Thursday, January 3, 2019

Ability Mods and Hot-Rods: The Dangers of Mixing Basic and Advanced D&D

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ability score modifiers throughout the various editions of D&D lately (actually the past year), and how these differences affect the game. Turning them over in my mind, I hit upon a revelation as it related to primary differences between the modifiers in 0e, Holmes*, 1e, and 2e and those in B/X and BECMI. The modifiers are not only the primary drivers for how these two different platforms of D&D work, but they are the reason why mixing the mechanics between the Basic and Advanced rules can create a broken game.

Before I dive into an analysis of the modifiers themselves and why I think the Basic-AD&D hybrid is such a volatile combination, let me first give a little contextual autobiography. This is something I think I’ve covered in a past post, but it’s worth repeating here since it’s relevant. I started playing Mentzer Basic (Red Box) in about ’84 or ’85. My friends and I played “Basic” for a year or two before bowing to the older kids’ wisdom that “Basic (was) for babies” and moved to AD&D. When I say we played AD&D, I mean we borrowed what we liked from the Advanced game and used it in our Basic campaign. AD&D tournament-legal, we were not. At the time I felt guilty and conflicted about it, like we were cheating, not playing by the actual rules because AD&D had more rules than I cared to keep track of. It was (and still is) hard to run AD&D by the book.

When I came back to the hobby after twenty-some years (I stopped as 2e began taking over), I found the OSR and was surprised to learn that a lot of people played the game the way I did back then, mixing Basic and AD&D. In fact, I heard a perfect description of it in one of Matt Finch’s interviews with Greg Gillespie (creator of Barrowmaze). Greg described his early gaming (at 5:30, here) as using the engine of Basic and Advanced as the chrome. That’s exactly it. We used a lot of the core rules from the Basic game (ability mods, combat mechanics, etc.) and the character options (more races, more classes, no race-as-class), spells, monsters, modules, and magic items taken from Advanced. We took the cool stuff and left everything that bogged the game down (weapon speed factors, spell segments, damage-by-size, etc.). To extend Greg’s metaphor we created a hot rod of a game. It ran fast and powerful, exciting and flashy. It also eventually overheated and blew up.

What I mean by that is our game became incredibly imbalanced, particularly when our PCs started reaching higher levels. D&D has always had a problem with balanced high-level play, but we felt the effects far earlier and I think with some perspective I understand why. Both the Basic and the Advanced games were built to be balanced within their own rule sets and were not intended to be mixed. That balance begins, and in some ways largely rests, on how each game’s ability score modifiers fit with the rest of the rules. In my case, I’m talking about using Basic’s ability score modifiers with AD&D’s more powerful character options.

For those who haven’t played any early D&D, the ability modifiers break down thusly. OD&D, Holmes, and AD&D have ability modifiers that are really flat by today’s standards. The modifiers are not standard across the abilities and in some cases, even the extreme ends of the 3-18 range only give a -1 or +1. Some abilities don’t necessarily give a modifier at all. There is a real appeal to these more tempered modifiers for me. A “5” in Dexterity only affects your AC by 1, not 2. A “7” in Strength doesn’t hurt your melee to-hit roll at all. Even a Constitution of “3” only takes 1 off your hit die roll. On the other hand, the bonuses are likewise more mellow and oftentimes the difference between a “15” and an “18” doesn’t seem to have as much mechanical separation as I would normally expect.

By contrast, the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B/X rules from 1981 and the following Mentzer BECMI rules have a much different approach to the ability modifiers. The modifiers are almost nearly universally applied the same way across all the abilities with the following scores: 3 (-3), 4-5 (-2), 6-8 (-1), 9-12 (+0), 13-15 (+1), 16-17 (+2), and 18 (+3). These aren’t as dramatic as the d20-era or current 5e modifiers, but this array creates a nice, dynamic bell curve where the widest range is an average non-mod, and each deviation from that average range gets progressively smaller. There’s an elegant, standardized symmetry to it. It’s also very swingy. There’s a real difference between a “15” and an “18” here that feels powerful, and at the same time, a “5” Dex or “3” Con are really damaging.

Here’s where it’s helpful to look at how each of these sets of modifiers fit within their respective rule sets, which makes it clear how combining some of the AD&D mechanics with the Basic modifiers can imbalance the game.

AD&D’s standard classes are little better than their Basic counterparts (Clerics get d8 hp and spells at first level, Fighters get d10 hp with faster attack progression, Thieves get better skill percentages and d6 hp, Magic-Users get more, and higher-level spells), not to mention the specialty classes (Paladin, Ranger, Druid, etc.), each of which have special powers. These extra goodies complement the lower impact ability modifiers. The smaller modifiers keep things relatively sane when the first magic items start showing up in the campaign. Magic items, it should be said, were expected to be rewarded somewhat early in both Basic and AD&D games, in part to help with characters’ survival. A +1 long sword in the hands of an AD&D Fighter with an “18/49” Strength means a composite +2 to-hit and +4 to damage. The same +1 sword in the hands of Basic Fighter with an “18” Strength means a +4 to-hit and a +4 to damage. This extra +2 to-hit is a big difference, and it’s due to Basic’s souped-up ability mods.

The Basic game didn’t have as many bells and whistles as the Advanced game, but those ability mods picked up the slack by being really dynamic, and potentially very powerful. When stacked with the extra AD&D class benefits and hit die, it could make for some supercharged PCs. Another dangerous crossover between rules was using the Method I of rolling for ability scores from AD&D with the Basic ability mods. Method I is the popular “roll 4d6, drop the lowest” method which is designed to make sure every PC has at least two scores of “15” or higher (which remember, in AD&D, have smaller modifiers). The AD&D PHB even says that it’s essential to the character’s chances of survival. Using this method in a Basic game increases the likelihood of not only 15s, but 16-18s, giving you a huge boost. It also makes the Basic rules’ more-punitive negative modifiers less likely. Along with higher mods, the higher levels of spells in the Advanced game (7th level for Clerics, 9th for Magic-Users) means real firepower enters the campaign.

AD&D mechanics may seem wonky by modern sensibilities. There isn’t a standardized core mechanic. In fact, there are a number of different systems for determining success or failure (d20 attacks, % Thief skills, d6 open doors/listen checks, etc.). But when all the rules are used in conjunction together, it fits together perfectly and ticks like Swiss clockwork. It just takes time, dedication, and practice to become fluent in the 1e rules (at least that’s what die-hard 1e grognards claim). Tom Moldvay’s game is likewise very well-balanced, but it’s more streamlined and elegant. It isn’t built to simulate reality in the same way Gary’s rules seemed to try to do. Tom’s modifiers (I actually don’t know if he came up with them, but his rules mark their first appearance I’m aware of) are a big part of how that game runs. They drive a lot of the way things work.

You may ask what the point of all this is. Am I just trying to validate my guilt for hot rodding the games I played as a kid? I guess the reason I’ve been thinking about this so much is two-fold.

First, it makes me realize part of my reticence to try 5e lies in the fact that it appears to be an even more exaggerated example of my Basic-AD&D hybrid. The crunch of the d20 rules may have been reduced, but the even more dramatic ability score modifiers combined with even more class and race options, abilities, feats, skills, and proficiency points all indicates a game that falls into all the same hot rod traps I found as a kid.

Second, my musings are in response to a lot of people, both young and old, getting into the OSR versions of the older games and talking about bringing in Advanced options into the Basic game. We often talk in the OSR about cross-compatibility between any of the early versions, and while that may be true to a large extent for running adventures (usually it’s just adjusting armor class a bit), it gets a bit trickier when it comes to combining rules mechanics around characters.

Goblinoid Games just put out their combined Advanced Labyrinth Lord set of rules which is being marketed as “advanced first edition as you remember it,” the distinction being not as first edition was, but as we all played it, stripped of the fussy rules no one likes. Now, I don’t own the new book, but I do have the physical copy of the regular rules as well as the previous no-art PDF of the Advanced Edition Companion supplement. Daniel Proctor wrote a good game and is careful to mention caveats, like giving higher hit die might affect the game if used. It’s presented as rules you could use ala carte or as a whole. I just wonder how the hybrid actually operates in play, especially at higher levels. I’m not implying that a Basic-Advanced hybrid can’t be done, but I think it would need to be carefully done.

I currently run Basic Fantasy which is a slightly modernized version of the old Basic game. It’s well-balanced and runs exactly how I expect it to. The Moldvay modifiers are present, but a few rule changes have been made to give the Basic system a little Advanced boost. Race-as-class is gone, as are demi-human level-limits. Thief skills are closer to the better 1e percentages and to-hit advancement is a little more aggressive. And yet, hit dice are kept relatively low, Clerics don’t get spells at first level, and the magic is kept within reason.

However, I constantly see people on BFRPG forums and Facebook groups who are looking for creator Chris Gonnerman to formally publish some of the supplemental classes and rules from the game’s download page which have a more Advanced flavor (paladins, rangers, druids, weapon proficiency rules, skills, higher level spells from his Iron Falcon, etc.). A lot of these supplements are pretty good (I have a paladin in my current campaign), but Chris’ refusal to add them to the core game makes me happy. He’s willing to let people explore and share options for his game through the OGL, but not willing to canonize these options as core rules themselves. Anyone’s free to hot rod their own games, but at their own peril.

I don’t mean this to be a bad-wrong-fun rant or suggest that the way some people like to play isn’t correct. It’s more of an observation about my own adult preferences and making peace with the mistakes of my youth. It’s also me trying to determine how I approach my games in the future. I still haven’t fully satisfied my curiosity with ability score modifiers.

I like the Moldvay modifiers, in part because I grew up using them, but also because of their clean, standardized, logical symmetry. Their larger range makes a character’s abilities more dramatic and mechanically meaningful. Although I have found that low scores in Strength, Constitution, and particularly Dexterity can cripple a PC. The Thief in my current game has a “5” Constitution (-2) which means he has to roll a “4” in order to add more than one hit point when he levels up.

I like the idea of shallower OD&D modifiers in something like Iron Falcon or Swords & Wizardry, but without the AD&D extra hit points and abilities they almost seem to necessitate a campaign which includes at least a moderate amount of magic items (something I’m stingy with, as a low-fantasy GM). I did see one 0e option recently that appeals to me. Jimm Johnson from The Contemptible Cube of Quazar blog has his own house rules posted for his Planet Eris campaign. HIs universal modifier array is: 3 (-2), 4-6 (-1), 7-14 (0), 15-17 (+1), and 18 (+2). I like these a lot. The bonuses/penalties are flatter than Moldvay’s, but there’s still symmetry with a dynamic flare at the extremes. It strikes me as a nice compromise. I’d like to try some flatter modifiers out soon. It would be interesting to not rely on ability mods as much as I’m used to.

No matter what I decide to go with in the future, I’ll probably still have a hard time leaving well enough alone. Old hot rodders die hard.

* Yes, I know the Holmes set of rules is actually the first Basic rules set, but as far as the ability mods go, I believe they’re the same as the 3LBBs.

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