In Defence of Abilities

Having ditched attributes, here's where my head's at

Last week, I announced that Chimera 3.0 would be devoid of attributes or ability scores, and that character actions would be defined by an essentially finite roster of Abilities. A lot of folks had something to say about this bold suggestion, ranging from encouragement like, "sounds great--attributes are outdated anyway" to justifiable skepticism like, "you're wrong--there's no way you can cover every character action with a list of 18 Abilities."

First off, I want to thank everyone who took the time to post a comment or respond to other posters. Second, I want to thank them again for keeping the discussion lively, respectful, and on-point. If this were, and it was 1997, this easily could have devolved into a terrible flamewar with regretful posts and lots of crying. As it happens, everyone who commented--proponents and skeptics alike--stated their case with due consideration for others' opinions and perspective. I'm fairly certain there were no tears. Score one for mature gamers.

And here's something important: A couple of "dissenters" mentioned that they really did like the concept, but that they had yet to see the approach done well. Given my assertions, the burden of proof, as it were, is clearly on me. So this week, I'm going to put my general thoughts on attributes in specific Chimera terms. Your job is to poke holes in my argument and point out where I'm pure, dead wrong. Or you can pronounce my notions brilliant and innovative. Whichever.

The Chimera Way

I admit that ditching attributes is a risky proposition, but I have many reasons to think it'll work. Chief among them is that Chimera is offered as a rules-lite gaming framework. Chimera was neither designed nor intended to cover every situation, event, possibility, or confluence of circumstances that could arise during a game session. As stated in the Core Rules, Chimera is a set of

"...guidelines instead of absolutes. During development, we concentrated more on what happens instead of exactly how it happens—necessarily, some details are lost (or even deliberately ignored)."

This is all in the interest of an easy learning curve and fast play. In the rules-lite tradition, you start with flexible guidelines and extrapolate as needed.

Using a finite roster of Abilities to replace attributes and skills seems to support this concept very well. For example, let's say you have a Survival Ability (and, in fact, Chimera 3.0 does, so already we're getting some traction here). Survival covers the stuff you need to get by in the wilderness without convenient supplies, like tents or a compass or food. A little thought suggests what this includes: building shelters, identifying edible plants (and avoiding poisonous ones), making fire, catching dinner (like noodling a catfish or snaring a rabbit), determining time and direction based on the sun's position, and maybe even predicting the weather for the next 24 hours. That's a lot of stuff, but in a rules-lite framework, infinitely more workable than making those things into separate skills, each mapped to an ability score.

Now let's say that the party is adventuring somewhere (doesn't matter where) and someone needs to tie a clever knot (doesn't matter which). In this case, assume the knot is important enough to warrant a die roll of some kind. In a skill-based system, you would look for a Knot-tying skill. If you didn't have a Knot-tying skill, you might default to an attribute--Dexterity is probably the favourite, but my Boy Scouting days tell me Intelligence is best (because you really need to practice and memorise knots if you're going to get any good at them). Alternatively, you might decide that a certain class has an edge in knot-tying (e.g., thieves and fighters probably use rope more than clerics and magi). Failing that, you would need to stretch all the way back to a PC's background--anyone used to be a sailor or teamster? Or a Boy Scout?

But in a rules-lite framework, you could just tack knot-tying onto an Ability that makes sense. Like Survival.

And if your character doesn't have Survival, he can still make an attempt. Which is analogous to most skill-based systems wherein characters can still give it a shot by making an attribute check against the skill's underlying ability score. So: flexible Abilities that can handle defaults. No need for attributes.

But maybe you're thinking that you want a character who's good at snaring rabbits, but can't predict the weather. Perhaps you've decided that these skills are just too disparate to be lumped together. That's fine, because Chimera lets you partition them into separate Abilities if you want (e.g., Hunting and Meteorology). I don't necessarily recommend it, and neither does the Core Rules:

"...if your style demands more detail, you can add it—Chimera’s flexible model lets you inject as much realism as you want...However, you should understand that the game doesn’t necessarily play better as a result. In fact, you may find that such details bog things down and make actions more cumbersome to resolve."

The reason I don't recommend it is because it chips away at Chimera's rules-liteness. So the question of ditching attributes in favour of broad Abilities is more about flexibility and ease-of-use than "how-you-should-play-your-game." In other words, if what I'm saying doesn't appeal to you, it may be because rules-lite doesn't do justice to your gaming vision or your group's style of play. If your preference leans toward crunchier systems, Chimera is probably not sufficiently granular.

A Terrible Discovery

Time for a side note of troubling disposition. Last weekend, I was working on the 3.0 character sheet, and (not being at all artistic) begged the Almighty Google for some inspiration. In my wanderings, I came across this 4E D&D sheet, which is very nice. Believe it or not, this is the first 4E character sheet I've seen; outside of the 4E Quick Start that I leafed through about six months ago, this is the only 4E material I've picked up.

So you can imagine my surprise (and disdain) when I note the "Skills" section of the character sheet contains several of my Chimera Abilities. Things like Athlethics, Diplomacy, Stealth, Streetwise, and a couple of others. Son of a mother! I'm cracking my skull to innovate only to get scooped by 4E.

Seemingly. Because then I remember a couple of comments from last week's post, saying that that RPGs across the industry are evolving in the broad-skill direction anyway. At the time, my inside voice was saying, "That is absolute bollocks." But maybe not. That's the price I pay for not keeping current. Score one each for Smartypants Tag-team Da'Vane and Deimos.

So, later, after some thought (and not bothering to check any of the 4E rules), I generate an assumptive list of fundamental differences between Chimera and what's implied on the 4E character sheet:

  1. 4E still uses attributes, so if the game's evolution really is toward broadly defined skills, the evolution is progressing in baby steps
  2. 4E skills seem broad, but actually, they don't have to be because you can still use attributes as a fall-back for things they don't cover (like Knot-tying)
  3. 4E is focused on fantasy-type play, whereas Chimera is designed to handle any genre; Chimera Abilities not only need to cover all actions, but they need to cover them in all settings
  4. From a purely pragmatic, IP perspective, Chimera's development is well-documented and its focus is quite different from 4E; I believe there is a demonstrable defence against any perception that Chimera is a knock-off of WotC's material (and, granted, I'm probably more sensitive to this than others--it's just that after Chimera 2.0 severed ties with the OGL, I decided that it had to be its own game in all respects)

The Abilities

Let's get down to it. Here is the roster of Chimera Abilities. I'm presenting these in cursory fashion, mostly because I want to see how they resonate on their own, without a lot of supporting description (though they are fully described in the rulebook, with notes about what you can do with them, what they cover, and how you might interpret critical results). But here, for now, is the bare list:

  1. Athletics - physical activity
  2. Book Smarts - academia and language
  3. Burgle Chicanery - pick locks and pockets; pilfering
  4. Diplomacy - make friends and influence people
  5. Drive / Pilot - operate a vehicle
  6. Fight - attack with hand-to-hand weapons
  7. First Aid - provide temporary relief to wounded patients
  8. Observe - notice things
  9. Moxie Mettle - tenacity and intestinal fortitude
  10. Profession - a livable trade
  11. Ride Animal Handling - train, care for, or ride a beast
  12. Shoot - attack with missile weapons
  13. Sneak - hide or move undetected
  14. Spelunking - underground survival skills
  15. Street Smarts - urban survival skills
  16. Survival - wilderness survival skills
  17. Technical Tinker - create, manipulate, and repair machines and vehicles
  18. Wield - use of powers

Final Words

There you go. The list is out. Let's discuss.

Think of these in broad terms. Ask questions like, "How do these support a rules-lite framework?" instead of, "Where's Canoeing?" Think of different actions, then think about where those actions fit. What actions aren't covered? What's missing from this list? Or, can the list be pared down even more? Do tell...

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