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Building Better RPGs: The Ability Score Conundrum

Character Gen 101: Roll some scores! Or maybe not?

Character Gen 101: Roll some scores! Or not?

I’m rather pleased to announce that I’ve become engaged in a project working on designing a new rules system for a role-playing game.  While it’s still a bit too early to discuss the particulars, even if I could discuss them, I have wanted to get feedback from my readers and fellow gamers about some of their thoughts on building a better RPG “engine”, and what trends in game mechanics you look for in a prospective game.

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!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


8 Responses to “Building Better RPGs: The Ability Score Conundrum

  1. Yong Kyosunim says:

    My preference is that I like a game that has 6 – 8 ability scores of numbers and those numbers provide modifiers to rolls. Also, the 6 -8 ability scores provide a whole range of secondary or figured stats. The reason why is that if someone wanted to a play a more pared down version of the game (a “basic” version if you will), they can just go off the ability scores and their done. However, at an “advanced” version, you have secondary stats to round out the character. This would be particularly useful if your game has monsters and you want to keep stats simple and short so that GM’s and pick them up on the spot.

  2. Shadow Acid says:

    I’ve always liked ability scores. They are a good way to get handle on what a character is capable of very quickly and concretely, otherwise we wouldn’t use them to describe people we meet, even in that joking way when we say that dude in the checkout isle has a 6 charisma.

    I also prefer a small number of scores, usually around three or four, like the good ole Body, Agility, Mind, and Spirit breakdown. And I prefer to just use the attribute itself instead of having it derive a secondary value. Why do an extra step to use the stat, since that always seemed to me that you don’t really need it if you’re not really using it (I’m looking at you 2nd Ed Shadowrun).

  3. This idea is kinda stolen from a mate of mine, but I really like it. Think multiple d6 rolls for each stat, with the number of dice rolled determined by race, but you can still only pick the three you want, add ‘em together, and that’s the stat. it means you have some control, but still a wild element. I know it may not be totally original, but I first saw it in their home brew game. I keep promising the interview with them, but one half of the creative team is on holiday, and I think his wife and kids would be a bit let down if he spent much of that time chatting online to me. Keep watching my blog though, the stuff I’ve got so far is great.

  4. Yong Kyosunim says:

    My personal preference is that I like old fashion attribute scores with modifiers. I think 6 – 8 attributes are fine but I also like 6 – 8 secondary or figured scores that are optional. For example if you want to have two versions of a game – one that is “basic” and another that adds for more complexity, The attributes are enough to go off and run the game; however, for added complexity, you can have secondary attributes. Secondary attributes may power up the game a little bit, but in the overall curve of play, you won’t see much difference.

    Secondly, I think attribute generation should be both random and point-buy. Point-buy is important for GM’s who want to ensure a more balanced approach to character creation or if there’s tournament play while random appeals to gaming groups that like an organic style.

    Lastly, my approach to designing a rpg these days should be from the perspective of designing an app that can help facilitate the bookkeeping and condition tracking. If I design a 400 page rulebook, but has a ton of bookkeeping and conditions, no one is going to buy my $60 book unless I got really cool art in it. However, if I have an easy app that allows multiface character interaction, rulesets that impose conditions on characters and monsters during gameplay, then I have an open avenue in VTT and tabletop play. So my rules need to be firmly grounded in logical math and scaling so building the app will be easy.

  5. Svafa says:

    For the number of attributes, I would suggest starting bare bones and then adding things only if they seem needed. Sometimes you’ll end up with more attributes and sometimes less. I think it’s more important that you have a cohesive design that reflects the setting than that you cover all your bases.

    For example, I’m working on a FUDGE setting for our group and while I used the DnD stats as a baseline, I quickly cut Wisdom from the list. It didn’t fit with the system as an attribute. Sure, it might be something worth gauging in some games, but in the setting I’m designing it doesn’t mesh with the other mechanics. It would feel tacked on and useless. Some systems don’t need to represent a Strength (or other arbitrary attribute) score mechanically, in which case I don’t think it should be included. It’s ok fluff, but don’t include it as core if it isn’t important.

    As for generating scores, I personally prefer both. Certain systems work better one way or the other, but it’s great when both options are present. It allows the individual to tailor the game to their own preferences and play style.

    Back on the simplicity and cohesive shtick, I don’t like derived scores and formulas; I live with them, but I don’t like them. For some systems it’s almost mandatory for it to work, but I prefer systems where what you see is what you get. For example, if a Dexterity of 18 means nothing but that I get a +4 Dex bonus, then why do I have a Dexterity of 18 and not a Dexterity of 4? Especially now that DnD has gone heavily point-buy for attribute generation. In defense of DnD, it’s more a vestigial organ that just continues to hang around despite doing nothing (maybe Next will change that). I don’t believe I’ve ever asked a 4E player what their attribute scores were- actually, no, I have asked them, but what I meant and what they gave me were their modifiers, not the raw scores.

    Whether you get rid of the bonuses or get rid of the raw scores doesn’t matter a great deal functionally; they’ll both end up serving the same purpose. Which is kept should be based on which fits with the system better and makes more mechanical sense. If it makes more sense to use the larger raw scores, then by all means keep them and get rid of the modifiers. And maybe both the raw scores and the modifiers are necessary or useful, in which case keep both. Though I might suggest looking back over the mechanics to make sure things aren’t needlessly complicated (in a heavily simulationist system it might not be).

  6. Jack says:

    It may just be that we’re only seeing a little piece of a larger project, but it strikes me that you’re putting the cart before the horse. Before you ask questions like how many stats should we have, should we have derived stats or not, and how should we generate them, you should be asking “what are we trying to model?” or “what aspects of a character are meaningful in our game?”

    I don’t think there’s an virtue to 3 stats over 6 stats over 10 stats, unless you can tell me what those stats are and why they’re meaningful. D&D’s 6 stats are prevalent because everyone descends from grand-dad, sure, but also because it’s a useful framework for describing the mental and physical capabilities of a character: Power, Endurance, Finesse, Smarts, Awareness, and Personality. If you’re going to add or drop from that list, you need to think about why. Too few stats and everyone looks the same; too many stats and you start to lose meaning. You should have only as many as you need, and no more.

    I’m generally a fan of non-random character generation. Yeah, not everyone is born for greatness, but if I have 5 STR and 7 INT I’m going to stay on my folk’s turnip farm, not go adventuring. There can be fun to playing a sub-par character, but I think it should be a conscious choice by the player, not something the game imposes arbitrarily. In practical terms, I’m not sure I want to waste my time playing a “bad” character just because the dice said so.

    Keep it simple: the only reason I haven’t switched my D&D stats to +0s and +2s instead of 11s and 14s is because D&D wants me to care about ‘dead’ values, where the attribute increases but the bonus doesn’t. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, since the *actual* score almost never matters. This goes back to my first point: whether you use raw attributes or derived stats doesn’t matter so much as why you’re using them and why they matter. Figure that part out and I think your questions should answer themselves.

    To the point above about developing an app: in my opinion, if you’re building an app to do book-keeping for your pen-and-paper RPG, you’re already doing it wrong. If I wanted to play a computer game I’d play a computer game.

    To the point about D&D attributes being vestigial, it’s my opinion that we’ve made them vestigial, and unnecessarily so. Raw scores used to mean something besides just a +4 on certain roles, and could be used to derive non-mechanical facts about a character. I don’t think it was ever implemented to it’s greatest advantage, but it’s been mostly abandoned at this point and that’s sad. The point being, as I said above, you can have raw attributes, ‘derived’ attributes, or both, so long as you make sure whatever you’re using is meaningful.

  7. Tim says:

    I’d like to see a game where the characteristics or the abilities is generated by answering questions about how I would like to deal with situations possible in-game. Some sort of 2 or multiple choice questions defining the character which then could be used to assign values.

  8. @Tim – Actually I reviewed an RPG called “Mistborn” a few weeks ago that does use a question-and-answer system for generating abilities, and it’s pretty neat. I think it should definitely be an optional rule for ability score/ability generation, but alot of gamers love to roll dice hoping for the big score!

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