Monday, April 26, 2021

D&D's Original Twenty+ Character Stats (versus GURPS)

Players of role-playing adventure games love simple game rules these days. I think that's a good thing, and it's likely to make the hobby easier to enter for newcomers.

But what counts as simple?

B/X D&D and other early varieties of D&D, and their many, many clones, are often praised for the simplicity of the stats and character features if we compare with later editions of D&D.

Yet if we just consider the player-facing matter of the character sheet and the numbers that players need to track, there are a lot of numbers, and the use of those numbers is often opaque. What do you roll for this stat or that stat, if at all, and which die?

Some stats are "primary," in the sense that you roll for them or they are determined without reference to other numbers.

Some of them are "secondary," in the sense that they are derived from primary numbers by a formula or by consulting a chart.

After trying to introduce a few novices to B/X D&D, I realized that these "simple" D&D stats were not so simple as I had claimed.

Here's a list of things that a new B/X D&D player needs to track. I call all of these "stats," including the ones that are not numerical (like Alignment).

I put an *asterisk by the secondary stats.

  1. Class (descriptive but essential stat)
  2. Level
  3. Alignment
  4. Experience Points
  5. STR
  6. damage bonus*
  7. DEX
  8. AC and missile adjustment*
  9. CON
  10. HP adjustment*
  11. INT
  12. Languages known*
  13. WIS
  14. Save vs magic bonus*
  15. CHA
  16. Retainers one can have*
  17. Loyalty adjustment*
  18. Experience bonus for prime requisites*
  19. Hit Points
  20. Armor Class
  21. THAC0 (or attack bonus)
  22. vs Death Ray/Poison*
  23. vs Wands*
  24. vs "Stone"*
  25. vs Dragon Breath*
  26. vs Staves & Spells*
  27. Damage done (per weapon)

Then there are modular stats according to character class, such as "Spells/Levels of spells," a chart of numbers for Turning Undead, and a chart of numbers for Thief abilities.

A starting D&D character has well over twenty stats.

D&D characters are also highly uniform in these stats. Everybody has the same ones. The main variation comes in restrictions on weapons and armor, hit dice, and class abilities.

New players also have to figure out d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and d100. As a player who started in 1981, I find these distinctions as obvious to me as my native language. But I have recently seen new players stall at the table, unable to recognize which die's shape is which on the spur of the moment, and others have to select dice for them to roll. It's not fun at the table to feel you can't spot which die to roll.

A comparison with GURPS

Let's compare the unnoticed complexity of D&D with another game that has a reputation for complexity: GURPS.

If a player wants to custom-design a character in GURPS, it can take a very long time without the presence of someone who has encyclopedic familiarity with the rules. Still, take a look at the stat system.

  1. ST
  2. DX
  3. IQ
  4. HT
  5. Willpower*
  6. Basic Speed*
  7. Move*
  8. Thrust damage*
  9. Swing damage *
  10. Passive Defense*
  11. Active Defense*
  12. Skills, MODULAR
  13. OTHER POSSIBLE MODULAR TRAITS (advantages, disadvantages, quirks)

The GURPS character-facing rules are actually really simple. The resolution system is also very easy. The game uses d6 only. It's 3d6, roll equal-to-or-under. (Only reaction rolls and damage rolls work differently.)

What makes GURPS seem complex is its modularity. That is, you just use the rules for character features that you have. After decades of GURPS supplements, there are modular features for characters for practically any genre. It's vast.

Still, the core GURPS rules are far simpler and more streamlined than those for D&D. In GURPS, there are no useless stats. There are no numbers that sit there most of the time without being used (like D&D stats, which often play zero role in actual play).

If you wanted to use GURPS Lite (which is free!), you get an easy and universal resolution system without much fuss.

The drawbacks in GURPS for "rules-lite" game fans are basically just two, both related to character generation.

(1) It has a point-buy system, and there is such a big menu of things you can buy, that it can be overwhelming. Character generation for a new player can last hours, as prospective players leaf through a catalogue of items that might fit a new character.

(2) There has definitely been a huge "point creep" in GURPS gaming culture. When the system first game out, characters were ideally based on 100 points. It was a nice round number for low-power fantasy games. Now they are more typically 250 points, meaning that there's just a lot more shopping and counting to do in character generation. Even when character templates are used to simplify things for beginners, a 250-point template is a lot of data and fidgety numbers.

I think that point bloat is the single biggest reason there aren't more players of GURPS games.

GURPS would probably win new players if it could lower this hurdle considerably. Here are some ideas:

1.  Back to basics: 100-point characters, with correspondingly lower stats, so that one point of a core stat makes a difference, as it used to be in the late '80s.

2. Random characters (not point-buy!). Make a table of character features used in your setting, and let players roll for them. Never mind that PCs will have different point values! Players accept that some will roll better than others.

4. Alternatively, have simple lists of advantages and disadvantages of the same point value, with a list of acceptable swaps. Players pick from lists. "Pick one advantage from Box A. You can take an advantage from Box B, but then you have to take one disadvantage from Box C." "If you want to raise your Magery by 1, lower ST or HT by one." That kind of thing will be more legible to players than adding up points.

5. Combine low-point templates with random rolls for modular features.

6. Institute a slot-based encumbrance system instead of counting pounds or kilograms. (Slots = ST. New Advantage: bonus item slots, 4 pts/level up to a limit set by the GM.)

I could see a low-hurdle, easy-character-generation version of GURPS being quite successful.

Steve Jackson Games has published its Dungeon Fantasy rules, which seems to emulate later editions of D&D more, with higher power levels and templates in place of character classes. That's where they invested to tap into the OSR scence (that, and the republished deluxe edition of The Fantasy Trip).

But I'd like see GURPS Basic Fantasy instead, with a system for making characters randomly that didn't require any knowledge of the point-system. The points would be at a smaller scale and can be kept entirely "under the hood" except when used for XP.

Starting templates could be printed on cards. To make a character in GURPS, draw a card from the stack for your template, then roll some d66s to get a few advantages and disadvantages. Then just play without counting any points at all during character generation.

The point value of characters could just be something the GM tracks behind the screen--if that's even necessary.

People who play video games don't need to know the code underlying it. The same goes for GURPS character points. You can play without them.

There's one more thing. Steve Jackson Games just has to start not using such bad art in every single book. I'd rather have no art than the stuff they use most of the time. (This goes especially for art that depicts images of Kickstarter patrons as adventurers, nearly ruining some products for me.) I don't like the role that art plays in the success and failure of games, but there's no denying it: new players are sparked by cool art.


Okay, this post has turned out to be a lot more about GURPS than I had intended, but I think the initial point is still true:

D&D characters have a lot of stats!

There's a lot to keep track of for a brand-new D&D player, with confusing and nearly useless stuff all over the character sheet, and it's not nearly as simple as fans of the good old days sometimes think.

Sure, early D&D rules are much simpler than a lot of later systems, but, then again, complexity in a character sheet is of two kinds.

(1) There's mandatory complexity, the stuff every single player has to keep track of.

(2) Then there's modular complexity, the stuff that only matters to the players who have those modular features in their characters.

D&D is more complex than GURPS when it comes to mandatory complexity: numbers for odd things that every player must track. (A separate number for "Save versus Wands"?) GURPS is more complex than old editions of D&D when it comes to modular complexity: things that players track only to distinguish their individual character.

Players have their strong preferences, but I bet I could explain a simple GURPS character sheet and basic GURPS mechanics to a new player more simply than I could explain how a B/X D&D character sheet works.


  1. The problem is that a lot of people consider those stats as being mandatory for the game to be "D&D". I personally really like what "Platemail 27th edition" tried to do by rendering the character attributes as a Chainmail stat-line or, if you prefer, an almost "monster-lite" statline. I really think D&D doesn't need more than that. However, if you say: "We'll play D&D, but there are not attributes and a single saving-throw category*", you'll get weird faces or outright refusal from some players. Modifying the core rules is met with rejection sometimes (and I speak from experience since I wanted to incorporate Chainmail combat rules in my OD&D game). Personally, I'd be all-in to modify and simplify some of the rules, but since I'm playing generally open table campaign, that would cause two issues:
    1) Newer people with expectations of rules (either through general knowledge or other editions) would be MORE lost, not less
    2) It could result in a lower pool of players since, like I say, some people are not interested in calling it D&D if it doesn't have the stats and so on
    3) IMO open tables should be as close as possible to BTB because of that openesss nature that may involve multiple Referees
    With regards to GURPS, I've played and read many RPGs over the last 15 years (I'm not a Grognard), but I've never wanted to play GURPS. The modular aspect made it too vast and uninteresting for me. If I can't create and play in a couple of minutes, the game is boring. I know people love GURPS and so I'm not saying that the game is bad, far from it. My point is just that this modular aspect needs not be understated: I know many other people that, like me, feel it's the main criteria of them being not interested in it.

    1. Your take is interesting. You want a slightly simpler line of D&D stats, but players you know want those commonly-expected stats anyway, to make it feel like D&D. Given your preference, it's not surprising that you don't want to play GURPS! But if you *were* to try just GURPS Lite, or if it were packaged differently, with only the very light core rules showing, and you had a Referee who ran it lightly, you might like it. If I had not started GURPS before GURPS--with The Fantasy Trip and then "Man to Man," and then the first edition of GURPS--but only eve saw the Third or Fourth Editions of GURPS, I'd be there with you: there's *no way* I'd play it. In the end, preferences do vary.

      I agree with you: "D&D" doesn't need a lot of those stats.

  2. The Fantasy Trip is about perfect for me: just three stats (or two, if you just use Melee), but with so much hinging on them. I love the fact that you can have a character sheet on a playing card (and so a host of NPCs or pregenerated PCs in an index-card box or equivalent). There are only two drawbacks: the illustrations, as with GURPs, and the hexes. But the combat system is excellent - so much so that even the most minor encounter is gripping.

    One day, I'll buy a couple of big mats with unobtrusive hexes ...

    1. For those reading this who are intrigued by JC's endorsement of The Fantasy Trip, you can find the fighting rules released as "Melee" as a digital download *for free*. The box set with mat and cardboard pieces is $15, and the "Wizard" rules are also $15. The full RPG is the book "In the Labyrinth." (The system is quite good! You just have to ignore the art in this book.)

      JC's right, too: it's an elegant little system.

  3. I think an enterprising person could make a beginner-friendly B/X character sheet using either graphical presentation (font, boxes with different line weights) and/or colour (even just highlighters on a standard character sheet) to divide 'stats' into three categories:
    1. Things you need to know
    2. Things you will need to reference when the DM asks you for them
    3. Things we can worry about later

    Category 1
    1. Class
    2. Alignment
    3. STR
    4. DEX
    5. CON
    6. INT
    7. WIS
    8. CHA
    9. Languages known
    10. Hit Points
    11. Equipment
    12. class abilities/spells

    Category 2
    1. Armor Class
    2. THAC0 (or attack bonus)
    3. Damage done (per weapon)
    4. missile/melee hit & damage bonus*
    5. Save vs magic bonus*
    6. vs Death Ray/Poison
    7. vs Wands
    8. vs "Stone"
    9. vs Dragon Breath
    10. vs Staves & Spells

    Category 3
    1. Level
    2. Experience Points
    3. missile/melee hit & damage bonus*
    4. AC and missile adjustment*
    5. Save vs magic bonus*
    6. HP adjustment
    7. Retainers one can have
    8. Loyalty adjustment
    9. Experience bonus for prime requisites

    *these are in categories 2&3 -- they should be listed near the relevant attribute (cat. 3) and more prominently near the things they actually affect (cat. 2). Optionally, just put them by the attacks & saves, and explain how they're derived when your players are a little more comfortable with the rules.

    1. AIE, these are interesting ideas. It raises questions about what players need to know, an ancient debate. There are the rare advocates of the approach that the player should have no numbers available. I'd suggest that players don't even need to know the six ability scores unless the DM uses them for ability checks. If the DM doesn't call for ability checks, they are basically just role-play guidelines at best, stats that players think are far more important than they are.

      Hit points and armor class seem to me to be the things a player should be most aware of, because these two above all teach a player about what kinds of risks are wise and unwise to take. Then comes equipment, but that isn't really a stat.

      Different play-styles will emphasize different bits, though.

    2. Different DMs will certainly have different emphases.

      I put attributes in the 1st category for the same reason I put alignment there, envisioning/roleplaying the character.

      I see your point about armour class, but I'd be more likely to emphasise that from the equipment side of things (unless the PC had truly amazing DEX) to begin with and use actual combat to teach the numerical aspect.

      I put equipment as a 'stat' because I do think it's important to know what it all is. I remember back in '81 we had a new player throw his armour at a goblin because he had no idea what 'plate mail' meant. To be fair, the DM should have stepped in to correct him, but we were all 9 and 10 years old, so...

    3. Plate mail does sound like a dangerous weapon! I mean, it would hurt to get hit with a suit of armor, but don't ask me how one throws it. I can vaguely remember not knowing what a flail was in those days. Thank goodness for Erol Otus' picture of a weapons rack in Moldvay's basic. That was where I arrived at a concept of a pole-arm. There's something missing from Old-School Essentials: a picture of all the weapons.

  4. Two things I'd say on GURPS:

    - it's not that damage and reaction rolls work differently - effect rolls are usually "roll high." Checking to see if you do something is roll low, effects are roll high, and there are random tables where "roll extremes" are better/worse than "roll average."

    - Point creep is one way to put it, going from 100 to 150, but GURPS 3e and GURPS 4e changed the cost structure of skills and traits. So it's comparing two systems with different costs. 1 point in 3e could potentially buy you a bit more than 1 point in 4e. So it's more like the cost basis changed in an inflationary way. It's like saying cars are more expensive now than in the 1920s. Yes, they are, but the value of money is different. Sure, there are 250 point Dungeon Fantasy PCs, but there are 1600 point superheroes, too, because in a linear costed system playing larger-than-life action hero types costs more.

    Still, I do laugh when people tell me GURPS is complex and then say they play AD&D.

    1. About "roll high" vs "roll low" being inconsistent:

      I have never been bothered by a game that has different dice procedures.

      Here, in fact, D&D is *extremely* inconsistent:
      1. Ability checks (roll low d20)
      2. To hit rolls (roll high d20)
      3. Damage dice (roll high but all over the place with the dice and math)
      4. Thief abilities (roll low percentile)
      5. Morale (roll low 2d6)
      6. Reaction checks (roll high for good 2d6)
      7. Listen at doors, open stuck doors, and other dungeon procedures (roll low 1d6)
      8. Wandering monsters (players don't want low on 1d6)

      I'm sure there are more variable procedures. My point is that D&D is a chaotic mess, but it's still easy enough that plenty of beginning players enjoy it still.

      How much easier and simpler GURPS is! GURPS has nothing to defend on the front of "inconsistency."

  5. GURPS is two loosely linked games.

    Game 1 is a complicated "Character Point" drive PC creation game that is trying to do PC power balancing, massive flexibility in character modeling, and PC experience advancement all at the same time. This game is a lot of fun for some folks but is not actually that great at creating fun role playing experiences.

    Game 2 is a fun RPG.

    I think game 2 is a pretty good game with a smooth entry ramp. Game 1 has it's points (ba-dum tss) but the learning curve is forbidding.

    My standard analogy for PC creation is action figures vs. legos.

    Most RPG PCs are action figures. There's a batch of Barbies - Barbarbiean, Bardbie, Assasken, etc. Players choose some accessories for their choses figure and go. Daring ones choose accessories from another character's set.

    GURPS PCs are assembled from two big tubs of assorted legos assembled from the best parts of 27 lego sets over three decades combined with a starter pack the owner got for Christmas in '82. You can make an amazing assortment of PCs and they can all work with each other. However if you don't know what's in those buckets and have never used lego before you're unlikely to get anything good.

    1. What you say makes sense to me. When character creation is so laborious, or requires so much knowledge of modular traits, it doesn't in itself create a fun role-playing experience. Yet it is creative.

      There are, I think, other ways besides action figures and legos. Freeform players just describe characters and go, and all characters' stories evolve in play, so some start with a minimal template and let time and tale fill it in with detail.

      I won't have been the first to propose that players just roll to see what lego pieces come out of the bucket.

  6. Peter D above wrote a set of rules (Dungeon Fantasy 15:Henchmen) for characters 62 points to 187 points, and I wrote an unpublished set of rules for 75pt characters. Gaming Ballistic is about to launch a kickstarter for a DFRPG product similar to Peter's. It is certainly possibly to plsy 4e at these point levels, but with the increased cost of DX and IQ vs 3e, and the loss of 1/2 point skills, as Peter suggested, the same 3e 100 pt character easy costs 150 to build in 4e, as Peter said

    1. I'm sure it's possible, too! I'd buy something like that kind of ruleset for GURPS low-point character generation, if it works.

  7. I used to like GURPS, and started with Man to Man and lasted all the way to 3e. I’ve played some 4e games with the original group I started with, but no longer run it because my taste and patience has moved me toward simpler/faster games when it comes to chargen. I’ve been looking at trying it again with a newer group, and I’d probably use either 3e or 4e Lite. I’d also borrow some random aspects from other systems, and change the underpinnings to be ‘powered by GURPS’. If I ever get time, that is. So I’d be interested in seeing what else turns up in the GURPS sphere, but one of the attractions of something like Knave is that it is quick, simple, and there are plenty of free “D&Ds” I can raid for monsters and spells and items. Not to mention plenty of maps too.