Monday, January 4, 2010

Non-Humans and Ability Scores

I'm still ruminating on my alternative experience system for Under the Dying Sun, but I want to think about something different today: non-humans and ability scores. In my presumptions here, I show my heritage as an AD&Der. Even though I began playing with Dr. Holmes' edition of Ye Auld Game, I quickly moved on to the Advanced version when my pal brought the Monster Manual to school and I saw the baroque, if not to say occult, delights of that iteration of the game. And that one is far and way the simplest of the three books.

While non-humans (demi-humans as St. Gary delightfully called them) have little mechanical differentiation from humans in OD&D, AD&D piled them on with gusto, as it did with so many things. Elves are my classic for poor design in this regard--bonuses to longsword and longbow use for no discernible reason, along with puzzling immunities to things like Sleep spells and ghoul paralysis. I could almost believe that somewhere there was a random chart of demi-human bonuses. All of those things contributed to Elf Fancying, which has caused so much harm to the hobby; or, at least, sniggering from the choir.

But while I have no trouble banishing such things from my thoughts, the idea of Ability Modifiers is much more durable. Unlike in OD&D, AD&D demi-humans all received some slight Ability Modifier the better to represent the otherness of these beings. Although the modifier was generally quite modest--a +1 to something and a -1 to another--it was immediately and quite properly seized upon by mini-maxers. I say "quite properly" since it was a perfectly reasonable response. One has so little control over a character rolled up without fudging or Goldbergian dice strategies that it made sense to use selection of Race to give some measure of command to the player rather than chance.

The result, unfortunately, was dullness. Particularly when a generous dice-rolling method was employed, it was not at all uncommon to find maxed-out demi-humans ("your Dwarf has an 18 CON too?"). And where the idea had been to present some otherness, it resulted in sameness. That's not to say that demi-human Ability Modifiers are entirely or even cheifly to blame for mini-maxing; they aren't. But they were a part of it.

And yet.

And yet the idea is so seared into my brain that I find it hard to discard even if I don't like the implementation. It was while re-reading my Cook/Moldvay B/X books for pleasure (as I often do), that I thought of a possibly better scheme. Some slight control over ability scores had been granted in the older game, but it took place after selection of race and class. This was the rule that let characters add one point to their Prime Ability by losing two from another. Let me say right here that I realize this scheme is as open to mini-maxing as the other. But what appeals about this is that it is a negative-sum decision. You always lose more than you gain.

There is a heckuva big qualifier, of course, because there is a huge mid-range in which ability scores don't matter. Losing two points of Intelligence when your Fighter has an 11 is totally painless. But the idea here is what I'm looking at. In Dying Sun, this qualifier would be substantially reduced for two reasons: first, abilities range from 2-12, giving a much smaller mid-range where no effect occurs from reduction; and second, abilities are more frequently the target of special attacks. An Intelligence of 6 is mechanically the same as one of 8 in Dying Sun, but if you are the subject of Psychic Combat, which directly damages the three mental abilities, then those two points may well mean the difference between life and a vegetative half-life.

So I'm thinking of bringing this approach into my game. Once you select Species and Class, you may perform the following swaps:

Helots: may add one point to STR in exchange for one point from both DEX and CHA.
Desert Men: may add one point to DEX in exchange for two points from STR.
Scorpion Men: may add one point to CON in exchange for one point from both DEX and CHA.
Wild-men: may add one point to WIS in exchange for two points from INT.

That's rough idea. If I adopt it, then I don't know if I will drop the Saving Throw modifiers for non-humans, which idea largely overlaps with this. I'm not entirely sold on this yet, but it has some appeal for me.

1 comment:

  1. I have used the 2 for one rule everytime we play any edition of D&D. In fact my group expects the rule to be there. It is a luck balancing mechanic. If you really want that 18 you can get it, but there is a cost. I would say that it works very well, to me it is very tame. When ever I have played with someone who has not used that rule they immediatly see why that rule is useful.