Tag Archives: ability scores

Without Encumbrance, Strength Is a Roleplaying Choice for Sub-Optimal Characters

Of the 6 players gathered for my weekend of D&D, nobody showed up with a character with a strength higher than 8. Fifth edition D&D makes Strength a common dump stat because the game lacks an encumbrance system that players use. I’ve never played fifth edition with the option, mainly because I’ve never played this edition in a style that encourages the bookkeeping. Encumbrance fits with a gritty style of dungeon crawl that focuses on counting torches, rations, and perhaps abandoning copper pieces in favor of more portable loot.

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—more with optimal feats. 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.

With encumbrance justifiably relegated to a seldom-used optional rule, a more evolved D&D design would boost the value of Strength with some advantages over Dexterity. After all, mighty warriors swinging great big swords form a deeply resonant part of fantasy and the game. I want to play those characters without feeling like I made a sacrifice for the sake of roleplaying.

For more, see A Game Design History of the Dump Stat.

Next on Thursday: Dungeons are contrived for fun games.

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.)

If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?

In modern Dungeons & Dragons games, intelligence vies with strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. Of classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. And unlike in earlier editions, high intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages. Am I the only dungeon master who spots a mind flayer in an adventure, realizes that only a wizard can make an intelligence save against a psionic blast, and feels a shameful excitement? We DMs rarely get a chance to stir panic by exploiting a weakness the players chose for themselves.

In original D&D, intelligence brought even fewer benefits than in the modern game. The rules lacked intelligence saves and checks.  Magic users needed the stat, but otherwise smart characters only gained languages. Still, at some tables, low-intelligence characters came with a steep penalty.

The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson chronicles how after the release of D&D in 1974, discussion brought roleplaying from a single, revolutionary game to a mature hobby. The discourse started in fanzines like Alarums & Excursions and spread to magazines like Different Worlds, which treated roleplaying as a new art. The book shows how many seemingly modern controversies about styles of play actually date back to 1975 or so. For instance, gamers have argued about whether game masters should favor storytelling over impartiality almost since the first mention of D&D in a mimeographed zine.

One debate described in The Elusive Shift  seldom reappears now. It stems from the original D&D rules and this line: “Intelligence will also affect referees’ decisions as to whether or not certain actions would be taken.” In other words, dungeon masters could bar low-intelligence characters from taking clever actions dreamed up by a smart player.

The implications of intelligence go two ways. In 1975, Lee Gold wrote that when a player proposed an action too rash for a wise character or too dumb for a smart character, “a dungeon master should legitimately overrule a person’s call for his character.”

Especially in the days of roleplaying, when everyone generated characters randomly, many gamers saw playing low intelligence or low wisdom as both a penalty and as a demonstration of roleplaying skill.

In Alarums & Excursions issue 13 (1976), Nicolai Shapero wrote, “If I have a character with an intelligence of 6, and a wisdom of 8, I refuse to run him the same as an 18 intelligence 18 wisdom character. This has cost me characters…it hurts, every now and then.” However, he insisted that “it is a far more honest way of playing.”

Some gamers wondered if the players who ignored their character’s intelligence even counted as roleplayers. Did such gamers just play a game of puzzle-solving and battle tactics? Meanwhile, the gamers who favored tests of skill preferred games where players needed all their own wits to survive.

Nowadays, some players enjoy playing a low-wisdom character as someone who ignores signs of trouble and takes risks. Such recklessness leads to a more exciting game. But few players enjoy stifling their own ingenuity to play a lower intelligence. To be fair, the intelligence of a modern D&D character typically bottoms out at 8, just below average, but I suspect most D&D players are far more clever.

How do you roleplay intelligence and wisdom?

How to Build a D&D Cleric Who’s Super Fun in a Fight

In Dungeon & Dragons, clerics suffer from a reputation as the dull class that folks dutifully play to support the party. Forget that. In fifth-edition D&D, clerics can enter a fight like a tornado, damaging every foe around them, dodging blows, and attacking, all in the same turn.

Plus, their faith gives clerics a ready-made hook for playing the sort of big personalities that make roleplaying fun.

At level 5, D&D classes leap in power. Martial classes typically gain an extra attack, potentially doubling their damage dealing. Monks gain Stunning Strike. Wizards and Sorcerers gain fireball, which delivers 5th-level power for a 3rd-level slot. Bards and Warlocks gain hypnotic pattern, a spell that turns fights into beatdowns. (See How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve.) The 3rd-level spell that lifts clerics in power lacks the flash of fireball or hypnotic pattern, but it makes clerics more fun in a fight.

Spirit guardians summons spirits that surround you to 15 feet and that damage enemies who enter or start their turn in that sphere. Spirit guardians rates as one of the most efficient spells to up-cast with a higher-level slot. I played a cleric to 20th level and loved casting spirit guardians at 8th or even 9th level to deal 8d8 or 9d8 damage to any foes near me. Clerics on the move take their 15-foot sphere of divine fury across the battlefield, forcing more foes into the destruction. If the party ever gains boots of speed, give them to the cleric!

Spirit guardians suffers from an obvious drawback and an overlooked one. Obviously, the spell requires concentration while encouraging clerics to go into the thick of a fight. Also, the spell requires clerics to see allies to exempt them from the guardians. That means invisible allies or even friends around the corner can’t be spared.

Tactics

Starting at 5th level, the fun battlefield cleric starts combat by casting spirit guardians and moving into the thick of battle. On turn two, cast your favorite combat cantrip—or just dodge—plus cast spiritual weapon for another strike, and then keep moving to include the biggest groups of foes in your radiant doom.

Ability scores

To build a cleric, make Wisdom your highest score, followed by Constitution. Choose an odd-numbered Constitution score. Traditionally, clerics rely on Strength, but a cleric’s cantrips can bring more damage than weapon attacks, especially with the Blessed Strike option in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Only domains that grant heavy armor proficiency might actually benefit from Strength. A 13 Strength enables you to wear an affordable suit of chainmail without losing speed. A 15 Strength enables you to wear plate without slowing. Low strength dwarves can wear heavy armor without losing speed, so ironically the D&D rules reward creating agile, pencil-necked dwarves who defy their archetype. If your domain lacks heavy armor proficiency, choose Dexterity as your third highest score.

Why choose an odd Constitution score? Clerics surrounded by spirit guardians become an immediate target for attack. Through any damage, they must maintain concentration by making Constitution saves. The War Caster feat can help, but the Resilient (Constitution) feat proves better. If you start with a Constitution of 13, then taking Resilient (Constitution) before level 5 adds 1 to Constitution and helps your save about as much as War Caster. Then your save continues to improve with your proficiency bonus. If you play your cleric to high levels, you can add War Caster later.

Race

If your campaign uses the standard rules for ability scores in the Player’s Handbook, hill dwarves and variant humans make particularly good clerics. Wood elves also work well if you favor Dexterity and speed over Strength. If your campaign uses the custom origins from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and you prefer weapon attacks, pick a high elf and choose Booming Blade as your bonus cantrip. You can strike a foe, and then when they flee your spirit guardians, they take thunder damage. This combination works best with cleric domains such as life and tempest that grant the Divine Strike feature.

Domain

The forge and tempest cleric domains excel for clerics capable of fun battlefield fury. Both domains grant heavy armor proficiency.

Forge. The forge cleric brings improved AC to heavy armor and the 1st-level searing smite spell powers weapon attacks until you gain better spells to concentrate on. Opt for Strength over Dexterity. At level 7, you get the underrated wall of fire spell. Sadly though, wall of fire also competes for concentration.

Tempest. Once tempest clerics cast spirit guardians and become a target, they can use Wrath of the Storm to heap punishment on foes who hit back. Plus, the spell thunderwave and the Thunderbolt Strike feature both let you push away creatures so you can move freely around the battlefield. The tempest domain makes a flavorful combination with that high elf who makes attacks backed by the booming blade cantrip.

Other domains gain some versatility while remaining especially fun in a fight.

Life. Choose a life cleric to gain the durability of heavy armor while becoming the best healer in the game. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything adds the aura of vitality spell to the cleric list. This domain gives that spell game-breaking power. (See The 7 Supreme D&D Character Builds for One Thing.)

Light. Choose the light domain if your notion of fun in a fight includes blasting things with fireball. For a light cleric, opt for a high Dexterity and ignore Strength.

Essential spells

Cantrips. Select guidance. Forge, tempest, and other clerics who favor weapon attacks should prepare sacred flame for the undead-slaying potency of radiant damage. Clerics who rely on damaging cantrips should choose toll the dead for maximum damage—unless you roleplay your light or life domain cleric as someone loyal to their ideals. (If you’re not a grave domain cleric, you can still prepare toll the dead, but you should feel bad about it.)

1st level. Prepare healing word to heal without slowing your attack. Add guiding bolt for attacks at range. Before 5th level, prepare bless. Once you reach 5th level, spirit guardians becomes a better spell to concentrate on.

2nd level. Prepare spiritual weapon. Aid makes one of the game’s best spells to cast using a higher-level slot. Although silence requires concentration, prepare it. Silence hinders enemy spellcasters, stops guards from calling for help, and lets you chop through doors without announcing your location.

3rd level. Prepare spirit guardians, mass healing word, and revivify. Invest 300 gp in diamond dust for revivify’s components. You may rarely cast revivify, but when you do, you become party MVP.

D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books

The prior edition of Dungeons & Dragons, its fourth, welcomed too many players with a feel-bad moment. Eager new players would join a table with a character built from their new copy of their Player’s Handbook and learn the character was unplayable—full of errors created by fourth edition’s errata. The potential message: Your character is bad and you can’t use the book you just bought without embarrassing yourself.

The fourth-edition team strived to get rules right the first time, but they faced a relentless publishing schedule focused on releasing as many hardcovers as the market would bear, all packed with character options. To fix the inevitable missteps, the designers relied on players able to download errata. The game’s business strategy centered on online subscriptions to D&D Insider, so the finished rules existed on the internet, while the books attracted completists and folks who enjoyed reading the latest D&D lore from a comfy chair.

For fifth edition, the D&D team completely reverses this strategy, striving to avoid any changes that contradict text in print. In newer printings, wording gets an occasional change for clarity, but the game’s mechanics remain virtually unchanged. Surely this stability accounts for a measure of the newest edition’s success in winning new players.

To perfect new content before it reaches print, the D&D team relies on a slower release schedule and on letting players preview and test new game elements as Unearthed Arcana. Only the rare overpowered features that prove game breaking get tweaks. While the D&D team avoids errata, they feel comfortable assuming that players and dungeon masters can ignore feats, spells, and archetypes that don’t suit their game. If we find some spells annoying, then we can skip them.

Still, the D&D designers see the game’s flaws. The 12th printing of the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook includes some corrections. On rare occasions, the designers feel compelled to make functional changes to printed rules. For example, errata to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything changes the healing spirit spell from game altering to adequate.

Newer D&D books give the D&D team chances to improve on the Player’s Handbook without actually invalidating anything. Mainly the new books offer options that improve on the original versions. Players can still opt for the original, but the newer alternatives rank as stronger, easier, or just as a more flavorful realization of an archetype. So Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take, and Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype.

During the typical edition cycle of a roleplaying game, years of play expose flaws, while new supplements build a complexity that rewards obsessed players while deterring newcomers. But the D&D team’s careful release strategy has let the game attract new players when most RPGs—including past D&D editions—introduce a new edition. The rules foundation of fifth edition remains strong enough that even an enthusiast like me just names a couple of feats as the worst thing in the game. New editions fuel a surge of sales as a game’s existing fans replace their books, but they also lose players who choose not to leave their experience and old books behind.

Given the success of fifth edition, I suspect the D&D team would feel content keeping the lightly-edited Player’s Handbook in print for years to come. However, I predict that one change in emphasis will lead to a quicker revision. In an article on diversity, the team writes that in the six years since fifth edition’s release “making D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible has moved to the forefront of our priorities.”

This new emphasis shows in Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything and the book’s options for customizing characters.

The original, 1974 D&D game avoided linking ability scores to a character’s race. Nearly 5 years later the game’s Advanced version added ability score penalties and bonuses for elves, dwarves, halflings, and half orcs. This change reinforced fantasy archetypes, but it also limited player freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything offers an alternative to ability score modifiers. “If you’d like your character to follow their own path, you may ignore your Ability Score Increase trait and assign ability score increases tailored to your character.” In a post previewing the change, the D&D team writes, “This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.”

The old approach to races in the Player’s Handbook hinders the book as a welcome to D&D. I predict that by the end of 2022, Wizards of the Coast will release of new version of the Player’s Handbook that revisits the old ability score adjustments in favor of the more flexible version. To be clear, this will not represent a 6th edition, but merely a better welcome to the existing game. That book will join revised versions of the other core books by swapping some of the original elements of the edition with the improved alternatives that appeared in more recent books. Meanwhile, the revisited Monster Manual will make some of our more fearsome reflections in the game world clearly “as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.” After all, isn’t that freedom to decide a lot of the reason we love D&D?

Related: 3 Posts that Need Updates Thanks to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores

The earliest character sheet for the game that inspired Dungeons & Dragons includes 8 character traits: Brains, Looks, Credibility, Sex, Health, Strength, Courage, and Cunning. The character comes from Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, which launched in 1971. See A History of D&D in 12 Treasures from author Jon Peterson.

The sheet organizes these traits under the heading, “Personality,” and measures of personality dominate the list more than abilities like strength and health. The Blackmoor campaign represented Charisma with three scores—Credibility, Looks, and Sex, as in “sexual prowess.”

Blackmoor evolved from miniature wargame campaigns. These games only represented individuals when they served as commanders for military units or as leaders of countries. When the referee needed to determine how well a commander followed orders or honored an alliance, measures of personality such as courage and loyalty mattered. One early campaign adopted a system for generating life events such as marriages and sickness for important characters. You can imagine how health and even sexual prowess could factor in such a game. Abilities like strength never figured in play.

Blackmoor started with players controlling single characters who would act in political intrigue and as leaders in battle, so the game emphasized traits for personality and leadership. The characters could fight solo or learn magic, so Strength, Health, and Brains found a place in the game.

In the Blackmoor campaign, Dave used ability scores as the basis of tests that resemble modern saving throws or ability checks. “Players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, to see if they were successful at an attempt,” writes Blackmoor scholar D. H. Boggs. For example, on page 28 of The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Dave describes how characters had to roll under their Dexterity score to remove their armor before drowning in Blackmoor Bay.

That example cites D&D’s Dexterity attribute, a score the original Blackmoor characters lacked. If Dave and his players used ability scores for saves, how did the rules omit a score for dodging? For his game, Dave also borrowed the saving throw categories from Chainmail—a 1971 set of rules for miniature-figure battles. Boggs speculates that these types for Dragon Breath, Spider Poison, Basilisk Gaze, and Spells covered enough cases to make a Dexterity attribute unnecessary.

How did Blackmoor’s personality traits turn into D&D’s six ability scores?

In 1972, Dave introduced his Blackmoor campaign to Gary Gygax, the author of Chainmail. Dave’s game transformed bits of Chainmail into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.”

In the case of ability scores, Gary reworked the Blackmoor attributes into D&D’s. For example, Gary never favored simple, informal terminology like “Brains” and “Health,” so he opted for Intelligence and Constitution.

Gary consolidated Credibility, Looks, and Sex into Charisma. (Later, Unearthed Arcana and other roleplaying games would experiment with splitting Charisma back into traits for charm and beauty.)

Gary’s early games paired players with gangs of followers, so Charisma helped recruitment and retention. As play styles turned away from henchmen and hirelings, Charisma became less important. The 1977 Basic Set provided no rules crunch for Charisma.

On the Blackmoor character sheet, Cunning looks like a late addition. In both Dave and Gary’s pre-D&D campaigns, Cunning became the prime requisite for clerics. “Cunning” suggests a faith-healing charlatan more than a priest who’s spells worked. Still, the first cleric character, as played by Mike Carr in Dave’s Blackmoor game, had working spells. So eventually Cunning turned to Wisdom and became a measure of spirituality.

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear archetype in the fantasy tales that inspired D&D. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and Van Helsing. These clerics made an awkward fit in the pulp-fantasy world of D&D and lacked a place in other games. In 1975, when TSR adapted the D&D rules to different settings to create Metamorphosis Alpha and Empire of the Petal Throne, the games dropped clerics and their Wisdom attribute.

Instead designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength.

Apparently, these games led Gary to see a need for a similar rating for D&D characters. Instead of adding a new attribute, Gary broadened Wisdom to include willpower. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook grants characters with high wisdom a bonus to saves against “mental attack forms involving will force.” Only a strained definition of wisdom includes willpower, but until then Wisdom only served clerics. The broader scope gave Wisdom similar weight to the other attributes.

Years later, Wisdom would gain an association with perception. Games without Wisdom tend to associate perception with Intelligence.

Dexterity arrived to the game last. Gary must have felt that Strength needed a counterpart for characters wielding crossbows, so Dexterity showed aptitude for ranged weapons. After the original books reached the public, the Thief entered the game and took Dexterity as a prime requisite.

Even though the original D&D release turned the scores from measures of personality into measures of ability, the game still says that the scores aid players “in selecting a role” like one of those personality tests that help students select a career.

When Gary wrote D&D, he never explained how to use ability scores for checks. In his own game, Gary preferred a loose method where he decided on a character’s chance of success and improvised a die roll to match. For saves, Gary just elaborated on the system from the Chainmail rules.

So according to D&D’s original rules, ability scores counted for little. The abilities barely deliver any game effects: At most a +1 to hit or an extra hit point per die.

These slight effects mean that early D&D characters in the same class all played much the same. But ability scores ranging from 3 to 18 seemed to promise bigger game effects than a mere +1. With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Wisdom and Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on.

With that development, D&D started down the road to the modern game, which builds on ability scores as the foundation for every check and save.

Related:
The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing.

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells

Organized play versus random ability scores

Legacy of the Green RegentWhen fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons arrived, many players saw an attempt to bring the play style of computer role-playing to the tabletop. That may be true, but I saw an effort to create a game that delivered a consistent public-play experience. By the end of third edition, Living Greyhawk, Legacy of the Green Regent, and similar organized-play campaigns dominated the game to the extent that third-party books of character options no longer sold because their options were not legal in organized play.

Unlike, say, a Magic the Gathering tournament, the players’ enjoyment of a public D&D game hinges on the quality of the DM.

Perhaps aiming to deliver a consistent, fun organized play experience, the fourth-edition designers created a game that minimized a dungeon master’s influence on the game. When you sat at a Living Forgotten Realms table, players could count on the same experience no matter who took the dungeon master’s chair, at least in theory. Potentially, a 4E DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For actions outside of combat, 4E presents the skill challenge, where the DM only has to decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance. For more, see “D&D Next empowers DMs; players stay empowered.”

A focus on organized play extends to character creation too. Fourth edition became the first D&D edition that presented a point-buy system as the standard method of rolling—make that creating—a character’s ability scores. For the first time, the standard characters worked for public play.

So nothing about the fifth edition surprises me as much as the return to rolling ability scores as the standard method. This reversal shows the designers aiming to bring the game back to its roots, to create a game for the kitchen table first, and then offering public play as an alternative.

Too bad the game does random abilities scores wrong.

In fifth edition D&D, players generate abilities scores by rolling 4d6 and add the three highest dice to generate each of 6 scores, and then they assign these 6 scores to the 6 abilities in any order.

Plenty of history backs this method. It first appeared as the first recommended method in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. The method carries through second and third editions.

The best quality of random character generation comes from the interesting but not quite optimal characters created. Random ability scores can create characters that feel organic—that break the optimal recipes of good ability scores and dump stats. For example, your randomly-generated fighter might have a high intelligence and a weaker constitution. These unusual combinations can fuel both role-playing and play strategy.

Allowing players to assign scores to any ability keeps the worst part of rolling characters—uneven character power. Then the method throws out the best part of rolling—interesting and organic characters.

I get the method’s purpose: Players can assign rolls to suit their chosen class. While some old-schoolers may find this decadent, the game should allow enough latitude to choose a class. Even in original D&D, where the referee rolled the characters, players could choose from a pool of candidates.

Rather than allowing players to shuffle rolled ability scores into any order, I suggest players roll scores in order, and then swap two scores. This system keeps characters organic and interesting, while giving players flexibility to choose a class. Plus, new players only have one decision to make. If you want to compensate for the less-flexible scores, allow players to reroll one bad score. That’s decadent enough.

A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons

Through second edition, Dungeons & Dragons handled perception with a mix of mechanics: To find hidden objects, players said where they wanted to look, and the dungeon master said if something was there. To find secret doors, the DM rolled a d6, and then considered the character’s elven parentage. Listening also hinges on a d6, with everyone but humans gaining an advantage. To spot an ambush, the DM resorted to the surprise system, which by AD&D, no one understood.

Runequest second edition

Runequest second edition

Third edition D&D would replace this mess with a system taken from Runequest (1978). Except from prior editions of D&D, Runequest serves as the dominant influence on third edition. RQ based perception on three skills: Listen, Spot Hidden Item, and Spot Trap, which became Listen, Scan, and Search in the game’s 1985 edition. A character’s intelligence boosted these skills.

When the 3E designers adopted Runequest’s perception skills as Listen, Spot, and Search, they had to decide which ability scores would match the skills. Runequest used Intelligence, and for Search, that fit. But how did intelligence help you listen? Does intelligence make you more alert?

Wisdom makes you alert

Unlike Runequest, D&D possessed a Wisdom score. Although Wisdom improved some saves, virtually no skills relied on it. The 3E designers saw a chance of broaden Wisdom’s portfolio of traits to include an awareness of more than the spiritual, but also of the hushed voices in the next room and the flash of steel through a window. While this interpretation strained the dictionary definition of Wisdom, it improved the game by making the value of Wisdom match the other ability scores.

Like RQ, third edition continued to base Search on Intelligence, but Listen and Spot stemmed from Wisdom.

Both D&D’s fourth edition and Pathfinder’s designers dispensed with the distinction. In both games, Search, Spot, and Listen all become a single Perception skill based on Wisdom. While I understand the urge to simply, Spot and Search get used frequently enough to merit separate skills. Search isn’t Use Rope.

The advantages of Search and Spot

D&D Next undoes some of the simplification by splitting Perception into two skills: Search, based on Intelligence, and Perception, based on Wisdom. The D&D Next Perception combines Listen and Spot. The rules make the analogy of comparing Search to Sherlock Holmes’ use of intellect to observe clues, and comparing Next’s Perception to Tarzan’s alertness.

I think the Next designers erred by calling the combination of Listen and Spot “Perception.” The skill shares a name with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception, but it covers fewer tasks. It should have been called Awareness or something. To further compound the confusion, the section of the playtest document covering Perception and Search is titled “Perception.” When the final rules appear, I will rate the editors’ performance on whether this stands.

Having separate Perception (Awareness) and Search skills offers two advantages:

  • Both Wisdom and Intelligence gain value as they boost the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game. Without a Search skill, Intelligence only contributes to knowledge checks, which someone in the party will probably make anyway.

  • The two skills more closely simulate the real world of brilliant but inattentive professors and of alert creatures with animal intelligence. Some dogs notice the smallest disturbance, but can’t find the kibble making a lump under the rug, even though they smell it somewhere.

On the other hand, Listen remains part of Perception (Awareness), an improvement on 3E. When Listen and Spot exist as separate skills, they can apply to the same situation, leading to confusion. For example, when you might both see someone creeping in the shadows and hear them, do you make a Listen check, a Spot check, or both?

By settling on Search and Perception, D&D Next finds the optimal set of perception skills, if not optimal names.

The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing

In original Dungeons & Dragons, what did Wisdom represent? Knowledge gained from experience? Not at first level. Good sense or judgment? Perhaps, but those qualities are normally under the full control of the player, so why bother with an ability score?

Wisdom entered the game because Gary Gygax needed a prime requisite for clerics that seemed less sinister than Cunning, the cleric’s original prime requisite. At first, Wisdom seemed to measure spirituality because only clerics benefited from it.

With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on. Except for Wisdom, every high ability score delivered benefits to every character. Even Intelligence brought additional languages. Wisdom started to look like an oddity, the lone stat only good for one class.

Many fantasy role-playing games followed D&D. My table of games up to to 1983 features 14 games. All these games adopted ability scores descended from the original six scores in D&D. Sometimes the names change—only the term “Strength” remains constant—but the essential traits remain. Except for Wisdom.

Cover by Erol Otis on any  early printings of the Arduin Grimoire

Cover by Erol Otis on an early printing of The Arduin Grimoire

Aside from D&D, Wisdom only appears in two games: Arduin Grimoire (1977) and Chivalry & Sorcery (1977). Dave Hargrave’s Arduin Grimoire hardly counts as a separate game. It began as a brown-book addition to D&D, an indie successor to Greyhawk and Blackmoor. Only the threat of legal action seemed to drive Dave Hargrave to claim that Arduin was a completely different game. Gary would adopt the same stance for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, another completely different game that includes Wisdom.

Why does the Wisdom ability score have so few descendants?

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear fantasy archetype. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and  Van Helsing. While the cleric has a Christian flavor, D&D eschews the sort of Christian worlds that would make the class seem at home. Instead, D&D and other fantasy RPGs draw inspiration from the sort of fantasy polytheism imagined in the Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes supplement. The gods of Lankhmar, Melniboné, and the Hyborian Age all seem more at home in D&D than a cleric sworn to wield blunt weapons. If not for the cleric’s traditional healing role, the class might rank in a third tier with druids and assassins.

If D&D featured religion similar to historical Christianity, Clerics would make a better fit. For example, Clerics and Wisdom fit easily in Chivalry & Sorcery, because the game recreates the culture of feudal Europe, complete with Christian priests capable of miracles.

Arioch from Dieties & Demigods, first printing

Arioch from Deities & Demigods, first printing

The designers of D&D’s other competitors stuck more closely to the fantasy archetypes set by Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, and Moorcock. So they never imitated D&D’s cleric or adopted an ability score like Wisdom.

Meanwhile these designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha (1975) swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength. Arduin adds an Ego ability score as a measure of willpower. In 1978, with the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary expanded Wisdom’s portfolio to include willpower. After that, every fantasy RPG features an ability for willpower.

In AD&D, the recommended technique for generating ability scores allowed players to rearrange scores any way they liked. Wisdom only delivered slight bonuses, so it became the place to dump your lowest score. No one needed wisdom except the poor cleric, who had to favor it over one of the other, broadly useful stats. With no compelling reason to opt for a high wisdom, character creation offers one less interesting choice.

This situation remained until third edition, with the invention of the Will save, and with Wisdom offering bonuses to the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game.

Next: A short history of perception in D&D

Ability scores in fantasy role-playing games up to 1983

While researching some posts, I looked at the ability scores in the fantasy role-playing games published from 1974 to 1983. My notes grew until they became the tables that appear here.

These tables encompass nearly every fantasy RPG published between 1974 and 1983 that I happen to have, and I must have almost all of them. I cannot find my copy of Lords of Creation from 1983. Sorry LoC fans.

The table lists a 13 character traits from strength to beauty, and indicates the ability score each game uses to represent the trait. To decide on the mappings, I drew on each game’s description of an ability, and on the ability’s mechanical effect in the game. If more than one score contributed to an ability, I mapped the score with the biggest contribution.

Trait Blackmoor
(1971-1973)
Dungeons
& Dragons
(1974)
Tunnels &
Trolls
(1975)
Empire of
the Petal
Throne
(1975)
Metamorphosis
Alpha
(1975)
Arduin
(1977)
Chivalry
& Sorcery
(1978)
RuneQuest
(1978)
Adventures
in Fantasy
(1978)
Advanced
Dungeons &
Dragons
(1978)
The Fantasy
Trip
(1977-1980)
RoleMaster
(1980-1982)
DragonQuest
(1980)
Bushido
(1980)
Swordbearer
(1982)
Hero System
(1981)
Palladium
Role-playing
Game (1983)
Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical
Strength
Stamina Health Constitution Constitution Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Fatigue Health Mass Constitution Physical
endurance
Health Constitution Health
Durability Endurance Body
Magic ability Brains Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence   Intelligence Intelligence Power Intelligence Intelligence IQ Reasoning
Memory
Magical aptitude Will   Intelligence IQ
Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Wit Intelligence
Search ability                   Intuition Perception  
Awareness                    
Willpower       Psychic
Ability
Mental
Resistance
Ego       Wisdom Self Discipline Willpower Will   Ego Mental
Endurance
Spirituality Cunning Wisdom       Wisdom Wisdom       Empathy          
Precision of
movement
  Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity   Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Manual
Dexterity
Deftness Agility Dexterity Physical
Prowess
Quickness   Agility Quickness Agility Speed Speed
Charm Credibility Charisma Charisma   Leadership
Potential
Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma   Presence       Presence Mental
affinity
Beauty Looks
Sex
Comeliness Comeliness Personal
Appearance
Comeliness
(Unearthed
Arcana
)
Physical Beauty     Comeliness Physical
Beauty

Throughout all the years, fantasy RPGs adopted ability scores descended from the original six scores in D&D. Sometimes the names change—only the term “Strength” remains constant—but the essential traits remain. Some games split one of the original ability scores into narrower abilities: Dexterity splits into an attribute for precise movements and one for quickness. Constitution splits into attributes for endurance and resilience. Charisma splits into attributes for charm and beauty. With Unearthed Arcana, AD&D experimented with the Charisma and Comeliness split.

Not all games represent every trait in an ability score. When no ability applies to a trait, the cell appears in yellow.

The table omits a few odd ability scores that share no comparable scores in the other games. Tunnels & Trolls includes Luck, which apparently gives players a chance to roll all their saving throws at once. Chivalry & Sorcery includes Bardic Voice, for your Feudal Idol campaign. Arduin adds Mechanical Ability and Swimming Ability because no one had invented skills yet.

These games come from an era when most designers worked to simulate game worlds more accurately than D&D. In the games that appeared in the early ’80s, this quest for realism shows in burgeoning numbers of ability scores. Powers & Perils appeared in 1983 and reaches a pinnacle for the situationist era of ability scores.

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils uses scores for Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Will, Eloquence, Empathy, Constitution, and Appearance. If designers had borrowed Bardic Voice from C&S, they would have covered everything. The game drops combinations of these 10 attributes into formulas for various factors used in the game. For example, to find your character’s Hit Point Value (HPV), calculate (S + St + C)/4, using Strength, Stamina, and Constitution. The game includes pages of similar equations, and thus defied my attempts to match abilities to my table. By 1984, unpopular RPGs such as P&P and Lords of Creation drove Avalon Hill to write a check for the RuneQuest license.

Meanwhile, The Fantasy Trip came from Steve Jackson’s man-to-man skirmish games, Melee and Wizard, and used just three ability scores. As the first RPG to use a point-buy system for ability scores, the abilities in TFT needed to be equally valuable.

The first Hero System game, Champions, also featured a point-buy system, but the system never balances the value of abilities. Instead, more valuable abilities cost more points. Other games on this list never needed to balance ability scores; players rolled the dice and took what chance gave them.

For comparison, D&D Next’s ability scores map as follows.

Characteristic Dungeons & Dragons
Next (2014)
Strength Strength
Endurance Constitution
Health
Durability
Magic
ability
Intelligence
Intelligence
Search
ability
Awareness Wisdom
Willpower
Spirituality
Precision Dexterity
Quickness
Charm Charisma
Beauty

In the games that followed D&D, only the Wisdom ability score stands with few clear descendants. The story of Wisdom is a subject for a future post.