The Evolution of Role-Playing Games

The Ability Scores

      On a personal note I spent about a week in March scouring this house for gaming materials. Each was entered into a spreadsheet and its location in the house noted. Unless out of place items come up here and there the total is 423 books and boxed sets (Once I find or replace that missing AD&D 2e DMG) This is physical items only, and does not count my PDF collection. Something I should catalog as well.
       Curiously are the things I never knew I had, or surpluses. I have enough AD&D core books to outfit several groups, but I know I didn't buy them all. Some I know came from a friend, a few through marriage, but 3 DMG and 5 PHB and an equal number of Monster Manuals? There is also the matter of "The Keep on the Borderlands". I have two, I don't remember ever buying one.
       Sure, it's not the biggest hoard in the the world. It his however nice to know what I have and where it is. It makes locating a reference not only easy, but possible.

      As promised in the previous article we shall examine the evolution of the numbers called "Ability Scores". First defined in the D&D system these scores, be they beloved or hated are the defining numbers of your PC. Be they rolled, bought with points or determined by a fixed grid, every game has them, three, four, six, or more. These numbers are the start of every PC.

      D&D has six. One of the few things that has not changed throughout the long evolution of the D&D game are the Stats; Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma. Definitions have changed and the red headed step child Comeliness has come and gone, but the six remain stalwart soldiers of character development. We will look at the development of acquiring the stats. And how they are used. More varied than you might think.

D&D Zero Edition introduced ability scores. Men and Magic instructs the "referee" to roll the three six sided dice (the XdX nomenclature was yet to be invented.) There is no indication of the order in which these must be written down by the player, merely that they should write them down. As a result DMs had various requirements, requiring them be written in the order given in the book, allowing the player to write them down as they pleased, or even allowing the player to roll the dice. Greyhawk did not change this. However, when I attended my first demonstration of the game in 1976 by TSR I rolled my own dice. It had at least changed de facto if not de jure.
       Of course the all important stat bonus This was not even seen until the Greyhawk supplement. Very little description is given as to exactly what the numbers mean in Men and Magic.
       Strength starts with a +1 at 13, to hit only mind you. You didn't to get a plus to damage until 16. Then the damage plus climbed faster than the to hit plus. The infamous exceptional strength was also seen for the first time here. Another important strength task was door opening. Done on a d6 and had its own column in the chart. I'm not going to present the entire chart here. But true to the form every single task resolution had its own system, unrelated and unrelating to the others. Is it any wonder us old school gamers know how to improvise?
       Constitution: started you with a hit die plus, but only to "name level", usually 9 or 10. Charisma gave you your maximum number of followers and hirelings. Intelligence served to define the chance a Magic User could know a spell and how many. Wisdom and Dexterity still had no real function.

Basic D&D: While I myself did not use this I did find the copy of the Blue Book that was floating around the house and can reference it. It actually has less in the way of explanation than the Greyhawk supplement. A step backwards. I don't have later editions of the D&D books or the final Rules Cylopedia, so I can't judge if they did a better job later, but I hope so. Based on the quality of the Blue Book it looks primed to fail frankly. "Here Eric Holmes, write this thing to frustrate people and get them to buy AD&D". It really looks that way.

AD&D 1st Edition: The player is told that the rolling methods are in the DMG and the DM will tell you which one to use. A common theme with AD&D is info hiding. Rules the player should have are in the hands of the DM only. Gygax thought that if the players knew the rules the game would somehow suffer. It editorialized that the character should have at least two stats over 15. Exactly why? We'll see.
       The rolling methods locked away in the DMG were (in brief)
1: 4d6 drop the lowest, any order.
2: 3d6 rolled twelve times and the best 6 arranged as per 1.
3: 3d6 is rolled 6 times for each stat in order, take the highest roll.
4: Roll in order make 12 sets, pick one.

       I don't know many people that got passed method one. The others were either so much fail or too much work. At least more than one method was available. The hard nosed 3d6 in order take it and shut up, is never seen. Indeed the above methods go out of their way to give you a chance to roll a good set of stats. So the next time some Fat Beard tells you how hard he had it having to roll that way, and he liked it, tell him his DM was an ass. This Fat Beard said so.
       For the first time all the ability scores have their chart. They also get a better paragraph as to what they mean.
       Strength: This gets worse. The bonuses don't start until 16, and damage bonuses now start first. Opening doors is still a d6 and now you can bend bars and lift gates, a d% roll. All kinds of restrictions of maximum strength to this or that race and females. AD&D liked to cap stats. Exceptional strength is still there, but again only for fighters.
       Constitution: Hit die bonuses start at 15, and cap fairly low except for fighters. They still go away at "name level" You now have system shock and resurrection chance. Both d% rolls. Interesting Con has a list of minimums, not maximums, you can have all the Con you can get.
       Dexterity: Gets some definition for the first time. Percentile bonuses for various thieving skills are listed. A thief has a reason for a high Dex now. The attack and defense bonuses for Dex make an appearance. Different than Strength or Constitution and starting at 16 of course.
       Intelligence: The chart is primarily concerned with Magic User spells. and now with the languages you can know. Skills are a thing of the future. And again, racial minimums and maximums are present in plenty.
       Wisdom: Like Magic users Clerics now have a minimum Wisdom for their spell levels. Again, racial maximums and minimums abound A magical defense bonus appears, for use with saves that affect the will. Bonuses start at 15. Something might come of that.
       Charisma: Still the dump stat unless you want to play a Paladin. Again the racial maximums, Dwarves can never be as good as say, Elves. Charisma based things have to do with number of henchmen and their loyalty. As most players simply don't care, yea, the dump stat. No numerical bonuses.

      In 1985 the Unearthed Arcana introduced a new stat, Comeliness, that had specifically to do with beauty and grace. Charisma was now "Leadership and influence" only where previously it has served as a catchall for both. Rather than a chart you get a page of how one should react within certain numerical ranges. But again, your race determined how beautiful you could be. Curiously it described a range from -16 to 30. No other stat had near that range. I assume you still rolled 3d6. The book does not inform.

Second Edition AD&D didn't change much. The rolling methods are now in the Players' manual not the DMG, a couple of extra methods are given including the hard nosed 3d6 in order, those listed above and a kind of random point buy. They now list stats up to 25. Percentile based extraordinary strength is still present, but only for fighters. Comeliness didn't make the cut.
       Strength is a curious anomaly. All the abilities scores have bonuses listed up to 25. However, Strength and Strength alone, for fighters and fighters alone, has the percent based 18 (%) wedged between 18 and 19. This was mechanically awkward, but not obvious as nothing worked with anything else. Everything was its own mechanic. (My personal solution was to keep the roll, but change the numbers. 18 (51) became 19 and so forth with 18 (00) being 22. I also instituted extraordinary rolls for all ability scores, not just Strength, and on any natural 18 you got to see if it was higher.)
       Intelligence now counts for secondary skills (Professions) and proficiencies, an optional rule.  
       The system is still a jumble of random die rolls, percentile system and d20. While 2nd Ed cleared up and changed a few rules. It switched the focus from the DM to the player, giving the player more access and control of the game process. It truly did not alter the core mechanics in the least.
       What we do see is the racial bonus. instead of a max on the die roll we get an adjustment post facto for the race.

Player Options: Skills and Powers: Again in my case the road not traveled. However it needs to be mentioned. One of the options offered was a split stat. Each of the six abilities scores could be split into two. Dexterity for example became Accuracy and Balance. the player doubled the score rolled and split it between the two sub stats. They could be adjusted as long as the two sub stats were within 4 points of each other.
       Other than the obvious added complexity, of which AD&D obviously needed (sarcasm), Strength, divided into Stamina and Muscle was a real problem. Instead of ditching the percentile extraordinary strength to conform with the simple numerical stats of the rest of the ability scores they tried to keep it. It did not end well. Non fighters with a high strength did not use the extraordinary table, so they went straight from an 18 to a 19 or even 20 if they had an 18 nat. and decided to drop their Stamina to get it.
       Skills and powers has been described as an attempt to graft a point buy system onto D&D. How good was the idea? Well, it didn't make it into the next edition.

3rd Edition D&D changes everything. The one thing it didn't change is the 4d6 drop the lowest for rolling ability scores. That is the only method given in the Player's Handbook, and the DMG covers nothing that is in the player's handbook. Over the years it has proven the most popular.
       All ability scores read off the same numerical bonus chart. Bonuses start at 12 and go up one for two. An effort is made in the rules to see that every stat means something. They are tied to combat, to skills and to saving throws. "The Dump Stat" no longer exists, but you don't need a 15+ for the stat to mean something to your character.
       In my opinion the stats and the accompanying rules are well thought out. Evolution of the idea has reached if not perfection, then at least good functionality. Stat inflation; The idea that you needed a 15+ for the stat to mean something is if not gone, amended.

3.5 Edition D&D changes a good deal of rule balance among classes feats and spells, but altered the ability scores not at all.

4th Edtion D&D (so called) Forry as I call it steers the player away from the dice. they recommend what is called the "standard array", that is before racial adjustments everyone has the same stats. Second offered is the same method used in the RPGA to assure everyone is equally mediocre. Only reluctantly is the old classic of 4d6 even presented. With a clear, "it's here, but you don't want to use it" warning.
       The stat bonuses are the same as 3.x Ed. However from there on the game enters the twilight zone of something totally different. Without Rod Sterling I'm not going there.  
       (Side note that Forry is the only edition of D&D with advertisement in the body of the work. They push both D&D Insider and the RPGA.)

      Over the last 37 years the classic 3-18 range has gone from virtually meaningless to an integral part of the game mechanic. The methods of getting the ability scores have run from the 3d6 take what you get, to point buy systems to standard arrays. (Which I detest). Only one, the classic 4d6 drop lowest has really endured. In the end the whole point of the ability score has been to anchor the game definition of your character. To define how well you can do anything you want to do. It should never be seen as a limitation, but only as what it is, an ability. Something to enable your entry into the world of the game.

      Next time I'll look at the races within the game. Comments, suggestions or instructions on where to go can be sent to comments below. The writer reserves the right to not go where told to.

Evolution of the Character Race


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© Garry Stahl: 2010 unless other Copyrights apply. All rights reserved, re-print only with permission.


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