Monday, August 27, 2018

Improving Ability Scores

Illustration: Caravan Studio ©2013 Wizard of the Coast LLC.
Someone asked recently on a D&D BECMI chat group about house rules. I mentioned I was thinking of improving ability scores during the life of a character. Ideally, I wanted to see an increase in the cost of bumping up a score reflecting not only the character’s experience level, but also how high the score was at the time.

Before addressing that goal, I also felt it was necessary to have another look at how to generate initial ability scores. Everyone has their own method. Perhaps one of the most common house rules involves rolling 4d6 per stat, keeping the best three, and reassigning the six scores as desired. Basic 3d6 rolls amount to 10.5 averages, a bit higher with the 4d6-keep-three routine (it’s all very dicey). For my method, I settled on 11, or 66 points for all six stats combined. From this point forward, players can assign these 66 points entirely as they see fit. This allows one really high ability score at the expense of one or two others well below average. Overall, it makes for rather average (read: “blah”) characters from many players’ points of view. This isn’t necessarily bad, at least in a roleplaying sense—I’ll get back to this later. On the other hand:
  • 1. All players start with the same potential
  • 2. These abilities can be improved later on

 “What? I don’t have everything 13+ with at least two 18s? Oh, man!”

The concept is that players could trade off some of their characters’ accumulated XPs in exchange for boosting an ability score. This trade-off is fine so long as it doesn’t bump a character to a lower experience level than the one already attained (I doubt anyone will disagree with this.) The cost in XPs is listed as a percentage of accumulated XPs, listed in the chart below.

“If you suck at maths, don’t worry, there’s another solution.”

Levels
Ability Scores: Relative XP Costs
3-5
6-8
9-11
12-14
15-17
2-3
8%
10%
13%
16%
20%
4-5
6%
8%
11%
14%
18%
6-7
4%
6%
9%
12%
16%
8+
2%
4%
7%
10%
14%

For example: You have a 2nd level fighter currently with 2,500 XPs; you wish to bump the Strength ability from 17 to 18, it’ll cost 20% of the fighter’s accumulated XPs. This would cost 500 XPs, leaving the character with 2,000 XPs. Yay! Increase your Strength bonus right away, you little rascal!

The Simpler Approach: There is a reason why I mentioned a simpler system. First off, you might have noticed the lack of a 1st level row in the earlier chart. Second, I do question whether it might be harder for a wizard to get smarter vs. a fighter getting beefier vs. a cleric getting shrewder vs. a thief getting sprightlier vs. an elf getting… whatever. You get my drift, right? I think it should all be equal, to be honest. This brings us to the next chart, which gives flat XP costs for everyone across the board. To avoid abuses, only one stat can be improved by one increment at each experience level. Otherwise, I can see clever fellows “dumping” 1,500 XP at 1st level, and boosting a bunch of stats overnight. There’s no logical reason for this. It also guarantees that no 36th level character could possibly claim “Yahtzee 18s!”

Levels
Ability Scores: Actual XP Costs
3-5
6-8
9-11
12-14
15-17
1
60
75
98
120
150
2
120
150
195
240
300
3
240
300
390
480
600
4
360
480
660
840
1,080
5
720
960
1,320
1,680
2,160
6
1,000
1,500
2,250
3,000
4,000
7
2,000
3,000
4,500
6,000
8,000
8
3,000
4,000
7,000
10,000
14,000
9
4,000
8,000
14,000
20,000
28,000
10+
6,000
12,000
21,000
30,000
42,000

This table essentially uses the percentages listed earlier, applied to the cleric’s experience table. The totals can be used directly, without bothering with the math, giving all character classes the same costs. DMs are free to tinker with these numbers—that’s not the issue here. The above is just a suggestion. Playtest should help determine the best combination. 

Higher? Lower? You tell me.

“Boo, hiss! There’s no cost for pushing stats above 18!”

I’m not necessarily against this idea, but it’s gonna cost ya! Getting stats within the range of epic heroes, monsters, deities, or immortals (as your game world goes), just isn’t the same as dealing with what belongs in the realm of puny mortals. Yet, where there’s a will, there’s a way. First off, I would not allow this until 8th level is reached. Second, this can only be done every 5 experience levels, therefore at levels 8, 13, 18, 23, 28, and 33. Third, charge 84,000 XP for each improvement. Fourth, no mortal score exceeds 19 because the cost would logically increase enough to bump most characters to their previous experience levels. That’s a no-no. Therefore, anything beyond 19 remains the stuff of supernatural beings. Other means than these simple mechanics are needed to earn such legendary abilities (adventures, quests, artifacts, etc.)

“Hey, my paladin has a crappy Dex with these stupid rules!”

Well, yeah, if you’re using 1st Edition AD&D: your paladin and other demanding specialty classes will have a real challenge. Is there a way to get around this? Sure there is, he says with a wicked grin. For each extra point above the initial 66, permanently add +20% to all the costs listed above, up to and including level 9. In effect, further ability score improvements become more expensive for much of the character’s existence, in exchange for a more illustrious beginning. Rock on!

“This makes the +10% XP bonus for high stats harder to get.”

Of course it does. But as far as I’m concerned, I’d drop that rule anyway. All it does is reward the gifted and punish the others. Why is that? I would think that a more-challenged character ought to be rewarded at least as much as a less-challenged one for the same achievement, perhaps even more. So, as long as prerequisites are respected, you could invert the XP bonus attribution, as follows:

Prime Requisite 12 or less: +10% Experience Bonus
Prime Requisite 13-15: +5% Experience bonus
Prime Requisite 16+: Go Fish!

So, there you have it. With 66 points, your character can now easily get that +10% XP bonus, which in turn helps improve stats more quickly… and then things slow down again. Serves you right, you mooch.