Let’s Stat at the Beginning, Part One

20230118_113939Back in the Before Times (2022) I talked about taking on a little personal project, to approach D&D 5e as if I were doing a developmental edit on a manuscript. Basically, taking the “just house rule it!” advice we’re barraged with on social media whenever a problem with the game is brought up, and going full out. And given the latest business with the OGL I would be lying if I’m not now approaching this project with a certain amount of glee.

There are a number of places in the rules I could start my revamp. In fact, today I was originally going to revisit two previous articles I wrote about keeping the Stats versus ditching the Stats. But I think a better place to start is with the Stats or Ability Scores themselves, and ask some questions.

From the start Dungeons & Dragons as a game had two big influences: wargaming and bioessentialism. Unsurprising when one of the game’s creators, Gary Gygax, was both a wargamer and a bioessentialist. This isn’t a primer so I will leave it to you to go look up terms which might be unfamiliar. Suffice to say, both of these things contributed to the Ability Scores as we know them today, with all the inherit problems therein. Couple that with multi-edition design choices favoring nostalgia over an honest look at whether these abilities are still useful as they are (spoiler, they aren’t), and right from character creation we are saddled with problems.

Because ability scores are the first thing players generate for their characters in most games, those scores set the tone as far as what type of game can be expected. They signal to players what the game considers important; simply put, if it isn’t important a game doesn’t stat it. By asking you to generate a Strength score, for instance, the game signals that raw strength will be important or useful in the game. So let’s look at what 5e considers important:

  • Strength: raw physical prowess
  • Dexterity: agility as well as hand-eye coordination
  • Constitution: physical endurance, mechanically it also affects hit points (a topic for another article)
  • Intelligence: supposed to indicate memory and reasoning ability, but often defaults to a nebulous idea of how “smart” a character is
  • Wisdom: they don’t really talk about what Wisdom is in the game, jumping almost immediately to the skills and other things it affects
  • Charisma: meant to measure force of personality, but in practice often tied to physical beauty and “sexiness”

Before we look at anything else, we can see that based on solely what D&D does as a game, the first three Ability Scores fit. As the game focuses primarily on combat, for instance, it makes sense you would need to know how hard a character can hit (Strength), whether they can avoid a hit or hit at range (Dexterity), and if they are struck, how well they weather that hit (Constitution).

The remaining three Ability Scores are almost specific to particular character types, as opposed to being generally useful in the same way as the first three. Intelligence is of primary use to wizards and other skill-focused characters, but lies flat on the page for anyone else. Similarly, Wisdom is ill-defined except as the province of the religious folk in the game and otherwise doesn’t come into play except to punish physical-type characters. Charisma could be an Ability of use to everyone, and given how hard folks argue that D&D “does emphasize roleplaying, actually!” you might be forgiven for thinking its presence supports this. But I would argue that, when a particular ability is almost universally considered a “dump stat”, you might need to revisit whether it is working as intended.

So basically we have three Ability Scores which are of vital importance to every character, and three which are situationally important but depending on party build, may not be important to everyone, or even anyone. And yet, every character has to generate these scores, useful or not. Seems like a bit of a time waster, huh? Especially when you consider that, having rolled up these numbers, you never use them again. Oh, you use the bonuses they represent, but the Ability Scores themselves are never rolled against or have any effect on gameplay.

So why have them? And if we’re going to keep them, do we need to keep these ones, or are there better ways to start building a character for the game 5e says it is? What type of game does D&D 5e say it is, anyway?

You have probably heard of the Three Pillars of the D&D game: Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat. These three pillars are meant to be the focus of gameplay, and there is an expectation good designers and GMs will incorporate all three in a balanced fashion into their designs. In reality, 5e strongly supports the Combat pillar with the bulk of the ruleset dedicated to how that works, allocating only a fraction of its total page count to the other two pillars. When someone is telling you to “just houserule it!” or “make up something that works at your table!”, it’s almost a guarantee it relates to the Exploration or Social Interaction “pillars”.

But what if we took the game at its word, that these Three Pillars are actually equally important? What Ability Scores would we develop to drive home that importance and balance right from character creation?

Come back next week for Part Two, and we’ll look at some options.

April TTRPG Maker Challenge

I’m taking part in the #AprilTTRPGMaker Challenge this month from @kiranansi. While I’ve been blogging about and editing TTRPGs for a few years, I am just easing a toe in the water of writing and designing my own material. This looked like a good opportunity to talk about that process, as well as solidifying some of my thoughts around making game material. I hope you enjoy, and if you’re taking part I look forward to reading your posts.

#1: Who Am I?

My name is Brent Jans and I’ve been a table top gamer since 1980, when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons at the tender age of ten. Since then I have played many games, more often as the game master than not. About five years ago I started blogging semi-regularly about the hobby as Renaissance Gamer (a play on the term “renaissance man”). About three (four?) years ago I hung out my shingle as a freelance TTRPG editor, mostly trying to provide editing services to other freelance or small press TTRPG writers and publishers who might not otherwise use an editor; you can find links to some of the work I’ve done on my Need an Editor?¬†page.

Here on my blog I talk about whatever gaming-related idea or topic pops into my head, though I do have semi-regular articles on food at the gaming table, campaign inspiration, and inclusivity. I also blog a bunch about local gaming events and stores, because supporting the local gaming community is important to me. My blog posts are also where you’ll find a bunch of my creations/ideas for my home games, posted to share with other gamers. I also post an editorial once a week over at The Rat Hole, an excellent site for both board game and TTRPG reviews (which you should totally check out, hint hint!).

About a year-and-a-half ago I started a D&D 5e campaign (the first time I had played actual D&D in almost ten years), then I started a second one. I created my own campaign world for that, and my players are currently exploring various parts of one of the main areas, Cotterell. I’m excited, because the campaign has me writing new game material on a regular basis, and I’m eyeing some of that for publication. I have wanted to publish for years, but never put my focus into it the way I should have until very recently.

I also recently pulled the trigger on a project I’ve had in my head for many years. The Canadian Library of Roleplaying Games is my project to collect, preserve, and discuss gaming material from the start of the hobby until now. It’s very early days, but my meager collection is growing and a number of folks locally have come on board to help. It’s probably the thing I’m most excited about, moving forward.

And that’s me. If you have questions, feel free to drop them in the comments below. In the meantime I’ll see you tomorrow!