09 March 2016

Old School Options: Ability Score Bonuses from Tom Moldvay's Challenges RPG (1986)

One of my more recent old school acquisitions was a stapled photocopy (stuck inside a stack of old Space Gamer magazines, not sure if the guy I bought them from knew it was there or not) of the 1986 Challenges RPG, by Tom Moldvay. I'd never heard of, much less read this classic, so it went to the top of my reading pile.

Challenges (Challenges International, Inc. 1986)describes itself as an "Easy-to-Play Game System for Fantasy Roleplaying, but in reality it is more of a slimmed down, modified version of D&D/AD&D. Tom's system mostly covers character creation, which is very similar to AD&D, along with some spells and brief notes on how to interpret monster write ups in "any of the various fantasy roleplaying adventure modules published by Challenges International, Inc". As far as I can tell, CI only ever released one adventure, Seren Ironhand, though the notes in the rules can apply to any D&D or AD&D adventure with little modification.

It's Tom's modifications to character generation that interested me most, and that's what I'll be addressing here.

Most of the material here would be familiar to any AD&D player, but since Tom is also more notably the co-creator of the BX edition of the D&D Basic rules along with Dave "Zeb" Cook, I got to thinking about applying the modifications in Challenges to that, and other, incarnations of Classic D&D.

Tom's method for generating ability scores is interesting, if a little overpowered for my taste. He suggests rolling 2d6+6 nine time and choosing the best 6 results, which are then assigned to the abilities as the player wishes. Obviously this will create characters who are a likely to be more powerful than their standard D&D peers, but the option is there if you like it.

Next we get to the suggested Ability Score Adjustments; that is, the game effects for having a high or low score in each ability.

At first glimpse, you'll notice that some of the standard D&D terms are changed, probably to play nice with TSR. Reading into the text though, these changes are common sense.
Warrior = Fighter
Sorcerer = Magic User
Muscle = Strength
Will = Intelligence
Stamina = Constitution

I included the chart for reference, but it is obviously formatted for AD&D, with percentile ability scores. I don't intend to bother adapting that AD&Dism to my Classic game, but the notes below the table are interesting, and could be applied to Classic D&D characters in order to reward high prime requisite scores without unduly harming game balance too much.

In all cases, these bonus adjustments are in addition to those those listed in the Basic Rules, so yes, a fighter with 18 STR gets +4 to hit and +5 to damage, total, but he's a fighter and has no other special abilities, so is it really that outrageous to ensure he has a slight edge over the lucky Cleric of Thief who rolled an 18 for STR also?

If you intend to use this chart, I'd ignore the Basic rules-as-written, and grant these to hit and damage modifiers only to fighters (Warriors), including Dwarves and Halflings, but not Elves. This actually appeals to me because it gives fighters a noticeable advantage in combat over the other classes.

Magic Users (Sorcerers) would instead get a couple bonus spells per day added to their arsenal, thanks to a high Intelligence (Will) score, which can give them a little better chance of survival at low level, and since they only include 1st and 2nd level spells, the long term game balance isn't really impacted too much. To give the Magic User some advantage over the Elf, I'd restrict this ability to Magic Users only. Note: A Magic User still can't cast 2nd level or 3rd level spells until normally allowed to through level advancement.

Alternately, if the Elf players complain too much, you could allow them to choose one of the two bonuses, either STR or INT to use, but not both. This actually has some precedent going back to the Original D&D rules, where the Elf player had to choose between the Magic User or Fighter class, but not both, for each session of game play.

Likewise, Clerics can pick up an added spell or two per day if they have a high Wisdom score, which usually ends up benefiting the entire party in the form of extra healing, so I don't see a major downside. A Cleric still can't cast 2nd or 3rd level spells until normally allowed by class level, but the decision of whether to grant a 1st level cleric access to her bonus first level spell is up to the DM. I allow, since, like I said before, it tends to help the entire party, but I can see how some rules purists would prefer the Cleric wait until 2nd level to cast any spells, as Classic D&D says.

The Thief options require a little definition:
Skill Bonus applies to Open Locks, Find Traps, Remove Traps, Pick Pockets and Climb
Stealth Bonus applies to Move Silently and Hide in Shadows

We've only been using these ideas in my game for two sessions now, but so far so good. I'll report back if anything unexpected comes up, but in the meantime, what do you guys think of Tom's ideas for more "advanced" characters?



  1. Very cool. I like this idea, and could definitely see incorporating these options into a B/X game. If you ever have the time, I'd love to see these rules made available in a PDF for easy offline use and/or printing.

  2. PDf versions of some of the articles is something Darva and I have talked about (I handle most of the editing and blog layout/design chores these days) but hadn't announced due to the past sporadic nature of updates. I hate to promise something we can't deliver, but since we have a request now, I'll use this article as the guinea pig and try to put together a nice print friendly PDF of it, hopefully this weekend. I'll pop back in here with a link to it on Google Drive when it's ready.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  3. That's awesome, Rich. Thank you!

  4. OK, the PDF version is now live. I added a link at the bottom of the article post for downloading.

    Please let me know if you, or anyone else, has any feedback on the layout, format, ease of downloading, etc.

    Thanks for stopping by the Dungeon, folks!

  5. I was traveling for the past week, and just got home where I could download the PDF. This looks great. I like the two-column format and the font. Everything is easy to read. One little nitpick is the blue font used for some of the sub-headers. They stand out nicely, but the color made me think they were hyperlinks, so I tried clicking on them before sheepishly realizing they weren't clickable. Otherwise, this is very handy, and I like that it can be printed on a single, two-sided piece of paper for easy reference.

    1. We picked the font colors to match the blog theme, I didn't think about the default link colors on most browsers. We'll reconsider things on future documents though.

      Thanks for the feedback :)


Thanks for your comments!