Mar 122012

As my comrades and I continue the development of several new game systems, the subject of ability scores has continually risen to the forefront. I figured I’d take a moment or two talk about the concept of ability scores as it relates to RPGs.

I think for most of us, attributes are seen as a given in an RPG. That likely stems from the games we were trained and raised on: the Storyteller System or Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not saying that every gamer started with one of those two games, but I’m betting that the majority of them have. And the one thing that both games have in common is that they use attribute scores to represent the raw physical and mental characteristics of a character. I’d be willing to bet that attributes are likely one of the most common elements of all RPGs.

But they’re not the only way to represent the raw attributes of a character. Take a look at FATE: it doesn’t have attributes at all. Instead the game relies on skills to represent your capabilities and aspects to represent anything extraordinary about your character. There are other examples, but I think that FATE is likely one of the better ones I’ve personally experienced and played.

Which is all just a way to say that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about attribute scores and what they mean. When thinking back though my old characters I don’t remember which D&D character had a 13 Strength or which one had a 12 Constitution. But I can tell you, even now, which ones I rolled a natural 18 or a natural 3 on. Those are the characters that stand out to me, because they had attribute scores that were clearly exceptional or inferior.

You see, with attributes all that really matters are the extremes, not the average. It’s usually assumed that a PC is going to be mostly average with a few areas that are clearly above average. Those are the attributes we care about, the ones that make your character special or unique. No one cares if you have an average strength, but if you’re the strongest there is (to paraphrase the Hulk) that becomes a central aspect of your character.

So why are we still mucking around with ability scores at all? Why not assume that everyone is average until they take something that makes them clearly above or below average. In one of the systems I’m developing with my friends we’re using the idea of traits. When you take a trait you’re clearly saying that your character has something about him that’s remarkable. That the trait you’ve chosen is important and you want to use it. Which I think leads to really interesting situations.

Which to me is starting to lead us in really interesting directions. When you start worrying about the exceptional suddenly you can design around those high and low points, not the boring median points. Only time will tell if we can really pull it off.