Threshold d20 Review: Ability Scores

John’s doing some fairly common things with ability scores, and a couple of interesting ideas regarding them.

Related Threshold Pages

For this post I’m looking at

Ability Scores in Threshold

Defined Ability Scores

John’s using the D&D/d20 standard ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.  He recommends a point buy scheme with varying point totals by campaign power level.  Templates (“races”) can modify the purchased ability scores, and ability modifiers are calculated the same way as in D&D.

Ability scores control access to spell casting, per the normal rules (minimum score of 10 + spell level to cast a spell, bonus spell slots for scores of 12 or more, and so on).  Spell casting is expected to depend on three scores instead of one, but I can’t really comment beyond that until I see spell casting rules.

That’s all pretty standard.  The next section isn’t, and in fact this is the first place I’ve seen this done.

Ability Pools

Each ability score has an associated pool.  Initial value of each pool is equal to the associated ability score (so Strength 14 means you start with a pool of 14 Power).  These pools are your ‘current value’ and can be changed during play.

Every two points the ability pool changes, checks made using the associated ability score get a +1/-1 modifier.  As written, this might prove awkward for some players – Strength 13 is +1, Strength 14 and Strength 15 are both +2, but Power 13 might be +1 or +2 depending on starting score.

John identifies the ability pools at and describes offensive and defensive uses for them.  I’ll review that page below, but the identified pools are

Ability Pool Note
Strength Power
Dexterity Reflex
Constitution Health I would be inclined to use “Fortitude” – this pool is used to resist disease, poison, and so on, and it’s a recognized d20 saving throw.
Intelligence Wit
Wisdom Fate It looks like Will saves are done using Charisma in Threshold.
Charisma Will

Ability Conflicts

The ability pool table at describe offensive and defensive applications for the abilities and ability pools.

John describes how ability pools can be used in ability conflicts.  Ability conflicts appear to be an abstract mechanism for interpersonal conflict.  I’ll need to think about them more before I’m comfortable commenting on them.

Ability Challenges

Threshold has traded ‘D&D Skills’ in for ‘Ability Challenges’.  Various actions cost Action Points and may require an ability check.  This is one of the longer pages I’ve seen on this site, and John identifies a moderately large number of challenges.

The Challenges page at says that you can buy up your bonus for certain challenge types using Talent Points.  Since this page is specifically about challenges and the advancement table (which refers to skill points) is known to be out of date I am inclined to think that skill points are no longer used.  I am not sure if skill ranks are used; presumably there is a limit on the number of Talent Points that can be spent building up a single ability challenge modifier.

Unlike D&D, up to two ability score modifiers apply to each check.  For instance, Climb uses Strength and Dexterity.  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  On the face of it this mechanism acknowledges that a particular challenge could be met (or at least influenced) by more than one facet of a character.  This is good.  However, it can trivially lead to great differences between modifiers between characters (if I get to add a good Dexterity modifier and a good Wisdom modifier to my Sneak check, it might be rather difficult for someone with modest Wisdom to Spot me).  On the other hand, if precious Talent Points are not spent on building up challenge modifiers this might not get out of hand.

I like the idea, I’m wary of the implementation.  It might be better to go with an average, if more than one ability modifier is used (ick, math), or just use the lesser (or the smaller) of the two, or just the greater (or larger).  I don’t know.

I disagree with a few of the ability modifier assignments (I’d use Strength and Constitution on Swim checks rather than Strength and Dexterity, for example) but these are mostly minor nits rather than real problems.


Regardless of how Threshold is using ability pools, what I read in this section of the site gave me some inspiration for using ability pools, or something like them.  I might do so even if I don’t use ability scores normally.

  • Divorce modifiers from the ability pools.  If you’re strong, you’re strong.
  • Instead of modifiers, use thresholds to trip on a condition track.  For example, at Reflect (Dexterity pool) 8, 6, 4, 2, and 0 you might suffer complications (Reflex 6 might mean you’re slowed or limited to a single action per round).  This does mean that if your Dex is only 6 you’re going to be sucking hard.  Given how uncommon such low ability scores are likely to be in Threshold, this is likely to be okay.
  • Certain powers or actions may be ‘fueled’ by Ability Pools.  “Pushing your Strength” uses Power (and if you use enough, you may find yourself suffering the complications mentioned above).

Ability score damage (something I’ve been wrestling with) now works against the pools rather than the base score.  If used against someone strong in that pool (such as doing Strength damage to someone with high Strength) there is no real immediate effect – just as doing hit point damage has no real immediate effect.

Temporary Constitution change effects on hit points, I’m looking at you.

When Gargantu Juan (the big Mexican crimefighter) gets hit with a Strength-damaging attack his Power pool is reduced, but until he gets below ‘normal human’ amounts he isn’t particularly affected by the attack.  Eventually the attacks can wear him down, especially if he’s spending Power points on feats of strength – and there’s even the concept of ‘conserving his strength’, not doing things because he’s going to need the strength later.

This wants some more consideration, but I like how it feels.


Overall it looks good.

I’m a little wary of the implementation of a few things, but that may be because I don’t fully understand them, or at least their implications.  In those cases I want to think about things a bit more.

I did like what I came away with regarding the possible use of ability pools.  I think the variation I tossed out here may lead to the solution to a problem I’ve been putting off, so for that I’m pleased.


  1. Doug Lampert

    I’ll repeat my comment from last thread that I’d rather fatigue effects were abstracted as non-lethal HP damage.

    Failing that, if I were using this sort of pool system I’d start the negative effects at 0 and simply let the pools go negative, there’s no magic that says ability scores must be positive, and there’s even less reason not to let a pool go negative.

    0 or less reflex: slowed.
    -level or more reflex: slowed and lose one action per turn.
    -2*level or more reflex: helpless.

    If using this sort of system I’d also simplify the pools some. Six pools + HP to spend, does anyone REALLY want to come up with six different lists of depletion effects and six distinctly different effects?

    Borrow a page from 4th and combine abilities in pairs to make up 3 pools. (Int and Dex is a bit odd at first, but it works well enough. Thinking fast is often as good or better than reacting fast.)

    Add Strength and Con into a single Fatigue, or Health, or Fortitude pool (pick a name).
    Add Int and Dex into a single Reflex pool.
    Add Charisma and Wisdom into a single Will pool.

  2. GreyKnight

    This is very interesting… now I’m wondering if I can steal a few bits of it myself! I’ve been looking over the idea of ability penalties/damage in WRPS lately and there’s definitely something there that still dissatisfies me. Going to ponder this on the way home and see what comes out.

  3. GreyKnight

    Here’s a slightly controversial idea, which might be too much for Echelon but maybe other systems could employ it. What if you replace hit points by these attribute pools? Lethal damage comes off the Constitution pool; nonlethal off the Strength pool; fear effects drain your Charisma “hit points”; paralysis affects your Dexterity points, and so forth.

    Well, just a random thought.

  4. hadsil

    I don’t like Point Buy because it punishes you for the audacity of having an 18. Obviously an 18 in a score is really good, but Point Buy makes it prohibitively expensive to get and forces you suffer low scores. Yes, an 18 should be worth more points than a 14 but not to the point of crippling your character elsewhere.

    That said, I’m liking your take on the pool system. I would be concerned how you handle recovering pool points. I accept the need for rest; I just hope it’s not adventuring crippling. Analogy – a magic spell point system where the spellcaster becomes fatigued thus cannot cast spells for several rounds of combat, if at all later in the combat, and thus become useless for the audacity of casting a spell. Given your past work I trust you enough not to do that :), but such crippling fatigue rules have been done over and over I cynically look at any point system to use a character ability. Part of why I like 3E Psionics is precisely because there is no fatigue.

  5. DougL: Allowing ability scores to go negative, with increasingly detrimental effects at 0 and -score, and incapacitation at -2*score, may well be better. It certainly solves an issue I have with how *small* the normal range would have been (1d6 damage against a pool of 14, with detrimental effects at 8, could mean a single attack is inhibiting).

    I think I understand your position on making hit points the primary or real source of death-or-incapacitation avoidance, but I’m not entirely convinced that works ideally — or do mental attacks do hit point damage also? If they do, shouldn’t ‘mentally strong’ characters have more hit points?

    I could be okay with that, to be honest — “12th-level characters are *this tough*” — but I think I’d want that to be the way it worked, if it’s going wholly abstract.

  6. The associations I usually see between physical and mental ability scores are Str and Cha (force of muscle/force of will), Dex and Int (physical and mental speed and precision), Con and Wis (physical and mental endurance). The pairings you have remind me of BESM. I think.

    Mind, combining them to make three tracks instead of six might still be worthwhile… though I think the conditions list in the RSRD comes pretty close to having six tracks already.

  7. Hadsil: when I’ve done point buy I ignore the D&D costs and just went linear. It made things much, much simpler. I had a couple approaches, in one the cost was (score-10) + modifier (14 is 6 points, 15 is 7, 16 is 9, etc.)… I later decided that this is still linear, just using a weird constant (1.5), so I chopped the points by a third and made it linear again.

    27-25-23 is effectively a linear point-buy, just with constraints on how you can spend the points.

    As for recovery of points, I don’t know precisely how that would work, I’ve just started considering the idea. I suspect they would probably be fairly simple because I really don’t want to bother tracking a lot of stuff between encounters.

  8. GreyKnight: interesting idea regarding replacing hit points with these multiple pools. I suspect I might want one or the other rather than both. It just occurred to me that I could go the other way — hit points are derived from Con, magic points from a mental score, and so on, with different applications and purposes for each — but I am pretty sure I wouldn’t do that. But I will think about it.

  9. Doug Lampert

    Keith, yes, in my HP are the main defense ideal HP are also your mental defense. The STANDARD definition of HP includes stuff like fatigue and luck and “toughing it out”, one of those is often as much mental as physical, another is neither mental nor physical, and the third is in fact purely mental.

    The standard HP definition include EVERYTHING that should contribute to the mental defense, there’s other stuff included too, but it’s an abstract system, abstract means combining similar effects into a single value.

    I’d have no objection to putting an explicit mental component into HP (wisdom adds both because you’re mentally tough, and because you’re perceptive enough to see that you need to dodge in time).

    Or alternately I have no objection with adding a mental component to the definition of constitution. Someone who can consistently “tough it out” and “play through pain” and the like is definitely a tough guy, shouldn’t the con score include that?

    Either solution is fine with me (I’d go with the second if I were you, strength isn’t just muscle, it’s muscle you can apply effectively, dex isn’t just twitch speed, it’s the speed of EFFECTIVE reactions, con isn’t just physical either, all the “physical” abilities are mental too).

    And for that matter the bulk of HP in low level 3.x come from the hit die, and that means from XP, which is also mental, so even without changing anything HP alreadey have the dominant component from the mind rather than purely physical. It’s only once you start using magic to add to con that physical dominates, and when that happens, it’s, well, magic.

  10. DougL, all fair enough. It seems to suggest, though, that wizards should be generally as tough as fighters. This seems a little weird to me (though I suppose ‘high Int’ not adding to hit points while ‘high Wis’ does could cover the differences). However, once magic comes into it the Hit Die is the bit that becomes less important.

    OTOH, I’ve seen a number of cases where someone who uses magic is remarkably tough (Dresden Files come to mind; Harry regularly gets trashed and can take it) so it’s not entirely out of line.

    I think part of my reluctance is to giving casters anything more. It used to be they were glass cannon (which I was okay with — they have to be careful!) and they’ve gradually been taking on non-caster features (3e gave them the best attack bonus ever, plus way better hit points in practice, and so on), without the non-casters gaining similar awesome. Taking away the non-casters’ special ‘toughness’ doesn’t feel right to me.

    Give me time to think on this one. I eventually changed my mind about the Basic Tier, I may change my mind here too when and as I get more comfortable with it.

    Or I might go the other way entirely and use the ability pools. At this point I really don’t know.

  11. The point of adding a mental component to Constitution is a good one, though, as is the reconsideration of what the ability scores mean in practice. However, where the physical abilities may have mental aspects, I don’t know that the opposite is true… though I suppose the whole ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ thing comes into it.

    Honestly, I’m coming to the conclusion that Echelon doesn’t necessarily need ‘ability scores’ as a mandatory element. I’ve been considering for a while making them entirely optional, and probably definable on a per-model basis. I can easily imagine a game with only three ability scores, and one where they use a different set entirely — IIRC Legend of Five Rings had ability scores based on the elements rather than physical and mental attributes. I’d have to look that one up for sure, but I’m pretty certain I remember seeing ‘Void score’ in an ‘ability score’ context.

  12. Doug Lampert

    I don’t think you need to make wizards particularly tough just because HP are partly mental, they get HP from level and that’s mental, their training simply doesn’t emphasis the right stuff for lots and lots of HP.

    Nor do I think the obvious point that all the physical abilities are also partly mental means that the mental abilities need to be partly physical too, that’s a false symetry, it maybe looks nice but there’s no actual need for it.

    And if you feel that there is a need for such symetry then it doesn’t matter because we’re already almost there: Wis includes perception which depends on sharp senses which are physical, Charisma includes appearance which is physical, Int is the only ability score WITHOUT an obvious “other type” component already built in.

    But I REALLY dislike multiplication of vital defenses. If there are 50,000,000 viable ways to attack in a system you only need to master one to be effective. If there are 50 different defences then you need to be at least vaguely competent at almost all of them to be effective over the long run. There’s no symetry there, no similarity of costs. “Adequate” defense should come with nothing but level, and HP do that. Sure wizards get less, but there’s a big difference between “less” and “nothing”, every edition ever a high level wizard still took a lot of killing by the standards of a level 1 fighter.

  13. Sure, and we’ve already got that with hit points being proportional to BAB (level bonus + training bonus). Fighters are still tougher than wizards, but higher-level wizards still take a fair bit of killing — just, well, about half of what a fighter the same level would take. Compared to ‘normal people’ they’re Damn Tough (a typical ‘Wiz1’ (fifth-level character) might have half the hit points of a ‘Warrior’ (fourth-level martial character), but that’s still a decent number of hit points (call it 20 for now). A D&D ‘Wiz10’ (14th-level character, +7 level bonus and BAB) might have 70 hit points while the D&D Ftr10 (14th-level character, +14 BAB) might have 140 (probably has a better Con on top of that).

    I may not use ability pools at all for survivability calculations, but I do still like them as a fuel source. I may or may not relate them to conditions, but as far as “lose all of these and drop dead”, that’s likely gone.

  14. Doug Lampert

    Conditions that aren’t completely disabling and the fuel source for specials coming from pools are fine and dandy.

    I’ll be happy if you just make sure there’s nothing an enemy can do to you that takes you more or less completely out of the fight other than remove your HP. (Remove them with a disintigrate and you’re dust, remove them with a dominate spell and you’re dominated, remove them with a sword and you’re bleeding out on the ground, as long as you need to remove them to apply a “you lose” condition.)

    I want there to be one defense that will at least keep you somewhat relevant and get some activity and spotlight time. That way if I sit down to play and don’t bother to read every splat book I don’t suddenly discover that not knowing about Craft Contingent Spell and having different contingencies set for each of a dozen threats means I’m irrelevant after level 13. But don’t have 19 different defenses and then the wizard researches yet another spell and you suddenly need 20 to not be told, “Sorry, you suck”.

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