Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What do Ability Scores Mean in Old School D&D?

With a strength of only 6 there was no real chance for him to become a fighter.

Over at Treasure Hunters HQ, Scott Anderson has written an interesting and fun series of posts on the meaning and use of ability scores in Old School D&D, specifically focusing on pre-Greyhawk OD&D (to Anderson, that's true old school). He frames the question by asking what it would mean to have a minimum score of 3 in each ability:

So You Rolled a 3: Strength
So You Rolled a 3: Intelligence
So You Rolled a 3: Wisdom
So You Rolled a 3: Dexterity
So You Rolled a 3: Constitution

Each is accompanied by a funny and appropriate picture. I particularly liked the one on constitution - it's one of those scientific looking drawings of an anatomically see-through person communicating an airborne disease to another anatomically see-through person.

Anderson also adds:

A Most Unfortunate 3 (you only have 30 gold pieces)

I'm hoping he'll continue the series - hit points, weak spells?

But back to the abilities. One of the most intriguing but also potentially confusing (and for many, even off-putting) things about D&D as it is presented in the original 1974 three little brown books is how ability scores don't seem to matter very much. For the primary abilities - strength, intelligence and wisdom - they almost don't seem to matter at all, at least unless you count the marginal effect they have on accumulating experience. (Minor exception: a higher intelligence also means you can speak more languages). For the other abilities, dexterity and constitution might give you small penalties or bonuses, although some are a bit cryptically or confusingly presented, like the "chance of surviving" percentage for constitution. Oddly, as Anderson points out, it's charisma that seems to be potentially the most important ability in terms of what it allows you to do (have more hirelings), although the rules on this are often neglected.

Now, it's also true that in Men & Magic, Gygax mentions that ability scores might have other effects that are not explicitly referenced in the rules:
Strength will also aid in opening traps and so on.
In addition the charisma score is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover.
But precisely how ability scores should be used to "decide such things" is not explained.

Interestingly, this minimalist conception only lasted for about a year. Greyhawk, published in 1975, pumped up the effect of low or high scores for all abilities, setting off a sort of inflationary chain reaction. If ability scores didn't make that much explicit mechanical difference, then rolling three dice in order was fine. But once their effect was magnified, an incentive was created to come up with new dice rolling schemes for abilities to preclude the creation of a "weak" character.

Xylarthen (never heard of that guy), the sample character in the three little brown books, has these ability scores:

Strength: 6
Intelligence: 11
Wisdom: 13
Dexterity: 9
Constitution: 12
Charisma: 8

This sample character has a sum of scores that are actually below average - the six scores average to only 9.8 as opposed to an expected value of 10.5. The highest score is only 13, and as we're about to see, even the primary ability score for the selected class will be 11, only a tad above average.

According to Gygax:
This supposed player would have progressed faster as a Cleric, but because of a personal preference for magic opted for that class. With a strength of only 6 there was no real chance for him to become a fighter. His constitutional score indicates good health and the ability to take punishment of most forms. A dexterity of 9 (low average) means that he will not be particularly fast nor accurate. He is below average in charisma, but not hopelessly so.
(It isn't clear to me why if Xylarthen could have been a Magic-User, he couldn't have also been a Fighter. It also wasn't clear to me six years ago. See here and here.)

But by the time you get to AD&D four years later, Gygax would write:
[I]t is usually essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating of 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics.
Having a score of only 11 in one's primary ability would presumably be almost unthinkable.

The incredibly popular and successful Holmes Basic Set, first pu
blished in 1977, preserved the minimalist conception. But I imagine that most players who kept up with the game sooner or later "graduated" to AD&D or the Moldvay/Cook version of D&D, both of which essentially riffed off the Greyhawk mechanic.

Ironically, it was some of the retro-clones, among them, Swords and Wizardry White Box, Delving Deeper and (I hope) Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, among others, that sort of resurrected an interest in the more minimalist conception.

I prefer the minimalist view. Among other things, it provides opportunities for fleshing out your character in interesting ways without feeling punished or constrained by the scores. And it de-emphasizes any tendency to think of scores in terms of tiresome "power-gaming." Your fate will not be determined by your initial scores, but rather by you. Though, as always, a bit of luck is also required.

One thing I've always believed is that your ability scores are NOT (or most of them are not) representative of where you stand in relation to the general population. You have a 1 in 216 chance of rolling, say, a strength of 3. But that doesn't mean you have the strength of a five-year-old child or your bed-ridden great-grandfather or whatever. That would be absurd. Rather, the range represents a cross-section of fit adventurers, roughly tracking, say, that of contemporary athletes. A strength of 3 would be like being a 5' 10" guard in the NBA or a 150 pound baseball player, etc.

Also, as Anderson points out, there are other subtleties. Having a charisma of 3 does not mean you're a hunchback with bad breath. Rather, it means that for whatever reason, you're not an effective leader of people - at least in so far as your ability to retain hirelings is concerned. These considerations are of course mentioned in the original books as well as their spin-offs but are neglected by many. You're either ugly, sexy or average with not a lot else going on. Recall the "zero-charisma!" taunt in E.T.

One of the chief sticking points for me is how to detach ability scores from the real-world abilities of players. Again, you don't want to put annoying constraints on anyone (I'm referring to players not player characters). For the physical abilities - strength, dexterity and constitution - that's easy. Your own (as a player) strength, dexterity and constitution should have nothing to do with that of your character. No one would want it to be so. It's a game, after all.

But with the non-physical abilities it's different. Our own intelligence, wisdom (or lack of it - "I'll open that chest!") and, yes, perhaps even charisma (in terms of leading or guiding the direction of the party) will or should come into play during the game.

As an example, part of the fun of the game is using your smarts to solve "puzzles" - not just some bizarro sadistic referee created Rubik's Cube trap thing or whatever but simply surviving in a hostile underground environment with claws, tentacles and slime coming at you every few turns. But what if your player-character doesn't seem to have any smarts? Are you supposed to therefore "play dumb"? Some people, especially adults who enjoy acting like children, think that kind of role-playing is fun. I don't. I tried to solve that question in Zylarthen by equating player-character intelligence with formal education:
For player characters the term “intelligence” actually denotes formal education or knowledge, especially that relating to books and literacy. It has nothing to do with how smart the character is or is perceived to be. Nor does it match up with one’s facility with the spoken word or one’s attitude toward learning in general. A player character’s wit, curiosity and cleverness are the player’s wit, curiosity and cleverness. On the other hand, when intelligence is referenced for non-player characters and monsters, the ability will have its normal meaning.
Anderson takes a somewhat different approach. But one way or another, the problem (and I think it is a problem) must be confronted. I've always thought it was a bit weird that the issue is not really explicitly addressed in OD&D, AD&D or Basic/Classic, as far as I remember.

As has been said before, in old school D&D you're not Superman, but Batman - Michael Keaton Batman. What you might have in your Bat Belt, so to speak, - a ten foot pole, rope, a magic item or two - might help. But for the most part, you're just a relatively ordinary person gutting it out. There's plenty of room to make that romantic, but it all depends on you, not your stat block.