Constitution ~ The Forgotten Attribute

“The morality of clean blood ought to be one of the first lessons taught us by our pastors and teachers. The physical is the substratum of the spiritual; and this fact ought to give the food we eat, and the air we breathe, a transcendent significance.” ~ Tyndale

Constitution is the forgotten attribute of Dungeons & Dragons. Across previous editions, it covered many exceptional rules, skills, and checks. However, in recent editions, it has been watered down to a few saving throws and a hit point modifier. In fact, a quick glance at some D&D Fifth Edition sources shows that Constitution really only comes into play with poison, disease, and similar effects. Now, these are perfectly acceptable applications for the attribute, but they are pittance compared to the variety of things Constitution has covered over the years. Let’s take a look back, to the very beginning…

In the earliest versions of D&D, it was impossible to increase Constitution or Charisma. Charisma, which includes leadership ability and force of personality, was thought too ephemeral an aspect to improve. Likewise, Constitution could not be improved, even though it is more of a physical trait, like Strength or Dexterity. Or is it? Perhaps the reason Constitution could not be improved is because, unlike Strength or Dexterity, there is a less tangible element. In fact, original box set booklets refer to Constitution as both physical condition AND “the ability to hold up under pressure” (Gygax and Arneson, 1981). This distinction indicates that, not only does Constitution cover physical endurance, but also some abstract ‘moxie’ or ‘mettle’ trait, which casts some light on some of the stranger rules of Constitution down the years.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (my first love), Constitution held a fairly peculiar domain. It covered hit points, yes, and system shock when that was a feature. Most players will not be surprised to see it determines poison resistance, and given its association with hit points I doubt anyone is shocked to learn that Constitution used to grant regeneration with higher scores. But the interesting thing about AD&D’s Constitution stat is that it determined a character’s chance of surviving resurrection. Now, medically speaking, the better condition a body is in, the easier it is to revitalize. Sure. But given that resurrection uses divine magic in order to pull a character’s soul from the beyond and restore it to lifeit seems far more likely that Constitution’s effect on resurrection has to do with that ephemeral quality of moxie; the mortal tendency to fight tooth and nail to hold onto life for just one extra breath.

But this trait seems to be continually downgraded with each new edition, the definition becoming simpler, the scope of Constitution growing narrower. In time, even specific skills governed by Constitution like Endurance and Concentration became saving throws instead, and the wonderful, obscure features of the attribute have become something hand-wavy about white blood cells and the ability to take a hit. But one facet still remains that fascinates the veteran gamer: Constitution saves against necromancy effects.

What is it about being in good physical condition that protects from necromancy? If anything, you would think that extra pint of blood makes you a bigger target for a vampire, or that low metabolic rate makes you susceptible to a Chill Touch. In fact, it’s fairly easy to justify Charisma or Wisdom saving throws instead, using your force of personality or calm mind to shrug off these dead magics. So maybe Constitution means more than being hail and hearty. Maybe it still refers to that indefinable grit, that tenacity, that helps characters take the double-shift on look out for goblin raiders, to push that extra inch in combat that breaks the enemy line, or even crawl their way back from beyond the brink of death.

Thank you for reading, if you have any idea what that means in game terms, leave your feedback. Otherwise, comment with topics you’d like to see me write about. And may you always write bigger, better, and badder games.


Magical Potential ~ Rules for Spellcasters

In most forms of fiction, magic-users and spellcasters come in different calibers. In the Lord of the Rings, among Gandalf’s people, the maiar, Saruman is considered the wisest and most powerful preceding his fall from grace (oops, spoilers). In the world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, members of the Wizarding World are latently magical in contrast to mundane humans, and it is indicated that among wizards there are basic differences in terms of magical power and potential. These are just two, more accessible examples, but in short: magic-users as a group are limited both in number and potential.

However, this is seldom addressed in contemporary role-playing games. In older editions, class requirements existed that prohibited characters from taking certain classes without the appropriate attribute scores, and now it is merely expected that characters will build around their strongest and weakest attributes, while hard restrictions on class usage are relegated the Dungeon- or Game-Master’s discretion. For the most part, we navigate magic fairly well without such restrictions, based on the setting and feel that we are trying to establish, and the amount of magic in our players’ party. But, I feel some hard limitations on the scope of magic can help any setting, and I have a system in mind.

Let me first discuss what’s at stake: Without hard restrictions or limitations on magic use anyone has the potential to use magic. Now, perhaps this works in your setting, but let me continue. Without hard limitations on magic use anyone could potentially be an epic level magic user regardless of their stats. This is what I call the “Army of Earth-Shattering Wizards” problem, because if this is the world we live in, why isn’t there an army of earth-shattering wizards? Again, perhaps this is the feel you are going for, but for many settings magic is an esoteric practice limited to a few, special individuals, which the following system is built to address:

  • Individuals cannot take levels in a spellcaster class unless they have a positive modifier in the corresponding spellcasting ability. For systems like D&D, this means they would require a minimum of 12 in the appropriate attribute (Intelligence for Wizards, Charisma for Rangers, etc.). In Fantasy AGE, this would require scores above 0 Intelligence and Willpower. This would create a sense that only those of certain latent ability or adequate study could ever even use magic. Characters who lack these scores may not be able to use magic initially, but through personal growth or study (leveling up) may find that they have the potential to do so.

Here is another possible rule:

  • The number of levels a character may take in a spellcasting class is proportional to the corresponding ability score. This rule addresses the issue of the “Army of Earth-Shattering Wizards.” Now, this may be trickier to implement depending on the game system and edition you use. Currently, I favor D&D Fifth Edition, and you may need to adjust the formula and approach, but the formula I have found reasonable is this: Maximum level equals the spellcasting ability score minus ten, multiplied by 2 or Max. = (X – 10) x 2. For example, Melvin the Mage is a 1st level wizard with an Intelligence of 12. As of right now, the maximum level of wizard that he can achieve is 4, because (12 – 10) x 2 = 4. He may not have the highest potential or be the most talented wizard at this point with his current attributes, but as he develops his skills and studies more, so too will his potential. It would require him to put all of the attribute points he acquires as he levels up to potentially be a 20th level wizard (assuming no outside forces help him on his way), but Melvin could do it.

A final note on nonspellcasting classes casting spells: This includes D&D 5e Rangers and Paladins specifically. Currently, I am play-testing certain ideas options for limiting spellcasting from these classes besides adopting non-magical variant classes. I am entertaining the idea of instituting a rule where the corresponding spellcasting modifier has to be at least half of the level of the spell (rounding up). This would require at least a little bit of magical talent and character investment to make full use of spells.

These rules are optional, and mere suggestions meant to make the unlimited power of the cosmos a little harder to achieve than it is currently, as you could potentially cast reality-ripping spells with a zero or negative spellcasting ability modifier. I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and that it helps you may bigger, better, badder games. Please leave any feedback, and comment with topics you’d like to see me write about.

Science-Fantasy in D&D

“It is said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction is the improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable.”

~ Rod Serling

Whether you are writing an epic space opera with swashbuckling space pirates and laser-sword wielding knights, or a gritty dungeonpunk tale of corporate espionage and courtly intrigue, there a couple of things to consider when putting together a science-fantasy adventure.

  • Genre: Science-Fantasy includes any number of exceptional genres which blend elements of science (often pseudoscience or speculative science) with the magic and romanticism of the Fantasy genre. This blend may lead to a futuristic genre like science-fiction or cyberpunk in which science has taken a relatively predictable course, retro-futuristic genres like steam- diesel- or atompunk — full of modern or even futuristic devices and amenities but built on older forms of technology, or dungeonpunk where magic is technology, and contraptions like trains and computers are a mix of arcane powers and mechanical know-how. When you start writing your adventure, you may want to consider which of these subgenres your story or setting falls under to help guide your creative process.
  • Technology: In a world where magic and invention both exist, some overlap is going to occur, and practicality and utility are likely going to take precedent. Inventions with tangible purpose and that are relatively simple to maintain or build are easier to justify in a world with magic. Some examples: radios are fairly straightforward and allow for the transmission of messages across large expanses, and they can be operated by a non-magic user; firearms allow even the most inept marksman a chance of winning against a dangerous mage or rampaging dragon hatchling; and vehicles can move people and freight without the dangers of teleportation magic. If there is a technology you want to integrate but seems too complex or too simple, try using a different version of it. For instance, maybe not everyone has a home television, but they can watch serials and movies at the nearest theater.
  • Magic: So we’ve addressed why technology exists in a world of magic, now let’s look at things from the other point of view. Why study magic when you have technology? Or, perhaps, why doesn’t everyone learn magic? Ultimately, this is a world-building issue for you to address within the setting for your adventure, but I wanted to discuss some key concepts in this overview. First, magic is limited. Not only do large scale spells require years of research and training, but perhaps not everyone can use magic, or maybe magical potential varies between people. In contrast, mundane solutions are more probable given enough time and resources. Second, magic is dangerous. The consequences of failed spells may range from wasted time to destroying said time. To paraphrase Mustrum Ridcully: “If you go around casting spells like there’s no tomorrow, pretty soon there won’t be any!”

That should be enough to get you started on writing your Science-Fantasy adventure: identify your genre, consider your technology level, and leave room for magic. If you have any questions or feedback, let me know. And keep out for my next article! Soon, I’ll be writing about world-building in Science-Fantasy games.