Sunday, January 31, 2010

[Article] Attributes & Abilities

A fundamental characteristic of every edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and the simulacrum games that it has spawned, is that each player character is defined by a set of six ability scores: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. There was an abortive attempt to add comeliness in the mid-eighties via Unearthed Arcana, and an equally ill received attempt to introduce twelve subability scores in the mid-nineties by means of Skills & Powers. The majority of adventure role-playing games use a similar concept, though the number and nomenclature vary, as does the scale on which they are measured and the impact they have on the character. The traditional spread of numbers for each ability score is from three to eighteen, randomly generated on three six-sided dice, though it is thought that in Arneson’s proto-Dungeons & Dragons Blackmoor campaign the spread was two to twelve, using two six-sided dice. Many alternative generation methods have been presented over the years, the most popular seeming to be four six-sided dice, drop the lowest. Numbers outside the spread could also occur in various circumstances, the complete range prior to third edition being one to twenty-five.

By the time the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax had decided that the overwhelming majority of non-player characters would have ability scores ranging from six to fifteen, indicating that such scores should be generated by rolling three six-sided dice and rerolling dice that came up with a one or a six. As is often noted, though, the advanced version of the game put more emphasis on the importance of attributes than the original incarnation. In Original Dungeons & Dragons, strength, intelligence, and wisdom only had an impact on the number of experience points earned by player character fighters, magicians, and clerics, respectively. A constitution higher than fourteen granted one extra hit point per hit die, or one less if below seven; a dexterity above twelve granted a plus one bonus to hit with missile weapons, but if below nine resulted in a minus one penalty (thus, the two significant ranges of nine to twelve and seven to fourteen were established in the earliest edition). In play, ability scores affected the game and were certainly tested in various unspecified ways, as little guidance existed to that effect in the booklets themselves.

The importance of ability scores rose dramatically with the release of Supplement I: Greyhawk, which presented the reader with most of the information regarding their impact that would become familiar in the advanced version of the game. Interestingly, it was slightly more lenient with strength, a score of eighteen being no different to eighteen with an exceptional strength roll of one to fifty, and a score of thirteen to sixteen providing a plus one to hit. This at once made a score of thirteen to fifteen of impact in combat and a higher score more desirable. The Greyhawk supplement also introduced the thief class, and with it a whole new slew of special abilities, such as move silently and hide in shadows, previously only achievable by the use of spells or magical items. Prior to that only three class abilities had really been described, fighting, spell casting, and turning undead, though it was noted that non-human races had bonuses to saving throws, attack rolls, and detecting traps and secret doors. As subraces, subclasses, kits, proficiencies, and rules supplements proliferated, new abilities came to be expected and were often linked to ability scores, such as by requiring a certain minimum score or by modifying the effectiveness of the ability.

Whilst the advanced system expanded on Greyhawk, the original system was revised and reinterpreted for an, arguably younger, audience. The impact of attributes was more strongly codified into discrete ranges that followed a “one, two, three, four, three, two, one” pattern, which has subsequently been adopted for Castles & Crusades. That system has also taken the logical step of discerning between abilities and ability scores by changing the nomenclature and using attribute scores to distinguish the latter, since it strongly emphasises the role of abilities in defining each class. When I initially returned to my Silver Blade campaign, the second edition of the advanced system formed the basis of the rules, but within a few months I had switched to an ascending armour class and started using attribute modifiers similar to those found in the basic game. On discovering Castles & Crusades and being exposed to the larger community via such forums as Giant in the Playground, Dragonsfoot, and Knights & Knaves, I dropped the somewhat clunky proficiency and skill system I had developed and returned to using a descending armour class. However, I retained my distaste for the organic disorder of the advanced attribute tables.

Early on in the design process for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, it was decided that the Labyrinth Lord attribute tables were slightly too powerful, and those in Swords & Wizardry slightly too weak, for what was desired. Part of the reason was to leave us with some room when determining the abilities of the four main classes and sixteen or so subclasses to be included in the game, but also because whatever method of generating the scores we recommended, we know that most veteran players have their own preferred methods. Limiting the impact of attributes on the effectiveness of a given class without going quite as far as a simple trichotomy of “good-average-bad” has been a challenging design goal. How far to go in limiting class options by attribute scores has also been of interest, as has been what to do about exceeding the normal range of three to eighteen. The unlimited cap of many recent adventure games seemed unfitting, leading to such oddities as dragons with a strength of forty, and so on. As things currently stand, the range is one to twenty-five, with scores above eighteen indicating superhuman ability, such as the strength of a giant or the wisdom of a sphinx, and so on.

For the last few years I have been using a modified version of the basic attribute tables for my Silver Blade campaign, borrowing ideas occasionally from the advanced tables when it seemed appropriate. Initially, the bonuses derived from attributes were quite high, with thirteen representing a plus one bonus and eighteen a mighty plus four bonus, but the benefits of a seventeen or higher were restricted by class. That proved a conceptual problem similar to exceptional strength when dealing with attributes outside of the normal range, but switching to a range more congruous with the basic tables and embedding bonuses in the classes has proven to be an excellent solution. It seems to be quite normal in my campaign for a player character to have a sixteen in his primary attribute, a seventeen is unusual and an eighteen is rare. I do allow adjustments during creation on a 2:1 basis, but not above sixteen or below nine, which may account for that observed tendency. Anyway, for your entertainment and edification, here are the attribute tables I have been using in a format compatible with OSRIC, along with some related notes to give an idea of how they interact with the game system and a hint of what we are doing in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.


John Adams said...

It is always enlightening and a pleasure to read your thoughts on such topics. Thanks you, Matthew. :)

Timeshadows said...


Sean Wills said...

Fascinating, AS&SOH interests me more and more with each post of yours.Thanks Matthew !

Matthew James Stanham said...

Looking back over this article it is a little disjointed in places, but I am glad that does not seem to have distracted too much from the point, and that my meanderings are proving interesting! AS&SoH has been a very enjoyable project to work on over the last year and a half, so it is a pleasure to see it all coming together, and to be able to share design and development thoughts here. Thanks for the kind words!

Stuart said...

Those look like good numbers if you're generally staying with the 18 = +3 of B/X and Labyrinth Lord.

We're currently using a heavily modified version of OD&D / S&W with only +/- 1. This is the first time I've tried that, but so far I'm liking it.

Matthew James Stanham said...

In principal, I like the route that Swords & Wizardry went with attributes, but in practice I miss the Conan type feeling you get on rolling an 18 for strength in AD&D.

I did consider switching over to 13-17 = +1 and 18 = +2, and the White Box edition suggested to me 15-17 = +1 and 18 = +2, but in the end I decided to stay with the B/X version, if for nothing else than that I liked the way the numbers fitted into the range.

Sometimes I worry "+3" is too much, but on the other hand 18s are pretty rare. I am not wholly satisfied either way, but for the foreseeable future I am settled on the B/X style arrangement.

Stuart said...

What I came up with to allow for strong characters and "Conan Strong" characters was to use low attributes to enhance high attributes. So a character who's Huge (low Dex) and Strong (high Str) would be stronger than one who's just Strong (just high Str).

Although none of our players have taken advantage of that yet. :)

Matthew James Stanham said...

That is quite an interesting concept. Is there any downside to matching up attributes? Would, for instance, the benefit Grom the Savage got from matching negative intelligence with positive strength have a negative impact on his intelligence? I guess the answer is probably not, as it kind of defeats the point.

Neat idea, at any rate, and I like it; not enough to switch away from B/X modifiers, but definitely something I would consider if running Swords & Wizardry.

Stuart said...

As I first envisioned it you'd need to have a low stat like Intelligence (eg. 3-8) and match it to your high stat like strength (eg. 13-18). We're not using the actual 3-18 stats anymore, just the + or -, so you're matching up a + with one or more -s.

Although I don't see a reason why you couldn't match up a positive (+) attribute with a regular attribute and still give it some negative descriptor. So you'd get Lenny with a + in strength being "strong", Roddy with a + in strength and an average wisdom (no -) the player gave a negative descriptor of "furious" to who's a bit stronger, and Andre with a + in strength and a - in dexterity for being "huge" who's the strongest.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Right; so it is quite like the concept of the "aspect" or "descriptor" that we see in some more modern game offerings. I can definitely see how that would fit with the lighter approach of Swords & Wizardry and I can see how it might be superimposed over a game like Labyrinth Lord or even Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in much the same way as "secondary skills" seem to operate. It also reminds me of the early AD&D "kits", which had very little mechanical differentiation beyond the name, and probably had a similar practical impact. I have a half-remembered image of somebody saying "sure, but he is barbarian strong". :D

Tim Mercado said...

I apologize if this is classified as "Necro-posting" like it is in forums, but I have to say this: This table is absolutely fantastic in my opinion, and thank you for it. I've actually been wanting to fiddle around with some workable way to induce less-herculean ability score modifiers into OSRIC, without having 'caps' on the abilities themselves. Naturally basic D&D was the winner, but it seems that you have already done a wonderful job at importing those stats. I might add, in a much broader and thoughtful way than I did. Thanks! Definitely seeing use in my games from now on.

Matthew James Stanham said...

No worries, Tim! Welcome! I am glad that the table is to your taste and that I was able to do the legwork for you. We have been using something approximating this table for well over ten years now, and I am very satisfied with the result.