C Series • #6
Almost every RPG, except for a few fringe systems that may not be considered even true RPGs in the traditional sense, relies on the player making a character. An integral part of that character creation process is the generation of ability score — or attributes, statistics, characteristics, what have you. Despite how a specific system refers to them, ability scores are the mental, physical, and social aspects of the player’s character. I find it interesting to look at how various systems define, determine, and utilize ability scores. While subsequent articles will expand on other systems, I would like to discuss the Dungeons & Dragons Role-Playing Game and how different editions have handled ability score generation and what those scores meant to the game.
Dungeons & Dragons has had an interesting journey with ability scores, and their importance to a character, over the years. Original D&D (or OD&D) took an odd approach to this key element of character creation. Referees (the proto-DM term) were supposed to roll the character’s ability scores for the player. This was accomplished by using three six-sided dice, rolling them in order of score (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma), then helping the player choose the classes for which they qualified! Scores didn’t mean a whole lot, except for some extra experience, maybe a hit point a level, some bonus languages, a slight missile fire bonus (or penalty), and for the reactions of NPCs and monsters.
1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons would place more emphasis on ability scores. Now, Strength would affect hit chances and damage with melee weapons; how much a character could carry; and a chance to open stuck doors, bend bars, and lift closed gates. Intelligence would greatly affect a magic-user’s spellcasting ability and capacity while also determining the number of languages spoken. Dexterity would adjust a thief’s skills, modify a character’s reaction to surprise, as well as affect a character’s Armor Class. Race selection now would affect ability scores with most full-blooded races (dwarf, elf, halfling) modifying a couple of scores by a +1 and a -1. The ability score generation process opened up as well. 3d6 straight down the character sheet remained but fell by the wayside to more popular choices. “Method I” was introduced (later becoming “Method V” in 2nd edition) which involved rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest die, six times, and arranging the scores as desired. This quickly became a favorite at many game tables (mine included) for many years.
One concept that 1st and 2nd editions of Dungeons & Dragons introduced in their core rules was the idea of a minimum ability score for a class. For example, fighters had to have a 9 in Strength, while thieves needed to have a 9 in Dexterity. This was part of a two-tiered balancing system for these editions of the game. Ability score rolls needed to be high to qualify for some of the more powerful classes, and these supposed “rarer” classes had more expensive experience requirements per level. Paladins, for instance, needed strength 12, intelligence 9, wisdom 13, constitution of at least 9, and a charisma of 17 or more. They also had the stiffest XP requirements of any class — they needed 45,001 XP to achieve 6th level (compared to a thief, who only needed 20,001). But paladins could fight as well as a fighter, could cast cleric spells, turn undead, and had additional abilities. Rangers, druids, and monks joined the paladin as more “elite” classes that had higher ability score requirements but were also better than the standard fighters, thieves, and clerics. The odds of successfully, and fairly, qualifying for these classes were extremely low even using the famed “Method I.” Industrious players would keep rolling, however, until the class requirements were attained or they otherwise would show the DM that they somehow managed to achieve the necessary scores. Later editions (3rd and beyond) would remove these requirements but, in these two versions of the game, ability scores were vital in determining what class you could play … that is until players wanted the option to choose for themselves. This would lead to the aforementioned removal of such requirements and would shift how ability scores were generated even more in subsequent editions.
Late 1st edition AD&D brought about the ability check with “non-weapon proficiencies” (NWPs), the game’s first attempt at a true skill system. I don’t remember it taking off very well and I never used them to any extent until 2nd edition AD&D introduced them in its Player’s Handbook. Many early groups had been utilizing the odd ability check (a strength check here, a dexterity check there) for quite some time but it seemed like 2nd edition AD&D popularized and legitimized them by placing them in the core book. The NWP system meant that higher ability scores would mean greater success at doing things that used to be less codified. The NWP system, at its core, was a “roll under” system with each skill tied to a specific ability score. Success meant rolling under the relevant ability on a d20. Building a fire, hunting, fishing, swimming or piloting a boat all were things that once an aspect of a character’s background. Now these things became skills that had to be learned for anything other than the most rudimentary success which laid the groundwork for the skill systems of today’s D&D.
With 3rd edition D&D, a new era dawned for ability scores as the point buy system emerged as a popular method of ability score generation. While the “4d6 six times and drop lowest of each set” approach was very popular, it still led to some extreme high and low score results that were out of the player’s control. Even with the removal of ability score requirements, many generally disliked this lack of control over their scores. The point buy system alleviated that by starting all scores at 8 and giving the players a number of points to purchase better scores. Higher scores cost more to buy but still were possible if the player was willing to pay the cost and was okay with lower scores in the other abilities. This put all players at the table on the same field, avoiding the disparity that sometimes comes from rolling randomly.
3rd Edition also brought another important change known as the universal modifier chart. No longer did a high Strength determine one’s chance to lift a portcullis or a high Intelligence determine the number of languages a PC would know. Now, specific scores equated to a specific modifier regardless of the ability. A 14 was a +2, while an 8 was a -1, for example. Every action that a PC needed to attempt was done so by rolling a d20 and adding the score’s modifier to the roll, then comparing that score to a set difficulty. It was a simple, yet elegant, system and at lower levels of the game it was quite effective. The small ability modifiers sometimes were victim to the flat probability of the d20 and, at higher levels, modifiers from other sources (skill point investment, feats, class abilities, and/or magic items) vastly overshadowed the ability score modifier.
While I am unfamiliar with 4th edition D&D, my limited understanding of that system is that this trend existed there as well. This edition placed some emphasis on ability scores at low levels of the game but faded in their importance by mid-to-high levels. This was a very different concept from 1st and 2nd editions where many core functions were tied directly to ability scores. With very few modifiers from outside sources, the ability score remained the sole (or, at least, the primary) source for success or failure of an action. Magic spells and items, in these early editions, were usually the only sources of modification to these chances.
5th edition D&D brings the game full circle and borrows from both the early and later editions in its approach to ability score importance. The “standard array” became the edition’s suggested method for ability score generation — six set numbers that players could apply to their scores as they saw fit. Point buy is still popular while rolling for scores remains as a possible method. Skills are parsed down to ones that have more of an impact on combat and/or exploration which returns many actions to the realm of DM and player adjudication. Also, modifiers outside of ability scores were lessened in their frequency and magnitude, returning emphasis on higher or lower scores and their modifiers. That +2 modifier from your 14 Dexterity really means something when you’re trying to sneak past those guards. Lower Armor Classes and flatter skill difficulties mean that higher modifiers are not as important and the advantage/disadvantage system aids in making those high difficulty checks (or failing really easy ones). This new mechanic removed the need for all the excessive 3rd and 4th edition modifiers by offering another elegant method for checks — roll two d20s and take the better roll (advantage) or the worse one (disadvantage) depending on the circumstance.
I find it interesting to see how fairer (which I have heard called everything from “balanced” to “homogenized”) methods of score generation have gained popularity while more random methods have lessened over the years. Many still use the random roll (personally, I prefer 3d6, 12 times, keeping the best six and arranging as desired) because of the notion that some people are blessed (or cursed) with extreme abilities and like their role-playing games to reflect that.