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.)

4 thoughts on “A Game Design History of the Dump Stat

  1. Ilbranteloth

    I think the real culprits for the development of dump stats were the shift in the design to a mechanically-focused combat-centric game, and the elimination of penalties.

    The original game, as you noted, had a purpose for each ability. Although not perfectly “balanced,” the design of the game was less mechanically focused, less combat-centric, and had a different concept of “balance.”

    As the game evolved, nearly every decision in creation was of a benefit/hindrance type. In 2e, kits were based on this concept. It was also clear in the commentary of some of those kits that the designers recognized an emergence of mechanically-focused play that ignored certain parts of the game altogether. A great many of the hindrances were “soft” penalties, where you might gain a benefit that had regular usefulness for a hindrance that mattered only if you didn’t ignore rules fir things like hirelings, etc.

    To me, such a shift exposes a fundamental difference in the concept of the game between the Arneson/Gygax/Greenwood era and the WotC era, although the shift had been happening at many tables already.

    The WotC approach is based on game design. The mechanics define the play of the game. Balance is important so everybody who sits down at the table can have fun because the design of the game is “fair.” Over the years, the rules seem more like a variation of MtG to me, probably with good reason. Of course, they sometimes feel as balanced to me as MtG too, which is, not very much. If the group is focused on the mechanical aspect of play, then optimization always “wins.”

    This makes sense, since it’s how people are accustomed to playing any game. Some of it grew out of attempting to “fix” problems that arose when mechanically-focused players took advantage of the loose nature of the rules. While there were undoubtedly people at that time that weren’t playing in good faith, I suspect most were truly players that needed that framework (or were just used to it) when playing a game.

    In our day, a heavy focus on rules at the expense of the game was referred to negatively as rules lawyers. Those that were focused on building the best mechanical PC with little regard for role-playing and playing it as a Role-Playing game we’re munchkinizers and “roll-players.”

    The fact is, none of these are bad approaches, but they can create conflict when the group as a whole isn’t in agreement about what type of game it is they are playing,

    In terms of D&D, the rules-focused approach won. Game designers design games, the mass market is accustomed to playing games, “by the rules,” and complex games are no longer intimidating to most. They want to feel (super) heroic, so no penalties. And in a mechanically-focused game without penalties or hindrances, the dump stat is born. If that game is combat-centric, then anything that doesn’t improve your combat abilities is worse than a hindrance. It has become, “useless.”

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  2. Cole Jenkins

    I hate dumping INT because I generally don’t like roleplaying dullards. Nothing is more frustrating than watching the rest of the party flail around and your characters being too dumb to plausibly make the suggestion you, the player, know is the solution. Ugh.

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  3. gutsdozier

    The way ability scores work in 5e compared to how they worked in AD&D also changes the way dump stats are treated. In 5e, you have a modifier that scales linearly with the ability score, so a 14 Con is demonstrably better than a 7 Con. The former gives you an HP bonus of +2; the latter gives you a penalty of -2. In AD&D, the respective benefits/drawbacks of high/low ability scores only come at the extreme ends of the 3-18 range. In AD&D, you needed a 6 Con to get an HP penalty, and a 15 Con to get an HP bonus; a Con of 14 was no better than a Con of 7 (except for the occasional system shock or resurrection survival roll.)

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