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Wond’ring aloud: What use is Wisdom in cleric-free D&D?

February 6, 2013

With Alien Orifice, I’m using Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox as the base ruleset and cleaving as closely as possible to (LBB-only) OD&D assumptions. So prime requisites are in, as are XP modifiers based on them. However, where Alien Orifice differs markedly from the LBBs is in ditching the cleric class and replacing it with a thief-like class, the robber. A fighter’s prime attribute is Strength, a wizard’s is Intelligence, and a robber’s is Dexterity.

Where does that leave Wisdom? In the LBBs, it serves no practical purpose unless you’re playing a cleric. In WhiteBox, it has a minor effect on XP for all classes (5% bonus if Wisdom is 15 or higher). Is that enough to justify its continued existence? Frankly, it seems otiose.

I suppose I could import the “magic-based saving throw modifier” from AD&D and B/X. But given that wizards (the Intelligence specialists, remember) are the only ones slinging spells, it seems to me that Intelligence is a more appropriate stat for that. Or even Charisma, if defined as force of personality. Plus, wizards already get +2 on saving throws versus spells, as per Swords & Wizardry. I’m reluctant to give a lucky wise wizard a +3 bonus at first level. In fact, I’m reluctant to bring in any AD&D-isms at all, if I can help it.

OD&D doesn’t define Wisdom at all, except to note that it’s the prime requisite for clerics. The WhiteBox definition includes the words “insight” and “perception”, so maybe a high Wisdom score should grant a bonus of +1 on things like rolls to find secret doors, spot traps, and hear noises? But, if so, what about low Wisdom? I can hardly impose a -1 penalty on a poor PC who only has a 1 in 6 chance anyway. Also, robbers get improved perception chances and I don’t want to tread on their toes, nor (as with wizards) do I want to create a situation where a PC’s bonuses stack up too high.

But if I dispose of Wisdom altogether, what then? Am I still playing Dungeons & Dragons? And does that matter? (I feel like it does, though I’m unable to articulate exactly why that should be.)

So, I have a question for anyone who’s run a game without clerics, especially if it’s with OD&D or WhiteBox. What do you do with Wisdom?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2013 10:15 pm

    Now, OD&D is not my strong suit. All I know if it has come from a brief perusal of the rules, and playing in an OD&D-based campaign for 7 months. But ability checks are a thing, right?

    “I’d like to lift a heavy rock,” “Roll 1d20 equal to or under your Strength Score to succeed.”

    Wisdom would still be useful for those, yes? (though the Wisdom/Intelligence distinction does often seem uneccessary, I’ll grant.)

    • February 6, 2013 10:49 pm

      Strictly speaking, ability checks aren’t officially a thing in OD&D, nor in AD&D, B/X, etc. (Someone will correct me if I’m wrong.) They’re just a common house rule that caught on because it’s simple and intuitive and unfussy and useful when no other rule does exactly what you want. I use ability checks sometimes. Probably Strength and Dexterity more than anything else, when PCs get into unorthodox athletic situations like trying to hold onto a sword while falling into a freezing cold, fast-flowing underground river, which is something that happened recently. I can’t recall ever calling for a Wisdom check, though. Mind control and similar charm-like effects seem like they’re already dealt with by saving throws.

      I appreciate you taking the time to think about this, though. Thanks for the input!

      • ELH permalink
        February 7, 2013 3:35 am

        Ability checks first appear in a single throwaway paragraph at the back of Moldvay Basic, so they’re already around at the time of B/X. In some sense you can also say the NWP system absorbs and replaces them in AD&D using the same general idea.

        It’s hard to imagine a use for wisdom checks, since the situations where it would apply are usually the ones where players are making stupid decisions on behalf of a character.

      • ELH permalink
        February 7, 2013 3:37 am

        It’s on page B60, in the second column, if you want to look it up.

      • February 7, 2013 10:01 am

        @ELH: Damn, you’re right. How did I forget that? Well, I said someone would correct me if I was wrong. Thanks for doing so. And thanks for directing me towards nonweapon proficiencies. Of course they’re a long way from OD&D-style play, but I’ve just taken a glance at them anyway (in the 2e PHB). The ones with Wisdom as their governing attribute include Animal Handling and Training, Direction Sense, Fire-building, Fishing, Riding, Weather Sense, Healing, Hunting and Tracking. I suppose I could call all that stuff bushcraft and “legitimately” call for Wisdom checks in wilderness survival situations: “Make a Wisdom check to not starve today.” (As it happens, Survival is an Intelligence-based proficiency in 2e but I could cheerfully ignore that.)

  2. February 6, 2013 11:45 pm

    I haven’t run a game without Clerics as such, but OD&D does define Wisdom a bit: it says that “Wisdom rating will act much as does that for intelligence.” What does Intelligence do, then? “Intelligence will also affect referees’ decisions as to whether or not certain action would be taken, and it allows additional languages to be spoken.” This does suggest that Wisdom rating allows you learn languages, and that it may be used by the referee to decide if a character is actually wise enough to pursue the course of action that a player proposes.

    Similarly, OD&D does say that “Strength will also aid in open traps and so on,” and that Dexterity “will indicate the character’s missile ability and speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.” It doesn’t give any specific system to implement these, but surely these hints inspired the idea of “ability checks.” In Greyhawk, there is already system for opening doors based on your Strength. From there, these ideas spread to other editions and games.

    • February 7, 2013 1:13 am

      Thanks, Jon. To take your last point (concerning ability checks) first, I’m sure you’re right. In my current B/X game, for example, I use a simple house rule for magic-users learning spells using their Intelligence attribute but based on the Strength check you mention: i.e., a base 2 in 6 chance, modified by Intelligence. (I think of it as Open Doors for the mind.)

      I’m uncomfortable however with the idea of “referees’ decisions as to whether or not certain action would be taken” inasmuch as it appears to infringe upon player agency, and I prefer to think (admittedly with little or nothing in the way of evidence) that those words refer to the Intelligence/Wisdom of NPCs under the referee’s control.

      Learning languages? Perhaps. Here, though, I approach again the conclusion that Wisdom (in the absence of the cleric) may be redundant. The line “Wisdom rating will act much as does that for intelligence” rather supports this view, no?

  3. Geoffrey McKinney permalink
    February 7, 2013 12:45 am

    I primarily use the six ability scores as a quick and dirty personality profile for a character. How learned is he? How much common sense does he have? Is he clumsy? Is he an inspiring leader? Etc.

    • February 7, 2013 1:41 am

      Thanks for commenting, Geoffrey. Carcosa is, I suppose, the cleric-free campaign par excellence. And it’s good to be reminded that attribute scores are a springboard for players’ imaginations and not just moving mechanical parts. Still, in my experience at least, a PC tends to have as much (or as little) common sense as the player playing him or her.

      Oddly enough, just before you commented, I was mulling over the possibility of using Carcosa’s psionics system. (There are mi-go in Alien Orifice, after all.) That would give Wisdom something else to do in the game, especially if I eschewed the random determination of powers in favour of something like this (off the top of my head):

      Wisdom 3-6: 1 psionic power
      Wisdom 7-10: 2 powers
      Wisdom 11-14: 3 powers
      Wisdom 15-18: 4 powers

      Food for thought! Thanks again.

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