Thursday, March 3, 2022

Strange Thoughts on Experience Bonuses

From the very beginning, the rules of Dungeons & Dragons rewarded high scores in a character's prime requisite with a bonus to earned experience. Although the actual implementation of this rule varies from edition to edition, it has been present in every version of the game published by TSR. It's also present in Empire of the Petal Throne, which is hardly surprising, given that its rules are derivative of those of OD&D. As originally presented in 1974, the rule provides the only explicit mechanical benefit to having a high score in Strength, Intelligence, or Wisdom, each one of which was associated with one of the three character classes (Fighting Man, Magic-User, and Cleric, respectively). The other three abilities – Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma – have other mechanical uses (however ill-defined in the case of Constitution). 

Supplement I changed all this, first by introducing the thief class, whose prime requisite was Dexterity, and second by beefing up the mechanical benefits of most of the other abilities (the main exception being Wisdom, which remains solely "an experience booster for clerics," in the words of Gygax). These changes, which were carried on and even expanded by later versions of the game, began the process that ended with the claim, in the AD&D Players Handbook, that it is "usually essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating of 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics."

After lots of thought on the matter, I have made some measure of peace with the idea that ability scores should be mechanically important. If not, what's the point of even generating them? However, I continue to worry that, by making high scores in abilities mechanically beneficial, there will come to be an expectation that, as in AD&D, most characters must have high ability scores. In that case, we get a variation on the previous question: what's the point of generating ability scores at all if every character needs to have high ones? 

The question becomes even more relevant when one considers that, as written, characters with high scores in their prime requisite not only reap immediate mechanical benefits from those scores (hit and damage bonuses, higher hit points, etc.), they also advance faster in their chosen class, thanks to the bonus to earned experience. To my mind, this makes high ability scores so attractive that I wonder why any player would not deem a character with any sub-optimal abilities "hopeless" and roll up a new one. Consider, too, the increasingly absurd lengths to which AD&D went to ensure that all player characters were exceptional in their ability scores.

As is so often the case these days, I find myself taking inspiration from Chaosium's RuneQuest. In RQ, there are mechanical benefits to having a low score in at least one ability. I very much like that because that benefit comes at a cost; there's a trade-off between two clear mechanical goods. I'd love to see something similar in D&D and derivative games, something that provides some incentive not to have high scores in every ability.

That's why I have a strange idea: what if, instead of granting an experience bonus for high ability scores, one granted them for low scores? On some level, this makes intuitive sense to me. Would not a character whose native abilities were already exceptional learn less from his experiences than a character whose abilities were below average? Further, I can't help but feel that granting an XP bonus to a high score, which already grants clear mechanical benefits, is gilding the lily, so to speak. If the goal is to keep the random rolling ability scores and encourage players to keep the scores rolled, does it not make sense to provide a "consolation prize" to low scores?

I am sure there are problems with this idea and, if so, I expect my readers to point them out in the comments. From my current vantage point, though, I think this is something to be explored, both from a purely game perspective and from the point of view of learning through experience. 


  1. This is how I've handled Prime Requisite XP Bonus for quite some time now (it even snuck into the d100 Random House Rules/Rulings Table I made), and I enjoy it. It encourages "playing against type" to a degree which definitely creates some memorable Characters, and my reasoning was always that those with High Scores are already having things come easier for them in that chosen role, whereas someone ill-suited is going to make more "mistakes" and we all know we learn best from mistakes :)

  2. I quite like the idea of low scores providing xp bonuses. It appeals to the WFRP player in me, this idea of wholly unsuitable characters going on dangerous adventures.

  3. I can't see any immediate issue, and the idea is very entertaining.

  4. Granting XP bonuses for low scores is a great idea and reflects reality. Ever see the movie Rudy? Classic tale of how those with fewer gifts have to compensate with additional effort and thus learn something more.

  5. I've played in D&D games where the GM did the "more XP for bad stats" thing, and not just for bad primary stats. I forget the actual homebrew rules they used (it was the early 1980s) but it might have been as much as 5% extra per stat below 8, and 10% for 5 or less. IME it didn't counterbalance the enormous advantages of really high stats but it did feel better than the RAW. A consolation prize, as you said.

    Honestly, many of the problems with stats in D&D stem from the difficulty of changing them. They aren't quite set in stone but come close, and it makes those six die rolls at the start of your PC's career more important than they really ought to be. D&D also makes it much easier to lose points to odd monster attacks, posions, spells, curses, etc. than it is to gain (or even regain) points, and that just gets worse when using aging effects, homebrew or RAW.

    That said, you can go too far in the other direction and make stat increases too easy, resulting in weirdly spreads and positively superhuman attributes cropping up. Tunnels & Trolls is a possible example - leveling up is mostly about boosting stats, especially if you're not a spellcaster. Lords of Creation is definitely an example, with stats that start with 2d10, but you spend XP to increase them by 1d6, with your "level" in game defined by the total of all your attributes. Not at all uncommon to see a high-level character with a triple digit stat if they concentrate.

  6. This idea is fascinating! It makes real-world sense in a way that providing an XP bonus for having high ability scores does not. It might also help stem the ability-score inflation that began creeping in to the game--especially after Unearthed Arcana came out.

    Related to this, I seem to recall that the original version of Twilight: 2000 had a game mechanic where high ability scores resulted in lower rankings on other important character metrics like coolness under fire while lower ability scores had the opposite effect. Since I haven't played that game or looked at its rules in over 30 years, I could be completely off-base here....

    1. Yes! First Edition TW2K used a system whereby the total of your ability scores determined your length of service before the outbreak of hostilities, meaning characters with low ability score totals are the old salt NCO types with more skills from prior terms of service.

    2. That's a very interesting connection! I can't believe I didn't recall it.

  7. I can't say it makes intuitive sense exactly (particularly for Int & Wis - which are frustrating stats to work with at the table anyway), but it's a great idea mechanically. Stealing it!

  8. I think I've heard of others doing this (and of course the previous posters). Mad, but isn't mad the point?

  9. No, less gifted people don't learn "more/easier". I'm not sure how this idea ever took root in gamerdom. Nearly everyone with exceptional accomplishments has exceptional physical/mental/spiritual abilities that feed that level of accomplishment.

    Rudy was a movie. In professional sports, average physical talents don't "learn faster because they have more to learn".

    Same in physics. Or anything else.

    1. well, I noticed ages ago that COACHES in the nhl tend to be middle to low players, the really talented ones are poor coaches. Glen Sather vs Wayne Gretzky.

  10. > this makes intuitive sense to me. Would not a character whose native abilities were already exceptional learn less from his experiences than a character whose abilities were below average?

    So… a dumb person learns physics faster than an intelligent one, a clumsy person learns juggling faster than a dextrous one, a weak person learns wrestling faster than a strong one?

    Nope, I can't say I agree here. It can work in game terms, maybe, but it definitely doesn't reflect reality, imo.

    1. Wrong interpretation. A "dumb" person does not learn physics faster than a "smart" one. But, the one with less talent starts learning - early - how to compensate and "make do" with what they have.

  11. I'll chime in in disfavor of XP bonus for low attribute also. While people who are less skilled may learn faster (represented by the exponential XP table in D&D or the way RQ experience and training work) and that makes sense, natural talent for something is always an advantage. The original XP bonus encourages fighters to be strong and mages to be smart.

    In one of my home brews I actually made attributes not add bonuses to skills, but just affected the learning rate for skills. It was messy but interesting.

    It is true that games have tended to make it undesirable to have low attributes. I think if this is actually desired, that under dogs go adventuring, then there needs to be something else in the system.

    What is nice is the way multiple attributes contribute to a skill bonus in RQ. That means that a wider range of attribute rolls can be acceptable. And yea, having some bonuses for specific low attributes (size and power in RQ) make sense.

    And I'm fine with players discarding characters with poor rolls. In my mind, adventurers are extraordinary people and it's reasonable to expect them to be a cut above average.

    Interestingly in my setting up Cold Iron Samurai Adventures using a friend's 1980s college home brew, out of 3 players I've recommended one player roll a new set of attributes. The players are allowed to make one pair swap and that has been enough to make a viable PC for each player. I think my RQ players have got by mostly on their first set of rolls. I do use 4d6 keep 3 as a guide (modified for RQ's different attribute rolls for non-humans, for example 3d6k2+6 if the original attribute is 2d6+6 or 5d6k4 if the original attribute is 4d6). The extra die and dropping the lowest (actually players get to choose, some have dropped the highest or even the middle for size) seems to be enough of a boost to make most rolled sets viable.

    Note that for 1st edition (or 2nd edition) RQ, I don't feel that point buy is an option because INT is an uber-stat, adding to almost every skill bonus, isn't improvable, and governs the number of spells memorized where everyone's a caster and I think has one or two other advantageous uses.

    That's actually more often the issue, an over or under valued attribute.

  12. It certainly does make sense, though I personally have issues with the "less talented" somehow advancing faster. Perhaps instead, it could be accomplished by summing up all the stats and giving a scaling XP bonus off of that. It would at least divorce it more from the fiction of the game and arguably be more fair than incentivizing characters with BOTH maximum and minimum scores (though both are a step up from only incentivizing maximum scores)

  13. I see no reason at all to reward low stats. Doing away with ability score modifiers (or drastically scaling them back to a maximum of ±1 or at most ±2), well and good. But let's not miss the forest through the trees here. The purpose of the scores was stated clearly in Men & Magic: to "aid the player in selecting a role." The scores should be a gentle nudge in the direction of this or that class (which is precisely what the XP adjustments accomplish, and they do a rather good job of it), without being rigidly dictatorial.

    I don't ever want these scores, which are generated randomly and in order at the start of character creation, to ever matter so much that they outright dictate the player's choice of class. I don't want them to matter so much that high numbers become the object of unbridled player avarice. We've already seen what that looks like in practically every later edition of D&D, where the scores do matter quite a lot — and it's an ugly thing I don't want anywhere near my games. I want the ability scores to serve their stated purpose, noting more or less than that.

    Consider that 5th edition D&D was intentionally designed from the ground up by Mearls &al. to place more mechanical "weight" than ever on the ability scores, because (if I recall the quotation properly) they were there in every version of the game, and vital to making D&D "feel" like D&D, but they weren't doing as much "work" as they could be doing. And so they were made to shoulder the whole burden of saving throws, and much of the former leveling system (skill bonuses and base attack bonuses) was foisted onto the ability scores as part of "bounded accuracy." And the result is — well, you already know, I'm sure. 5e is a god-awful mechanical mess that doesn't play like real D&D at all.

    So, no. No thanks. Emphasize the ability scores too much, and things break. Bad idea.

  14. The problem is incompatibility between the LBB rules and how people later played the game. In the LBB the primary attributes only affects the experience gain. And you could trade amongst these abilities to raise an attribute to the required 15+. [Although some people did it as a phantom addition using "for the purposes of experience" as the primary catch in these trades.]

    This actually led to very stereotypical characters, such as the big dumb fighting man and weak-arse magic user. Although it technically had no effect on play since these characteristics provided no other bonus and were never directly tested. Although many people did add characteristic tests to their game (usually roll under d20), because it just made sense to do so.

    That said, with Greyhawk, you started having attributes directly affect play, so most people stopped trading amongst the primary abilities and kept rolls as they were. At which point the xp bonus from these primary abilities should have also been ignored since these direct bonuses effectively replaced the effect of having an xp bonus in the game. [Remember that level was the main determination of the abilities of the figure in the original game.]

    Gygax also disliked characteristic tests because they did not increase with level, and he still considered level to be the primary measure of a character.

  15. I agree with your point about it gilding the lily. The XP bonus and the modifier (particularly strength) allows the character with high prime requisites to pull away from those with lower stats.

    This reminds me of football (round ball!) where the teams who finish in the top 3 of the English Premier League get the biggest prize money and access to the Champions League thereby perpetuating their advantages over everyone else. Quite Darwinian perhaps.

    I think that you are right to wonder about why have stats at all if they aren't really used for much. From a design perspective, the primary function of the prime stats is to provide some incentive when selecting a character class so as to obtain a balanced party, followed by an auxiliary function of differentiating between characters of the same class. For the auxiliary function that differentiation could only come through some other system in the game and giving a character a bonus or a penalty for it makes sense. It's the scale of the bonus which leads to the demand for high stats and the daft ways of rolling up. Limit bonuses to +1 for stats 13-16 and +2 for 17 & 18 (and the reverse for penalties). In practice armour followed a high DEX then rolled HP and CON are what dictates survivability.

    Rather than giving bonuses based on stats, do away with the bonuses all together and use them directly for systems such as saving throws or tests against stats, with modifiers for levels of difficulty. Holmes did this for initiative and there are various adhoc sub-systems for things such as physical strength tests, drowning etc peppered in the early game materials. This is also how I'm led to believe that modern D&D does it (never played or looked at more than 1 or 2 pages of anything after 2e).

    Picking up on the point Dick McGee made about stats being static, one suggestion might be that rather than give out XP bonuses and penalties that each time a character levels they are given the chance to improve on of their stats. Borrowing from Runequest, - roll 3D6 and if you get over the stat then add one to it. If you score more than 6 higher than your existing stat add two to it.

  16. I reversed the standard method of experience gain in my Runequest game. You earned a check if you failed a roll (made a mistake) and received a skill increase if you succeeded at testing the skill (understood what you did wrong). Although you could also get a teacher to make this second roll to explain what you did wrong.

    The original game still followed the D&D approach of rewarding success. That said, a large amount of advancement in traditional RQ came from training by cult and guild rather than from experience. Although some people, again following the D&D metric, felt that this was somehow cheating.

  17. As much as I initially liked the idea of an XP bonus for low scores being put into play, some of the comments have it pegged that it doesn't make sense in the Real World (such as it is in these sorts of games.)

    Consider my own experiences in fencing and various other martial arts: I'm not an especially dextrous or strong person, and those blessed with such traits generally did seem to "level up" (so to speak) faster, and it would make sense in a D&D style system for the same to be true: the fighting techniques needed to reach the next level come faster to the fighter with better strength, the increased theological understanding to the wiser cleric and so forth

    I'm not sure what the best solution is to encourage people playing characters with lower ability scores, or if there's even a way mechanically within D&D rules outside of rewards for effective role playing.

    1. First off, is it actually important that every set of 3d6 rolled 6 times be viable or interesting to play or are we just wanting to expand the number of viable sets of rolls? And does it actually make sense to have attributes rolled the way they are?

      One thing that would improve viability of more sets of rolls would be to increase the options. Make sure every attribute has a class that gets a bonus if that attribute is high.

      But we still have the case of the character that has no attributes 13 or higher, or worse, all attributes are below average. If we want these characters to be played, then we need to make there be some genuine advantage of playing such, but trying to wipe away the attributes isn't going to help. And making a LOW score advantageous may just reverse the issue, unless that is balanced by a different way a high attribute is advantageous. But what about Joe Average? How do we make Joe Average interesting to play?

      What we really need is a system that assures at least one high attribute, and has a random chance of a character having a low attribute. So we never have Joe Average or worse (I'm willing to accept that "adventurers" are "superior" specimens). Ideally the system would also prevent a character with TOO many high attributes. One option would be to compile a list of "interesting" attribute sets, and then have a random roll to see which set you get to play.

      But as I mentioned, using 4d6k3 seems to usually produce a character with at least one or two high attributes. The uncommon case when it doesn't can easily just be dealt with by discarding the poor character. And the occasional really lucky set of rolls? Maybe multi-classing should be available to all. Then the lucky set with several high attributes encourages a player to play a multi-class character which does have overall more options, but isn't as good at each option as the single class characters because of sharing XP among the classes.

      But I also think that attributes should matter in play. If they are JUST a class chooser, let's just have a table that generates a set of class XP bonuses. Or pick your class and then roll on a table to see what your XP bonus is. Why have a Strength attribute if the only thing it does is indicate this character would make a good fighter?

  18. In practice, I think this comes down to players and not mechanics. How many times do we tell stories bragging about how our character with a 3 DEX survived and not how our 18/00 STR characters are so cool? Whereas I do get more of a thrill about the former accomplishment, I have been playing for decades. This is a fantasy game, and players want to fantasize. Over time our desire to escape our mundane reality with the exceptional is reflected in the evolution of the game. This is why I see the OSR as important — it keeps alive all the various options we have for realizing our fantasies at the table. Thus, I can brag about my 3 DEX and someone else can brag about their 18/00 and everybody gets to have fun.

  19. Less talented people learning faster makes no sense, but if you try to hard to make D&D be "real" like that, you're in for a ton of grief. It does not work that way.

    I think the situation in AD&D is just bonkers. It's not gilding a lily, it's gilding a turd.

    But, learning from failure is a thing, and the goal would have to be a game where the moving parts fit together as a game, "realism" be damned.

    Personally I think stats can well be used as basis for saves if you want them to matter more. It works like a charm in T&T.

  20. This doesn't make sense. Natural talent makes it easier for you to learn, because it's easier to do. Now, plenty of people choose to stop trying after a while, but that doesn't mean they didn't have an easier time getting there than someone with less natural talent did.

    IMO the best way to deal with it (probably) is to either make sure all the players are choosing from the same six ability scores, or point buy so people have control over what they get. Of course, the other thing to do is to have ability scores actually be of roughly equal utility, and have high or low scores actually matter sometimes - otherwise there are obvious stats to neglect and stats to improve.

    Bluntly, earlier editions of AD&D are terrible at that. I think 3e made it too easy to start stacking bonuses into the stratosphere, but every stat did something and every LEVEL of stat did something. Without those aspects, trying to do much with ability scores is a bad idea.

    Also, practically speaking, the wildly below average are going to do poorly as adventurers. Adventuring's physically and mentally demanding. Less physically capable soldiers have a harder time, as do less mentally capable ones. Adventuring seems unlikely to be much different.

  21. A 5% or 10% experience bonus doesn't do much. Experience is exponential up to level 9 so you don't really see characters with higher prime requisites pulling ahead. The effect is purely psychological.

    A character with +10% XP might be a few levels ahead if you are going all the way up to 20-36 in BECMI but every character will have important stats near 18 by that time anyway.