The Nature of Attributes

I’ve been thinking about attributes in D&D for awhile now.  More and more, I’m wondering if they went the wrong way with it.

Let me explain.  On the surface, the idea of it seems reasonable.  A character is defined by two things (three if race is involved): what they are (attributes) and what they do (class).  A player (of the DM if the rules in Original D&D are followed exactly) rolls a set of attributes.  Depending on which version of D&D you play, these have from little effect (the older editions) to such a monumental effect that randomly rolled characters are unplayable effect (newer editions).  Let’s examine what they did and how they were rolled through the ages.

Original D&D, OD&D or LBB (little brown books) had little use for attributes.  They were rolled 3d6 in order and because they had such a little effect on play, no character was unplayable, regardless of how low the attributes were.

They mainly effected how quickly you gained XP if you had a 13+ in your classes main stat (prime requisite).

Charisma, far from being a dump stat like it often was in later editions, was the only attribute with a table of effect, listing how many followers you could have and how loyal they were.  OD&D placed a lot of emphasis on followers because adventurers were, rather than heroes, more small unit military leaders with entourages.

Constitution had an odd effect on play:

Constitution 15 or more:   Add +1 to each hit die
Constitution 13 or 14:  Will withstand adversity
Constitution of 9 – 12: 60% to 90% chance of surviving
Constitution 8 or 7: 40% to 50% chance of survival
Constitution 6 or Less: Minus 1 from each hit die*
Dexterity above 12: +1 to missile fire
Dexterity under 9: -1 to missile fire

OK… ‘Will withstand adversity’?  WTF?  60-90% chance of surviving…what?  Surviving what man?  Dying? Resurrection?  Explosions?  Kitty face lickings?

Better have a high Constitution there Mr. Kitty!

The bonus to hit dice is interesting and mirrors the later rule in Advanced D&D that only fighters could get the most out of high con.  Namely, Fighting Men (as Fighters were originally called) had more hitdice than the other classes (you didn’t get one at each level as you do in later versions of the game), so effectively a fighter with a high con and a wizard with the same con get different benefits from it.

Intelligence gave extra languages (and boy did it give a lot of them… +1 per point over 10).

Interestingly, Strength had no effect on the game (as far as I can tell) because the original rules intended you use the Chainmail combat system.  This system would have been incompatible with +1 to hits and damage (like we are used to).  Even though they included the optional d20 combat system, which became the standard, there are no modifiers for strength.

That didn’t come until Greyhawk wherein we see a lot of more familiar attribute tables.  Attribute significance starts ramping up as their impact on the game increases.  This trend will only grow from edition to edition, until in 4th Edition, characters must be built with point buy because all classes have an expected attribute range (and will be useless otherwise).

Greyhawk includes the thief class and the idea that a thief with a high dex should get bonuses to their skills based on that dexterity.  Which only makes since really.  After all, attributes represent what you are capable of, right?

Yet there is an odd rule that states that if a Dwarf is a mixed class Thief/Fighter, they do not get any bonuses from high dexterity.  Whuh?  A further disconnect between what attributes are supposed to represent and what they do based on no clear logic.

The various tables were simplified in Holmes version of Basic Dungeons and Dragons (which was intended as a lead in to Advanced).  This simplicity was kept in Moldvay’s version of Basic and all the later add ons.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons maintained with Greyhawk’s byzantine tables and made it so attributes did not grant bonuses until 15 or higher (usually).  This means that if the original 3d6 bell curve was maintained, characters with beneficial attributes were showing up less then 10% of the time.  So AD&D added many different recommended methods for attribute generation, most of them designed to foster higher than average attributes.  The carrots were made more rare, but the opportunity to get them was increased.  This…doesn’t make sense.  Why bother doing that?  Why make having an 18 so ‘mandatory’ for an ‘effective character’?

2nd edition more or less did the same thing.  3rd edition added the ability for attributes to increase (which was a much welcomed change) but then it made it so the attributes improvement was tied to higher level success thanks to the underlying math of the game.  Characters who did not continually pump their primary attribute fell behind, and by mid to high levels everyone needed stat-boosting items more than they needed armor.

And 4E took this idea to it’s ultimate culmination.  The idea was good: make the game’s math solid at all levels of play so that there was no ‘sweet spot’ where the game worked best but everyone could have fun from beginning to end.  But the math never quite worked out that way, and it ended up making it so that it was very difficult to play characters effectively (or rather, they will underperform for their level).

So, how important should attributes be?  Should we even have them?  In Chainmail and early D&D, character level was everything.  Every character could become ‘amazing’ by virtue of increasing level alone.  You weren’t stuck (really) with a poor set of stats early on, and screwed from that point forward.  Luck didn’t play such a huge factor in character capability.  Is that preferable?  Should every high level fighter be a badass, or only the ones that rolled good stats at level 1?  Does it add anything intrinsic to the game to allow attributes to stay in as they are, other than to serve the legacy itch (they were always there so they should always continue to be there)?



2 thoughts on “The Nature of Attributes

  1. whyorick says:

    I think the stats are something that are pressed into the very nature of gaming.
    Even if in early editions they didn’t matter hardly at all.
    In new editions they are trying to hard.
    I switched to pathfinder after going from 4th to 2nd AD&D to 3.5 and finally resting on Pathfinder which I actually enjoy.
    The stats are just building blocks for a person in a world other than your own.
    I have the problem with having players with an 8 in charisma smooth talking their way through the town gate, while the sorcerer with an 18 charisma is twiddling his thumbs. The scores represent how your character is, and are meant to allow you to do things You, as a player, may not be able to do. Such as someone who doesn’t have a silver tongue to talk his way through a situation. Its just building blocks for someone else.
    I would have to say they were very useless in early editions. No one really took that road to put points in Charisma because there was hardly a point to it all.
    I do think they are getting better at how they do ability scores, and there are other systems that do it very differently.

    • First off, thanks for the comment!
      Yes, I agree, attributes are (probably) hardwired into the game from now on. But certainly, I heard enough chatter in 3rd and 4th ed about removing the legacy 3-18 and just using the modifiers (the only important part). I think how attributes are used have certainly changed. I don’t think that I agree that either 3rd or 4th ed improved (especially not 4th ed where their development in specific paths became mandatory, inhibiting the way you characterized a PC and enshrining a dump stat).

      Further, the leveled nature of newer editions means that there is no reason not to specialize since a specialist will outshine a generalist all the time in every way.

      So that being said, I guess what I’m getting at is do attributes need to exist as they do now? To riff on your example, what those characters needed was a bluff skill or smooth talk or whatever. The attribute is actually unimportant to the resolution of the situation. Maybe the fighter had 20 ranks in diplomacy which more than off-sets their -1 from the 8 in the attribute. And if that is the case, why have the attribute at all when the skill is what is important?

      Now, 3rd and 4th ed specifically discourage dabblers. so only classes with skills as class skills can be effective at higher levels. So if that remains the case going forward, why not roll those thing entirely into leveling?

      Anyway, thanks for the comment and the follow! The comment gave me a bunch to think about.

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