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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?

  1. deimos3428
    August 18th, 2010 at 17:59 | #1

    Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

    Wait, sorry about that…my ‘o’ key got stuck. I meant to say it’s a novel approach.

  2. Jack Colby
    August 18th, 2010 at 18:42 | #2

    Well, it’s an idea I have seen discussed before among original D&D players, and obviously has merits.

    I do worry that it would take some of the fun out of character creation (rolling ability scores in D&D is fun), and that the multi-layered-ness of the characters will suffer, since such scores actually make the character in the players mind, defining him or her and suggesting what they are like. In a simple game like older D&D, it is pretty much THE defining mechanic for your character at the earliest stage.

    For me, the great benefit of dropping them would be not having to worry about there being “holes” or even overlapping, in the chosen attributes. I’ve often been frustrated by how designers chose to break down a person’s attributes in a game.

    Certainly worth playing with the idea and trying it out! PErsonally, I’d need some other kind of randomized element(s) at character creation to suggest a character and differentiate between characters though. OTherwise you get a cookie-cutter effect. Sure, all fighters are expected to be strong, but how strong? And what about that interesting fighter who isn’t so strong but gets by with some other attributes and clever playing? You’d lose that… might not be worth it, or maybe it is…

  3. August 18th, 2010 at 18:59 | #3

    I say go for it. I don’t even think it is blasphemous to consider.

    However, as you touched upon, how do you handle fall-back situations for an action anyone could undertake in situations where failure is a possibility? Adding generic categories works for most situations. Out-of-the-box thoughts by players may not fall into any particular generic bucket. Adding to the list of everyman skills could explode needlessly where ability scores cover the situation nicely.

    I also despise placing characters into buckets like Class/Profession. To me, it hinders the imagination of the player and limits the character needlessly. I prefer free-form skill based systems over class/profession templates. People should be responding to the situation not always pondering what ability fits best that they have on a sheet of paper.

    Great article. I love stuff that makes me think.

  4. Smerg
    August 18th, 2010 at 22:51 | #4

    I agree that Attributes are a pretty outdated system that really doesn’t do what it used to anymore. There was the point made on random rolling but many groups (particularly online gaming groups) use point buy systems now to ensure an even distribution.

    Random character generation is found in far less systems then it used to be.

    Further, the values of attributes in games like DnD are used at creation to generate some base modifiers to things like skills, saves, and so forth, but are rarely used again. The ‘value’ of the attributes is thus to generate these first sets of bonuses.

    We look at numbers like Str 18 and ascribe a value to the character of being ‘strong’ or an Int 18 and ascribe a value to the character of being ‘bright’ or ‘clever’. We then often ‘role-play’ these numbers.

    Now, I am a math based person and can assign relative values to numbers but for the purposes of character creation, I think it is backwards.

    If you get rid of attributes then you should create a list of qualities that players can choose from. You might have a point pick system or a substitute ‘random’ system for people that are still stuck on random generation.

    Values on the list could have terms like ‘Heavily Muscled’ which would give a bonus to Hit, Damage, and Hit points (like an increased Str and Con would do).

    There might even be sub choices on these main choices where a person can take a more extreme version of the Value but have a negative feature attached. ‘Extremely Muscled’ might be like ‘Heavily Muscled’ but be even a higher bonus to Hit and Damage but have a negative associated with it of being ‘Freakish’ providing a penalty when certain types of social skills are used.

    You are taking a loose numerical system and turning it into a descriptive system like Traits, Racial Abilities, and Feats.

    Now, additionally to this system, you would likely need to build a few additional ‘buffs’ into the progression tables of certain classes. These buffs would help balance out for the loss of magical attribute gain devices, spells, and 3.0 attribute progression that is ‘assumed’ into the system and the abilities of monsters in the system. It can be as easy as every few levels of a fighter style class giving a buff to To Hit roll and Damage.

    Anyways, just some ideas to help you think.

  5. August 18th, 2010 at 23:14 | #5

    Strangely enough (or not, I suppose) what you’re describing has already been done. R. Talsorian Games has a game called Castle Falkenstein that works on just this principle. It’s one of my favorite systems I’ve ever read/played. I’d suggest giving it a look if you are interested in going further with this idea.

    In working on my own system I considered ditching attributes — I hate them — but I found that I struggled with certain aspects, particularly the Strength stat in that I didn’t want “Brawn” to be rated the same way as a skill. I eventually settled on a 3 Attribute system.

    Actually, now that I think about, the old Car Wars boxed set did the same thing for creating continuing characters… it had no attributes, only skills. Another suggestion for looking at it.

    I think most FATE style games, with Aspects, could support ditching attributes altogether as well. Just a few ideas to keep in mind. Have fun.

  6. August 18th, 2010 at 23:35 | #6

    I just tested out a system that doesn’t have stats for your attributes, just descriptors.
    (a) I don’t like change.
    (b) I know this, so I tried to give it a fair shake.
    (c) I still couldn’t accept the approach – I could appreciate it, and what it was trying to do, but I couldn’t accept it.

    That’s my two copper pieces, anyway.

    -Tourq

  7. August 19th, 2010 at 07:40 | #7

    Attributes is a legacy from earlier editions of D&D, it’s that simple. It’s archaic and out-dated, almost old-school. When you look at the evolution of roleplaying, and systems such as D&D, they didn’t have skills as we know them know since the likes of 3.x and beyond. Even in 2nd edition AD&D, these were proficiencies, which were basically ability checks. Look at the lates tincarnation, you can see why there are still abilities and skills – because ability checks are a fall back for the basic skills system.

    Take the simple D20 mechanic for a moment. Success is based on d20 roll + bonus equal to or over a DC (or opposed roll and bonuses). This mechanic is simple and remains unchanged throughout the system upon which everything else is based. the rest of the game literary comes down to defining what bonuses apply where.

    For most checks, there is an ability bonus. But there are also bonuses for race, class, skills, feats, circumstances, magic, equipment, and so on. Some of these are circumstantial, but quite a few of these are also repeatative in context.

    You get an ability bonus for Strength when you do things where strength is useful. But, if you are an Orc, a strong race, you often get bonuses to such actions anyway, which go on top of being strong, as well as a Strength bonus, making you stronger. For a skill using strength, you get a bonus for high strength, but a bonus for ranks in the skill, which you are likely to spend points in because of your high strength. Again, there are class bonuses, such as the base attack bonus of the Warrior – which stacks with the melee bonus for high strength.

    This is the very essense of min-maxing, but it basically comes down to where and how you are giving the bonuses, and that pretty much depends upon the focus of your system. If you focus on classes as defining a character, then classes should give the bonuses, if you focus on skills, then skills should do so. Likewise, if you focus on abilities, then have abilities handle this task instead.

    Everything else should simply be seen as a way to help organise the system so it relates to the players and the characters they wish to create. If your system is skill-based, then classes should be like templates at most, giving players an idea of the sort of skills to take for each class. If it is class-based, the reverse should be the case, with the skills simply being a way to give the player an idea of what the class can do. If, like D&D, you are going to mix and match, you should try to make sure they are consistant. D&D is the granddaddy of all systems, and even it has not achieved this goal fully yet.

    No matter what though, never forget that it all relates to the core mechanic. If you can’t relate any changes back to the core mechanic, then you need to reconsider those changes. Can you bring the absense of abilities to the core mechanic of Chimera RPG? If you can, and in doing so it makes the game simpler and better, do so.

  8. August 19th, 2010 at 10:39 | #8

    Wow – impressive feedback. Short answer: I believe I have all concerns covered, which you’ll see in the upcoming Chimera 3.0 upgrade. I’ve added several bits that aren’t fully explained above, so the dearth of ability scores won’t be so noticeable. Some specifics:

    * There will be a static list of Abilities (I have 18 in all, which should be enough, but the system is purposely scalable, so you can add more if you like)

    * All Abilities start at a base Target Number of 18; you still use 1d20 for Action Rolls. Each time you improve an Ability, you reduce TN by -1

    * The “random” element of character creation will be optional, but if you want to use it, you’ll roll some dice to determine background, which in turn will suggest where his or her talents lie – in game terms, you’ll have an opportunity to improve a few Abilities before you pick a class. The nearest analogue I can think of is Classic Traveller, though I guarantee your character won’t die before he gets to play.

    * Classes are defined by Abilities, so if you are a fighter, for example, Athletics, Fight, and Shoot are class-based Abilities; you can choose others, but they’re harder to improve.

    * Not all classes are created equal – you can pick Special Perks (aka “sperks,” – thanks, Deimos) as optional class abilities. Also, class Abilities don’t automatically improve at the same rate–in fact, they’re not directly tied to experience level–so two 4th-level fighters could have very different Fight Abilities.

    In this approach classes are more about suggesting tendencies – your core competencies, but not the entirety of your skill set. At its heart, Chimera is skill-based, erm, I mean Ability-based, but classes help you stay organised, especially at advancement time.

  9. August 19th, 2010 at 10:43 | #9

    @Tourq : I appreciate your honesty. Maybe you’ll try again when Chimera 3.0 comes out?

  10. August 19th, 2010 at 10:44 | #10

    @Da’ Vane : If you taught a class in roleplaying, I would take it. Probably the most informative statement on min-maxing I’ve ever read. Cheers.

  11. August 19th, 2010 at 15:00 | #11

    @Erin D. Smale
    Thanks. I prefer to teach classes in Life, and call it roleplaying, however – they are basically the same thing. It’s just that with roleplaying games, we’re not having to guess at the rules as one would with science, we’re making them. Of course, having a great wealth of knowledge in a diverse range of sciences, including the social sciences, helps immensely, because you then have core set of rules to tweak when experimenting with – whether it’s looking at how particles react to forces, or people learn from new experiences.

    What you appear to be doing with Chimera 3.0 is redefining certain things for consistancy, and that is a good thing. Just as one of the good features of 4th Edition D&D is merging Defence and Saving Throws into a single category because they work in the same way; Chimera RPG 3.0 is doing the same for abilities and skills.

    In D&D 3.x, breaking down a door is a Strength check, and therefore an ability check, but the simple addition of Door Bashing skill is all that would be needed to make this check a skill check instead. There are other things like this as well – long-distance running is a Constitution check, but the Endurance feat provides a bonus to that along with Fortitude saves for physical endurance, showing there’s little difference between these. A skill called Endurance or chaning the Constitution checks to Fortitude saves is enough to change the system and bring about more consistancy.

    Thus, it’s not so much that Chimera is a skills-based or abilities-based system, but rather it is a check-based system. Most roleplaying systems are, but few go with the simplicity and consistancy to keep with this approach, simply because of the variety of checks that can be made in a single game; thus bringing us back to the core mechanic of these systems.

    In many ways, Chimera RPG is a streamined version of the d20 system with a lot more consistancy, because reducing the target Number by 1 is the same as providing a bonus to the dice roll of 1. This is not a bad thing – I ran a prototype of the D-Jumpers campaign 6 years ago using the D20 system and this core mechanic was what held it all together – the inconsistancies of the individual elements of the various D20 parts used pulled it apart.

    Take these out, focus on the check-based system, and provide a simple, balanced means for advancement of characters within the system, and Chimera RPG will become the new Pathfinder (If you didn’t see the ENnie results, Pathfinder cleaned the board this year…)

  12. August 19th, 2010 at 16:09 | #12

    @Da’ Vane : Right – though you make it sound much smarter than I intended, which was just to simplify character generation and action resolution by removing redundancy.

    By simple, I mean flexible, and if you start decoupling skills and attributes, you end up with a lot more freedom to suit individual styles. For instance, my Ability list has Fight and Shoot, but you could easily add Martial Arts, Brawl, Wrestle, Artillery, Bomber, or Starship Gunnery Abilities without impacting a thing. Alternatively, you could combine Fight and Shoot into a single Combat Ability.

    Chimera is all about modularizing an elegant core mechanic to accommodate different levels of realism and game style, all the while keeping the system playable. I believe the changes above support that. Time (and version 3.0) will tell… ;)

    That said, I’ll hold your optimistic outlook in check for now–we’ll see what version 3.0 brings–but I appreciate the vote of confidence!

  13. August 19th, 2010 at 18:13 | #13

    So, I’m just trying to get this straight – you’re ditching a small set of numbers (attributes) which provide general bonuses to larger sets of numbers (skills), and you are replacing them with another large set of numbers (abilities) where the players have to assign bonuses very specifically. Is that right?

    And that is simpler how? I think you are likely to be adding redundancy, and worse yet, a constant struggle to make sure that Abilities cover all the range of what the players will try, while not being so specific as to me generally useless except in very rare circumstances (see Hackmaster as a how not to do it).

  14. August 19th, 2010 at 20:12 | #14

    @wickedmurph : More accurately, I’m replacing a set of useless numbers (Attributes) and a set of redundant numbers (Skills) with a set of efficient numbers (Abilities). Yes, players assign points to improve their Abilities, but because you’re tracking Target Numbers instead of bonuses, I do think the system is a bit more streamlined. Semantics? On paper, yes, but I believe the benefits show in practice.

    The struggle to map all possible actions to a finite set of Abilities is a matter of preference and game style. In all honesty, I believe the 18 Abilities I’ve come up with will cover any conceivable action, though there is opportunity for overlap and some interpretation required. But if you want more Abilities, the system allows you to create them–you can be as crunchy as you like.

    In my experience, Skills are nothing more than specialised Attributes (i.e., Skills map to Attributes, which either modify, or form the basis of, a Skill roll). I’m really just taking out the middle man, and since Attributes seem to have little bearing on play once class is chosen and skills selected, I think the economy is real.

    But I agree that it’s a hard sell. I can only invite you to try out Chimera 3.0 when it’s out in October and see for yourself. It’s not for everyone, so you may like it or you may decide it’s crap. Either way, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  15. August 20th, 2010 at 09:42 | #15

    @wickedmurph It’s quite simple really when you look at it. In D&D D20, the core mechanic is qite simple, it’s d20 + bonuses, but the bonuese are all over the place. Common examples are:

    Skills Bonus = Ability Bonus + Skill Rank + Feat Bonus + Race Bonus + Class Bonus

    Attack Bonus = Ability Bonus + Base Attack Bonus (from Class) + Feat Bonus

    Defense Bonus = Ability Bonus + Armor Bonus + Shield Bonus + Feat Bonus + Class Bonus + Race Bonus

    Saving throw Bonus = Ability Bonus + Class Bonus + Feat Bonus + Race Bonus

    This continues no matter whather the check is for. What is going on with Chimera RPG is that the bonuses are being consolidated, and the checks are being made more consistant. So, how can this NOT be simpler?

    Chimera RPG is as much a toolkit for a system as it is a set system – if you want to use it in a game where combat is handled with a simple Fight skill, you can, and this frees up points and balance for other areas of gameplay, such as Knowledge, Exploration, Business, Astrogation, or whatever. But, if you wanted to make combat more complex, this is easy to do so, simply by breaking the attributes down into different skills, such as Fencing, Archery, Axes, Martial Arts, Firearms, Energy Weapons, and so forth.

    You could even technically recreate D&D in it’s entirety, simply by defining the attributes as the same as those used in D&D:

    Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, Fortitude, Reflex, Will, Initiative, Melee Attack, Ranged Attack, Combat Maneuver (Pathfider is superior evolution), Appraise, Bluff, Concentration, Balance, Climb… and so forth

    This reminds me of the design mentatilty I adopted with a previous multi-genre system I attempted called PCSIK – it ended up being more of a treatise on game design than anything, but there’s a wealth of abandoned material about it on my old website – Cult of Da’ Vane. Feel free to use any of it you find useful to improve Chimera RPG, Erin.

  16. deimos3428
    August 20th, 2010 at 11:03 | #16

    It’s nice to see all the discussion on this one. Incidentally I think provocative headlines are the way to go in the future, Erin. Note “Ditching Attributes” got tons of response, while the somewhat similarly themed “Ability-based Characters” got none at all!

    With regard to Tourq’s post, he said he didn’t like a lack of stats for attributes. I agree, but that would seem to be a subtly different problem from removing attributes entirely — describing a character with textual descriptors (“Strong”, “Wise”, etc.) vs. describing a character with broad-based skills (Fight +2, Shoot +1, etc.).

    Both remove attributes (STR 18, INT 15, etc.) but in different ways. The ability-based system retains quantification while a descriptor-based system does not. The benefit to doing so for a ability-based system would be to integrate that which the attributes represent into the existing skill rubric, thus removing a set of largely redundant metrics.

  17. August 20th, 2010 at 16:45 | #17

    @Da’Vane

    QUOTE:
    “Attributes is a legacy from earlier editions of D&D, it’s that simple. It’s archaic and out-dated, almost old-school. When you look at the evolution of roleplaying, and systems such as D&D, they didn’t have skills as we know them know since the likes of 3.x and beyond. Even in 2nd edition AD&D, these were proficiencies, which were basically ability checks. Look at the lates tincarnation, you can see why there are still abilities and skills – because ability checks are a fall back for the basic skills system.”

    I’m not entirely certain I can get behind this. Games use Attribute Ratings for a lot of different reasons — mapping to skills is just one of those things. Your later assertion that all things in an RPG come down to Add X to Y And roll a die is pretty spot on, but Attributes, much like Hit Points, are still around — not because they are a legacy of outdated mechanics but because they are a relatively easy and (for gaming purposes, not real life purposes) accurate way to map the abilities of a fictional person in interactions involving dice.

    Attributes in D&D and similar games serve a particular function — but other games, like 7th Sea use Attributes in a different way. Attributes in, say, Big Eyes, Small Mouth work in a different way as well — and utimately, I think of Savage Worlds as an example where attributes could be eliminated. All they do is set benchmarks for raising skills… you never even roll attributes in that game.

    I don’t think attributes are any more outdated than rolling dice in RPGs. That’s a pretty sweeping statement. Systems built with attributes use one form of gaming shorthand — systems without use another. I’d also suggest — the majority of games use attributes in one form or another — so I’m not sure how you get that it’s outdated.

  18. August 20th, 2010 at 18:45 | #18

    I see what you’re doing – I’m just not sure that it’s simpler to make players allocate benefits between 18 “Abilities”. You’re wanting to avoid derived statistics, which are admittedly more complex, and just go with straight point-allocated statistics. You can call things whatever you want, abilities or whatever, but that’s the basics of what you’re doing.

    And it is more straightforward, and more flexible in theory. But I have 2 issues with the approach. The first is that you don’t really have meta-bonuses in a system like this. You can’t be, for example, OK at fighting because you are very strong, even though you don’t have much fighting experience. In your system, you’re either OK at fighting because you allocated points to it, or you’re not OK at fighting because you didn’t.

    Second issue I have is that you force yourself to walk a very fine line between the number and use of “Abilities” that you create and the number of points you give people to buy them with. If your abilities are too general, or you give too many points, then everyone is good at most things. Conversely, and more likely, some Abilities will be too specific, making spending points on them sub-optimal. Which means you will soon have lots of characters who can’t read, but are very good at throwing things. Or something equally weird.

    Also, as a toolkit, this difficulty leaves something to be desired. If you’ve structured your point allocation system based on 18 Abilities that you feel adequately deal with everything a player might do (you are wrong, by the way – I don’t even need to look at the list to know this, because I’ve been a DM for 25 years. No list can ever cover everything that a player will do), how does the toolkit user deal with a system that has 20 skills? How do you identify blind alleys in point allocation?

    Playtesting, of course, will do this. Players will min/max, evaluate and search for loopholes. I feel, and many RPG designers have felt, that relatively static attributes solve some of these issues.

    Ultimately, I think you are overusing semantics here. You are dumping the core-attribute idea of 6 or 8 or whatever attributes, and replacing them with 18 attributes. You’re just throwing the proficiencies or skills or whatever system on top of the attributes, then saying “but you can make up as many more of these as you want”.

    Doesn’t sound less complex to me, but it’s certainly more flexible, in that you have lots of room to screw up.

    However, I reread this and realize I sound pretty negative – so let me clarify a bit. I’ve tinkered with systems like this, and I want to like them. So I will indeed try out Chimera. I just haven’t had much luck making them work in practice, so here’s hoping somebody else will have more luck.

  19. August 20th, 2010 at 19:15 | #19

    @Rhetorical Gamer Virtually every system uses attributes of some kind, but they use them in the similar, mathematical number-crunching way that remains unchanged from the earliest days of roleplaying games. In virtually every system, character generation starts by define a few key attributes which then go on to define everything else in various combinations, but the key attributes themselves are rarely used beyond character generation, except when the other parts of the system are not designed to cope with the relevent action.

    There’s not neccessarily anything wrong with this, but if everything else has moved on, why fall back to these old standbys when they aren’t neccessary. A lot of this has to do with the fact that ability checks cover actions that just don’t see that much focus in the games, and therefore are very easy to drop and ignore. Nobody is too bothered that breaking down a door is a Strength check and not a skill, attack roll, or something else that improves with the character – but if melee combat was resolved with a simple Strength check, it would be quite different, largely because melee combat, especially in the sword & sorcery genre of D&D, gets a lot of focus in many systems.

    Therefore I find that the idea of attributes, especially as being seperate from things like skills, saves, and other checks, IS outdated. It harkens back to a time when systems were bolted together through house rules and sticky-back plastic. The gaps are beginning to show, and that’s when it’s time to take a look and say – “Hang on a minute, why have we got all these different pieces that are just about working together, simply because that’s the way it’s evolved – when we can unify and simply everything like this?” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but whatever happens, you can always go back to an earlier edition and take a new approach if you have to.

    There are a few systems where attibutes are the only thing defining a character, and there are systems where they are used differently – the 2nd edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is an example of the latter, where check were based directly on the attributes, rather than other factors. But the key consideration here isn’t whether you are using attributes, skills, saves, or whatever – but that you understand that these elements are all the same, and should be related to the core mechanic, rather than considered differently and seperate from everything else. This stubborn clinging onto the difference between attiributes and other elements is the stance that is outdated, as it creates layers of complexity in a system where there needn’t be any. It’s not limited to attributes either – once you elimited the inherent difference between things like attributes and skills, it also becomes easier to limit the difference between other areas, such as saving throws and defenses, which is what 4th Edition D&D succeeded in doing. Or attack rolls and level checks. It all ends up coming back to check-based gameplay, where it’s the checks themselves that matter, and it doesn’t make a difference whether you call it an ability check, and initiative check, or a defense check.

  20. August 20th, 2010 at 20:50 | #20

    @wickedmurph : Well, I wouldn’t say you’re being negative so much as being appropriately skeptical. I’ll be honest–this is a big leap for me as well, and I’ve made some bold assertions, so it’s on me to back it all up with a workable system.

    To your first issue, correct, there are no meta-bonuses. If you’re good at fighting, it’s because you chose to advance in that direction. To me, not much different than choosing a Fighter class, where fighting ability is more about levels in that profession than deliberate point allocation. But you’re saying that a magic-user, for example, won’t get an edge at fighting because he happens to be strong. True statement in that the bonus isn’t automatic, but that just means that you have to make considered choices about what your character is good at, because there’s no meta-bonus. It’s a conscientious choice that I think will work out OK.

    To your second issue, right again. I’m deliberately “stepping back” a bit by making Abilities broad in scope. My vision (and, admittedly, my playing style) is less granular than that of others, so it’s not going to be “comfortable” for players who desire a certain level of precision. My basis is a bit “cinematic,” though I despise that term…

    Think of Abilities broadly, and it may begin to make more sense. Like in a movie with a strong, burly, athletic character. You naturally assume that he’s going to be good a physical things–running, climbing, swimming, busting down doors, etc. All of that goes under a single Ability (Athletics), to simulate general proficiency at such things. This has 3 effects that appeal to me: (1) it lets a player who wants a strong, burly, athletic character create the PC he wants quickly, (2) it keeps play moving because you can easily map a host of actions to a single Ability/die roll, and (3) it prevents uncharacteristic failure for lack of a specific skill (e.g., a high-STR character who can’t climb a rope because he neglected to take the Climbing skill).

    Extra skills are the perogrative of the house–while I think my roster is comprehensive, the system will support more granular Abilities. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but the option is there, and incorporation is seamless. I don’t think point allocation would be a problem–if it is, individual GMs can tweak within the framework provided without much hassle.

    Semantics does have a role–it has to, given the scope of this kind of change. But if you give it some thought, I’ll wager that it’s really no more of less semantic than the old Skill Rank + Attribute Bonus formula. I like to think I’m getting rid of some dross and streamlining the whole affair. At worst, you get the same results with less math.

    So, yeah, playtesting will reveal the benefits, flaws, and loopholes. Ain’t no system out there that can’t be min-maxed, but in this model, I think there’s more potential to cut your character short if a player decides to get cute.

    If you’re still interested in giving it a whirl, I’d be happy to send you a beta copy of the Quick Start. There will be a call for playtesters in the September newsletter–hope you can participate. If you’re especially eager (or relentlessly cynical), drop me a line at the old Erin-dot-Smale Gmail thing, and I’ll put you on the short list for feedback.

  21. deimos3428
    August 21st, 2010 at 22:33 | #21

    It seems to me that Chimera is going along the same path as D&D’s ongoing development, but with a slightly unencumbered head start. The two games would seem to be converging somewhat.

    In early D&D, the six ubiquitous “abilities” could be seen as little more than broadly defined, quantifiable skill-sets. Any problem could be resolved by consulting or checking one of these six values. (I say “could” because unfortunately the power of this very simple system was neither recognized nor employed except via house-rule. They could have stopped right there and had a very simple skill-based game, and divided the six skills slightly more as deemed necessary, and in so doing leap about 30 years forward in game design. But they didn’t, of course, because they hadn’t the advantage of hindsight.) Anyway, the point is the abilities had a great deal of potential power in early D&D.

    Instead of tapping that power, later editions introduced new features to cover various perceived voids: additional classes, proficiencies, secondary skills, skills, feats, etc. and in so doing chipped away at the all-purpose capabilities of the original six. (The skills are somewhat granular at this point, so I’d expect future versions of D&D to consolidate and solidify somewhat — I’m told 4E actually does so.)

    So much so that today, they aren’t really “abilities” as defined above at all. They are merely descriptors that map bonuses to other game mechanics, and I think “attributes” is a more fitting term for such a stat.

    In comparison, Chimera 2.x has even less useful attributes…not even so much as an open doors or bend bars chance to be determined by them! So their removal just makes sense to me as a game development move, especially as this game is already backed by a strong, fully mature skill-system. Perhaps 5E will do the same.

  22. August 22nd, 2010 at 08:47 | #22

    @deimos3428 Interesting analysis–I hadn’t thought of D&D’s evolution in those terms.

    The point about attributes in Chimera 2.0 is apt–they just don’t add value. But that’s the way Chimera’s evolving–faster and leaner. My fervent hope is that it remains as (or more) playable.

    And, for the record, there’s no intent to compete with 4E as such. The last D&D version I played was 2E, which was part of the reason I switched back to Rules Cyclopedia in the mid-90s. From 3E on, I have no first-hand knowledge or experience with D&D.

    Comments like “Chimera is going along the same path as D&D’s ongoing development” surprise me somewhat, essentially because any similarity is purely coincidental. While I’m not sure if it’s good or bad for Chimera’s evolution to be congruent with D&D, I can assure you that there’s no purposeful connection with, or even a desire to be like, whatever WotC are conjuring up.

    That said, here’s to a strong, fully mature skill-system. Hope you like what you see in 3.0!

  23. August 22nd, 2010 at 09:06 | #23

    @Erin D. Smale Great minds think alike, as they say, so it’s not really much of a surprise that there is a great deal of similarity in the evolution of roleplaying game systems in general, especially since they typically all come from the same roots.

    Ultimately roleplaying games all serve a few, very basic, primary purposes. They are games about characters and stories. They are supposed to be fun, and will inevitablly feature things various people will find fun to enable them to play engaging characters and take part in compelling stories. It doesn’t matter if there are six or six million rules if the fun, the characters, and the stories remain. Every system, regardless, strives to make it easier and more fun to do this simple thing, and they will all do it in the same way – the fun ones get played more often and get more support, the less fun ones fade into obscurity.

    I, personally, can’t wait to playtest Chimera RPG 3.0…

  24. deimos3428
    August 22nd, 2010 at 22:08 | #24

    @Erin I’d go so far as to suggest the convergence isn’t entirely coincidental, though I’ll accept that it is wholly unintentional or accidental. But no game is an island; broadly-defined skills are the way the whole RPG universe is rolling at the moment. It’ll take a decade or two for time to tell if this is the cusp of a gaming revolution or merely a passing fad, though. Either way, it’s gonna be a fun ride.

  1. March 2nd, 2011 at 04:20 | #1

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