In OD&D each of the three classes — fighting-man, magic-user, and cleric — had an ability score as a “prime requisite”. These prime requisites served two purposes:
(1) In order to change classes, you needed to have an unmodified prime requisite score of 16 or better in the class you wanted to change to. (Although this rule was “not recommended”, except for elves who had the racial ability to freely switch at will between fighting-man and magic-user at the beginning of each adventure. It is open to interpretation whether elves needed to have the necessary prime requisites in order to do that. There is also the oddity that magic-users cannot change into clerics and vice versa… but nothing stops them from first changing to fighting-men and then changing to the other. But I digress…)
(2) If you had a high prime requisite score in your class you earned additional XP. If you had a low prime requisite score your XP was penalized, as described on the ”Bonuses and Penalties to Advancement due to Abilities” table:
|Prime requisite of 15 or more||Add 10% to earned experience|
|Prime requisite of 13 or 14||Add 5% to earned experience|
|Prime requisite of 9 - 12||Average, no bonus or penalty|
|Prime requisite of 8 or 7||Minus 10% from earned experience|
|Prime requisite 6 or less||Minus 20% from earned experience|
In later editions, certain classes also had minimum ability scores and prime requisites that had to be met. For example, in the 1st Edition of AD&D in order to “become a paladin a character must be human, have a strength of not less than 12, a minimum intelligence of 9, a wisdom of 13 or more, a minimum constitution of 9, and not less than 17 charisma”.
In the currently predominant culture of gaming — where the fetishization of balance is, at best, barely lurking out of sight — this entire design schema is impossibly alien. It’s practically anathema. Why would you take a PC who was already more powerful than the other PCs (because they have higher ability scores) and make them even more powerful (by giving them XP bonuses)?
And when you get to classes with minimum ability score requirements, things seem to become even less comprehensible. Many of these classes were just flat-out better than the other classes. So now you’re taking powerful characters, making them more powerful by giving them access to better classes, and then allowing them to advance more quickly to even more power by giving them XP bonuses.
I’ve seen people point to this as an example of Gygax being “incompetent”. These people annoy me because they’re missing the point: Gygax didn’t fail to balance character vs. character. That just wasn’t one of his design goals. He was trying to accomplish something very different.
The first thing you’re seeing here is Gygaxian naturalism. Why are the guys with better ability scores able to access more powerful classes? Because they’re more talented.
There is a balance being modeled here, but it’s subtler than the mechanical equivalence at the beginning of a Chess match.
Basically Gygax was saying: “Look, Character A has more talent than Character B. The ability scores tell us that. So that means that Character A can get into major league baseball and Character B is going to be stuck in the minor leagues. And that means that Character A is going to earn more money.”
At this point modern afficionados of “balance” will protest, “But if Character A is in the major leagues and Character B is in the minor leagues, then they’ll never get to play on the same field!”
And Gygax would say, “Look, kid, you’re abusing the metaphor.”
Because, at this point, we need to understand the other fundamental underpinning of OD&D play: Darwinian attrition.
In OD&D it was assumed that PCs would die. In fact, it was assumed that the vast majority of PCs in the campaign would end up dead.
This had two important impacts on the way the game was played and, thus, the way the game was designed:
(1) On the one hand, if your character “sucked” compared to the other PCs, it didn’t really matter all that much. After all, he was probably going to be dead sooner rather than later. Dungeons were dangerous places.
(2) On the other hand, the mere act of survival was something to be lauded. Longevity was an achievement. And achieving that longevity with a “sucky” character? Ah, that was something to be lauded even more! It was like playing with a handicap.
This is something that gamers familiar with the modern paradigms of design sometimes struggle to understand, so let me try to explain by way of analogy. Imagine that you’re playing Name That Tune:
Me: I can name that tune in 8 notes.
You: I can name that tune in 6 notes.
Me: I can name that tune in 5 notes.
You: I can name that tune in 4 notes.
Me: Name that tune!
You: Aw, man! I have to name that tune in only 4 notes, while you could name it in 5 notes! It’s not fair! My character is much less powerful than yours!
Okay, the analogy kinda broke down there somewhere, but hopefully the point is clear: Yeah, that guy over there has better ability scores. Are you going to whine about it, or are you going to show him that you can play the game better than he can, scores or no scores?
CHARACTER GENERATION AS GAME
Of course, the argument can be made that the random generation of ability scores has nothing to do with the skill of the players involved. But so what? Were you under the illusion that craps is a game of skill?
See, part of the trick here is that character creation was considered part of the gameplay.
It was gameplay that was fundamentally different from the gameplay that happened once the dungeon exploration actually began, but it was still an important and integral part of the game. Like the rules for setting up terrain in a wargame. Or the bidding in a game of Bridge.
The game that, in my opinion, best understood that character creation was part of the game (and, consequently, is most misunderstood by many modern gamers) is the original Traveller.
In Traveller, all newly created characters start at 18 years of age. You could then attempt to enlist in one of six services: Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants, or Other. Successfully enlisting required a successful roll of the dice (some services were more difficult to join than others). Each term of service lasted for 4 years and carried with it the chance of injury or death (determined with another dice roll — some services were more dangerous than others). Depending on what service you had joined, you would gain different skills and training during your term. And once a term was completed, you could opt to re-enlist, join another service, or end your career and start play.
Wait a minute… did I just say that your character could die during character creation? Yes. I did.
I’ve seen lots of people describe that system as crazy. But the concept really shouldn’t be that hard to grasp: Mechanically, character creation in Traveller is a gambling game. You’re gambling the risk of death, injury, or debilitation from age against the possibility for better skills and training.
And the brilliant part of it, frankly, is that Traveller used the gambling mechanics to encourage players to create characters with interesting and intricately detailed backgrounds. What did you do during that term of service? Why did your character choose to re-enlist? What did you do to learn those particular skills?
The original Traveller rulebook may have summed up this approach to game design best when it said:
The Solitaire Game: One player undertakes some journey or adventure alone. He or she handles the effects of the rules as the situation progresses. [...] In addition, there are many aspects ideally suited to solitaire consideration. A single player can spend time generating characters, designing starships, generating worlds and subsectors, planning situations, and mapping out ideas to use in later group scenarios.
Under this design philosophy, rolling up characters was more than just a means to an end: It was meant to be fun in and of itself. There’s a little bit of gambling — a little bit of excitement – in that moment when the dice fly and the fate of your character is shaped before your eyes.
THE MODERN PARADIGM
Of course, in most modern gaming character attrition is low. The goal of “survival” has taken a backseat to the development of character, exploration of world, and the telling of stories. And, as a result, some of the necessary elements that make Gygaxian balance work no longer exist.
But I still think we can learn some valuable lessons from Gygaxian balance. There is more to a roleplaying game than mechanical equivalence.
It’s also important to remember that, given the open-ended nature of roleplaying games, true mechanical equivalence can only be achieved by artificially narrowing both the range of potential characters and the breadth of possible or expected gameplay. (4th Edition, notably, does both.)
There’s something to be said for characters with long lives and the long arcs of development that those lives make possible. But there’s also something to be said for the capricious whim of fate that makes victory meaningful because failure is always an option.
And for Arneson and Gygax, both of these things could be true at the same time.