Tag Archives: Chivalry & Sorcery

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
& Dragons
Tunnels &
Empire of
the Petal
& Sorcery
in Fantasy
Dungeons &
The Fantasy
Hero System
Game (1983)
Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical
Stamina Health Constitution Constitution Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Fatigue Health Mass Constitution Physical
Health Constitution Health
Durability Endurance Body
Magic ability Brains Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence   Intelligence Intelligence Power Intelligence Intelligence IQ Reasoning
Magical aptitude Will   Intelligence IQ
Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Wit Intelligence
Search ability                   Intuition Perception  
Willpower       Psychic
Ego       Wisdom Self Discipline Willpower Will   Ego Mental
Spirituality Cunning Wisdom       Wisdom Wisdom       Empathy          
Precision of
  Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity   Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Manual
Deftness Agility Dexterity Physical
Quickness   Agility Quickness Agility Speed Speed
Charm Credibility Charisma Charisma   Leadership
Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma   Presence       Presence Mental
Beauty Looks
Comeliness Comeliness Personal
Physical Beauty     Comeliness Physical

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
Awareness Wisdom
Precision Dexterity
Charm Charisma

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.

How leaving the dungeon left a big void in role-playing games

Nowadays, designers of role-playing focus their game’s design around an answer to a central question: “What will characters in the game do?” Modern RPGs focus on some core activity and optimizing the system so players have as much fun as possible engaging in that activity. For example, fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons focused on characters that show off flashy stunts and powers in dynamic combat encounters. The system reworks the non-combat pillars of the game into an activity that, as much as possible, plays like combat. For more, see my post, “The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked.”

While the first role-playing games did not optimize their rules to support a style of play—at least not intentionally, see “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” the first role-playing games all recreated the dungeon-crawl experience of D&D. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.” Tunnels & Trolls (1975) recreated the D&D experience with simpler rules. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

Levels of the Starship Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha

Levels of the Starship Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked an RPG designer what characters in his game will do, he would probably answer, “Anything.” Part of what made RPGs so exciting was that characters could do anything. Rather than focusing on a core activity, designers of the newer games strove to model game worlds as thoroughly as possible. This led to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), “the most complete rule booklet ever published,” with rules for everything from mass combat, to courtly love, to the One Ring. C&S offered a game so open ended that a table of players with randomly generated characters might fail to find any common activities that their characters could do together. In “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun,” I had some fun at the expense of C&S, while showing how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

Traveller also arrived in 1977, and grew to become the hobby’s most successful science fiction RPG. (If you’re interested in Traveller, see this outstanding look at the game’s roots in written science fiction.) Perhaps the game owes some success to the way it pioneered role-playing’s most common adventure hook:

One specific, recurring goal for adventurers is to find a patron who will assist them in the pursuit of fortune and power. Such patrons will, if they hire a band of adventurers, specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task. Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as hired guards or escorts; other tasks may be for the location and procurement of items of great value.” (Book 3 Worlds and Adventures, p.20)

This notion of characters seeking patrons for jobs hardly matches the high concept of the dungeon crawl, but it became the dominant adventure hook in just about every RPG, including D&D.

But once hooked, what will the characters do? Traveller offered a single paragraph of guidance: “Once the patron and the adventurers have met, the responsibility falls on the referee to determine the nature of the task the patron desires, the details of the situation (perhaps a map or some amount of information), and to establish the limits of the patron’s resources in the pursuit of the task.

Traveller’s patrons provided an enduring and now pervasive hook for adventures. The actual adventures opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular.

In 1977, I ordered that original Traveller box from Game Designer’s Workshop, and then devoured the rules. As a young, unsophisticated gamer in a new hobby, the game proved so open-ended that I struggled to create adventures for my players. Of course, I was just a kid. Surely sophisticated professionals could do better.

Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No.1 Annic Nova

Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society No.1 Annic Nova

In 1979, when the first issue of the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society brought the Annic Nova adventure, I hoped to see a model for adventures. Annic Nova was an abandoned ship drifting through space, ready for the players to explore. At last, I thought, it’s like a dungeon in space. But it wasn’t at all. Unlike, say Metamorphosis Alpha’s starship Warden, Annic Nova held no monstrous mutants or aliens, no automated defense systems, just an abandoned ship drifting. Annic Nova provided only an adventuring location and gave little help to me.

With an entire universe to play with, the professional designers went on to create more starship deck plans, which they then used as dungeons…in space. GDW and Judges Guild followed up Annic Nova with the following adventuress:

  • Adventure 1: The Kinunir (1979) presents a 1200 ton battle cruiser as a location for adventure.
  • Dra'k'ne Station

    Dra’k’ne Station

    Dra’k’ne Station (1979) is “a vast alien research station hollowed out of an asteroid…still protected by its automated defense systems and one surviving alien.”

  • Darthanon Queen (1980) consists of deck plans for a 600 ton merchant ship along with a crew and a passenger roster. The adventure suggests a few scenarios to stage on the ship, including one cribbed from Alien.
  • Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma (1980) describes an arctic laboratory that players must infiltrate.
  • Adventure 3: Twilight’s Peak (1980) takes characters to a location with “many of the elements of a haunted house,” and then to an alien base complex.

When Traveller debuted, the hobby was just three years old. The general public still struggled to understand games that you could not win. The only experienced game masters were the guys named on the box cover. Leaving the long shadow of the dungeon took time. Traveller enthusiasts rank the last adventure on my list, Twilight’s Peak, as a classic. While largely location based, this module provides a fully-realized adventure that stands with modern designs.

Eventually, we all learned. Now, an experienced game master would mix the Annic Nova with an untrustworthy patron, a second team of lawless rivals, and some other wild cards to brew up an adventure.

Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?

Back in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships,” I wrote about how, in the wake of Dungeons & Dragons release, a mania for realism consumed role-playing game design. In Dragon issue 16 from 1978, Gary Gygax wrote “‘Realism’ has become a bugaboo in the hobby, and all too many of the publishers—TSR included—make offerings to this god too frequently.” At his cranky best, Gary rails against the champions of realism for another  3,800 words.

In 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery tried to top other system’s more realistic combat systems, and the more authentic magic systems, with a REALISTIC FEUDAL SOCIETY.

A page from first edition Chivalry & Sorcery

A page from first edition Chivalry & Sorcery

You can tell that C&S is as serious as a legal contract because it’s written in the same, punishing 6-point courier as a contract’s fine print. I imagine the published text was typewritten and then reduced to half size. C&S needed the micro-text to reach the goal of offering “the most complete rule booklet ever published.”

C&S feels like half role-playing game, and half broadside against the decadent practices of some other game, which I won’t name but which has the initials D and D. I presume most of the passages in the original C&S draft began, “Actually, in a real feudal society…,” but that the editors cut for space. To be fair, the game features a cherry-picked version of feudal realism that dwells on historical customs drawn from the Society for Creative Anachronism. You have fair ladies, honorable knights, church-bound clerics, and boot-licking peasants. Plus, you have a fanciful notion of chivalry—something more than the church’s public service campaign aimed at getting a ruling class of murderous, mounted thugs and warlords to behave.

To a young D&D fan, circa 1978, C&S seemed like a systematic attempt to drain everything fun from D&D and replace it with an educational exercise.

This might seem fun But actually…
Dungeons Because of the constant escalation in the numbers and the power of ‘magical’ spells, the dungeon expedition has become a form of walking nightmare to player and dungeon master alike.” (p.64)
The mere fact that a ‘dungeon complex’ exists within a larger world means that there is a natural limit to what it can and will contain. A large concentration of ‘evil’ will attract the Church and might bring down a ‘Crusade’ against it. A large concentration of loot will attract the King, a personage always in need of money. Nor is it possible to keep such a dungeon complex secret for long. Myths and legends about such a place and what is to be found in it soon become common knowledge.” (p.105)
So dungeons won’t exist, because the church or king will get them. And that’s a good thing, because they become a kind of walking nightmare, and not the fun kind.
Dragons The first rule when dealing with Dragons is to do everything possible to avoid them.” (p.115)
Wizardry Far too many players who have Magick Users assume a blithe complacency about the subject. To most, it is a type of ‘weapons technology,’ a quick and really easy method of burning, blasting, and otherwise crushing opponents which they cannot destroy by mere wit and superior tactics. When in doubt, use ‘over-kill!’ What these ego-trippers and uninformed players do not understand is that it is not in the nature of magicians to risk their skins unless some great treasure is to be had.
What real ‘experience’ is to be had in a dark, damp dungeon? The Arcane Arts are essentially contemplative in nature, the actual practices being done only after long preparation and research. The magical effects are too difficult and are often too dangerous to achieve to permit any Magick User, however highly placed, the luxury of blazing away with spell after spell, or of taking time off from important work to go down into a dungeon!
These quotes only sample the screed on page 64, explaining that if your Magick User does anything but study, you’re doing it wrong!
Magic items Chivalry & Sorcery has deliberately avoided the tendency in some games to publish extensive lists of miraculous and highly predictable magical devices. It is our feeling that each device is unique and must be designed as one of a kind by the Player-Referee. Thus Magick will be somewhat scanty because no player in his right mind will consent to spending weeks of time merely writing of the characteristics of hundreds of magical items.” (p.106)
The game includes no lists of magic items, leaving the dungeon master the tedium of creating them. But that’s for your own good.
Freedom and adventure When the society demands that a man occupy a definite place in the rank order of things and conduct himself accordingly, anyone who proves to be a ‘maverick’ counts for little.” (p.1)
Most characters who do not have a ‘living’ from a holding will have to take service with some Master or great lord. Usually, such service provides food, shelter, and a limited amount of money in the form of wages. Characters will probably have to settle for such positions simply to stay alive…” (p.13)
Sword wielding One of the features of social class that dominates Chivalry & Sorcery is the rather great distinction made in the matter bearing arms. Knights have the prerogative of bearing weapons that are forbidden to the lesser classes of society.” (p.1)
Some weapons are reserved for the use of noble or near-noble ranks. Historically, permission was occasionally granted to those normally prohibited to bear such arms, but that right was considered a high honor.” (p.13)
Playing a character you like Random rolls determine every aspect of your character. If you wish to play a non-human, you still have an 80% chance of being required to play a human. The random determination of social class stands as the game’s most oppressive feature. Sure, you could roll a king, but you stand a much higher chance of rolling a peasant. Given the game world’s rigid social structure, your character’s social standing locks you in. Imagine a modern-day game where your random chance of being a spy or vampire hunter stood realistically infinitesimal, dwarfed by your change of working in a cubicle.
The introduction hints that a group might just agree to play knights and noblemen, but I keep getting the feeling that the authors will pop up and scold me for such pleasure seeking. (Maybe that’s just me. I also expect my father to appear and scold me whenever I touch my house’s thermostat.)
Joining an adventuring party What you do in the game varies widely depending on your job and status. If you’re lucky enough to roll a Knight, then you can fight, woo the ladies, and enter tournaments. As an administrator, you can run the royal bureaucracy and build influence. (Hint for bureaucrats: See page 11 for the section “Temporarily Increasing One’s BIF,” that’s Basic Influence Factor to those new to the game. Page 12 lists the sixty-some stations in the royal bureaucracy.) If you’re a Magician, you research and study. If you’re a peasant, you scratch out a meager living until the pox takes you.
The game offers few opportunities for players to join together in play.
alry & Sorcery first edition

Chivalry & Sorcery first edition

I do not mean to declare that C&S cannot be fun. Obviously, some folks found it fun, but then I just saw a TV commercial where a woman claims to find doing taxes fun. I see the target audience of C&S as the sort of Society for Creative Anachronism enthusiast, who lambastes poser members for the hidden zippers in their costumes.

For the rest of us, not every aspect of C&S is less fun than D&D. Personally, I’m always uncomfortable role-playing the act of flirting with a beautiful maiden as played by a chubby bearded guy. I know that I need to free my mind from those hang-ups. Luckily, C&C brings a wargamer’s eye to romance by providing formulas for a Knight’s Courtly Romance Factor (KCRF) and a Lady’s Courtly Romance Factor (LCRF). “Check out the LCRF on that saucy maiden!” Page 22 and 23 include typically dense rules for turning courtly love into a percentage chance of gaining her ‘favour,’ Wink wink nudge nudge.

I have a copy of first edition C&S from 1977, old enough that you can play a Hobbit.® Take that, Tolkien estate! In Dragon issue 95, Gary Gygax wrote about the minimal influence of Tolkien on D&D. “The seeming parallels and inspirations [from Tolkien] are actually the results of a studied effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Tolkien’s literature.” Gary drew from authors like Poul Anderson and Fritz Leiber, and then added some Tolkien as a sop to his fans. Beyond feudal history, C&S draws almost entirely on Tolkien, and then adds bits from D&D to appease its fans. In a much fairer review of C&S than the one you’re reading, Robert Dushay writes, “While many of the D&D creatures could be inserted into a feudal Europe as dangers unknown to the common folk, the Tolkien elements are harder to explain and C&S didn’t even try. There was no discussion of the social status of non-humans, whether the proud elves and dwarves respected human feudal customs, or the particularly thorny question of non-human relations with the militant Catholic Church of the day.”
The extent of C&S’s Tolkien lore nearly matches its feudal lore. Page 84 describes this necromantic spell: “The Ring of Great Command: A spell which the Necromancer places in an enchanted Ring of Power. The Ring binds the possessors of lesser Rings also fashioned by the Necromancer: 9 for mortal men; 7 for Dwarf Lords; and 3 for the Elven Kings. Upon completion of the Ring, which takes 1 year to fashion, the Necromancer places much of his Power in it. The Ring gives him the power to assume the form of a Nazgul for a period up to his Time Factor once per day.” The rules for Sauron go on from there.

Beyond the passion for social realism, C&S features a 1970s wargamer’s passion for pervasive abbreviations. Just about everything in the game has a factor! Just like math! With a quick flip though the text, I spy Military Ability Factor (MAF), Personal Combat Factor (PCF), Personal Magick Factor (PMF), and Magick’s Level (MKL, but presumably corrected to MKLF in the second printing). MILF must be in there somewhere. How hardcore wargamers like Dave and Gary avoided this mania, I’ll never know, but I thank them for it. If you think the white box was inaccessible, imagine it filled with more factors than a math text book.

Chivalry & Sorcery leads me to a thought experiment that increases my appreciation of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax’s original creation. We tend to think of role-playing as D&D’s biggest invention. For the first time, a game let you play a character, who has traits and abilities modeled by the game, in an open-ended world. In my thought experiment, I wonder if D&D would have ever succeeded if it had played more like C&S. What if instead of winning treasure and powerful magic, players gained influence and loyalty? What if wizards only indulged in research and study? What if instead of braving mysterious dungeons to face terrifying monsters, players took more mundane roles in realistic, feudal kingdoms? In short, what if Dave and Gary had lacked such a gift for finding the fun?

Would we have seen D&D’s explosive growth in the eighties? Would we have Ultima, Zork, or World of Warcraft? Would Gary Gygax have appeared on 60 Minutes or Futurama? How many of us would even be playing this game? I suspect that a “realistic” version of D&D would have remained a tiny hobby appreciated by a few enthusiasts, unknown to the wider world. We would never have seen an game scene grow enough to the accommodate folks who do enjoy playing Chivalry & Sorcery for its nuanced, sober attention to medieval lore, and the folks who enjoy killing monsters and taking their stuff.

Hitting the to-hit sweet spot

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

Through the evolution of Dungeons & Dragons, the game uses two mechanics to determine an attack’s damage output: to-hit rolls and damage rolls.

In D&D, hitting is fun, while missing feels like a bummer, particularly if you waited a while for your turn. Why not remove misses from the game?  Once characters gain enough hit points to survive a few attacks, D&D could drop to-hit rolls and─with a few adjustments─still work.

Skipping damage rolls

Back in the third-edition era, Jonathan Tweet advised dungeon masters to speed high-level fights by substituting average damage for rolled damage. In fourth edition, first-level characters have enough hit points to make this approach possible at any level. In a The Dungeon Master Experience post, Chris Perkins explains how he uses nearly average damage plus 1d6, added for a bit of flavor.

The Chivalry & Sorcery game (1977) skipped damage rolls, assuming “that the damage inflicted by a particular weapon in the hands of given character will be more or less constant.”

The notion of dropping to-hit rolls may seem strange but here’s the crux: Against high hit points, to-hit rolls just turn into another damage-reduction mechanic. In fourth edition, everyone but minions has fairly high hit points and everyone hits about 60% of the time. The damage dealt in combat would work out about the same if we just assumed everyone always hits and multiplied everyone’s hit points by 1.67.

Of course, your to-hit percentage varies from a set percentage, because armor can make hitting more difficult. How can a system without to hit rolls account for armor class? In my post, “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” I explained how hit points in D&D function as an ingenious damage-reduction mechanic. Virtually every tabletop role-playing game that aimed for realism made armor reduce damage. In our hypothetical rules variant, why not use D&D’s damage-reduction mechanic to represent protective armor? Suppose different types of armor multiplied your hit points. Suppose high dexterity increased hit points, giving more ability to “turn deadly strikes into glancing blows,” just like the game says.

Does abandoning to-hit rolls seem crazy? It has been done.

Tunnels & TrollsTunnels and Trolls (1975) stands as the one early system that defied RPG hobby’s early mania for realism. Ken St Andre, T&T’s designer, aimed for greater simplicity. T&T drops the to-hit roll entirely. Combatants simply weigh damage rolls against each other. Like Tunnels & Trolls, most RPG-inspired video games seem to drop anything equivalent to a to-hit roll. The damage simply rises as you click away at your enemy.

Drawbacks of always hitting

While undeniably simpler, and probably about as realistic as D&D, the you-always-hit approach suffers three problems:

  • Especially with ranged attacks, rolling to hit fits real-world experience much closer than assuming a hit and skipping straight to damage. Technically speaking, skipping the to-hit roll feels bogus.
  • The two possible outcomes of a to-hit roll offer more drama than the mostly-average damage roll.
  • The to-hit roll provides intermittent, positive reinforcement to the process of making an attack.

You know all about positive reinforcement. It makes you stay up late chasing one more level when you should be in bed. Reinforcement that randomly rewards a behavior is more powerful than reinforcement that occurs every time. In a casino, the best bet comes from the change machines, which pay 1-for-1 every single time. Intermittent, positive reinforcement drives people to the slot machines. As the Id DM might say, “The variable ratio schedule produces both the highest rate of responding and the greatest resistance to extinction.” In short, hitting on some attacks is more fun than hitting on every attack.

Although D&D uses a d20 roll to hit, the game plays best when the odds of hitting stand closer to a coin flip. At the extremes, the math gets strange. For combatants who almost always hit, bonuses and penalties become insignificant. For combatants looking for a lucky roll, small bonuses can double or triple their chance to hit. Also, the game plays better when your chance of hitting sits around 60%. When your nears 95%, the roll becomes a formality. When your chance dwindles toward 5%, then the to-hit the roll feels like a waste of time, especially because beating the long odds probably still earns minimal damage.

When the chance of hitting stays between, say, 30% and 70%, the game reaps play benefits:

  • The to-hit roll provides intermittent, positive reinforcement to the process of making an attack.
  • Many attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight.

So D&D designers face the challenge of arranging to-hit bonuses and armor classes so to-hit rolls require a result between a 6 and 14, a precious small sweet spot for all the levels, magic, and armor classes encompassed by the game. In practice, designers like to push your chance to hit toward the top of the 30-70% range, because while missing remains part of the game, it’s no fun.

The Palladium Role-Playing Game (1983) recognized the play value of the to-hit roll, but it avoided D&D’s problem of finessing to-hit bonuses and armor classes to reach a sweet spot. The game simply declares that “any [d20] roll above four (5 to 20) hits doing damage to the opponent.” Armor in the game takes damage, effectively serving as an additional pool of hit points.

In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss the very different steps the D&D Next and 4E designers took to find the to-hit sweet spot.

Next: Riding the power curve