Friday, October 19, 2012

Open Friday: Ability Score Modifiers

One of the bigger discontinuities between LBB-only OD&D and post-Greyhawk OD&D is the way ability scores are handled. In the former, the prime requisites -- Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom -- provide an experience point bonus and only to the class with which they're associated. Meanwhile, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma all provide some mechanical benefit that applies to every character, regardless of class. Consequently, there's neither a mechanical advantage nor disadvantage for, say, a fighter to have a low Intelligence or a high Wisdom.

Supplement I changes this dynamic by providing modifiers for Strength and Intelligence (but not Wisdom, curiously), so as to make high scores in them more valuable for fighting men and magic-users respectively. In addition, the introduction of the thief, whose prime requisite is Dexterity, also had the unintended side effect of making most thieves very good at the use of missile weapons.

When I began my Dwimmermount campaign, I wanted to go for as "pure" an OD&D experience as possible, so we initially used only the rules in the LBBs. That rather quickly changed, because, like variable weapon damage, a wider range of ability score modifiers is one of those aspects of later editions of Dungeons & Dragons that everyone expects to be there. So, we used Supplement I in a quasi-AD&D fashion (e.g. granting to hit and damage bonuses for high Strength to all characters, not just fighting men).

Lately, I've been pondering the idea of two sets of ability score modifiers. One set that's for all classes and one set that's only for members of a certain class. What if, say, bonuses to hit with melee weapons was available to characters of any class with a high enough Strength score, but bonus to damage was only available to fighters? There's precedent for this even in OD&D, where high or low Intelligence has consequences for a magic-user above and beyond an XP modifier but for no other class. My intention here is to restore a little of the unique association a prime requisite has to its class while at the same time providing benefits and drawbacks to all classes for their ability scores.

This is definitely a great deviation from LBB-only OD&D, but I'm OK with that. After years of experimenting, I find I'm happiest playing D&D 0.75 and this is in that vein, I think. But I'm curious to hear what others think about this, at least in the abstract. If people want, I can make another post later where I lay out the full extent of what I'm imagining and we can talk more specifically about that.


  1. I think in the specific example of Strength, it would make more sense to have a bonus for damage applicable to all classes, but a bonus to hit just for fighters. A person untrained in using weapons is unlikely to use them properly, even if that person is really strong. However, if they DO manage to hit you with it, it's going to be a powerful blow.

  2. FS beat me to this thought. Seems like training would help to-hit more than damage.

  3. What I prefer is to have certain class-specific functions which just happen to be modified by the given ability. E.g.: thief skills modified by Dex, wizard learning new spells by Int, etc.

    (Having core combat mechanics modified for some but not others seems too fiddly for me, prone to forgetting.)

  4. Interesting notion. I think I like it, but I'd have to ponder exactly what bonuses I'd make class-specific.

  5. What I found particularly startling was the AC bonus that Fighters receive for high Dexterity in Supplement 1.

    Nonetheless, I am in favor of benefits granted to only one class through ability scores. I grant Fighters a 1 point damage bonus for high strength and an AC bonus for high Dexterity. Everyone else can make do with experience point bonuses.

  6. Just keep in mind that class abilities that depend on ability scores are only "potential" abilities. So, for example, a Fighter with a +3 bonus from Strength would benefit from this ability more than one with a +1 bonus, while the Fighter without any Strength bonus would find themselves as though the ability doesn't even exist.

  7. I remember my expirience with Basic D&D (Mentzer edition). In this edition, Magic users don't get mechanical benefits from high intelligence : no % to know a spell, no maximim limit of spells, etc. So my players always looked for high Sytrength and Constitution scores for their M-U to increase their chances of survival.
    But if you consider the range of adjustements in "classic" D&D (and thus abyrinth Lord) from -3 to +3, one possibility is to limit this range according to the Prime requisite. For instance, every character could get a +1 to hit and damages for a Stength of 13+ (Swords & Wizardry style), but only fighters get a +2 for a 16 or 17 score and +3 for 18. In other terms, everyone can benefit from high ability scores, but only with the Prime requisite are high scores really rewarding.

  8. I am perpetually tinkering with various forms of D&D (as a hobby unto itself), so I applaud your efforts to mold the game into exactly what you find most appealing. There are well established rules that grant additional meaning to the ability scores based on a character's class. In my own efforts I'm always careful not to make some ability scores more important by leaning on them to heavily. I try to avoid "uber stats" and "dump stats."

  9. I always thought that the to-hit bonus from Strength was because stronger characters should be better at puncturing armour, using their strength to push, slam and knock other characters around, break-through defenses (ie. parry and shields) and wear their opponent down through brute force. This assumes an abstract view of combat, versus a blow-by-blow.

    That said it makes sense to do what you suggest as well. In fact I kind of like the thought of the fighter being the only one that can get (non-magical) bonuses to hit. It helps support their superior THACO progression as a key perk of the class.

  10. I was tooling around a couple of weeks ago with the Mentzer ability score bonuses to try and influence characters with particular scores to choose particular classes while still allowing somewhat strange combinations like a fighter with higher DEX and CON than STR(archer), or a thief with high STR and CON over dex (big back stabs). The mechanics seem to work well for fighter/thieves, but as WIS and INT don't give any inherent bonuses, they don't influence these kinds of trade offs in the same way when comparing Clerics to MUs. Does anybody have any thoughts on what kind of benefit INT could give that would be most useful for MUs, but less so for Clerics, and similarly, somthing that WIS could provide that would be most useful for Clerics, but still useful for everyone else? (CON and CHA i feel are fine being extra attributes not especially associated with any classes apart from race requirements)

  11. For strength, I only do a + or - 1 to hit in melee (only) for a score of 13 or more, similar to the dex adjustment for missiles. The rationale being that having higher strength can allow you to "bull" past and opponent's defenses, something I once did in a fencing class years ago to my instructor's annoyance. Fact is, though, that higher strength can make up a bit for poorer technique.

    Note that I do not adjust for damage, at least not directly. This is because a +1 to hit on a d20 scale is not a huge adjustment, but a +1 on, say, a d6 damage die is significant (+5% vs. 16-2/3%) let alone a +6 (!!!). Having direct damage adjustments is thus very unbalancing from a statistical standpoint. I want magic weapons to count for more, though not completely negate the effect of superior physical attributes.

    So instead of a direct damage adjustment I track how *well* you hit. Say you need a 15 to hit a given AC. If you just roll a 15, then you will do a straight D6, as per the LBBs. But say you roll something higher, the exact number depending on the type of weapon, and thus score a "better" hit. In this case I increment the damage die to a D8 or even a D10 or D12, depending on the specifics. (In the example above, if you were using a sword and rolled a 19, you would do a D10). There are a number of design reasons for this, but one of the most important is that it effectively rewards higher level fighting-men with a better chance of doing more damage, since they will have better to hit numbers, whereas magic users, etc. won't generally benefit as much, since they are focused on spells not swordsmanship.

  12. One thing to remember was that originally, with d6 hit dice, fighters got more use out of a hit point bonus from Con by virtue of them having more (not better) hit dice than the other classes.

    Overall, though, I'd much rather decouple ability scores from classes altogether so that each member of a class isn't forced to have the same high ability score. This means getting rid of the concept of prime requisites which is probably too far for many.

  13. I would note that S&W Complete does some of what you
    are describing. +1 to hit is the maximum bonus
    non-fighters receive from a high strength, while Fighters receive additional modifier to hit and damage from a high strength in addition to
    benefiting from a high dexterity when parrying. I habitually tell my players that
    when they roll a character with high stats, especially charisma, strength or
    dexterity, their best choice of class will be fighter.

  14. I've been liking the AD&D stat mods more lately. Might be inclined to limit the percentile STR to fighters only, not paladins/rangers. Back in the day, I wanted to use Mentzer, but maybe now I'm nostalgic for good old 18/00. Mechanically I think AD&D stats are elegant and sound, even if the DM himself didn't use them.

  15. I think it is a mistake to take the name "to hit" and "damage" too seriously. In my analysis a +1 to damage is generally worth more than a +1 to hit. (In terms of damage per round) So, the question is whether you want the more effective or less effective bonus to be exclusive to fighters.

  16. For me, I think this comes down to whether I'm using a few classes or many. This can be a nice way to distinguish a handful of classes. But if you have many classes, then either only a few classes get these kinds of ability score bennies or they’re less distinctive because many classes get them.

    Though I suppose you could get really creative such that even bennies based on the same ability were different.

    Another compromise would be to use the subclass thing, where most classes are subclasses of a few core classes. Then subclasses might get the same ability bennie as their superclass. Or maybe only the core classes get the ability bennies.

  17. My problem is that if you do that, you can end up exaggerating the difference between different characters of the same character class.

    Say you have one fighter with a Str of 16, and another of 18/00. One gets +1 bonus, the other gets +3/+4 to hit and +6 damage

    One is much, much more capable than the other. But if it were fixed, no special rules for fighters, he's only be slightly better

  18. I suspect that the OD&D ability to swap the other "prime requisite" characteristics for your class' prime requisite characteristic on a 2-1 or 3-1 basis was intended to make much more stereotypical characters. Thus characters were much less likely to gain a bonus from their other characteristics.

    Not that anyone I ever knew actually used those rules.

    [Personally I try to make all of the characteristics equally valuable, although relatively slight, and keep the class bonuses within the class. I'd much rather give the fighter an increasing damage bonus as she increases in level (and I do). I never was a fan of the exceptional/percentile strength attribute for fighters, especially as it made a strength of 18 the only one really worth having.]

  19. I think a good idea would be to either limit the maximum modifier for anything but the trained class (to ie represent how only Fighters know how to properly utilize high strength), or to just give certain classes a flat bonus to a certain modifier (so even if you're a Fighter with pudding arms, you're still better off than the wizard).

  20. My stance on this has also changed over time. At this point, the games I run use what is considered "Gygax's house rules," or a slight variation thereof. They consist of (very minor) bonuses for ability scores that exceed 14:

    STR: +1 for fighters (only) in melee
    INT: +1 spell for magic-users (only)
    WIS: +1 spell for clerics (only)

    DEX, CON, and CHA carry the same minor bonuses found in the original game. I alternate on how DEX affects thieves (generally a +5% or +10% bonus to skills across the board).

    What this does is two things: 1) it provides a small bonus which can be helpful to characters at low levels (and adequately represents, in my mind, the superior specimens of humanity found in literature), and 2) it de-emphasizes the impact (and desire therefor) of ability scores, giving the players a greater freedom to be creative and clever, and emphasizing LEVEL as the true measure of a character's prowess.

    The only downside: sometimes you have a character concept like a big bruiser of a cleric (say a follower of Thor) who doesn't receive any mechanical adjustment for that high strength, when you'd really like him to. But I suppose you COULD simply have two different bonuses (say +1 melee for high strength characters, +2 for high strength fighters) the same way one does with dexterity (i.e. all receive a bonus to missile fire but only thieves gain a bonus to skills) or intelligence/wisdom (all receive bonuses to language/saves but only spell-casters gain a bonus spell).

    However, I am totally sick to death of the normal "ability adjustments" found in all latter editions of D&D. It just makes for dissatisfaction in the chargen process and resentment (albeit usually minor) between players.

  21. Totally agree. Well said, especially the emphasis of level (also important for saving throws). I much prefer minor adjustments now.

  22. Ive taken away ability score modifiers in my home game (mix of od&d and ad&d). I let high ability scores adjust xp totals gained and thats all.
    Im sick and tired of players comparing stats at the table to determine who does what in simple things, so I just did away with them totally. I always tell them it doesnt really matter, and once they undErstood that They realized it was true. Ive been DMing for 25 years and thats seriously my biggest pet peeve in the game

  23. I would consider making prime requisites get full bonus and
    other stats would get ½ bonus (rounded up or down can’t decide). Each class would have a prime requisite and
    the player could pick a second to make the character unique, or perhaps each
    class has 2 and the player picks a third.
    Str- + to hit and damage, dex + to missile attack and AC, con + to HP,
    Int Additional languages + to initiative, Wis + to saves, char + to loyalty.

  24. Just a quick observation on "exceptional strength" per AD&D: this is pretty clearly an unbalancing mechanic, granting huge bonuses to a small minority of characters who get very lucky rolls during character generation. I believe the idea was to model superhuman heroes like Hercules and Samson. Looking back, it's very similar in its intent -- and its unbalancing effect and lack of fit with the rest of the game -- to the psionics rules, whereby a small minority of characters who roll very well during character creation get abilities that make them immensely powerful compared to their level-one peers.

    I'm generally of the same opinion as James, that level should be the prime determinant of competence, with some small variations based on other factors (ability scores, magical items found). Anything else makes the class-and-level system incoherent: the only way to preserve it as ability scores overshadow class in their significance is to add a mechanic for increasing ability scores as you level up (which indeed starts showing up in later editions).

    Frankly, the more I look at OD&D the more I'm convinced that ability scores don't fit into D&D very well at all. A level 10 fighter is stronger, tougher, and faster than a level 1 fighter, period. If that's not true, then the idea of character levels -- of "normal men", "heroes", and "superheroes" as defined in Chainmail onward -- doesn't make any sense.

  25. I was starting to pick around the edges of a similar question last week. I'd almost be inclined to do away with the ability scores that generate the bonuses altogether and just use the modifiers. That way your control is a bit more precise.

  26. What about this...? Non-fighters must choose before they roll the
    attack whether their strength bonus is applied to the attack OR the

    Fighters always get a full +3 to-hit, and full +3 to damage.

    Or, what about a split bonus for non-fighters?

    You have a strength bonus of +3. If the bonus is needed to successfully hit, then all +3 is added to the attack roll. If the bonus is not needed to hit, then the whole +3 is added to the damage roll. If only +2 is needed to hit, then +1 is added to the damage. And so on.

    For negative strength adjustments, the negative is always applied to the attack roll. If the roll is a natural 20, then the negative is applied to damage. (If critical hits always do full damage, then subtract the negative from that value.)