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

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Point-buy D&D (OSR)

I have played point-buy systems for decades. 

In some of these systems, you choose your abilities scores, powers, perks, etc. by spending a limited amount of points - instead of rolling dice and picking a class.

Point-buy mechanics are not uncommon in D&D; even in OD&D (IIRC) you could reduce one ability score to improve another. Later on, you had proficiencies to choose. 

In modern D&D, you get to pick your ability scores (and sometimes skills) with points too.

The best thing about this is that you can customize your character however you like

Do you want a spell-less ranger, nature paladin, witcher, white mage, etc.? Easy to do without multiclassing rules.

In systems like Runequest or Savage Worlds, you don't even need classes; you just create the character you imagine.

The main problem, of course, is analysis paralysis.

[Another downside is that all PCs of the same class become "optimal" and "samey" if you don't introduce some randomness].

Too much choice becomes burdensome. At the very least, you'd need a few examples or templates to help players out, unless they are familiar with the system (with that said, I played such systems for decades without much issue).

Anyway, I have often wondered if old school D&D could be easily reduced to a point buy system - probably after playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which uses a similar system for skills.

by James West.

Ideally, we'd have a number of things to "buy" with a similar cost. 

Let's start with 3 points per level (maybe 5 on level 1). You can assign them to (no more than one point per level to the same ability/skill/etc.):

- Attack bonus.
- Saves (bonus apply to all saves).
- Ability scores improvements

- Skills (1-in-6 otherwise).
- Spells (1 point per spell).
- Spell-casting.
- Turn undead.
- Feats/features.

Some entries deserve special consideration.

Attack bonus probably requires at least 1/3 of your current level, to keep in line with old-school mages.

Saves are the same (no matter if using a single save or more than one).

Ability scores improvements enhance your abilities, no matter how you define them in the first place (3d6 in order, standard array, etc.). To balance things out, I'd probably use WotC modifiers, i.e., +1 for 12-13, +2 for 14-15, +3 for 16-17, etc.

Skills replace thief skills but also ranger stuff (forage, hunt, directions). Everyone starts with a 1-in-6 chance, it becomes 2-in-6 by spending a point etc. 6-in-6 means you roll 2d6 and only fail if both dice get 6 (which means about 97% chance of success).

I'd reduce thief skills to five or six (see below).

Spell-casting means your MU level. Spellcasting 3 means you cast as a 3rd level MU. You still have to learn the spells, and you probably need at least the same number as you spellcasting (e.g., at least 3 spells for spellcasting 3).

To Turn Undead you roll 1d6 and must beat the target's HD by 4 or more. TU 2 means you roll 1d6+2, etc. A margin of 8 or more means destruction.

Feats are various perks, including all existing features. Some of them could cost more than 1 point (e.g., multiple attacks) and they might be limited (e.g., one for every three levels) to reduce complexity. You can find many examples in Old School Feats - they'd cost 2 points each.

Let's try to create a character - say, a 6th level thief, with 20 points - that will feel similar to the original version.

- Attack bonus: +3.
- Saves: +3.
- Skills: +12 (3-in-6 for six skills).
- Feats: +2 (backstab or read languages).

This is pretty close to B/X. 

What about a fighter?

- Attack bonus: +6.
- Saves: +6.
- Ability scores: +4 CON (for the extra HP).
- 4 extra points to spend as needed - probably a feat giving him an extra attack.

Eh, not perfect. The attack bonus is closer to AD&D than B/X, but I like the AD&D progression better anyway.


- Attack bonus: +3.
- Saves: +3.
- TU: +6.
- Spell-casting: 4.
- Spells: 4.

If the cleric has some taboos, he might get an extra point or two, but his budget is pretty tight.


- Attack bonus: +2.
- Saves: +2.
- Spell-casting: 6.
- Spells: 6.
- 4 extra points to spend as needed.

I like it. Maybe the MU can get some Lore skill, etc. 

The fact that the MU becomes stronger at lower levels and weaker at higher levels (fewer spells) is a fortunate consequence of this system.

Notice that this assumes no classes - so, same XP for everybody. Also, same HP - unless you get a CON bonus, etc.

This means the MU needs some nerfing.

The fighter loses some unique skills (wearing all weapons and armor - unless you want to count those as feats or, conversely, taboos), but gains more points to spend on abilities and features.

The cleric will be fine. It is powerful enough already.

The thief will probably need to specialize in three or four skills (and maybe they can be reduced to find, notice, climb, tinker, and stealth; with other skills such as lore, healing and nature added to other classes).

Overall... I think this is doable. 

This allows you to create a paladin or ranger (just add a nature skill) with relative ease, and to customize your own character/class.

"Racial" features can be bought by level 1, with humans getting extra points to spend.

Come to think of it, this could be the basis for an updated version of Old School Feats someday. Or an entirely new thing...

EDIT: Just found out this is a thing in AD&D 2e. The 2e DMG has a class-creation system, which is not quite I'm doing here, but  Skills and Powers contains an actual point buy system that is much harder, but still very cool. This from that books description:

About Point-Based Characters. The idea of point-based RPG characters dates back to at least Melee (1977), the predecessor to The Fantasy Trip (1980). It was popularized by Champions (1981) and has since become a mainstay of the roleplaying industry.

However, even in 1995, the idea still hadn't been officially incorporated into AD&D, which instead focused on random rolls to generate characteristics, linked with rigid class and level structures that didn't give players any room for variance in their characters. The closest that AD&D came to point-based characters was in Unearthed Arcana (1985), which offered some alternative methods for rolling lots of characteristic dice to try and generate a specific character class that the player was seeking. AD&D second edition (1989) similarly provided some methods to let players add extra dice to certain characteristics during character generation.

Skills & Powers dramatically changed this by offering a point-buy system that let players not only purchase characteristic points and proficiencies, but also allowed them to choose which class abilities that they wanted to buy. It allowed considerable variation, and thus players could have characters with "out-of-class" weapons, or even a Conan-esque fighter who could both fight and move silently. Skills & Powers even included traits (advantages) and disadvantages - two notable elements of point-based character systems that help to add detail and depth to characters.

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  1. In OD&D you couldn't swap points. But you could count the amount above 9 in certain other attributes (depending on class) as a 1/2 or 1/3 bonus to a character's prime attribute to achieve experience point bonus thresholds.
    Example-a cleric with Str:15 & Wis:13 normally gets a 5% experience bonus for the 13 Wisdom. But the higher strength of 6 points above 9 can "count" as 2 extra points of Wisdom to get to a 10% experience bonus. But Strength remains 15 and Wisdom remains 13.
    [Things are just easier because the cleric can more readily smite their enemies] or something like that.