Tuesday, 8 January 2013

On Removing Ability Scores

When he wants to, Kent can really write. I mean really write. I read this with a great deal of interest, because it chimed with something I've been thinking about recently: removing ability scores. Scott, in the comments, talks about the same thing.

What are ability scores for? I use them for two things: sometimes, a rough and ready saving-throw equivalent where necessary ("roll under your DEX to see if you fall off the tight rope or not") and a way to envision my character in my own mind, physically and mentally (this also, I suppose, includes selecting a class).

Are either of these things necessary? Not in the slightest. Whether a character achieves a task can just as easily be determined by the DM telling him to roll a d6 and achieve a certain result based on what the DM knows about the character and the situation. And envisioning a character should surely be possible with or without stats.

However, it must be said that there is something in the random generation of stats which makes the character creation process really shine. I love having a blank character sheet and rolling dice and seeing what comes up. It sets the mind racing with creativity and promise. There is something almost primevally powerful about the way an actual living being seems to come fully formed from the ether thanks to a few d6s.

Replicating this process without stats is difficult: randomly generating a class seems the obvious choice, but it is not as satisfying in anything like the same way. Nonetheless, I think I am faced with the proposition that stats may in fact be of primary use as a process rather than as a mechanic or rule. There is, in fact, a huge amount of discourse in my field on the value of law as a process rather than a series of rules; to my eye, it seems that much could be said of RPGs, although that may require elaboration in a future post when I am not full of cold, exhaustion and red wine.


  1. Ability scores are a nice way to differentiate two PCs of the same race and class. You could have two players roll up Human Fighters and pick Chainmail, Shield, Longsword. But one could have unusually high INT and the other high CHA, and the players will naturally try to use these abilities, so the two characters stand out from each other.

    Then again, a PC's deeds are a bigger part of how I remember him than his stats. Even equipment falls by the wayside of memory, unless it's some exceptional magic item that I use for a while. And stats don't make a difference unless they're very different. Someone with 3 CON is much more memorable than someone with 9.

    I just think ability scores serve so many systemic purposes and don't add much bulk to the game, so removing them isn't a good trade for me.

    If you wanted a minimalist game you could ignore ability scores and just use descriptors or feats for exceptional ones: a PC could be "Stupid" and "Agile" for example, and get a modifier for related rolls. This would work best for games where PCs typically have average stats. If everyone is going to have exceptional stats like in 3E then everyone will have tons of descritors and it's just as bloated.

  2. That's the direct way to searchers of the Unknown

  3. SOTU is simple, elegent and a near perfect distilation of D&D.
    I'm going to run some one shots this month using it and hopefully it will lead to a regular, ongoing campaign. It took me a while as a gamer to realise that a character sheet full of numbers and a thick volume full of rules was great for the academic "nerd" in me who liked to crunch the numbers and work out the stats but when it came to actually sitting around a table playing and having fun, keeping it simple was the way to go. The group I game with often get so involved with their characters and the ongoing plot we occasionally go for hours without rolling dice.

  4. Replicating this process without stats is difficult

    Not that much, maybe.

    Playing D&D statless is almost impossible, because somehow STs/AC/HPs/THAC0 are (redundant) Ability Scores too (although they don't describe a single wide element like CON or STR but they're a semi-static mixture of luck and a physical/mental feat).

    vs. Death Ray is a good example of how beefy/lucky your character is against body corrupting attacks (while generally CON just tells you how beefy you are with no luck factor), as much as vs. Breath Weapon tests your lighting reflexes againts area dangers.

    Under this point of view IMHO you can always try to perform a random generation method for your PC: during the character generation phase you choose the class first (granting you with starting STs and HD type) then you roll (in order or not) a d6 for each single feature (the five STs, AC, THAC0 and HP) decreasing/increasing them if a 1/6 shows up on the die.

    IMHO doing this way (with little focused changes) you can still figure in your mind how your character is by using the only necessary key elements of the core rules.

    1. Oh sure. I wouldn't do away with AC, HPs, THAC0, etc., because then all you are doing is free form role play. When I talk about playing D&D without stats, I mean without ability scores (STR, DEX, etc).

  5. I'm not entirely sure why you'd want to get rid of stats as you've described them -- they're terribly evocative when it comes to creating an external and internal landscape of an invented human being while at the same time not being horribly mechanically important in that they don't have a huge impact on the game and when they do, the difference between an average and a good (or bad) stat is fairly small.

    Just because they could be easily mechanically replaced doesn't seem like a great argument for replacing them if they do so much from the standpoint of character identification.

    1. That's what I mean about the process being important. Will follow up on that with a future post.

  6. You are right this is an issue. Some people list stats by just the bonus, generating them with a d6. I went other way - stat rolls for proficiencies and saving throws. I even developed extra use for wisdom so non clerics would bother with it.

  7. If you remove the six stats, how do you intend to answer the simple question, "Are you strong enough to lift the portcullis?"

    You could simply rank the classes, and assume that fighter > cleric > thief > magic user for strength. At that point, you likely want to go for a stripped-down system like SotU anyway.

    You could use descriptors. But, then, you're just replacing handy numbers with vague words, to pretty much the same end.

    You could use THAC0, but does that really make sense?

    You could effectively make the stats into skills, so that "lug heavy things about" and "hide in shadows" are treated the same way. (The FATE system does this.) But that involves bolting on a skill system. Is that worth the trade-off? Maybe, but that's a system overhaul, not a house rule.

    Stats, as implemented, are simple, extensible, and broadly useful. While I will easily agree that this particular set of six is less than ideal, I don't think you want to dump the concept.

    1. "You're a fighter, it's been established you're pretty strong. But it's a big, heavy portcullis. Roll a d6. If you get a 5 or 6 you succeed."

    2. Yes. The longer I look at D&D and its sources (e.g. Chainmail), the more incoherent stats seem. How is my "Superhero" (8th level fighter) weaker than your first-level wizard? It flies in the face of what character levels and classes mean.

    3. "it's been established you're pretty strong."

      in what way? does it say "pretty strong" on the character sheet?

      what does "pretty strong" even mean?

      the more i think about it the more i like ability scores. :)

  8. Forget the stats themselves, which serve little mechanical purpose, but roll 3d6 in order to generate the modifiers, -3 to +3, which can then be applied to d6 rolls in appropriate situations. As characters age, or are injured, the modifier changes, which has direct mechanical effect. Basically, advance the adventuring rules of LotFP to their logical end.