Tuesday, October 17, 2017

OSR Project #1: Deconstructing Ability Scores

I've gotten my freelance work done for the day, I've gotten some Scoundrel work done for the day. Now I'm allowed to write about OSR stuff. That's how this works, right?

I've been kicking around the D&D six-scores setup for a while now. While they are a fairly well-rounded way to measure a character, they've always struck me as a bit odd for an OSR game. Ironic, I know.

In OSR (for the duration of this post, being shorthand for "TSR-era D&D editions and the games that directly mimic them"), the overwhelming majority of things in the game have no ability scores whatsoever.  Looking through the monster manuals very few, if any, entries bother listing ability scores. Most will give a broad category for intelligence so that the GM knows how to play them. Every so often a rare monsters of impressive strength will have a strength score listed in their description just in case it comes up. Even monsters comparable to PCs (Elves, Dwarves, Humans) have no ability scores RAW, even when those NPCs are given character levels.

What this means is that ability scores are mechanically a player-facing mechanism. RAW, they are unique to player characters. NPCs only have them if the GM decides to detail one out for whatever reason. Immediately this makes any real concerns about ability scores as a kind of simulation moot. Instead, they seem to exist only as a source of player character bonuses. This becomes even more apparent when you look into OD&D, where attributes played a very small roll overall compared to modern games. Dexterity would get you a bonus on missile fire, Constitution increased your HP, and Charisma played heavily into retainers/followers/hirelings... but the main function of Strength, Intelligence, or Wisdom's seemed to be as prime requisites. Later editions add further bonuses and modifiers to different ability scores, but they ultimately remain PC-specific bonuses.

If ability scores are less "defining the simulationist parameters of your character in the world" (because again, NPCs don't have them, RAW) and more "bonuses PCs are eligible for" then it changes how we have to interact with them. The question becomes: in what ways do we want characters to be defined that interact with the mechanics of the game?

 Let's examine the traditional six and what they do strictly from the mechanical bonuses they (usually) provide.
Strength: to-hit bonus in melee, damage bonus in melee, ability to bend or break things.
Dexterity: to-hit bonus for ranged weapons, bonus to AC,  bonus to initiative
Constitution: bonus HP, sometimes resurrection chance.
Intelligence: ability to speak, languages, sometimes bonus spells.
Wisdom: magic-based saving throws, sometimes bonus spells.
Charisma: reaction adjustment, maximum retainers, morale of retainers

I already knew that I didn't want modifiers for to-hit or AC, so a whole lot of what Strength and Dexterity do immediately goes out the window. Intelligence and Wisdom also ring kind of hollow, for me but for different reasons.

Intelligence has always struck me as at-odds with the premise of OSR, at least in regards to the play style in which I am interested. It's incredibly difficult to play a character who is smarter than you are, as so much of intelligence is in the ability to make decisions and collate information. You as a player are only as intelligent as you are. You can get around this to some degree if the game has significant skill-like mechanics your Intelligence score can influence, but an OSR game typically doesn't and "roll to see if your character figures it out" goes against the player-skill principles that I want to pursue.

The opposite arrangement tends to be no better. When you give an intelligent player a dumb character, they wind up being a comic relief most of the time (which may or may not be good, depending on the tone you want in the game) but they also tend to wind up being far more clever than their intelligence should suggest because in most scenarios players want to succeed. For an OSR game that is supposed to be challenge or objective-based, trying to get players to make decisions that they know are going to be more likely to fail is putting the player at cross-purposes with the game's reward mechanism.

The mechanical weight of Intelligence is unimpressive as well. Bonus languages are okay, but aren't particularly interesting and I'm not at all interested in modeling your ability to speak properly. I've heard quite Lenny impressions already, thank you. Meanwhile, Wisdom basically only exists as a saving throw adjustment which is also kind of lame.

Given that I want a game that is more explicitly about player skill, I'm thinking that the best move here is to merge Intelligence and Wisdom. Wisdom will remain as an ability score and take on the linguistic functions, as well as any kind of knowing or noticing-stuff roles it might have otherwise had. Most of the functions of Intelligence are better left as player discretion. It's up to you how smart your character is and you ultimately display that intelligence through the choices you as a player make for your character.

The other major impulse I have is to merge Strength and Constitution. There's an argument to be made that lifting capability and endurance are not intrinsically related (the power lifter vs the distance runner) but in a game where we've already decided that most things don't have ability scores at all, this level of simulation isn't strictly necessary. Further, if we strip Strength of its combat bonuses (as I planned to do for dexterity as well), then the ability is left somewhat anemic on its own.

Suddenly, we're down to four ability scores:
Brawn: Physical fitness, strength, endurance, vitality. Plays a roll in carrying stuff, improves HP, bends bars, unsticks doors.
Dexterity: Agility and fine motor control. Increases initiative, is probably useful for mobility stuff.
Wisdom: Knowledge, willpower, judgement. Bonus languages. Interacts with magic in fun ways (saves, spells, etc).
Charisma: Leadership and bearing. Reaction adjustment, maximum retainers, morale of retainers
For what I want to do, I think that's perfect. As an aside, if someone was interested in a 3e style "three saves" setup, it winds up corresponding perfectly. As an added bonus, fewer ability scores make it much harder to have a dump-stat. Dexterity is mechanically the weakest of these options, but I've got some ideas on how it can come into play more as well. 

Until part 2.


  1. I like that approach. The One Ring Rpg use 3 stats and sounds good to your project, maybe give then a look. Body look overpower, but you can include thief skills on Wits, nerfing the body agility aspect.

    1. I've done something similar with other little projects, usually defaulting to some form of Body/Mind/Soul for it. It's a pretty tidy way of handling it. I suspect I'd actually go that way but that I want Charisma to be a thing for the kind of OD&D game play I'm looking for -- I want hirelings and retainers to play a big role in the thing and I've been designing a few steps ahead for that reason.

    2. Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma all could be that of the player, leaving only Strength, Dexterity and Constitution for that of the character. Basically, the player does all the talking and thinking and the character carries out the actions.