Monthly Archives: May 2021

A Game Design History of the Dump Stat

In 1974, Dungeons & Dragons introduced roleplaying games and—less significantly—dump stats where players set their least-useful ability to their lowest score. According to the original D&D rules, players rolled abilities in order. Actually, by the rules as written, “it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order,” but everyone let players roll instead. Innovations like point-buy character generation or even rearranging rolled scores were years away.

Still, original D&D had dump stats of a sort. Fighters could trade Intelligence for Strength, the fighter’s “prime requisite.” Clerics could trade Intelligence for Wisdom. Magic users could trade Wisdom for Intelligence. Every class came with at least one potential dump stat, and these exchanges cost 2 or 3 points for 1 point of the prime requisite. When I first read those offers, the exchange rates struck me as a bad deal. I was wrong. None of those classes gained anything from their dump stat, so the trades only benefited the characters. In the original rules, Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom just brought advantages to the class that used the ability as a prime requisite. (Intelligence brought extra languages; few players cared.) The rules prevented players from reducing Constitution and Charisma, but those abilities could help every character with more hit points or more loyal followers.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardIn 1977, the hand-to-hand combat game Melee by American designer Steve Jackson showed a different and influential approach to ability scores. Melee used just two attributes, Strength and Dexterity, but the scores brought bigger mechanical effects than in D&D. Strength permitted more damaging weapons, stouter armor, and functioned as hit points. Dexterity determined to-hit rolls and who struck first. In this combat game, dueling characters needed to enter the battlefield evenly matched, so rather than rolling attributes, players bought them with points. Modern role-playing games virtually always let players build their characters, but in 1977 the point-buy system proved a massive innovation.

Also in 1977, the obscure game Superhero ’44 used a point-buy system. In Heroic Worlds (1991), D&D Designer Lawrence Schick called that game “primitive,” but also “ground breaking.” Superhero ’44 even let players trade flaws for more points. “Characters who accept weaknesses or disabilities (Kryptonite, for instance) should be awarded with extra power.” This innovation spread to games like Champions (1981), GURPS (1986), and Savage Worlds (2003).

When I played Melee, I marveled at the balance between Strength and Dexterity. Every point moved between the two attributes traded a tangible benefit for a painful detriment, and the difficult choice between stats made character generation into a fascinating choice. Just as important, the simple choice led to fighters who played differently but who proved equally effective. No other game would ever feature such a precise balance between ability scores, but with 2 scores and just one character type, Melee’s narrow scope helped.

A magic system to accompany Melee appeared in Wizard (1978). This addition introduced a third stat, Intelligence, but wizards still needed Strength to power spells and Dexterity to cast them. Intelligence became a dump stat for the original game’s fighters, while wizards gained enough from spells to offset the need to invest in three stats. When Melee and Wizard became The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game, IQ also bought skills, so some balance between stats remained.

Some games lump Strength and some of Constitution’s portfolio together. In both The Fantasy Trip and Tunnels & Trolls (1975), wizards drew from their Strength to power their spells, and since characters in both games increased stats as they advanced, experienced TFT and T&T wizards grew muscles as swollen as steroid-fueled bodybuilders.

Choosing ability scores introduced a complication avoided when players just roll. Some stats prove more useful than others. Chivalry & Sorcery included an attribute for bardic voice. No one but bards would have invested there, and C&S lacked bard as a class. Also, the attributes that power your character’s key abilities bring much more value than the rest. The original D&D rules recognized that factor in the unequal exchanges that let players increase their character’s prime requisites.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1978), the recommended technique for generating ability scores allowed players to rearrange scores any way they liked. For most classes, Intelligence just brought extra languages and Wisdom only gave a saving throw bonus against magic “involving will force,” so these abilities became favored places to dump low scores.

In D&D, the value of ability scores mainly comes from the value the scores offer to classes that don’t require them. Constitution always comes out ahead because it adds hit points and improves a common saving throw. You may never see a fifth edition class based on Constitution because the attribute offers so much already. In earlier editions of D&D, Strength proved useful because every class sometimes made melee attacks. Nowadays, classes get at-will alternatives to melee attacks that use their prime requisite.

The value of ability score depends on what characters do in a campaign, and that adds challenge to balancing. In original D&D, shrewd players paid hirelings and henchmen to accompany their dungeon expeditions and share the danger. Characters needed Charisma to recruit and keep followers, so by some measures Charisma offered more benefits than any other attribute. But not every campaign played with hirelings. The 1977 D&D Basic Set skipped the rules for hiring and retaining help, so Charisma offered no value at all unless a DM happened to improvise a Charisma check—the game lacked formal rules for checks.

A similar factor makes Strength a common dump stat in fifth edition D&D. Strength provides the potentially valuable ability to carry more stuff, and more treasure, but few players even bother accounting for carrying capacity. The rules make dealing with encumbrance an optional variant. In the original D&D games, part of the challenge of looting the dungeon came from the logistical challenge of hauling out the loot. Runequest (1978) featured an encumbrance system that allowed characters to carry a number of “things” equal to their Strength before the weight hampered them. I remember the importance this system attached to Strength and the difficult choices of armor and equipment players faced. The secret to making Strength valuable is creating an encumbrance system that players use.When encumbrance feels like an accounting exercise that players ignore, Dexterity becomes king. By selecting ranged or finesse weapons, a Dexterity based character can approach the damage of a similar character based on Strength. Plus, a high Dexterity enables an AC nearly as stout as the heaviest armor, wins initiative, and improves common Dexterity saves rather than rare Strength saves.

Fifth edition D&D makes Intelligence another common choice for a dump stat. Of the classes in the Player’s Handbook, only wizard requires Intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. (See If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?)

Third edition D&D boosted the value of Intelligence by awarding smart characters more skills. The fifth edition designers probably weighed the same approach, but with skills serving as key traits in the two pillars of interaction and exploration, perhaps the designers opted to award skills equally to characters of any Intelligence. So unlike in earlier editions, high Intelligence no longer brings D&D characters more skills or even languages.

Obvious dump stats limit the choices that lead to effective characters. Dump stats encourage players to create characters that fit common, optimal patterns. A fifth edition D&D party may include a wide range of classes and backgrounds, but almost everyone fits the mold of healthy, agile folks with low-average Intelligence. And not even the barbarian can open a pickle jar. (He’s dex based.)

How to Run an Ambush So Sneaky Monsters Bring More Than Claw/Claw/Bite

Dungeons & Dragons includes lots of sneaky creatures proficient in Stealth, from Abominable Yeti to Yeti. That alphabetical range somehow fails to make my point, but more than 500 creatures fit in between. The game includes creeping monsters who work as ambush predators like spiders (Stealth +7), crafty ambushers like goblins (Stealth +6), as well as potential jump scares from wights, and jumping oh-shit surprises from bulettes.

When these creatures get some chances to lie in wait or to sneak up for surprise, they show the traits that make them more interesting than a claw/claw/bite sequence. Combat scenes feel more varied. Plus the barbarian gets to show off Feral Instinct. However, I have almost never run sneaky monsters for surprise, and based on countless convention games virtually every other DM plays sneaky wrong too.

Part of the blame rests on the fifth edition rule for hiding before an attack. “Compare the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.” In the highly technical jargon of game design, this rule is rubbish.

The worst check among the hiders determines surprise, so with multiple foes and checks, the chance of success veers quickly toward impossible. Based on real life, you might suppose that ambushes often work. Based on the D&D rules, the word “ambush” describes a imaginary event that can never happen, at least for groups of sneaky monsters. (For a look at the reverse of this dynamic, see In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.)

To fix the rule so ambushers can surprise, skip the roll to hide. As a dungeon master, you can set the difficulty class to spot an ambush just as you set DCs for other checks. Then, compare each character’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score against the DC to determine if the character is surprised. This matches the procedure you might use for a trap.

As a technique for setting the DC to detect an ambush, just add 10 to the ambushers’ Stealth bonus, so hiding goblins with Stealth +6 require a DC 16 to spot. If the sneaky creature has advantage, add 5 to the DC. For disadvantage, subtract 5 from the DC. A group setting an ambush has the edge of planning, preparation, and familiarity with the location, so a DM focused on realism might allow advantage and enable many surprises, but not the kind players favor. More entertaining ambushes probably lead to a mix of surprised characters and characters who act immediately. Such situations reward characters with high perception.

This approach boosts sneaky monsters and perceptive characters, but it eliminates die rolls and the fun uncertainty that dice add. By choosing a DC, the DM essentially decides who becomes surprised, and it’s always the same, oblivious characters. The D&D designers favor passive perception because it avoids slowing the game for rolling Wisdom (Perception) checks. In dungeons that encourage players to look frequently for traps, passive checks can speed past a lot of rolls. But lurking monsters deserve a different procedure: Just have players roll a Wisdom (Perception) check before the likely roll for initiative. The characters who fail their check begin surprised.

In an ambush, initiative can start at one of two times:

  • When the monsters attack.
  • When one or more characters notice the potential ambush.

This second case leads to judgement calls from the DM, but can also lead to interesting scenes. How the realization plays depends on how the perceptive characters react to spotting the attackers.

If the ranger draws a sword and yells, “To Arms!” then initiative starts and the less perceptive players begin surprised. Meanwhile, the monsters are already aware of their foes, so they start without surprise.

If the ranger plays it cool and tries to alert the party, then the scene turns on whether the ambushers happen to attack immediately. Does the ambushers’ insight reveal that the archer spotted them? If so, they strike and may surprise some characters. Can the ranger deceive the ambushers into waiting just a moment longer while covertly signaling the party? Ask what the alert characters do, and then call for checks to play the scene.

Distance factors into the situation too. In daylight, if the eagle-eyed ranger spots a group of yuan-ti hiding among desert rocks a half-mile ahead, then any surprise hardly matters. During that first round, no one without meteor swarm is in range to attack. The players can select the best angle of approach or can just avoid the monsters. Since yuan-ti have darkvision to 120 feet, they surely wait until night when most adventurers with darkvision see 60 feet and still suffer disadvantage to Wisdom (Perception) checks unless they carry a light source. Such scenes allow characters to show their special traits, like the drow character’s enhanced night vision that lets the party turn the tables.

For that ambush in darkness, you must judge how close the party will approach the yuan-ti before any characters can detect the snakes. Perhaps at 60 feet, allow the ranger leading the party one check at disadvantage due to dim light. At 30 feet, in the moment the monsters spring their attack, allow a second check for the entire party.

Ultimately, many ambush attempts lead into situations that demand DMs ready to balance distance, skills, and traits to create fun and exciting situations. An ’80s roleplaying game might have included a table that factored Stealth scores, Perception scores, terrain and lighting into a roll that revealed encounter distance. The authors of the Player’s Handbook skipped all that complexity in favor of simplicity. The approach relies on a DM’s judgement, but isn’t that part of what makes being a dungeon master fun?

When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters

Dungeons & Dragons games live in our imagination, so we can only share the action through our description. Critical hits, high-stakes saves, and successful checks against long odds all encourage dungeon masters and players to describe the game’s action in ways that flaunt the characters’ power and talent. Everyone loves a crit; even narrating one is fun.

As a DM, I look for characters’ heroic moments. In a movie, a heroic moment might come when Wonder Woman rushes a foe through a window, crashing out in a shower of glass and debris. In a game, heroic moments come when a hero grapples Acererak and heaves him into a pool of lava, or when a hero stops fleeing an onrushing boulder and turns to drive the sword Shatterspike into it. Whenever you spot a heroic moment, put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome. Many players enjoy describing their characters’ heroic moments. Invite them to.

In D&D and in fiction, a heroes prove their mettle by facing villains who seem at least as capable of winning the day. So look for villainous moments—baddass occasions when your monsters get to flaunt their menace. Think of the Darth Vader demolishing rebels in pursuit of the stolen Death Star plans. D&D monsters typically arrive outmatched by heroes, so make the most of every badass turn. Legendary resistances invite badass moments by letting villains shrug off a hero’s best shot and laugh at the character’s weakness.

Surely none of this advice surprises you. Here’s the unexpected tip: When someone fumbles, instead of describing the failure in a way the makes the hero or monster seem inept or comical, describe the stumble so the fault comes from tough opposition or an imposible situation. DMs feel tempted to narrate bad rolls for laughs. We can narrate a 1 with a description of how someone’s hat tilted to cover their eyes and gain an easy laugh that feels fun in the moment. But too many descriptions like that turn characters into clowns and their opponents into jokes. Instead, use a 1 to describe a foe’s superhuman speed or the swirling hot ash clogging the air and stinging the heroes’ eyes. When you describe outcomes, even the fumbles, flatter your heroes and monsters.

Postscript: Before anyone runs to the comment section, I know that D&D lacks fumbles, but you know what I mean. Don’t be pedantic.

Ninth-level D&D spells Were Never Intended for Players

Dungeons & Dragons first supplement, Greyhawk, raised the game’s highest level spells from 6th level to 9th. None of Gary Gygax’s players had reached the level required to cast the new spells.

Tim Kask remembers that as he and Gary worked on the Blackmoor supplement, they figured players faced little chance of even reaching level 9 or 10. “This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was level 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave’s.”

Doctor_Strange_AstralGreyhawk’s high-level spells served non-player characters and indulged Gary’s love of systematic cataloging—the same inclination that drove him to create a plane of existence for every alignment.

At level 9, Gary stashed outrageous effects from fantasy. Shape Change duplicated a scene from the movie Sword in the Stone. Wish, Time Stop, and Gate came from popular imagination. Astral Spell came from the Doctor Strange comic.

Most of the level 9 spells boasted game-breaking effects. Shape Change let casters gain the shape and abilities of any creature at will, over a duration of hours. Gate could summon a god. Wish seemed to allow anything. Astral Spell probably helped you spy, but you needed to read Doctor Strange to be certain.

To Gary, these spells stood above the players’ reach, reserved for scrolls, liches, and legends.

Gamers played D&D with more passion—and less disciple—than Gary ever expected. Player characters raced past level 17 and gained those once-legendary spells. Now the spells marked either (a) where D&D stopped playing like D&D or (b) where players rolled new characters. All of Gary’s players retired their characters at levels in the mid-teens.

Gary wrote that he designed original D&D to challenge characters between 1st and 16th level, and not 17th-level characters with their level-9 spells. Eventually, the 9th-level spells prompted the fifth-edition designers to mark a new tier for 17th-level PCs. See The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.


When heroes oppose the lich queen, what does she wish for?

By the time Gary designed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he knew that 17-plus-level PCs bedeviled DMs everywhere, but he kept spells like Wish and Shape Change. Gary aimed to keep the elements of his original game. Instead of eliminating troublesome spells, he imposed limits. Shape Change now consumed a 5,000 gp. jade circlet. The description for Wish now warned, “The discretionary power of the referee is necessary in order to maintain game balance.” I wish I had known that before my players wished for level-infinity PCs. Astral Spell added some baggage about silver cords and continued to discourage casting through obfuscation.

Third edition coped with the legendary spells by adding limitations. Wish stopped granting Wishes and now offered a page-long menu of magical boons. Shapechange lost a space and added hit die limits. Deities and unique beings could now ignore the Gate spell’s summons. As for Astral Spell, I must have missed the issue of Doctor Strange that explained its value.

Fifth edition continues the strategy of containing overpowered spells with long, limiting descriptions. Wish once appeared in 4 lines, now it spans a half page. Shapechange grows almost as much.

Why do these spells remain in the game, even though Gary Gygax never expected players to enjoy free access to them? In part, I blame tradition. Fourth edition eliminated Wish and its kin, but players rebelled against a game that cut so many familiar ingredients.

Designers struggle to capture a sense of wonder appropriate for the game’s most powerful spells while keeping spells playable. Meteor Swarm never aggravated any DMs, but a cluster of fireballs just feels like more of something from level 3. Of Gary’s legendary spells, Time Stop ranks as the best. It combines an epic feel with a manageable effect. In some future revision of the game, I hope to see Wish retired to legendary status and replaced by more spells in the mold of Time Stop.

Greyhawk’s description of Meteor Swarm interjects “(Jim!)” whenever it mentions the spell’s fireballs. Before Meteor Swarm reached print, Greyhawk campaigner Jim Ward’s PC acquired the spell on scrolls. He argued that Meteor Swarm should create flying rocks and overcome fire immunity. His dungeon master, Greyhawk co-author Rob Kuntz, put his final ruling in print. Years later, Jim prevailed. The spell now produces fiery rocks that deal both fire and bludgeoning damage.