Monday, July 28, 2014

Ability Scores

The same standard 6 ability scores have been with D&D since it's inception and they have gone on to impact the entire RPG hobby, but why not change up ability scores and what they mean in a campaign? If a DM pays attention to how ability scores work within the rules of the game they are using those ability score themselves can be changed to provide a different game experience.

No ability scores at all. The most drastic means of addressing the situation is to simply not have any ability scores. In the original D&D rules ability score had little direct impact on most immediate actions so little actually some have wondered why they were bothered with at all. By ditching abilitry score entierly  all adventurers are equally capable at common adventuring tasks and no player is slave to bad luck and no one ends up subordinate to the early lucky rolls of another player. This method is used by some minimalist D&D variants out there “Searchers of the Unkown” being the one that come to mind first.  Characters abilities are tied to class, level, and player choice a character will emerge from play instead of being rigidly defined in a few small areas.  There is room for this method to be exploited by pushy and intelligent players that may cause it to break down for a wide open and extended campaign but in more tightly focused campaigns or limited duration ones the ability scores can be an unneeded layer of complexity.

Ability scores as modifiers.  I’ve use this technique in the past when playing Talislanta and for a little quick and simple multi-edition D&D dungeon crawling as mentioned in this post:
Ability score as modifier has two particular advantages over the standard score and modifier model in that they are unbound, and concise. Both advantages can also be a deterrent in their use however. Ability score as modifier is concise as there is no look up required to determine the effect of an ability on a relevant action if you have a +3 in Might you have a +3 bonus to all things might related.  An ability score as modifier is unbound you can technically go to infinity in either direction as there is no score floor or ceiling implied by this method; you don’t’ have to have a housecat with a strength of 3  (or 1). There is a problem in the ability score as modifier as it isn’t clear how relatively effective or weak any two characters really are in a game without really looking into the numbers (a +4 is cool if you are roll 1d20 and adding 4 but it’s even better if you are rolling 3d6 and adding) and some baselines have to still be established which can look odd compared to a ability score as modifier mechanic.

Changing the Names of ability Scores. Using the same core set of modifiers by changing the definitions of the ability scores.  Why Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma? I explored this option in a post a couple years ago in this post: . In brief the game may feel different by simply changing a few names and the expectations that go with them as a result while otherwise retaining existing modifiers. By example: if Strength is instead Size some the descriptions of things certainly shift while still playing out effectively the same numerically in uch of play but there will be occasional telling differences; big folk can use big weapons better, they can surely bash open door easier but what happens when high Size characters have to squeeze through a small hole?

Additional ability scores.  Why stick with just the ones your game came with? Even AD&D added Comeliness to the standard roster of ability scores for a time why not consider doing the same in your campaign?  Core tasks repeated again and again in the game might work better if tied to a new ability score; Perception as an ability score is a popular one that came up in Dragon magazine ages ago and is a popular candidate. Luck is a popular ability scores used by some D&D-a-likes that would fit in well as a modifier to the saving throw system or perhaps a complete alternative. If characters are going to spend a lot of time on horseback in a campaign and the DM feels there should be some difference between how well characters ride it might be worth adding Horsemanship as an ability score as opposed to adding on a skill system.  One could even delve deeper into some of the functionality of ability scores now and break them down further sure a high intelligence makes one a better magi-user but what if magic was tied to something else maybe Magical Affinity with minimum scores establishing spell access and/or magic item use instead of the intellect alone?   How about breaking up that Charisma score into Looks, Leadership, and Bargaining surely that’s going to lead to a wider range of play and more varied characters.

Fewer ability scores is an option as well one could reign in the number of ability scores to more generalize them to have more evocative relationships t common areas in a campaign. For example: Strength and Constitution get rolled up together in Vigor, Dexterity and Intelligence get wound up into Craft and Wisdom and Charisma are wound up into Spirit; maybe some of the modifiers are dropped, maybe they are just carried along, it’s up to the campaign of course. With such a scheme the strong (unless diseased or injured) are usually also healthy, the wise know the right thing to say and more readily influence others than could a rude oaf with a charming smile.

There is no need to leave ourselves tethered to the same standard six ability scores in our own campaigns, the rules as written are a starting point not the be all and end all of the possibilities in a campaign.


  1. No ability scores at all. That would make things easier, but at the same time, players have became spoiled to Ability scores. They help make characters feel more unique by having different strengths and weaknesses, and mechanically, without them, the characters of the same type would feel the same.

    Ability scores as modifiers. I have seen this used in so many systems, like Barbarians of Lemuria and Silhouette (just to name a few), and that is a great Idea. To me, ability scores only have two purposes: 1.) To give comparative value when in competition, like engaging in arm-wrestling to test Strength, or to see who draws a gun first by comparing Dexterity (despite that such tasks can be handled with Ability mods, and monsters in classic D&D games generally lack ability scores). 2.) To derive a random value by dice roll, with bias towards an average score (in which case, scores are irreverent). Although, the scores can be used as Target Numbers with Ability Tests and Non-Weapon Proficiency Rolls, or can be used as a value if you can use EXP to raise Ability scores (the only reason why I have not dropped Ability scores altogether in my Mutant Future games).

    Changing the Names of ability Scores. The default names are nice for generic game use, but changing their names is a great idea if you are playing in different settings or genre, and you want the mechanics to highlight it. Imagine a pulp game with Abilities that sound like old terms, like Brawn, Smarts, Moxie, etc. Or a Sci-Fi with more tactical terms like Physical Coordination, Social Aptitude, Psyche, etc.

    Additional ability scores. It reminds me of Star Frontiers, were they have four core Attributes that you roll fore, and then split into pairs. e.g. You roll for for your physical strength, which determines your Strength and Stamina scores (with a +/-5 adjustment that you can apply to both). Alternatively, I seen people splinting Wisdom into Perception/Intuition and Willpower, to make Wisdom feel less like a miscellaneous stat. There is an upper limit on the number of abilities you might want to give characters, until it becomes cumbersome like in Fantasy Wargames (which uses all six D&D stats, plus six more to note self-control, like Greed, Lust, Bravery, etc.) or F.A.T.A.L. (the less said the better!).

    Fewer ability scores. Now that reminds me of Tri-Stat: Body, Mind and Soul. (Although, I like the sound of Mind, Body and Spirit.) Three little stats that can cover a wide range of ability. Or if you really want to dumb down World of Darkness, just use Physical, Mental and Social as standalone scores.

    That was a great read! I always like reading different takes on Abilities/Attributes.

  2. I dispensed with rolling ability scores all together...
    adds minimal to character creation and SLOWS the process tremendously
    Still use the six basic abilities for every character; strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom & charisma.
    Assign each ability score one of these six values; 10, 11, 12, 13, 15 & 17; no duplicates allowed, and place as desired.
    Next, select your character’s race as non-human races (Table 1.3.p.2) have modifiers to specific ability scores.
    Finally, declare your character class and create an appropriate name.

  3. After playing World of Darkness for an extended period of time I went to using nine ability scores. They reflect the use of power, finesse, and resistance when it is applied to physical, mental, and social situations. Strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wits, resolve, presence, manipulation, and composure.

    I've also been playing Wildstar on-and-off and they attributes but change the names to brutality, finesse, grit, insight, tech, and moxie. Like most videogames though, it basically uses all the ability scores to modify combat and there isn't any consideration to how the scores would apply to other systems.