Ditching Attributes

I confess to suggesting RPG heresy

Blatant sarcasm of this post's title aside, what I'm about to propose is going to shock some of you. Perhaps offend. It may be so repellent that you will reconsider anything you may have agreed with me about before. But here goes:

Character attributes should be removed [from Chimera].

I'm referring to ability scores--the traditional Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc. I touched on ditching Attributes a few weeks ago, but I thought the concept merited some explanation. I have my reasons, and I think they might apply to whatever system you're playing. That said, I'm restricting my solution to Chimera. Your proverbial mileage may vary.

A Brief History of Attributes

My experience with attributes (or ability scores) goes back to rolling up my first characters in B/X D&D. As objective quantifiers, ability scores make a lot of sense, and it's easy to see what aspects of your character are better than others. Clearly, strong guys have higher Strength scores than weak guys. Ugly dudes have lower Charisma than handsome dudes. So one function of ability scores, then, is to describe your character, very economically, at a high level.

Given a set of ability scores, you assign your character's class, ostensibly to capitalise on your attributes. This means high-strength characters become fighters, smart characters become magic-users, dexterous characters become thieves, etc. It make sense on paper, but this is actually the first chink in the armour of ability score usefulness (more on that later, but let me ask you this: in your RPG system, does it ever make sense for a magic-user to be stronger than he is smart, or for a fighter to be more agile than he is strong?).

As you play, attributes serve in one of two ways: either to modify other rolls, or as default "skills" to arbitrate the outcome of unspecified game situations. Thus, Strength is used to modify "to-hit" and damage rolls in combat, and your character might have to make a "Strength roll" to jump a chasm or wrestle an object out of a foe's hands.

Heretical Thoughts

The model above is deeply ingrained into most roleplayers. Certainly those over the age of 30. Nothing wrong with that, but I'm asking you to consider what this model produces: a character with both ability scores (describing his characteristics) and a profession (describing his skills).

The question coming to my mind is this: what is the purpose of attributes in a system where what you can do is defined by class? The same question applies to skill-based systems: outside of mapping to a given skill, what value do ability scores provide?

Why not simply describe a character by what he can do, whether that's a class, a profession, or a collection of skills? I assert that a character's abilities are more memorable than his ability scores anyway. Here's why: attributes describe what your character should be able to do; abilities describe what your character actually can do.

Think about it. All you need to know is that such-and-such character is good at fighting--you don't care what his Strength score is. Unless fighting is a special flavour of Strength roll, a Strength score is largely irrelevant. What really matters is his level as a fighter, or how many ranks he has in the Fight skill. Strength may modify his chances of hitting a foe or how much damage he inflicts, but fighting ability is usually more a function of other things: level, class, feats/perks, weapon used, et al. It actually has very little to do with one's Strength score.

True, too, is that many character abilities and, um, characteristics, aren't even affected by attributes: spell-casting, thief abilities, turning undead, hit points (where used), and saving throws come to mind immediately. As important as these game mechanics are, ability scores have no bearing on them. Telling, I think.

Finally, there's the problem of adequate coverage: how many ability scores are enough to describe a character? The traditional Six do a pretty good job, though there were holes, even within the D&D canon (viz. Comeliness). Other systems felt the Six were insufficient and expanded the list with additions like Perception, Empathy, Presence, Memory, and Reasoning. Still others contracted the list: the most compact I've seen is Mind, Body, Soul (forget which system, though).

Point is, these considerations are subjective and meta--how many attributes do you need? No one knows--it depends on how you envision characters, your game's mechanics, and your tolerance for semantics and redundancy (e.g., do you need Agility and Quickness? Do you need to parse mental ability into Memory, Intuition, and Reasoning?).

But if you're sold on the possibility that attributes have little value in during game play anyway, deciding how many ability scores there should be is a pointless exercise. Another nail in ability scores' coffin.

Cleaning House

So why not simply get rid of attributes completely?

Well, you need to plug a few holes first. Most important is deciding what your high-level character descriptor is going to be. Class or profession is a good option, as it's the default for most attribute-based systems anyway. Usually, a character is described as a "fighter," not a "PC with above-average Strength."

Second, you need to determine how getting rid of attributes will impact your game's mechanics. Some games won't suffer the change--Savage Worlds, where ability scores are the basis for every skill roll, can't be tweaked this way. Also, most flavours of D&D will have problems, though I think you could easily ditch ability scores for versions up to and including Moldvay Basic.

Third, you need a default mechanism for dealing with situations that aren't specifically handled by something else. How do you bash down a door, climb a rope, search for secret doors, attract followers, resist disease, et al.?

Not surprisingly, I have answers prepared.

These are Not the Attributes You're Looking For

My solution is to consider the things that every character can do, or, at least, decide on what things every character should have a chance of pulling off. The quick-and-dirty overview is like this:

Start with a list of abilities--things characters do in the game. The list should be finite and, consequently, some entries will have some broad overlap. For example, Fight is an obvious ability; it definitely covers  melee combat, though maybe include missile fire, too (depends on if you want characters to develop these as separate abilities).

But what about other physical things? Like climbing, swimming, leaping chasms, and busting down doors? Add a broad and encompassing ability, call it Athletics, and make it the default for physical activity.

Each ability gets a Target Number, a base value required when you roll whatever you roll to attempt actions in the game. The Target Number should be the same for all abilities, and improving it should be accomplished via character advancement (whether that's level-based, point-based, skill-based, whatever). If you're using classes, make sure that some classes perform certain abilities better than others. For example, warriors have an easier time improving the Fight ability, while magic-users are better at Book Smarts (or whatever ability you create to cover being educated).

Final Words

Using abilities as a substitute for attributes and skills seems quite intuitive to me. You speed up character generation, avoid the perfunctory mapping of attributes to skills, skip the time-waste of rolling up ability scores but then defining characters by class, and you keep your game flexible by decoupling skills from attributes. It's a time saver, improves game flow, and it doesn't seem like you're losing out on much.

But I know it's a hard sell--the mere suggestion of removing attributes constitutes some level of blasphemy. Assuming the concept doesn't leave you completely sour, what do you think? Any gaping holes in my logic here, or is this a workable path?

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