Ability Scores, Skill Checks, and Alignment in Classic D&D

This is part of my ongoing series dissecting early Dungeons & Dragons, and building the retroclone Dungeon Raiders out of it.

'ShuttaFly' by aarika on Flickr
'ShuttaFly' by aarika on Flickr

Ability Scores

Far be it from me to throw out the six classic ability scores. But what use do they have? When did you last have to use your ability score in D&D?

Original D&D uses one lookup table, with effects on the character depending on each ability score. Each class has a prime attribute: strength for fighters, intelligence for magic-users, and wisdom for clerics. A higher prime attribute improves your XP gained, while a low one penalizes your XP. Or, strength can be used by clerics at 1/3 its value, intelligence by fighters and clerics at 1/2 its value, and wisdom by fighters at 1/3 its value or magic-users at 1/2 its value.

See what I meant by “strange simulationism” in my first article on early D&D?

First Edition D&D expanded this lookup table even further, into one table listing the adjustments to XP made depending on the prime attribute, and another for each ability score’s effect on the player.

Otherwise, ability scores were not used directly in either system. Great.

How can we simplify this, and provide a use for ability scores?

Let’s look at the numbers. If we use the traditional method of rolling up ability scores–rolling 3d6–we have scores from 3 to 18. This is usefully less than 20, but never exactly 20 or 1. Jumping forward in our design a bit to skills, we notice that there are no skills in Original D&D or First Edition. We could use some equivalent.

What if we combined the ability score with skill checks? So, if a player is attempting a strength-based check, like lifting a portcullis, she would roll a 1d20 and compare it to her character’s strength score. We want high ability scores to be good, so the character succeeds if the roll is less than or equal to the appropriate ability score.

Boom! Now what about those tables of effects? Well, I don’t think they’re useful. Players are very good at working the system to have a high prime attribute, and construct a character to minimize the impact of the lower scores. They also add quite a bit of extra situational math, so we’ll ignore them.

When an adventurer is faced with a truly difficult action, such as leaping bravely across a chasm as opposed to merely strolling across a bridge, choose the adventurer’s appropriate ability score and roll 1d20. If the roll is less than or equal to the chosen ability score, or a 20 is rolled, the character succeeds. If not, the character fails.

The preceding roll is called an ability check. If the adventurer must attempt a particularly challenging action, the GM may add a penalty, typically -2 or -4.

Saving Throws

What about saving throws? For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say that everyone rolls 1d20, trying to roll less than or equal to 10. Rogues get a +2, for a target of 12.

How about saving throws against other effects? This quickly gets hairy, so we’ll make it optional: certain effects include anywhere from -2 to +2 on the saving throw. We’ll also give certain classes bonuses: fighters get -1, while wizards get +1. All optional, though.

Optional: To increase realism (such as it is), add or subtract the following amounts from the difficulty target of 10:

Class of Adventurer Rolling Saving Throw:?

  • Fighters: -1
  • Clerics: 0 (no difference)
  • Wizards: +1
  • Rogues: +2 (their natural rogue ability)

Attack type:

  • Rays: +2
  • Wands and staves: +1
  • Paralysis: 0 (no difference)
  • Dragon breath: -1
  • Spells: -2


Now. Alignment. Boy, has this been a controversial topic lately!

Let’s return to the sources. OD&D has no alignment; Basic 1E has only lawful, chaotic, or neutral, and AD&D offers all nine classic alignments. Which approach is “best?”

If we’re going to use any of the alignments, we’ll need to define our terms. “Chaotic” vs. “lawful” characters are pretty easy to understand, but what about “good” or “evil?”

I’ve come up with an approach that I think is more helpful within the game: “good” and “evil” are more accurately “selfless” and “selfish.” A “good” character will naturally help others at his expense, while an “evil” character will naturally look out for his own interests at others’ expense.

This is not a good general definition of good and evil. It’s an approach for alignment in RPGs, which allows different characters to work together.

With that, I feel okay with placing all nine alignments in Dungeon Raiders.


3 thoughts on “Ability Scores, Skill Checks, and Alignment in Classic D&D

Add yours

  1. the old DnD alignments are pretty awesome… but it almost takes a degree in ethics/ philosophy to understand how to actually use them… Almost no one I have talked with truly understand them.

    law = an ordered way of doing things, believing, trusting and relying on created (by people) and understood systems
    chaos = an un-ordered way of doing things; believing, trusting, and relying that created systems are ineffective… hence things work out on their own…

    neither term best describes what it means…
    example: if a good character has the choice to save the life of a king or peasant this is what would happen:
    – lawful: would save the king 95% of the time, believing a hierarchy or man made order is the best solution
    – neutral: would save whoever can do the most good, the ultimate goal is to be as good as possible based on the situation
    – chaotic: would save the peasant 95% of the time as they distrust order and feels that it actually hurts people

    good and evil is nebulous as there have been “good” based character classes in DnD that get bonus to torture evil… WTF? um whoever wrote that clearly didn’t understand the system…


  2. One of my favorite uses for “ability scores” in any role-playing game is simply the ability to envision and compare relative proficiency in that field. I know it sounds simple, but having a well-understood and fleshed out ability score system with easily relate-able benchmarks helps me teach new gamers the system much easier. Once they understand that a “10” Strength is average, “18” is Heroic, and everything else is Olympic or higher, it creates an analogue for them to understand how all statistics interact and what they represent.


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