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Monday, February 24, 2014

How Important Are Ability Scores?

Sure, much of this depends on the OSR rules of choice, and whether the adjustment spread is -1 to + 1, -3 to + 3, -4 to + 4 or some variation of the preceding. In truth though, what meaning do those adjustments have in the long run?

So long as your character survives, those bonus and penalties have much less meaning as one's character progresses through the levels.

When I was in High School, those numbers were the be all and know all - those old "goldenrods" had ability scores that seemed, in retrospect, to grow on their own. In reality, they were erased and replaced with frequency. I guess, in the long run, it's good that my focus was on DMing.

One of the things that the DCC RPG gets amazingly right, even though it goes against all of my gaming instincts, is the "character funnel". The characters that survive the funnel have special meaning, no matter their actual stats. It's an amazing thing. Yep, I'm a firm believer that the "character funnel" should be liberally borrowed into every other OSR ruleset.

I'm less concerned about ability scores these days. Failure often leads to more exciting stories than success, and no, I'm not talking about "storytelling games". I just think there is as much to be found in the average game session when success comes despite failure.

Still, i think thieving abilities are largely irrelevant at lower levels, but that's a whole 'nother post for a whole 'nother day.

19 comments:

  1. I like ability bonuses, but prefer a narrower OSR style adjustment spread. With Pathfinder style progression they have too big an impact at lower levels. As for the character funnel I think it's one of the worst ideas ever...probably should do a blog post on just that.

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    1. i felt the same way until i actually ran the funnel - the results were an amazing buy in from my players each time for their survivor (or chosen from their survivors)

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    2. I dunno. We did something similar to the funnel back in the day, creating several 1st level PCs, and I never was more attached to fighter #3 than fighters #1-2 and #4-5.

      I suppose it also depends on if you came up with the character's background yourself, or just rolled it up on a table.

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    3. Why do you think the character funnel is one of the worst ideas ever? That's a pretty strong feeling for something that used to occur naturally in many old school D&D games. Have you tried it?

      Like Erik and Jeremy, I, too, think it's a great idea and borrowed it for the campaign which led to Liberation of the Demon Slayer, wherein I recommend the approach.

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  2. All I really care about is that the different values _actually mean something_. Whether that be an increase in some secondary or tertiary value, or the more core "bonus", but make there be some difference between an 8 and a 9, let alone between an 8 and a 12.

    If not, there's literally no reason to have that gradation. Assign the values -1, 0 and 1 and be done with it.

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    1. With ability checks there is a noticeable difference, even if the modifiers aren't that different.

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    2. It can also make a big difference if you allow 2-for-1 point trade-offs in chargen.

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  3. But if you use a funnel, don't you usually get better-than-average characters out of it than if you had just rolled 3d6 in order for a single character? Characters with lower stats have slightly worse chances of surviving (which turns the funnel into a Darwinian gauntlet), and more importantly, when there is something dangerous to be done (pull a weird lever), the player is more likely to send in the dude with crappy stats.

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    1. But the dude with the crap stats sometimes survives, and when that happens its awesome. Also, take into account the DMs monster/NPC rolls which sometimes fail and which sometimes crit possibly killing any PC, whether buff OR nerfed. When I played my first funnel it was a PCs chump that made the move which save the entire party's lives, and all of our playgroup's now beefcake lv3s are indebted to him [a now lv1 thief. he has a couple of minuses and the rest +0s, and just the way the dice fell he totally outperformed my now dead and enshrined lv2 superbuffed thief, 'lucky']. Tactics outdo the Darwinian element nine times out of ten, if not more often.

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    2. IME the only stat that matters at that level is hit points.

      That, plus a little luck and smart play == survival.

      I've also found that the funnel doesn't stop after the first adventure. The whole game is a funnel!

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  4. I'm not such a fan of ability bonuses but I like to use ability scores to determine the success/failure of a task. Usually I have the roll at or below the score for success.

    It's worked for me.

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  5. I agree fully with what you say about the DCC funnel system. Its damn brilliant and every game system should use it is some form or another. The fact that it makes you care more about the character who survives the funnel that about his stats is also awesome. I don't think it answers the question "Why have ability scores?" especially with a narrow stat bonus range of -3 to +3 (but more likely to be-2 to +2) when the dice determining most outcomes is a D20. That's a maximum swing of -15 to +15% based on ability and the rest down to chance. I feel Ability scores should have an active role in the game.

    In my own game, Flesh Engine I don't use a stat bonus system. Rather, the dice you roll is determined by the relevant ability score. So if you want to make a melee attack and your Str is 9 you roll a D10. If your Str is 18 you roll a D20. To this is added a further dice representing your expertise in combat. Unlike Ability scores, this dice improves as you gain more skill.

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  6. Ability scores are very important to me and, like Jason Packer, I want different values to actually mean something. However, I'm more concerned with how ability scores impact players' choices. Stats impact not only your choice of race and class, but how you're going to play them. The actual modifiers don't even have to be very large to create these effects (maybe -2 to +2 at the extremes). An 18 Strength should mean you're probably going to forgo a shield in favor of pole-arms, while having only a 13 means you'll do the sword-and-board thing and someone with a 7 will attempt to minimize their penalty by using a crossbow or dagger. Dexterity should likewise affect your choice of armor and fighting style (like two-weapon fighting or the use of finesse weapons). No need for special classes or feats. It can all be baked into the same scores we've all been using for 40 years

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  7. I've had the opposite experience with the character funnel from DCC. I've run or played in several games with the funnel, and most of them have ended with the players being bummed that the characters they invested their time with the most would be the ones that ended up getting killed, so at the end of the first session half or more of the players are left with characters that they don't feel strongly about, or haven't attached themselves to.

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  8. I've seen people have both good and bad experiences with the funnel. I personally love it, and think it sets the tone for any DCC campaign.

    As to the ability score question, I prefer the -3/+3 spectrum. It's a sweet spot where the bonuses do make a difference, but at the same time, the penalties aren't too harsh either.

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  9. As much as I like DCC, D&D always had a "funnel system" itks call levels 1 and 2.
    Ability scores aren't themselves a be all/end all of character failure or success. In one real meatgrinder of a campaign I had a character with score of 9-12 except for CHA which was 13 or 14 (I think). The Dm at roll-up actually said "go ahead roll another character this one doesn't have much of a chance", I figured the character was okay and stuck with him. He was the only character to be in the camapaign from the begining to the end. Ultimately it's the player not the character that wins the day.

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  10. I haven't played DCC, but I am intrigued with a "funnel system." However, I'm okay with players playing what they want to play. I am considering the idea of simplifying the entire stat bonus thing to be -1/+1, with the additional rule of weapons only doing 1d6 damage no matter what they are (2 handed weapons get +1 damage).

    I'm becoming far more interested in how a player plays the character rather than the doo-dads listed on the character sheet.

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  11. Dragonquest invited players to make rolls based on ability scores. 4 X being a very easy to accomplish task to as low as .5 X for something nearly impossible. With stats ranging from 5 to 25 it gave a wide range on the old d100 rolls. Ability scores also determine what weapons you could use, how many spells you could memorize as well as what one was capable of doing in a pulse.

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  12. I love Ability scores. I use them as a barometer for the general description and overall capabilities of my character. I'm much less concerned with the mathematics of it. An 18 Str means my character is big, muscular and powerful. The fact that it gives me a +3 to damage and Str checks is secondary. That high Str will determine if my character will try something based on his thinking that he's strong enough, regardless of his statistical chances for success. Does that even make sense?

    In short, I'm more of a narrativist player, and DM. Though I do get into the "crunchy" aspects of bonuses as well.

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