Monday, May 17, 2021

What's the Point of Ability Scores? (Part II)

Let's take a look at some of the enumerated mechanical benefits of ability scores in Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974). 

What's notable to me is that Charisma is, by far and away, the most significant and mechanically robust ability in the game. Not only does it determine the maximum number of hirelings a character may employ, it also determines their loyalty base. Furthermore, there's higher degree of granularity than there is with most of the other ability scores, with Constitution being the exception, as demonstrated in the chart above. Even high (15+) prime requisites don't provide much benefit, though a very low one is a genuine penalty. 

Here's the equivalent chart from the Holmes-edited Basic Set (1977). As you can see, it's similar to the OD&D charts above but also shows a little influence from Supplement I: Greyhawk when it comes to Constitution. 

With the publication of the AD&D Players Handbook in 1977, we see a significant expansion in the mechanical benefits and drawbacks of ability scores – so many, in fact, that it would be impossible for me to easily post a listing of all of them in a single image. Instead, I'll post just a single chart from the PHB, this one for Dexterity, since that's an ability for which both OD&D and Holmes provided benefits and drawbacks.

Once again, the influence of Greyhawk can be seen quite clearly. In OD&D, penalties began at scores of 6 or less, as they also do here, but bonuses began at 13 or more, whereas AD&D opts for bonuses at 15 or higher. Also noteworthy are all the minimum scores necessary to qualify for various character classes. That's a topic I'll return to in a future post in this series.

Moldvay's Basic Rules have much more expansive ability score bonuses and penalties than OD&D, though not quite as many as AD&D. Frank Mentzer's Basic Rules more or less follows the model of Moldvay when it comes to ability score bonuses and penalties. 
As you can see, with each new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, ability scores have become more important and provide more mechanical benefits to characters whose scores are above average. Unsurprisingly, this development has had unintended consequences not only in the way the game came to be played but also in the way the game was imagined. This will form the topic of a future post in this series.


  1. I am glad to see you getting back to this series. Now that the preamble is out of the way, I'm interested to see your views on how you feel this has altered "the way the game was imagined."
    : )

  2. It is not lost on me that this post follows the previous one regarding Gary's Afterword in ODD vol. 3.
    From my perspective it's all been downhill starting with Supplement 1 (thieves, who needs 'em?). In other words, the original 3 LBB together with my own imagination is how I prefer to "make it just that way".
    I assume that everyone's mileage will vary on this topic - as it probably should! ;)

  3. Looking forward to your next installment on this series...

    One thing that often gets overlooked when talking about ability scores in older editions is that they had more effects than just the list of bonuses and penalties. They get forgotten either because there is only a vague guideline (the "chance to withstand adversity" in OD&D, preferences of some monsters like nymphs for high-Charisma characters) or because the rules are tucked away someplace unexpected (languages known based on Int, Int and Strength used to control magic swords.)

    Some of these get moved into the ability score charts in later editions, but others fall by the wayside. So, we see the increasing importance of modifiers and decreasing use of anything that isn't a modifier as parallel developments.

    1. Very interesting and noteworthy observations. I really enjoy when the essentials are used in creative ways to resolve some question of outcome during play. It's the unique beauty of this particular type of game.

  4. I wonder how much influence other games had on later editions of D&D. EPT already expanded the mechanical benefits and drawbacks, though rather unimaginatively four of the six attributes provide bonuses or penalties to hit dice and rolls-to-hit. It also oddly removed CHA in preference for COM, which has no mechanical effects at all.

    Sorry to nitpick, but wasn’t the PHB from 1978?