Saturday 15 February 2020

[Homebrew] Improving Ability Scores

Bunch of apes earning pips to their Intelligence.
Old-school D&D and its clones don't offer much in improving ability scores besides magic. I don't have any issue with the rolled values being the peak of natural development, but in my campaigns I like giving my players options to increase them. Getting a +1 to something every x levels though is pretty damn boring, predictible, and uninspiring. In my Swords & Wizardry Wilderlands campaign I used a system inspired by HackMaster's percentile scores that increase with every level up. In my DCC RPG Terminus campaign I took the game's "Quest for it!" advice to heart and allowed the players to increase ability scores after reaching certain milestones. The system I use for my Old-School Essentials Eremus campaign is a mix of both: I allow a slight increase at level ups while also rewarding experimenting, research, and questing.
Improving an ability score needs a certain number of pips depending on its current value:

Improving ability scores
Current value
Pips to increase value

Pips are awarded for the following:
  • Leveling up grants one pip to a Prime Requisite. If there are multiple Prime Requisites, choose randomly which one increases. If a Prime Requisite is 18 it can't be increased and the pip goes to another, randomly chosen ability score.
  • Achieving certain deeds grant one to three pips to a corresponding ability score, depending on the difficulty and scale of the deed.

The latter includes eating powerful creatures, interacting with alien objects, performing esoteric trials, succeeding at difficult tasks, dealing with deities and demigods, visiting hard to reach landmarks, training with legendary masters, and so on. A few examples from my campaign:
  • Eating a giant's flesh increases Strength.
  • Impaling yourself to a tree for nine days increases Wisdom.
  • Looking into the black monolith without going insane increases Intelligence.
  • Taking bath in the thermal pools of the Moon increases Constitution.

I keep the possible achievements secret, thus the player characters have to learn them from rumors, mentors, journals, or by experimenting. Sometimes if the player character does something amazing or surprising, I hand out one on the fly and add itt to my list.

There are a few limits of course:
  • The maximum ability score is still 18.
  • Performing a deed is only worth a pip for the first time.

So far this method worked fine for us. I'm not afraid that it will create game-breaking characters on the long, because the importance of ability scores and their modifiers is diminished at higher levels, and there are plenty of opportunities for my players to decrease their ability scores.


  1. Excellent. I am afan of the old RPG Villains and Vigilantes for this reason: going up a level means you can increase one of your scores by +1. You get extra hit points and bonuses only every 3 points, on average though. So while you improve, it takes some time to get a true effective bonus.

    I think D&D 5e designers saw this and were constrained to be very consistent across all classes.

    Your system strikes the right balance IMHO. It has the merit of simplicity and fair cost but with a chance for unexpected benefits to arrive.

    p.s. Love the crucified to a tree for 9 days = Wisdom. Crom would be proud.

    1. If it worked for Odin, it should work for the player characters too. Same with bathing in a dragon's blood. Mythology full of seemingly nonsensical rituals that benefit the heroes, and if someone comes up with something similar and succeeds, it deserves some kind of reward.

  2. Replies
    1. In the oven. Luckily for you a lot of my programs had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus, so I will finally have some time to write.