The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1562).

Playing with Exceptional Scores

When it comes to a lot of D&D-derived games (1), ability scores have been a discussion for as long as the capabilities and bonuses they’ve given a character have been only derivative of those scores. Most of this design territory is an example of mechanics being too finicky for what they do but surviving nonetheless. The design at the time was functional and innovative, but that doesn’t render it good, originally or forever. These structures remain within the game largely due to legacy or nostalgia, not because they are still functional, innovative, or even necessary.

Some games moved the marker and, such as True20 did, answered the question, “If you need only a modifier, why isn’t that modifier the score?” Heck, AD&D’s second edition made ability scores more useful, especially in the Skills & Powers book. (2) These fiddly aspects merit such debate and reworking. It’s another aspect I’m interested in seeing jettisoned, and that’s the racial ability score adjustment, whatever a particular game calls it. Put another way, you are an orc, so you raise your Strength and Constitution scores by 2, and you lower your Intelligence by 2.

Other D&D writers have opined on the subject, such as James Haeck in his “Reimagining Racial Ability Scores” article. He mentioned and others have talked about the links this take has to ugly realities, including racism and biologism. James’s article links to James Mendes Hodes’s interesting two-part article on the origin of orcs, as I do here for convenience, as an example. And Kienna Shaw presented an educational Twitter thread on it, which you can read by clicking the date on the following quoted tweet.

Because I’m in a “breakdown some stuff” kind of mood, let’s have a quick chat about bioessentialism and how it’s perpetuated by the current structure of race in D&D, and therefore why we should move away from attributing so much stuff to race (as seen in Joey’s article)

— @KiennaS; August 14, 2019

This preamble is to say that others have done the important work of pointing out how problematic the undertones of biological-determinism take are. I agree with these points. Others have done a much better job illustrating and talking about them than I could here. And so, that’s not the reason for axing racial ability score modifiers I’m going to discuss.

Some games, such as Fantasy AGE and Pathfinder, have stepped away from nature- and nurture-essentialism to a degree. Both games still modify ability scores based on race, called ancestry in Pathfinder. However, they allow you to gain other nature- and nurture-related features in uncertain ways. In Fantasy AGE, you roll randomly on a benefits table for your race. In Pathfinder, you choose ancestry feats that can come from culture or biology as expressed through your character.

That’s the crux of it though. It’s your character, right? Right.

In any sense of the word, a player’s character in any roleplaying game is an individual. Quite likely, the character is an unusual, even exceptional, individual at that. The idea that any such individual must conform to a set of trivial mechanical norms that limits a player’s expression of their playing preferences is bad enough. (3) That these mechanics carry with them racist undertones only serves to make it worse.

Unleash your hero, indeed.

Now, as a slight departure, even back in AD&D, an assumption was made that referees could use racial statistics to make nonplayer characters to oppose the protagonists. From the town guard to the archmage, each such character has a race. This assumption was amplified in Dungeons & Dragons third edition, with the inclusion of NPC classes. However, I’m going to assert that making every nonplayer character in a game conform to player-character rules is not only wildly unnecessary and tedious, but also no exception to the individual claim in the previous paragraph.

In other words, player characters are individuals and often exceptional individuals. Nonplayer characters are either similar in the stature or included in the game by the referee to fill a role in the world in relationship to the players’ characters. In none of these cases are mechanical expressions that limit player choice (including the referee, who is a player) desirable. In all these cases, tedious hoops, especially trivial ones that amount to a +1 bonus (or no immediate bonus at all), should have been excised from the design. And I call them hoops, because if I want to make a dwarf bard in either edition of Pathfinder, frex, I’ve put myself behind the curve. I’ve made the “suboptimal” choice. (4) My dwarf bard is slightly less powerful because of the mechanical hoop I’m forced through.

What I’m saying here is not only are these mechanics not worth it due to the disgusting real-world problems they highlight, but also because they make the games they’re included in harder to play with no return on that investment. They also make the game less interesting and more homogenous than the real world is. We, as composers of fantastic places, can resort to this shorthand to describe a whole people. It’s as bad as using derogatory buzzwords, if subtler. If you wouldn’t describe a human or member of any ethnicity among us with some phrase that amounts to ability-score shorthand, you might want to avoid doing it in describing whole species. This risky shortcut also denies us, as world builders, the opportunity for species to be expressed in distinct and fascinating cultures unlike one another and, unless we’re doing historical fantasy, unlike those of the real world.

(c) 2020 Christopher Steven Sims. All rights reserved.
Who am I? (10)

It might be okay for the narrative description (including no mechanics) of a species’ culture to say they value raw athletic prowess over any form of cunning or that they devalue logic in favor of intuition and destiny. Then, it becomes my choice as a player whether I buy into the proposed cultural norm or play against type. (Playing against type is a wonderful narrative tool for the referee.) Even if the underpinning is cultural, mechanics should not force me into a box by saying the first species gains a bonus to Strength and a penalty to Charisma and the second has a bonus to Wisdom and a penalty to Intelligence. The problems with this box only grow when one considers that ability scores in D&D-like games are often, at best, secondary measures of aptitude and skill.

Considering the triviality, why monkey with ability scores in a game of fantasy, provided all a character’s scores fall within expected norms? Why shouldn’t I, as a player (again, including the referee), be allowed to make the character I want to fill the role I want to (or need in) play? Put another way, how is it the game designer’s business that I want a character who doesn’t conform to simplistic stereotypes? Why should the designer get to decide that those stereotypes are more important?

Sometimes, they don’t get to decide themselves. Instead, the history or legacy of the game decides for them, or it seems to. Brand legacy is an issue I won’t delve far into here. The Dungeons & Dragons game and its descendants come with a lot of baggage, racial ability score modifiers among them. And while I laud public playtests, having seen the results of two rather large ones, I do not believe playtest data should override stronger design choices the experts designing the game know are stronger. To open a can of worms I won’t close in this article, sometimes the experts need to make the choice expertise calls for, and then educate the fans why they actually do want the game to work that way.

That’s leadership. We see far too little of it these days.

The use of racial ability score increases was a failure along these lines for Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition. The continued use of racial ability boosts and especially flaws in Pathfinder second edition is a similar failure. Both mechanical elements should have gone the way “maximum strength possible for a female human” went between AD&D’s first and second edition. And a similar reason.

By Vera Kratochvil. Public domain.
Strong or wise? Why not both?

As an aside here, size might suggest a racial modifier to Strength. However, particularly large or small characters are problematic in other ways in games, such as D&D, that assume characters are humanlike in size. We make assumptions based on size, as well, that aren’t accurate even on Earth. For instance, a halfling is the size of a human child of about 9 years old. It might be seen as reasonable to assume such a person has muscle power approaching that of said child. But chimps are four times as strong as a human of the same size and able to overpower larger humans. If a halfling were merely twice as strong as a human child, and could be since they are imaginary, they would be quite strong. (5) It’s all about design philosophy.

And again, I like the philosophy James Haeck uses as a basis for his article. However, none of his solutions are for me. Although they solve the racial-norms problem to an extent (6), they don’t solve the inherent mechanical trouble with tying the ability score modifier to the choice of another mechanical element. And, so, linking these modifiers to class or background, even with added flexibility, allows the mechanical issue to occur again. (7) These solutions also risk if not add other concerns, (8) but that analysis is tertiary to the intent here.

We need not redesign any subsystem to fix the problem in some games in the current market. These games assume ability score adjustments, so we need simple solutions to move those around. A few easy reworks follow, and these fixes assume species that cleave close to the norm for the game. The system works best if the game’s referee does this work for or with players.

For D&D 5e, do the following.

  • Drop all racial ability modifiers.
  • If human, use human variant traits. (9)
  • Increase one of your character’s ability scores by 2 and another by 1.
  • Alternatively, increase three ability scores by 1, likely an inferior choice.

For Pathfinder 2e, do the following.

  • Drop all racial ability boosts and flaws.
  • Take two free boosts during ancestry selection.
  • Optionally, drop all specific background ability boosts.
  • If you use the above, take a free boost instead of that specific one.

For Starfinder, do the following.

  • Drop all racial ability adjustments.
  • Increase one ability score by 2.
  • Alternatively, increase two ability scores by 1, likely an inferior choice.

Use these as guides to modify other species for similar systems. For instance, Pathfinder 1e and D&D 3e can both be handled like Starfinder for usual species. In AD&D, it’s even simpler. Ignore the racial adjustments for typical species altogether. The game works fine without them, as Basic D&D shows.

The intent here is to emphasize player choice, while deemphasizing a mechanical block that has little benefit and lots of baggage. You can play the exceptional individual you want. These games, especially considering the other flexible options available in them, don’t have any right to stand in your way.

We could build wonders. If you like what I have done here or with my past work and publications, check out my new Patreon for even more.

1) The distinction is important, since a lot of tabletop RPGs don’t fall into this category except in the broadest of terms. A large number of these games lack the problem this essay discusses.

2) Skills & Powers also added options that made ability scores more complicated with little to no added benefit. At least these rules were only options. You take the good and leave the bad.

3) Save “a player has to conform to these [insert other mechanics], so why not these” arguments, please. We’re talking trivial here. A small and questionable part of species identification we can and should do without.

4) This statement is not in praise of character optimization or against the idea of characters who have flaws. But if I want a lower-Charisma bard, I can make one without any help from racial ability score adjustments. And if I don’t want that flaw in a game where I am allowed to assign my ability scores, I shouldn’t have to have it.

(5) The real issue is accounting for massive characters, which the game has regularly handwaved. This approach is with its support, since we know most people play humans or humanlike species in these games. Your design philosophy has to start somewhere.

Also, we make all this stuff up. (I have said this before, and I will say it again.) It is fantasy. Why imagine elements of this fantasy in a boring, detrimental, or unfun way?

(6) D&D 5e races are also quite static in their traits with too many cultural traits enforced as unalterable racial norms. Even language, such as all half-orcs speaking Orc. The solution to this homogeneity isn’t too difficult, as Pathfinder 2e shows, but it is not merely handwaving and saying “if you want something different, work with your DM.”

(7) This mechanical problem exists in default D&D 5e backgrounds, too, but the tool to fix that problem can be found on Player’s Handbook 125, Customizing a Background. It’s pretty handy in D&D Beyond, too, for that matter.

(8) The first problem is the idea that all ability score bonuses are equal. They aren’t. That has little relevance given the second problem, which is based on assuming the races are balanced so tightly some need fixes if you remove racial ability score bonuses. They aren’t (see the next graf, though) and they don’t. Third, the idea that three 1-point boosts are equivalent to one +2 and one +1 is questionable. I’d posit the +2 is more valuable than two +1s, except in niche circumstances (such as building a character at certain levels). A minor fourth point is that any of James’s backgrounds that allow you to choose between two scores to add the +2 to instead of only one are better choices due to flexibility. This statement goes with another nod to “all ability scores are not created equal.” Finally, and minor, the background section in James’s article only touches on what to do if customizing your background.

The possible exceptions are the half-elf and humans, which are underpowered even if you leave racial mods in place. You should steal the Knowledge of the Elves half-elf trait from James’s article anyway, because it’s a good non-static trait.

(9) Yes, this option ends up being better than the default in the Player’s Handbook. It’s okay. Humans need a little help, anyway. They’re roughly equivalent to poor half-elves now, who get a little nerfed here. The “balance” was always an illusion anyway.

(10) Traurig – image copyright 2020 by Christopher Steven Sims.

Top art from The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1562).

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