Investigating Ability Scores

Level 1 Human Onesie
The best Onesie Ever – from J!NX

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When you sit down to create an entirely new RPG from scratch, where do you start? I don’t know if there’s a particular method used by more experienced game designers, but the handful of times I’ve attempted it, I always start in the same place: how does the player create their character? It’s the closest thing to a ‘logical’ starting place that I can think of. Nearly every mechanic in every RPG I’ve ever looked at relates either to how the characters can affect the game world, or how the game world can affect them. And since the character needs to exist before it can affect or be affected, it seems like that’s the best place to start. So when I began making notes for the game system I mentioned yesterday, that is what I did.

From there, I chose to start with the most fundamental building block of a character: ability scores. I’m sure there’s a system out there where characters don’t have any of ability scores, and it might be really good. But, for my purposes with this game, ability scores seem like the best way to go. Then came my first real decisions: how many ability scores, what do they represent, and how are they generated?

I am most familiar with the D&D base ability scores. There are six of them: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Numerous methods exist for determining the numbers associated with each ability, but all of them are just permutations on the original. The player rolls 3d6, six times. The basic score is a number between 3 and 18, weighted heavily towards scores of 10 or 11. When you look at OD&D or AD&D, it’s very clear why ability scores were set up this way. Rolling 3 dice makes the minimum and maximum scores very unlikely, so when a 17 or 18 is rolled, it’s a cherished event. Hell, I got excited when my OD&D Magic User Higgins rolled a 16 Intelligence. The maximum score of 18 also plays beautifully into the original “ability check” mechanic, where a player rolls 1d20 and compares it to the ability score they’re attempting to use. If the result of the d20 roll is less than or equal to their ability score, whatever they’re attempting succeeds. I love the way this mechanic makes the specific number of a character’s ability score significant, while also retaining an absolute 10% failure chance.

Modern versions of Dungeons and Dragons–including Pathfinder–retain the basics of this system, but have lost everything which made the systems elegant. By using larger dice pools, the game removes the rarity of high or low numbers. There are racial ability bonuses which can easily increase a character’s score to 20 at first level, and even extra ability points given to characters at every 4th level. This would kill that consistent 10% failure chance, if the ability check mechanic hadn’t been dropped in favor of rolling against a target number. As I understand it, D&D 4th edition dropped the die rolling aspect of  entirely, using a ‘point buy’ system instead. The ability score range of 3-18 seems like nothing more than tradition at this point.

After seeing this example of a mechanic being used in a game where it doesn’t fit any longer, I wanted to make sure I didn’t just copy the system I was most familiar with. I needed to properly explore my alternatives, and thoroughly examining why a particular system was the right choice for this game. (Incidentally, this concern is what prompted me to question Reinventing the Wheel.) And what better way to explore my alternatives was to grab every game sourcebook I own, and look at how they handled ability scores, presented in no particular order.

Note that these are specifically from books I own, and not an exhaustive investigation into every system of ability scores ever used. I’ve also excluded the Adventurer Conqueror King and Dungeon Crawl Classic systems, since they both use a system based heavily on oldschool D&D.

The Deadlands RPG published in 1996 (which I picked up at a garage sale about a year ago, but have not yet taken a serious look at) has a whopping 10 ability scores, divided into two groups. There are the “Corporeal Traits,” which include Deftness, Nimbleness, Quickness, Strength, and Vigor; and the “Mental Traits,” which include Cognition, Knowledge, Mien, Smarts, and Spirit. Having not played the game it seems unfair to judge, but some of these seem awful similar to me. Deftness is defined as “Hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity. Great for shooting holes in things.” and Quickness is defined as “Reflexes and speed. Draw, pardner!” I get that there’s a difference, but is it really significant enough to add additional complication to a tabletop game? I would need a lot of convincing.

Ability scores are determined by drawing from a standard deck of playing cards, with the two jokers included. You draw 12 cards, discard 2. You then assign each card to one of your ten scores. The card is then compared to a chart. The number on the card determines which type of die you roll in association with that ability score, while the suit determines how many of that die you roll.

The game has a wild-west setting, so using playing cards as a mechanic makes sense. Aces & Eights did the same thing. But really it’s just a fancy method for assigning dice to abilities, and that idea has always interested me. The difference between having a 1d4 Strength and a 1d12 dexterity is a lot more interesting than the difference between a -2 Strength and a +4 Dexterity in Pathfinder.

The Serenity RPG was the first game I bought after D&D, but I still haven’t had the opportunity to play it! I blame none of my friends being big Firefly fans. And maybe it’s just as well–I’ve heard that the system is horribly broken.

Like Deadlands, the attributes in the Serenity RPG are die types, rather than numbers. Before play begins, the group selects which “heroic level” they’d like to play at, choosing from “Greenhorn,” “Veteran,” and “Big Damn Hero.” Each of the heroic levels has a different number of “Attribute Points” which are spent in creating a character. Again, they are divided into physical and mental, but with only 6 instead of 10: Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower. Dice are purchased for each of the scores, with each die costing a number of points equal to the number on its highest face. (A d6 costs 6 points, a d8 costs 8, etc.)

Personally, I’m not a fan of point-buy systems. I see their value as a means of balancing characters, but I find it far more fun when characters have a chance of being unusually flawed or gifted. None the less, I still like the dice idea. It’s something to think about.

Earthdawn is another system I picked up at a garage sale and never took a really look at. It appears to be more of a storytelling game, which is not my forte. Again it uses a sort of “point buy” system, ranging from 2-18, with the lowest numbers actually adding points to your pool if you take them. It also has an alternative method allowing characters to roll 3d6 for their scores. The actual scores are similar to D&D as well: dexterity, strength, toughness, perception, willpower, and charisma.

Whatever other interesting elements the game might have, it’s not particularly useful for this exercise.

Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG is notoriously bad. I couldn’t not buy it when I found it at a used book store a few years back, just for the sake of morbid curiosity. I’m honestly having a difficult time even understanding how this works. From what I can tell, there are actually only 5 attributes, which range from 1 to 5 for humans, and each attribute has two “edges” which a character can be particularly strong or particularly weak in. I honestly can’t decipher how this works by flipping through the book, but it seems similar to the WEG Star Wars RPG, which I’ll discuss below.

Gangbusters (first edition, 1982) has some seriously strange ability scores. It looks like each character has Muscle, Agility, Observation, Presence, Driving, and Luck. But each is rolled differently! For muscle, agility, and observation, the player rolls a percentile die. Modifiers go from +0 to +25, with a lower roll being better. The presence score is just rolled on a D10, with modifiers from 0 to 2. The driving score is the average of your agility and observation scores, and the luck score is just a percentile dice divided by two.

This is a mess. I don’t think there’s really any way to redeem it within the system’s mechanics. Though again, I should probably play it before I pass judgement. (If you haven’t figured it out: I own a great many systems I’ve never had an opportunity to play!)

I picked up the Batman Role Playing Game a little over a year ago because I found it at a used book store and was curious. Unlike some of the other RPGs I’ve picked up second had, I took a very serious look at it. My ladyfriend is a huge batman fan, and I had some fun ideas for a campaign where the players started out as thugs in Gotham city, constantly hounded by Batman. Unfortunately, I discovered that it was the worst system I’ve ever laid eyes on.

But lets stick to the attributes. This game has a nine of them. When I first read it, that seemed extremely excessive. But then, I hadn’t read anything about Deadwood yet. The attributes make up a cross-section, which I do find somewhat interesting. Three attributes are physical, three are mental, and three are spiritual. Of those, one in each category is an “Acting/Opposing” attribute, one is an “Effect Attribute,” and one is a “Resistance Attribute.” Once again, point-buy is used during character creation, so this isn’t of particular interest.

The Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game is god damned beautiful. It is based on the Burning Wheel role playing system, which I’ve had no prior experience with. Despite appearing to focus more on storytelling than gaming, the system is very interesting and I would like to learn more about it.

The game doesn’t have ability scores in the traditional sense, but it does have Nature, Will, Resources, and Circles. These can used and depleted through play, however, so perhaps this would be a good example of a system without ability scores.

Shadowrun, 1st edition, has 8 attributes for most characters, but has a 9th if the character is a magician. In some ways, this seems like a poor design choice to me. The purpose of ability scores, as I view them, is to be the most basic, fundamental, and universal expression of what a character can do. An Orc Barbarian who cannot cast spells still has an Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma score.

But, on the other hand, I can see this making a certain amount of sense in a setting where mystical abilities are completely inaccessible to those who were not born with them.

The way attributes are generated is also interesting. It’s a point-buy system, with some complexities that are a little reminiscent of Gangbusters, but much more refined. There are five columns to choose from in creating a character from scratch: Magic, Attributes, Skills, Tech, and Race. The player is given five importance ratings, 0 through 4, and they must assign one rating to each of the five columns. They will receive more or less resources in each of the five categories, depending on how important they rate them. Giving attributes an importance rating of 0 gives you 15 points to spend, while an importance rating of 4 gives you 30 points.

The six physical and mental attributes can each range from 1 to 6 for humans. The three mystical attributes each work a little differently. All characters start with an Essence of 6, which decreases as they add cyberware implants, or if they are healed improperly. Reaction is the average of Quickness and Intelligence, but is also reduced by cyberware implants.

Magic rating is the ninth attribute which only magic users posses, and I don’t actually understand why it exists based on these rules. It starts at 6, and “declines with essence rating.” I can’t figure out why they would need a seperate ability if–by all appearances–magic should always be equal to essence. But as I’m not intimately familiar with the system, I’m sure there’s something I’m missing.

Traveller (2008, Mongoose) has one of the coolest character creation systems ever, wherein the players must make a number of decisions and roll on a number of charts to generate their character’s entire lifetime prior to the point that play begins. Rolling the six basic ability scores, however, is straightforward. Roll 2d6 six times and assign them in any order. It’s simple, but works.

I like the idea of using two dice to generate an ability score rather than 3. The roll is still weighted towards the center, but both high and low scores will be more common.

And lastly, we come to the West End Games Star Wars Role Playing Game. I love this game. And, as it turns out, I’ve written about its ability scores before. So if you don’t mind, I’ll just quote myself:

WEG Star Wars characters have six basic attributes; Dexterity, Knowledge, Perception, Strength, Mechanical, and Technical. Each of these has a certain number of six sided dice attached to it during character creation. (WEG Star Wars only uses six sided dice.) For example, a human character gets 18 dice total, and has a minimum of 2 dice and a maximum of 4 dice in each of the six attributes. After filling the minimum requirements, players have 6 dice to spread between their six abilities. Once in play, any action which requires a roll will be associated with one of the six abilities, and the player gets to roll however many dice they allocated for that attribute. For example, hitting something with a blaster requires the ability to aim the blaster accurately, so you would roll your dexterity. If you went ahead and maxed out your dexterity, then you’d be able to roll 4d6 against your opponent’s dodge. And if he or she rolls lower than you did, the blaster bolt hits! And given how dangerous combat is treated in this game, there’s a good chance getting hit by that blaster bolt killed them.

There’s also a skills system for more specific tasks. Each character starts out with 7 dice to apply to skills. So even though you have 4 dice in dexterity, you could put another 2 dice in the Blasters skill, and be able to roll a whopping 6 dice whenever you try to hit somebody. Dice can also be split up. Each die counts as 3 “pips,” which is WEG’s code for bonuses. Essentially, if you’ve put 2 skill die into blasters, 3 into medicine, and 1 into starfighter piloting, and can’t decide where to put your last die, you can just break it up. Add a +2 to starfighter piloting (making the skill 1d6 + 2) and a +1 to blasters.

The system is elegant, and beautiful. Despite using what is essentially a point-buy system, it doesn’t feel bogged down with number crunching, nor do you ever feel obligated to build an “optimized” character.

This has been a weird post. When I started it, my intention was to examine all of these different game systems, and figure out how their use of ability scores could be adapted to the game I’ve been working on. Instead, I’ve really just listed all the different systems I found next to one another, with some commentary attached.

This might be a bad post…but it doesn’t seem bad to me right now, at 1 in the morning. Maybe I’ll feel differently later, but I’ll let you be the judge.

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6 thoughts on “Investigating Ability Scores”

  1. I’m surprised there are no White Wolf games in that list, but maybe that’s just my 90s roots showing. You might also want to check out Basic Roleplaying (or one of its specific instantiations like Call of Cthulhu) which I gather are relatively well regarded, though I am not very familiar with BRP games.

    1. I’m always enamored of the setting of White Wolf games, but they mostly do storytelling games, right? Not really my thing.

      I’ve been meaning to check out CoC. I’ll make a point of it, thanks!

      1. White Wolf calls their games “storytelling” games, but that tag came about before the current meaning of storygaming, I think. I don’t see much about the mechanics that build in storytelling at the mechanical level. There are no things like fate points that allow players to take narrative control, for example.

        The character build process is quite heavy (point buy for everything), and I hate dice pool mechanics, but the combination of one attribute like strength with one skill like brawl for every task is pretty elegant (and I ripped it off for my very D&D-like Blackwater Falls game way back when). The division of attributes into physical (strength, dexterity, stamina); social (charisma, manipulation, appearance); and mental (perception, intelligence, wits) is also slick.

        In more recent news, check this out:

        http://www.montecookgames.com/stats-and-training-in-numenera/

  2. I might have the look into the Star Wars system…

    I like the concept of gaining Experience and leveling up to increase basic abilities or class abilities then spending said Experience to upgrade the other.

    Such as the Lost Girl inspired system I mentioned. When you level up your Stats/Attributes increased based on your role(class). And then based on your level you gain an amount of Evolution Points to buy or upgrade abilities granted by your race. Such as a werewolf warrior upgrading their scent and hearing abilities effectiveness (upgrading their racial bonus to a group of skills) while Also buying the sub-ability of their shifting racial trait to gain claw and bite weapons outside of their wolf form.

    Anyway back to stats the Lost Girl based system has 3 primary with 9 secondary. Each primary system has 3 secondary traits based on it. You can roll or use a point buy system. The game assumes rolling and uses d%.

    1. Typing on phone and hit submot by accident sorry…

      As I was saying. It focuses on using your abilities to explore and fight. With the player providing the role-playing. As it has NO roleplayong based skills. E.G. it doesn’t have a Diplomacy skill.

      The 3 primary attributes and their corresponding secondary attributes are:

      Body: the power of ones physical form.
      -Strength: ones abilty to perform acts of a physical nature.
      -Dexterity: ones nimbleness and agility as well as their hand-eye coordination.
      -Constitution: Ones ability to resist pain, fatigue, and sickness.

      Mind: the power of ones mind.
      -Intellect: ones intelligence.
      -Wisdom: ones common sense.
      -Charisma: ones force of personality.

      Spirit: the power of ones soul.
      -Honor: ones sense of duty and loyalty.
      -Bravery: ones ability to stand when others would cower.
      -Faith: ones belief in others and in themself.

      The primary attributes are determined using a basic dice pool, dice rolling or just a very easy point-buy

      1. Stupid phone…

        I forgot it also has an array you can apply either by players choice or buy role.

        The secondary ones are determined by adding together the Primary Attribute alongside the racial bonus. Sometimes you get misc bonuses to them as well.

        Some races synergize well with a given role and as such gain role bonuses. Such as a Werewolf gaining a bonus to CON and HON if they take Warrior as their role or bonuses to WIS and Bravery if the take the Adept/Shaman role.

        Also their destiny can effect their attributes as well.

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