HD&D Update: Ability Scores

Let’s put the thorny issue of magic behind us for a little while, and reconsider some of our greatest hits of the past. The original post on ability scores was three months ago. I’m not going to rehash the discussions we had at the time. You can always go back and read them if wish. Suffice to say that no firm conclusion was reached on the matter: a situation I hope to rectify with this post. The problem over ability scores was twofold:

  • How to work out the ‘point buy’ for ability scores.
  • How we should handle racial modifiers to ability scores.

The second point spawned its own poll on the subject. I shall take this second point first, and unveil what I consider to be the final rules on this matter (at least before we start play testing). I’ll also spend a little time justifying this decision, just so you know I’m not being deliberately arbitrary.

Racial Modifiers to Ability Scores

At character generation, all characters receive +2 to one prescribed ability score (as determined by their race), and +2 to one other ability score of the player’s choice. Some races, such as humans, allow players to assign a +2 bonus to any two ability scores. But these races are the exception rather than the rule. For the core races we are looking at for the first release of HD&D, the ability score modifiers are as follows:

  • Dragonborn: +2 Str, +2 to any other ability score
  • Dwarf: +2 Con, +2 to any other ability score
  • Elf: +2 Dex,+2 to any other ability score
  • Genasi: +2 Int, +2 to any other ability score
  • Genbassi: +2 to any two ability scores
  • Gnome: +2 Int, +2 to any other ability score
  • Half-elf: +2 Cha, +2 to any other ability score
  • Half-orc: +2 Str, +2 to any other ability score
  • Halfling: +2 Dex, +2 to any other ability score
  • Human: +2 to any two ability scores
  • Tiefling: +2 Cha, +2 to any other ability score

Why have I chosen to do it this way, when the results of the poll suggested a system of two prescribed ability score modifiers for each race? Well, two reasons actually. Firstly, I think that it is difficult to find two ability scores that a stereotypical member of a particular PC race should excel at. We all know that dwarves are tough (high Con), elves are graceful (high Dex) and half-orcs are strong (high Str). All of us would probably agree with that. However, if we were to suggest where we thought the second +2 should go on (e.g.) a half-orc we’d all come back with different answers. Do they have good instincts (+2 Wis)? Do they have  high endurance (+2 Con)? Are they fast as 4e suggests (+2 Dex)? By only prescribing one ability score, it’s much easier to determine where the +2 should go. As for the other +2, that is left entirely at the discretion of the player.

Which brings me neatly to my second point. Player choice is crucial. The system should not force you to play a particular combination of race and class, simply because of the game mechanics. If you want to play a dwarf it should be because you want to play a dwarf, not because of the dwarf’s racial modifiers to his ability scores. I am desperate to avoid falling into the same trap as fourth edition. By giving all races +2 to two prescribed ability scores, and making all classes largely dependent on two ability scores, the 4e designers married up race and class too closely.

If you want to be a optimum ranger in fourth edition you have to play an elf. If you want to be an optimum sorcerer you’ll play a dragonborn. All players want to build their character as well as they can. It’s human nature. If you do play against type (say, you’re a multiclassed eladrin warlock/cleric) then the system actively penalises your character. This is not the case in HD&D. Because the player always gets to choose where to apply one of his +2 racial modifiers, all choices are optimal choices. Add to this that the key powers and abilities of each class will run off one ability score and not two, and I think you have a pretty robust package. Under HD&D you’ll see dwarven swordmages, gnoll paladins and dragonborn clerics.

I think this is for the best. I don’t think that doing this lessens the individuality of any one race, or stops that race from being unique. So what if this particular dwarven warlock has +2 to Charisma? That doesn’t stop the rest of his race being gruff and dour; but it does stop the PC dwarf from being inherently worse that his companions. In any event we are talking about player characters here, they are not just another member of their race: they are exceptional. They might not start out any more powerful than the dwarf next door, but they are unusual. They have have the capacity to grow, and to gain great power and notoriety as they advance in levels.

The HD&D Point Buy

In HD&D everyone starts with a score of 10 in each of their six ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. They then receive a pool of 20 points they can use to increase those scores. The cost of increasing ability scores varies depending on the value of the score:

  • 10: 0
  • 11: +1
  • 12: +2
  • 13: +3
  • 14: +5
  • 15: +7
  • 16: +9

The figures in the table are not cumulative. It costs nine points to raise an attribute from 10 to 16.

If you want to have an attribute lower than 10 you can have one. You can choose to reduce an attribute below 10. For every 2 points you reduce an attribute below 10, you get 1 point back to spend on your ability scores. So if a character with 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10 in his starting scores has 20 points to apply; a character with 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 4 would have 23 points to apply.

No score can be increased above 16 or below 4 during this process. Racial modifiers to ability scores are added afterwards,  so it is still possible to start with an 18. However, you can only start with an 18 in an ability score where you also receive a racial modifier.

The maths behind the fourth edition point buy is still at the heart of this system. The default 4e ability score array of 16, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10 is still possible with this arrangement. However, I hope that my method offers a greater flexibility. It is possible to have two 16s (and therefore potentially two 18s) without creating a character who is ridiculously bad at anything. An array of 16, 16, 11, 11, 10, 10 for example. However, a character with three 16s would be very unlikely. The array 16, 16, 16, 6, 6, 4 would probably be too much for many people to stomach.

Because the maximum stat you can obtian through the point buy is 16, this stops the 4e situation where a player does his utmost to give his character an ability score of 20 at first level. I really don’t want starting PCs to have stats that high if I can avoid it. Also because defences will be calculated using the third edition rubriks (i.e. only one ability score ever modifies any one defence) it becomes far harder to hide poor stats. If the swashbuckler feels he has no choice but to put his “4” in Wisdom, you can be sure that decision is going to come back and bite him at some point in the future.

Anyway – I’m pretty convinced that this will work. It balances the need to give all player characters an equal footing in their ability scores, with the diversity I require from the system. The mechanic of lowering an ability by 2 to increase another ability by 1, is an old chestnut from character generation in second edition. It’s nice to see it back.


10 thoughts on “HD&D Update: Ability Scores

  1. Hey Neil

    This all sounds fine by me and I am also a point buy convert. Also I still use the 2 for 1 swapping from 2nd edition to this day, so I am very much in favour.

    However, given the route you are going down, can I insist on the half-elf having +2 to any two ability scores rather than the +2 to charisma. The lack of any specific enhanced ability stat would be consistent with every version of the game other than fourth edition.

  2. Hi Steve, thanks for your support! None of the racial bonuses to ability modifiers are set in stone at this stage. There’s certainly an argument that the dragonborn should get the prescribed bonus to Cha and not Str, or that the genasi should get it to Str or Con rather than Int.

    I do remember the discussion between you, Daniel and myself regarding the suitability of Cha as the governing ability score for the half-elf. I think it fits them as well as anything, which is not to say +2 to any two attributes (like a human) is not a reasonable alternative. However, I’m slightly reluctant to pull that benefit out of the bag too often, as I feel it diminishes humans slightly every time that I do.

    Anyway – no need to worry about that just now. I’ll bear it in mind for the final version of the first edition of HD&D.

  3. Does the +2 in any other stat have to be a different stat? Could a dragonborn with +2 strength then spend their next +2 on strength as well?

  4. I think it would have to be a different stat, otherwise you’d be in danger of creating wonky characters from the get-go. I’d prefer to avoid that.

  5. I’m happy with this as a basis for testing. It certainly seems balanced in terms of game-play. I just hope the lack of a random aspect doesn’t make for bland, identikit characters.

  6. I think what it will probably mean is that every player character (regardless of race) will have an 18 in the prime requisite stat for their class. All clerics will have Wis 18, all wizards Int 18 and so on. Which is probably fine, because that’s what HD&D’s underlying maths assumes they have.

    Of course, not all players will want to build their characters that way, and that’s fine too. HD&D is more forgiving than either third edition or fourth edition on characters with low stats (I hope).

  7. Humans in fourth edition has only one +2… so, it shouldn’t continue that way?

    Honestly I like more the two +2 to ability scores, but I don’t know if that is too unbalancing…

  8. I’m in two minds as to whether giving humans +2 to any two stats would unbalance 4e. On the one hand, it’s a big advantage: humans would be the optimum choice of race for every single class. But on the other hand, they do seem underpowered at the moment: only getting +2 to one ability score really hurts them compared to the other races.

    To be honest, the impact probably varies depending on the gaming group, the other characters in the party and the player controlling the human.

  9. I agree. When I used to play D&D 3 – 3.5. My choice was always humans, but in the fourth edition it’s hard to pick them up over another race with an encounter power and an extra ability score. Nevertheless an extra feat, extra at-will power and extra skill it’s not THAT bad. The problem that I find is that at the first levels the extra feat it’s not a big thing either (I think, I haven’t play that much).

    BTW, Don’t you think the half-elves are a really bad choice? Maybe would help give them +2 in two ability scores too, as with humans.

  10. I haven’t played much 4e either. I’ve played enough to realise than an extra feat is not the same advantage it was in third edition. From a purely mechanic perspective, humans wouldn’t be my first choice, whereas in third edition I needed a good reason not to play a human.

    Half-elves in my HD&D proto-system (above) do get +2 to two stats. Charisma and something else – or maybe a free pick like humans, depending on where the rules go from here. In 4e they get +2 to Con and Cha which, while making them ideal warlocks doesn’t really suit them for any other class.

    4e half-elves are designed to be great multi-classers, and I think the rules reflect that adequately. A half-elf bard really is a jack-of-all-trades, although the concept suffers from a mechanical perspective as half-elves don’t have a bonus to their intelligence.

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