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OD&D Mitigating stat creep in OD&D

It's a well-known fact that in original white box (or "LBBs-only") D&D, pre-Greyhawk, the ability scores have very little direct mechanical impact on the player characters. Three scores — Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom — are really only there to serve as prime requisites for the game's first three character classes, adjusting the experience points earned by fighters, mages, and clerics respectively. (And it wasn't just a one-to-one correspondence, either. Strength was a fighter's prime requisite, but having exceptionally high Intelligence and Wisdom could also help a fighter to advance faster. Likewise for Strength and Intelligence helped clerics. And high Wisdom, but notably not Strength, helped mages.) Apart from that, high Intelligence granted characters bonus languages (an almost absurdly generous one extra language per point of Intelligence above 10); high Strength aided characters in forcing open stuck doors, but didn't affect melee combat at all; and high Wisdom did absolutely nothing.

The other three scores — Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma — did have mechanical impact on characters, but it was more limited than modern-day players are used to. Dexterity only adjusted one's chance to hit with missile-fire, having no effect at all on Armor Class (and a rather ambiguous relationship to initiative, since the LBBs lacked clear initiative rules—it wasn't until Dr Holmes' blue box that Dexterity scores determined initiative in combat). Constitution adjusted hit points per hit die, but it was an asymmetrical adjustment: a bonus to hp could be as high as +3 per hit die for Con 18, but Con scores of 6 and lower never inflicted a penalty worse than −1 per die. Charisma was the most mechanically robust of the ability scores, impacting reaction rolls, the loyalty and morale of followers, and the maximum number of unusual followers (meaning monsters and classed/leveled characters) that a single character could have under their command.

The Holmes Basic Set (which is, in effect, the introductory rules that point one back to the white box in the same way that the later Moldvay, Mentzer, and Denning basic sets point to the Cook/Marsh Expert Set, Mentzer Expert Set, and Rules Cyclopedia) largely conformed to the LBB rules for ability scores, adding only the aforementioned rule that initiative in combat is determined directly by Dexterity scores in descending order, and borrowing the table from Greyhawk for mages' chance to learn spells and minimum and maximum number of spells knowable per level based on Intelligence. But all other complexities — such as hit and damage bonuses in melee from Strength, percentile Super-Strength for fighters, Constitution based chances to survive resurrection and system shock — were not incorporated and never made it into the Basic/Expert lineage of later OD&D revisions (although they are, of course, quite familiar to AD&D players).

More recently, a number of retro-clones have embraced the minimalism. The preeminent white box clone, Swords & Wizardry, uses a universal modifier table, but it's an exceptionally simple one: scores of 3–8 are associated with a −1 stat modifier, scores of 9–12 are average and have no modifier, and scores of 13−18 come with a +1 stat modifier. (I happen to like this table a lot, because it's clean and simple, and because it shares a quality with the "classic" D&D modifier table used in B/X, BECMI, the Rules Cyclopedia, and even Castles & Crusades — namely, that when you generate ability scores on 3d6, 25% of rolls will give a penalty, 50% will give no modifier, and 25% will give a bonus.) A few retro-clones widen the "average" band with no modifier, from 9–12 out to 8–13 (this results in a roughly 17% chance of a penalty, a 66% chance of no modifier, and 17% chance of a bonus) or even to 7–14 (in which case about 80% of rolls result in no modifier, and a bonus or penalty has only about a 10% chance of appearing — the *Swords & Wizardry derivative White Box: Fantasy Medieval Adventure Game takes this lattermost route).

I've taken pains to explain all of this, to lay the groundwork for my issue: namely, the early white box/blue box versions of classic D&D didn't suffer from the "stat creep" endemic to the later (pink box/red box and black box/Cyclopedia) versions of classic D&D. The stats had a fairly small impact: having a high stat was nice, but not a big deal, and having a low stat most definitely wasn't a big deal — a fact that synergizes quite well with random character generation using 3d6 in order. You almost can't create a hopeless or unplayable character in these systems.

Unfortunately, this isn't the case in (e.g.) red box D&D, where the stat modifiers can range from −3 to +3, and they can apply to melee and missile attack rolls, melee damage rolls, hit points per hit die, magic-based saving throws, and other areas. In fact, speaking as someone who has primarily refereed red box and Cyclopedia D&D as my go-to system since about 2006 or so (I only rarely dip over into the AD&D pool anymore), I've noticed on more than one occasion that extreme stat modifiers can cause problems. A low Constitution modifier will render a character of any class nigh unplayable. Even just having an average Strength score will leave any fighter player disappointed when playing alongside a fighter who has Strength 16 (+2), never mind 18 (+3). (And that 18 isn't impossible to achieve, either, given that in Basic/Expert D&D you can adjust your ability scores by buying up your class's prime requisite at the cost of sacking certain of your non-primes 2-for-1.)

In short, whenever I've played red box or Cyclopedia D&D by the book, I've noticed that outlier stats can cause problems, however minor. I've not seen such problems arise whenever I've played with the LBBs or Holmes or Swords & Wizardry instead. It's also the case that in these early iterations of the game, a set of randomly generated ability scores will inform a player's choice of character class without necessarily dictating it. If you have your heart set on playing a mage, but you roll Int 5? In white box OD&D, that's no problem at all: you can still play a mage and you won't suffer mechanically for it beyond an XP penalty that causes you to advance in level a bit slower. This is honestly a pretty great feature of early D&D, and I'd like to see it carried forward!

So I've decided to tweak how the stats work in my Cyclopedia campaigns — not the one I'm running at the moment, since that's in full swing and it would be a little disruptive to change things up now — but in the future. I like the idea of limiting modifiers to not more than ±1 (like Swords & Wizardry), but don't want to go all the way in that direction, because I would like for there to still be at least some distinction between a sore of 3 and 8, or a score of 13 and 18. At the moment, here's what I'm thinking:

Ability ScoreStrengthDexterityWisdom
3 to 5−1 to open doors, melee hit & damage−1 to hit with missiles and Armor Class−1 to magic saves, find traps/doors
6 to 8−1 to open doors−1 to hit with missiles−1 to magic saves
9 to 12(2 in 6 chance to open stuck doors)no adjustment(2 in 6 chance to find traps, secret doors)
13 to 15+1 to open doors+1 to hit with missiles+1 to magic saves
16 to 18+1 to open doors, melee hit & damage+1 to hit with missiles and Armor Class+1 to magic saves, find traps/doors

Ability ScoreConstitutionIntelligenceCharisma
3 to 5−10% to total hpNon-literate; speaks Common−1 to reaction rolls, follower limit & morale
6 to 8−5% to total hpSpeaks, reads, and writes Common−1 to follower limit & morale
9 to 12no adjustmentSpeaks, reads, and writes Common and Alignment Tongue(limited to 4 followers at Morale 7)
13 to 15+10% to total hp+1 bonus language+1 to follower limit & morale
16 to 18+20% to total hp+2 bonus languages+1 to reaction rolls, follower limit & morale

Adjusting hit points as a percentage of one's base total rather than with a discrete bonus to hit dice solves a number of problems: it means that the penalties are never onerous, and that fighters always have better hit points than clerics, who always have better hit points than mages. It just keeps the impact on a character small overall, and I like that. The other scores (with the exception of Intelligence, which is always a bit of an outlier) don't inflate the bonuses or penalties; they just apply that ±1 adjustment to extra areas, which keeps things interesting but also reined in.

One final area that I'm going to alter the way ability scores work in my red box games is prime requisites — spurred by blog discussions over at Grognardia and B/X Blackrazor a few months back, which resulted in an interpretation of the original LBB rules that I've positively fallen in love with. To wit, it's never really made clear in Men & Magic whether the "secondary" requisites (such as Int and Wis for fighters, or Str and Int for clerics) are actually lowered in order to raise a character's prime requisite (the way they are in the later Basic/Expert versions of the game). It's a perfectly cromulent reading of the text to decide that the actual scores are never truly adjusted at all, and that having a high secondary requisite provides an automatic, virtual "bump" to your prime requisite. I adore that reading of the rule, and I'm already using a variation on it now. It works like this:

Ability ScorePrime Requisite (one per class)Secondary Requisites (two per class)
3 to 5−20% to earned XP
6 to 8−10% to earned XP
9 to 12no adjustment
13 to 15+5% to earned XPvirtual +1 to prime requisite for XP adjustments only
16 or 17+10% to earned XPvirtual +2 to prime requisite for XP adjustments only
18+10% to earned XPvirtual +3 to prime requisite for XP adjustments only

The prime and secondary requisites for each of the classes are as follows:
• Fighters have Strength as prime and Intelligence and Wisdom as secondary.
• Clerics have Wisdom as prime and Strength and Intelligence as secondary.
• Mages have Intelligence as prime and Dexterity and Wisdom as secondary.
• Thieves have Dexterity as prime and Intelligence and Wisdom as secondary.
• Dwarves work just like fighters.
• Elves work just like fighter/mages, figuring their two virtual prime requisites (base Str + Int mod + Wis mod and base Int + Dex mod + Wis mod) separately. As usual, an elf needs 13+ in both primes for a +5% bonus to XP, or 13+ in the Str-based prime and 16+ in the Int-based prime for a +10% bonus to earned XP.
• Halflings are treated like fighter/thieves, similar to elves, but (as noted in the RAW) halflings need only a 13+ in one of their primes to enjoy +5% XP and 13+ in both for +10%.

So, for example, if I roll up a set of stats … rolling … and I come up with the following — Str 8 Int 14 Wis 11 Dex 6 Con 8 Cha 13 — obviously, this character would make a good mage (+5% XP), but I could also play this character as a fighter at no XP penalty (Str 8 + 1 Int adj. + 0 Wis adj. = prime requisite 9), albeit the character would still suffer a −1 Str penalty to bashing doors (but not to melee combat!). ∎

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