Friday, February 6, 2015

Getting Lucky, and a Framework for Ability Scores

My last post talked about ability scores as they have been preserved in records from Dave Arneson's old games. I want to talk a bit about a couple of other early games, and how between them, they suggest a framework for a variant that I like on the old warhorse of OD&D's six ability scores. My goal is to make them useful as in-game tools, while keeping in tact OD&D's reluctance to turn high stats into mega-bonuses.

I'll start with Luck, which as far as I know was introduced in Tunnels & Trolls. Luck's biggest feature was being used in saving rolls, effectively replacing Gary Gygax's arcane matrix of saving throw values with one neat roll. Later editions expanded the saving roll into a generic system. The exact mechanic (a target number of 20+ minus Luck on 2d6, but you re-roll and add when you roll doubles) is wonky, but as Ron Edwards of all people has pointed out, the mechanic actually encourages creative activity on the part of players, especially because by rule, a player may call for a saving roll, and the referee just tells him the difficulty. SRs also give experience, regardless of success, which is food for thought.

Luck has a fairly good pedigree otherwise, including in Dungeon Crawl Classics. One of the reasons I like the idea of Luck is as a resource of last resort. It makes it clear, from the character sheet, that the player can always just throw his or her fate at the feet of the dice gods and give just about anything a try. It might not work, but what the hell. (And when it doesn't work, spectacular failure is the order of the day.)

The others I've written about before. Agility, from the CalTech Warlock rules (another score used in DCC, mind), takes on the AC modification of Dexterity. This is a personal pet peeve; hand-eye coordination does not help you dodge. I think Dexterity and Agility being split also nicely prevents Dexterity from being a super-powerful score like it is in most versions of D&D.

Wisdom, I have no use for. It's not an accident that so many games that otherwise swipe the D&D ability scores tend to chuck Wisdom overboard first. Tunnels & Trolls replaces it with Luck, Runequest with Power, Empire of the Petal Throne with Psychic Ability. In OD&D and Holmes, it has no use other than being a prime requisite for Clerics. So feh. Make Charisma the prime stat for Clerics, and throw out Wisdom. The "divine favor" aspect of Charisma makes more sense for a Cleric anyway.

The stat that replaces Wisdom is Ego. The reason to have an Ego score is simple: it determines your interaction with magical swords. If you look in the First Fantasy Campaign, Arneson has them compare with both Ego and Brains (Intelligence). It also allows you to have "willpower" type rolls based on Ego. Cunning is a good alternative, but I can see more cases of Ego coming up in a game.

My preference for Strength has always been for modest damage bonuses. In a 1d6-based damage system, +1 for Strength of 15 or more is a pretty powerful thing. (18 Str should give +2, making the Strength spell actually meaningful in Holmes D&D.) So in canonical order: Strength, Intelligence, Constitution, Dexterity, Charisma, Agility, Ego, Luck.

One reason I like this array so much better is it gives you a solid roll-under system. You can use either 3d6 (which advantages high scores) or 1d20 (advantage to lower scores) as a generic task resolution system, akin to T&T's saving rolls. I prefer 1d20, because adjusting with bonuses or penalties jacks up a 3d6 roll. This also begs for a system of improving ability scores; given a basis of 3d6 in order, even increasing 1 stat point per level only increases the average stat by 1 for every 8 levels.

Ability scores have always seemed to me like the D&D sacred cow most in need of a good barbecue. I think this alternate array fixes several issues I have with the game and makes an overall better array for adjudicating in-game actions with a quick die roll. Please address all thoughts to the comment box below.


  1. I think Arduin played with Ego as an Ability score as well. The little yellow books also split out Agility and Dexterity, and add Stamina, Mechanical Ability, Swimming Ability and Magic Resistance to the mix as "Ability Scores" or "Characteristics."
    I love Tunnels & Trolls' Saving Roll as a universal mechanic for getting stuff done, but for D&D I'm a sucker for Ability Score checks for most common tasks. I use roll under (no mods), with a growing d6 method. 2d6 for easy, then 3d6 for average, then 4d6, etc. The Bell Curve is a lot less swingy than the 1d20, and you can also telegraph task difficulty and the chances of success to the player by informing them of how many dice it's going to take (when you specify 6d6 for an extremely difficult task, then it's usually time to think of a better plan or use player skill to shave off a few d6s by changing the situation favorably somehow).

  2. Saving throws are more in need of a good tinkering. But ability scores too.

    Here's the thing: too many times, tinkering with ability scores seems like window dressing to me. Give each ability score a reason to exist in the game (I have wisdom modify listen, search and spot checks) and they all work fine.

    Acually, intelligence is the dump stat in our games. With demi-men and their bucket of extra languages, it loses some potency.

    1. The best fix for Intelligence as a dump stat is swords that are smarter than their wielders. (Not that anything is really a dump stat with 3d6 in order, but you know how it goes.)

  3. I sometimes wonder if ability scores add enough to justify their being in the game at all. Especially in OD&D where their impact is so minor overall, I wonder why their effects weren't just rolled into the class.

    1. I think once you do ability checks (whether Xd6 or 1d20) and/or T&T style saving rolls, they more than pull their weight.

  4. Your previous post got me thinking about rolling all three mental stats into Ego for my game (though I'm not sure I'll actually go that route). Mental stats just seem kinda weird to me, and I think they encourage people to approach role-playing as acting, which isn't something I want

    I've always preferred the d20 over 3d6 because the linear distribution feels more fantastical, making spectacular success/failure more likely. Bell curves are nice for generating stats, though

    Regarding the modifiers, I haven't completely settled on a range, but I'm thinking -1 to +2 would work great, at least for Strength. I like how ability scores in 3e influenced your choices (weaponry, armor, etc.), and that range handles it beautifully. Anything beyond that seems either superfluous or requiring greater complexity than I'd like

  5. >>So in canonical order: Strength, Intelligence, Constitution, Dexterity, Charisma, Agility, Ego, Luck.

    I think you're on the right track and scratching a real itch; 3e also had 3 extra scores: reflex, will and fort. And that obviously lines up very well (but not perfectly) with the thee you have there at the end. I'm assuming they felt the need for them but didn't want to make the game look less like D&D by tampering with the big classic 6. Instead they had the new scores derived from the main scores. Just like Labyrinth Lord having ego derived from the other stats. (I assume it's also in B/X somewhere.)

    Maybe I'm just up too late but I'm just not catching what makes that order canonical?

    1. "Canonical" is a little joke with some folks I've played OD&D with over G+. I sometimes rib players who roll 3d6 in order with Dexterity before Constitution, which shows their post-OD&D roots.

      The point in Fortitude, Will and Reflex is interesting, I actually liked that system for saving throws. (Literally the only reason I have for liking OD&D saves is that there's a Death Ray in there.) Wizards was very conscious of making 3e look like older editions, so your point makes a lot of sense.

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  7. Sounds like a good alternative to the Skills & Powers system, where each score was split into two sub-abilities which could be no more than four points apart

  8. I feel like ability scores are one of the things that people really like to rename, add to, or otherwise fiddle around with. If I recall, even AD&D had the option to split up at least some of your scores into sub-scores - so if you had a Charisma of 12, you might subdivide it and get Appearance 10 Leadership 14 or the like. So I hadn't really been under the impression that they were a "sacred cow" of any kind.

    By the same token, clearly you can have a huge impact on the game by tweaking them and the way they tie into other systems, and the community benefits from this sort of experimentation. Thanks for your ideas!

  9. Just noticed this thoughtful post on ability scores by complete accident just a couple of days after I was posting on the same subject
    Interestingly out of your seven we're very close on the four physical stats (Strength, Constitution, Agility then I have Reflexes and you have
    Dexterity ) but we're wildly different on mental stats.
    But wheras I went for Memory and Intuition you went for Ego, Intelligence, Luck, Charisma (thus matching 4 physical and 4 mental).
    I can go for Ego (brain strength?) & Intelligence (brain speed?); Luck is very old school T&T; but Charisma still seems a bit lame to me ;-)
    Out of interest - do you want small modifiers because large ones make some characters far better than others (i.e. it's unfair) or because it
    simply makes them too good?


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