Monday, August 2, 2021

Bonuses for Low Ability Scores

Over ten years ago, James over at Grognardia posited the idea that high ability scores ought to have drawbacks and low ability scores should have advantages. I have long agreed with the concept, but have always thrown up my hands once I try and figure out mechanics. As I was leafing through some notepads looking for some ideas for my series on Scripture and the Megadungeon, I ran across one of my abortive attempts at re-thinking ability scores. As a rough idea, I think it has promise.

I made a list of twelve combat stats, which theoretically allows each ability score to positively/negatively affect two — one for a high ability and one for a low ability. Here is the list of twelve:

  • Armor Class 
  • Damage Melee 
  • Damage Missile 
  • Extra Spells 
  • Hit Points 
  • Save vs Death/Poison 
  • Save vs Paralysis/Petrify 
  • Save vs Spells/Rods/Staves 
  • Save vs Wands 
  • Surprise 
  • “to hit” Melee 
  • “to hit” Missile

I did not include Save vs Breath because dragons should be scary for everyone.

Now for the hard part — deciding which ability should affect each stat. I will go through each ability score and give my reasons why I chose the stat that should be affected.

STR: High = Damage Melee; Low = Surprise

Traditionally, a high STR has resulted in extra melee damage, so I don’t have to explain that. I reasoned that a low STR would result in being perceived as less of a threat, therefore someone who is more likely to be overlooked. A literary example of this would be hobbits. No one really took them seriously, yet they continuously surprised people.

INT: High = Damage Missile; Low = Save vs. Wands

I decided to give INT the nod on Damage Missile due to the reasoning and calculations necessary to find weak spots in an opponent’s armor. Justifying a Save bonus for a low INT score is more sketchy. My thoughts are that it has to do with our perception of magic, especially magic that emulates technology as a wand could. The less we understand technology, the less useful it is, the more ineffective it becomes. I realize that this is counter intuitive, but it is all I have for now.

WIS: High = Save vs Spells; Low = “to hit” Melee

Wisdom has traditionally given a bonus to Saves vs Spells, so no real need to explain. I justify the bonus “to hit” in Melee because someone with a lower WIS might take more dangerous opportunities to attack than someone who is wiser.

DEX: High = “to hit” Missile; Low = Save vs. Paralysis/Petrify

DEX has been associated with Missile combat for a long time, no need to explain; however, like INT above, I am on sketchy ground with Save vs. Paraylsis/Petrify. My thinking is that someone who is clumsy is closer to a condition of paralysis or petrification than someone with a high DEX.

CON: High = Hit Points; Low = Extra Spells

High CON has always been associated with hp, so no explanation necessary. I justify the low CON with extra spells in a narrative way, especially in context of arcane magic. The spell caster with a low CON has sacrificed health for more spell casting ability.

CHA: High = AC; Low = Save vs Death/Poison

My justification for both of these has do to with a more theological understanding of the word charisma which has its origin in the Greek word for gift with the implication that the gift is from God. In this case a high CHA, this results in a kind of continuous protection from God. The low CHA results in a bonus to Save vs Death/Poison as a sign that God occasionally reaches out to protect, with the implication that a success results in more time for the person to repent/get closer to God.

This whole set-up ignores all of the non-combat related bonuses normally associated with high abilities scores, such as Encumbrance, Languages, Reactions, etc. Coming up with a list of twelve would have required including Thief Skiils and/or XP bonuses. I wasn’t quite ready to do that. For now, I am happy to see these continue to be associated with the abilities they always have been. 

Any thoughts? Other ideas?


  1. Lovely post!

    It really fits the idea of OD&D, where your scores shouldn't matter much (and then, Gygax grew proud...), so low Ability Scores can be contextualized as the answer to the following question:
    “How you survived the class’ training which such low score(s)?”

    So, for the highs, the list should remain basically the same, in my opinion (with one exception). For the lows, one should receive bonuses equivalent to the maluses of the same score:
    • Strength: Save vs. Paralysis/Petrify – you survived because you are smaller and more slippery than average, so you get an easier time with restraints (I think the Surprise bonus should be a racial trait for Hobbits/Halflings and other “inoffensive” folk, more a matter of cultural perception, and only for first impressions).
    • Intelligence: Save vs. Spells – you survived because your dopeyness, more commonsense thought or innocence protects you instinctively against the wiles of magic, itself a product of reason (and Hubris); even Divine magic is ultimately filtered by the rational judgement of its users, after all (purer expressions of Divine Will shouldn’t allow saves).
    • Wisdom: as you described; the survival comes from your foolhardiness/fury in combat (coupled with a lacking of dire situations, yet) – the Attack bonus become an automatic AC penalty (recklessness has its costs).
    • Dexterity: Save vs. Wands – you survived because your clumsiness is an expression of your fool’s luck – fortune favors your slapstick performance. I assume that traps fall under Wands and using ranged in melee allows an Save vs. Wands to avoid the worst (as the attack wasn’t directed specifically at you, and you can detect the aiming).
    • Constitution: as you described; the survival comes from your sacrifice of health for power (situational for users of spells, but them HP is useful for everyone – but the temptation of extra spells at level one…).
    • Charisma – as you described, including the justification for survival.

    So, for avoiding double-dipping, I’m assuming high Wisdom gives bonus to Save v. Breath, the most terrifying category – it should be a mark of great wisdom to know when to rush the dragon!

    Then, it creates an interesting environment, where Master Perfect, with lots of natural highs, rolls (meta-literally, with the dice) past the opposition. But when MP fails…it’s time for The Dormouse, Wizard Insignificant, to save the day, managing past shackles, curses, tricks and traps, and hoping that the few extra spells compensates the 1HP remaining…

    A bit long of a comment, but this refreshing post demands it

  2. Semi-off topic but this made me think of character generation, when some systems let you move a number or two. You could easily link the attributes so that if you increase your STR it has to come from INT (few bodybuilder geniuses out there). If you increase DEX it must come from CON, If you increase WIS it comes from CHA (thinking perception, gotta look somewhere other than the mirror). Something like that. Anyway, had to blurt that out. Carry on.