Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Crazy Idea

Let me preface this by saying that I'm not necessarily advocating the rule modification I'm presenting below. It's intended more as an illustration of a broad concept I've long wanted to make work, but that I've never quite managed to do so. Basically, the concept is this: high ability scores should be a double-edged sword. That is, they should come with benefits and drawbacks.

This is hard to do in D&D, since ability scores, as they have evolved over the years, have become ever more important to a character's effectiveness in play. Originally, though, the three "prime requisites" -- Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom -- had (almost) no mechanical role in the game except providing an adjustment to earned experience. Thus, the only difference between having a fighting man's having a Strength 15 and a Strength 10 is that the former score grants a small XP bonus, presumably on the notion that a fighter with higher Strength has an easier go of his chosen profession and thus advances more quickly.

Recently, though, I started to wonder if perhaps its made more sense to give an XP bonus to characters with low prime requisite scores. The idea behind this is that a low Strength fighting man who survives, despite his inherent weakness, learns more than would his high Strength counterpart. Granted, this makes a lot of assumptions about the nature of experience points, not to mention the role that having a high ability score plays in gaining XP, but it seemed like a very elegant way to achieve what I wanted -- a negative consequence to having a high ability score. I just flipped OD&D's experience adjustment chart and got this:

Prime Requisite Score
Experience Adjustment

I should add that, if I were to use this chart, it'd be in conjunction with Supplement I's expanded ability score charts. The whole reason I want there to be some negative effects associated with high scores in the first place is because Greyhawk makes certain scores so useful at high levels that it almost necessitates that every character of certain classes will now have high scores. I'm fine with that, but I want a trade-off of some kind, even if I'm far from convinced that this crazy notion I've presented here is the trade-off I'm looking for.


  1. A balancing mechanism?

  2. I'll hand in my Old School membership card.

  3. I really like that idea!  There should be some reward to playing a hideous, weak, clumsy oaf, and having him survive along side Mr. Shiny McMuscles. :)

    Off to go harass the DM about it . . .- Ark

  4. Nothing wrong with exploring the idea. 

  5. Please wait. The Thought Police will soon be knocking.

  6. As an exercise is simulating the handicap mechanic in a golf role-playing game it's great. In D&D, however, it's counter-intuitive and makes my brain hurt.

  7. Can't be that crazy. Because I know I've read this idea before somewhere in the OSR blogosphere, at least a year ago.

  8. That only proves I'm unoriginal, not sane :)

  9. It's an interesting balancing mechanism, and could be justified as the strong man is "coasting". Though it makes me think of the Vonnegut story "Harrison Bergeron" where they make the strong people wear a bag of weights around their neck so that they'll be more equal to the weaker folks. What feels wrong is having two fighters, with strength 3 and 18 respectively, adventuring in the same party for the same amount of time but the first is 2nd level while the other is still first level.

  10. I think it was jeff's gameblog, so definitely not sane. :)

  11. Doesn't mean you're unoriginal either...just that two people had the same idea. But if it was Jeff, then yeah, that really hurts the case for sanity.

  12. Yup, it is a crazy idea, as proven by the fact that crazy me posted the same idea on an early house rules forum some 15+ years ago. That and a reversing of size-based damage in  1E/2e AD&D (after all, you'd thing a two-handed sword would be the equivalent of a long sword against a large creature, right?)

  13. That's already what happens in D&D. So if we accept bonuses to XP for having certain ability scores, we accept that it is possible for two people, with the same amount of adventure under their belt, to be at different levels of the same class. The question is, should it be the strong fighter who has found everything a bit easier, or the weak fighter, who has worked that much harder, who receives the bonus.

    Or ignore bonus XP for ability scores, as we always did.

  14. I can see you getting bonuses if you have scores that give you a penalty, but not in your prime requisite stat. Like, +5% for each penalty-bearing score. I agree that the extra xp for high abilities is really unnecessary. What I do is base xp bonuses off Wisdom and Intelligence, unless you are a caster using the associated type of spells. Helps balance these stats up for the non-caster classes.

  15. I like this idea very much as I'm
    looking for a way to individualize XP totalswithout resorting to
    individual advancement tables.

    Combined with a high mortality rate - a
    cornerstone of old school play to me -, this should result in a party of
    characters of different levels.

    I want to get away from "you all level up when the DM says so". That's convenient and a good fit for plot-based games, but not what I'm after these days.

  16. We used to play with this same variant, for exactly the same logic. Giving the bonus to someone who is already predisposed to succeed seemed... counterintuitive. 

  17. I'd considered doing something similar, actually.  Not sure the percentages were the same.

    Also, I"m not sure if it'd apply to other prime requisites.

  18. I dunno, it smacks of imposed "fairness", which is one thing that drives me crazy about 4e (and 4e fans)

    Some characters simply should be better than others - that's how life is. Trying to be fair is how the ability scores went from being rolled to point arrays, because it's "unfair" that some characters have higher scores than others.

  19. So, I'm guessing you would be generating stats in order? Otherwise, I really can't see this coming into play. It doesn't take a munchkin to avoid putting a 6 on his Fighter's STR or Magic-user's INT. If you did, just to for the chance to level up at a faster pace, that smacks of metagaming munchkinism, anyway.
    Personally, the idea has more interest to me from an academic stand-point. In that regard, it is interesting to consider, but I wouldn't take it further than that.

  20. I've always played by rolling stats in order, no do overs. If you roll crappy, then you'd better be a smart player and/or a very creative role player. I think that is part of the fun of old-school gaming. If you characters survive with low stats, it speaks well for how good you are as a player. It's fun to me. 

  21. I wouldn't penalize people who roll a natural 18 but nor do i give exp bonuses for high stat rolls- they are already at an advantage...during Ability development - it smacks of the basis for the Point Buy system for Abilities circa D&D 3.0 and back in old D&D it costs 2 ability points from one stat to increase another stat by one point. What I might do is Add the Experience Bonus (pooled from all the PCs Bonuses) to the Encounter Strength - I would up a 20 Goblin encounter (each 5xp) to a 24 goblin encounter or a single goblin warrior becomes a spell casting goblin (6xp) .

    The Reason to add it to the Encounter Strength? Because I'm Mean. 

  22. I agree that once high attributes started to mean something in themselves the idea that they also granted more xp became redundant but I think this idea is really the same illogical thinking just in reverse.  Simply remove xp bonuses for high scores.

    I've also never bought the idea that "xxx makes high scores so useful that you have to have them". The DM makes high scores obligatory for the most part. The only place where this is a fair criticism is in respect of classes with high requisites.

  23.  That's not mean. It makes total sense and I'm kicking myself for not thinking of it. At least I'm not left to wallow in my ignorance any longer. It has the nice side-effect of moving those "talented" characters along more quickly, as well, since there will be more XP on the table for them to claim. Great idea.

  24. Old habits formed in the days before I understood percentages have been (partially) vindicated.  This spring, I watched my son's soccer abilities progress more quickly than his naturally athletic teammates because he had an incentive to pay attention to the coach.

    But as a tweak, I might suggest that XP are an abstraction and that the "advantages" of low abilitities are canceled out-- exactly-- by the disadvantages and put forward my own solution of not adjusting XP awards according to abilitiy scores.  It's easier and now there's a rationale for it.

  25. I've had similar inclinations. I tend to limit bonuses to high scores for prime requisites and bonuses to low for non-prime or anti-prime attributes. For example, a Fighter gets bonuses for high Strength but low Intelligence (or maybe all mental attributes, like Wis and Cha). A Mage would get it for the reverse (high Int and low Str), a Thief for high Dex and low Wis, and a Cleric for high Wis and low Dex (?). Gives hope to hopeless characters and encourages playing the role a bit as there is XP at stake. Needs a bit more polishing, however...

  26. The original rationale, I'm sure, is that one tends to find the most
    qualified people amongst the elite - so you give the most qualified
    characters more experience, to make sure they rise to the top. Remember,
    original D&D was based on the Chainmail tabletop miniatures game.
    "Levels" were, essentially, the equivalent of military ranks. The
    stronger, i.e. more capable fighter was promoted more quickly.
    "Experience" meant something more like "how many military campaigns
    you'd been through", rather than "how much you'd learned".

    that any of this makes much difference to me, personally. On my planet,
    we gave up D&D-style experience and levels aeons ago.

  27. I can't justify how people more talented earn experience at a greater rate than those who are untalented, so this idea interests me.

  28. I like the idea of doing away with xp bonuses for ability scores rather than tweaking them - however, if you want to give yourself a better chance of convincing your players to try the posted scheme you might avoid taking stuff away from them for high scores.  Simply put 15+ at +0%, 13-14 at +10%, etc.  Seeming to give something rather than taking something goes over a lot easier, even when the overall outcome is exactly the same.

  29. "...you'd thing a two-handed sword would be the equivalent of a long sword against a large creature, right?"

    I would guess the idea was the larger target meant more area to cut and therefore more damage, or something like that.  It tended to be slashing weapons that did more damage to size L, while stabbing and blunt weapons did less damage.  I tended to go with the greater damage vs. size L because it let me use some of my favorite monsters (like bugbears and ogres) against lower level characters and still give the characters a fighting chance.

  30.  I don't think it is about 'fairness' at all. It's actually a good model for the idea that from struggle comes progress. The guy with STR 18 still has +3 to hit and to damage, and will always do so, but the guy with a -1 to hit and to damage learns more from killing goblins (if he survives) than does the strongman.

  31. Interesting idea. My theory regarding the different damage is that size L creatures have hit points that are more about physical damage, while size S/M creatures are more about agility and fatigue.

  32. Or +20% for prime stat in the 9-12 range, and +10% for prime stat in 13-15 range, no bonus if the prime stat is 16+, and characters under 9 can't be that class anyways.

  33. Interesting... you've set my mind to working.

  34. Ok, I know its a bit daring, but what if you move the context from XP adjustment to game mechanics? What comes to my mind is: low INT makes you partially immune from some kind of mind magic ("he's too stupid, I cannot even have his mind believe to my illusions!"), low CHA makes you a scary figure("I cannot even stare him in his eyes, he's so frightening"), low CON makes your frail body more sensible toward your surrounding ("I can feel it in my bones, something is happening here, it's like my stomach its turning upside down...") etc.?
    Note: these above are 5 minutes thinking ideas, but the concept remains.

  35. If you use experience bonuses it seems workable if that is the effect you want.  [We stopped using experience bonuses of any kind after our first couple of games because they were too much hassle.]

    On the other hand, the original edition tended to produce iconic charicatures.  By that I mean that you could trade a characteristic (at a deep discount) for your prime requisite, which had the effect of producing weedy and dumb clerics (STR -> WIS; INT -> WIS), dumb  and foolish fighters (INT -> STR, WIS -> STR), and foolish magic-users who are playing with powers beyond their comprehension  (WIS-> INT).  [Yes, I think they should get a 2-1 STR->INT boost too.]  Unfortunately the advent of Greyhawk meant that characteristics were suddenly worth something, so the deep discounting on such ability transfers became economically unviable and therefore relegated them to the scrapheap of progress (and no one thinks about their effect on the game any more [apart from me]).

    But it did kind of elegantly start to shape the character classes.  Of course it was almost immediately that people started rolling 1d20 (or 1d100 for an exceptional test) against characteristics if they needed a strength test or something, or to see if someone needed to climb a cliff.  <grin>

    Greyhawk also changed that dramatically (and adversely I'd suggest), with it's introduction of the Thief class [suddenly there were skill percentages for climbing], and Exceptional Strength, which made an 18 Strength so vitally important for a Fighter to have because of the added goodies. [Personally I always felt a smoother transition would have been more appropriate so that a STR 19 was Greyhawk's STR 18 (51-75), STR 20 was 18 (76-90), etc.; this naturally leads to the approach that characters get a bonus when generating their Prime Requisites (say use the Exceptional Strength  table: 01-50 +0, 51-75 +1, 76-90 +2, 91-99 +3, 00 +4) regardless of their characteristic, which is what I eventually ended up doing (although not quite with this method).]

  36. Over the decades, I've become less and less fond of ability scores in general. Searchers of the Unknown does away with them entirely, as do several other indie and x-games, and I don't miss them much. 

    Rewarding a low stat that isn't a prime requisite probably is a bad idea. Every character has a dump stat. It's one thing to have a lousy score that you never get penalized for because it never comes into play. It's something else to have a lousy score that never comes into play, and you actually get rewarded for it.

    Being rewarded for a low prime requisite is more interesting. XP goes beyond measuring skill, though; it's also a measure of reputation and "greatness." The idea that a weak fighter achieves name level sooner than a mighty warrior is a bit hard to swallow, especially in a game that trades on standard tropes as much as D&D does.

    SPI's Dragonquest did something clever with ability scores. Players generate a total number of points, then distribute them, instead of rolling each score individually. The clever part is that the more points you have, the lower your maximum score is. The guy who gets lucky with 80 points might be capped at a maximum of 15 in any one ability -- he'll be good at lots of things but great at none. The guy who craps out and gets only 55 points can go all the way to 18 -- he's going to be below average in most aspects, but he can really shine in one. 

    So maybe an alternative is to let characters with low prime requisite scores boost other low abilities to compensate. You're a wizard with Int 11? Go ahead and boost your Con 6 up to 10 so you won't take that hp penalty. Thief with Dex 11? Raise your Wis to avoid those saving throw penalties. Cleric with Wis 18? Looks like you're stuck with Cha 6; good luck attracting followers.

  37. Along the same lines as what John Dee said, the world in which this mechanic was implemented would resemble an Ayn Randian nightmare where the most talented suffer under the yoke of the mediocre masses.  This assumes that, like on most published D&D worlds, the rulers high the highest levels, having often earned their place by the sword (e.g., Conan, etc.).

  38. Not such a crazy idea James.  I've been working on XP adjustments (called XP tax) to regulate character development.  Given all the talk about balancing classes and all.  A quick review of the principle and numbers behind it are here http://saurondor.blogspot.mx/2012/05/principle-for-self-balancing-game.html

  39. I prefer leaving as is, allowing for a + or - 1 for high/low abilities, and keep the XP bonuses as is. Of course, this presumes a straight 3D6 rolled in order for abilities. Note that I give a +1 to hit in melee for a high Strength (i.e. 13+) just like the +1 for missiles for equivalent dexterity.

    In this fashion assuming you don't roll totally crappy you'll have a functional character, with the upwards of +1 to hit giving you a little bit of a benefit without overwhelming magic item bonuses or driving stat and hit point inflation.

  40. I like the idea but I think I would make one simple change.  Flip the percentages associated with the abilities.  So it would be +20%/+10%/0/-5%/-10%.  I think from the perspective of player psychology, those that want higher stats will be less butt hurt about the experience penalty and those playing with lower stats will get a quicker experience boost to level the playing field.

  41. Assuming this is not just an attempt at "balance"...

    Someone who has low natural ability does not "learn" any faster or slower than someone with natural skill, especially when it comes to physical abilities. It all comes down to where their head is at (Wisdom for learning aptitude and Intelligence for retention and the ability to theorize better strategies). In fact, a person with higher natural physical ability is more likely to learn faster since they have a greater ability to actualize the mental process and implement it.

    Equating this to marital arts: a stupid person will learn slower, and a physically inept person will learn slower. It's the way it is.

    As for the notion that a person with inferior physical ability learns more from success than a person with natural ability is fine if you are ignoring the skilled person. A person with inferior physical ability will learn how to survive more efficiently, a person with superior ability will learn how to kill more efficiently.  In the end they both learn at roughly the same pace (though I would still give the edge to the person with the physical edge).

  42. Come to think of it, I also had another house rule I'd forwarded at the time that offset the reversed damage scale for smaller folk, but the exact details of it are lost to time... Something to do with better ACs based on size, a la 3E AC boosts based on size category, perhaps?

  43. I don't know how well this rule would work in actual play, but I personally wouldn't use it. I've never subscribed to the idea that knowledge learned from the "school of hard knocks" is somehow better than equivalent knowledge gained elsewhere, which is what this rule seems to be advocating.

    Plus it seems kind of silly to have a stupid magic-user advancing faster than a genius one. I can understand the desire to not reward high ability scores twice, but I would just remove the XP bonus entirely.

  44. Although the comments made here regarding more fit characters advancing slower than less fit are valid.  It could be argued that such high stats require training to maintain.  High strength and constitution require exercise.  Intelligence and Wisdom require constant research to keep an active mind.  Dexterity is a very clear example too.  Even charisma requires some character training "emotional intelligence" if you'll allow me the expression.

    So while I don't agree with James' bonus for low attributes I do find his penalization for high values fitting.  I probably wouldn't go as high as 20% though.  Having high ability scores is half birth right and half daily work.  

  45. Take two people, with the same amount of practice time and play experience, and which will be the better basketball player -- the naturally short and weak one, or the taller, stronger one?

    The XP bonus strikes me as inherently simulationist. It would be nice if the guy with the IQ of 70 who struggled his way through classwork got more benefit from his education than the one with the 140 IQ who didn't have to put in a lot of work; in reality, the latter has a much brighter future.

  46. You probably didn't do it because you have already seen it - the use of CR to determine how hard to make an encounter is popular by 3.0

  47. The same is particularly true for martial arts, as you mentioned. :)

    I really want to see D&D rules for marital arts. ;)

  48. How about limiting the number of ultra-high scores, or having the high ones feed back negatively some way? I remember one of the White Wolf games had cursed stat enhancements affected with one of the demonic-type things where it stated that high physical scores could make you stupid, high mental scores could hurt your social skills, and high social scores would cause unwanted side effects (characters with very high appearance would get crazed fans, etc.)
    Perhaps with a very high STR you get musclebound and your DEX goes down, or with a high INT your CHA goes down as you plumb mysteries man is not mean to know. Not sure what the drawbacks of a high CHA or WIS would be. 

    I also recall Warring States of Qin (I think that was the name) having a spiritual stat that was higher if your physical and mental traits were close to each other. This fits Chinese ideas of yin-yang balance but might be an interesting approach.

  49. It is nonsense that a exceptional smart and strong character levels slower that an dumb, weak character.
    I think that you can use a XP bonus only with Intelligence (or Wisdom). So, a fighter with higher intelligence will advance faster that one strong but dumb. This will be a bonus to classes that have a separate use for the intelligence score (like wizards) but if you have separate XP charts for each class, you can increase the XP for this class only.
    I have classes like wizards that are not affected at all of habilities; so you can play it with low scores; and clases like sorcerer or monk that work well whe you are a powerhouse with 4 or 5 high scores. But the monks are expected to be exceptional characters, chosen ones with a high destiny, child prodigies with amazing talent; the wizards are more a working class, hard effort kind of characters.

  50.  Also this makes a lot of assumptions about the nature of the class. I understand classes as a set of skills which were packaged together (mainly) for practical purposes. This is why phrases like "this is a skillful fighter" are not uncommon to indicate experience.

    As far as I am concerned class progression is based on the will of the individual to advance in his or her class. This means to become better, to learn (or create) new techniques and practices. This has nothing to do with the physical ability scores which may enhance or hinder those techniques. If there is a "best" way to do something "ie. kill an orc" then the fighter with a higher strength will do it more easily. On the other hand if there is no single "best way", why penalise one way (brute force) and award another ?

    The oxymoron becomes clearer, if you apply this in other "classes" which are outside of the sphere of interest. For instance, why a clumsy pianist advance faster than a dextrous, or a not bright physicist advance easier than a bright one, provided that both have the same will and practice-hours?

    PS. dump-stats exist not because of the players, but because of the DMs ;)

  51. I've never awarded XP bonuses for having high scores. It seems like an extra reward for nothing but getting lucky on 3d6 rolls during character generation. I think it's ridiculous to givr an added benefit on top of that!