 is roughly +1 on d6)

    - description strongly suggest they could be used as saves, but the save system ignore them completely. I think the add of the "alternative" player by Gygax erased them, but the descritpion still mention this possibility. So C&C method fits with the earlier D&D.

    - No other quoted use. The d20 under appears in Moldvay, and the use of DEX for initiative in Holmes.

    The best part of OD&D abilities is probably their total randomness, but cutting them off comletely don't change the system at all, as it barely refers to it. Pick a class, roll hit points and the game will feel the same.

    I could add abilities scores are the highway to skills hell :)

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  19. Has anyone tried playing any edition of D&D without any XP?

    Back in the day, my first few groups had no idea what XP was. How we "leveled up" was based on the DM's judgment. Typically when we reached a milestone of some sort, the DM would have us level up. Figuring out a clever way of doing something, sometimes led to leveling up faster. Sometimes this involved training, depending on the edition and DM.

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  20. I think you hit on something there--or brushed against it.

    In the older games, experience is the major factor in determining effectiveness, in the newer games, it's often ability scores that the player starts with that determines effectiveness. In the middle games, it's in the middle.

    An emphasis on one over the other slides the scale one way or the other.

    The xp bonus seems like a way to "sum over" the various advantages that a high prime req would give a PC and thereby provide a bonus, but by contributing to level rather than directly.

    It's one of those examples of OD&D abstracting things to a degree that makes them hard to "watch" in action during play.

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  21. I usually don't use xp in face-to-face games, only in pbp. I chose a "rythm" at the begining of the campaign, and keep it. Rythm can be quick (one level every two sessions) or lower (one session per level, so a 4th level character needs 4 sessions to level up). It works rather well. I just orget the very bad sessions, when players are tired and just doing everything wrong, and add one fictive session when they achieved a great task. It works rather well - but to do this I don't need any XP's modifiers.

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  22. For scores (and wanting +2's), consider reading Robertson games. Having a +1 to strength is fine, if you want +2 you need a -1 in another field (like -1 dex for musclebound or -1 int for "brute force and ignorance") that can be justified somehow.

    Consider making the ability benefits independant of class.

    Strength, +1 to hit in melee
    Dex, +1 to hit with missile
    Con, +1 to saving throw (non-magic)
    Int, +5% experience
    Wis, +1 to saving throw (magic)
    Cha, +1 to morale checks of henchmen (or -1 to enemy morale)

    and if you can work out a +2 with other negatives (like being musclebound as above) all the better.

    You could have a musclebound magic user(perhaps a burly shaman) or a brilliant tactician of a fighter. Everything has a use, no matter what you roll. Actual ability benefits modified to taste.

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  23. Hey, having multiple stats add to your combat ability is classic old school, not only EPT, but also Tunnels & Trolls...

    Can't go wrong with that! :)

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  24. In a few "pickup" D&D games I've played with several non-gamer types, playing without the ability scores and XP actually made the games run a lot more smoothly. We just started the game by choosing a class and particular weapons, armor, etc ... using whatever starting gold one was assigned. The DM handled all the arithmetic for the combat and other stuff.

    One time there was even a known "munchkin" player who played in such a pickup game with us. This normally munchkin player was actually quite well behaved, and didn't go into "powergamer" mode.

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  25. Funny, I've been leaning towards almost completely eliminating ability bonuses, except in relative terms: if two characters are pitting their strengths (or other ability) against each other, the one who is four or more points higher gets a +1 bonus. A ten-point difference would net a +2. No single character would get a +3 bonus, since that would require an 18-point difference in my scheme, but you might see something like that if you have one group against another in a tug-of-war, or something similar. This minimizes the arms race without rendering abilities meaningless.

    I do want ability scores to influence the speed of different kinds of non-conflict actions, though. I haven't worked out all the details, but I figure exhausted characters with high Strength should recover faster than others, sick characters with high Con should recover faster, and so on. I guess I could either use a d20 roll under the ability score to speed up recovery or use 1/3 ability and drop fractions to set a relative rate.

    Also, I'm toying with the idea of learnable talents that would provide the standard ability bonuses in specific circumstances. So no, high Strength doesn't give you a damage bonus, but you could train in a technique that lets you add a Strength-based bonus to attacks with hand weapons.

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  26. "Also, I'm toying with the idea of learnable talents that would provide the standard ability bonuses in specific circumstances. So no, high Strength doesn't give you a damage bonus, but you could train in a technique that lets you add a Strength-based bonus to attacks with hand weapons."

    Sounds similar to 4th edition powers, but maybe less tied to the class? This would be a neat template-style idea.

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  27. JM, even a +2 bonus for the 16-18 range makes my nervous.

    But i've always been opposed to high stat bonus modifiers, as they encourage stat creep, and, along with other later D&D features, such as unbalanced specialist classes and variable weapon damage, were harbingers of the current min-max rpg culture.

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  28. "Also, I'm toying with the idea of learnable talents that would provide the standard ability bonuses in specific circumstances. So no, high Strength doesn't give you a damage bonus, but you could train in a technique that lets you add a Strength-based bonus to attacks with hand weapons."

    Sounds similar to 4th edition powers, but maybe less tied to the class? This would be a neat template-style idea.


    Sounds even more like the Talent concept from Tunnels & Trolls 7th edition. That lets you add a bonus to any action related to your talent.

    And in regards to stats, has anyone ever toyed with the idea of removing the actual stat, and just going with the bonus? So that rather instead of having a STR of 13, you have a STR of +1. If I remember right, Dream Pod 9's Silhouette system (which had way more similarity to D&D than I ever expected) does that with stats.

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  29. What if you gave each ability score a benefit or two, and allowed the player to choose at 1st level?

    So Strength could provide a small melee damage bonus, or an XP bonus to the Fighter class.

    Dexterity could provide an Initiative bonus, ranged attack bonus, or XP bonus for the Thief class.

    Etc etc.

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  30. Regarding the 'double-dipping' of the Thief referred to yesterday, that's something I have no problem with. The class is obviously less powerful than the original 3, and I can view the discrepancy above as a sort of class feature to raise them up a little.

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  31. I agree with Zornhau, natural ability helps a lot when learning. Naturally sucking does not make you a better student.

    I think that exp bonus could be dropped for balance reasons, but for a more "realistic model" i would just keep the exp bonus, and discard other ability bonuses.

    I think that ability score bonuses could remain, modeling; Initial Advantage

    Using a ascending ac system as an example:

    -BAB progression by class provides a bonus to hit
    -Ability scores provide a bonus to hit
    -Keep the highest (they don't stack)

    You could go wild with ability bonuses like that, but at the same time downplay the effect of ability scores on the long run.

    About a universal resolution system... it's a philosopher's stone, a waste of time.

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  32. I found the discovery that ability scores in OD&D had very little mechanical effect to be a revelation. This means that the only real function of ability scores is to help guide the player (and DM) about how the character might behave, what sort of actions they might want to undertake, and about how to describe the results the dice are showing. A fighter with STR 17 is no more effective than another fighter of equal level, but the "color" of the game would emphasize his great strength. It also means that characters with bad ability scores are not to be feared, so go ahead and roll straight 3d6's and enjoy describing how your STR 9 fighter is managing to deal out serious damage!

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  33. > I found the discovery that ability scores in OD&D had very little mechanical effect to be a revelation.

    If this indeed turns out to be the case, then why even bother having ability scores in the first place?

    Other than the psychological mindset of wanting to see ability scores, the few D&D games I've played that didn't bother with using ability scores, had very few differences in gameplay compared to normal D&D games (using ability scores).

    Or for that matter, how much of the gameplay of D&D would be drastically affected without stuff like hit points and XP. (A health condition bar in principle can replace hit points).

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  34. I vote with Zornhau.
    As an experienced and aging martial artist,
    I understand that ability scores matter . . .

    I do fine sparring in a dojo with padded gloves;
    However, in a real fight, I understand,
    I lack my former power (strength)
    To EASILY overcome the
    toughness (constitution) and
    The quickness (dexterity) of youth.

    Notice how the ultimate fighting champions
    Are almost all under thirty

    The advantage of aging (wisdom) is that
    When I do land a critical hit,
    It is far more impressive that that of those
    Talented young whipper-snappers

    I use this table for abilities

    SCORE MODIFIER

    <3 -4
    4- 5 -3
    6- 7 -2
    8- 9 -1
    10-12 +0
    13-15 +1
    16-17 +2
    18-19 +3
    20+ +4

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  35. @Austin, Aaron: I've only read early editions of Tunnels & Trolls, so I can't be certain how close my idea is to T&T talents. I'm not a 4e fan, nor even a 3e or 2e fan, but some comments I've heard about 4e and my disgust with the huge list of 3e feats prompted this idea. I'm against too many lists, though, so I go with a semi-freeform production rule for making new talents.

    Name of Talent is "ability bonus" plus a specific situation (tool+action or action in environment.) Thus, there can be a "Strength bonus for melee weapon attacks" talent and a "Wisdom bonus for tracking in forests" talent.

    Alternative Name of Talent is a bit of color and follows the main name; it can be setting specific or invented by players.

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  36. I agree with you in general, however it seems to me that some people here also have a point.

    I totally agree with zornhau that:

    if you are a lummox, you could still learn to attack at Level 6, but you'd have almost no chance of pulling off a level 6 move in a fight.

    I think abilities should have an impact on game, but not as significant as it is proposed in new games.


    I also like Zzarchov's idea of Int giving bonus to experience. Nice twist that could make fighting class characters more interested in that attribute. It could also boost magic users extremely slow development.

    Finally, I really hate feats and huge lists of skills. I think it's good if a PC has some unique skill or ability, but I wouldn't say, that having 16 such abilities makes a character more special...

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