Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ability Scores and Sub-classes

One of the interesting points of comparison between OD&D and AD&D concerns ability scores prerequisites for entry into sub-classes. For the most part, OD&D does not posit very onerous prerequisites. Take, for example, the very first sub-class introduced into OD&D, the paladin. According to Supplement I:
Charisma scores of 17 or greater by fighters indicate the possibility of paladin status IF THEY ARE LAWFUL from the commencement of play for that character.
That's all it takes to become a paladin -- be a Lawful fighter with Charisma 17+. By contrast, AD&D requires Strength 12+, Intelligence 9+, Wisdom 13+, Constitution 9+, and Charisma 17+. There are thus prerequisites for five out of the six ability scores, which would make the odds of rolling up a paladin using 3D6-in-order extremely slim.

Meanwhile, the OD&D monk (introduced in Supplement II) requires Wisdom 15+, Strength 12+, and Dexterity 15+. Those scores would be difficult to obtain using 3D6-in-order, I expect, but not quite as hard as what's required in AD&D, where the Strength requirement is boosted to 15+ and Constitution 11+ is added. Blackmoor also introduced the assassin sub-class, which Strength 12+, Intelligence 12+, and Dexterity 12+, as well as a neutral alignment (which is interesting in itself). Intriguingly, the AD&D requirements are slightly less stringent than those of OD&D, lowering it to Intelligence 11+ but changing nothing else. Druids in Supplement III have no prerequisites, while those in AD&D need Wisdom 12+ and Charisma 15+.

The Strategic Review also introduced several new character classes. The first was the ranger, which Intelligence 12+, Wisdom 12+, and Constitution 15+ in addition to Lawful alignment. AD&D tweaks these requirements. Strength 13+ is added, Intelligence becomes 13+ and Wisdom 14+, while Constitution drops to 14+. Illusionists in OD&D require 15+ in Intelligence and Dexterity; the AD&D version raises the Dexterity prerequisite to 16+. Bards in OD&D have no ability prerequisites whatsoever, which is in stark contrast to AD&D's expectation that they have 15+ in Strength, Wisdom, Dexterity, and Charisma, as well as Intelligence 12+ and Constitution 10+. Furthermore, the AD&D bard is a strange multi-class, requiring experience as a both a fighter and a thief before formally becoming a bard. The OD&D version is simply a class in its own right.

As others pointed out in the comments to yesterday's post, AD&D places a much greater emphasis on having high ability scores than OD&D does, so it's not unreasonable to expect stiffer entry requirements for some of the sub-classes. Likewise, 3D6-in-order won't make some of the sub-classes rare; it'll make them close to non-existent, especially for classes like the paladin, the ranger, and the bard. Given this, one wonders why AD&D continued to make a pretense of randomly rolling ability scores at all. This trend eventually reaches the truly absurd heights presented in Unearthed Arcana, where "Method V" for the generation of ability scores not only gives players weighted dice rolls (best 3 of up to 9D6 for key stats) but also states
If the total of the three highest die rolls is below the minimum requirement for an ability in a certain class, then the player takes the minimum number (e.g., 15 for a monk's strength) as the character's ability score.
Let me reiterate that I fully appreciate that AD&D opted for a different approach to ability scores than did OD&D. At the same time, there's clearly a tension between the implications of having ability scores in a 3-18 range and the greater emphasis placed on having multiple scores at the higher end of that range. I'll grant that I myself prefer more mediocre characters, most of whose abilities are in the 9-12 range as you'd expect, so perhaps I'm innately ill-disposed toward looking kindly on AD&D's approach, but I don't think so.

One of the reasons I tossed out the idea of high ability scores having drawbacks as well as advantages is that I was thinking about AD&D and the importance it places on having high (15+) scores in multiple abilities. To me, the whole point of having modifiers for a range of scores is that there actually be a range. If the vast majority of PCs are going to have 15+ in their vital scores, you've devalued having a high score. To paraphrase Syndrome from The Incredibles, "when all ability scores are exceptional, then none are." On the other hand, as I've lamented in the past, I think LBB-only OD&D doesn't value ability scores enough for my taste. Most have minimal mechanical impact on the game, which makes me question the value of having them at all.

Ironically, I think the relationship between ability scores, bonuses, and sub-classes is an area that D&D III got right, or at least came closer to getting right. Bonuses generally appeared earlier than in OD&D or AD&D and there was a built-in capacity to improve ability scores with experience (though I'd have preferred a RuneQuest-like training mechanic myself). Sub-classes didn't have ability prerequisites at all, though some class abilities were tied to ability scores, meaning that having a higher score in its was better but not necessary. This made it possible to return to 3D6-in-order and plausibly create a paladin or a ranger (though I believe 3e adopted best 3 of 4D6 as the standard means of ability score generation). There was no need to the ever more ridiculous methods AD&D offered to ensure that every PC was not only exceptional but also sufficiently exceptional to qualify for classes with many prerequisites.

My point seems to have gotten away from me, I think. Suffice it to say that, the more I play OD&D, the less satisfied I am with AD&D's approach to ability scores and the role they play in the game. Mind you, I'm not wholly satisfied with the specific implementation of ability scores in OD&D either but I think its general philosophy is one I approve of, since it neither undermines genuine exceptionality nor does violence to the notion of a 3-18 range to describe normal human abilities. Anyway, it's more for me to ponder.

25 comments:

  1. 3 things from D&D3 I like:
    Ability Scores
    Ascending Armor Class
    Conditions

    Other things, conceptually, I think Feats are interesting, but have too much impact and eventually over complicated the game.

    Skills always seemed at odds with the concept of Class.

    As much as I am not a fan of D&D4, I think they got Saving Throws right where it is a "to hit" for the opponent. (but it makes the term "saving throw" not exactly fit)

    This kind of talk makes me want to make a retro-clone that incorporates all my house rules. We play such a hodge-podge of editions and house rules it's ridiculous. Unfortunately it would be just another fantasy heartbreaker.

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  2. oh, and one other thing I like from d&d3: prestige classes. Solves so many problems with the class structure.

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  3. Up until recently, I would have agreed with you. But that was until I took the dive and gave AD&D another chance. I decided to ignore many of the prerequisites for classes, or rather I was more lenient with them.

    Funny thing is, only 2 of the 9 PCs have greater than 15 in two ability scores (we rolled 3d6 in order, but I allowed them to reroll until they got a set that suited them), and those character are NOT dominating play in any significant way. Likewise, because abilities only start give bonus or penalties at the extremes (usual 15 and 7), the adjustments more characters are working with are minimal.

    Ability scores and the reliance on them was something I was worried about at the beginning, but in actual play there hasn't been any problems. Granted, one of the rangers in the group has 12 STR, but that doesn't bug me too much.

    I should also mention, that despite most character have only one high ability score, and not necessarily in the stat you'd expect (one of the magic users has 12 INT, 17DEX, and 15CHA), they have been able to deal with significant challenges (such as a pare of owlbears) with no casualties (yet).

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  4. "Ironically, I think the relationship between ability scores, bonuses, and sub-classes is an area that D&D III got right, or at least came closer to getting right..."

    Broadly agree. My greatest wish is that it had been set at +1/3 points (instead of +1/2).

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  5. I always thought the ability score requirements making the sub-classes rare was the point of AD&D.

    I let me players roll 4d6 take the highest three, and put them in any order they wanted. One player was able to qualify for Paladin (his goal), but the Half-Elven Fighter who wanted to be a Bard, is just a Fighter.

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  6. Rarely getting to play the calss you want means one thing when you are 14 and playing every day all summer long; it means quite another when you are ~40 playing once very couple of weeks.

    @ Ian: I like the idea of just ignoring the prerequisites. I think virtually every rule in the game should be examined in this light. The problem for me is remembering to think this way when the rule actually comes up.

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  7. My 3.x campaign used 4d6, drop the lowest, and the players arranged them how they wanted. Most players liked the arrangement, although some grumbled that a point-buy was more "fair."

    Your point about ability scores in AD&D being artificially inflated with the "cheating" methods in the DMG and Unearthed Arcana is spot-on. And the way that people viewed the ability scores took on a completely different perspective since most characters had high scores for almost every ability. One of my first characters had a Charisma of 13 and I remember one of my friends commenting, "Oh, so he's kind of ugly." I couldn't figure out why he said that since I was clearly well above average.

    I had two questions about your post that aren't related to ability scores:

    Paladins As you note, in Greyhawk it stipulates that fighters with Charisma of 17 or higher can be Paladins if they are lawful. Did anyone else read this back-in-the-day and wonder if it meant specifically the fighter class or just characters who were like fighters - meaning, could a dwarf qualify, since basically in OD&D, he was mechanically basically the same as a fighter. Although our group never played OD&D, I remember showing that section in Greyhawk to my AD&D DM to try to convince him that he should allow me to play a half-elf Paladin, even though I knew that the PHB specifically said that all paladins had to be human.

    Bards You mentioned an OD&D bard, but I have no recollection of that class, and I have the original 3 LBBs and the first four supplements. Where was this class described?

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  8. I really think Moldvay/Mentzer/RC D&D got ability scores right. It's a nice bell curve progression for all abilities (Cha being slightly different), rather than the varied levels of AD&D, or the non-existent bonuses of some OD&D abilities.

    But it's also capped, unlike d20. 3E's system seemed good to me back in 2000 when I first got the books, but over time, the fact that there was no cap on the system, and fairly cheap magic items to boost scores were common, that it again devalued 'high' scores in play.

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  9. This kind of talk makes me want to make a retro-clone that incorporates all my house rules. We play such a hodge-podge of editions and house rules it's ridiculous. Unfortunately it would be just another fantasy heartbreaker.

    Might be worth doing even if you have no intention of formally publishing it. I find the process of putting together a rules document for use at one's own table is quite valuable for a number of reasons; you may find so as well.

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  10. I always thought the ability score requirements making the sub-classes rare was the point of AD&D.

    I did too, but the subsequent development of the game suggests otherwise.

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  11. I really think Moldvay/Mentzer/RC D&D got ability scores right.

    I certainly tend toward that opinion myself these days.

    3E's system seemed good to me back in 2000 when I first got the books, but over time, the fact that there was no cap on the system, and fairly cheap magic items to boost scores were common, that it again devalued 'high' scores in play.

    Agreed on all points.

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  12. "3E's system seemed good to me back in 2000 when I first got the books, but over time, the fact that there was no cap on the system, and fairly cheap magic items to boost scores were common, that it again devalued 'high' scores in play."

    I agree as well. Like many things in 3.5 it was good in concept, but did not work well so well in practice, though it could. Prestige classes were a great idea until players are allowed to just look through all the books and pick what ever they want. It should be more part of the setting where there is this cabal of wizards with unique abilities, or a special unit of the tower guard. Over time the players hear about them and perhaps try to join.

    Going to the magic store and buying extra pluses ruined the ability score range as well.

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  13. One other point to ponder vis-a-vis subclasses in AD&D is the fact that the PHB (1978)was on the market prior to DMG (1979), and there were no dice rolling methods offered in the PHB.

    I know that the method of 3d6 in order, subtract 2 from one ability to gain 1 in another was totally ensconced in my area. This was the means everyone I knew used to make characters that would qualify for the subclasses in the PHB. While it didn't make it certain that a player could pick any character he wanted, it helped quite a lot. This, and arranging stats "to taste" (which we didn't do in the dim dark days), is where the notion of "dump stat" came from IMO.

    Obviously, you can't have a dump stat unless there is some way to "dump" a "bad" roll into that stat.

    I honestly had never seen anyone rolling over and over until they got the stat that they wanted in what we would have considered a "legitimate" game. Sure, there were guys who cheated, but if they were caught they usually got booted out of the group, or their butt kicked! Even after the DMG became a regular text in the games I participated in, rolling multiple sets of stats was never used (although maybe that was more because we didn't use every thing wholesale from AD&D to begin with).

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  14. there was a built-in capacity to improve ability scores with experience (though I'd have preferred a RuneQuest-like training mechanic myself).

    Great minds think alike, apparently.

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  15. Martin: As far as Fighters go in Greyhawk, the Fighting-Man class did include Dwarves, Elves and even Hobbits. So theoretically they could indeed be Paladins. But I don't think Gary contemplated that; from what he said subsequently was that players in his games played humans almost exclusively, and the other races were there so you'd have something to play if your stats weren't very good for a human class.

    And Bards were introduced in The Strategic Review, TSR's precursor to The Dragon.

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  16. I've always thought sub-classes were nonsense, an unnecessary complication. Making Paladins a sub-class of Cavaliers in Unearthed Arcana was one of the most disappointing things done to the game.

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  17. Martin, three classes for OD&D were introduced in The Strategic Review:

    Ranger — Volume 1 Number 2 (#2, Summer 1975)
    Illusionist — Volume 1 Number 4 (#4, Winter 1975)
    Bard — Volume 2 Number 1 (#6, February 1976)

    (The next class introduced to OD&D was the Alchemist in Dragon #2, August 1976, the first class published by TSR that didn't later make the jump to the AD&D PHB. In Dragon #3, we have a number of classes which are explicitly declared not to be "official", including Healers, Samurai, and Berserkers.)

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  18. @Will Douglas and @Steven - thanks!

    On the paladin, that's certainly the more broad interpretation I tried to use on my DM at the time, but to no avail. I had always been curious is others thought that way.

    And, regarding the bard, that's really interesting. I actually had never heard that before. My first exposure to early Dragon and The Strategic Review stuff was from the Best of Dragon: Volume I which I had as a youngster, and totally remember the Ranger and the Illusionist being in there, but I don't remember them including the Bard. I'll have to go dig it out of the garage and see.

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  19. @Aos
    > I like the idea of just ignoring the prerequisites. I think virtually every rule in the game should be examined in this light. The problem for me is remembering to think this way when the rule actually comes up.

    Well, there are no prerequisites stated in order to play a Balrog, so....

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  20. Page refs for Best of Dragon: Volume I

    Illusionist - p.43
    Bard - p.47
    Ranger - p.49

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  21. "This kind of talk makes me want to make a retro-clone that incorporates all my house rules. We play such a hodge-podge of editions and house rules it's ridiculous. Unfortunately it would be just another fantasy heartbreaker."

    Gaa! Can we finally put the final nail in the coffin of the term Fantasy Heartbreaker? It's got so many hidden assumptions that just aren't true any more -- if they ever were.

    Even putting aside James' valid point (that writing up your rules can help YOU at the game table), what's so heartbreaking about sharing your work and giving others some cool ideas to play around with?

    It's only heartbreaking when the self-publishing author harbors a secret desire to be universally praised, financially compensated, and turned into the Next Big Celebrity, for sharing their work! Is that really the case for the average uploader to lulu or Google Docs in the year 2011?

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  22. Perhaps I erred on the side of being a softy, but, if a player really wanted to play a sub-class with high minima, I told him to take the minimums in those stats and roll the rest. He could also try (once) to roll to beat the minima of the prime requisite stats.

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  23. As a kid playing D&D back in the day, ALL of our stats were well above average. Don't ask questions.

    As an adult, part of the fun is rolling 3d6 in order and seeing what crummy stats I have to work with.

    Rolling 3d6 in order multiple times? Sure, it is called rolling up multiple PCs, because you are going to die. A lot.

    That's the other part of the fun - seeing who can survive.

    Hmmm, I'm not sure what that says about me...

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  24. The only thing I don't like about 3e ability scores is that they should have had 9-12 be a 4-point "0 modifier" flat spot; '10-11 +0' is too narrow and means mundane NPCs get too many fiddly modifiers to track.

    My ideal:

    (0: -5)
    1-2: -4
    3-4: -3
    5-6: -2
    7-8: -1
    9-12: +0
    13-14: +1
    15-16: +2
    17-18: +3
    19-20: +4

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  25. "Furthermore, the AD&D bard is a strange multi-class, requiring experience as a both a fighter and a thief before formally becoming a bard. "

    I think this might have something to do with the Norse Skalds, which are stated in Strategic Review (I think, or early Dragon) to be something like older warriors that branch out as into wisdom. I can't remember the exact quote and I don't have the source material to hand at the moment. I'm not sure how based upon reality this was, but the Norse Skalds were certainly held in high regard and their words echo down history to this day.

    If bards had been handled in this way (perhaps, reach level x as a fighter and you can become a bard), which would really toughen up the bard class, he would have been a much more interesting choice.

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