Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Big Six and Game Design

AKA “Re-Inventing Tri-Stat

As some might surmise (after careful reading of this blog) I am much more adept at tweaking existing rules than inventing my own from whole cloth. I realize that this is not the case with everyone, and it may indeed be “all in my head” but, hey…that’s just how I roll. Much as I’d like to be a “premier game designer” or some such (that’s just my ego talking, pay it no mind) spontaneous creation/inspiration just doesn’t come all that easy to me.

I mean, sometimes it does, but not nearly as often as I’d like…and a lot of times, organizing my thoughts/feelings into something coherent to others is a real bitch.

So saying that, I might as well admit that I often get stumped right from the get go when trying to develop RPGs…regardless of whether it’s something that’s going to look like the wargame descendants of old (Boot Hill, B/X D&D) or something that’s going to be a bit more ephemeral (think indie/Forge games), it’s always tricky trying to develop the engine for the vehicle.

(interesting fun fact: I can drive a car, but I wouldn’t know the first think about tinkering about under the hood…well, maybe enough to tighten the screws)

It’s one thing to develop theory after all…it’s quite another to implement it and have it run smooth. I mean, the wheels may turn, but will the car purr along or will it clunk and belch smoke in a semi-ambulatory fashion?

But even the IDEA of fixing the engine is putting the cart before the horse (sorry about mixing metaphors). Here I am saying it’s tough to develop a decent, coherent system…sure that’s a tough balancing act for most anyone. But to be perfectly frank, for ME there’s a matter of pondering “which the hell place do I start first?” to worry about long before the ‘system as a whole.’

I mean, should one develop a method of character generation first? Or a combat system before anything? Or a spell list or monster inventory? Or (God help me) some sort of skill system?

I am, after all, a great believer in system design in aid of the game…that is, ONE system does NOT fit ALL games (sorry D20, GURPS, etc.). This harkens back to Axiom #1 of course: one’s game should not contain anything more or less than what is necessary for its play and enjoyment.

For instance, the last two game design ideas that popped into my brain (space opera and supers) were both based on the B/X D&D system. Easy enough to see why…I’ve been thinking/blogging about B/X a lot the last year or so, and in addition to being much beloved of Your Truly, its simplicity and rugged abstractness readily suggests itself to action-adventure RPGs like…duh…space opera and/or supers.

But even so, there’s a LOT more present in B/X than what is necessary, or even appropriate, to a Star Wars or Marvel type game. And I’m not just talking about magic items and wandering monster tables…I’m talking about the Big Six ability scores!

[SIDE NOTE: I forgot a THIRD B/X-based game idea from recent days: a re-imagining of the Mutant Chronicles. Like I said, it’s hard not to imagine using it for anything with lots of abstract combat]

Now the Big Six ability scores aren’t any particular sacred cow pour moi. Sure, like every true “Old School” player they are engraved on my heart in the following un-wavering order:


from hours upon hours of hand-writing character sheets (remember the days BEFORE personal computers?). No need to alphabetize or organize by “physical vs. mental.” Best to put them in their order of importance (you better believe it!).

ANYway, I do NOT have too much attachment to the Big Six ability scores. I’ve played too many games over the years and seen far too many different stat lines: from Traveller’s UPI, to Palladium’s ugly eight, to Star Frontiers’ 4/4, to White Wolf’s nine, to Marvel’s FASERIP. And more…every new game system appears to feel the need to redefine how we define our characters.

Which, as I said, is totally fine and dandy by me…they ARE different games, after all.

However, I have myself become much more of a minimalist over the years. Six is pretty much the absolute maximum number of abilities I want to worry about when creating a character. Which, by the way, makes it all the harder when I see a brilliant new entry into the stat line, like Terminal Space’s Technology stat.

See, I want more abilities like THAT: multi-purpose abilities. Technology at once determines: degree of sophistication/civilization, social standing (money), even level of education vs. superstition. Hell, if D&D wasn’t intrinsically a game where “higher is better” (for ability scores…not Armor Class!), I’d be tempted to chuck Intelligence as a stat and file the magic-user’s Prime Requisite right into Technology…in its INVERSE that is (in other words, MUs would receive an XP bonus for having a LOWER Tech ability score…i.e. coming from a more primitive culture). But that’s just me…in some campaign worlds I’m sure the argument could be made for equating a higher Tech score with greater MU ability (access to books, alchemy, forbidden science or whatever…primitive cave men would know nothing of the "Greater Rituals" and “Dark Arts” except its effects on ‘em).

The point is, six random ability scores is about all I can stand, and really seems like they’re one or two too many in my book. Right now, I’m floating the idea of limiting abilities in the supers game (the one I’ve been obsessing over the most this week) to FOUR (4). I had been thinking three…kind of a body, mind, spirit thing…but decided it really wasn’t enough. Plus I wanted enough ability scores to give each class its own Prime Requisite.

Also having three ability scores would be a little too reminiscent of Tri-Stat, and I want more meat to my game…not to mention I’m dumping anything resembling a “skill system.”
; )


  1. I have always been a fan of perception and willpower being abilities. I do agree that fewer is generally better. I can do without a charisma type stat because that is generally covered by the actual player.

    Off topic, Golden Tate must have a high charisma to talk his way out of late night donut theft!

  2. I tend to think that Str & Con ought to be merged.

    I tend to think Dex is overloaded. I could see splitting it into reaction speed, hand-eye coördination, and...I don’t know what to call it...hand-foot coördination. On the other hand, I’m also fine with rolling it into a single “body” score along with Str & Con.

    Int & Wis I’m not fond of. But then, I tend to take something of an avatar or playing-piece attitude towards PCs. I do like having a will-power score, though.

    Cha I can take or leave.

    My minimum set would be something like: Body (Str+Dex+Con), Will, and Charisma.

    I also like the idea of using the d20 saves as attributes: Reflexes, Fortitude, and Will. If I ever finish a skill-based homebrew, that will probably be what I use.

  3. One of my games uses (Str + Con) = Str; Dex; Int; and (Wis + Cha) = Willpower. It's a minimalism which comes in handy, because I like a game to have one core class for each ability score. So when I use this alternative four-stat system, I have four classes (Str = Knight, Dex = Rogue/Archer, Wil = Monk/Cleric, Int = Wizard).

    Conversely, when I run games that retain the Big Six, I use the six classes from my E&E setting (Str = Fighter, Dex = Expert, Con = Martial Artist, Int = Technologist, Wis = Scholar/Cleric, Cha = Mage).

    Hm. It occurs to me that I might be just a smidge obsessed with symmetry in game design.

  4. I will echo numerous other comments for combining STR and CON into STR. I have also always liked combining WIS and CHA into Presence, which (to me at least) invokes the ideas of both its parents quite well.

    That makes my "big four":


    DEX as you mention is often overloaded, and in such cases I tend to split it out into Agility and Dexterity. Also prefering an upper limit of 6 ability scores, I tend towards the following 6 when the game demands more granularity than provided by just 4:


  5. @ Everyone: thanks for the comments. Just FYI, even before I posted this I decided STR & CON would be combined into a single stat called Strength. Glad to see (once again) that I am not completely out of my gourd on this.

    I will keep you all posted as this project progresses.
    ; )

  6. I had my "a-HA" moment when I opend the Ghostbusters RPG years ago. There they were, four basic abilities, from which all others were either split from, or altered. Brains, Cool, Moves, Muscle. I know, Ghostbusters came years AFTER, but these were the four other games always seemed to start with or include.

    D&D split Muscle into STR & CON and Brains into INT & WIS. One of my other favorite games, Godlike, splits each of the four into a pair.

    The problem with changing the line-up or even the names of the ability scores is that most games are DEFINED by what ability scores they use and what order they're listed. Changing them seems to change the feel of the game to me, even if it is only cosmetic, so it must be done with care.

    Like Harvicus and JB, I'll be rejoining stats back into "The Four", each one a Prime Requisite for each of the four classes in my B/X campaign: STR for Fighters, INT for Wizards, DEX for Scouts (Theives and such), and CHA for Clerics.

    Yes, Charisma. See my comment on Unfrozen caveman dice-chucker's Wisdom for the Wise post as to why.