When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) the standard method for creating ability scores in my area was to roll four six-sided die (4d6), dropping the lowest die result, and totaling the remaining dice. We were then allowed to arrange these scores however we desired to create the characters that we wanted to play. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition (AD&D 2e) asks us to build our characters differently when we begin playing the game.
The base version of AD&D 2e would have players roll 3d6 and arrange them in order (set 1, Strength; set 2, Dexterity; set 3, Constitution; set 4, Intelligence; set 5, Wisdom; and set 6, Charisma). By rolling their ability scores first players are forced create their characters based on what they rolled as opposed to coming into the game with a preconceived idea for their character and making the scores match their concept. This is a significant change to how I learned to play the game and it creates a situation where players are challenged, from their first roll of the dice, to show a mastery of the randomness that the game provides them.
The designers could have stopped her but instead they provided players with an addition five alternative methods for character creation – which included the method I learned. All of the alternative methods provide a valid form of character creation but I find that the base version, or Method I as it is introduced in the Player’s Handbook (Cook, 18), is the most attractive as it tantalizes my imagination. It is an open challenge to all players that dares us to prove our skill with the game. Too often in new editions of D&D we tend to coddle ourselves by providing each other with the ability to design our characters exactly as we had hoped, rather than challenging ourselves, and it makes me wonder if we haven’t lost some essential difficulty that the games provided in earlier editions. Something to ponder in the coming weeks.
The Ability Scores
It’s at this point that we move to the actual ability scores themselves: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Determining these abilities have been important throughout the history of D&D, however, there is a change that comes in how we understand these terms between Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition (D&D 3e) and AD&D 2e which I had not noticed before beginning this project.
In D&D 3e the ability’s importance isn’t lessoned, but the way that we think about them changes. Let’s look at Strength as an example of this change. In D&D 3e Strength “. . . measures your character’s muscle and physical power. This ability is especially important for fighters, barbarians, paladins, rangers, and monks because it helps them prevail in combat . . . [it] also limits the amount of equipment your character can carry . . . [and it modifies] . . . melee attack rolls . . . damage rolls when using a melee weapon or thrown weapon . . . Climb, Jump, and Swim checks . . . [and] Strength checks . . .” (Tweet, 8). Contrast this version of Strength with the one presented in AD&D 2e, where “. . . Strength . . . measures a character’s muscle, endurance, and stamina. This ability is the prime requisite of warriors because they must be physically powerful in order to wear armor and wield heavy weapons. A fighter with a score of 16 or more in Strength gains a 10% bonus to the experience points he earns . . . any warrior with a Strength score of 18 is entitled to roll percentile dice . . . to determine exceptional Strength; exceptional Strength improves the character’s chance to hit, increases the weight the character is able to carry without a penalty for encumbrance . . . and increase the character’s ability to force open doors and similar portals . . .” (Cook, 19).
It’s clear from the above example that as we transitioned from AD&D 2e into D&D 3e that the emphasis on ability scores, and their effectiveness to resolve issues at the game table, has been called into question. Prior to the use of Skill Checks in D&D 3e, and some alternative rules in AD&D 2e I’m told, when you had some difficult situation arise at the table that required a roll of the dice to resolve you used an ability check. To do so you would roll a d20 and attempt to get a score equal to, or below, your score in the checked ability to succeed at the task (Cook, 13). D&D 3e discarded this idea and instead brought in the concept of the Difficulty Check (DC) where you would roll a d20, modified by your ability score, in an attempt to roll equal to, or higher, than the DC. This, in turn, made a character’s ability scores largely forgettable as once you discerned your ability modifier the score itself was largely meaningless.
There are criticisms that can be laid on AD&D 2e, but one thing it definitely got right was in making the ability scores matter. Your score affected your ability to do everything attached to it, affected the amount of experience points your character received during adventures, and was something that would be checked regularly so the loss of even a point could spell disaster for the player. Ability scores mattered and that something that the game would lose as it transitioned forward.
There are a couple of highlights I would like to cover from this chapter before moving on that need to be brought forward.
Hit Points: These stop accruing at 10th level (9th level for warriors and priests) (Cook 21). This is another huge difference between AD&D 2e and D&D 3e (and certainly not the last). In D&D 3e, and in all later editions of the game, a character never stops earning hit points. This means that threats that could challenge an entry level character were like gnats to an epic level character; however, in AD&D 2e this wasn’t the case. A goblin could be just as dangerous to a 5th level character as to a 25th level character because if they can manage to get past your armor class you don’t have the hit point cushion you would have in D&D 3e. The lethality of the game is significantly increased by locking hit points at relatively low levels.
System Shock: This is “. . . the percentage chance a character has to survive magical effects that reshape or age . . . [their] body: petrification (and reverse petrification), polymorph, magical aging, ect . . .” (Cook, 21). We lose this in D&D 3e as there are classes, such as the Druid, which now reshape themselves as a class ability regularly.
There is an inherent difficulty to the way that the game acts with older editions, such as AD&D 2e, that we lost with the advent of D&D 3e. Now that isn’t to argue that later editions are somehow easier to master – something that anyone who has played them would not seriously suggest – but rather it is a comment on how the editions thought about games that would be played with them. What I mean by that is that AD&D 2e presents a game where there is an inherent difficulty in most every task your players attempt. The world is brutal, hard, and unforgiving because any roll of the die could be your character’s last. D&D 3e, and later editions, still present brutal worlds when asked, but they have a more forgiving nature as one poor roll rarely results in your character’s immediate demise. In other words, the difficulty is lowered in the game’s overall lethality in subsequent editions.
In recent years we’ve seen a growing community of players looking for the lethality that earlier versions of D&D provided through projects like Sersa Victory’s 4thCore and the excitement generated when Wizards of the Coast started teasing a “hardcore mode” during the launch of the Tomb of Annihilation story path. There is fertile ground here to explore when it comes to upping the difficulty level of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition (D&D 5e). It’s something I need to explore more fully in the coming year.
The Rath Example
There is an important moment in this book that I think we all need to look at shortly before the end of the chapter. A sample character named “Rath” is created for us to look at and examine. The ability scores are as follows: Str, 8; Dex, 14; Con, 13; Int, 13; Wis, 7; and Cha, 6
“. . . Rath has strengths and weaknesses, but it is up to you to interpret what the numbers mean. Here are just two different ways these numbers could be interpreted . . . 1) Although Rath is in good health (Con 13), he’s not very strong (Str 8) because he’s just plain lazy – he never wanted to exercise as a youth and now it’s too late. His low Wisdom and Charisma scores (7,6) show that he lacks the common sense to aply himself properly and projects a slothful, “I’m not going to bother” attitude (which tends to irritate others). Fortunately, Rath’s natural wit (Int 13) and Dexterity (14) keep him from being a total loss . . . [You] might play Rath as an irritating, smart-alecky twerp forever ducking just out of range of those who want to squash him . . .
“2) Rath has several good points – he has studied hard (Int 13) and practiced his manual skills (Dex 14). Unfortunately, his Strength is low (8) from a lack of exercise (all those hours spent reading books). Despite that, Rath’s health is still good (Con 13). His low Wisdom and Charisma (7, 6) are a result of his lack of contact and involvement with people outside the realm of academics . . . Looking at the scores this way, you could play Rath as a kindly, naïve, and shy professorial type who’s a good tinkerer, always fiddling with new ideas and inventions . . .” (Cook, 25)
The “Rath Example” represents a major element of AD&D 2e that should have been retained moving forward into future editions. What we have here is not an excise in salvaging a substandard character, as some would argue, but rather a way to begin play with the character you have rolled regardless of how well or poor those results may have been. Players are asked to interpret their ability scores and ascribe a reason to their results. By describing a cause for each result the player creates a character that reflects their ability scores more accurately during play and is able to build a fictional personality that fits their rolled results. Contrast this with D&D 3e, where we never describe interpreting our results and instead focus on arranging them to benefit the player’s efforts towards creating an ideal character that maximizes their statistical opportunities for success.
We lost something powerful and important here and it is something that we need to focus on getting back. The “Rath Example” is a tool I intend to make use of going forward regardless of the edition or game.
Cook, David “Zeb,” et al. Player’s Handbook for the AD&D Game. USA: TSR Inc, 1996. pg 13, 18, 19, 21, and 25 PRINT
Tweet, Jonathan, et al. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook Core Rulebook I v3.5. Wizards of the Coast. USA, 2003. pg. 8. PRINT