Replacing intelligence and wisdom

A replacement ability score system.

Strength, dexterity, constitution, magic, perception, charisma.

Why this substitution? Because these six scores fit into the tasks that adventurers perform regularly in the game, are useful to all classes, and are less ambiguous. For example, should INT or WIS modify the save versus magic? Why? With this spread, the relevant stat is obviously “magic.” Similarly, d6 search and listen checks are the common traditional perception system, and are used frequently. Having a stat associated with them highlights the centrality of these mechanisms to a certain play style.

3d6 each. Modifiers abbreviated as STR, DEX, CON, MAG, PER, CHA.

Ability Modifier
3 -3
4, 5 -2
6, 7, 8 -1
9, 10, 11, 12 nil
13, 14, 15 +1
16, 17 +2
18 +3
Modifier Effects
STR modifies melee damage and force tests.
DEX modifies combat rating and sneak tests.
CON is added to HP (total, not per die).
MAG modifies magic tests.
PER modifies search and listen tests.
CHA modifies reaction tests.

Force, listen, search, sneak, etc tests are performed with a d6 and succeed on 6 or higher. A natural 1 is always a failure. Listening and searching take an exploration turn and forcing something makes noise.

Magic tests are used both to resist enemy magic (basically, a replacement for saving throws versus spells) and for the difficulty of resisting the spells a particular magic-user casts.

And to replicate traditional race abilities:

  • Dwarves: +1 to search tests involving architecture or mechanisms.
  • Elves: +1 to search tests involving secret doors.
  • Halflings: +1 to sneak tests and thrown missiles.

An aside: it is interesting that “advanced” games modify ability scores directly by race, whereas the “basic” games give demi-humans bonuses only to specific tasks.

See also:

17 thoughts on “Replacing intelligence and wisdom

  1. PW Shea

    Sure. I like this, though I humbly suggest that one of the reasons I like the traditional spread is because it’s got the benefit of being direct, simple and pretty comprehensible (with the noted exception of Int and Wis at times) while also being unbounded and ultimately indeterminate. I think your idea might, ultimately, for my tastes, elevate the former to the detriment of the latter (Magic and Perception feel pretty bounded to me, especially Magic).

    1. Brendan Post author

      A fair point. Intelligence and wisdom do provide a sort of informal personality profile (though in practice, it ends up being rather binary in my experience, with low intelligence and low wisdom licensing a lack of PC subtlety and a lack of PC caution, respectively). And charisma too, I suppose, though the ambiguity there is less.

      1. PW Shea

        What I really mean has more to do with how they get used by the GM rather than how they’re read by players. So, like, beyond the personality profile thing, the terms are intelligible and broad enough that they can be read by players or employed by GMs in a whole range of ways, some of which are likely novel and bizarre and adhering to the (meta)physics of the campaign. “In my game puzzles are money, so you start with d6xInt modx10 credits” or whatever.

      2. Brendan Post author

        @PW Shea

        Interesting. I rarely make any use of PC ability scores directly as referee other than to call for ability checks. Usually because I do not know them, am not organized enough to keep track of them proactively, and am not in the habit of asking.

        It seems like magic is easily interpretable as psychic power or spiritual acuity as well, but I agree that magic and perception are less open ended than intelligence and wisdom.

        Not stated in the post, but another benefit of eliminating int and wis is to (passively) emphasize that player ingenuity is required, which may be useful for players coming from a 3E and after skill check paradigm.

  2. checkmarkgames

    Very interesting. How do negative modifiers play into the roll ‘6’ on d6? Does a penalty mean such a character cannot succeed at such tasks?

    Perception could also be used as the bonus to Ranged attacks for those that think Dexterity is too valuable.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Yeah, that was my intent. Bad perception, no chance at listen. Natural 6 could be treated as auto-success (like the mirror of natural 1), if you don’t like that.

      This does not affect non-abstract interaction with the environment, however. So the player can still move aside the chest, look under the table, etc. They are just no good at tossing a room.

      Interesting idea regarding using perception rather than dexterity for ranged attacks. Will think on it more. Maybe (at the danger of rules creep) it would be a good option for surprise attacks or sniping.

  3. JSpace

    This made me think of Runequest (mostly 3rd edition). Power replaces Wisdom and represents a PC’s soul (fortune and luck) or lack there of. If your Power is high you’re more likely to be noticed, avoided or attacked. Along with Appearance (Charisma), Power also can effect social standing and wergild (usually how much cattle your PC is worth), as will cultural background, quality of weapons & armor, weapon skills (a PC’s reputation in battle), et cetera. Intelligence is still in there, but effects perception as much as Constitution (health and stamina impact concentration) and Power (messages from your PC’s god, dumb luck or a hunch).

    1. Brendan Post author


      I have read bits of Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer, but have no experience with Runequest. These are all BRP dialects, correct? I should probably check Runequest out at some point, for basic historical RPG literacy if nothing else.

  4. Mark

    I take it your rogue class has no skills like Lotfp? Otherwise PER kind of invades that turf.

    WIS can be got rid of, especially if you are not in a pseudo European middle age setting, all magic casters rely on INT. INT/MAG is ok but an ability check for raw intelligence where does that now go? For my magic casters INT provides one extra spell if they have a positive modifier and it also modifies REFLEX saves (smart people are more aware of dangers).

    The weaker CON bonus does that work better? You are aiming for a flatter curve?

    1. Brendan Post author


      The skill system that I have more or less settled on, with some variations, is this:

      +PER applies to listen and search only, and then the thief/rogue benefits stack on top of that. So you can have a naturally perceptive non-thief that that is good at those two skills, but they won’t necessarily be good at sneaking, picking locks, and so forth. Also if wearing a helmet, listen will be decreased, and it might make more sense for the fighter to be on guard rather than searching… etc. I don’t mind some overlap between class competencies, as long as no class is obsoleted.

      Intelligence is an interesting case. I don’t find that I call for knowledge checks much, and raw character intelligence I prefer to leave to player creativity. So what this proposed system means is that the character sheet does not make any strong assertions about a given PC’s intellect. Instead, that must be demonstrated via character actions and what is learned through play.

      Yes, the CON bonus is designed to restrain HP inflation. I have experience with the OD&D max +1 HP per die con bonus* (granted if constitution is 15 or higher), and like how that played out. I think this will result in roughly similar numbers, with a bias toward slightly more (though only 1 or 2) at low levels.

      * Assuming just Men & Magic rules, no supplements:

      1. checkmarkgames

        You mentioned above that the warriors may be choosing to Guard while other party members are Searching. This hints that you have a formalized Exploration process. I have been playing around with such myself lately (taking some ideas from Torchbearer) and I would love to hear more about any such system you use, or at least what advantage there is for choosing to Guard.

      2. Brendan Post author


        To oversimplify slightly, guarding allows a character to defend another, making it so that the defender must be targeted (or circumvented, which imposes penalties) prior to targeting the character being defended. There is also “watch,” which makes being surprised less likely.

  5. Charles Ferguson

    Brendan, I don’t think this is a good idea and this is why.

    Abilities serve a bedrock function in OD&D but that function isn’t mechanical.

    OD&D is class-centric. At its core what your PC is capable of is defined by class and extended by level. Ability scores have come to modify that but successsive designers have been extremely careful to keep them in a supporting role. Saving throws, to hit, weapon choice, spells, armor – all by class. Ability modifiers may apply but they’re totally unproportional to what those scores are meant to represent (an 18 Dex person is 15% better with a bow than a 9 Dex person – really?). That’s by design. People who find that design a deal-breaker migrate to BRP and it’s ilk, which were a direct reaction against it.

    The real role of abilities in OD&D is conceptual. People frame their idea of their PC around those 6 scores. The influence of those scores exists far more in the imagination than in the games mechanics. Despite (or because of) that I believe its almost impossible to overestimate how crucial the role of abilities are in making D&D the game it is.**

    So I think you’re yanking on a loose thread here that actually runs right to the heart of the game, and doing so will see you applying a never-ending series of bigger and bigger patches that end in not-D&D. And if you’re prepared to follow the path to that end, why not take it as your starting point?

    At least these are the conclusions I’ve come to after trying repeatedly to promote abilities to first-class citizens within the D&D rules.

    ** If you want to test this theory, try removing abilities altogether: just have classes and a collection of functional bonuses like “+1 Climb”, “+3 Damage”, “2 additional languages”, etc and assign these to characters as a way to individualize them. This would be mechanically identical to OD&D but an entirely different game.

    1. Brendan Post author


      The goal here is actually more conceptual than mechanical. Intelligence and wisdom are not all that well defined. Historically, intelligence has been the “magic user stat” and wisdom has been the “cleric stat,” originally made so by the experience bonus to those classes. Other than that, the meanings are mostly up for grabs.

      In the system I see this attached to (and in most versions of D&D, actually), the bulk of character competency comes from class level. Ability scores are more of a modulator to help individuate characters. Following the archery example, a character with 18 (+3) dexterity might inherently only be 15% better per shot than a character with 9 (+0) dexterity, but the attack tables (or attack bonus/THAC0) is where the bulk of archery skill comes from.

  6. Charles Ferguson


    And what you’re doing is turning that on its head: you’re dispensing with vague open-ended stats that under the hood are all about cementing class to character concept and fuzzy logic (ie the power that language derives from its ambiguity), and replacing them with two other stats that are all about streamlining the numeric, bonus mechanic side of ability scores (which is the part abilities do most poorly and inconsistently). Essentially I see this as a rabbit hole without an end.

    For instance: where does this leave clerics? I’ve seen them rolled into m-u’s in s&s type homebrews but the result never looks much like an actual s&s sorcerer in my opinion. There’s so much else in the magic system that fights it for one, plus they often lose any real flavor so the result is a mush that isn’t particularly wizard or priest. Also: what do you now have to represent things like will power, piety and tranquility? Certainly you can address these with more changes but then you’ll have to address the effects of those changes and so on and so on.

    I’m totally in favor of tweaks and new mechanics to make the game your own. I just think that the function of abilities are a glorious patchwork of opposing tensions whose roots are spread deep into the game. I’m not convinced you can fundamentally change their function without it becoming a new game.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Again, the primary motivation here is not numeric streamlining, but conceptual clarity.

      I agree that some ambiguity of meaning, such as the uncertain nature of hit points, can be valuable, but beyond the personality profile aspect I mentioned above, I do not think ability score ambiguity provides much utility, and leads to more misunderstandings than it does emergent creativity.

      Regarding some of the examples you raised, is willpower a function of intelligence or wisdom? It could be either. Piety seems to be more about the choices a player makes, and so needs no numeric representation. Tranquility, as a character trait, is not something I have ever seen come up in play. Cleric abilities reside in class features (turning, spells, etc), and so are mostly unaffected by this change (the only exception that comes to mind is the percent bonus to earned XP, which I do not use in any case, because I find it cumbersome). Some games provide bonus cleric spells based on wisdom, but I do not.

      I am currently running a game as an experiment where ability scores provide no modifiers at all. Instead, they are used only for ability checks (using the less than or equal to roll under method). The point was to see how ability scores were defined through play, and I recorded (whenever I remembered to do so) what ability scores were used for. Wisdom almost never came up, and the few times it did come up felt somewhat unsatisfactory to me. It was used a few times for druid knowledge, and that was pretty much it. Some examples of how intelligence was used include determining if a language was known, identifying fungus, and gathering information about an alchemical device (provided reasonable character background). I do not think the intelligence checks really added much to any of those cases, and in the future would likely handle them based on background alone, with maybe a 50/50 chance in the case of uncertainty.

      Maybe replacing these scores does result in a new game! During play, this did not feel like a new game though. Either way, charting this border seems beyond the scope of the present discussion.

      Now, I am not at all claiming that the traditional system is not usable, just that this may do the thing I want to do more effectively.

      Though it seems like we may have slightly different priorities, I still appreciate the long and thoughtful comments.


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