Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Quick Note on Attributes

I've been thinking about attribute scores again.

When it comes to the way that character abilities are handled in D&D, there's some redundancy and misapplication that always bothered me.  It's why, in both Retro Phaze and now Engines & Empires, I've folded the six scores down to four, letting Strength subsume Constitution and having only two mental stats, one for Intelligence and one for Charisma/Willpower.

Losing out on Constitution does mean that there's no way to represent a character who's strong but fragile, or weak but tough; but (hobbits excluded) that's never really a thing that comes up.  With four scores representing, roughly, muscle/toughness, quickness/finesse, smarts/learning, and will/charm, you can still have the strong but slow guy, the skinny but fast guy, the absent-minded or socially awkward genius, and the vapid fast-talker.  Classic (if stereotypical) character types.

It's great for fiction, but it's hardly realistic.  After all, as others have pointed out, "dexterity" as it's portrayed in role-playing games (meaning bodily agility, acrobatic talent, and so forth) isn't really a thing separate from what we'd consider strength or athleticism; and we know from modern psychology that general intelligence (or "IQ") is bullshit, and that insight, perception, creativity, and charm actually tend to correlate strongly with reasoning ability, memory, and whatever ill-defined thing it is that people are talking about when they say "book smarts as opposed to street smarts".

In other words, if one were trying to be "realistic", it would be hard to get beyond having two or maybe three stats: body, mind, and maybe a "spirit" stat for games with a heavy emphasis on magic, faith, or the supernatural.

But I elected not to do this in Engines & Empires, because that game is still, at its heart, just D&D.  It pretty much needs a stat for each base class, and since in my game I elected to have fighting men, skill monkeys, gadget builders, and magic users, it made sense to keep Str, Dex, Int, and Cha pretty much as they are in the Grand Auld Game (even if some of them are pulling some extra duty to make up for the absence of Con and Wis).

But it occurred to me not long ago that I don't feel the same compulsion to stay traditional with respect to Retro Phaze (after all, I dropped that game down to four stats right from the get-go).  Retro Phaze is emphatically not D&D. And so maybe, as I revise it, this is my chance to do up a set of attributes "properly"—something that accords with my understanding and sensibilities rather than gaming tradition.

Now, in Retro Phaze, there are five base classes: Fighter, Rogue, Monk, Scholar, and Wizard; but Scholars are the jacks-of-all-trades, a combination of the other classes, so they don't need an attribute of their own.  The other four classes do.

Now, I'm just spit-balling here, but if I were to try and boil down the key attribute of each of the four base classes, it would have to look something like this:

For Fighters, Strength is indeed the stat to keep.  It implies muscle, athletic ability, toughness, and stamina.  Exactly what you want in a warrior class.  Stat number one stays "Strength".

For Rogues, the emphasis here as always is both bodily agility or nimbleness and manual dexterity or deftness.  But, again, if we suppose that "Strength" means general athletic ability, for the Rogue stat we have to restrict ourselves to things that mean, essentially, hand-eye coordination (good for lockpicking and such), aim with missiles, and a soft step.  For Rogues, then, I'm thinking of changing the name of this stat to "Finesse", but otherwise keeping its impact on the game the same.

For Monks, the answer is almost obvious: Discipline.  This is what monks are all about.  Concentration, rigor, learning.  (And as a secondary stat for Fighters, it makes sense!)  Dispensing, then, with any concept of "intelligence" as a stat, Discipline replaces it—it can still be checked to deal with intellectual matters (after all, the very word comes from Latin discipulus, "student"), but it implies a body of capabilities centered around self-control, training, learning, reasoning, and deference to authority or tradition.  The Western theologian and logician monk, the Eastern "kung-fu genius" monk.  It's a nice melding of concepts that just makes sense to me.  (Since this stat would generally govern "book learning", the Scholar would also use Discipline as his key stat—in other words, the Scholar and the Monk continue to share the same key attribute.)

And that brings me to the Wizard.  Now, the very word "wizard" means "wise man".  I've always thought that it would be nice in D&D to ditch Intelligence as a score, make Wisdom the key attribute of wizards, and Charisma the key attribute of clerics ("charisma" is just such a religious word—never mind the idea of a fiery preacher, just think about what it means in New Testament Greek!).  But I don't like "wisdom" as a name for a stat, at all, because (quite in spite of its frequent use in Tolkien to mean "smart"), we tend to think of wisdom as something that comes with age and experience.  I repeat: experience.  As in, levels.  These games already have a mechanic for that!

No, I need another term here, something that speaks to, well, wizarding.  In occult literature, magick [sic] is sometimes referred to as "will-working", and that New Agey nonsense does tend to drone on about "the will", but I don't think I want to keep Willpower as a stat name (because it overlaps too much with Discipline).  Instead, I need a term that gets to the heart of intuition, creativity, perception, acuity, and wits.

Thinking primarily about Wizards, and secondarily about Rogues, it seems that kind of mental faculty I have in mind would best be called "Cunning".  It's very fitting for Rogues, of course (whether burglar or ranger or tinker); but folk-wizards and hedge-mages are also known as "cunning men", so it really does fit.  And it implies a kind of "street smarts" counter-point to the "book smarts" of the Disciplined Monk or Scholar.

So, tentatively, this is where I'm at right now: the four stats in Retro Phaze VI will probably wind up looking something like STR (Strength), FIN (Finesse), DIS (Discipline), and CUN (Cunning), where STR handles all the athletics and muscle and toughness functions (namely it adjusts melee attacks and hit points); FIN is all about being nimble and quick and having a steady hand (it adjusts missile attacks and Defense), DIS combines learning, reasoning, willpower, and mental rigor (in game terms, it adjusts Resistance rolls, follower Morale, and cadre size—the latter two are important for Fighters and soldiers), and CUN covers perception, creativity, guile, wits, and charm (in game, it will impact Initiative, starting skill points, and Reaction rolls when negotiating with monsters—all traditionally Roguish areas, but equally valuable to a Wizard).


  1. I really agree with all your points.
    I think one could even go further and design a game with no abilities scores since everything is a learned skill in some ways.

    1. Yeah, one can, and that works well in a game where characters are defined by skills or by broad careers/professions (like Risus and BoL); but in a class game, I like the attributes there. As long as the scores are being rolled randomly rather than point-bought, they provide some differentiation between otherwise samey characters. :)