Thursday, February 24, 2011

SIZ Matters

Basic Roleplaying, the "engine" -- how I loathe that word -- beneath the hood of all of Chaosium's RPGs uses seven ability scores, six of which are identical to those found in OD&D, albeit with Wisdom renamed Power. The one genuinely new ability score BRP introduces is Size (abbreviated SIZ), which is described thusly in the RuneQuest 2e rulebook:
This indicates the mass of a character. It affects his ability to do and absorb damage. Both large and small SIZ Adventurers have certain advantages. Large persons can absorb and deal more damage, but find it hard to defend themselves and hard to skulk in shadows. Small people have the opposite benefits and drawbacks. SIZ cannot be naturally altered.
In the pages that follow that description, there are many examples of these "certain advantages." For example, a very small SIZ character gains a +5% bonus to parrying attacks, while a very large SIZ character suffers a -5% penalty. On the other hand, a high SIZ grants a bonus to hit points, while a low SIZ exacts a penalty. Other examples following this pattern abound.

I have to say I really like this approach to ability scores. Ever since I noticed that, in Space Opera, having a low Empathy score can be beneficial in certain circumstances, I've been thinking that it'd be really interesting if ability scores worked similarly in more RPGs. That is, instead of granting a bonus only for a high score and a penalty only for a low score, what if there were bonuses and penalties associated with each end of the range? Suppose -- and this is just an idle thought -- that, in D&D, having a high Strength granted bonuses to hit and damage in melee but also imposed penalties to Armor Class, on the assumption that a very strong character is much more massive and less flexible? Suppose -- and, again, this is just an idle thought -- that having a low Intelligence, in addition to limiting a character's ability to read and speak, also made him more resistant to a magic-user's spells?

I don't like the way that, over time, ability scores in D&D became ever more important, to the point that the AD&D Players Handbook stresses the necessity of having scores of 15 or more in "no fewer" than two abilities. At the same time, I think that abilities in LBB-only OD&D are too sketchy and barely have any reason to exist as discrete mechanics -- one might as well randomly roll for a "Earned XP Bonus" and be dispense with ability scores entirely. But an approach like the one that RuneQuest adopted, extended somewhat, seems potentially fruitful to me (though it is worth noting that, unless I am mistaken, this approach was dropped in most other iterations of BRP in the years since -- is it found in any contemporary version of the rules?). It'd simultaneously end the tyranny of high ability scores and put an end to the notion of "dump stats," since there'd be trade-offs regardless of the extreme to which your character's ability scores tended.

It's worth pondering anyway.


  1. Please take a look at the Exquisite Replicas RPG. Its a modern occultic surreal type game, where an alien reality is taking over the earth by replacing things with perfect duplicates... but the part that relates to your post is that characters have three stats that measure their Sanity, and that having high and low scores in these stats give you bonuses and penalties.

    For instance, a high Paranoia skill makes you jumpy and suspicious, making you harder to surprise in combat, but lowering your ability to use social skills. A low paranoia does the opposite, making it easier for you to relate to other people and use social skills, but also making it easier to get surprised.

  2. I know you know this, James, but Fading Suns had linked attributes for several attributes; you couldn't raise one too high without putting a cap on (or lowering) the other.

    If you want to be a good Introvert (and excel at writing, pondering, and the like) you couldn't also be a good Extrovert (excellent at talking with folks, and so on). If you wanted to be a person of high Faith ("The forces of the Universe will take care of me!"), you couldn't be a person of high Ego ("My mind is my own! I'm awesome!").

    It was an elegant system that led to a lot of fun in our games. (My character had maxed out his Faith, reducing his Ego to 0... I literally tried to never use personal pronouns while speaking, and filtered everything through "the greater good.")

  3. I like the concept, but I see some issues. What would be the advantages of a low dex, charisma or wisdom? I'm sure if we thought hard enough we could figure that out. But if we came up with good ideas here wouldn't that just lead to more min-maxing? Would low become the new high or would min-maxers aim for mediocre stats? Would we see characters with both extremes of attributes for maximum cheese? It would also depend on how a GM uses attribute checks. Would you sometimes ask a player to try to miss an attribute check, as in you can't do that unless you miss a wisdom check?

  4. I've never been entirely certain that I like the idea of attributes providing a lot of mechanical benefits at all, myself. I always thought the primary purpose of the attributes was as something to help you visualize your character and provide a bit of an edge through the luck of character creation, but the AD&D approach to attributes always turned me off.

    But then I was a die-hard B/X D&D player through my youth and there were a lot of things about AD&D that turned me off.

  5. I don't have the big yellow BRP book at hand, but I'd be surprised if such modifiers aren't included there, as it's got a lot of stuff in it.

  6. @kelvingreen:

    Yep, they're in the BYB as an optional rule, I believe. Some people consider them to be too much bookeeping, though this is an element of "added crunch" that I like.

  7. That's an attractive notion. What benefit could low scores in D&D impart?

    Str, Con: It's tough to think up an advantage to being weak and frail, though Con could act like Siz and be an indication of your bulk. That gets a bit weird, though, when you throw in races with distinctly different body shapes. A halfling of Con 12 might logically be able to squeeze into places a human of Con 6 couldn't.

    Cha: Low Cha might be a benefit when dealing with humanoid-but-nasty monsters like goblins and orcs.

    Dex: Another tough one. How do you benefit from being clumsy and/or slow-moving? Harder to shove? HP bonus for being like an ox?

    Int: Bonus on saves vs. illusions.

    Wis: A bonus against the special effects of undead might be appropriate, since you're less connected to the spirit world.

  8. I've always had a soft spot for opposed attributes such as the ones Steve describes. Raise one, lower another.

    But such a notion of having the pros and cons rolled up in a single ability...I find such a thought refreshing. I love the idea, James.

    A low dex could give some sort of knowledge bonuses perhaps (a clumsy person spent more time reading and watching instead of doing). Low Cha could give bonuses to being inconspicuous and low wisdom would give bonuses to doing daring, dangerous stuff. Just a thought.

    This also reminds me how in the Dying Earth RPG you can resist being persuaded simply by being stupid and obtuse, not necessarily smarter than the persuader.

  9. The Wuthering Heights RPG by Philippe Tromeur has statistics that you may need to roll above or below to accomplish things, depending on what you're trying to accomplish. You need a high Rage to do something violent, but you need a low Rage to avoid acting with inappropriate violence! (Wuthering Heights is kind of over the top.)

    This inspired other RPGs where having a stat be either high or low might be an advantage in a given situation, such as My Life With Master, Sorcerer, and Trollbabe, where there is only one stat, which you may have to roll over or under depending on the context.

    None of these are old school games, but they are examples of high stats being mixed blessings, and they support your thesis that it's quite possible to generalize the idea illustrated in BRP's SIZ attribute.

    (As a "didn't quite make it" example -- in Tunnels & Trolls you can play a fairy, diminutive and winged. [I assume T&T fairies had something to do with the appearance of Pixie Fairies in Hackmaster.] Apparently in earlier editions they were forbidden from flying if their Strength was too high, I guess on the theory that extra musculature ruined their aerodynamics or something, but that was ditched in later editions and replaced with a restriction on encumbrance, which kinda makes more sense.)

  10. When we were kids playing with the Basic D&D box set in the mid-90s, we started using a house rule that if a PC died, another character could attempt to force a healing potion down their throat in order to avert death. The only catch was that the dying character had to fail a constitution check, which we said was to simulate having to overcome the character's gag reflex. Kind of wonky, but we always liked the "gotcha" effect when a character's high ability score became their downfall.

  11. @James:
    In CoC 6th, it is averaged with STR to determine Damage Bonus and averaged with CON, for HP.(And height/weight, of course.)

    In the latest BRP edition, it modifies Strike Rank, and if half or more of your SIZ rating is lost, through starvation, assault, wasting magic, etc..., you die!

    'a very small SIZ character gains a +5% bonus to parrying attacks, while a very large SIZ character suffers a -5% penalty. On the other hand, a high SIZ grants a bonus to hit points, while a low SIZ exacts a penalty. Other examples following this pattern abound.':
    Similar instances are mentioned under Parrying, Dodging, Special Situations, etc...

    ER is a freaky game, for sure. Not terribly interested in the Violence(Isn't this Immoral sometimes? :-)), Paranoia, Immorality breakdown as a replacement for Sanity Points, though.(Unknown Armies also had a similar system.) It's more the setting than the rules, and the rules could be ripped out, of course. Oddly enough, I just mentioned this yesterday in a Grognardia post!

  12. @Ed:
    'but that was ditched in later editions and replaced with a restriction on encumbrance, which kinda makes more sense':
    It was changed in the 5th Edition, back in 1979, actually. The 'muscular fairy' restriction wasn't around for long(a scant 4 years!).

  13. I just wanted to say that I, too, loathe the term "engine" in the context of a rules system. Solidarity, Brother !

  14. RQ had a few things like this, but my brain might be too fossilized to see it working for D&D. I'll take a swing anyway:

    Strength: low strength gives a bonus to stealth and to delicate thief skills (picking locks, for example).

    Intelligence: A resistance to some types of charm spells, as well as fear and morale effects.

    Wisdom: Again a bonus to fear effects seems reasonable, as well as resistance to emotion spells. I'd probably give straight magic resistance for both low Int and Wis.

    Constitution: I must admit to being stumped here...being sickly doesn't have much of a payoff anywhere. A bonus when dealing with otherwordly creatures somehow (the sickly is clearly not long for this world, generating an affinity). Maybe a reaction roll bonus when dealing with other sicklies?

    Dexterity: A bonus to Dex rolls when moving at normal speed or less (the clumsy tend to be more careful when they're paying attention), resistance against feint and combat tricks (too slow to be fooled), a minor armor bonus (they're not chafing against the restrictions of armor like 'normal' people).

    Charisma: Big bonus against charm spells (people tend not to like them, so they reciprocate), big resistance to people using charisma-based attacks/skills on them.

    Definitely an idea to consider.

  15. I had a player with a fairy PC with a STR of 15, DX of 27 and LK of 32. She also had a magic sword doing 7d of hits. Awesome.

  16. I like the bonus/penalty thing for both ends of the score spectrum. In 3rd edition RuneQuest (maybe 2nd too, can't recall), high POW meant you could cast more spells and better defend against them and so forth, but hurt your chances of sneaking or hiding. The rules stated "Powerful Life Force makes it harder to conceal your aura.", while someone with a 4 POW would in effect get a +6% to all Sneak or Hide chances.

    One thing I did not like about this system was the amount of recalculation involved during play. With RQ 3e at least, short-duration magic for enhancing/diminishing your ability scores was quite common. Each casting of Strength/Coordination/Enhance APP/Diminish SIZ etc led to a cascading series of recalculations.

    With STR score as an example: STR is a secondary factor in determining your Agility modifier (which modifies Boat, Climb, Dodge, Jump, Ride, Swim, and Throw, as well as all weapon parry chances). It is also secondary factor in Manipulation skills (Conceal, Devise, Sleight, and Play Instrument, as well as all weapon attack chances). STR also helps determine Fatigue and Damage modifier, and dictates how much you can lift, etc. Negative Fatigue in turn induces a penalty on every percentile roll the character makes.

    So changing the STR score by even 1 necessitates recalculation of the Agility and Manipulation modifiers (half STR, -10, divide by 2, round up, max of +10), which then change 10 skills plus however many attacks and parries your character has skill in. Also Fatigue changes, and all rolls affected by Fatigue must be recalculated as well. Damage modifier also must be redetermined. This is from the effects from not even the full power of a 1-point Strength spell! WHEE. It's even worse for scores like INT or DEX as they affect more skills, and affect the use of magic as well.

    I love RQ and have played it for decades. It's just when you combine a meaningful high end and low and of ability scores *and* have widely magic-fungible scores you might have an in-game arithmetic problem on your hands.


  17. I recall the Marvel Super Heroes game having elements of this to it. Certain powers, such as Growth or Shrinking changed your size and made you easier to hit or tougher to hit respectivly on top of other changes the power brought.

    With ability scores themselves, there was a potential drawback to high scores in fighting and strength. They certainly made it easier to hit your targets but it was also more likely that you would roll a "kill" or "slam" result and possibly kill your opponent outright or knock them of a building. Something a classic super hero would almost never do (just ignore the modern, gritty reboots of every character into gun-toting, muscle-and-breast-bound killing machines).

    In fact, you were heavily penalized for killing in Marvel Super Heroes, by losing all your Karma (XP) points. So you had to be careful.

  18. @Zarcanthropus - I think you are right that min-maxers would simply adjust what they do, whether it be having all 10s, or still stacking whatever it is that's more beneficial or used more frequently. I have a player like that. It's just in his blood. No matter what you try to discourage it, his mission is to create the most mechanically fit character possible. His favorite game would be if they made an RPG where you played an expert character-creator. And he would find a way to optimize that guy too.

    @enmalkm - your rule makes little sense, but it is wonderfully awesome!

    In the end, I think characters need to suck at things sometimes, and it shouldn't be counter-balanced by automatically being good at something else. Life isn't fair, after all. And nothing is more fun than a mature, skilled player with a total crap character. All sorts of cool things start to happen in that scenario...

  19. Not exactly "attributes", but the Pendragon system of personality traits is dichotomized in this way: lustful/chaste, prudent/reckless, pious/worldly, etc. Depending on the situation on hand, on a higher score on either end might be more helpful. At the same time, depending on your social background, certain traits would be more useful. So a good pagan noble ought be proud and a good Christian knight should aspire to be modest. A simple mechanic supporting an admirable level of complexity.

  20. What if the penalty (and bonus) for stats was done on creation. What you roll in one stat effects another stat, and demi-humans only gain a bonus to a stat, done after (and no penalty).

    Example: 4d6 keep the best 3...
    +3 and +4 = -1 to opposite
    * Str/Int (you either practiced your swordsmanship or read books)
    * Dex/Wis (not sure why?)
    * Con/Cha (either you have some fat, like real Roman gladiators did, or you're thin and gorgeous)

    I suppose you could also set it up where physical stats effect other physical stats (Str vs Dex), or one stat effects 2 stats. But this is just a quick example... (I'll use B/X stats)

    Str rolled 16, so -1 to your rolled Int
    Int rolled 17, so -1 str.. which means its 15 and Int becomes 17 instead of 16.

    Wis, Dex, Con rolled 13, 15, 11
    Cha rolled an 18, so Con of 11 becomes 10

    Str 15 Int 17 Wis 13 Dex 15 Con 10 Cha 18
    Oh, and its an elf so Dex gets +1, so Dex 16. If you left it as is, than it is as is. otherwise if you ruled the penalty continues, than its Wis 12.

    Str 15 Int 17 Wis 12 Dex 16 Con 10 Cha 18

  21. > the "engine" -- how I loathe that word

    How about "framework"?

  22. I always preferred the "direct effect" attribute scheme of The Fantasy Trip (and later, GURPS). If the only purpose of ability like STR or DEX is to provide a bonus or penalty to something else, why not take out the middleman entirely and just have a +3 STR and -1 DEX, for example.

  23. Regarding benefits of a low CON...

    A study hit all the news outlets this week (here's one link: that exposure to "farm microbes" make children less susceptible to asthma.

    Maybe sickly types get bonuses against disease ("I had that as a kid"), or gas/pheromone/scent attacks ("I'm too congested to be affected"). Maybe they get bonuses--or outright immunity--to the effects of Undead level drain, as they don't have enough "life force" to be impacted, or even be desired targets in the first place.

    Hmmm...maybe low CON leads to AC bonuses in combat ("The monsters can sense I'm weak...I wouldn't make a good meal" or "I'm beneath their notice")

  24. In my 1e online game, a CHA 3 Assassin PC used his low CHA to get people to ignore him so he could get close and stab them!

  25. thanks James, this idea rocks. I'm gonna make something out of it...

  26. Others have already mentioned low CHA being good for sneaking: this is more or less built into James Bond, except there it's really about how distinctive you are (while I think the usual interpretation of low CHA is "extraordinarily repulsive"): in general I think you'd have to find new metaphors for most of the D&D attributes to make such hi/lo jinks work.
    CON can simply become SIZ. It's not a perfect fit, but it's intuitive. Or CON could be a measure of how tightly your spirit is stuck to your body - making it good for saves vs poison & magic, which could be two-edged if you had to fail a save vs. healing magic for it to work, for instance.

    I know many readers will hate this, but: imagine a campaign where INT and WIS were opposite sides of the same attribute. The intelligent man can think of ways to get out of holes the wise man is too smart to fall into. Or, per Steven Marsh, magic requires faith in your own ego but miracles require faith in outside agents. You can't have both.
    Alas, if you do that then you can't have truly stupid characters any more. Who sees that as a problem?
    Again, all of this makes most sense if attributes just measure deviation from average, rather than being part of some absolute continuum where you really can be as dumb as a chicken or as ugly as a monster.

  27. In AD&D1e there is the case of the Comeliness and Charisma scores which can go into the negatives for some creatures, and can provide some effects like shock.

  28. When we played OD&D we used 1d20 for attribute tests, even though it wasn't part of the game. It just made sense to do so. Roll 1d20 and get below the characteristic to perform some sort of action successfully. For example giving the St Crispin's Day Speech to the troops before battle required a successful roll under CHA.

    But it could also be reversed. For example, sneaking through a town without attracting undue attention (assuming you were properly cloaked and hooded) required you to fail a CHA roll.

    I believe the other circumstances we used a failed test to intentionally indicate success included failing a STR roll to fit through a narrow hole, failing a WIS roll to do something exceedingly stupid (but so unexpected that it actually worked), and failing a CON roll to avoid romantic entanglements with an overly amorous succubus. However such circumstances generally came up in play.

  29. RQ is a 'simmy' game. I like its striking use of SIZ, because it picks up on something that makes sense to me, in terms of what 'SIZ' models. But I feel that coming up with a 'flipside' for every attribute would be straining credulity, just for the sake of creating symmetry. It might be fun, though, in a game that wasn't so expressly 'simmy'.

    Also, I have some sympathy with what SteelCaress said above about 'cutting out the middle man'. On the other hand, if you use a single attribute score in many different ways - as RQ does with SIZ, STR & POW - it may not lend itself to being reduced to a single +/- score.

    Mark mentioned Pendragon above. As far as I am aware this was the first major RPG publication to systematise the flip-sided scores. As Mark notes, it only applies to a subset of the basic character attributes. It works very sweetly in this context because the items chosen are all expressly designed to represent moral continua, which are central to the (literary) setting. Whether they make a good model of natural human personalities is a separate question.

  30. Also!

    Original post included ' ability scores, six of which are identical to those found in OD&D...'

    I think that's roughly right. 'Identical' might be a bit too strong though. For example, I doubt that the OD&D concept of 'Wisdom' maps 1:1 with 'POW'. I'm also doubtful that OD&D 'Strength' can be identical to RQ 'STR', given the separate treatment (and effects) of SIZ. The stealth/ defence implications of SIZ might even imply that OD&D 'Dexterity' differs from RQ 'DEX'.

    My sense is that the RQ attribute concepts (except POW) generally have a more 'gritty' naturalistic/ biological intent than the OD&D ones, a difference which runs right through the systems.

  31. Yes, POW was not quite the same as WIS: a high POW made you stand out in a crowd, your strong personality being hard to hide. (Penalties to Stealth and Disguise IIRC.)

  32. I can see a correlation between Wisdom and Bravery. The more Wise a character is, the less likely they are to rush up to a dragon and engage in melee combat.

    A character would need to FAIL a wisdom check in order to perform a brave/foolhardy action that puts themselves in brave danger, but may be the only chance to save the whole party. In this regard, a low wisdom score would be beneficial for fighters and barbarians.

  33. My days of DMing were sour, brief and long time gone. But if the clock could turn back, the first thing I'd do would be getting rid of ability stats. They are dead wood. Cfr. the 'Searchers of the Unknown' microgame.

    The second thing I'd do would be replacing the AC score by a hit point multiplier: no armour (100%), leather (120%), chain (140%), plate (160%). All an adventurer needs is Skill, Stamina/Endurance and Luck. Or, in D20 terms: THAC0, hit points and saving throws.

    Talking about saving throws: the third thing to do would be unifying them into a single score. But I'll never play D&D again, so why bother?