I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ability Scores: making each point matter

One thing that bothered me about D&D when I was younger was the fact that some abilities would give no extra bonuses, so there seemed to be no difference between, say, Strength 9 and Strength 12 in most of TSR D&D. 

WotC D&D makes it better in some ways - now at least there is a difference for each TWO points in an ability - but sometimes it makes it even worse, because now abilities mean so little that they might be ditched for the modifiers instead, but you still have to pick and choose where to put your ability points.

This things don't bother me as much today, since I realize the emphasis on levels over "attributes" is one of the things that make D&D stand out from other RPGs. And old school D&D made you roll your abilities, sparing us of many meaningless choices.

Still, I like the idea that each ability point grants some advantage; I DO like a balanced approach between level and abilities in my D&D games. And I let players get ability points as they level up, so I would like most ability increases to have some effect.

One way to do it is just using the whole ability for some purpose. "Roll under your Strength to climb that wall", for example. Other more creative solutions would be "your unarmored AC is equal to your Dexterity (or Charisma if you're naked)", "You get a number of MP or skill points equal to you Intelligent score", "Your starting HP is equal to Constitution", etc. This automatically solves most of my problems.

I don't like all of these solutions, for various reasons, but I prefer them to absolute limitations such as "you can't multi-class unless you have Dexterity 13", or "you can only take this feat with Strength 15", etc. Most "prerequisites" are useless, the way I see it.

In any case, here are some ideas on how to make the most of the ability scores.


Strength: use it for encumbrance (here is an idea).

Constitution: I like level 1 characters to have little HP but still be able to survive a ten foot fall, so I use Constitution damage (more about that here).

Intelligence: using Intelligence scores as number of extra skill points works well in a number of editions. You can also use it for spell-casting, languages, etc.

Dexterity: this is trickier. I used to let players act in order of Dexterity, but nowadays I just use group initiative. Maybe let PCs double their AC bonus, but the resulting AC cannot be greater than Dexterity. This assumes a specific kind of ascending armor class, however.

Charisma: number of retainers, maybe? King Arthur might have more than a dozen of loyal knights. Maybe use half Charisma, instead (see below). I also like to use charisma as luck and divine favor, so I might roll under it when you need to check for that.

Wisdom: another a tricky one. Maybe skills, maybe something else.

One alternate idea is using a secondary set of bonuses that would apply in some circumstances. Since memorizing a new chart is not my cup of tea, let us use a simple formula instead: this secondary bonus is equal to half ability, round UP.

The cool thing is that each ability increase gives you something useful, with a few exceptions. These exceptions don't bother me too much. "Average" scores don't matter much anyway, and encouraging a score of 13 makes characters a little more balanced (which is why WotC D&D often uses that number as a prerequisite for some feats, prestige classes, etc).
AbilityBonus 1Bonus 2
3-32
4-22
5-23
6-13
7-14
8-14
905
1005
1106
1206
1317
1417
1518
1628
1729
1839

The first bonus is the traditional one, from B/X D&D. Use it for extra HP, a bonus to damage or saving throws, etc, as usual.

This second bonus is more or less equivalent to WotC era modifiers, and it might actually have a few interesting uses. 

For ability contests, it fits well with the 2d6 resolution system that I enjoy; someone with Strength 18 will beat someone with average (10) strength more than 90% of the time (both sides roll 2d6, highest roll wins), which is better than most D&D resolution systems. It works well for skills too, for the same reasons.


It also fits well with the d20 when using saving throws. Subtract this bonus from 20, and your get your saving throw for each ability. You also get to add half level to your roll. So, if you have Constitution 17, you would need to roll 11 or more using 1d20+half level. Even at level 20, you would still have some chance of failure. The numbers are well-suited for BX and RC D&D, my favorite editions.

In fact, you could just do 20-(Ability + Level)/2 to calculate your saving throws, thus making every ability point useful, at least in half of the levels. For example, a Constitution 17 character gets a Saving throw of 11 in the first level, 10 in the third level, and so on.

What's the point?

My idea is to reduce the number of sub-systems needed to play D&D, while still maintaining the flavor I like. I'm not too fond of different traits for saving throws, so I prefer using some kind of formula based on abilities and level, like 5e.

Also, balancing the importance of levels with the importance of abilities is, well... important to me. There are already plenty of experiments that go further one way or another (Searchers of the Unknown uses no abilities, while games such as The Black Hack use abilities instead of mostly everything else), but, to my tastes, the perfect system lies somewhere in between.

(illustrations by H. J. Ford, The Book of Romance)

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