Death to Ability Scores!


by Ryven Cedrylle

From time to time a shout will arise in a d20 gaming community like The Wave, travelling rapidly from group to group only to die out a couple cycles later in a whimper.

“Death to Ability Scores!”

13th Age took care of a lot of these problems in moving to a Background system instead of a skill system. You don’t roll Intimidate which is based off Charisma, you roll Imperial Executioner with whatever stat makes the most sense. Still, even in 13th Age, cases can be made that ability scores are problematic. The arguments largely boil down to…

1) In a game that wants to give you mechanics to expound on your backstory and interact with the big movers and shakers of the world (Backgrounds, Relationships, OUTs), hard measurements of a character’s abilities seems out of place – a relic of systems gone by.

2) Justifying which ability score to use for which skill check can be fuzzy. I don’t run fast because I’m all lean and lithe, it’s because I’ve got these big meaty legs that propel me around. That’s Strength, not Dexterity. My persuasive speaking style? Not Charisma. I’m smart – it’s Intelligence. I debate. Doesn’t mean I’m attractive in any other way. Sometimes no ability really makes sense.

3) Since Dexterity and Constitution and used in determining AC, PD, HP and initiative, they’re more mathematically important than the other four stats for combat and classes that get to use them as to-hit stats are inherently better or more efficient. (For example, take a Level 1 {10/18/18/10/10/10} Human Ranger. You’ve got 33 HP, a 19 AC, a 16 PD, an 11 MD [the one pitfall] and a +5 initiative bonus. Also, you hit at +4 with +4 damage. That would require an 18 STR, 18 DEX and 16 CON for the Fighter to not quite match. You’re probably also as tough as and faster than a Paladin that’s using both STR and CHA. You might have trouble with skill checks… maybe.)

4) Ability score bonuses tend towards racial (and sometimes gender when things go really awry) stereotyping. You don’t see a lot of High Elven Monks, for example. It can be done, but the stats don’t quite line up.

While none of these arguments are necessarily dealbreakers (even among those who point them out!), they do have a certain amount of reason to them. Are you the type who wishes to retire the long-held tradition of ability scores? Today is your lucky day.

The important part of ability scores is not the raw 3-18 number, but the resultant modifier. The raw score is never even used again in 13th Age past character creation. No feats rely on them, no rolls are made against them. They are less useful than the human appendix. The modifiers, though, conventiently happen to fall within the same 1-5 range (usually) as Backgrounds. What if we just used Backgrounds as ability modifiers?

Start with your top three Backgrounds (if you only have two, assume a third invisible “0” Background). Apply one to PD, one to MD and one to initiative in place of the normal stat bonuses. Example: A Level 1 Barbarian (race no longer matters since racial ability adjustments are gone) has three Backgrounds at +4, +2 and +1. She wants a good PD, so she adds the +4 and her level to her base 11 to get a 16 PD. She also wants a decent initiative so she uses the +2 for that. (+3 total with level) Her MD has to use the final score, giving her a 12 MD (10 + 1 level +1 Background).

Your main attack stat is always just your best Background, so most characters will get between a +3 and +5 for to-hit and damage. A few might end up with a +2, but the Escalation die will help ease that problem. You might have the occasional alternate-stat attack, like Charisma for Paladins, Wisdom for Monks and Dexterity for ranged attacks by melee classes like the Fighter. Use your second-best Background for that if it comes up. Finally take your two lower Backgrounds and apply them to your HP (in place of Constitution modifier) and your AC bonus (in place of the Con/Dex/Wis middle) as you see fit if you are wearing light armor. If you are wearing heavy armor, you must use your lowest Background for AC and middle for HP. Example: Our Level 1 Barbarian finishes up her stats. She automatically hits at +4 in melee, +2 in ranged. She chooses to add the +2 to her HP giving her 27 HP and the 1 to her AC for a total of 15 (with shield).

There are only a couple little changes you have to make to the game to accommodate this. First, if you get +5 Backgrounds via things like Further Backgrounding or the Ranger’s Tracker Talent, those do not apply to your combat stats. Also, when you reach levels 4, 7 and 10, you get +1 to a Background instead of +1 to three ability scores. Gamemasters might consider dropping all skill check DCs by about 3 to 5 since ability scores won’t get added in anymore, but for DMs who found a DC 15 Easy check too easy to begin with, problem solved.

Perhaps the real fun of an ability score-less 13th Age would be using Backgrounds directly in combat, effectively merging the idea of an attack roll with that of a skill check and really exploring HP as not just physical damage. “Wow, that knight’s AC is ridiculous. Can I use my Court Jester +2 to attack his MD instead? I’ll humiliate him by mocking the knight to whom he was squired.”  “I want to use my Contagious Curse Background to dampen the warpriest’s connection to its deity.”  Those thoughts are for another time.

9 Responses to “Death to Ability Scores!”

  1. Dan Turetsky says:

    Okay, this is really cool. Yoink.

    One thing I don’t understand is the heavy armor restriction. There’s no analogous rule in the base system, and it’s not like we expect Clerics, Fighters and Paladins to dump stat Con/Dex/Wis more than the other classes. What’s the reason for that restriction?

    • Ryven says:

      So the trick here is that it is impossible per the core rulebook to get a +4 to AC bonus (middle of DEX/WIS/CON) for the classes that wear heavy armor – Paladin, Cleric and Fighter. Well, ok, let me backtrack – not strictly impossible but you have zero melee attack bonus (STR) or some stats at 8 somewhere if you do so. A purely spellcastery Cleric could actually be rocking a 19 AC at level 1 with 18 CON/18 WIS and be perfectly useful in a fight. Other than that, the math presumes a heavy armor wearer is probably sporting a +1 or so to AC bonus. Allowing a +4/+4 Background heavy armor wearer to use that +4 to AC is very close to being unfair. The restriction aims to reign that in.

  2. Jackard says:

    I have created a character sheet for this alternate ruleset, found here:

  3. Dan –

    The reason for that restriction is that heavy armor is already a big AC boost on its own, and otherwise a {4,4,0} character in heavy armor would have a ridiculous AC (i.e. AC 21 at level 1).

  4. Greldor says:

    I really like this idea. I’d have to play it a few times before I’d be ready to run a campaign with it.

  5. Without Ability modifiers, I’d consider adjusting all Skill DC’s down by 5 points, so a DC 15 check would become a DC 10.

  6. Joe says:

    Wow, I really like this idea. Especially directly applying backgrounds as attacks in combat. It’s quite elegant.

    What happens though, when backgrounds are not all-encompassing?

    For example, if a character who had solely intellectual/lore-related background were to attempt some act of agility or strength for some important reason.

    None of their backgrounds cover it, but (iirc) in regular 13th Age the player would still get to add the relevant ability score modifier to the roll. In other words, despite lacking in specific training, the player’s natural ability still has an effect on the outcome.

  7. Ryven says:

    Joe –

    I’m working on a follow-up piece and will address it there. :)

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