Well, actually, no you don't. If I remember correctly, FATE (and its derivatives) don't use "ability scores." Neither does Tim Morgan's Ellis: Kingdom in Turmoil (a more traditional RPG, it defines characters mainly through skills selected from a finite list).
But most RPGs have some sort of "set attributes" that describe their characters. Even something as abstract and narrative-y as Rod Edwards's Trollbabe uses a number that helps describe/define the character's capability (the number in Trollbabe simultaneously describes the character's fighting ability, magic ability, and effectiveness in social interaction). This idea of having a number or numbers that express a character's basic abilities is as old as...well, as old as D&D. And no matter how "innovative" we get, game designers are always throwing it out there as part of character creation, sometimes even to the point of redundancy in game play: does Dungeon World really need ability scores at all?
Abilities are a useful tool to have, though, and not just from a mechanical perspective. It's valuable to be add some structure to an imaginary construct, to codify the archetype in your mind. Even very imaginative people who have little trouble coming up with crystal clear character concepts might need a little help every now and then. And it's useful to have a trait against which character's can measure each other (is Jill stronger than Bob? Is Rick smarter than Phil?)...we establish all sorts of pecking orders in real life (even if only in our own minds for our own benefits), and doing so with the members of an "adventuring party" just increases the "reality" (i.e. the immersion/escapism) of the players as they take a normal world behavior (gauging themselves against others) and transplant it in the fictional world.
[what, you think that's a stretch? I've seen this behavior in all sorts of games with all sorts of players. Kids are especially straightforward about it, but even mature adults will give each other a "good-natured ribbing" about whose character has the most pathetic ability trait]
I like ability scores (as they're called in B/X...I prefer the general term attributes from my old Vampire days), when used in moderation. Since most of my game designs of the last few years have started off a B/X base, I generally start with the standard B/X scores ("The Big Six"). The most recent heartbreaker, a kind of Holmes/BX mashup with a specific objective of play is no different, but in "building from the ground up" I took a really hard look at the ability scores, not just because I wanted to make sure they were appropriate, but in how they interacted mechanically with the game.
So once again: welcome to my thought process.
First you look at where the Big Six came from: OD&D, yeah? There were no ability scores in Chainmail (the game Arneson originally used as the mechanics for delving Blackmoor). Characters were defined by class, but class was pretty much limited to fighting men plus (maybe, with expansion) wizards and elves (not necessarily in that order). To me, the ability scores in OD&D reflect this history: they feel "tacked on." They don't do much.
That is to say, considering the RANGE of possible ability scores, they don't do much. A score of 3-18 for each, and yet the prime three (strength, intelligence, and wisdom) carry no bonus aside from an XP bonus, and the other three carry a (very small) assortment of additional bonuses. The designers could have easily said:
"Roll D6 for the following traits:
- XP bonus (regardless of class)
- Missile adjustment
- Health (HP) adjustment
- Reaction adjustment
"If your XP bonus is a 1 or 2, you have a penalty to earned XP; if it's 5 or 6 you have a bonus. For the other scores, you only receive an adjustment if the score is a 1 or 6 (down or up respectively)."
Right? I mean, there's no other mechanical bonus. Oh, sure...number of languages. But that's easily addressed by saying, "roll D8 for the number of languages you speak. The first one MUST be common, the second MUST be 'alignment' language." Easy shmeezy.
[though I have to admit that in recent years, I've come around to Alexis's thinking on the whole issue of language barriers in D&D, i.e. "not very interesting"]
Anyway, that's OD&D where the main purpose of ability scores would seem to be flavor. Are you a strong adventurer? A smart one? What's your fitness look like compared to your fellows? Since then ability scores have become much, much more important with mechanical bonuses and blow-the-top-off escalating scores (ability scores go up and never come down). The most recent edition (5E) seems determined to scale this back with its maximum limit (hey, 5E...already done that), but also seem bent on removing the flavor by reducing ability scores to their straight mechanical bonus.
Where's the soul in that?
Haha...just being facetious, folks (kind of). In recent years, I've felt B/X to be a nice "middle ground" for ability scores. You get the nice flavor range (3 to 18) with only minor adjustments (+3 or -3 maximum)...not over the top and yet more than nothing. Lately, though, I've still found myself dissatisfied, and here's why (four things):
Breakpoints, first and foremost. As B/X stands, the adjustments for ability scores can be summed up as follows:
3 = -3
4-5 = -2
6-8 = -1
9-12 = 0
13-15 = +1
16-17 = +2
18 = +3
A character with a Strength or Intelligence of 15 is just as smart as a character with a score of 13, even though only 4.5% of the adventuring population achieve the former score as opposed to nearly 10% of the latter. Sure, it's a matter of expedience to have breakpoints, but when you are able to self-adjust prime attributes (as you can with B/X...drop 2 points to raise your prime 1 point) you end up with a lot of adventurers sporting 13s and 16s because those are the breakpoints for "the next bonus." And that lack of variety grows tiresome to moi.
There's also the issue of people being disappointed when they can't achieve a particular breakpoint. "I wanted to play a fighter, but the best I can raise my strength to is 15...and I'm already at 13. And all my other scores are 'average' or worse." Been there, done that, pal. There is a certain lack of variety that comes with baseline B/X play (one of the things I tried to address in The Complete B/X Adventurer. What you just thought it was all new classes and spells?).
Utility is another issue. There's just no denying that, while every ability score can be useful, not all of them are as useful as others, or as useful to all classes. It depends a bit on the style of play, of course. But usually any B/X PC is going to appreciate a high strength or dexterity over a high charisma at low levels of play, even for players determined to "talk to every monster they encounter" (you still need to speak the monster's language, and there's a LOT of languages out there).
|No Helmet = Low WIS|
Redundancy. Just no real way around it. Do you need a "strength" AND a "constitution" score? Considering my recent Blood Bowl post on the difference between "strength" and "durability," well, maybe...but dungeon delving in a pseudo-medieval setting isn't really the same thing as suiting up on the football field. Considering the lack of "sport science" (as one of my readers pointed out), I'd just as soon consider strength and constitution to be an overall measure of...um strength.
I mean, unless you really want to nuance your ability scores...have a "manual dexterity" and an "agility" and a "speed." Have a "knowledge" versus "common sense" versus "linguistic talent" (or whatever).
But, of course, combining strength with constitution (and the associated bonuses) just makes an "uber ability" (see utility above)...the overall usefulness of strength is one of the reasons it received more weight in racial bonus consideration (see D&D 3rd Edition).
Penalties. Last but probably not least. I've just decided penalties ain't really fun for anyone...not even a cackling, sadistic DM like myself. The penalty adjustments applied from low ability scores simple mean characters become less effective...and low-level characters are already pretty ineffective
[consider this: even with a 16 strength, a fighter of levels 1st through 3rd only hits AC 5 - chain mail - on a 12 or better. That's less than a 50% chance, meaning the character is going to spend more than half of all combat rounds "whiffing," on average. Kinda' sucks, don't it?]
Why make a hard life even harder? Besides, aren't these characters supposed to be heroes?
Oh, wait, no. "Scurrilous rogues" is, I believe, the proper OSR term for adventurers. Except for DDC in which you're even a step below THAT to start (goat herders and whatnot). Well, in my new heartbreaker (designed for "basic" play) I've made the design choice that characters ARE supposed to be heroes. My other two games currently under construction (and based on a B/X system chassis)? Characters are just supposed to be 'really proficient' types...not shmoes.
[my shmoe game uses a different system]
Still, I like the 3-18 range for humans...I just prevent player characters from having ability scores in the low end of the range. We'll get to that in a second.
Hmmm...but now that I'm looking over the length of this post, I might need to do a "part 2." Um, okay...here's what I'll do: I'll outline my thoughts or, rather, objectives when it comes to retooling ability scores. They were:
- Breakpoints: if a high ability score can be defined as 13+, each point of the ability should show an increased measure of effectiveness (not just 13, 16, and 18). Every point counts, diversity is good, at higher is better.
- Utility: every ability score provides bonuses cool enough that all players will want high abilities in every category, regardless of class.
- Redundancy: all abilities adhere to a different and distinct arena of mechanical adjustment that makes sense within the setting.
- Penalties: don't like 'em for heroic types. You're either average or better.
Got it? Oh, yeah...one more thing:
- Don't tread on class abilities in major ways. We'll talk about that one, too.
But all that's for the follow-up post. I'm sorry folks...I had an extremely busy day and it took me a while to find the time to post all this. I'll try to get the next part up before the end of the weekend, but don't count on it.