Are there any rules (house or otherwise) for increasing ability scores after character creation in Basic D&D or any of its retro clones? (Other than magic items or wishes.)

When we generated ability scores, the players rolled 3d6 in order to create their characters. Now that they have a little experience under their belts, they are looking for ways to increase things like Strength for to-hit and damage bonuses, Dexterity to add to AC/Init, and Charisma to add to reaction checks.


5 Answers 5


BX doesn't put the same weight on the ability scores as you appear to, so beware that adding an ability score advancement mechanic will redirect some of your players motivations away from looking for harder-to-achieve bonuses to their effectiveness. On the other hand, you don't have to worry much about breaking the balance of the game with this, because BFRPG is not a tightly-balanced game to begin with – you'll just end up seeing them tackle slightly more challenging fights than you would otherwise. With that caveat out of the way, voiding the warranty on your game can be done for fun an profit! Open up that case, change some internal workings, and see how the machine ticks differently…

I've done some informed searching and turned up a few suggestions and play tested methods for how to do this. Due to the nature of online materials generated by the Old School Renaissance, much of this is musings about possible house rules and only some are house rules groups have actually used and seen the effects of. But experimenting is one of the great things about a simple base system like Basic Fantasy RPG or BX D&D, so have at it!

  • One option I saw mentioned in passing (but not explained, so there was nothing to quote, and therefore this is my own development of the suggestion) is to use the ability score advancement rules from AD&D's Unearthed Arcana, as found on page 15. AD&D isn't BX of course, but they're largely intercompatible in terms of rules so there's no conflict there, and the fact that the games have different assumptions about advancement and such is irrelevant since you're already going off the beaten track.

    The essential idea, if you don't have access to UA, is that each ability score that's core to the class has 100 sub-points, so your DEX would be 15/32, for example, meaning 15 DEX with 35/100 points of advancement toward having DEX 16. Each level you roll 2d10 for each primary score and add that to the percentile part; when you hit 100 you increase the stat by 1 and reset the percentile to 1/100 (discarding extra points rolled over 100).

  • Something similar to the UA scheme is from the post “Hacking Hackmaster Part 3 (on Fractional Ability Points)”, but heavily modified to account for different classes and to allow for progressing in all ability scores. (And, obviously, it came to the author via Hackmaster, which itself took the idea from the original Unearthed Arcana.) It's the one I like the most too, because it gives you the ability to increase ability scores without making it overpowered, while also giving your players the excitement of seeing those numbers climb toward 100. The advantage of this over the UA method is that it's well-tuned to multiple classes, while the UA method was originally just designed for the Cavalier AD&D class.

    The details for each class can be found in that post, but the gist of it is that you have 6 polyhedral dice — d20, d12, d10, d8, d6, d4 — and six ability scores. Each class advances their fractional ability score number by the amount rolled on a die that corresponds to how core that stat is to the class. For example, the table shows fighters getting +1d20 to fractional Strength but only +1d6 to fractional Wisdom at level-up; meanwhile Clerics get +1d20 fractional Wisdom and +1d4 fractional Dexterity at level-up.

  • The post “Normalising ability scores and ability checks in D&D” proposes (i.e., it's untested) that stats be rolled on 2d6+3 instead of 3d6, in order to raise the minimum and make higher stats more likely, but the bit of the post that's more relevant to your needs is the suggestion to allow +1 to one ability score every level, with a hard 18 cap. The author's guiding light is the idea that, back in the early days of D&D, he figures everyone fudged their dice rolls anyway in order to get high scores, so why not fix the ability score rules so that it happens naturally without cheating? There are some other variants suggested for how to advance scores, but they all amount to slowing down the +1 by making it every few levels.

  • The post “‘Landmark’ Levels” suggests that the primary ability score gets +1 at some fixed level breakpoints, such as 5/10/15. This is a nice and simple rule that gives a way to advance, but doesn't much increase the power level over standard BX or BFRPG.

  • It's a common house rule during character generation to be allowed to bump one low stat by 1 point by lowering another one by 2 points, subject to limits (such as only lowering scores that are higher than the raised score). If you're looking to fix your players' scores instead of adding ongoing advancement to the game, you might consider retroactively allowing them to adjust their scores this way.

    This is a real-not-house rule in the B/X retroclone Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), but with the further limit that the increased stat must be a core/requisite class score, lowered scores must not be core scores, that no stat may be lowered below 8, and the 2 points of reduction can't be split across different stats.

  • You can also just use standard D&D 3.x advancement, maybe with per-class restrictions (such as only being able to advance your class's core stat). D&D 3 lets you pick a stat to advance every X levels (depending on class). Since BFRPG is based on the 3rd edition SRD, this is an easy house rule to directly port over.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like the UA fractional ability scores, so I'll definitely keep that mind. The "Landmark Levels" also fit in with some other rules I had in mind, so maybe a combination of the two would be best. Something like, every time you level, you get 2d10 fractional ability points, but at certain levels you get a straight +1 as well. Abilities would be hard capped at 18 or as per your race. \$\endgroup\$
    – Discord
    Apr 30, 2013 at 13:00

There are none, but it's possible that you don't actually need to increase scores. As far back as his proto-D&D Blackmoor campaign, Dave Arneson used a method where he would roll from two to five d6 (depending on the difficulty of the task) and roll under some relevant characteristic, plus 1 point for every two character levels. So if you were a 10th-level M-U and had to roll 3d6 vs., say, a 9 STR, you would actually need to roll 14 or less (9 + 10/2). This was a fairly common ad hoc method of resolving tasks that weren't already covered by the rules.

And depending on what edition you're thinking of, bonuses for stats don't make that much of a difference, anyhow. But even if your preferred edition gives you a bonus to your HP per level for a high CON, for example, consider that, as you level up, you're getting more HP in the first place. Not all of those points represent extra toughness, certainly, but some of them might. Also, in situations where a high attribute gives you a bonus to rolls (such as the STR bonus to hit) consider that the same effect results from leveling up and needing to match a lower number in the first place. Getting a bonus to your STR in addition to having a better attack roll would be double-dipping.

Retaining your original stats gives you a good role-play opportunity as well; someone who is "naturally" strong might be big and beefy-looking, but someone who succeeds because of experience might have deceptively smaller but better-toned and -conditioned muscles. Or consider someone who is intellectually gifted versus someone who studies hard, or who has learned the ways of the world through personal (and sometimes painful) experience. As your player advances, you can have fun playing out these differences.


In addition to all of the above plus the simple 1 per 4 levels of the d20 OGL you might look at a game called Chronicles of Ramalar. It had a system called Demeanor and Theme which each character had four circles with 12 dots around them. A goal was written in each circle and every time the character did something to advance to that goal a dot was colored in. Once all 12 were colored in the goal was achieved and the circle could be reused.

The rules specifically mentioned increasing a stat by 1 as one use. Appropriate actions were maintaining a special diet, exercising, seeking instruction, and so on. I'm sure you could add more.

One other interesting idea was partial success. Each adventure a character with parital progress could convert a dot to a +1% (it's a percentile system) if it is relevant. The example given was pushing an animated statute off a ledge and being a couple of percent high on their strength roll. Although not directly adaptable if you used this perhaps once per session they could try to roll under their dots on a d12 to act as though the relevant stat was one higher.

I'm looking at this system as a way to develop feat like bonuses in an OSR type game.


Often, groups I've played with used the "whenever the DM feels like it" house rule.

Frequently this was done in conjunction with one of several guidelines:

  • As part of a finished quest: This could be a major milestone for the party as a whole (much like an XP reward) or when a character completes a specific, personal undertaking. Such a personal quest may very well be dedicated to raising a stat point or be an unintended side effect (the character uses a lot of thinking during the quest so intelligence goes up). No more than a single stat point or fraction of a stat point should be awarded unless extremely special circumstances warrant it.

  • As part of specified "down-time": The player states his or her character is specifically practicing to boost a stat or skill that he or she wants to increase. This is also useful with the idea of tutelage (seeking a mentor, which ideally shortens this time). This assumes an incremental build-up of knowledge, dexterity, etc. so fractional awards are appropriate unless significant down-time is being represented (e.g., months or years).

  • The character suddenly realizes they are just "that good": Assuming the DM and player(s) agree a stat needs to be raised, or that it would otherwise increase enjoyment of the game (for the player, to offset wonky mechanics, etc.) the DM may unilaterally decide that, at the beginning of the next game, the stat is raised by one point. The logic resides in that very few people notice when they are getting smarter, stronger, healthier, wiser, etc... It just "happens".

  • As a reward for good playing: It's generally a bad idea for a DM to show favoritism, but let's face it – there are players who deserve kudos for good roleplaying, etc., but for some reason can't catch a break in-game (other players steal magic items, wizards are rightfully stingy with wishes, clerics choose to buff tactically "more important" characters, etc.). Simply granting a stat point makes it so there is a real tangible benefit to the game for these people. It's just a cool thing to do for someone.

The drawbacks to this system are that it requires a smart DM and does nothing to appease players that wish to know their characters are getting better. Likewise, player favoritism and overpowering your players' characters are all real possibilities if you grant too many exceptions to having unchanging stats.

The benefits are that the DM can tailor advancement in this area for the benefit of the game and the players. Why does the player need to have abilities raised every two levels if the character is practicing now? Why does swinging a sword and using no strategy in battle allow a character to upgrade intelligence instead of strength?

Plus, as an added bonus, you don't have to do this with just base stats. Think a character is buff enough but the player wants a better to-hit? Grant a decent to-hit bonus through any of the above guidelines while letting the player know the other abilities' perks will stay the same. This kind of negotiation usually satisfies most reasonable players.

Some guidelines on training with a tutor (stolen from the AD&D 2e DMG):

  • The tutor must know the appropriate thing. A thief seeking to improve his lockpicking must find a higher-level tutor more accomplished in lockpicking.

  • Since not all player characters are suited to instructing their fellow party members, any player character who attempts to train another must make both a Wisdom and Charisma check. Wisdom indicates the knowledge and patience to teach the skill, Charisma the wit to impart that skill to another. If both checks fail, the would-be teacher is unsuited to teaching that skill for some reason. NPC tutors do not need to pass these checks, only player character teachers.

  • Tutors often require monetary compensation unless special circumstances apply. 100gp a week is not uncommon.

  • The minimum amount of time necessary for the tutelage 19 - Wisdom (Instructor). But being a clear instructor doesn't mean much if your student is a poor learner. At the end of this time, the student rolls an Intelligence or Wisdom check, whichever is higher. If the check succeeds, the student has learned what they need. If failed, another week is needed. At the end of this time, another check is ade with a temporary +1 bonus. Rinse and repeat until the student passes the check.


The Simple Answer:

  • From level 2-10: Every even level: +1 to ability of player's choice.
  • From level 11-30: Every 4th level (i.e. 16, 20, 24, 28)

Given that you're avoiding magical-items, it might be advisable to have some extra ability bumps. Although I'm not familiar with 'Basic Fantasy', it might be best to increase monster-stats slightly to maintain the difficulty level somewhat.

You can have restrictions that PC's must use an ability in order for it be increased, but that's not usually something in the vein of a D&D game.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. I'm curious; Is this a house rule or is it adapted from somewhere. \$\endgroup\$
    – Discord
    Apr 29, 2013 at 16:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ This would be mostly house-rule. From the D&D editions I've played heavily, there's always an every-4th-level ability bump, so adding an extra one every-other-level is a pretty easy move. \$\endgroup\$ May 1, 2013 at 14:53

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