Thursday, June 30, 2016

Choice of Class: Enforce or Encourage?

For as long as I can remember, I've been a fan of "minimum ability score"-type requirements for classes. See, for example, my "addendum" at the bottom of this post or, more recently, these posts.

It just made sense to me that fighters should have (at least) average strength and that wizards should have (at least) average intelligence. In case of the wizard, I still think it makes perfect sense even from an "in game" perspective: Why would that archmage waste his or her time training a moron? In case of the fighter, well, maybe strength is not so important: After all, one purpose of having many soldiers (whether weak or strong) on the field is just so that more can die before whatever lord commands them actually loses a battle. (The term "cannon fodder" exists for a reason.)

But more importantly, I just couldn't see why anyone would want to play a weak fighter or a dumb wizard. So the idea of using "minimum scores" to control what classes a player can pick seemed perfectly alright, even if it meant that there would be a small percentage of characters who can't qualify for any class at all: Just re-roll those, problem solved.

However, it recently dawned on me that I don't speak for everybody. (Shocker!) What if there is a player who does enjoy that weak fighter? Maybe that fighter, while physically not "up to snuff" as it were (low strength), is a master strategist and leader (high intelligence and charisma)? True, the player could choose a wizard instead, but that would make for a very different type of leader, maybe not what they were going for.

(Things get worse if you allow players to multi-class. Now the ability scores would have to be good enough for two classes, something that's not particularly likely with 3d6 even if the minimum requirements are low-ish.)

Instead of enforcing the set of classes that a given character can choose from, it may be preferable to encourage certain choices (and to discourage others of course). The "good news" is that we already have a mechanic that does just that, and it has existed in all relevant versions of D&D since 1974: Experience point adjustments for prime requisites. Here's what the B/X rules say:

The ability most important to a class is called the prime requisite for that class. The higher the prime requisite score, the more successful that character will be in that class.
Basic Rulebook, Page B6

The details are not horribly important, and you probably know them anyway, so let's just summarize that the score in a prime requisite results in a bonus (or penalty) of up to +10% (or -20%) on the experience points earned by the character. Now I should first point out that I used to hate these adjustments. The math is not too horribly bad, but we're still left with a bag of questions:

  • Exactly what ability score counts for the experience adjustment? The initial score when the character was created? The current score which might be adjusted by a magic item or a curse?
  • Does a change in a prime requisite ability score retroactively affect the current experience point total? If so, raw experience points and bonus experience points should be tracked separately.
  • What is the "in game" justification for the bonus (or penalty) on experience points? The D&D experience system is already on pretty weak grounds (exactly how does getting richer make someone better at picking locks again?) and it seems these adjustments make even less sense in that light.

Note, however, that minimum ability score requirements actually raise many of the same questions: If you're a fighter with strength 9 but get cursed to have strength 6, are you still a fighter? If you rolled a character with strength 4 but the DM grants you Gauntlets of Ogre Power at character creation, can you pick the fighter class? And what happens when you lose those gauntlets? Also, regardless of whether we consider XP = GP good or bad, that's still the default in old-school D&D, so why worry when the system gets a little more insane? It's already nuts but most people don't really mind.

What I came away with after thinking about this for the past week or so was mildly surprising to me:

After 20+ years of disliking the prime requisite experience adjustment rule, I now think it's a stroke of genius!

It allows the player to make more choices for his or her character, and that's never a bad thing (well, almost never, let's hope newbies will have a supportive DM to cut down the number of choices a little). It encourages certain choices, but it doesn't force anything. In fact, coming up with a background that explains why that dunce with intelligence 6 was able to get training as a wizard actually sounds like a lot of fun.

In my particular house rules, things get even better. Say someone wants to multi-class as a fighter/priest to approximate a paladin-like character. If they have average strength and wisdom, they simply progress on the slower XP table for characters with two classes. If they have excellent strength and wisdom for a +10% bonus on XP each, they actually progress with +20% on that harder/slower table. If they are weak (-10% penalty due to low strength) but pretty wise (+10% bonus due to high wisdom) things cancel out: It's still a viable paladin-like character.

So I am off to rewriting my house rules yet again: No more minimum ability score requirements for classes! (Hmm, should I add some for races now?)