Killing My Babies

Merry & Pippin in Armor
Screenshot from the 1980 Return of the King

“Kill your babies” is a term you may or may not be familiar with. I’m sure it exists in many fields, but I first discovered it while studying writing. The idea is that when you’re working on something, parts of it will become very precious to you. You’ll be happy with the way this argument or that turn of phrase represents you and your skills. But even a brilliant piece of writing can be out of place. The quality of the project as a whole must always take precedence over any individual aspect of it. Anything which is out of place or distracting must be killed, even if it is your baby.

I killed one of my babies a few minutes ago. In and of itself, that is not something worth writing to you about. However, the reason this particular baby needed to be smothered revealed something mechanically interesting about my recently posted ability scores weighted by race system. I’d recommend you read it, but to briefly sum it up, my idea is that the player should first pick their race, then roll their ability scores in a way that is weighted towards that race’s strengths and weaknesses. So a dwarf, being very hardy, would roll 5d6 for their constitution, and take the highest 3. Whereas a halfling, lacking physical strength, would roll 5d6 take the lowest 3 for that ability.

A few days ago I had the idea to combine the weight-by-race system, with a variant of the old ability penalty flaws system. My plan was that if a character had a negative modifier in any of their 6 ability scores, then they would need to roll on a flaw chart associated with that ability. So a character with a -2 modifier for their strength would need to roll on the strength flaw chart. No matter how severe the penalty (-1, -2, -3, -4) the character would only have one flaw per ability score, and the flaws would mostly be absolute “can’ts.” A character with a Strength flaw might roll “Can’t climb anything harder than a steep slope,” or “Can’t run for longer than 1 round.”

Unfortunately, while trying to work it out, I found it was difficult to determine which flaws should be associated with which scores. For example, one of the flaws I knew I wanted to have in there was “Can’t swim.” Originally, it was a strength flaw, because strength is the ability which modifies the swim skill in Pathfinder. But that didn’t strike me as correct, because it would mean dwarfs would almost never be unable to swim, while halflings would often be unable to swim. Moving the ability to dexterity solved that problem adequately, but then I ran into the same issue with “Can’t climb anything more difficult that a steep slope.” It’s obviously a strength based thing, yet a halfling scrambling up a rope seems perfectly natural. Many small creatures with low strength should be able to perform strength-based tasks, because their own mass requires less strength to move.

It was here where I realized that there was a large difference between Pathfinder’s default method of rolling ability scores, and my racially weighted method. Using the default method, ability ability scores are relative. Using my variant, ability scores are absolute. What do I mean by that?

In rules-as-written Pathfinder, a Strength of 10-11 is ‘average,’ pretty much regardless of your race. With a penalty of -2, halflings have a slightly lower average of 8-9; but since PCs get to roll 4d6 drop the lowest for all of their scores, PC halflings will still have an average strength (11) higher than the average NPC human. It sounds a little ridiculous to say that an average PC halfling will be about as physically strong as an average human, until you realize that a halfling’s strength is relative to their own size. Other mechanics represent the halfling’s strength relative to larger creatures. When using a weapon, halflings must use a smaller damage die. When attempting to grapple with an opponent, halflings suffer a significant penalty due to their size. Even encumbrance is modified by the creature’s size; a halfling can carry only 3/4ths the weight of a human with the same strength score.

The weighted-by-race system, in contrast, is intended to use absolute values for the ability scores. A character with 10 strength can carry the same amount of stuff regardless of whether they are a pixie or an ogre. (accommodations would be made for quadrupeds). That might sound ridiculous, but bear in mind that neither of those creatures will ever have a strength of 10. A pixie’s strength would probably be something on the order of 5d2, take the lowest 3. While an ogre’s strength might be the highest 3 out of 5d10.

I still like my system better. Not only is it significantly simpler, (small characters don’t need to record a dozen different penalties for the game’s different subsystems), but it’s also more consistent. RAW Pathfinder’s ability scores are only relative for the physical abilities. Mental abilities (Int/Wis/Cha) are absolute. Regardless, though, I don’t think the ability penalty flaw system will work with the weight-by-race system. Not unless I come up with a very different way to implement it.

The nice thing about killing your babies as a game designer, as opposed to killing them as a writer, is that game mechanics are modular, while writing often isn’t. Someday I’ll get to use the ability penalty flaw system…


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2 thoughts on “Killing My Babies”

  1. Instead of having flaws tied to ability scores with penalties, why not have flaws tied directly to race? This seems like it would work wonderfully with a small number of player character races. Also, if each race only has, say, 6 or 8 flaws to choose from, you can stack them toward “stereotypes” rather than attributes (e.g. most of a Dwarf’s flaws would be more associated with Charisma, but he can still have problems with swimming, climbing, or riding). You could also have shared flaws that all members of a race have (maybe certain subsets have different mandatory flaws).

  2. I’m going to have to chew on this a little more, but it never struck me that Pathfinder’s scores were relative (or, for that matter, trhat your weighted scores were ‘more absolute’). Of course, I use point-buy, not 4d6, and it’s always been my understanding that the 3-18 scale was an objective measure built around a human-normative perspective. That is, everyone with a STR 10 can life the same amount of stuff, everyone with an INT 7 is ‘special’, etc.

    The catch you’re getting snagged on, though, is that the measure assumes a human-sized thing, and Halflings are Small and Ogres are Large. So the extra adjustments for Halflings aren’t their because a Halfling 10 is different from a Human 10, but because it’s a proportionate difference. A human who was halfling-sized would have the same strength, if that makes sense. The same goes for Large creatures getting an adjustment in the other direction.

    In short, stats give you the objective measure proportionately to size. FWIW I don’t think that’s the best way to handle things, but I haven’t bothered to figure out a better way to do it (mostly because halflings never struck me as an interesting race to play).

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