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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

D&D without abilities

While reconsidering some of Dark Fantasy Basic's mechanics, I started thinking about D&D without abilities, i.e., Strength, Dexterity, etc.

There are enough recent games that use ONLY abilities to resolve tasks: Knave* and TBH* come to mind. For example, rolling under Strength to break down a door or under Dexterity to pick a lock. 

Moldvay Basic* DID have an optional rule ("there is always a chance") to indicate similar possibilities - using abilities regardless of level - but it also contained many thieve's skills that functioned using your level regardless of abilities.

I always felt a combination of both to be the most "realistic", sensible or even obvious solution. This (very popular) "stat + skill" combination would, in my view, be easy even for beginners, that would otherwise wonder "wait, how come my Strength 20 barbarian has no advantage when breaking down doors?".

However, lately I have been feeling that this is a bit redundant in terms of design. For example, a "Fighter 15" with a +15 attack bonus is easier an simpler than adding Strength to it. 

This also makes monster easier to create and understand (i.e., a 15HD monster has the same bonus as a 15th level fighter - and the same HD, of course). Otherwise, you start wondering why only heroes get such bonuses.

Skills are relatively easy to "fix" - just disregard abilities, or choose between using ability OR skill. One advantage is that the smart rogue no longer beats the cleric at religion, for example.

Saving throws can be "unified" into a single category too - take Swords&Wizardy, for example - or give Fighters an edge at "fortitude" saves, etc.

But there are other effects of abilities that are more interesting, such as extra damage, extra HP, more spells or languages... 

All these little +1s and +2s help to make each character unique, so no two 3rd level fighters are identical. One might be stronger, other more nimble - and they will PLAY different in combat, one avoiding more hits, the other delivering crushing blows, but not often.

As always, this is a case of preference. When rolling skills, for example, 3e and 4e rely heavily on level, while 5e is more balanced. Although 5e is my favorite of the three, I prefer level to have a larger influence, which is what I used in Dark Fantasy Basic.

But this "customizing" aspect of abilities is something I have no desire to get rid of.

Who knows, maybe I add "skills without abilities" as an optional rule...

* Affiliate links. By purchasing stuff through affiliate links you're helping to support this blog. Thank you!


  1. Have you read the original edition of D&D? Ability score modifiers are way less common and not standardized (15 CON gives +1, 13 DEX gives +1) as later editions; it makes one focus on the descriptive aspect of stats moreso than on their mechanical impact.
    But it also means you can get rid of them quite easily, or replace them.

    I also suggest checking out Into the Depths, a free game from The Retired Adventurer, that has no ability scores.

    1. I've read OD&D, I think the reason abilities got more and more important is because people liked the idea of customizing PCs.
      I think I hadn't read Into the Depths! Looks cool, thanks! I like this kind of minimalist games, but I also prefer some character customization - even though I think modern games have TOO MANY options, most of them useless.

    2. My one problem with too much optimization/customization up front is that players stop looking in game to complete goals and such.

      So instead of a fighter looking to learn from an in-game thieves guild which is ripe with adventure opportunity, the player just multi-classes.

      Or instead of learning a cool ability from a gith monk, the player just choses the mentalist feat at the beginning.

      Players do like customizing, but I think it would server DMs, the game, and the group at large to more force players to do that in game.

    3. Warren, I agree up to a point. I think that this is a separate issue: do you improve because you've got XP, or because you found a master/grimoire/etc.? Both methods work, with some pros and cons. For example, I prefer the method you're suggestind, but in my current Curse of Sthrad campaign the PCs are so focused on exploring the land and defeating Sthrad that looking for mentors/etc. could be a distraction.

  2. If you want to have a more archetypal style game, perhaps "iconic skills" are keyed to level with little sensitivity to attributes (thinking of your averaged bonuses from your Arms and Armour posts), with minor skills being more dependent on attribute, but really difficult to break past the cap.

    Rogue abilities allow them to boost all their Minor skills.

    I would allow trading in which skills are Iconic or Minor, but the "run as written" gives you your iconic character classes, with your Rogue being a strong skill support (maybe aid grants a bonus equivalent to the assistant's modifier)?

    1. Yes, that is a great idea, exactly what I'm going for: a more archetypal style, where your class defines your skills. I think my main hurdle is simply habit: I'm used to "attribute + skill" after all these years.

    2. Good stuff. I've been thinking about archtypes as well, in an attempt at better defining the limits of skill as filtered through each class (example: animal handling allowing some classes to ride a mount but not others). The 18 skill list is simply too encompassing for my taste.

    3. Rough thoughts (easier for me to get to other things after getting these ideas out of my head):

      The skill system is broken into two separate lists: Ability and Application. The ability list is just raw ability (STR-CHA). This reflects in Saving Throws (Defensive applications) as well as Active Application (Skills). While Constitution is a bit odd, this style allows the idea of Endurance vs. Natural Hardiness (a bit more low level, primal willpower compared to Charisma). Without significant investment (ASI or a Feat to gain another Saving Throw) you are not going to get better at these.

      Applications are the broad classifications to which you may have separate specialisations in. These can be invested in with skill points and training. While the language brings back 3.5 style, I am thinking more in terms of Non Weapon Proficiencies, but I still don't want the list to get as ridiculous as it does. I see your point about needing more skills (I like the idea of Engineering (says the Engineer) and a general means of having knowledge related to a trade, while maybe not being able to apply the trade (Theory vs. Application). More thought may be needed to make a limitation that stands on it's own feet rather than by fiat. This issue may be able to be resolved in the following classification.

      There are two classes of skills: Archetypal and Regular skills.

      Archetypal are the skills you are known for. Solomon the Wise, Wise Nestor, Swift footed Atalana, Fionn Mcool straight up ridiculousness. These are things that you just excel at. I like the idea that you roll 1d10+level+average of two relevant ability modifiers round down (so the maximum ability bonus is +5 with two 20s). Archetypal skills are chosen at character creation. Your Background and class give you a skill list to choose from. If you overlap your spell list (Outlander Barbarian can get to occurrences of Survival. This is a means for most classes to gain Expertise in a Regular Skill). Your Subclass will also give you an additional Archetypal skill and regular skill (I like the idea of Samurai gaining a court presence).

      When using this skill, roll 1d10, add your level, and the average of two modifiers. An overpowering feat of strength adds average of STR and CON for example. The modifier argument is situational to the task. When lending aid, you add 1d10 +half your bonus you would normally. This does mean that reasonable teamwork can do anything at high level, but that's a feature not a bug.

      Regular skills are the ones that you are proficient in and that time investment (proficiency) and natural talent (attribute) really shine. These have skill point investment at key levels (I like the idea that you have skill points that you accumulate over time and if you invest in the same skills, you get the same pattern as the current proficiency track, with double investment allowing for Expertise). Instead of a flat bonus, you roll 2d10+a proficiency die (see 5e DMG). Expertise allows for one to instead maximise the die you would have at that level (so at +3 proficiency, you roll 1d6 or add 6 if an expert). When lending aid, you give your proficiency die to the roll.

      Perhaps Multiclassing only gives regular skills, and no additional Archetypal skills.

      Bards and Rogues are distinguished with the former gaining fewer regular skills, but an additional Archetypal Skill, while Rogues gain more skill points to gain expertise/proficiency in more regular skills with Reliable Talent.

      This is a bit of a ramble, but hopefully something useful can be sussed out of it.

  3. My favorite take on "Ability-less" D&D/d20 is the Platemail retroclone, which follows the original Chainmail combat system.

    1. Is that Full Metal Plate Mail, 27th Edition Platemail, or something else entirely? I like the first one too, OD&D is a great example of this kind of thinking, although abilities still have some small effects.

    2. On a second thought, you might be referring to 27th Edition Platemail, which is actually ability-less... I've had half-forgotten about this game, it is a great take on OD&D too.