Tag Archives: ability scores

How Dungeons & Dragons gained its ability scores

In History of D&D in 12 Treasures, Jon Peterson shows a character sheet from Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, the game which inspired Dungeons & Dragons. The sheet includes 8 personality traits: Brains, Looks, Credibility, Sex, Health, Strength, Courage, and Cunning.

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.

How did these many personality trait turn into D&D’s six ability scores?

Gary Gygax never favored simple, informal terminology like “Brains” and “Health,” so he opted for Intelligence and Constitution. Even though “constitution” sent a young DM David to the dictionary, I prefer Gary’s more precise word choices.

Gary consolidated Credibility, Looks, and Sex into Charisma. Unearthed Arcana and other role-playing games experimented with splitting Charisma back into traits for charm and beauty, but Sex had to wait for players of the Ironwood RPG.

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 actually worked. Still, the first cleric character, as played by Mike Carr in Dave’s Blackmoor game, had working spells. Eventually Cunning turned to Wisdom and became a measure of spirituality.

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.

The abilities barely deliver any game effects: At most a +1 to hit or an extra hit point per die. In the early days, ability scores counted for little. 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. I started with the 1977 basic set, which provided no rules crunch for Charisma.

Despite different ability scores, 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 becoming a game like D&D Next, which builds on ability scores as the foundation for every check and save.

D&D Next brings back random ability scores and loses their charm

On my first look at the Dungeons & Dragons Next playtest, the first page of rules stunned me. The Next rules instructed players to roll dice to set their ability scores.

Most D&D Next players will likely generate characters using the optional point-buy method. But when the D&D Next designers opted to default to random ability scores, they made a forceful statement that they planned to look beyond fourth edition and beyond organized play to D&D’s roots.

Signed Greyhawk CoverIn original D&D, your ability scores barely mattered. Gifted characters received a 10% bonus to experience and maybe +1 somewhere, but they earned few other perks. In a game without ability checks or bonuses, character ability scores hardly affected play. But as soon as the 1976 Greyhawk supplement granted fighters bonuses to hit and damage, ability scores started growing in importance to their current role at the heart of the game.

The growing importance of ability scores increased the difference in power between characters generated randomly. Most players dislike playing a character inferior to the others at the table. And if you honestly rolled a prime requisite of 11 while the other characters at the table boast scores in the teens, then you feel like a chump. Apparently, all the other players spent an afternoon rerolling characters until they could cherry-pick supermen.

This problem led role-playing game designers to give players a set number of points to buy character ability scores.

Champions role-playing game from 1981

Champions role-playing game from 1981

In 1977, two games introduced point-buy methods for character creation, but neither Superhero ’44 nor Melee fully-qualified as role-playing game. Superhero ’44 limited player actions to a menu of patrol activities and lacked descriptions of superpowers—in a superhero game. Steve Jackson’s Melee started as a man-to-man combat game that would become an RPG with the release of Into the Labyrinth in 1980. In 1981, Champions popularized point-buy systems. Champions proved so influential that most newer games turned to relying on trading points for abilities.

In 1987, the Living City campaign introduced a shared campaign world to D&D. The shared campaign dealt another blow to random ability scores. Unless you want tables that team Superman with Clark Kent, random ability scores won’t fly. Living City required players to use a point-buy method to generate D&D characters. The point-buy method appeared in third edition as an option, and then became the standard in fourth edition.

Even though random ability scores bring drawbacks, with the right crowd, they can be fun.

Random character creation provides a lively activity. Rolling up characters provides a fun, group activity where you sit with your friends and everyone rolls. This way, when you throw an 18, you have witnesses, and when you roll a weak, ugly, clumsy half-wit, you can lobby for a fresh start. Everyone works together to assemble a party.

Die rolling provides an easy start for beginners. When new players roll their first character, they immediately throw dice, which feels like playing a game. Have you ever tried to help a new player create a character using a point-buy system? Instead of rolling dice, you explain ability scores, explain which abilities benefit various character types, explain point values and totals, and more, while the new player looks for a polite excuse to leave. You promised a game and started with homework.

Random characters provide engaging role-playing challenges. Some players enjoy the challenge of making a hero from a wretch, while many role players enjoy turning a miserable characteristic into a defining trait.

Random characters don’t all look alike. 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.

D&D Next offers this character-creation method: (1) Roll 4d6 and add the three highest dice to generate each of 6 scores. (2) Assign these 6 scores to the 6 abilities in way you like.

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

Despite history, this method offers the worst of both worlds.

The best aspect of random character generation stems from the interesting but sub-optimal characters created. 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.