Appraising ADVANCED D&D - Part 1 (Ability Scores)

It's time. A detailed and opinionated appraisal of the best, or possible second best, version of Dungeons & Dragons ever made. I mean of course Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition.

There are many things to love about the Classic D&D line (B/X, BECMI, Cyclopedia). Its streamlined, narrow and intuitive numbers. Its focused presentation. The way it knows, better than any other version of D&D, what it wants to be and then just executes that vision. Its superb chassis that makes it as good for running as-is, as it does for extensive houseruling.

It is thus perhaps a tad ironic that many of the things there are to love about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are diametrically opposed to the reasons for loving Classic D&D. Extolling the virtues of Classic D&D often end up as an implicit critique of AD&D. And many of the reasons for playing AD&D are a stark rejection of the virtues of Classic D&D.

Nonetheless, I want to be understood here. When I am writing a series like this, essentially a nostalgic lovehate letter to AD&D (2nd edition of course, accept no lesser substitutes), though I must implicitly (and sometimes explicitly, to get the point across) shit a bit on Classic D&D, it in no way reflects my love for the Classic line. It simply means I am appreciating each game from different vantage points. What I love on Tuesday may not be what I love on Wednesday. I contain multitudes, etc.

This is part I of several entries, because I got no further than adulating and grousing on ability scores before realising this was already getting a bit long. With that said, let's dig in.

A, D and DEEEEEEEEE. Let's go!

I have already presented the philosophical case for why AD&D deserves to exist in a previous blog entry. Streamlined and simple (dare I say, simplistic?) mechanics does not necessarily equate to better mechanics. And there is one thing I want to re-state from that article to frame a proper appreciation of AD&D: 

Modern games, I posit, suffer from a tyranny of number harmonies and easy calculation. Everything must be transparent, easy to calculate and preferably limited to a few basic methods the recur throughout the whole gaming engine. 
But does the game actually play better when STR gives the same bonus to hit as it does to damage? Or CON an equivalent bonus to hit points? Does it yield the desired results at the actual game table or simply look pleasing in the rulebook and easy to memorise?  Harmonies do not necessarily equal better game play.

So this brings me to the first thing to love about AD&D (and the first thing to reject from a Classic D&D perspective as it slows down chargen and adds too much to the character sheet): Them ability score tables.

Yes, I am talking System Shock, Spell Failure and Bending Bars with Percentile Strength. Mostly with no easy-to-memorise way to derive those numbers from your rolled score. No AD&D chargen can be done without consulting tables for every ability score. What fun! (on Tuesdays I mean that, on Wednesdays I am being sarcastic).

It's 2nd edition, boys and girls, so you know the art will be somewhere on the spectrum between quaint and ren-faire.

We start with STR, as it is perhaps the most interesting stat, with has no less than six derived stat columns. Also, you know, it is the first listed score in the book.

Hit and damage bonuses are not synchronised, which I find pleasing today. Why should they be? Fie on your numerical harmonics tyranny! Away, streamlining despots! I successfully roll to Turn Symmetry and serenely contemplate delectable scenarios of the rich playtesting that must have shown Gygax and co. that hit and damage bonuses are not equivalent in value or scale, if you want the game to play well.

What stands out here is that only at STR 16 do you even get a paltry +1 to damage. And STR 18 only gives +1 to hit and +2 to damage. Worlds away from the +3 of Classic D&D (where +1 to hit and damage starts at STR 13) and the +4 to hit and damage of later editions. For most fighters, STR is relevant to encumbrance and armour and little else.

Weight Allowance, aka encumbrance limit, is par for the course for this kind of game,  before we get a bit funky. 
"Max press", aka the heaviest weight a person can lift over his head. It is perhaps not wholly esoteric, but is it relevant enough for gameplay that we needed a different column that couldn't be derived from Weight Allowance somehow? An extravagance, I'd say, that I am not sure is needed on the character sheet, especially as it doesn't even appear in 1e AD&D. 

Neither column, of course, betray any hint of there being a formula to calculate these based on the ability score. The table is the rule and so we know that those numbers are slaved to playability rather than transparency. Uncle Anders heartily approves.

Next, Open Doors. This is a d20 roll but a dissimilar number to the actual ability score (lol).
I dug into the math a little and found that from 1-15, the numbers are exactly the same as rolling against one's ability score with disadvantage (rounded up from the highest score when they are grouped).
Which is essentially the same probability as the old 2in6+STR modifier roll to open doors in B/X.
I find that all kinds of interesting. I doubt that Cook had done the math on that, yet his intuitive impressions of how difficult it should be to open a door ended up with nearly the same probabilities in both games. From 16-18 however, the AD&D table diverges from the disadvantage roll (which also begins to flatten out) to give exceptional strength a somewhat better chance here.

Lastly Bend Bars/Lift Gates. I really like this column. It's a "Truly Exceptional Feats of Strength" column. A percentile value that gives ordinary people close to no chance of accomplishing these, but a STR 16 character has a 10% shot and STR 18 16% (STR 18/100, basically ogre strength, a massive 40% chance).
I love that the game accounts for such attempts. The percentiles given seem intuitively sound and a much simpler and better way of resolving these than trying to figure out how punishing the modifiers should be on a regular STR roll to accomplish such feats.
And just having that on the sheet informs the players that this is the kind of game where it can be attempted, even if the chance of success is vanishingly low for most people. It sets a baseline.
This is where Advanced D&D shines. Classic D&D simply won't go to such fine level of resolution and later editions won't dare deviate from their streamlined sacred cows. And so they miss out on opportunities for such excellent mechanics. 

Nailing that Open Doors check.

Lastly, let us spare a thought for percentile strength. I want to like it and keep looking for ways it might have been a good thing. But at the end of the day, giving the fighter class a boost by letting 0.46% of all characters (the probability of rolling 18 on 3d6) have a chance to roll that percentile die (should they choose a warrior class) just isn't the way to do it. One of those "why did it have to be this way" moments.

I recommend this houserule: re-numbering the existing table to 30 and giving all fighters a percentile Strength roll (basically a 50% chance of +1 to STR, 25% chance of +2, 15% chance of +3, 9% chance of +4 and 1% chance of +5 to STR). This gives fighters the boost they deserve and preserves the fun quirkiness of percentile strength rolls. 

She rolled 14 for Strength, picked fighter and then rolled 55 for percentile strength to secure a sweet +1/+1 to hit and damage.

DEX is a quick one to cover. Modifies chance of surprise, missile attacks and AC. Again, if you aren't DEX 15+, don't bother looking for bonuses here. They are a bit more generous than for STR, Notably AC (the most useful) where DEX18 gives a whopping 4 point bonus.
It also grants bonuses to thief skills, but we'll get into that in the class appraisal.

CON likewise, only gives hit point bonuses from 15 upwards. And here something I wished they did something similar for STR. The +3 and +4 bonuses you get from CON 17 and 18 only applies to warriors. Everyone else are capped at the +2 bonus.

System Shock, a percentage to survive magical effects like magical petrification, polymorph and ageing (can also be used to check for staying conscious in especially difficult situations). I am kinda ambivalent about it, to be honest.
I understand it is there to curtail polymorph and haste spamming on PCs (lord knows later editions could benefit from such constraints), but I find it to be a bit of a gotcha mechanic for its primary purpose (you've just been turned into a toad, now also roll to see if you survived that). The percentages are fairly generous, but nonetheless, I feel like it would serve better as a strictly "stay conscious" roll than "don't die" roll. And then it makes sense to also use for situations like staying conscious in case of negative HP (every round), or a massive damage attack.

Then there's the Resurrection Survival Roll, which puts a bit of excitement into those Raise Dead attempts. I wholly approve, although I do think it could easily have been folded into the system shock stat. 

You'll want to check your Resurrection Survival chance in a moment, bub.

INT - The wizard's stat (+languages). Can be neatly summed up as: The higher the score, the less gimped your wizard is, in terms of how many spells can be learned, how high spell level can be cast and chance of failing to learn a new spell.

I don't like it and wish they had gone a similar route to WIS for clerics, which gives a chance of bonus spells rather than capping your existing capacity, a saving throw bonus and spell failure for those who only have average stats. the WIS interaction with spellcasting also gives a kind of world building flavor I think works well for wizards.
As is, wizards are the only class who can look forward to being thoroughly gimped by a non-maxed out stat at higher levels. Fail.

Moving on to CHA, the strategic player's favourite stat. Those regular CHA10 joes may be limited to 4 henchmen, but my charisma 18 Paladin hides behind a small army of 15 devoted henchmen with a massive +8 loyalty bonus (granting an unassailable base morale of 20).
And he enjoys a +7 reaction modifier, giving an 80% chance of friendly encounters and never worse than uncertain/cautious. He probably just walks through most dungeons unarmed. High Charisma in AD&D is wild, y'all.
Side note: 1e, in a weak move, decided to use percentile dice for morale and reaction rolls. 2e thankfully restores the bell curve a bit by going to 2d10, even though the reaction table in 2e is goddamnawful. 

Time to contemplate what we have learned

Overall, AD&D is more stingy with bonuses from high ability scores than classic D&D, though this is perhaps compensated by overall stronger classes.

In 1e AD&D this is actually equalised by the difference in recommended score generation. A player rolling 3d6 in classic D&D will have lower ability scores than someone rolling 4d6 and dropping lowest (Method I in 1e AD&D), but since bonuses also come online at lower scores, they will have more or less the same bonuses from the same methods. 2nd edition recommends 3d6 in order as the base method and thus becomes a game where ability score modifiers influence play a lot less.   

Overall, I enjoy the ability scores and their derived stats in AD&D. There is little lost in needing to look up those tables during chargen, once it is on the character sheet it isn't complex. And most of the sub-systems are worthwhile variations from the d20 roll that add a richness to the game. 

And I do appreciate that the numbers are almost all based on how they work out in play, with little care for symmetry or strict mathematical correlation to the ability scores they are derived from. There is an aesthetic in those numbers to appreciate that tells us something about what these numbers mean in gameplay that we cannot learn from systems that tie themselves to symmetries and computational ease before considering what that means for gameplay.

What I miss is my 13-15 scores making a difference, as they do in Classic D&D. I don't mind the ceiling on bonuses, but it is perhaps a tad too stingy with when those bonuses kick in. Oh well.

That's all for this week, folks. Next up, Races. Maybe even classes.


  1. It might be worth pointing out in AD&D1 Gary also included this bit, which can help offset the higher score requirement to gain a bonus:
    "Furthermore, it is usually essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating of 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics. "

  2. The B/X line being called "Classic" is so weird to me, given it began with Moldvay's version in 1981, years after OD&D, Holmes, and AD&D. In any case - the point about numerical harmonics being nonsense is correct. There are really two hobbies. The "readers" who don't play games, and the players whose games are constantly improving/evolving to meet the needs of actual play.

    Strength is an odd one. Exceptional strength was added to improve fighters relative to magic-users, but there's no guarantee you'll actually have exceptional strength. I'm left to wonder if it was fully intended for you to simply "cheat" or that rolling until you get an appropriate character array would not have been considered cheating at all. Random stat arrays, a pox!

  3. You wrote:
    "I... contemplate delectable scenarios of the rich playtesting that must have shown Gygax and co. that hit and damage bonuses are not equivalent in value or scale, if you want the game to play well."
    Are there any sources you're aware of that talk about why Gygax and co chose to decouple to-hit and damage bonuses for AD&D?


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