Friday, October 16, 2020

Dump Stat

Here's OD&D's explanation of ability scores from Volume I:

Holmes's Basic Set has its own take on ability scores, which, while close to the one above, incorporates a few elements from Supplement I, in addition  to certain idiosyncrasies.
Let's look at one more instance of ability scores, this time from Moldvay's 1981 Basic Rules. In the interests of saving space and because Moldvay's book is a model of graphical concision, I'm only including his ability score bonuses and penalties tables.
In looking at these, two things immediately struck me. First and most obviously, there's a steady expansion of the bonuses and penalties of abilities. In OD&D, for example, Strength and Wisdom provide no benefits outside of the acquisition of experience points. That changes with the release of Greyhawk, which expands the benefits of abilities more broadly, modified versions of which are also reflected in Holmes. With Moldvay, every ability – including poor Wisdom, which had been neglected in both Supplement I and Holmes – provides some benefit or penalty based on their scores. 

The second thing that struck me is, I think, far more fascinating. In D&D circles, it's commonplace to refer, even if only jokingly, to Charisma as a "dump stat," which is to say, the ability whose benefits to a character are so minimal that it's safe to have a low score in it. Yet, if you look at the evolution of D&D abilities, Charisma changed very little from its first appearance. In OD&D, Charisma is quite well defined and useful. Charisma determined how many hirelings a character could hire and how loyal they were. In the hardscrabble world of early D&D, that's very significant. 

I theorize that, as the years went on, morale, reaction rolls, and hirelings became less important to the way people played the game. Without those aspects of Dungeons & Dragons, Charisma came increasingly to be seen as "useless." This is the point of view behind the very idea of a dump stat, of which Charisma is the commonest example. I need to think about this more, of course, but I think there's some truth to this. The perception of Charisma is a "weak" ability depends on the prior weakening of morale and reaction roll rules, as well as the downplaying of hirelings as vital to an adventurer's success. Thus, the best way to counter this perception is to re-emphasize those rules, something I've advocated for a long time, though there may be other approaches to dealing with this matter. 


  1. I've never noticed that 2 for 1 (etc.) prime requisite thing. Would that mean that a cleric with a 9 strength would be able to add 3 points to their wisdom score for the purposes of seeing if they get an experience bonus?

    1. It's the basis for the rule in Moldvay that lets a player lower a score on a 2-for-1 basis to increase another a prime requisite. In the case you mention, I believe the cleric could not lower Strength below 3, so it would only net 2 points toward Wisdom.

    2. Both OD&D and Holmes disallow lowering any score below 9 when doing such a trade. In OD&D, this rule is very easy to overlook as it is only mentioned at the bottom of the next page.

    3. Thanks for pointing that out. I don't believe I knew that (or, if I did, I'd forgotten it).

  2. In many early games of AD&D 1e we used Charisma a lot. Several gamers had played OD&D and carried the utility of having a bunch of NPCs supporting the main PCs across into our games. But that did get forgotten somewhat. Not too much in my circles because we also played a lot of Runequest 2 and Flashing Blades, and in those games charisma also had an important part to play. Especially FB. Later GURPS also well implemented how useful charismatic characters could be. I think it is a shame that CHA has in some gaming circles just become a dump stat, but it seems to have been so for a long time. Fortunately, not everywhere.

  3. In my experience, by 1986 most of the "new" players I met saw rpgs as Player-centric exercises, the previously popular bands of hirelings and war-dogs were often perceived to be an unnecessary drag by those players.
    This was often accompanied by the notion that player-characters had to be "heroes" with "a story", Some DMs responded favorably to this trend by skipping early levels and replacing Morale rolls with scripted reactions as to better control the narrative flow of combat.
    Reaction rolls suffered the same fate.
    It wasn't that uncommon for this new brand of gamers to deride who still played the old way. I distinctively remember one of these guys sneeringly labeling me and some friends "a bunch of dungeoneers".

    1. I experienced some of this [PC-centrism] too, in the late 80's.

    2. Just to make myself clear, I'm not in any way condemning that play-style. But I think it's not suited to any Old School edition of D&D.

  4. One cannot consider the phenomenon of "dumping" Charisma without also recognizing that as the role-playing hobby came to be less and less identified with dungeon-delving and player ingenuity at solving puzzles, and more and more identified with sitting around a table to concoct a collaborative story via amateur improvisational voice-acting, Charisma came to be seen as a redundancy.

    In OD&D, you-the-player must use your wits to defeat traps and puzzles, and that's regardless of what your character's Intelligence score is. Intelligence is, in that respect, a mildly redundant mechanic. (It's still salvaged in the early game by being indispensable to magic-users if you use the fiddly chance to learn spells and maximum spells knowable tables from Greyhawk, Holmes Basic, or AD&D.)

    In modern role-playing, you-the-player are expected to talk and improvise and bluff and cajole and do a cute voice or a funny accent; and so Charisma as a stat (along with any social-interaction skills that might exist in an RPG, whether they key off of a personality stat or exist in vacuo) is seen as the redundancy. "Why do I need this number to tell me how good I am at Diplomacy? Shouldn't I just get to role-play it out?"

    In other words, Charisma-as-dump-stat is very much a function of conflating the character's Charisma with the player's ability to schmooze with the DM.

    1. I disagree to a point.
      I think this actually varied from group to group, because there were different forces at work.

      My first DM (and the one most influential on my game-style) expected us to bamboozle, cajole and fast-talk the NPCs.
      Just like we had to tell him we're we looked for secret doors, or were we stood in line, we had to actually talk to the blacksmith if we wanted a discount on the plate mail.
      Negotiation with the DM was just as important and integral in interaction with NPCs as it was in searching for traps.
      We never "rolled on Intelligence" to understand things.

      On the other hand, the new-style players that wanted heroic story arcs, more often than not, expected to persuade NPCs with Charisma rolls, no or little role-playing required.
      The heroic qualities of their PCs HAD to be more important than their personal abilities (or lack thereof).
      I think this may be the result of contact with other games (like CoC for example) that had interaction skills.
      If not used with caution skill systems give players the chance to "roll themselves out of trouble" with little or no thought.

      My 2cp

  5. I'd actually argue that it is part of the old roll vs role (which is an aspect of character vs player) conflict. Is it the ability of the player or the character that is important, especially in social situations.

    This is especially true in Gygaxian roleplaying, where the focus is very much player versus gamemaster (through the respective proxies of the characters and the dungeon). The gamemaster sets challenges and the players attempt to overcome them, in order to progress further and eventually win the prize. This is often done without reference to the character's abilities. For example, the dungeonmaster may put a riddle or puzzle in the dungeon and expect the players to come up with the answer. At no point in the play are the character's abilities mechanically invoked.

    Now whilst Intelligence or Wisdom might be suitable candidates for mechanically solving the riddle, they also have advantages that they feed directly into the main character class (Intelligence might as well be renamed Magical Aptitude and Wisdom as Clerical Aptitude for the role that was originally envisaged), and provide distinct mechanical advantages to these classes [which is why Intelligence is traditionally a dump stat for fighters]). Charisma on the other hand does not have this association with a class, so provides no direct mechanical advantage to the character if it is not actively going to be used in play. Hence it's dump stat status.

    This distinction between player and character and what abilities could be used where was fundamental to the Perrin Conventions. Where do you draw the line. I think most players would find solving a cunning puzzle to be more fun than just rolling the dice to determine if your character had the solution.

    If you are properly role-playing the character then this shouldn't matter since you will play your character according to it's characteristics in interactions, but in reality almost nobody actually does this (unless the characteristic is absurdly low). [In DMing competitive tourneys only one or two groups ever made the effort to roleplay their attributes out of a couple of hundred teams entering. They almost always won the role-playing prize as a result. It's easy to do and a lot of fun, but...]

    [There is also the problem of playing a character better than you. In one-on-one games the DM can adjust what the character perceives according to their attributes, which is a lot of fun, but not really possible in the typical party situation. Although there is always the thing that no one listens to the smart low Charisma character who comes up with an excellent plan, but when the dumb high Charisma character repeats it, everyone applauds. But this really irritates many players, although one group of my acquaintance who were very unfortunate in their Charisma rolls (almost all our games were natural order rolls) did hire an actor to be the Hero, while they did all the grunt work and he got the rewards.]

    Also (probably in the interests of ease of game management) the status of henchmen did change in the game, to be hirelings you took along on an adventure with you to carry things (and detect traps). A lot of people didn't like players doing this so, again, no use for Charisma. On the other hand in a more wargaming campaign, such as Blackmoor, henchmen could be used more as trusted lieutenants (literally in many cases). In this case they were invaluable. Who is looking after your castle whilst you are away? Who is patrolling the land for problems? Who is running the apprentices through their drills? Who is your vicar looking after the parish whilst you are off adventuring? Your henchmen, that's who.

    If you are not actually going to make use of something mechanically in a game then for the purposes of the game that something is pretty irrelevant.

  6. A couple of points: strictly by the book in BX it's 3d6 in order and as CHA isn't a prime requisite it can't end up as a dump stat.

    Secondly, I'm interested in the underlining of the "unusual" in OD&D. This implies that there was no limit to torch-bearers, men-at-arms etc. I'd be interested to know what unusual means here.

    1. You're absolutely right about B/X. The phenomenon of a "dump stat" isn't one I remember anyone openly discussing until years later, well into the time period of AD&D 2e, perhaps even later.

      I think unusual hirelings are what would be called "retainers" or "henchmen" in later versions of the game.

  7. I’m guilty of loosening the need for hirelings and such early on. It probably had more to do with a slow move away from constant dungeon crawling than anything else. But in the few cases a character actually went for a classic end game, like starting a keep or buying a property, hireling stuff in the dmg would need to be looked at.