Sunday, November 25, 2018

Greyhawk Dexterity Modifier to Armor Class: Just for the Fighting Man?

Okay, this is going to be a hardcore nerd post. I’m going to indulge into a bit of rules minutiae. I’ve been digging in my OD&D books lately because I plan at some point to do a post comparing the different retro clones and how closely they hew to the source. I’m not interested in finding out which is the most authentic, but rather, I’m curious to note how the small deviations actually affect play at the table. Whether intentional or not, these small mis-readings or diverse interpretations are just as interesting to me as any factual historical account of how particular rules came to be.

In looking at how ability score modifiers changed from the 3LBBs to Greyhawk, I noticed something I had never come across before. I did a little poking around in the old forums and didn’t find anything about it either. It could be that I missed an article or just that no one has ever posted about it because it’s so universally known. I came across a passage that seems to suggest that the Dexterity modifier as it is applied to Armor Class is a benefit exclusively enjoyed by the Fighting Man.

What prompted me to check the Dexterity modifier in Greyhawk in the first place was noting how different the Dexterity modifier table in Iron Falcon was from the parallel table in Swords & Wizardry Core (which is the 3LBBs plus Greyhawk). In S&W Core, the Dexterity modifier is universal to all classes as better by 1 for scores of 13-18, and worse by 1 for scores of 3-8. The Iron Falcon table showed the Dexterity modifier giving a Dex score of 0-14 gives no bonus or penalty, a score of 15 improves AC by 1, a score of 16 by 2, a score of 17 by 3, and a score of 18 by 4. This modifier is applied only to Fighters, with an alternate option to apply it to all classes at the GM’s discretion*.

This wide discrepancy again sent me to my copy of the first supplement. Again, I’m not particularly interested in what Strategic Review article or late-era Gary interview may have influenced Chris Gonnerman or Matt Finch to write their charts as they did. I’m more interested in comparing them to the original to see how the changes might affect the game one way or the other. What I found in Greyhawk was surprising.

It turns out that Iron Falcon’s Dex mod chart replicates what is laid out for Dexterity’s effect on AC. The relevant passage on the middle of page 8 of Greyhawk reads:

“Dexterity affects both the ability of characters to act/react and fire missiles. It is also the prime requisite for thieves. Fighters with a dexterity of greater than 14 can use their unusual manual dexterity to attempt to dodge or parry opponents’ attacks. For every point over 14 they are able to reduce their opponents’ chances of hitting them by 1 (5%).”

The Iron Falcon chart reflects this passage exactly, a bonus of 1-4 for scores of 15-18, and no mention of a penalty to AC for a low Dexterity. What struck me most was that it specifies that the fighter receives this bonus. Now it’s possible that Gary was using “fighter” as common parlance for Player Character combatant – meaning any character of any class. However, “fighter” is used as shorthand for the Fighting Man class all over Greyhawk. There is also a passage earlier on page 4 that seems to reinforce this idea the fighter-only Dexterity mod to AC:

“Fighting Men: Other character-types may engage in hand-to-hand combat, but only true fighting men are able to use their strength and dexterity to utmost advantage in melee.”

When viewed next to the wording of the passage on page 8, it would seem only fighters would be able to use their Dexterity in combat to avoid a blow. Thieves may be the most dexterous, but their class lacks the combat know-how to take advantage of it in close-combat. While I may not want to run my games that way, the intention of the rule seems pretty clear.

What is interesting to me is how Swords & Wizardry (and other simulacra) apply the AC modifier to all classes, as AD&D did in 1978 (PHB), B/X did in 1981, and every edition did thereafter. (Holmes in 1977 is a notable exception as it used the 3LBB rules more closely.) I’ve always played it with all classes getting the AC mod. Everyone I’ve ever known has played it that way. It’s as if everyone missed the exclusivity of this rule, or simply, like me, decided, ‘Nah, I’m not going to do it like that.’ In any case, how that conscious (or not) re-interpretation affects the intent of the rule is pretty huge.

First, applying the Dexterity modifier to AC for all classes makes Dexterity much more important. Many modern players feel that Dexterity is the true God Stat – it’s useful to everyone no matter what your class. Finch, in his WhiteBox rules’ alternate Universal Attribute Bonus rules, gives the -1/+1 modifier option for Dexterity to AC. There is a caution that it maybe should be limited to more swashbuckling campaigns without a lot of armor. There is an implied recognition that having Dex affecting AC makes the stat have a very powerful impact on the game.

Next, by giving this benefit to all classes, it takes something special away from the fighter. If only the fighter gains this benefit it makes this class much more powerful. When paired with the rule that only fighters use Strength bonuses for melee attacks and damage, it truly differentiates this class from the others and makes the cleric not nearly as good at combat (one of these days I’m going to write a post about how the 3LBB cleric is OP). If you use the strict interpretation of the rule (as S&W does with Strength to-hit & damage), that fighters, and only fighters (no paladins or rangers), get this benefit, it makes playing a bog-standard character much more appealing.

It should be noted (as was pointed out to me*) that S&W’s application of Chainmail’s man-to-man parrying rules does give some of that power back to Fighters. However, a parry is an active action taking the place of an attack, which is not as great a boon as a passive AC boost. Still, some of that Fighter “specialness” is preserved. In Delving Deeper, for instance, parrying is a non-exclusive action for any class.

As for how I feel about using this in my own games, I’m pretty sure I won’t. Possibly because my players would revolt. Partly because I grew up playing the game with AC being affected by Dex for all classes and it’s what I’m used to. More than that though, is the affect it would have on my game. Magic-users would be even more fragile than they are. Thieves would be less-likely to engage in combat, more likely to be played strictly as scouts, lock-picks, and trap-removers. People would want to play clerics even less. Then there’s thinking about how it would make a party of bandits (or other fighter humanoids) more powerful adversaries.

It has been said that Gary never understood why anyone would ever want to play anything other than a fighter, a Conan-like superhero. Given this rules interpretation, I can see how that makes sense.

CORRECTION: I updated this post because I made some incorrect statements about how Iron Falcon and Swords & Wizardry Core handle these rules. Just like Greyhawk, I glossed over the finer details. Both Gonnerman and Finch note that their work differs in parts (intentionally so) from the original game so shame on me for not careful reading. On the other hand, what’s an RPG post without a little errata?


  1. Really interesting post. I only recently became aware of this myself through the Iron Falcon rules, and I hadn't actually explored the Greyhawk supplement. One thing though, is that technically Iron Falcon does not grant the bonus to all classes.The standard rule (at least in the version I have, 1st edition, release 52) is for fighters only, maintaining the exclusivity of the original. The rule to allow it for all characters is an optional alternative (p. 3 beneath the Dex mod table). Of course if there was an I.F. release later than the one I have, my comment here may be invalidated by it.

    1. Wow, I missed that note under the Dex table. Thanks for the read.

  2. P.S. -- I totally dig your "about me" statement at the top of the blog. I'm a huge fan of the deeper-style treatment in a post like this one.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I love the thorough research. Great stuff!


GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 13 - Death Frost Doom, part 1 of 2

In the morning, the party leads the group of freed Mothers to the chapel of the Green Mark, down to the crypt, and through the green crys...