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The Peanut Gallery presents: Death to Ability Scores

pg_titlecard_019Hello again, members of the Peanut Gallery! It’s another month past, and I return from the realm of comic books to focus upon tabletop games once more. But rather than focus upon the release of a New Magic Core Set, I decided to get even more radical in my focus.

Recently, I found that there is a contest going on. One that deals with a subject close to my heart. And while I’m not necessarily in competition with everyone participating, I am attempting something that has significant ramifications to my own concept of how games work.

I’m redesigning Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition.

Okay, so redesign might be a little over-the-top. Given my current circumstances, it’s more like a little bit of house ruling and some cleanup. But throughout it, I’ve been probing over posts by armchair designers, the person on the street, people who actually design games, people who have  lot of math to prove their points, people who go by feel, people who… well, you get the idea.

The advantage of a contest-like system like this is that the person in charge can set the boundaries that they want you to follow. They can decide what can be changed or alternately, what things would be better left unchanged.

One of the challenges, however, intrigued me. Namely,first challenge: get rid of ability scores.

For those of you that don’t know, ability scores are one of the bigger parts of Dungeons and Dragons history. You see, in the beginning they were attributes to differentiate your character. In fact, originally, your attributes determined what class you were!

Now, attributes are one of the building blocks of Dungeons and Dragons. The six abilities, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma; function as the base for the most famous resolution mechanic of Dungeons and Dragons: roll d20 + mod, where the mod is based off one of the attributes. So why would people want the ability scores to gone?

The answer lies in how ability scores affect areas of character creation. During Third edition, each Attribute would have an effect upon your character. For example, having a high intelligence would give you skill points and Extra Spell Slots (if you were a wizard), while a higher Strength would improve your Base Attack Bonus and  Wisdom would Improve your Will Save.

In 4th edition, ability scores affect only seven areas:

 

  • Basic Attacks, which are based off strength and dexterity for melee and ranged attacks, respectively.
  • Initiative, which gains a bonus equal to your dexterity modifier.
  • Hit Points and Healing Surges, the first taking your constitution score, the second taking your constitution modifier.
  • Attacks and Damage, which use a particular modifier based on a primary attribute, and may have various other affects based off of a secondary attribute.
  • Defences, in which you gain bonuses based upon the highest score of a particular pairing (FORT: STR/CON, REF: DEX/INT, WILL: WIS/CHA)
  • Skills, where each skill uses an attribute as a modifier to rolls (eg: a character with 12 STR (+1) gets a +1 bonus to Athletics. a character with 12 DEX gets a +1 bonus to acrobatics, stealth and thievery.)

 

So, with 4th edition, it’s very easy to see that attributes have a smaller impact upon the game than in 3rd edition. In fact, it would be fair to say that your choice of class has more of an impact than your ability scores, since this determines your primary ability score, your abilities (in terms of class features, notably things such as Marks, sneak attacks and favoured weapon types.) and, to a lesser extent, your defences.

But why get rid of Ability Scores? They still have some form of use don’t they? And at first glance, you’d be right. When I went into this competition, I thought that there would have to be a significant rework of the system to allow for the hole that ability scores would leave.

But, as I looked at the many and varied systems that make up 4th edition, I began to realise that while you couldn’t alter one part of the system without affecting the rest of it, removing Ability Scores could be relatively painless. In fact, it could even have some benefits.

A seen above, ability scores focus on seven areas. But Initiative and Skills are essentially ‘non-combat’ game mechanics. One of things is only concerned with the beginning of combat, while the other is a hodgepodge of ideas based around the fact that you’re not fighting everything in your path. In this case, whether or not they’re affected by ability scores is somewhat arbitrary. There’s almost no reason to have the coupled to ability scores.

When People say death to ability scores, what they mean is ‘as a character, ability scores affect both combat and out-of-combat encounters. This means that I am hamstrung from certain noncombat encounters by my reliance on ability scores for combat mathematics.’

Once you do this, it becomes apparent that Ability scores factor into a lot of things in one very simple way: They’re math fixes. You could substitute constant numbers, and the end result would be the same.

In fact, there’s a really good reason to get rid of them. Because there’s all sorts of character’s that use different ability scores for their main attacks. But there’s also a class that allows other people to make basic attacks. If Strength is not their primary ability score, then their basic attack lags behind in as they don’t get the benefits of their primary attribute.

But what if it didn’t? well, if you scaled basic attack off a chosen attribute, then that seems like it would work. But one of the downfalls of this system is that they put a layer of abstraction between the real numbers and the players. There is only one instance in which you use the actual attribute value: when calculating hit points. In all other instances, you use the modifier. So why have ability scores at all? why not just use the modifiers? maybe we don’t even need modifiers.

In the end, I can’t really tell you what I did, because this contest goes until the very end of July, and I’m not finished with my redesign. But I do have an increase in my respect or game designers. On the other hand, I also understand why you should always question your assumptions.

Ability scores are part of 4th edition because they were a legacy mechanic, and maybe they belong as part of Dungeons and Dragons to come. But there’s little harm in questioning why something is the way it is.

I thank you all for listening to the tales of The Peanut Gallery, and hope to see you all next month!