Ability Scores aren't just +'s and Skills aren't 10-2 - Going back 30 years


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Traveling back in time to 1981, I walked into my friend's house to his dad DMing for him and his brother. In the age of big budget hollywood epics like Spartacus, Robin Hood, and Ivanhoe, I was handed the character sheet for the group's npc fighter and told to join the battle. What was this game? I scanned the armory of weapons I carried and saw it. I can wield... a mace?!? And smash an orc with it??? Ahhhhhh!!!!!!! Hooked.

There are two things I want to share about the early days of D&D that I think get overlooked in the PF community. The first is ability scores.

The idea behind ability scores was to describe the character you were playing. D&D was created to give rules to table top simulations. Ability scores helped you answer the questions of how strong you were, how fast, how smart or good with people. That's purpose #1 - Describing you in a way that is relative to the world. On top of that, people who are for example stronger than others should be better at strength related tasks. Here's where the plusses and minuses scale comes in to help in ways beyond the fact that the score itself is a usable number.

Today in PF this often translates to character crafters focusing more on the plusses and what they enable from a build perspective (which is fun and fine) over the original purpose which was to describe you in a roleplaying way. Roleplaying does not mean a disconnection from +'s. It means in D&D you putting aside you and playing a fantasy character instead. Plusses are of course part of the game, and they are fun. The point is having an 18 strength is not defined as having a +4 (or a +3 back then). It means you are bristling with muscle. You might have the build of a pudgy strongman or the cut tone of Schwarzenegger. You might be really big. That's the historical concept of having ability scores. The plusses are only part of how to translate that fantasy image into game terms.

What's my point? This is semantics, right? Sure, but let's look at how this impacts pathfinder.

Ability Tests: Two characters working at a strength task. One has a 10 strength. The other has an 18 strength. Both roll 1d20 + str bonus for success. This could be working at their own tasks or opposed to each other. The problem with reducing ability scores to be first and foremost plusses is that in virtually any test of strength, a character with a 10 strength should never be able to compete with a character of 18 strength. Arm wrestling is a good example. D20 + 0 v D20 + 4 is not a good simulation mechanic. Bending bars is another. A character with a strength of 10 is never going to succeed where an 18 cannot, but reducing ability scores to plusses makes that a possible dice roll outcome.

PF2 stat improvement: By level 20, you can have 18's in every ability score. What does this mean in a roleplaying, descriptive sense? All characters have the body of Schwarzenegger, the mind of Stephen Hawking, and the inspiration of JFK? (Ooh, did I just describe Tom Cruise?!? Don't get me distracted!) I don't know. PF is heavily concerned with the surface view of plusses with almost no consideration for the RP side. This is a pattern of the game system and part of the community. I have always thought the lack of stat improvement was a problem, even back in the 80's, but I struggle with conceptualizing my character with all 18's.

I'll segue into skills. Today skills are heavily codified and spell out tons of things you can do. That's a lot of work on Paizo's part to create, and a lot of work to keep up with in game. I do love being able to do cool stuff with skills though! Where did this evolve from? How did we get by for 4 decades without table 10-2?

In the early days of D&D, the optional skills system had a bunch of DM adjudication expectations. I'm going to make the case that nothing has changed except our perception, but let's look at that system. Are you trained in sailing? Ok, let's say sailing is a wisdom based skill, and you have a 14. A very rudimentary check to sail across a lake without getting stuck or off course could be: Roll 1d20 and make a 14 or less. Are you a practiced sailor? Maybe you get a +1 bonus on that roll. Maybe you know the lake well. Let's adjudicate quickly and move on. Variations of that system let DMs adjust difficulty on the fly by using d6's instead. Oh, you want to jump on the table and around the orc to flank him? Sure, your dex is 16? Roll 3d6 and get 16 or less. Wait, the way is blocked so you want to flip off the table over him? Roll 4d6. You're carrying your unconscious halfling teammate over your shoulder? Sure, roll 5d6.

What's the point? What am I pointing out with this crude system? Two things:
1) It made your ability scores more meaningful as scores than as plusses.
2) It's all DM adjudication. There's a framework, but the DM makes the call, and players are welcome to make their case for it to be easier based on factors.

Tying Ability Scores, Skills, and Table 10-2 together:

Ok, here's the point of my post. Skill systems and difficulty tables like 10-2 don't phase me. I don't worry about whether they are mathematically correct or break the system, because I expect DM adjudication to run it. But wait! How can that be consistent you say?!? How can we run that in PFS? How is it fair? Well, I'm not pretending it is, but I recognize that every column and row on that table is arbitrary and subjective. The real question isn't: Is this a level 7 challenge of Very Hard? That's already subjective. Paizo is publishing this, but they won't be at your table adjudicating. You will. The real question for a DM is: How difficult should this be for my player? What are her stats, her skills, her bonuses, and how hard of a roll do I want this to be? How often should it fail? Bam, there's your DC. We are essentially doing the same thing today that we did in 1981.

Follow up point to Paizo: Don't forget the fluff side of ability scores. Game first (to me that means the fantasy), game mechanics second.

TLDR: The core of skill systems is DM adjudication just like it was in original D&D. Don't get hung up on table 10-2. Also, ability scores should define your character, not just enable plusses.


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So the issue is that biggest flaw of any d20 system is in the d20.

3d6 describes thing 10× more real, just like arm wrestling match you described.

Scarab Sages

A simple system for ability tests is roll 2d20 but modify the number of dice rolled by your ability modifier (minimum 1, then drop the die a size instead). Skills should grant extra dice based on ranks.

The DC has two components, difficulty and degree:
- Difficulty is the measure of various factors including general randomness hindering a player from using their ability to its fullest potential.
- Degree is the number of successful rolls required to succeed at the task - this represents how much of an ability must be demonstrated to succeed in a task.

So searching for a needle in a haystack would have a high difficulty but a low degree. In theory anyone can do it, but those with a high perception would roll more dice, thus giving them a significant edge.

Contrarily, bending a bar would have a very low difficulty but a high degree. If you don't have at least a certain strength you cannot succeed, but those with enough strength can reliably succeed within a few tries.


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A 20th level PC is extremely rare and also extremely powerful. They are beings of legend and fable. Actors like Tom Cruise more often than not play these kinds of characters in movies and TV series, meaning a 20th level character probably has all of those descriptors you use for attributes.

I'm not really seeing the complaint of "attributes don't match character identity" because heroes aren't simply willed into existence, they are born and trained to become what they are, even with some innate talent to help them out.

And as for the whole "Not use a D20 where it doesn't make sense" argument, this does not compute. We might as well abolish all dice and just let the base numbers do the talking. Except, stuff happens, and circumstances change everything, which is what the D20 represents. Maybe the 18 Strength guy got off-put that time around, maybe the 10 Strength guy got a lucky break. But the attributes mean the 18 Strength guy is more favorable to win the arm wrestle.


I think devs goal with that table is to provide a easy to find number in case you already settled for the difficult of a given test, in a GIVEN set of circumstances ("her stats, her skills, her bonuses, and how hard of a roll do I want this to be? How often should it fail?"). There is nothing in the book, that I aware of, preventing you from acknowledging the variables affecting a roll (brought by the players or otherwise), rather, seems to me this is even encouraged. In sum, to decide what kind of roll is more appropriate, be hard, easy, insane (made this on up) and so on, is central for a DM and this has not changed with the infamous table 10-2.


You cannot cling to the one perspective of the overall abstraction when going from system to system. You might have an idea what 18 looks like, but you also have to be able to re-calibrate that through out the years.

The third edition player's handbook did state that score of 18 strength was found in such creature such as centaurs or minotaurs. But PF2 18 does not have to mean what 3.0 wanted to represent with it. Not to mention, how strong are centaurs or minotaurs really.


Counterargument:

The actual definitions of Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Wisdom were basically Fighterness, Rogueness, Wizardness, and Clericness. Ability scores as an abstract concept are useful. But the standard six were never meant to be used for simulation like the d20 System thinks they are.


Darksol the Painbringer wrote:

A 20th level PC is extremely rare and also extremely powerful. They are beings of legend and fable. Actors like Tom Cruise more often than not play these kinds of characters in movies and TV series, meaning a 20th level character probably has all of those descriptors you use for attributes.

Mmmm, you had me at Tom Cruise! Good example really.

Darksol the Painbringer wrote:
...stuff happens, and circumstances change everything, which is what the D20 represents. Maybe the 18 Strength guy got off-put that time around, maybe the 10 Strength guy got a lucky break. But the attributes mean the 18 Strength guy is more favorable to win the arm wrestle.

This is also a response to Envall's...

Envall wrote:
You cannot cling to the one perspective of the overall abstraction when going from system to system. You might have an idea what 18 looks like, but you also have to be able to re-calibrate that through out the years.

These are valid points except pathfinder has defined what they mean. It's true 18 isn't the same cap it once was, but pathfinder says 10-11 is average for a human. If that is true, and 18 is let's say the high end of human strength, two people with a 10 and an 18 aren't going to be on the same playing field in a contest of strength. 4 points on a d20 are not an appropriate simulation.

My point here isn't to say we need a new dynamic. In fact in part I'm saying DMs have always adjudicated skills around this and should be encouraged to continue. My point is you don't need a table 10-2 to tell you how hard to make a roll. It's as subjective as your own opinion. My other point is ability scores should not be reduced from a 3-18 scale (or higher) to a 0 to +4 scale. 3-18 means something. It's descriptive. It's numerically functional. 0 to +4 has its place, but PF play goes overboard fixating on it like that's all a stat is.


The DM of wrote:
Darksol the Painbringer wrote:

A 20th level PC is extremely rare and also extremely powerful. They are beings of legend and fable. Actors like Tom Cruise more often than not play these kinds of characters in movies and TV series, meaning a 20th level character probably has all of those descriptors you use for attributes.

Mmmm, you had me at Tom Cruise! Good example really.

Darksol the Painbringer wrote:
...stuff happens, and circumstances change everything, which is what the D20 represents. Maybe the 18 Strength guy got off-put that time around, maybe the 10 Strength guy got a lucky break. But the attributes mean the 18 Strength guy is more favorable to win the arm wrestle.

This is also a response to Envall's...

Envall wrote:
You cannot cling to the one perspective of the overall abstraction when going from system to system. You might have an idea what 18 looks like, but you also have to be able to re-calibrate that through out the years.

These are valid points except pathfinder has defined what they mean. It's true 18 isn't the same cap it once was, but pathfinder says 10-11 is average for a human. If that is true, and 18 is let's say the high end of human strength, two people with a 10 and an 18 aren't going to be on the same playing field in a contest of strength. 4 points on a d20 are not an appropriate simulation.

My point here isn't to say we need a new dynamic. In fact in part I'm saying DMs have always adjudicated skills around this and should be encouraged to continue. My point is you don't need a table 10-2 to tell you how hard to make a roll. It's as subjective as your own opinion. My other point is ability scores should not be reduced from a 3-18 scale (or higher) to a 0 to +4 scale. 3-18 means something. It's descriptive. It's numerically functional. 0 to +4 has its place, but PF play goes overboard fixating on it like that's all a stat is.

Unless you care about the distinction between say 13 and 14, the modifiers are just as descriptive and functional. They map directly onto the ability scores. You'd need negative values to cover the lower end of the scale of course.

If you want to claim that in a direct strength contest between a 10 and an 18 +4 bonus isn't enough, you can make the same claim about a direct strength contest between a 0 and a 4.


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Actually, the DC system kinda solves your issue about the "+4 difference on a d20"

That's because you're not comparing 2 d20 rolls between them, but against a set DC.

Let's use the bar bending example:

In your setting, the average human is not able to bend steel bars. While the strong human of 18 strength can do so with some effort.

Setting a DC of 20, requiring 4 successes, and saying that each roll is 1 min of effort means:
On average the 18 str human would need around 16 minutes to bend the bars.
On average the 10-11 str human would require 80 minutes to do so.

Using fatigue rules, which is very easy to justify, every few rolls (10?) would mean that the strong human would need just over an hour, while the weak one more than 8 hours to do the same thing.

And that's a very rough draft.

Utilising the same system of lock picking with the 4 degrees of success you could fine tune the system and the DC enough that crit failures would counteract the weak character.

Finally, DM arbitration can work as well as it did in Adnd (all rules back then we're mostly DM ones either way).

As an example, a while back we were trying to lift a huge slab of marble (in dnd 5e), the DM ruled "all characters with 14+ strength can roll". Meaning, that regardless of the roll of a weak character (str lower than 14) it would have no impact.

Similar things as Adnd can be ruled in D20 systems as well, no one forbids you.


Good solutions, shroudb. The time factor is a great way to make things happen the way a GM envisions.


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Pathfinder Companion, Maps, Pathfinder Accessories, Pawns, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Personally, I like the direction that they're going with the second edition play test rules. While it was definitely helpful to have milestones that allow you to relate somehow to the numerical values of attributes you should not end up beholden to them.

When you have a level 20 character with 18 Strength arm wrestle a level 5 character with 18 strength the level 20 character should definitely have an advantage if not for the sheer amount of trials they have overcome.

Rather than doing this, I like to create a mental picture of what my character is capable of in order to start building out descriptions like 'Rippling with muscle'.

I may end up with a Fighter that has a 14 Strength and 18 Constitution, yet choose to describe them as more of a scrappy looking gladiator that looks a bit malnourished for example. Sure, you could go out of your way to have misleading descriptions like being a 6 foot tall wall of muscle, yet only having an 8 strength. But when it comes to those scenarios that's where the DM may want to nudge them a bit.

All in all, I'm glad that they reigned attributes back a bit. Currently the highest attribute will end up being a 24. Compared to first edition Pathfinder, where it wasn't impossible to see someone with an attribute in the 80's I think that's major progress. I'm not sure how you would even try to describe having an attribute that high.


Only Mythic characters and creatures could reach those stats in PF1. In the base game, the highest Strength was somewhere in the 50's and actually attainable by Wizards no less, compared to Fighters whom get up to 36 at the most.

Yeah, with that hindsight I'm glad the most physically strong character is more often than not a martial character, and not some "beef" Wizard with magic shenanigans.


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One of the hangups here is how D&D has aged. Early days it was to try and simulate lord of the rings and Conan. Ordinary adventurers taking on extraordinary things and somehow winning. You beat your challenges by using your strengths and smarts, not because you are just as capable as your foes.

Fast forward a few decades and folks want more octane in their fantasy. They dont just want to fight awesome monsters and wizards, they want to be awesome monsters and wizards. A paradigm shift in the genre and hobby community. This is all generality of course, the nuances are not important; to me anyways.

Slowly the ability score has become a more mechanical tool and less a descriptive one. Iconic elements like ability score generation, improvement, and drain have become really complex in the 3E era. PF2 is an attempt to simplify the mechanic while giving a nod to nostalgia.

Another hang up is rulings over rules. In early days it was expected that the GM would arbitrate situations. There was not piles of rules books to try provide mechanical representation on everything. Some folks got tired of bad GMs and wanted a system to protect them from bad rulings. So enters the rules heavy editions. Along with them came all sorts of odd situations where folks wanted to be able to trip snakes and kill fire elementals with fire. Also, many folks want to be able to be a ninja in full plate.

Fast forward a bit and now design seems to be one foot in each ruling philosophy camp. It gets really confusing because the bridge in philosophies can be real immersion killing for some. Too connected to reality for others.

For that old school feel I'd point int he direction of OSR. There are lots of folks that want to keep that feel of yesterday rockin. I wouldnt wait and hope for modern design to go backwords but YMMV.


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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Companion, Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

It seems to me that this post talks about two themes, but it confuses them a bit.

The first is whether or not their should be a lot of codification in the system (i.e. lists of DCs for tasks, the concept of the d20 check itself and many other examples) vs. more free form (the DM decides things based on what he thinks feels right and makes up a lot on the fly.) The first is more predictable, the second more versatile, and with a really good GM, can make a game really sing. The downsides of more freeform is a lot of variation from GM to GM (even two good GMs will present rather different mechanics) and if you get a bad GM, it can be really terrible.

The second issue is whether any particular mechanics is suitable to modeling what is described. Often this is a trade off between simplicity (both in execution and learning curve) and accuracy. In reality it requires really complex mathematics to construct 'who will win' predictions. On the other hand the simpler methods (maybe flipping a coin?) tend to not take into account factors players feel relevant, but are quick to achieve and easy to learn.

I don't think there is a 'right' answer for any of these questions. There is, at best, a right answer for a particular person (and group) at a particular point in time. I would say, all in all, the compromises chosen by Pathfinder 1st ed. work pretty well for things like their organized play and reasonably well for a lot of home games, but might not be right for you.


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Grognardy Dangerfield wrote:

...

Fast forward a few decades and folks want more octane in their fantasy. They dont just want to fight awesome monsters and wizards, they want to be awesome monsters and wizards. A paradigm shift in the genre and hobby community. This is all generality of course, the nuances are not important; to me anyways.

...

Fast forward a bit and now design seems to be one foot in each ruling philosophy camp. It gets really confusing because the bridge in philosophies can be real immersion killing for some. Too connected to reality for others.
...

I think your perception of the old vs. new gaming dynamics is spot on, and I enjoyed thinking about this.

Dave Justus wrote:


The first is whether or not their should be a lot of codification in the system (i.e. lists of DCs for tasks, the concept of the d20 check itself and many other examples) vs. more free form (the DM decides things based on what he thinks feels right and makes up a lot on the fly.)...

The second issue is whether any particular mechanics is suitable to modeling what is described. Often this is a trade off between simplicity (both in execution and learning curve) and accuracy. ...

It's good to hear your perspective on this. There have been so many posts on skills and getting numbers "right" lately. I like to see the conversation circle back around to DM adjudication from time to time.

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