Thursday, February 17, 2022

A Radical Proposal (Part II) Follow-Up

Last week, I proposed, without explanation, the names of six abilities – Strength, Knowledge, Willpower, Dexterity, Constitution, and Acumen. Readers quite reasonably assumed these abilities were intended as replacements for those in Dungeons & Dragons. In truth, they're part of my process of thinking out loud about The Secrets of sha-Arthan setting that I'm continuing to develop, albeit more slowly than I'd like. Now, the rules for Secrets are based heavily on those of D&D, specifically those found in the Basic and Expert rulebooks (and their closest contemporary clone, Old School Essentials), so there's a fair degree of overlap. Nevertheless, most of my thoughts on these matter pertain specifically to this current project of mine, even if there is applicability to D&D more generally.

After further thought and reading many of the comments posted to that post and related ones, my thinking continues to shift. However, in the interests of furthering what has proven to be a very useful conversation – and I'd like to thank everyone who's offered their own thoughts – I wanted to explain where I was coming from when I put together that last of six abilities.

Strength: Of all the ability scores in D&D, this is the one with which I have the least issues. I believe a measure of a character's physical strength is much needed, especially in a game where melee combat plays such an important role. In addition, I want some way to measure how much weight a character can carry unaided and this seems as good a way to do it as any other I've seen. 

Knowledge: I've long been unhappy with Intelligence as an ability. Most of the time, it's taken as a measure of how much a character knows. Look, for example, at its only explicit use in OD&D, namely, how many languages a character can speak. Given this, I thought it made some sense to shift the ability into something closer to education, both formal and informal. 

Willpower: I think I now favor the term "Will," but the point remains that I dislike Wisdom even more than Intelligence. Wisdom has always been a weird, catch-all ability, simultaneously being the prime requisite for clerics and a gauge of a character's resistance to magic/mental attacks and his perceptiveness, among other things. It's a mess and I thought focuses on the mental fortitude aspect made the most sense, especially given that sha-Arthan has no cleric class.

Dexterity: I kept this one around mostly out of tradition. Its long association with missile combat seems reasonable and, being a Holmes baby, I can't help but imagine it as being important to the determination of individual initiative (even as I now favor simpler group initiative). Then there's the matter of defensive bonus introduced in Greyhawk about which I am ambivalent. If I had better ideas, I might change or eliminate this entirely.

Constitution: Part of me wants to roll this ability into Strength to create a new one, like Physique or something, but, again, the pull of tradition kept it around. I am conflicted about the hit point bonuses for high scores (since I prefer lower hit point totals overall), but I do like "withstand adversity" and its later developments. 

Acumen: Empire of the Petal Throne has no Charisma score and that's probably influenced my thinking in replacing it (there's also the way other RPGs treat the matter). Instead, I opted for a broader ability that measures a character's ability to "read the room" to facilitate advantageous social interactions, whether to persuade, intimidate, or deceive. This is better suited to the kinds of campaigns I run, which include lots of diplomacy and intrigue.

This was my thinking when I wrote my post last week, but, as I said above, my thoughts remain in a state of flux. I have some vague notions now to cut down the abilities to five and associate them with sha-Arthan's elemental system and/or the saving throw categories. I also have equally vague notions to expand the list of abilities beyond six to include additional qualities I'd like to see quantified. It's all frankly a whirl at the moment and it may be some time yet before I've seen my way through to ordering my thoughts. For now, I continue to muse.


  1. So my philosophy is that I want PCs to describe what it is they want to as their character. Not in a general sense but in specifics, like picking up an object, moving to a location, swinging a weapon, crafting an item, talking to the NPCs.

    If the outcome is uncertain or there are consequences to failure, then they need to roll. The factors that influence the roll beyond the average odds of success are:
    1) The innate qualities of the character, i.e. attributes.
    2) What the character has learned represented by skill or level.
    3) The circumstances of the moment, the environment, the time constraints, etc. Represented by modifiers or a modified roll like advantage or disadvantage.

    So the rules I create are with this in mind. How character are defined, how rolls are made and so on.

    You may have a different outlook. In which case state a bunch of "use cases" represent things you expect to happen in your campaign. Figure out which factors and what details you want handed. And that will inform you as what you need in order to define a character and how players can roll.

    Basically backtrack from what you want to see happen to actual statistics and mechanics.

    The result can be as detailed or abstract as you need it to be.

    The other big thing to consider is how much metagaming you want to see. Metagaming in this instance is doing things as player in a campaign not as a character within the setting of the campaign.

    For example several RPGs and games want the game to have a pulp feel and have mechanics that the player uses as a player in the campaign to help foster that feel. It not an ability or attribute of the character the player is playing.

    I generally dislike metagaming but there are several games and folks who made it work and made it work well. I prefer to let the setting speak for itself and the feeling is creating from what the players would naturally do if there were there as the characters.

  2. I honestly deeply dislike "dexterity" as a modifier for missile attacks-- aiming a bow and arrow is a specialized skill, and has nothing to do with walking on a tightrope or picking pockets, which are things dexterity also gets associated with. If anything, make "nimbleness" a stat revolving around acrobatics and stealth, and make missile combat bonuses come purely from external sources like classes or diegetic training or even feats or something.

    constitution is also made-up bullshit and ought to be folded into Strength fr. what does someone with low Dexterity, low Strength, but high Constitution even look like? someone like Rasputin, maybe, who looks wiry and unassuming but can chug down cyanide like water, but that's a weird fucking edge case better represented by external sources-- classes, feats, diegetic shit-- than the core stats of the game.

    the thing I say with core stats is that every possible combination of stats should correspond to at least one clearly imaginable archetype. high Intelligence, no charisma or wisdom? you get a big bang theory Sheldon, presumably, who's certainly not a flattering image but is easy enough to imagine as a core sort of human being. high Dexterity but no strength or con? we have the stereotypical thief/ninja/rogue/whatever, we all know who that is. high Charisma but the other two mental stats get dumped? bards, sycophants, politicians, you name it. High strength without Con barely sort of works-- a boxer with a glass jaw-- but it's still borderline. High Con without other physical stats is honestly just ridiculous. get rid of con, and come up with a handful of feats to cover the edge cases.

    (Also I know feats are a dirty word in some circles, but they don't need to be character-building essentials or anything. just a list of cool bonus options the player can pick once from at chargen. can be magic knacks, can be specialized training, can be a cool pet, whatever.)

    1. Plenty of long-distance runners could have low dexterity and low physical strength. It's not necessarily common, but it's more than possible.

      There's definitely tons of weightlifters out there who have little or no endurance. Cardio and strength are NOT the same thing.

    2. IS Strength that necessary? Like REALLY necessary? What for, other than pushing and lifting things? Serious question. The basic carrying capacity of a human is surprisingly consistent - Napoleonic soldiers and Roman legionaries are all trotting around with a similar load. Anybody battering down a door is kicking it or hitting it with an object, and people's leg strength is usually pretty high (especially in an era where we walked EVERYWHERE). Weapons are generally pretty pointy, which is what does the actual damage in most melee combat (and hitting where you meant to hit is far more important than how hard anyway). And tools to increase our strength (like levers) are trivial to invent or improvise. You could literally turn the strength score into "weak, normal, strong" and lose nothing of any actual importance to the game (unless you're the sort who does ability checks on d20, and fair enough if you are).

      Dexterity, on the other hand, makes far more sense as a basis for whether you're hitting someone or not - are you quick enough to get past their defense? To react to their parries? To turn your blade just so at the right moment? There's not many heroic fantasy characters who are stupid and just batter their way past the enemy's defenses with superior strength - but there's plenty who are quick and outmaneuver their larger opponent.

      Knowledge is a poor stat, IMO. Intelligence is better. Knowledge is stuff you are taught and have learned. Barring Charisma (to some extent), none of the other abilities really are. Intelligence can, to some extent, cover knowledge. Knowledge cannot cover intelligence. I'd say Intelligence is basically the equivalent of mental strength.

      I started this comment completely agreeing with you re Wisdom. And then I realized we're looking at it wrong. Wisdom isn't mental CON. It's mental DEX. Mental CON is...probably CON, ironically. Knowledge is mental STR - how much force you can bring to bear on a problem, how much you can do with your brain. Mental DEX would be how quickly you think, how much information you take in, how much you notice. Very useful as a basis for perception and other things, though a bit odd otherwise. But if you look at Wisdom this way, it makes sense - it's not your brain stoutly resisting the evil magic, it's your brain wriggling out of the way, your brain finding ways around it, your brain going "wait a minute, this isn't real." The problem is it's not named very clearly.

      I mean, think about it this way - is a stubborn person a wiser one? Because that's basically how the game would implement it if you interpret Wisdom as Willpower (which, tbf, so many editions and other things have told us to).

      I'd say Mental endurance is either INT or CON. Probably CON, honestly. Which has the added benefit of making CON more relevant and useful. Huzzah!

    3. fyi the second reply you did was also to me and not to the main post. but you make really good points! I guess maybe what REALLY matters is how we want to differentiate between characters. do we care if one character focuses on cardio in the gym and another focuses on weightlifting? and do we care enough that this needs to be reflected in base stats? and even if we do, does it need all the fucking granularity that stats from 3-18 imply?

      honestly maybe just do what Troika! does. your stats are Luck and Skill and HP, and everything else is covered with particular skills and diegetic reasoning.

      let's just assume that 90% of fighting adventurers are in approximately the same physical shape, and the scrawny nerd wizards they bring along are in a different but also broadly uniform physical shape, and cover the exceptions and edge cases with feats or skills. or something. no more physical stats.

    4. @Simulated Knave
      >IS Strength that necessary? Like REALLY necessary?

      I can confirm that it is not. D&D in fact works fine without any ability scores at all.

    5. The advantage of having abilities with numerical scores and modifiers is that they provide great vectors for improving a character, whether via spell, magic item, skill, or training.

      Character improvement is one of the primary goals of most (any?) RPG. For me, raising an ability score is one of the most meaningful things to happen during a campaign (certainly more than accumulating gold is).

      Removing abilities and scores might not wreck the game engine, but it does take away a useful tool/reward from the DM as well as an important motivation from the players.

    6. @Crowbar:

      Drat. As you rightly note, only one of those was for you specifically.

      Troika doesn't implement it well at all, IMO - love me the FF ruleset for its simplicity, but AFF was poorly conceived, and Troika seems worryingly unaware of the problems with it. Warlock!, interestingly, seems to have combined it with WHFRPG in a way that makes Skill workable and sensible again, or at least somewhat so. And gives you characters of very different capabilities without any actual physical stats.

      More generally:
      I LIKE ability scores, and certainly feel like it's not quite D&D without them. I just find STR to possibly be the least interesting of all of them. Definitely feel like character improvement is important - but you can do that through skills that are improved as well. The problem is that you end up needing a skill for EVERYTHING (which is at least sort-of possible, but creates a very different game than D&D, especially OSR D&D). There's definitely some sense to going the ability-score route instead, supplemented by skills or professions - anything not covered by a skill, or someone without the skill, uses their ability score. Neatly covers the trained, the untrained, etc.

    7. @gladwain:
      lmao I kinda thought the OSR scene moved past "numbers go up is good" thinking eons ago? give players diegetic rewards-- magic items, inherent magic abilities, weird shit. do horizontal advancement that opens up new vistas of potentiality instead of making them 5% more likely to bend bars or whatever lol. Besides, non-granular, descriptive stats can improve too-- just go from "weak" to "average" to "strong" as key moments in the campaign.

  3. While you’re at it, why not muse over different dice for abilities.

    Instead of a “score” generated with 3d6, let players assign one die: d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12 to each ability? Declare d6 as “average.” Since you have six abilities, let players assign and arrange their dice in any combination so long as the total number of sides does not exceed 36. For example, a PC might assign dice like this: Strength d4, Knowledge d8, Will Power d8, Dexterity d6, Constitution d6, Acumen d4.

    During game play, to accomplish something non-trivial, a PC would have to roll greater than the target number with his/her relevant ability die. Easy tasks might have a target number of 1, so you need to roll 2 or higher – even a d4 weakling can do that. Extremely difficult things would have a target number of 11. At all times, if you roll the highest number possible on your die you get to try again with the next higher die; so even a d4 could – in theory – generate a 12!

    As you gain levels, you get more “dice in hand.” For example, a fifth level character might get to roll three dice instead of just one. Dice would not be summed, but the single best result selected from the hand. Therefore, you really could roll that 12 since you have more chances as you gain levels. In a sense, as you gain levels chance is less of a factor since you get more dice to even out the luck.

    This “dice pyramid” makes systematic use of all the dice. And you could extend it in all sorts of ways. For example, regardless of weapon, your damage die is your strength die; or perhaps with variable weapon damage, your strength die would be the highest die you could actually use. Your hit points are equal to a roll of your constitution die. Your armor class is equal to one-half the maximum value of your dexterity die. There’s logic in that: if two d12s face off they each need a roll greater than 6 (50%) to hit each other. And, d12 has d4 beat almost every time. So on and so forth.

    1. Savage Worlds uses a similar system, with attributes rated from d4 to d12 or so and open ended rolls. They don't roll extra dice with higher levels though they have something like character levels.

  4. I'd like to come in and mount a defence of wisdom as a stat.

    Wisdom is different to intelligence. It is perfectly possible for someone to be intelligent but not wise, or to have a great depth of wisdom about life but not be intelligent.

    David Halberstam's account of America's Vietnam War decision making, the Best and the Brightest, is perhaps the best illustration of the difference.

  5. You could do without ability scores entirely but there is value in having consistency across all D&D editions and spin-offs.

  6. OSR games don't really need any stats - the game plays okay if you ignore them completely. Stats up through AD&D really mainly serve as a randomization for helping visualize your character (which is important) rather than a gameplay rule.

    But that said, Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution are all generally useful in D&D-like systems, but Charisma and Wisdom have always struggled as people try to fold in the necessary stats for Willpower and Perception and the (physically obvious but game-problematic) stat of Appearance into the system. I've generally gotten decent results from dumping Charisma for Willpower (and using Willpower in those instances where force of personality are important), treating APP as a trait or optional feature, and dumping Wisdom for Perception.... Intelligence can be dropped for Knowledge or kept depending on what you use it for. Arguably you could drop both in favor of having a list of skills or specializations or proficiency.

    Wisdom has been corrupted in d20-ish discourse because of 3e and up's redefinition of its as Perception. Which gives utterly odd things, like barbarians being especially "wise" and there being no real logical reason why clerics should have high wisdom (logically, high Charisma makes more sense for any faith that goes after worshippers).

    Wisdom isn't always different from intelligence in many uses related to fantasy games, though. While wisdom can mean common sense or insight, it can also mean reasoning and intelligence. So when Tolkien talks about "The Wise" he largely means highly intelligent folk like Gandalf or Saruman rather than people with lots of good common sense. And it seems odd that Wizards don't require Wisdom...

    The justification for Knowledge is a good one, but one issue with using Knowledge is that this is an attribute that should logically increase at a fairly rapid rate compared to other more "innate" attributes.

    Mind you, I've also found that having an Int stat is useful for NPCs and monsters. If not, you may want to figure out another way to classification animal intelligence.

    (Traveller's use of Education was equally problematic for different ways. It represented your education... but how was that different than the skills you had, especially once going to College was an option that gave you skills?)

  7. The Nagry GM discussed the issues with the six ability scores in a blog post a while back: .

    I rather like Symbaroum's eight ability scores:
    Accurate: hand-eye coordination, precision, timing; in most cases opposed by an enemy’s Quick.
    Cunning: wit and knowledge, common sense, schooling and education. Remember facts, solve puzzles or research.
    Discreet: being silent, agile, discreet. Avoid detection, hide, smuggle, shadow someone, steal something.
    Persuasive: influence others, persuade another person; usually opposed by an enemy’s Resolute.
    Quick: reflexes, balance, nimbleness, fleet-footedness; determines initiative; actively jump, avoid harm.
    Resolute: resistance to influence, like social pressure, mind-bending magic or corruption.
    Strong: physical strength, lifting, breaking, heaving; capacity to withstand physical pain, resist poisons and diseases.
    Vigilant: general awareness, sense attunement, ability to detect details.

    I got rid of Cunning and moved pain tolerance to Resolute.