Monday, November 29, 2021

How to Read the AD&D Rule Books Part II: Ability Scores

Did you ever notice that his book says "AD&D"

So you've played some modern version of Big D and for reasons known only to yourself, you've decided to read the AD&D Players Handbook? Or perhaps you're an old timer who's played plenty of AD&D and you just want to heap scorn on some other jerk who played it all wrong? Well you've come to the right place; Uncle Dice Chucker--or D-Chucks as he was known back in the day--will guide you through the rules as they were played not by the pedants in the ivory-paneled basements but by the regular nerds living and dying by the 20-sider on the mean streets of the 1980s.

You've all read part I in this series, right? And you've made a crib sheet with the Rules for Ignoring Rules written on it? No? Here it is:

Good. Let's crack open your Players Handbook, be it the Trampier original, the Easley editions from the mid-80s, or the recent reprints from Lizards of the Toast and learn some AD&D!

First off. you're going to see an ocean of text; fear not, everything between Tramp's illo of a wizard sitting on a giant 6-sider in the woods and the Strength tables on page 9 can and should be skipped over without a thought.  Which lands you on:


You'll see two tables explaining how your strength score will impact your character's career. And honestly, Table I is not very informative--just tells you the minimum and maximum strength scores for various races, classes, and genders--so the first thing you're going to pay any attention to is Strength Table II.: Ability Adjustments.

If you're coming from 5e or Moldvay Basic you're going to notice that to hit and damage bonuses are pretty stingy in AD&D-land. A 17 strength gets an AD&D character the same bonuses that one would get with a 12 or 13 strength in those versions. But if you were coming from Holmes Basic or the original Little Brown Books, you're thinking:

 "You get a damage bonus for having a high strength?! The gods must love us after all!!!"

But what's up with those weird numbers once you get beyond 18; 18/01-50, 18/51-75, etc.? Gird your loins, you are going to have to make your first foray into Gygax's Quagmire of Prose to find out. Don't worry kids, this trip into the muck is definitely worth it.

Look to the left of Table I, second paragraph, after a few skippable sentences describing what strength is and how to quantify your score in real world terms, somewhere towards the middle you learn that if your fighter has managed to roll an 18 for strength, you then roll percentile dice, and that number is appended to your strength score. Roll a 24, write that next to the 18 on your character sheet and note that you get +1 to hit and +3 damage. Roll an 18/00 and you are a +3/+6 skull-crushing machine!

[It should be noted, kids, that Rangers and Paladins are subclasses of fighter in AD&D and therefore qualify for "exceptional strength."]

Next up on the table we have Weight Allowance. The table says that strength scores of 8-11 grant you a "normal" allowance, everyone else gets adjusted up or down by a certain amount of gold pieces. No, you don't get extra gold pieces for being strong; you get to carry extra gold pieces for being strong. The text below tells us that 10 gold pieces equal 1 pound--good to know--but it doesn't tell us what the normal allowance is that we're adjusting. Nothing on the adjoining page either. You've done your due diligence, it's time to invoke Rule #1. Plus, we all know that Encumbrance rules are the first thing to be ignored from every version of the game so feel free to get started early.

Open Doors: As described on this page of the PHB, this rule is fine; Open Doors is for use when "opening a stuck or heavy door." You have a 15 strength, you get a 2 in 6 chance of opening a stuck or heavy door. You might argue that that seems a bit feeble but there's nothing fundamentally heinous about it.

But this rule gets truly hideous if you look on pg. 97 of the DMG--which I don't advise you to do right now, stay focused!--wherein it says that all doors should be considered stuck or heavy when PCs are trying to open them, even though an exceptionally puny kobold has just effortlessly opened and closed that very same door moments ago. Rules 1, 2 and 3 all apply to the DMG ruling. No one ever played that way outside of Gygax's basement and, as the DM, you have a choice: ignore the DMG ruling or sew a Dickhead merit badge onto your Dungeon Master sash.

There's also bend bars/lift gates, which is fine but probably falls into rule 5 if you are using some other sort of ability check rules. Moldvay basic, I'm told, had some.


The table tells you that you get extra languages for high intelligence. What is not obvious is that this is only for Humans, and though this is alluded to in an unclearly worded note (Rule 1) in the text above Intelligence Table I, you will not have bothered reading that text because you already know what the word "intelligence" means and that it is the prime ability for MUs, which is what the bulk of that paragraph goes to length explaining. So you'll be excused if you didn't quite catch this point and gave your gnome illusionist (Int 17) 6 extra languages in addition to the ones that come as part of the standard gnome linguistic package.

If you're not an MU [do 5e folks know the term Magic User?] and don't care to speak extra languages, a 3 Int bears no penalty whatsoever, making it, ostensibly, the perfect dump stat. But no one wants an idiot for a character, so you're likely to save a really bad roll for Wis or Cha.

If you are an MU you should note that if you ever want to cast 9th level spells, you'll need an 18 Intelligence score. And even though you can have a 9 Int and be an MU, you will never be able to cast spells higher than 4th level. Flip ahead to the MU class description and you'll see a table on page 26 that tells you that you'll be 9th level before you realize just how stupid you really are.

But we're not done with Int so back to page 10, "Intelligence Table II.: Ability for Magic Users" This is a very silly table, or at least 2/3rds of it is very silly. We pretty much ignored this table back in the day, but what it's supposed to do is limit the spells your MU knows. You've got a column labelled % know spells which you use in cases where your MU finds some poor, dead thaumaturge's spell book. You'd roll your % to know each spell in his book; each time you succeeded you got to write the spell in your own book, if you failed it you put that spell on the List of Shame; spells you just can't seem to figure out. A case could be made that it violates Rule 2: Common sense, and I don't think anyone would argue with you, but it does go some distance to make intelligence valuable to MUs in a practical way, so you decide.

The rest of this table, however, invokes both Rule 1, 2, and 4. The description of minimum and maximum number of spells per level can be interpreted to mean that you're supposed to roll the % know spells business not when you find a dead thaumaturge's spell book, but as soon as you reach 5th level, at which time you will pre-roll against every spell on the 3rd level spell list regardless of whether you've actually found the spell in a dead thaumaturge's spell book or not. In the event that you don't "know" enough spells to meet your minimum or you "know" more than your max. allows, you're supposed to re-roll against every spell on the list until you get a satisfactory result. This exercise does not confer on to you actual knowledge of the spell, merely the capacity to learn the spell in the event that you should ever come across it. I feel dirty just typing that out. 

I'm glad we ignored this back in the day, and you should do so with a clean conscience.


We all know that, in D&D, Wisdom has nothing to do with how wise you are. Instead, the table tells us that you get a magical attack adjustment--which is a misleading way of saying you get a bonus on saving throws versus people messing with your head; charm person, fear, that sort of thing. Which makes wisdom more like willpower, which is what it has become in the modern era. You don't want a really low Wis or you're going to be easily charmed and a-feared, but otherwise an 8 wisdom is just as good as a 14 wisdom in every way, so this is an excellent dump stat. Which is probably why so many of the sub-classes in AD&D require high wisdom scores; Gary hated PCs. See Rule 3.

Wisdom Table II.: Adjustments for Clerics

Pretty self explanatory. We learn that even though you only need a 9 Wis to be a cleric, you really don't want a Wis lower than 13 because 12 or lower earns you a chance of spell failure every time you try to cast a cleric spell! I don't think I ever knew that. But then I never ran clerics if I could help it. Furthermore, you get bonus spells starting at 13. Pretty self explanatory, so on to...


Everyone loves dexterity so even though it has a pretty large dead zone--non-thieves with a 7-14 get neither a bonus nor a penalty of any sort--no one wants to be perceived as slow or clumsy. If you can get a 15 on Dex you're getting an AC bonus--yes it says "-1" but that's a bonus in AD&D. Why does a -1 Dex adjustment improve your AC while a -1 shield makes your AC worse? This is AD&D, you've got bigger fish to fry.

At 16 Dex you start getting a bonus to "reaction/attacking adjustment." The attacking part is that bonus to hit with missile weapons that you've been looking for. The reaction part affects how long your character is surprised, which is to say you are going to ignore this because surprise is not explained anywhere near this table (rule 1) and is kind of silly anyway. We'll talk about it further when we get to combat. 

Furthermore, there is some murky text somewhere in the DMG (pg. 64, "Dexterity Bonus and Penalty Considerations") that implies that an individual can apply its reaction adjustment to the initiative roll, though it maybe only applies to missile fire or something? The statement provided fodder for folks to  add the reaction adjustment to all initiative rolls, which was a near-universal house rule. When you consider that every version of Basic D&D rules from Holmes on up gave some sort of advantage to initiative for highly dexterous characters, it was pretty much inevitable.

In AD&D of the first edition, adding dex bonus to initiative tend to give the PCs a significant advantage in combat because, while high dex PCs are fairly common--pretty much every character was putting either their highest or 2nd highest score on Dex--rarely if ever do monsters have there dexterity statted out, so the party was getting the drop on the critters more often than not. Which I think makes a good argument for why you might want to roll initiative with something larger than a d6. Just thinking out loud here.

Dex Table II: Thieves Suck: Pretty self explanatory. You can be a thief with a Dex of 9 but flip ahead to the Thief Function table on page 28 and you will learn that because of dex penalties, your 9 Dex thief will have a 0% or less chance of moving silently or hiding in shadows at first level! You'll also learn that thieves are pretty much incompetent at their jobs until at least 7th level, but we're not there yet.


The table tells us that at 15 you start accruing HP bonuses; they max out at +2 for non-fighters, +4 for fighters. Got it.

Also listed, your System Shock and Resurrection survival chance. Resurrection makes sense, you have a chance of not being resurrected when you die--though it should be noted for the literal-minded that this also includes Raise Dead. I'm all for making death deadlier in D&D; your mileage may vary, so maybe you apply rule 3; you're call.

But what's system shock? Every time your system takes a massive shock from magical effects, you have a chance of dying. What sort of magical effects? Aging, petrification, and polymorph. Every time one of these magical effects is inflicted on you, whether for weal or woe, you have a chance of dying. Not just when it is cast, but when the spell effect ends as well. Dig it:

In an effort to escape from the cliffside studio of Snargrot the Beautician, your character, Mcswiggans the Warlock, polymorphs into an eagle [5E kids don't get your hopes up; in AD&D "warlock" just means 8th level Magic User]. With your constitution score of 12 you have an 80% chance of surviving the shock to your system.

Stated another way, there's a 1 in 5 chance Mcswiggans will die immediately upon transforming into an eagle, but also, should you survive the initial transformation, there's another 1 in 5 chance that you bight it when you change back to warlock. Which, I think, adds up to only a 64% chance of surviving the ordeal. Is that a chance you want to take just to avoid a bad haircut?

Furthermore, aging is problematic because a detestable DM (check your DM's sash for the aforementioned Dickhead merit badge) could have you die from a haste spell [or potion], as aging is a side effect of being Hasted. That is to say, System Shock was an early attempt at nerfing magic. Apply Rule 3 and ignore System Shock Survival.

Because Constitution is not a prime ability for any of the character classes, there is no Consitution Table II. Also true of...


You'll quickly realize that henchmen must have, once upon a time, been considered an important part of the game; they were so important that even a pathetic, lowly suckwad with a 3 Cha could not be deprived of the companionship of a good henchperson. 

Were henchfolk actually a big part of the game? Games varied widely but, generally, nobody wanted to be a cleric, so somebody had to hench one to do the healing. So it was important to have at least one in your party. I remember only one campaign where I had more than one hencher and I never had more than two. So the most tangible benefit of a high Cha was pretty useless (Rule 5), making it extra painful for your paladin--min. Cha of 17--to waste such a high roll. 

And Loyalty Base and Reaction Adjustments were only explained in the DMG so Rule 1 applied to them. Though, on reading them now, they're not half bad rules, if one were so inclined as to use them.

How to read the AD&D Rulebooks, Part I

Recently, the blokes over at the GGNoRe podcast decided to roll up 1e AD&D characters. [The episode in question is on their Patreon feed, so you'll have to cough up a dollar--or more, if you like--to listen.]  Abunch of non-old timers try to spelunk their way through the rules, hampered by the fact that only the DM has access to the PHB; hilarity ensues. They're trying to do it rules as written--which, I will argue, is not practical and has never actually been done before--except as short lived experiments by people hoping to prove that AD&D was no fun. They're doing this for entertainment value so carry on.

But, inspired by their bumbling attempt at deciphering the rules, I decided to compile guidelines for reading and interpreting the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules not as written but as played back in the day. Hence:

Dice Chucker's Guide to AD&D

First of all, you'll want to avoid reading the text as much as possible. Gygax liked to use a lot of words where only a few were needed, so perusing his verbose explanations can be very taxing on your attention span.

Instead, you'll want to skip the text and check out the tables and illustrations, they do a pretty good job of explaining most of what you actually need to know to play the game; assuming you already have a basic understanding of how the game is played. Treat the tables like stepping stones and the text as a pool of murky sludge. You'll want to stay on the stepping stones as much as possible, dipping into the murky sludge only on those occasions when you're fairly certain there's a piece of treasure to be had not far below the surface.

With that in mind, if something is not immediately obvious from the table, scan the adjoining text for clarification. If no clarification is provided in the text on that page, it can probably be safely ignored. In fact, 

Ignoring/altering rules is absolutely imperative to playing a functional and historically accurate game of AD&D. 

To this end I've come up with some guidelines for helping you determine whether a rule should be ignored--or at least altered in some way. 

DiceChucker's Rules for Ignoring Rules in AD&D

Please feel free to ignore a printed rule if any of the following conditions apply:

  1. The meaning of the rule is not made clear using a table, illustration, or concise paragraph of text--if you have to read several paragraphs, refer to a second volume, or turn more than a single page to get an explanation of a rule then it is probably going to be ignored.
  2. The rule defies common sense--use common sense here.
  3. The rule was made solely to thwart the PCs--some rules just seem like they were dreamt up by an angry DM who was tired of his plans being foiled by clever players.
  4. The rule is too complex or impracticable to have a positive impact on your game--how many people pay attention to encumbrance rules in any edition?
  5. The rule just doesn't come into play--maybe it's made superfluous by some other rule or is just not relevant to the way you play the game. This is the classic "It's not you, it's me" situation. 

For organizational reasons, I'm going to end this post here, but fear not bored individual, I shall return shortly with some further guidance on reading and rendering fruitful the wondrous tome that is the AD&D Players Handbook.