Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ability Scores in OD&D: Use 'Em or Lose 'Em

The central idea of character generation in D&D is picking up some six-siders and rolling some stats.  This act is so central to most of our thinking that it sometimes comes as a surprise how meaningless abilities are, by and large, in the original iteration of that game.  That abilities have become more and more mechanically important over later iterations only reinforces the notion that stats matter.  But when you look at the LBB's, abilities do only two things: a high score in a prime can give an experience bonus and Charisma affects the maximum number of hirelings. And that's about it.  No modifiers to melee or missile combat; no modifiers to armour class; no modifiers to Hit Points.

[The estimable Sham has rightly pointed out that I got a little carried away here.  Abilties in the LBB's do more than that.  For the record, here's what they do:

  • Low or High score in Prime Requisite modifies experienced gained (from +10% to -20%).
  • DEX 12+ gives +1 with missiles, while DEX 9- gives -1.
  • Very high (15+) or very low (6-) CON adds or subtracts 1 from each Hit Die.
  • Most interestingly: all CON scores in between those extremes affect what will later be called "survival shock", from 40% at CON 8 to 100% for CON 13+.
  • CHA establishes the maximum number of hirelings (from 1 to 12) and high or low score modify their loyalty base.  I'd note here that these later modifiers are far and away the largest in the game - CHA 18 gives a whopping +4!
  • Finally, the text suggests some other uses but does not codify or explain them.
    • STR "will aid in opening traps" (?)
    • INT allows addtional languages to be spoken (but doesn't explain how many)
    • DEX "will indicate...speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell,. etc. (but, again, no mechanics.  I assume that this is where Holmes got his initiative rule)
    • CHA (perhaps most famously and certainly most amusingly) "is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover....charisma will aid a character in attracting various monsters to his service."]

I have no idea if the original crew ever thought that was strange - why is it so important to roll CON if it doesn't do anything?  I have to assume something like that went through the minds of Gary as Supplement I: Greyhawk quickly added to the mechanical meaning of abilities.  And a scant few years later, the Player's Handbook increased the role of stats to an almost overburdensome level (I never used all the mechanics associated with abilities such as "system shock" or maximum spells per level).  As James M. discussed recently, it is rather amazing to see how far things had come in the Dungeon Master's Guide, the last piece of the AD&D trifecta, with the discussion given to various dicing methods to produce superior abilities (or, as I like to call it, "cheating").

But let's go back to the original game for a minute.  The increased importance is certainly one valid way of dealing with the largely irrelevant abilities, but it isn't the only way.  I have often considered taking the alternate route: eliminate abilities altogether.  "Heresy!", you say.  "Is it even D&D then?", you ask.  Well, maybe so and maybe not.  The very intriguing Platemail presents a strong case that rolling abilities isn't a sine qua non of Ye Aulde Game.  What have always been the really meaningful stats in D&D are Class and Level and it's perfectly reasonable to say that anything else is needless complication.

One objection to this line of thought is that all characters of like Class and Level will look too much alike i.e. have no meaningful differentiation.  That's certainly the attitude that later iterations in general - and WD&D iterations in particular - have taken, as well as one I see expressed with some frequency among what, for lack of a better name, I have to call "new schoolers".  But I don't buy it.

My experience is that no assemblage of abilities, skills, feats, talents, etc. serve to differentiate characters any better than simple, imaginative investment in the character (and often does so much less well).  I'm saying "imaginative investment" rather than "role-playing" in part because it makes me sound smarter, but also because "role-playing" is too restrictive a term, implying as it does a kind of Method Actor regime.  Imaginative investment can be that, but it doesn't need to be.  You can invest some imagination in a character even if you always refer to him in the third-person.  Imaginative investment often occurs during play in reaction to particularly notable (often absurd) events, such as when Bob the Fighter manages to miss every single shot with his bow and ends up being nicknamed "Hawkeye" and the butt of jokes for many an adventure.

I risk digressing too much here, so I'll hope I expressed my point clearly enough.  Because it was made in order to suggest that eliminating abilities might well provide even more opportunity and incentive for imaginative assessment than would otherwise be the case.   If I want to play the game, and don't just want to treat it as a war-game, moving chits around the board, there's an implicit encouragement to come up with something to distinguish "Level 1 Fighter" from every other "Level 1 Fighter".

Emphasis "might well provide" because I have never had the chance a game without abilities.  But I'm eager to give it a try.  And if any of my loyal, hypothetical readers have done so, I'd love to hear how it went.


  1. I definitely see where you're coming from with removing them. I eliminated the dice rolls and numbers from ability scores and did something different with them and I think it's half-way from between the original and your suggestion to lose them completely.

    I've played a number of games with this system now and I don't miss the numeric ability scores at all.

  2. I've not tried playind D&D without stats, but I have played similar fantasy games where all you had were things like offense, defense, and hit points (so the rough equivalent of D&D without ability scores).

    I don't see a problem. I imagine it would be exactly like playing BX or 1E PCs that had all average stats.

    Ability scores mattered, particularly in 1E, but only if you cheated. A level 1 fighter with 18/00 STR, 18 DEX, and 18 CON with max hps, all rolled naturally of course, ;^) was one bad dude. He's dramatically more powerful than an average PC.

  3. ST DX IQ, all you need. Charisma and other such things can be a skill or talent. Streamlined and old school the TFT way. Although I'd like a layer of level laid upon that maybe a bit the Dragon Warriors way.

  4. Got nothing to say about Attributes, but right there with you on imaginative investment. Hope you poke that idea in another post.

  5. I had a very similar conversation with ze bulette the other night while playing Swords & Wizardry with him. When playing those older editions, I really like Stuart's approach but doing away with stats entirely would work as well.

  6. "But when you look at the LBB's, abilities do only two things: a high score in a prime can give an experience bonus and Charisma affects the maximum number of hirelings. And that's about it. No modifiers to melee or missile combat; no modifiers to armour class; no modifiers to Hit Points."

    I understand the gist of your post, and share some of your thoughts on this topic, but your quote above is not quite right. CON can add or subtract 1 from each HD, and provides a "withstand adversity/survival" percentage, while DEX can add or subtract 1 from missile attacks. INT determines the number of languages a character can learn. Other benefits are hinted at in regard to STR and DEX, as well. All six ability scores do something even in OD&D.

  7. Strength will aid in "opening traps" (doors?) but it makes no difference if you have 13 or 18. The stat/number isn't needed any more once you determine if you get the bonus or not.

  8. Back when people were discussing how to strip down D&D to the point where you could sell it for $2.99, I suggested ignoring ability rolls, although to make it compatible, I would phrase it as "characters have average abilities by default".

  9. Sham - you're right of course. I got maybe a bit carried away in my zeal. :)

  10. I have inserted a correction re the LBB's. Thanks, Dave.

  11. I've played tons of Basic D&D with no stats--most of my characters have scores between 8-12, which means no mechanical effect, period.

    Stats are irrelevant! Except for XP bonuses: a bump to getting the only meaningful advantage in Basic D&D (ie more hit dice)? Priceless.