Monday, May 24, 2021

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

Before I post my final thoughts and musings on the matter of ability scores in Dungeons & Dragons, I wanted to bring our attention back to a few brief sections found in various rulebooks. OD&D (1974) does not, prior to the publication of Supplement I, place much emphasis on ability scores, mechanically or otherwise. Greyhawk greatly expands the scope of abilities, providing significant advantages to characters with high scores, to the point where players begin to feel that their characters need them. This perspective shift can be seen even in the Holmes Basic Rules (1977).

We touched on the notion of "hopeless characters" in an earlier post, but it's worth looking more carefully at what Holmes has written here. The rationale behind allowing a player to roll a different character is that those who are "below average in everything" might not fare well in "dangerous adventures." The emphasis is thus on survivability. Even so, Holmes go on to note that, chance being what it is, even "a character like this" might nevertheless survive and "advance to a position of power and importance." Moldvay's version of this section is more specific – a "hopeless" character is one with more than one ability score in the 3–6 range – and does not suggest that such a character might nevertheless succeed, despite his handicap.

I find these sections intriguing. Each in their own ways represents a subtle shift away from the idea that one ought to simply take what one gets when randomly generating ability scores. A similar shift is also evident in the first edition of Gamma World. Both Holmes and Moldvay leave final judgment of whether or not a character is "hopeless" up to the referee, as does James Ward in the case of Gamma World. The shift toward emphasizing the importance of ability scores is well under way, to be sure, but the role of the referee has not yet been downplayed or eliminated in the process of generating a player character. 

Toward the beginning of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, Gary Gygax writes of abilities:
The range of these abilities is between 3 and 18. The premise of the game is that each player character is above average [italics mine] – at least in some respects – and has superior potential. Furthermore, it is usually essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics.

Please take note of the section I have italicized: the premise of the game is that each player character is above average. That's a very far cry from Xylarthen! What's more fascinating, though, is that Gygax has flipped the perspective of Holmes and Moldvay. All three tie ability scores to survivability – evidence of their increasing mechanical importance since 1974 – but, whereas Holmes and Moldvay, see being "below average" as evidence of a character's unsuitability, Gygax instead sees being "above average" as a sine qua non. 

In the Dungeon Masters Guide, just prior to the section describing the various methods for generating ability scores, Gygax offers some further insight into his perspective.

While it is possible to generate some fairly playable characters by rolling 3d6, there is often an extended period of attempts at finding a suitable one due to quirks of the dice. Furthermore, these rather marginal characters tend to have short life expectancy – which tends to discourage players, as does having to make do with some character of a race and/or class which he or she really can't or won't identify with.

Talk about a shift in perspective! Once again, we see reference to survivability, but it's clear that's not Gygax's main concern. Instead, he's interested in ensuring that the player can generate a character that he can "identify with." I think that's a perfectly defensible position, even if I don't quite share it. Still, it's quite removed from OD&D in any of its forms. More significantly – and this will form the topic of my final post in this series – if one's intention is to ensure that all characters are "above average" and of a sort that each player can identify with them, what's the point of random generation at all? Indeed, what's the point of ability scores?

Part I | Interlude | Part II | Part III | Part IV


  1. “Identify with.” At what point did it stop being routine to play a stable of characters? That also mitigates the short life expectancies.

    1. Presumably around the time PCs started to have spells named after them. That is, when his players, and possibly Gygax himself, started identifying with their characters, seemed to prefer that kind of gameplay, and started advocating for it.

  2. In my current OD&D game, I had players roll three sets of 6 ability scores, rolling 3d6 for each score. I then let them chose which set to use and assign the scores as they wanted. One of the characters had an 18, two 6s, and otherwise average scores in the set he chose to play. He put the 18 in Strength and the 6s in Intelligence and Wisdom. His character is a Minotaur Fighter who speaks (poorly) only his native language and often charges after fleeing foes when the rest of the party cannot (or will not) follow. He spends his share of any loot drinking in a local tavern, where he is very popular as he hates to drink alone and will buy others drinks. The player is very happy playing this character and the entire party considers him a successful character despite being only slightly smarter or wiser than a box of hammers.

    I tell this story to emphasis that the phrase "identify with" should also include "have fun with" and that does not always include optimal characteristics. The need for "optimal" characteristics says more about the players than the characters.

    Note: I recognize he chose the set with the 18 because it had the 18 and was the first 18 anyone had rolled in two campaigns (this one or when I ran Barrowmaze). He could have chosen a set with nothing below a 9 and nothing above a 14, but the 18 was rare and he could work with the two 6s. It provided a concept for the character and that made the character worth playing. The other fighter in the group? Kind of boring and with no personality but all "safe" characteristics.

    Disclaimer: Minotaur PCs start with Infravision 30', never need to roll morale, and gain a +1 to find secret doors at level 3. They have a strength minimum of 13. They are unlimited as Fighters, limited to 5th level as Clerics, and only NPCs may be Magic-Users or Thieves as it is rare to have a minotaur with the temperament for either of those classes.

  3. The game, reflecting the evolving mindset of its principal author I assume, indeed changes considerably from OD&D to AD&D. That could probably be the subject of an extended essay. The role of ability scores is one of several significant shifts occuring in the late '70s that resulted in my personal preference for the original version. (A relatively insignificant fact which continues to the present day.)

  4. What needs to be added to this discussion is the influence that rolls for starting money and HP have on PC and NPC survivability at low levels 1-3. In my experience having decent money allows for armour and retainers (latter especially if you are a MU) and good HP rolls allows a better chance of surviving multiple blows, so I don't think that abilities other than CON are that important.

    While it is a bit meta-gamey if I had an 18 roll and wanted to play an MU I'd place it in my CHR, then CON, then DEX before I put it in INT.

  5. I enjoy the challenge of having and unremarkable character become a hero instead of being created as one. Back in jr high I had a DM offer to let me re-roll my character because he had no combat bonuses from his abilities. I think his highest ability score was a 13 in Charisma. He was the only character to survive from the first session until the end of the campaign.

  6. One of the reasons I gladly turned my back on rolled stats when they fell out of fashion was spending decades rolling characters who'd wind up with spreads that looked like this:

    16, 16, 15, 11, 10, 5
    17, 15, 15, 12, 6, 6
    16, 14, 14, 14, 13, 4

    Probability be damned, 75% of my 3d6 or 4d6k3 characters looked like that from OD&D on up through 3.0. Even happened in Gamma World. That kind of spread's perfectly playable and gave openings for neat roleplaying (Why is this guy so clumsy? How did this literal idiot become a sorcerer? What does a sickly adventure worry about most, the monsters or catching pneumonia?) but having to work with it over and over again got old after a while. My rare "pretty average" guys were a refreshing breath of fresh air.

  7. I hate the idea that the characters are Above Average. Partially because the players most certainly are not. And they get an attitude that they are better than this peasant NPC.

    and, I notice, especially in 3.0-3.75, that the players cheat a lot. more bonuses, more pluses, more more more. very annoying.

    1. That's an interesting angle - the more bonuses that can be obtained from stats the more likely players are to cheat. I'd agree anecdotally, but I've no evidence on whether it is in fact true.

    2. heh, I have no idea how you would go about testing that for real statistical proof. just my observation. Also, I noticed with Pathfinder that no one had any idea where the totals were coming from, so I know some fudging was happening. I could watch it. and as a player, I was torn between teammates and honesty. bleh.

    3. heh, replying to my self. but in Pathfinder, I had to write down different setups (Power attack, normal attack etc) with the totals, because I could not keep them straight. 1 weapon, four entries. and every level or so, I re-added them up, as I had no idea where some of the #s came from. more than once I had a pally in the group say "Wait, I am one short, there must be another +1 here somewhere"

  8. I suspect Gygax was referring to a PC's motivation for adventuring as being superior to the "run-of-the-mill" inhabitants of the game world ie your average fighter or magic-user wouldn't dream of adventuring as a way of making one's way in the world (certainly 0-level [or sub zero-level] NPCs usually don't).

    That, along with the increasingly important idea of keeping the customers happy and coming back for more as TSR gets bigger, could explain both his early and later takes.