I thought that one very obvious place to start the discussion is about building a character, and in most RPGs I’ve played, that means creating a block of Ability Scores to begin the process. In many game systems I’ve played, Ability Scores form the originating point for several of the character’s interactive mechanics, such as skills, combat statistics, and even how they interact with NPCs.
So what I wanted to do was to start a discussion about the nature of Ability Scores, and get some feedback from the gaming community on what makes for a “good” Ability Score system.
A little or a lot?
One basic question to start off with is how many Ability Scores do you need to make a solid character? Do you want a large number of scores like 8 to 10 (or more?), a moderate number like the ubiquitous 6, or an even smaller number of perhaps 4 or even 3?
Personally, I’ve played games with all ranges. The oldest edition of Champions AKA HERO SYSTEM, for instance, had eight primary Ability Scores and six more that were “figured” from the base scores. D&D has had its six stats, and so any game based upon a D&D model ended up with six stats as well. Of course, there was a time under Skills & Powers when D&D characters could split the 6 scores into 12 sub-abilities – a lot of scores to juggle. On the other end of the spectrum, Mouse Guard RPG only has three ability scores, and the Dresden Files RPG has none at all!
So is having more Ability Scores better or worse for defining a character in an RPG? Or should we have fewer to keep things more simple and streamlined?
Order or Chaos
And how should we generate Ability Scores? Should we rely on point systems, and allow players to craft Ability Score sets, in order to make sure everyone has a chance to play an above average hero? Or should we let random chance and dice rolls decide the fate of a player’s character?
Like most gamers out there, I’ve played both methods with a number of games over the years, and quite a few games have methods available for either using points or dice to forge their character. But then, there are some game systems which are specifically built for one method or the other – the old HERO System always used points, while a newer game, Dungeon Crawl Classics, demands that dice are rolled, and ostensibly half the fun is learning to deal with a character that is sub-par.
Is it more fun to have to deal with random Ability Scores, or is building a character’s scores the right way to go? Should a game system offer both methods, or should it just select one way to generate Ability Scores, and stick to its mechanics philosophy?
Formulating a Character
Of course in games that have numerical Ability Scores, most of the time you either use the score itself or allow the score to generate a second score – the Ability Score bonus. From there, once you have numbers to play with, then it follows that those numbers are going to be used to define other game mechanic/statistics – and that means doing math or solving formulas at some point in the gaming process.
But is that good or bad?
If you’re a gamer like me, you probably don’t really consider it as good or bad, just a part of the system as a whole. By now, you’re probably used to dealing with the fact that you’re going to be using Ability Score (or their Bonuses) and some sort of “formula” to decide how your character will interact with the world through game mechanics. Success in using a character’s skills, how a character fights in combat situations, and even how a character advances themselves in their career/class/profession all come down to Ability Scores and doing math.
Should we dispense with Ability Scores and just dive directly in with generating bonuses instead? Or should we use raw scores in our math and cut out the “bonuses” altogether? Does having the Ability Scores and/or the bonuses help or do they hinder the process of role-playing?
Alternates and Radicals
I’ve also been looking at alternatives to Ability Scores or the number game that have been appearing in a wide range of what our community is calling “indie games”. Some systems a single dice of a dice pool to represent Ability Scores. The Star Wars RPG was built along those lines, and combined pools from Ability Scores with their Skill system to create even more pools.
Or should we keep Ability Scores as numbers, but cut out the formulas and as much of the math as possible? I don’t have an example of this from my paper-and-pencil gaming experience, but I do from an MMO that’s coming up – Guild Wars 2. Their Attribute system\ has statistics that are more like bonuses and dispense with formulas figured from Ability Scores to directly affect combat. For instance, increasing a character’s Precision increases their chance to perform a critical hit, while increasing something called Condition Damage allows them to do more damage from a condition they imposed – like a bleed effect or poison. Clearly a table top game could draw upon a similar system – and for all I know, there’s one out there that I don’t know about which already does it!
So is a character better defined by a dice pool, or is it too random feeling to role-play? Does a more direct system which uses direct attributes plugged into game mechanics better by cutting out formulas, or does it make the character less well defined?
I’d very much enjoy some feedback and to hear from Readers what they want to see in a role-playing game regarding Ability Scores, and your comments will be very useful to the game design process. I asked quite a few questions in the blog, so feel free to comment and answer as many or as few as you wish – I look forward to reading your thoughts and ideas!
So until next blog… I wish you happy gaming!