Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Big change #1: Stats

Right out of the gate I fear I am going to begin pushing people away by slaying sacred cows. Hopefully I can convince you the change is warranted, so please read on. There are only four abilities: strength, agility (dexterity), cunning, and vitality (constitution). Basically, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma got rolled into a single ability.

First let us discuss abilities in the general sense. In 2e abilities were not as impactful; from 7 to 14 Con had no impact on hit points. By 3e, that same range would be 4 hit points per level which, assuming an average hit die of d8 averaging to 4.5, meant that Constitution would be as important as your hit die in determining hit points. Fourth edition made Constitution even more important by having it modify number of surges, so that range of 4 represents the ability to 100% refill your HP each day.

Having abilities be of unequal importance is no big deal when they don’t have as big an impact on the game. When they got important in 3e, the concept of a dump-stat became front and center in game design and min-max forums alike. Ability scores are a resource and when we can concentrate resources into a particular area we are more powerful. When the benefit of that concentration dramatically outweighs the cost, we have an issue. Fourth edition tried to fix the dump stat by linking one of two stats to each defense. In some ways this helped, but in other ways it really said, “Pick three dump stats instead of one.”

Abilities are so fundamental to the game that they all need a clear and core purpose. By limiting it to strength, agility, cunning, and vitality, we can easily assign each ability and role in defining an active and a passive action.

Ability descriptors and use
Passive use
Active use
Fortitude defense
Melee attack
Speed, accuracy
Reflex defense
Missile attack
Intelligence, wisdom
Will defense
Action points
Endurance, heartiness
Hit points
How much you heal

Tradeoffs are still possible, but the consequence of the tradeoff is unavoidable and important. Add in that each ability is used in skills and miscellaneous mechanics like carrying capacity and initiative and each one becomes valuable in its own right.

The main rebuttal that I see is that now all mentally gifted characters, whether smart or wise or personable, can only be represented by a single stat. Lame. But I’d argue that what was just described probably is better represented by a single stat. RP wise they are very different, but nothing here inhibits RP. With respect to how they manifest in the game, however, they are different routes to achieve the same objectives.

Consider two scenarios.
  • A character has to push open a gate. Whether that character is described like Conan rippling with muscle, a huge physical specimen like Andre the Giant, or infused with demonic strength like Ashitaka, what the rules want to know is his strength check. The description is just flavor and we shouldn’t let rules stand in the way of a player describing his character however he wants.
  • A character has to convince the Baron to go to war against the orcish barbarians on the outskirts of his land. Whether that character walks the Baron through a logical argument to show why this is necessary, leverages his past experiences to convey to the Baron the gravitas of the risks to his people, or is just so damn likable that the Baron can’t help but be persuaded by his honeyed words, what the rules care about is his check result. The route to get there was just flavor.

I’m sure people will push back that it is no longer possible to portray a smart character without also portraying a charismatic character. This simply isn’t true. We don’t let someone simultaneously portray two forms of strength; we make them pick. A character can still lack common sense and social decorum, it just happens that his wit is so great that it makes up for them when he puts it to use. Moreover, it has always struck me as odd how often the argument is simultaneously advanced that rules destroy the ability to roleplay yet we need more rules to be able to roleplay. I grant you that this change is not inconsequential, but I don't think it hurts RP and I think the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Ultimately the decision boils down to picking one of two options.
  • We prefer rules to help distinguish the mental attributes of characters so that portraying them involves more mechanical tradeoffs. This is important enough to introduce additional resources which might be used not as intended and imbalance other aspects of the game.
  • We prefer ensuring each attribute provides important mechanical tradeoffs to preserve system integrity. This is important enough to entrust players with the responsibility to not exploit the fact that each attribute is now bundled with more uses.

I prefer the second statement and for all the reasons given above, I think it is a defensible position.


  1. I've been reading a lot of threads and blogs by people trying make homebrew systems and very often they feel conflicted about stats and then just fall back on the traditional six. The main rationale that I see crop up again and again is that they get feedback that the six are too iconic to the game to change.

    What do you think? Do the traditional six have some value that I am not addressing? Does tradition outweigh the cost of dumb stats?

  2. I'd go with the regular six, but changing a few of them. I'd trade Wisdom by Cunning, Wits or Intuition (the name has slightly different appeals. But I mean the "natural" cunning. Things like a tiger setting up an ambush).
    I'd trade "charisma" by Resolve, Spirit or Presence. Then I'd make Reflex to be based in DEX+CUN (physical quickness+mental quickness), Fortitude based on Strength+Constitution, and Will based on Intelligence+Resolve.

    The problem with using only 4 stats, is that you lose some granularity. Specially if you plan to use your stats as your main skill powerup, it means that those who are good at maths are also good at flirting (i'd suppose that bluff, diplomacy or seduction will be based on Intelligence too)