Friday, July 1, 2011

Ad-Hoc Secondary Attributes in D&D

In the comments on simple attribute checks last week, Cyclopeatron had mentioned a system he used for Classic D&D that combined two attributes when checking against a more complicated situation. A running long jump, for instance, would take a roll against both STR and DEX in that method.

Picking apart the old Top Secret rules (preparing some more irons to be cast into the fire post-Domain Game launch), the character generation system brought me back again this week to thinking about those combo packages.

In that game you have three percentile-based sets of attributes: a primary set of six (analogs to the D&D “Big Six” for the most part); a secondary set of six calculated from the rolls of the primary; and a tertiary one riding the coat-tails of the secondary.

The idea of the tertiary set was a just plain silly level of over-complication to bolt on, but in practice most of the use of the secondary set wasn't overly burdensome in rolling up a new character and mostly had some logical truck to them. Offense, the general combat ability, was determined by taking Coordination and Courage and dividing them by two; Life Level, the hit point stand-in, by taking Physical Strength and Willpower and dividing by 10. Yadda yadda.

I remember liking this system as it made for some interesting choices as you gained experience—and were able to up your primary attributes according to the rules. Under the rules there was nothing like a “dump stat” as we use the term.

Better there was a general acknowledgment that the world, even those of our heroic imagination, is filled with complicated situations that force people to use a range of talents. I do find myself continuously running into situations that call for something like a secondary attribute.

In the majority of those situations, fortunately, old school style gaming works just fine and dandy with a combination of player skill, role-playing, and good ole seat-of-the-pants ruling. Attempts to find an overarching, unifying mechanic covering an exhaustive list of in-game situations here inevitably create monsters.

But there are circumstances were I see the characters facing a persistent use of combined attributes and wishing I had at least a rough guide to how to adjudicate it. Sometimes it arises out of exploration of an unusual environment. Let's say the players are spending several sessions trying to mountaineer their way up sheer cliffs, rappel down crevasses, and the like on the way to the Monastery of Radiant and Supernal Effluvia. What attribute is this checked against? STR? CON? DEX?

The other comes when a campaign setting has a heavier emphasis on an unusual play area (that's oddball situations between the traditional areas of dungeon, wilderness, and town adventures we know and love). Say there are great clashes of armies with the players stuck right in the middle as Great Captains. What governs effectiveness as a military leader? CHA in itself feels insufficient, motivating men in the field to not just move, but do so understanding all the myriad, quick complications that happen in the heat of battle. INT?

The punchline is a while in coming back full circle here--I can hear an old journalism mentor screaming in my head about reverting pyramids and the like--but I like the idea of adding an addendum to the simple method of attribute checks I snagged from the Lord of Green Dragons.

Again I am mostly happy with the usual combo of player skill and rulings, but there are times when an objective marker is needed just to move the game. In that I am content with ad-hoc combos like Cyclo's system of combining two scores together for a check. 

Putting it all together now:

Attribute Checks
Normal Circumstance 3d6
Tougher 4d6
Really Tough 5d6
Extraordinary 6d6
For each 4th level drop one die.

A roll of the attribute score or less denotes success. In most cases, this will be used against a single primary ability. Unusual circumstances will combine two attributes to find the number checked against add the two attribute scores together and divide by two, rounding down.

Example: Guanillo the Mountebank is attempting to withstand torture...err...excuse me “advanced interrogation techniques” after an attempt to ply his trade in the vestibule of the Orthodox Lodge of Sol Invictus goes south. The GM rules that he must make a 4d6 check against a combo of his WIS (8) and CON (15). 8+15= 23, divided by two leaves 11 after rounding down. He rolls a “21” on four dice, a failure—and squeals like a pig.


  1. Interesting system. As you also identify its the unusual critical situations (leading armies, rousing townsfolk to action, seducing the villianess) where I feel "just role-play it!" falls short and too easily slips into arbitrary GM decision. Not that I'm opposed to ome arbitrary GM decision making, but its nice to have a framework in which to work.

  2. > Not that I'm opposed to ome arbitrary GM decision making, but its nice to have a framework in which to work.

    a.k.a. Rolemaster. Oops, sorry, pure D&D post ;)
    (Sometimes it's difficult to know when to keep bolting-on to the framework vs. starting afresh, IMO).

  3. I have to mention that based on the earlier post about said Lord of Green Dragons "method" I've adopted it in the past couple of weeks for secondary skills/non-weapon proficiencies and really like the results.

    This is pretty much in the same vein, and what I had been done the couple times a straight attribute check was needed.


  4. I've been using 3d6, 4d6, 5d6, etc for a while, but the idea of dropping a die every 4 levels is nifty - thx!

  5. I particularly liked the way Rolemaster used str/str/dex for melee and str/dex/dex for missiles. (i.e. So for melee you’d add dex to str times 2 and then divide by 3.)

    Generally, though, if I am convinced more than one ability score may be appropriate, I let the player use the character’s highest from the set. Or lowest if I think the circumstances warrant.

  6. What does "For each 4th level drop one die" mean?

  7. It means roll one less than you would normal under normal circumstances.

    So if you were making a check that called for 5d6 you would roll 4d6 instead at levels 4-7, 3d6 at levels 8-11, and so on down the line.