Saturday, February 21, 2015

5e: Making Ability scores useful

One of my current beefs with 5e (alongside other versions of D&D) is that sometimes your ability scores just aren't useful. Sure, in 5e there are now strength, intelligence, and charisma saving throws, but they're pretty rare. There's nary a benefit for a barbarian with high charisma or intelligence. A few class options try to give a bonus for these scores (Fighter and Thief have spellcasting options), but ultimately its a bit dissatisfying to try to make an intelligent tactician fighter.

First, constitution and dexterity are already probably good and don't need a boost. Constitution already affects your hit points, concentration (for spellcasters), and a number of other saves. Dexterity already affects your initiative and AC. Likewise, it probably doesn't need a boost. Alongside constitution, I've never really seen an optimization guide for 5e that suggests dumping either dex or con. These are so good you never want a penalty.

Wisdom affects a good number of saves as well, and they're powerful ones. I'm not 100% sure this needs much of a boost either, but perhaps a minor boost wouldn't be bad. The appropriate boost is tools and modern languages. Tools and languages represent your livlihood and that seems right up the alley of a wisdom-based character, though the DM or group should get veto-power here. These aren't ancient languages that you studied at school: they are modern languages you picked up because they were useful to you, or another professional tool because it was a way to earn a living or even just as entertainment (i.e. a musical instrument). Its a relatively minor boost, though I'm not sure if it does much to help a barbarian who takes wisdom.

Strength affects your carrying capacity and some ability to wear the heaviest of armors. I think if 5e used a stone-based encumbrance system and people actually tracked equipment, that would come into play. I'm thinking of simply writing any object of merit (i.e. 1+ stone) on an index card. If an item weighs two or more stone, just staple a couple cards together.  The idea is to use a real-world unit of weight (or approximate) so you're tracking encumbrance in meaningful and small units. So maybe strength doesn't need a boost if it is actually used for tracking carrying capacity.

Finally we come to the weak stats: intelligence and charisma. There's two pretty easy fixes here.

For intelligence, back in the day it gave you additional languages or proficiencies or skills. Additional skills would be too much. But additional languages or tool proficiencies actually doesn't quite seem like enough (also, I've very tempted to let those fall under wisdom, see above.). What I'm considering is lore specialties for intelligence.  What's a lore specialty? back in one of the playtest packets, characters only had lores, not skills. So a lore would be something like a very specialized sub-skill of the player's choice, which counts as an expertise skill (i.e. double proficiency bonus). For fighters, they might select a lore like Heraldry, History of their Noble House, Engineering, or Tactics. Wizards might have a lore for Abjuration spells, Devils of the Nine Hells, or Beholder knowledge. An urchin might have a lore like: Streets of Waterdeep or the like. The idea is these are super specialized skills based on knowledge. They're much more specialized than History or Arcana, so if your lore applies then you get the double bonus. DMs should feel free to say a lore doesn't apply: often they might not. But the lore would represent a specific bonus over a trained skill (you can even know a lot about your family lineage without knowing much about events your ancestors didn't take part in, i.e. History). I imagine one lore per point of intelligence modifer would be appropriate, and at least make a tactical fighter a slightly more viable character. I'd even consider giving advantage for characters with the right lore on other situations (or maybe just claiming an inspiration so as to not be constantly handing out advantage).

For charisma, back in the day you got hirelings and henchmen. Its a simple thing to let your hirelings gain a bonus to moral checks based on your charisma modifier, but that's not going to come into play without moral checks or hirelings. But these are reasonable, so why not let each point of your charisma modifier at least grant you some sort of contacts, allies, or henchmen? Henchmen would obviously be the best as they might accompany you to a dungeon and at least guard the horses while you're inside. I'm tempted to say one henchmen is as useful as two allies (loyal but might ask for a favor occasionally) or four contacts (also loyal, but mostly good for info rather than tasks).

The one odd thing about these changes is that warlocks and sorcerers would automatically be good at leading troops into battle. That just might be a quirk of the system: charisma has been somewhat redefined over the years.

There's another issue here, that you can have a negative modifier. The symmetrical math of third edition and later rather assumes heroic characters and that your lowest ability score might be an 8. You could assign appropriate penalties as well: some sort of anti-lore for intelligence or a penalty to others' followers for charisma (they really don't like their leader keeping that cad around!). The issue with this is that the basic spread of abilities (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8) also assumes you'll have one low ability. I like that assumption, but if the penalty is too great you're really hampering your group. I'm sure the low penalty for intelligence and charisma is why so many optimization guides consistently recommend that you can take that 8 in one or both of these stats. I think the negative correlate of henchmen are rivals or enemies. The negative correlate of a tool or language can be the loss of a tool/language. In the core rules, background gives you two of those, so you could lose out on one or both if your wisdom is dangerously low. I'm not sure about an anti-lore though. I guess its likely to be incorrect knowledge.

To sum up, the changes I'd propose here are:
1) Use a stone-based encumbrance system to make a low strength meaningful.
2) Each point of intelligence modifier gives the character a lore.
3) Each point of wisdom modifier gives the character a background-related language or tool.
4) Each point of charisma modifier gives a henchman, two allies, or four contacts.

The negatives still could be worked out. A couple alternatives I was thinking of though are more GUMSHOE style, where int or cha mods could just be spent each level for autosuccesses on a roll of some sort. Maybe not that glamourous, but it'd get you what you need in a different way. Much more story/indie game though.

In an old school game, I like the idea in Swords and Wizardry that wisdom can give you an XP bonus, and the additional proficiencies/languages of 2nd edition seems to make intelligence more worthwhile. Then again,  ability scores mean less in TSR D&D than the new era. Just seems like intelligence and charisma are a bit lacking in the new stuff.

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