Reflective Revision: Ability Scores, PC Races, PC Classes, and Alignment

As before, I'm using this as an opportunity to discuss some of my design intentions and considerations as I work through proofreading the rulebook of my retroclone. Obligatory link to the main file.

Today, I'll be going through the basic elements of a character (plus alignment).

The ability scores pretty much speak for themselves, as far as which ones I went with. Granted, since I wanted to have compatibility with other old school content (both original and OSR), it would've been a bit weird to rework them, but Dungeon Crawl Classics did so without any major problems, so it was still a choice to be made. The standard six (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) are rather sloppy in terms of both word choice and applicability, and I was tempted to make some changes with them. However, after much thought, I decided to stick with them. On the narrative side, I like the balance of having an even split of physical and mental stats, with one for direct application, one for self-preservation, and one that has a mix of the two. When it comes to actual play, it's so rare for me to have any problems with mapping PC actions to their stats that I feel like changing them would be reinventing the wheel just to be different.

For actually generating the scores, I presented 3 systems that I like to use and 3 systems that give alternatives for people who just can't stand to play the character that fate picks for them instead of one they've come up with for themselves. I reordered the first three into 3d6 in order -> 4d6 in order -> 4d6 arranged to match up with my personal algorithm for which one to use, and I added in those guidelines (parties of 3 or more > parties of 2 > solo PCs). When you're dealing with a small party, having more powerful PCs is a good idea because the small party size will naturally discourage play (and players) from focusing on combat, so the PCs should have better capabilities in other areas to keep from lacking choices. As well, specifically with a solo PC, the player should have more say in what they're playing because that'll provide more motivation to do well (plus solo PC play tends to naturally err on the narrative side, so you want a cool protagonist).

As far as the details of the effects for each stat, most of the special subsystems in 2nd edition actually map pretty well to a 2d6 probability distribution (even though most of them come as d% in the source book), and 2d6 is an easier roll to read than d%, so I went with that. I actually came up with the modifier scale on my own without realizing that it matched up with the modifier scale from B/X (at least for scores of 3-18), but I took that coincidence as a sign that I was on the right track, given how B/X and its descendants (Basic Fantasy RPG, B/X Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess) seem to be the most popular family of rules in the OSR.

Using a "weakest link" system for codifying the influence of stats on saving throws (which is somewhat vague in 2nd edition) is something that I haven't seen done elsewhere. Admittedly, part of that is likely because the OSR seems to love sticking with five saving throw categories instead of three, but I'll get to that later on. For the moment, the important thing is that this generally preserves the saving throw scale for most characters (since the weakest link will generally be either -1 or 0, pending really lucky stat rolls). This allows character level and traits, spells, and items that improve saving throws to be more important than stat rolls, or to say it in other way, it means that the PC's saving throws are mostly dependent on the player's choices and actions, with the main element of luck being the actual 1d20 roll. At the same time, it adds incentives to improve the PC's weaknesses rather than focusing on maximizing their strengths. All told, it's a subtle effect, but it steers players towards having well-rounded PCs with a gentle touch rather than a harsh overcompensation to try penalizing min-maxing (as the six saving throw approach of 5th edition or the cosmetic stats of OD&D do).

I took skill points out of the table for Intelligence and just put in the formula (2+INT mod, min. 1). It tended to confuse players to have a number in the table that wasn't reflected on the prepared character sheet, so I'm hoping this is an improvement.

Moving on to PC races, I went with the same six as in 2nd edition. As Delta talks about in this blog post, the target for the number of choices that feels varied without feeling too complex for most people is 5 to 9 (or 7+/-2). As with ability scores, I was tempted to make changes here (mostly to remove half-elves and maybe also gnomes), but I decided against that. Aside from simply matching with what was available in the source rules, I feel like these six each fit a distinct mechanical niche. Dwarves, gnomes, and halflings form a trifecta of races with shorty saving throw bonuses that naturally lean towards martial, arcane, and support roles, respectively. Humans and half-elves give choices for balanced races without any stat penalties, depending on whether the player favors a stat boost or some extra traits, while elves have a nice and versatile mix of defensive and support traits, along with an offensive trait if they aren't a Priest or Wizard. Now, it helps that they also all have clear narrative roles in my personal campaign setting, but since I'm trying to not impose my setting on people using this book outside of my games, I didn't give much consideration to that side of things. Humans also get a little something extra (+1 to any stat less than 18) to make up for removing race-based class restrictions (discussed below).

Classes are a little more complex with nine total, but that still fits within the general 7+/-2 range, and 2nd edition's use of groups to change the choice from "pick 1 of 9" to "pick 1 of 4, then 1 of 2 or 3" works nicely to make the complexity more manageable, based on my experience with new players. When I take new players through character creation, I find it helpful to have them think explicitly in terms of group before thinking of the specific class, so I wanted to retain that, and I definitely felt like that was a missing element in Swords & Wizardry or OSRIC. Rolling stats in order tends to make a given PC lean towards a certain group already, too, which again helps to keep the complexity manageable while still providing the player with some choice in what to be (not that there's anything wrong with picking a suboptimal class for your stats, of course, but it's a natural inclination, so I like retaining some degree of choice even with that).

Probably my biggest departure from 2nd edition in this area is getting rid of race/class restrictions and level limits. Simply put, those were the vision of a particular person's campaign setting, and I do not feel beholden to them in the least. The fact that TSR kept making NPCs who were exceptions to those rules, adding leniency based on stats/kits, or releasing setting boxed sets with their own versions of those rules is further proof that including them in the source rules was a poor choice, in my opinion. Also, frankly, I've rarely had players advance past level 4, so they didn't come up often enough to be worth the hassle and mental pressure that they cause.

And if that was my biggest departure, my second-biggest departure was getting rid of stat requirements for classes. Again, those were the vision of a particular person's campaign setting. If someone really has their heart set on playing a paladin or druid, telling them to fuck off because they couldn't get a high enough CHA roll is just a dick move. If the GM wants those classes to be rare, they can always make them rare among NPCs (or even choose to bar the player from picking one, which still seems like a dick move, but it's less of a dick move when it's taken off the table from the outset instead of being a tease).

Otherwise, I kept things mostly in line with the source rules, aside from some clean-up around the edges.

Fighters get to specialize in an entire weapon group instead of a single weapon type (a minor buff to help get less screwed by random item generation) and get an elite guard without needing a stronghold (though not having a stronghold by level 9 sounds really odd). Paladins get to make a custom oath of conduct instead of being bound to a prescribed one (see above complaints about a particular person's campaign setting). The source rules are quite vague about the whole warhorse thing, so I went with a modification that always felt sensible to me. Rangers are no longer just wilderness dudes, and their racism is expanded from a specific enemy to a family of enemies (as in 5th edition) to help it be relevant over a wider spread of levels.

Mages and Specialist Wizards are basically unchanged aside from stating my usual rule for their starting spells. The 2nd edition DMG was so wishy-washy about that that it was always a point of contention. My general rule of thumb is to only add rules (as opposed to modifying rules) when the addition brings more value than an ad hoc decision would, and eliminating that contention certainly qualifies by that critereon, in my experience.

Clerics and Druids both got minor overhauls in their spheres of access (like taking plant away from Clerics, who only seemed to have it in order to keep a couple of spells they had back in OD&D, or changing Flame Strike to elemental). I also fiddled with their weapon selection, both by knocking them down to a single weapon training point (instead of 2 weapon proficiency slots) and tweaking their actual selection. Both classes are great spellcasters, so toning down their weapon variety is something I've been doing since the 90s. I'm fine with still allowing them to use powerful base weapon types (e.g. Clerics can use morning stars or mauls, Druids can use halberds and pikes), but they have to commit to either melee/thrown or ranged weapons for their first several levels, not both. Actual traits for Clerics are mostly per usual; the Druid has some marginal adjustments (like clarifying the free languages they get) but no dramatic changes.

That would be the purview of Rogues. Thief skills are gone, replaced by a bunch of free skill training (though only while in leather armor or less for the traditional thief skills). I feel like this strikes a nice balance between giving Rogues a powerful supportive basis that integrates with the general skill system (unlike actual D&D and most similar RPGs) without breaking the general skill system for other classes (as seems to be the case in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, although I haven't actually played with that system to judge it for sure). This was again something that I hadn't seen done elsewhere (specialists in Lamentations or getting more skill choices in 5th edition are the closest I've noticed), and it always seemed like a reasonable approach to me from playing 3rd/5th editions. All PCs are generally competent in dungeoneering; Thieves (and Bards, to a lesser extent) are a lot better at it out of the gate, but they still need to invest in formal training to remove some limits in order to avoid having their specialization render other classes impotent. I also added in a special exception for Thieves to detect magical traps just by a dice roll; it's been too unreliable in playtesting to obviate normal play, but it gives some safety net in a moment of luck. That said, though, I reduced the penalty to the WIS check by 1 per level (to a min. of 0 at level 5), because I think it was proving TOO unreliable. That's also the point where Read Documents becomes somewhat reliable (7+ needed on 2d6 = ~58% chance to work), which lines up well with casters also getting a big power boost at level 5.

Bards mostly got clean-up tweaks and a spellbook clarification. I had them starting with 1d4 spells initially, but inspired by what Lamentations of the Flame Princess does for elves, I changed it to starting with Read Magic only. That seems to strike a better balance between giving them something to start with (unlike the source rules) but not letting them rival what a Wizard can get from the beginning.

Multi-classing and dual-classing are pretty much 100% in line with the source rules. I've always liked them under that system and saw no need for a change.

As for alignment, the source rules (and most others) were awful. While I appreciate that they had a statement about alignment not being a straitjacket, they also contradict that all over the place, from suggesting a NN character would switch sides in the middle of a conflict to keep favoring the underdog to warning against CN or xE PCs to having mechanical penalties for alignment changes. Instead, I presented my personal approach to treating alignment as a useful background element that has little direct impact except for when it interacts with magic. In this way, alignment is neither a restriction on nor an excuse for character behavior, and it's something that can usually be disregarded, but when it does come up, it feels special and meaningful. That approach seemed like common sense to me almost 30 years ago, and it still does.

Anyway, that's all for now. Next time, I'll finish up with the character-focused rules and start getting into the actual rules of play, where I'll probably have more to say about how my presentation and modifications attempts to support particular elements of how I like to run the game.

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