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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Important are Ability Scores in the Games You Run?

White Box D&D had, at most, + / - 1 for high or low ability scores, but later supplements changed that. By the time we got to AD&D, the + / 1 range was 4, and don't even mention Exceptional Strength for fighters and their sub-classes.

I tend to favor a range of + / - 3 for the games I run these days, but taking a step back from DMing (not completely, but in large part) for the summer-plus, has gotten me to look at ability score bonuses again.

When a 13-18 is a "plus one", actual scores become much less important. Depending on how heroic of a game you want to run, that plus one might be all you need. Conversely, it keeps the characters from being hosed by a horribly low score, as really, a minus one isn't that huge of a penalty.

How much of a role does ability score bonuses play in the campaigns you run?

19 comments:

  1. As a 'Basic' man, I've been comfortable with -/+3 being the range. But then, with 3d6 (not necessarily in order) as the CharGen method, there aren't too many 18s knocking about. And the minimum requirements to qualify for each Class are pretty low (compared to AD&D). However, when I ran a few games of ACKS a while back I allowed some variant CharGen methods (4d6 drop lowest, arrange as desired, as well as a "roll all the dice, group into 3s" method). With every PC packing plusses to AC and 'To Hit/Damage' I started to think that the range of bonuses/penalties *should* be much more restricted. Chain Mail +2 or a Sword +2 should be awesome things, not simply make a PC in the 'normal' range the equal of someone with not too exceptional starting rolls.

    I'm looking forward to Kevin Crawford's (still some way distant) fantasy game, not only for its sandbox tools but because it will (I hope) use the Stars Without Number/Other Dust/Spears of the Dawn system. One of the features of this is a -2/+2 modifier range (necessary to avoid breaking the 2d6 skill system).

    Speaking of skills, I am reconciled to d20 roll against Ability Score as a skill system (as in the largely despised NWP, but also in the [more fondly remembered?] GAZ-introduced skill system for BECMI). PCs using skills dependent on their better Ability Scores, say a 15, will have the equivalent of a 75% skill score in a BRP game, which isn't too shabby (and I have become much more wary of skill systems that make PCs incompetent).

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  2. Tunnels 7 Trolls, the second RPG, had a bonus or penalty for each number above/below 08-12, and I've played a lot of T&T, so, when I saw the 3.x version, I sighed that they had almost got it right. As regards the B/X and AD&D versions, I like that progression well enough.

    The question is about usage, and I test against them a lot.
    In 5e, I get to choose between the Ability Score Mod, or the Save, and since skills are just extensions of that, it is all the time.

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  3. They are very important in my games. I also use the +three range of ability score modifiers. This greatly affects armor class and hit adjust. I also use my d20 version of class abilities instead of percentiles; generally it is ten +one-half level+ability score modifier. this give the characters a better chance of succeeding at rolls, keeps level important, and makes ability score modifier is important as well.

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  4. My house rules use point buy for ability scores (which scores above 14 becoming increasingly extra expensive). I use a 1 point penalty / reward for each 2 points below 10 / 2 points above 9 (for a -3 to +4 range for 3-18 ability scores). Most ability scores also provide saving throw modifiers, and ability scores are used to determine a number of other abilities. So yeah, they matter in my campaign. :-)

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  5. I run MetAlpha and Gamma World. As such, the ability scores play a very important part beyond simply giving bonuses or penalties to hit. The score for the appropriate ability may mean life or death for the character.

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  6. now that I'm seriously considering AD&D, this has become an issue (I've only otherwise run games with the B/X +/-1-3). AD&D has such inflated requirements for some classes, and the whole exceptional STR debacle, that I am put off. I'd rather just go with +1 if a stat is 13+, but some of my players would complain that they want more differentiation of PCs and the inelegance of 3-18 when it's really +1, 0, or -1 that matter. :)

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    1. Meant to add -- I like to use a roll-under your score on xd6 for most situations that require a roll, so that does give the raw # some importance, only I hate making players roll for most things...

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    2. What particular aspect of exceptional strength makes it a "debacle" in your opinion?

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    3. The bonuses -- usually a +2 to hit and +3 or +4 damage -- are not terribly out of whack, except that only fighters with the 18 get them, so suddenly STR is this all-or-nothing affair and many a player finds his 16 STR fighter fights as if he were 2 or 3 levels lower than the high-STR ones. And does significantly less damage. So it really contributes to ability score inflation, in a way weapon specialization (which I think is something that would be good alternative to exceptional ratings) does not.

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  7. They are exactly as important as the mechanical benefits they provide (bonus to hit, bonus to damage, extra languages, bonus spells, whatever) and no more. I never limit PC actions based on ability scores (i.e., characters with low INT can still solve riddles if the player can) and I never roll checks against ability scores.

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  8. I use ability checks pretty routinely. I also write them into published adventures. I think it adds an element of tension/randomness to some things like jumping a ravine while being chased by orcs. I don't force the PCs to make them if it's reasonable and/or they have time to complete the task. Like I wouldn't make them roll for climbing a tree unless they were trying to jump from one branch to another to avoid flaming arrows or something like that.

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  9. Don't forget that original +1/-1 range was based on 2d6 rolls (in which it makes sense) not 1d20 rolls (in which it doesn't).

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  10. And in any case I only ask for a roll if failure is going to interesting. If failure just equals "try again" or something equally tedious I say "you succeed" and move on.

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    1. I agree -- I do this now myself. "Try again" (and "keep trying until you finally roll a success") really does seem pointless. If it actually matters (like when passage of time in the multiple attempts would result in a chance for wandering monsters or something similar), I'd rather just roll one single die to see how many turns the action takes (still assuming success), rather than making attempt rolls over and over until one of them finally comes up a success.

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  11. Attributes themselves don't have much of an impact in my games, but I play S&W so the bonuses are low anyway. I still expect them to be higher from my past experience, though, so I often assume an attribute will have a notable impact or give more weight to bonuses in my home rules than is warranted.

    For a while that made me think I wanted to use the B/X bonus progression with S&W instead (up to +3) and maybe even adopt a universal attribute bonus like later games, but the more I thought about it I realized that it invites other numbers (monster HP and AC for instance) to get higher to maintain the difficulty, and I don't know if I like that. So for now I'm letting it be and attributes don't have much impact.

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  12. Unless I have my players roll directly against an attribute I find the actual scores pretty useless. It seems pretty silly to roll 3D6 to determine a score which is then used to determine your bonus at which point you never use the score again. Why bother with the extra step? Why not just directly determine the bonus?

    The next time we roll up characters my players and I have decided to try just rolling 1d6 instead and have that indicate the number of pluses they get to distribute among their attributes.If they want more points they can take away from one attribute to give to another. I may have them roll up a few characters using 1D6 and a few using 1D8 and see how big of a difference it is.

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  13. They hardly matter much at all. I don't use prerequisites for classes and don't award bonus XP for high scores.

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  15. I test ability scores quite often and derive a variety of other numbers from them as well (e. g. minimum starting HP is equal to CON/3), so I would say they matter a lot in my S&W game, even though I stick religiously to the -1/+1 range of modifiers. I even give my PCs a chance to raise one ability score by a single point every time they level (higher scores are more difficult to raise).

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