Fanservice BS: I Hate Ability Scores (In D&D 5E)

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Hello, and welcome to my first ever Fan Selected Bulls$&%. You all know that about once a month, I dispense with the usual cool, useful stuff about how to run games and start campaigns and hack rules and all of that other crap and, instead, just do some sort of weird naval-gazing digression about whatever. That’s why I invented the category of articles I’ve called “Random Bulls$&%.” I actually really like doing that s$&%. Last month, I did the “30 Days of RPG a Day,” for example. What you may not know is that when you become “Seriously Not Hated By Me” by supporting me at the appropriate level on Patreon, you get invited into the secret Angry Discord Channel where all sorts of cool discussions take place. And lots of really great topics come out of there.

So, I’ve decided to try an experiment with my monthly Bulls$&% column. I’ve decided to ask my Patreon supporters in Discord which of the various topics we’ve talked about they would like a full-blown rant about. That’s right, once a month, I’m letting my Patrons choose a topic for my Bulls$&%. And this month, the choice was “how I learned to stop worrying and start hating ability scores in D&D.” See, after several discussions about ability scores and action resolution in D&D with my Patreons, I came to realize that I actually HATE the D&D ability scores. They aren’t merely flawed or inconvenient or incomplete. They don’t work on a fundamental f$&%ing level. And they have been f$&%ed up for 17 years. And we should be really pissed off about them.

There’s No Such Thing as a Skill Check

First, let me blow your f$&%ing mind: there are no skill checks in D&D 5E. This is the first thing you have to understand if you’re going to understand why ability scores are worse than a bucket full of Adolf Hitler’s urine in D&D. Read the rules very carefully and you will find that there are precisely FOUR kinds of die rolls explicitly called out in D&D 5E. I’m going to mention the last one first because it’s totally irrelevant and we won’t be discussing it again. The last type is the damage roll. The roll to see how much damage an attack does. It doesn’t count. We’re not talking about it.

The other three types are the Ability Check, the Saving Throw, and the Attack Roll. And this is not me making a semantic argument, either. It’s very important for the rules that those three rolls are clearly defined. Notice, for example, that Barbarian Rage (PHB 48) specifically gives advantage on Strength checks and Strength saving throws, but not on attack rolls. Attack rolls are treated differently. Notice also that Strength checks include checks using the Athletics skill. PHB 174 clearly explains that such checks are ability checks using a specific skill. They are NOT skill checks. Everything in the game that applies a bonus to a d20 roll uses the same language. Bardic inspiration specifically says it’s bonus can be applied to “one ability check, attack roll, or saving throw.” (PHB 53) The Bless spell gives a bonus that applies to attack rolls and saving throws (PHB 219).

Now all of this crap is just a further evolution of the d20 mechanic that was invented for D&D 3rd Edition. And that mechanic was invented specifically to put all of the various die rolls in the game – the ones related to resolving actions, anyway – to put all of those die rolls under the same umbrella. It was a universal mechanic. An elegant mechanic. It meant that you only really needed to know one rule to start playing the game. To resolve an action, you would roll a d20, add an ability modifier, and then add some other stuff. That was a far cry from the previous editions of the game. Those editions had a whole bunch of die rolls for a whole bunch of things. Do you hit with an attack? Subtract the target’s AC from your THAC0 and then try to roll that number on a d20. Do you find a secret door? Roll a d6: on a 1, you found it. Saving throw? Roll a d20 and compare the result to a fixed number for one of five categories based on your class. Does the NPC turn hostile? The GM will roll 2d6 and compare the result to a reaction table, applying a modifier from your Charisma. Can you break that door open? Roll a d20 and try to roll under a number based on your strength. Snap a chain? Roll percentile dice. And so on.

In the old days, basically, there was a specific die roll for everything. Or at least, for a lot of things. And they were arbitrary. And your ability scores simply gave you bonuses or penalties to those things. And if you tried something for which there wasn’t a mechanic, the GM would either just guess at the result or try to fit the action into one of the many existing mechanics or invent their own mechanic on the fly. But that’s a side note right now. Just remember that. We’re going to come back to the role of ability scores then and now.

What does any of that have to do with the fact that skill checks don’t exist? First, let’s get back to the idea of ability check/attack roll/saving throw. If you look at those things in 5E purely on their mechanics, they all the work the same. They all involve rolling a d20, adding an ability modifier, and adding whatever else is situationally appropriate. So why differentiate them? Well, the smarter among you have already recognized why. Because it’s there in those examples I used: barbarian rage and inspiration and bless and all the other things that give bonuses to action resolution. It’s there to draw bright lines between different classifications of die rolls so as to determine how the rules interact.

Attack rolls – be they melee or ranged or weapon or spell – attack rolls are attempts to overcome a target’s defenses and inflict harm on them. They go against Armor Class. They can hit or they can miss. They can crit. And they are followed by a damage roll. Oh, sure, they may have other effects as well. But they do damage. Because of those factors, it is very easy to look at something and decide whether or not it is an attack roll. Is there attempt to do harm? Must it overcome a target’s AC? Will it do damage?

That’s what I mean by a bright line. It is very easy to see what is and is not an attack roll. And what an attack roll should do.

Saving throws are a little bit weirder and the line around them isn’t as bright. Saving throws are always reactive. They are made in response to an incoming effect and represent a character’s ability to resist or avoid said effect in ways other than through normal combat defenses. But saving throws are generally exceptions-based. That is, the need for a saving throw as well as the effects of succeeding and failing, are described as part of the effect necessitating the saving throw. Honestly, saving throws are the least universal of the mechanics for that effect.

By drawing bright lines around specific types of checks, the game designers can decide how the rules interact. They have an easy language to say, “this thing affects all attacks” or “this thing doesn’t affect saving throws” or whatever. They can build very general affects, but still put limits on them. And it is very clear when those affects should and shouldn’t happen.

But the point of all of this is that there aren’t skill checks in 5E. Because the currency of action resolution is the ability check. And that leads to one of the most important, core mechanics in D&D. That of the ability check. That’s also why skills themselves are parenthetical. You don’t make an Athletics check. You make a Strength (Athletics) check. That is, you make a Strength check and get a bonus if you’re trained in Athletics.

The Power of the Ability Check

Essentially, whenever a player attempts any action that might succeed or fail – assuming it’s not an attack roll or saving throw – the GM simply has to determine which ability score it falls under. No matter what it is, the GM just needs to say “Strength” or “Wisdom” or whatever. And then the action is resolvable. After that point, of course, the GM can decide a particular skill applies. But that means ANY action can be resolved in D&D without specialized rules. The only thing the GM needs to know to adjudicate ANY action is the definition of the six ability scores.

That is actually a powerful mechanic. And it’s really underappreciated. I could say why it’s underappreciated and why it’s not always clear, but I’m tired of pointing out how badly written and presented D&D 5E is and what a mess the books actually are and why RPGs in general are terribly written and organized, but let’s just stick with the mechanic itself.

The ability check was actually a huge revolution in D&D, even though you might not realize how important the difference was. As I mentioned above, in the old days, there was a pile of mechanics for resolving all sorts of specifics types of actions. And no two were precisely alike. Some of them were modified by certain ability scores, but those modifications were haphazard because the mechanics themselves were so varied. And so those modifications couldn’t be universally applied. The “bend bars/lift gates” stat derived from Strength was a percentage. You could only use it on things that used that specific mechanic. The “reaction adjustment” from Charisma was a simple addition or subtraction that you could, in theory, apply to any sort of roll. But it worked best on the 2d6 roll. And the scaling was very different than on other rolls and modifiers.

That meant that when you had to resolve an action that wasn’t specifically covered by the rules, you had to first find a mechanic that was close enough somewhere in the system. That’s assuming you didn’t just state the outcome. And because the bonuses and penalties derived from ability scores – some of which provided six different types of bonuses on different scales – were all keyed to specific mechanics, you rarely used them. And that greatly diminished the importance of ability scores outside of the very specific mechanics built around them. In other words, if you weren’t using one of the three specific mechanics hard-wired into Charisma, your Charisma had no impact.

Now, I’ll admit there’s an argument to be had about whether ability scores SHOULD be so important. But the argument is an easy one to resolve because I’m always right and I say it’s actually very good for the game. Every player now knows that, if their character is very strong, they are likely to succeed on things that strong people should be able to do. Every player knows that their intelligent character is likely to succeed on things smart people should be able to do. Players can rely on their ability scores to nudge the chance of success in their favor if they play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. That lets players make logical decisions. And that’s the heart of role-playing.

I’m Tired of Fighting

Let’s assume, for the moment, you’re smart enough to agree with me so far. You recognize that the basic component of action resolution now, in 5E, is the ability check. And that means that the GM can adjudicate any action merely by knowing the definitions of the six ability scores and figuring out where things fit.

So, what’s wrong with the ability scores in D&D?

F$&% me but this is going to get hard. I know it will because it ALWAYS f$&%ing does when you discuss ability scores. Because people have trouble seeing past the end of their own noses. And they look at the ability scores in D&D – the ability scores that have now formed the basis for every game since D&D – and say “well, that’s a complete list; it covers everything and leaves nothing uncovered; and I understand the definitions; so, it’s perfect.”

And that’s why things never get better.

What makes this even more difficult is the fact that there have been five different definitions for each of the six ability scores – one each for each of the different editions of D&D – and people assume they haven’t changed. That’s why I still have a bunch of f$%&wits telling me “Wisdom is common sense” even though no, NO IT ISN’T. Not in 5E. Not anymore. Nowhere is Wisdom “common sense.”

Whenever I discuss the weaknesses of the ability score system in D&D in general, I always end up in these weird emotional fights with people who can’t see any other possibility and are loaded with all sorts of baggage and interpretations and assumptions. That’s bad enough when it’s a simple fight like pointing out that the Charisma ability score actually ruins social interaction in D&D or pointing out that it’s time we put the Intelligence vs. Wisdom debate to bed by just dropping Wisdom altogether as f$&%ing useless. But the point I’m about to make is even more subtle. Because it’s much harder to point to overt problems caused by the thing I’m going to say. It’s more like a wobbly wheel. It’s not going to crash you into a wall, but it does make it harder to steer. And you’ve been steering with it like that for so long you just unconsciously adjust to it and don’t even realize you’re doing it.

That’s why I didn’t even want to have this discussion. But that’s what happens when I let fans pick the f$&%ing topic.

Okay. Here we go. What’s really wrong with the Ability Scores in D&D in this day and age?

Fuzzy Lines, Wobbly Definitions, and Nonfunctional Design

Simply put, the six ability scores in D&D were not designed to be used the way we’re using them. They were not invented with the idea that they would be the first step in action resolution. Even though that is what they are now, they weren’t designed to be that. And that has created a lot of wobbly weirdness that makes it just a little harder to run the game than it has to be. But you probably never noticed because there’s a lot of little things that keep the wobble under control in your head.

Remember what I said about bright lines? A bright line is a division between two things that is very easy to see. For example, imagine if you had a game with just three ability scores: physical, mental, and social. And imagine, in that system, ability scores are used as the first step in action resolution like they are in D&D. That means that when a player comes up with an action, the GM simply has to fit the action into one of the three ability scores and then they can resolve it. Well, it’s really easy to see the division between those three scores. There are bright lines between them.

Now, if you’re designing a system from the ground up, and you know your action resolution system is going to start with “pick an attribute to govern the action,” that’s exactly how you want it. You want to make it very easy for the GM to determine which attribute to stick any action in. You want it to be as intuitive as possible. There was an old RPG named Everway that no one remembers nowadays that had four stats. They were based on the four elements. But you didn’t actually have to remember which element governed which thing. You just had to answer two questions. First, you had to decide if the action was physical or mental. And then you had to decide whether it was directed outward or directed inward. And everything was laid out into a circle divided into quarters.

Now, Everway was a very different game from Dungeons & Dragons and I’m not recommending that those two questions are the best questions for D&D stats. I’m just pointing out that the game was designed around very clear bright lines for its action resolution statistics.

By contrast, D&D doesn’t have nice bright lines. It does have the “physical vs. mental” line, because it has three physical ability scores and three mental ability scores, yes, but that’s about it. Instead, it has six definitions that you have to remember. Whenever an action comes up, you have to run down the list of those definitions to see which one fits. Now, the definitions aren’t complicated. It’s not hard to do. Except, sometimes it can be.

The line between Intelligence and Wisdom has always been fuzzy. Hell, there used to be whole sidebars devoted to the difference because it wasn’t an intuitive difference. The only reason it SEEMS intuitive now is because it spread to so many different games and because we’re used to it. And it’s still a source of arguments between people. Sure, people will sneer and rattle off – usually at least partly incorrect – definitions for each, but you can always find some action that will short circuit their definitions.

But no matter what you, personally, may think about the difference between the two, if these ability scores were designed for action resolution, they never would have ended up in the same system. Because there’s no easy, intuitive bright line. Instead, you have to take the mental stuff and put some of it on one side and one on the other. Arbitrarily.

What actually DOES help a lot with the Wisdom vs. Intelligence thing is looking at the skills underneath them. By definition in 5E, Wisdom is your attunement to the world, your perception, and your intuition. If we want to be really technical, that’s saying the same thing three times. But under that definition, there is very little that falls under Wisdom other than knowing what is going on around you. But when we look at the skills underneath Wisdom, we also see Survival and Medicine and Animal Handling. Now, certainly, those do have aspects of perception and intuition built in. But there’s more going on there than just awareness. And none of that gets us to why Wisdom saving throws involve willpower, given that Charisma is the ability score that includes will and confidence.

The point is, the lines between ability scores aren’t as bright as they could be. And, while that’s not a disaster – it doesn’t RUIN the system – it’s just a result of the fact the system evolved by the ability scores didn’t. But that’s not all. It’s interesting to note that there are some things that weren’t really covered by the ability scores UNTIL they had to be.

For example, awareness and perception were folded into Wisdom in 3E. And that’s because there wasn’t an ability score that dealt with sensory perception, but that mechanic had to sit someplace. Fine motor skills and manipulation got folded into Dexterity when thief skills had to fit into the ability score system. Say whatever you like, but fine-motor skills are very different from agility and balance and reflexes. You can have a fat, non-athletic acrobatic clockmaker just as easily as you can have a nimble tumbler who’s all thumbs. We don’t notice those gaps because the skills filled them in. Picking pockets and opening locks became part of Dexterity which meant Dexterity governs fine motor skills and manipulation, even though that’s not part of the definition. Sensory perception got rolled into Wisdom while lots of other stuff rolled out of Wisdom.

Again, we’re used to it. We can work with it. It isn’t impossible to handle. It’s not even that hard. But it’s still fuzzy and ugly and arbitrary and clunky. And every edition of D&D juggles a few things around just to keep us on our toes.

Hate is a Strong Word

Okay, fine. Ability scores weren’t designed as the be-all and end-all of action resolution. They were square pegs that got hammered into a round hole. There are a few clumsy corner cases and some general arbitrary weirdness. But that doesn’t make any of it unmanageable or unplayable with. It still works just fine. I’m not denying any of that. It’s just a little wobbly.

And yet, one month ago, I realized I hate it. I f$&%ing hate it. I hate it more than I hate actually broken mechanics that ruin games. Even though it’s just this slightly wobbly little bit of weirdness that makes things just slightly unapproachable, it makes me so f$&%ing angry.

Why?

First, because it’s a f$&%ing cancer that has infected every game and every goddamned gamer’s brain. Not too long ago, I came across the fan-made Pokemon Tabletop RPG. And it uses the same six ability scores for its Pokemon trainers. And I saw that and ranted to anyone who would listen about how retarded that was because those ability scores don’t make sense for a Pokemon game. And no one would listen. Because those six scores cover everything and leave nothing else and why would you need anything else. And even when I invented a demonstrably, provably, objectively better ability score system that actually reflects the way Pokemon trainers interact with the world and their Pokemon, I was told to shut up because D&D got it right.

But that’s not really D&D’s fault. That’s stupid people being stupid and not thinking. Not putting in any effort. Which brings me around to the second reason I hate it.

Second, I hate it because it represents a sacred cow. Basically, it’s one of those things that is never going to change. The six ability scores are as iconic to D&D as fighters and wizards and hit points and saving throws. The fact of the matter is, no matter how vestigial Wisdom is and how anemic the list of things it covers actually becomes, we will never be rid of Wisdom in D&D. It is an evolution that is never going to happen. But the thing is, it’s such a surface feature. It’s such a shallow thing. The change between 2E and 3E to a universal die-rolling mechanic based on general action resolution rather than specific mechanics for specific things was a huge change. It changed everything about how the game was put together. There is a WORLD of difference between pre-2E and post-3E Dungeons & Dragons. And, for my money, it’s a GOOD world of difference. A welcome world of difference. But, by comparison, rejiggering the ability scores to work better within the core system? That would be such a small thing. But no one would see it that way. Oh, sure, redo the entire core mechanic of the entire game. But, for the love of the gods, don’t change the names of the ability scores.

Third, I hate it because it of the way I started this. Remember how I had to start by pointing out that D&D doesn’t have skill checks? There’s more than a few people out there who were actually surprised by that. I know. Because part of this article grew out of a discussion on my Discord Channel that started with me saying exactly that: there’s no skill checks in 5E. See, lots of GMs – when confronted with an action – start by trying to fit it into one of the skills. By making it a skill check. Only when it doesn’t fit into a skill do they go up to the level of ability scores. And that’s backwards. It’s supposed to be the other way around. Fit it into an ability score first, then apply a skill as a bonus if appropriate. But who cares? So, what? Well, apart from the fact that it’s just a clumsier way to handle things, the big problem is that approach to GMing leads players to choose their actions from the skill list. That is to say, players treat their skill lists as lists of buttons they can press to make things happen. Players declare actions in terms of skills and they are less inclined to think outside the skill list. New players especially get trained very quickly to see the skill list as the list of options they have in the choose-your-own-adventure book of D&D. Which is actually far more limiting than it needs to be.

The irony is that, although we have this great universal mechanic at the core of D&D – wobbly though it might be – we’re still sort of stuck in a pre-3E mindset of having a list of mechanics for prescribed actions to choose from. The freedom of the ability check is buried under the list of skills. And I’ve seen plenty of newer GMs think they were doing something wrong when they couldn’t make an action fit into a skill.

I could say that part of the problem is the fact that this isn’t very well explained. But it is. Everything I’ve said is actually IN the PHB. More or less. Ability checks and action resolution are explained before skills are even mentioned. But the problem is no one reads these books anymore. Players learn from their GMs. GMs learn from older GMs. And older GMs already know what they are doing so they just skim the books. And that means they miss these apparently small, meaningless changes. What WOULD make everyone read the goddamned book is if something BIG actually changed. I can almost guarantee that more people read the 4E core rulebooks than read the 5E core rulebooks. And I mean read all the words. Not just skimmed. Because there were lots of big changes in 4E. 5E just looks like a spit-polished 3E. It just needs a skim. Imagine if the ability scores changed. Imagine if you couldn’t spot Wisdom or Dexterity or whatever. You’d read then.

But the bigger problem is in the fact that, like I said, we need the skill lists to supplement the definitions of the ability scores because those definitions aren’t clear. There aren’t bright lines between them. Not all of them. The skills lists are a major part of the definitions of the ability scores. So, we tend to rely on the skill lists to tell us where things fit. And that means, we look at the skill lists first. Then, only when that fails, do we look above to the ability scores. And thus, another group of gamers is stuck using their skill list like the list of choices on a multiple-choice exam.

The Solution

Let’s say you’re smart, like me, and you recognize that there’s a subtle problem buried in the ability scores and you, like me, have grown to resent that problem. Not because it’s ruining the entire game, but because it’s this annoyance that you just can’t stop seeing once you recognize it. It’s like a toothache. It’s not going to kill you, it’s not life threatening, it doesn’t stop you from functioning, but you CAN’T F$&%ING IGNORE IT. Fine. What’s the solution?

There isn’t one. And there’s never going to be one. D&D will always have the six ability scores it has. Always. They will never go away. The definitions might change like they always have. But the names will be the same. We will never separate dexterity into Coordination and Agility. We will never replace Wisdom with Perception. We will never do away with Charisma. Not in D&D.

But, if I were making an RPG, I sure as hell wouldn’t start with the D&D ability scores like everyone else. Or maybe I would. It would depend very heavily on what I wanted those ability scores to do. In some systems, ability scores aren’t the starting point for action resolution. They are merely bonuses that get added in. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one. But in D&D 5E, every action MUST fit into one of the six ability scores in order for it to be resolved. And that means that it must be possible to easily and intuitively fit any possible action into an ability score and it should be very difficult to fit any action into more than one ability score.

But, until I make that RPG, I’m just going to have accept the wobbly little toothache that is D&D. After all, it works perfectly fine. It’s just irritating as hell. And I can’t unsee it.

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92 thoughts on “Fanservice BS: I Hate Ability Scores (In D&D 5E)

  1. So if I’m following, here, the problem is:

    1) D&D is insanely popular and thus influential
    2) D&D’s popularity makes it inherently conservative
    3) When you have bad players and bad GMs, and nobody’s actually read the books, that’s WotC’s fault for being conservative

  2. Honestly, it doesn’t quite seem so difficult to define ability scores in such a way at it might be more intuitive. Though, yes, having six instead of four scores might be harder to remember. What if we said:

    * Strength is Power, the ability to affect the world and exercise physical force. If you want to make something happen physically and it can’t be finessed, you must use Strength. Obviously, this defers the definition of “finessed”, but this might be intuitive enough anyway, and the exercise of physical power should obviously include melee attacks and damage, climbing, lifting gates and bending bars, etc.

    * Constitution is Resilience, the ability to remain unaffected by the environment. If you want to endure harm or other conditions, you must use Constitution. This would make the relation of Hit Points, Fortitude, and similar pretty obvious to Constitution, and may also fit into checks relating to endurance such as using Constitution as the basis of maintaining an hours-long watch or digging a long ditch, for example.

    * Dexterity is Manipulation, the ability to sidestep physical effects and constraints. If you want to avoid harm or make something happen through physical finesse, you must use Dexterity. Again, I mentioned “finesse”, but avoiding harm is obviously Reflex and Dexterity to AC as well as some sort of acrobatics, while finessing something is usually used in the sense of popping locks and traps by being careful rather than using a crowbar.

    * Intelligence is Analysis, the ability to discern implications and patterns in facts and knowledge. If you want to use facts to come up with meanings, you must use Intelligence. This is way more than memory, but rather a use of memory (or any other source of available facts) in such a manner as to be useful. It also fits into puzzle-solving and riddles, if that’s the sort of thing you want to use an in-game check to solve.

    * Wisdom is Awareness, the ability to be cognizant of the world and of the self. If you want to notice something, including something that may be influencing you, you must use Wisdom. This includes things like Intuition, Perception, and Will as a matter of the definition, though it might be a bit of a stretch to include Animal Handling and Survival unless you recognize that the former is really just an animal-focused Intuition and the latter is a specific application of Perception to find food and avoid environmental threats.

    * Charisma is Influence, the ability to affects others through social and mental power. If you want to make others think or believe something or otherwise act in a certain way without physical force, you must use Charisma. Note beauty has nothing directly to do with this, but also this definition of Charisma clearly separates “influencing others” from “knowing thyself”, and thus demonstrates the applicability of Charisma to all sorts of social rolls. Charisma as the expression of mental power in the sense of overcoming another’s mental resistance.

    Heck, based on the above, you could reduce the ability scores to Power: Physical (Strength) or Mental (Charisma), Finesse: Physical (Dexterity) or Mental (Intelligence), and Centeredness: Physical (Constitution) or Mental (Wisdom). Similar enough to White Wolf, anyway.

    • Fender, this has just as many issues with overlay…A couple of examples;
      I see a bunch of goblins and want to discern the leader, is that int (Analysis, the ability to discern implications and patterns) or wisdom (intuition)? I need to hold up the crushing cieling trap from smushing the rouge working the locked door. Str or con? Winning my defendant’s freedom with an argument to the judge? Cha or int? Judging a crowds mood? Is that wis or cha or int?

      • My answer is that as a human being you play to your own personal strengths, even if that means trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Example: if you’re not naturally good at understanding others, you may attempt to use intellectual analysis instead. If you’re not good at understanding others nor analysing behavior, maybe you just try to make people act the way you want and keep their complaints quiet with your force of charisma. If you can’t even do that, maybe you’ll use literal, physical force. In each case, you could say the difficulty (and sketchiness) gets worse, but it’s possible to use almost any ability in almost any situation, and I think that’s totally fine. Again, look at White Wolf’s approach to combining a variety of “abilities” with a wide variety of “skills” depending on the situation.

        Put another way, ability overlap is a feature, not a bug.

        As to your specific examples:

        *Goblin Leadership: You want to notice or become aware of something, whether you use a hunch or try to see which goblin’s screeches correlate to actions. Therefore, Wis should come first. However, Int-based analysis should be valuable in identifying what the purpose of that leadership is: to defend the leader, to defend the warren, to try to reach some other objective, to intimidate you, etc. It’s sort of like one of Angry’s other articles where he goes on about Passive Perception and Traps – sure you notice there’s maybe signs of a trap being present, now what?

        *Crushing Trap: If you’re trying to use brute force to LIFT the trap, obviously you’d use Strength, but Strength is intended to be explosive rather than enduring. Thus, I’d say Strength to grab hold of the trap initially, but afterwards Constitution to keep your grip over subsequent rounds. Alternatively, you could probably use Dex to slip in some sort of brace, which would be slowly broken and bent depending on its composition.

        *Court Case: To influence a judge or court, regardless of what facts you bring to bear, you use Charisma. Sure, Intelligence would identify legal technicalities, but depending on the legal system, if nobody wants to listen to you then it doesn’t really matter what evidence you bring forward.

        *Judging a Crowd’s Mood: this one is clearly based on social awareness, therefore clearly Wisdom. Sorry, unless you’re using socioanalytics it’s not Int, and unless you’re trying to force the crowd into whatever mood you want it’s not Cha.

        • That makes sense, for some reason I misunderstood your point, after re-reading your comment it finally clicked. My apologies sir!

    • If I were to try and delineate six attributes more clearly, I’d do a similar physical/mental split, then subdivide into Power, Finesse, and Endurance. How much intensity can you bring, how precisely, and for how long.

      • I agree, the added axis of Power Finesse and Resistance, like in world of darkness if you know it, seems to make for brighter lines.
        I wonder what a d&d like game built around the 9attributes systems but with the usual d20 base and without some of the storygamey crap would look like.

      • Sure, the question is then, what does it mean to be mentally powerful? I defined mental power as affecting the world through Charisma, but I think lots of people would define mental power as Intelligence just because of the computing term “processing power”.

        • Well in the 9 attributes, world of darkness system, the Power attribute for Charisma is called Presence and It reflects your character’s capacity to impose is personality upon others, his confidence and stuff like that. The mental Power attribute is Intelligence and yes it is some sort of ”processing power” it also governs raw knowledges or learning capacity.

      • I ran down that rabbit hole for a while with Microlite. The problem I kept running into was that some of those ended up WAY less useful than others. They seemed (to me) like obvious dump stats. Could just be a lack of imagination on this end. Especially the mental stats seemed only useful to a mage. Social stats, on the other hand, gave me a world of ideas.

    • Or maybe 3E was onto the solution, but couldn’t see it through to the logical conclusion. You only need three “ability scores” and, conveniently, the bonuses they confer grow with your class and level:

      Fortitude
      Reflex
      Will

  3. I’m curious as to what would be the best attributes for a Pokemon rpg… I always notice trainers are either kind or mean. There’s usually some sort of balance between being tough/training hard and being a good friend/having soft Pokemon. Maybe there’s something in that.

    • Possibly based on the attributes the game used for pokemon contests? So Beauty, Cleverness, Coolness, Cuteness, Toughness? Then each one of these affects how you interact with your pokemon and which pokemon will like you. I.E. a trainer with good Toughness has bonuses to controlling pokemon like a Machop vs a trainer with good Beauty.

    • Me too. After reading the bit about Angry designing a demonstrably better ability score system for Pokemon Trainers, I immediately thought, “Oh? Do tell!”

  4. I started with Pokémon Tabletop United for tabletop pokémon, which is the second major generation from Pokémon Tabletop Adventures which started by ditching D&D stats and giving trainers the same six stats as Pokémon – HP, Attack, Defense, Special Attack, Special Defense, and Speed. These stats are completely isolated from skills, though; there was a span of time where skills were grouped into Body, Mind, and Spirit (they messed up not just calling it Social to make the lines clearer) but the most recent version ditched that grouping for most mechanical purposes. It does make it hard to figure out what to roll to adjudicate any given action.
    A consequence of this is that I’ve very rarely seen the skills actually rolled in my games using PTU. Aside from the occasional Perception roll when looking for clues and any built-in features that call for a skill roll (like grappling), we usually just do things, neither looking up what skill would apply nor bothering to roll for success. It also doesn’t help that the skills follow a dice pool setup (2d6 for untrained, up to 6d6 for masters) which makes different levels of skill so distinct that you may as well not roll at all and just declare that a certain level of skill is required for any given task, rather than looking up what number the DC has to be to generate the same effect.
    I am curious what abilities scores you’d choose for a pokémon game. Hopefully that mystery won’t take another month to resolve…

    Side note, there’s a horribly delayed kickstarter for a card-based Thief (as in The Dark Project) RPG called Dark which does a very similar physical/mental internal/external split with card suits; spades are covert physical action (sneaking), clubs are overt physical action (clubbing guards in the back of the head, climbing), diamonds are covert mental action (analysis and appraisal), hearts are overt mental action (bluffing/grifting). Combining approaches is key, any given action can use two approaches, one selected by DM based on description of action and one selected by player based on their addendum. I liked this while running, though my players chafed against it as their intuition was to specialize in one approach or another, meaning they burned through all the cards of their chosen suit and didn’t know what to do from there.

    • So black card is physical, red is mental, pointy is covert and rounded is overt?

    • Glimmer – Your level of flash and pizazz. If you want to dazzle, impress, or convince someone you roll Glimmer.
      Hunger – Your mental fortitude. If you want to resist control, survive trauma, overcome hardship, or win battles of will you roll Hunger.
      Good – Your visible decency. If you want to earn people’s trust, bring out the best in them, or comfort them you roll Good.
      Direction – Your capacity to understand the world. If you want to discern the intentions of another, detect someones desires, or intuit what path will help you fulfill your goals you roll Direction.
      Carrot – Your off the wall zanyness. If you want to make people laugh, or distract them you roll Carrot.

    • Cell: Your discipline and resilience, the stone walls that guard your mind and body. Governs buffing magic.
      Brutal: Your ability to force your will upon others and the world, be it physically or verbally. Governs attack magic.
      Forger: Your creative side, your ability to put ingredients together, whether that be building something or solving a puzzle. Governs creation magic.
      Blackheart: Dispassion and forbearance, cold logic and self-interest. Governs debuff and curse magic.
      Awesomeness: Your rocking coolness and burgeoning sweetness. You can use Awesomeness for anything, but you if you fail you look foolish and take a penalty. Run out of Awesomeness and you lose.

    • East: the longitude at which you live. Affects what time you wake up
      Caress: the subtlety and electricity of your touch
      Neck: ability to look around and spot things
      Brand: how well you can build a following on social media
      Preserve: the quality of your jams

    • My five words naturally divided into two pairs with one left over…

      —Academic Outlook—

      Conceptual: How good you are at understanding abstract and theoretical ideas, particularly ones that can’t be quantitatively measured or tested.

      Formal: How good you are at understanding phenomena by means of logical rules or mathematical formulae.

      —Teamwork Style—

      Dissolve: How good you are at fitting into a team of people and putting the group’s desires before your own.

      Direct: How good you are at taking charge of a group of people.

      Someone who is high in both Dissolve and Direct can take on a leadership role when needed, but easily works as part of a team as well. Someone who’s high in neither likes a lot of autonomy and isn’t comfortable being in a position of power over others.

      —Magic—

      Magic: How good you are at manipulating the world around you by arcane means. The higher you are in Magic, the greater effects you can produce with less effort, and the larger your mana pool.

      In other words, I think I just came up with the Wizard Leadership Conference RPG.

  5. You know, it occurs to me that the Dragon Age RPG (and it’s derivatives) uses the “ability score first” mentality that you mentioned. There are no skill lists in the game, just “focuses” that give a bonus on your ability roll. I ran a few games of it, and it is really freeing for the GM to just say: “what do you want to do, and which ability does that fall under?”

    That being said, I’ve always felt that skills should be more important mechanically, because abilities should represent raw talent, which then augment training in various skills. Though, I also understand that, from a game design perspective, it’s just more elegant to design for the abilities, as there can be thousands of skills a person could conceivably be trained in.

    Hmm, the more I think about it, the more I think I may have to give up on my skill-based idea for an RPG. Darn you and your rock-solid logic Angry!

    • Just to complement on that “skills should be more meaningful mechanically”. Dragon Age RPG, kind of does that. Since the resolution mechanism is 3d6 and the difficulty levels are evenly separated, each and every point of bonus you add as more impact on the outcome than the precedent.

      I’m too lazy to whip up some cleaver example to compare the actual margin of success, but for two character with the same attribute score, the one that has a proper focus has a considerable adventage over the one that doesn’t. Even better, the higher is your ability score , the bigger is the actual percentage bonus that the focus grant …

    • I wrote a review of Fantasy AGE and its 9 attribute list, and how the whole system seemed like another D&D with fixes. I like the fixes. It’s a solid, well-written system. After this article I start to realize that some of these fixes are driven by making action resolution easier by drawing the “bright lines” Angry talks about.

      “• Accuracy represents your character’s physical precision and skill with finesse and ranged weapons, such as bows and rapiers.
      • Communication covers your character’s social skills, personal interactions, and ability to deal with others.
      • Constitution is your character’s fortitude and resistance to harm.
      • Dexterity encompasses your character’s agility, hand-eye coordination, and quickness.
      • Fighting is your skill at combat with heavier weapons, such as axes and spears.
      • Intelligence is a measure of your character’s smarts, knowledge, and education.
      • Perception covers all the senses and the ability to interpret sensory data.
      • Strength is your character’s physical prowess.
      • Willpower encompasses mental toughness, discipline, and confidence.” (FANTASY AGE Basic Rulebook, pg 9)

      They still fucked up a bit with dexterity for the reasons stated in the article. But it’s a solid rewrite of D&D for sure. Sufficiently different to not draw the ire of WotC, but definitely some design smarts went into it at all levels.

      Just as “isdestroyer” mentioned. 😉

      Man, I got a lot of flak just for calling it a “D&D by any other name” back then…

      • Savage Worlds seems like the opposite of Fantasy AGE, as you call it.

        There’s only five stats (Agility, Smarts, Spirit, Strength, Vigor), but they’re mostly used to determine how easily you can pick up a skill before it starts becoming harder to pump them up, and skills are used over 90% of the time for everything.
        (Exceptions include rolling raw Smarts for “common knowledge,” Strength+weapon for damage, and literally anything to do with Vigor. Fear checks are either raw Spirit or the Guts skill. Games where bravery isn’t considered the norm will require skill points in Guts.)

        A d12 Smarts character (on a dice scale of d4, d6, d8, d10, d12) can become one of the most perceptive people on the planet with ease (1 skill point per increase), but if the points aren’t put in that stat, he’s still rolling a d4-2 like anyone else untrained.

        Meanwhile, the mugger with a d4 Smarts might have invested one point in the skill and been able to spot the daft professor. Two more points in the skill (above his Smarts score, so double it), and it’s a d6. Pretty good for a crack-addled teenager with the mental capacities of a real-life orc.

        It’s quite flexible, and I can see why Angry keeps mentioning it as an alternative rule-system.

        I can also understand why he prefers D&D, as Savage Worlds usually doesn’t allow for quite as much super-hero shenanigans, even at high levels.
        A goblin who rolls really well can one-shot even a legendary character due to the Ace rule (max roll, roll again and add it to the first) and the Raise rule (extra effect every time you beat the target number of four by four), though that’s unlikely to happen if the player is smart.

        It’s kind of like E6 D&D in that way, and some people would rather play a game where a high level character can get stepped on by a giant and get up with a few less hit points rather than continue to avoid 1v1 confrontations with them out of fear of being squished.

        • GURPS is a more complicated form of savage worlds which handles things similiarly. I’m actually coming around to it over 5E. I picked up the Dungeon Fantasy Kickstarter and I’m really excited to start running it. It only has ST (Strength), DX (Dexterity), IQ (Intelligence) and HT (Health). All of those feed into the other abilities, but you can up the other abilities as necessary.

          They also very clearly explain the distinction between attributes by having a really comprehensive skill list (in fact, so comprehensive you need to trim it for your game – one of the downsides of a generic system), with Defaults. Defaults are really powerful imo. If you don’t know a skill, you can either use your raw skill (ST, DX, IQ, HT) or substitute a similiar skill at a penalty. Which is really useful. Someone who can drive a plane, can drive a boat at a penalty, but still better than someone who never drove a plane. The default attributes are broad enough there’s not really any overlap.

  6. Hello Angry. Have you played world of darkness ? Putting aside the down sides of the game, I wonder what you think of the 9 attributes system ? Even if it might sound more complex I think the line are brighter because of the second axis.

    For those who don’t know it. Attributes in that game are split between physical, mental and social and each has 3 sub attributes split between power (offensive, inflinct harm), finesse (subtle, precision, quickness, etc) and resistance ( this one is quite obvious ) turning it into a 3by3 grid of attribute.

    So you get : under physical; Strengh, Dexterity and Stamina, under mental; Intelligence, Wits, Resolve and under social you get Presence, Manipulation and Composure. The system also has skills but they are not linked to a specific attribute, you just mix and match to fit the situation. Athletic could be dex or strengh or even presence if for example you are trying to show off …

    You basically ask yourself has a GM is it Physical Mental or Social ? then Is it Power finesse or resistance ? and what skill is relevant… I believe it makes it quite a strong mecanic, what do you think of it ?

  7. This kinda links back to another article Angry where Angry said that skills shouldn’t even belong under an ability. That they should apply on a case by case basis on what the player is attempting. IE. Intimidating someone is consider charisma, but what if you aren’t trying to intimidate with your personality? A strong person might show their strength, a person good with their hands might slash a dagger an eighth of an inch from the others face, a resilient person might burn themselves to show they feel the pain, a smart person might use knowledge, etc.

    He also has said before he doesn’t like it when the players tell the DM what roll they want to make. He wants the players to tell him an action and describe how they go about doing it and then he decides what kind of roll that is.

    This ultimately gives the player more freedom to do what they want. The player thinks of an action and the DM classifies it and declares to the player to make a roll based on how the DM classifies it.

    Players shouldn’t be limited to choices based on abilities or skills, so much as the abilities should encompass broad but distinct categories of choices the players might make. And skills should be exceptional areas of expertise for which the players may gain bonuses for.

    • That’s basically how 7th Sea does it; traits/stats and knacks/skill aren’t technically linked, though in combat there is a set relationship, that is, hitting with a sword always uses Finesse + Attack (Fencing), for example. Other checks can use different combinations; I think a GM once told of having a player roll their Finesse + Fashion to try and get a snake out of their pants or something.

      • To this day my players still get confused when I try to use it. They just don’t understand that attributes have a modifier, and skills have a modifier and they are added together to get the number on their character sheet.

  8. Awesome! I completely agree that understanding that 5e action resolution is an ability check, not a skill check, is a pretty key component to understanding the system.

    But yeah, I’ve noticed more than a few times it gets wobbly. What made it jump out for me is classes being associated with a specific stat. That means that (generally speaking) at low levels, those characters are good at a certain set of things, although proficiency in skills can help them branch out. And that makes it jump out at me that they’re good at all these things, all supposedly ‘related’, which seem kinda not related. Dexterity for Stealth, Sleight of Hand, and Acrobatics is one example, but the big one to me is Wisdom being Animal Handling (riding), Survival (which includes tracking), getting a read on people (Intuition), and being aware of threats/hidden things (Perception). So Clerics and Druids are good at all of those things. It … feels weird sometimes.

    Although I’d never thought before about all the things dropping through the cracks that I’m forcing into an ability score that are kind of a poor fit, I certainly notice when I have to decide if something is strong muscles or fast muscles. Or deduction vs intuition.

    Also I may have missed it, you said that D&D ability scores weren’t designed for action resolution, but I didn’t see you touch on what they were for? My understanding was they were basically “how good are you at your class” scores in oD&D. Although that may be an urban legend. I don’t know it’s relevant, but saying what they were for original would certainly help contrast the difference as to how they’re used now.

    • I’m pretty sure they were half “Class Score” and half Gygax ‘n’ friends’ misguided attempt at simulating the traits people have with arbitrary numbers. There’s a lot of stuff included in early editions for the sake of that kind of semi-realism because they weren’t really trying to design a tight gaming experience, they were coming up with a way to simulate a world in miniature on the fly.

    • That’s about half the purpose for ability scores, actually – “how good are you at your class”.

      Fighters, magic-users, and clerics got penalties or bonuses to XP based on the number in their primary ability. (Thieves were in the Greyhawk supplement.)

      But the much larger purpose was to guide the DM in determining if a player could do something and how hard it might be. With a few exceptions the guides were very subjective – determine what ability applied based on the (weak, poor) description, then adjust from there.

      The exceptions were:
      INT: if and how many extra languages
      CON: at top and bottom gain/lose 1 hp per die, chance of not surviving the system shock of things like paralyzation and resurrection if average or below.
      DEX: +/-1 to initiative, same to hitting with missiles.
      CHA: Number of hirelings and their loyalty.

      The game has changed, a lot.

  9. Hrm, maybe I need to start asking for ability checks and then letting the PCs explain why/how they intend to use their proficiency. (barring explicit checks like medicine to stabilize).

    • Personally I try to ask the players if they have any skills that might help them on their ability check.

      It’s a small change in our side of the screen, but it helps smoothly transition from skill check mentality to the ability check one

      • My policy is that I always just state the ability check, It is players responsibility to ask me about relavant skill proficiencies they can apply. I guess this might be problematic if your group is not conditioned for doing it, ( I was always first Gm for all my players so only bad habits they have is bad habits I allow, ) but it works great for me and my group.

  10. “It’s like a toothache. It’s not going to kill you, it’s not life threatening, it doesn’t stop you from functioning”

    Umm…actually, if the tooth is infected and a blood clot breaks off your rotting tooth innards and flows into your blood vessels, it can go straight to your brain and kill you. It’s not pretty, so go get that toothache checked out.

  11. This article hits the nail on the head for me. I love D&D 5e, but I also can’t ignore the bumps that are there “because they’ve always been this way”. Many of them have been addressed plenty of times before by you, like, “why do we need saving throws when an attack roll vs a target defense of some kind would be more elegant and serve the same purpose?”, or “if D&D is supposed to encourage non-combat modes of play, then why doesn’t it do more to support it?”, and yes, “why do we still use the same (in name) six ability scores as always instead of REALLY digging in and figuring out if it could be done better with differently named, differently defined, and a different amount of ability scores?” Personally, I would’ve loved it if they unified weapon proficiencies, skill proficiencies, tool proficiencies, etc. since they’re all very functionally similar now anyway.

    I genuinely hope whoever leads the design team for D&D 6e (assuming there will be a 6e) is brave enough to tackle the system as a whole, sacred cows and all. I hope they have the smarts and resolve to rebuild from the ground up in a manner that serves the game now, rather than the legacy (we’ve ALWAYS had these six ability scores), and that we the players have the open-mindedness to really try such a game for what it is, as opposed to falling back on, “this isn’t MY D&D” feelings that serve to only keep things from progressing.

    Thank you for what you do on TheAngryGM, Angry, I feel like you don’t hear that enough.

    • They did unify the different proficiencies in every way except acquisition, as the Proficiency Bonus applies to all of them. No more skill points vs base attack bonus vs “skill points, but without the equipment I should give you -2, or is it -5, or maybe you just can’t try, or who cares.”

    • The last time they tried to tackle the sacred cows, we got 4E. Which IMO is the best tactical grid based combat RPG on the market – but people hated it because it was such a radical departure. The problem is people really are attached to the sacred cows. It wouldn’t be D&D any more. It might be an objectively better game. But it won’t be D&D. I’m not sure that they will ever try to kill the sacred cows in the same way they did in 4E again after being burnt so badly. As Angry says – they are conservative.

      Another issue is that people (especially new players) are confused between D&D and TTRPG as a whole. It’s the whole brand recognition thing. I don’t even think D&D is the best game to learn as a new player. There are lots of excellent indie RPGs. D&D can’t run every setting, but there are still people who try to run sci-fi games in it…

      I’m in the same boat as you, I love 5E. I’ve played it since release. But I’m getting fed up of all the wrinkles, and I’ve been branching out into other RPGs, and it’s been incredibly fun. There’s a whole world out there that ISN’T D&D. Game design has come on an awfully long way.

  12. I think the problem is that abilities are linked to only one attribute on the character sheet and that you automatically add your proficiency bonus only to that attribute.
    Why not say that a player can use the attribute he wishes and add his bonus in case he has proficiency in that ability.
    For example “Persuasion by intelligence instead of charisma”:
    You roll for intelligence and add your respective bonus AND the proficiency bonus for Persuasion, because you are trained to persuade by logic and not by charme.
    Or “Intimidation by strength instead of charisma”
    You roll for strength and add your respective bonus AND the proficiency bonus for intimidation, because you are used to intimidate by strength and not by charisma.
    Should the player select an attribute that is not appropiate (e.g. Acrobatics by Charisma and not Dexterity) the DM can immediately rule that out and it would be logic for everyone.

    • If you didn`t read carefuly that was the part when Angry said that there is no skill checks, player doesn´t make medicine check but wisdom ( or other depending on situation ) check applying proficiency of medicine if he has it. And it should be GM that calls specific ability check and application of skill profficiency. As Angry have already written about, player just describes action and GM decides if check is requiered and if it is which one. I must admit i was lucky as i stumbled on this site few days before my first session and his action resolution article was one of first GM advice i ever read.

      • Yes you are right.
        But still the GM has to inform the players that they can use their proficiency with a different ability than stated on the character sheet.
        As it is now, there is only one ability linked to a skill.
        If you don’t inform the player that they can also, for example, intimidate by using their strength ability, they will always select the character with the highest charisma for that check and never consider the “strength-option”.

        • Also the GM has to inform the player whatwould be the DC for that check when using a different ability.
          For example, intimidating a single goblin by strength might work easy.But intimidating a king, who is surrounded by 20 guards, by strength would not be very fruitfull. In that case either charisma or intelligence would be the better ability for that check.

    • Easy solution: don’t use premade character sheets that associate the skill with a specific ability score.

  13. “But the problem is no one reads these books anymore. Players learn from their GMs. GMs learn from older GMs. And older GMs already know what they are doing so they just skim the books”

    I played a little 5e from my GM, who had bought the books. Liked it, and since I haven’t run in a while I decided to run a 5e game. I borrowed the books from him, and, since my time with them will be limited (and most of the rules themselves are freely available online from the SRD), I decided to *actually* read them.

    Oh, boy! I actually noticed that there weren’t skill checks. And I am pretty damn confident the owner didn’t do anything other than the skim you mention. The DMG even has advice on building *gasp* a fun combat! Not the *best* advice, but it clearly says “adventures are more than combats, and combats are more than just killing $#!@”. Does *anyone* read it?

    • I don’t think many read it fully. Though I disagree with Angry that anything has changed in how people do it. Nobody really read the rules fully, even back in the early days. If you played much AD&D and then later went and read the books, you’ll rapidly realize that there’s a ton of rules that probably never got used at the table. Everyone seemed to play a simplified version of what they were supposed to be doing. Alignment languages, reaction rolls and the weird 1st edition initiative “segments”, to name a few of them.

      • While I agree with the meaning of your state, I have to disagree with an element. Back in the day far enough back, we read and reread the rules. Brown box/white box/blue book dropped into a market of wargamers. Dealing with fiddly rules was al.ost second nature for that group, and dungeons and dragons was vastly simpler than, say, Third Reich.

        Gah, deserves big blog post, but the nutshell is that almost every edition changed to attract a larger and younger group of players, so there is hope the ability scores will be among the things considered i 6th ed.

        *imho, 4th eds first major flaw wasn’t the rule changes but marketing’s almost active antagonism of the existing players. As Angry has pointed out it was still successful by most measures, but that was despite not because of buy-in.

    • Ugh. I now realize there’s plenty *bad* advice in the 5e DMG, as well. Lots of the usual “put your quest behind a locked door then fudge $#!@ when your players can’t unlock it” kind o’ BS. Oh, well.

  14. Before one would try to more clearly delineate abilities, one should uncouple skills fully from abilities. Currently, skills are tied to abilities and can only optionally be used with other abilities. Still, given the option to use skills with other abilities, it should not take that much effort to actually decouple skills (training) from ability. Then it should be fairly easy to reimagine ability scores. Actually, the 5e chassis would make this especially effortless. We just need to slay the holy cow. Perhaps we should just start doing it.

    • I don´t think that was an argument angry was making I think he actualy appriciates how there is no skill checks but ability checks instead. Decoupling skills from ability scores is mostly matter of depth and complexity one one hand you get more deep mechanics but it you must decide if it is worth the added complexity. In my opinion most of the time the answer is no, while there are cases that were already mentioned like dexterity being both speed and precision. I prefer simpicity over realism you might decide differently, but as you said it wouldn´t take much effort to implement it in your own game, if you wanted it. Whether this is a good idea or not is another question.

      • My comment was merely based on the observation in this piece that some of the fuzziness of abilities is caused by the skills that are tied to the ability. While I agree that any house rule adds complexity, I don’t believe decoupled skills by themselves are more complex than skills tied to abilities. Not that I would actually want to bother to change this in my home games.

      • You could decouple the skills from specific abilities without introducing skill checks. Take “Medicine” for example. You can never just roll medicine (because there are no skill checks), but if you’re bandaging someone up, steady hands are what you need so it’s a Dexterity(medicine) check. but if you’re looking over a body trying to figure out how they died it’s a Wisdom(medicine). Then, once you know how they died, trying to do forensics on the crime scene to figure out where the poison dart must have come from and how long they’ve been dead based on rigor mortis and whatnot it’s an Intelligence(medicine) check. Certain skills will almost always be used with certain abilities (eg history and int) but since that’s obvious there’s no reason to codify it into the rules to the detriment of the more ambiguous skills.

  15. I’d also like to note that there are 5 abilities that are linked to classes, which goes well with 4-6 players. Reducing the number of ability scores might affect ideal party size for a cooperative game like D&D.

  16. What “angers me” is I can never read the comments on this blog on my mobile phone. Reply
    columns shrink with each subthread until you can’t read anything anymore.
    Ah, the inhumanity ! /s

  17. Except that AD&D did have a perception stat.
    Kind of.
    An early White Dwarf had rules for it. All my characters had 7 stats for a while until we realised we weren’t really using it any more so we dropped it.
    We used to roll against our stats on 1d20 for all sorts of things. That’s how 1e worked. It was fine and we still do it.
    We don’t care what the rulebook tells us, wisdom covers willpower because strength of will is related to how wise you are more than how charismatic you are. Wise people know they should resist things. Charismatic people… how is that anything to do with willpower?
    Meh.

  18. I’d like to start by saying I loved the article, gave me lots to think about and gave voice to some gut feelings i had but couldn’t place. I respect you immensely and don’t want to challange you, I’d just like to request you think about something. I would implore you to not use the word retarded in this context, I don’t think bad of you for using it, and understand why you did, but it has an unfortunate usage now that I think would be best not to be a part of.

  19. Ppl don’t remember Everway? But it came in that cool box with all the thingies!
    Honestly seemed like a polished version of Amber Diceless in general shape and flavor.

  20. I completely agree with you! I think a lot could be achieved by simply renaming the attributes, using something like: Physique (combined Strength/Constitution), Coordination, Reflexes, Focus (I also like Analysis, from a comment above), Awareness and Luck.

    The reason why we need Luck is to act as a catch-all for those bright lines..
    The PCs are in a dungeon and the DM has determined that rats or insects may have gotten to some of the rations. What saving throw do you roll to check if you’re backpack has been invaded? There is no existing ability score for something like this, because it isn’t really about a quality of your character. It just comes down to whether your character is lucky or not.

    Likewise, if you are trying to persuade an NPC to do something, and the GM wants a roll for some reason instead of role-playing it; how does your charisma score always help or hinder you? Maybe the NPC is predisposed to creatures of your race/social status/demeanour. Some folks like directness, some like to be flattered first. Does your charisma somehow help you identify that? No, it’s just going to be down to luck, modified to some extent by your skill in social interactions.

    • Luck is already an element in the game, determined by the random rolls we make. The DM can just decide to have rats in the pack, and people liking a specific race would give a bonus or eliminate the need for a roll altogether.
      I do like your other stats though, nice separation between most of them, though I might change focus to intelligence or reasoning instead. Focus kind of mingles with awareness, but also implies concentration, not cognitive ability or recall.

  21. I realized that the main objection here is the ability scores in general and that isn’t going to change but I at least don’t think you would have too much trouble dialing the three mental status into two. I am reasonably certain that more people have played World of Warcraft than have played D&D; in that there is a bright clean line between intellect which is your basic consciously controlled processes and spirit which is more of the underlying set of mental workings. So the weird little wrinkle there might be easier to rub out then you’d expect.

  22. Pingback: Breaking Down Abilities | Cthulhu Stutters

  23. A couple people here in the comments have proposed some alternate ability score sets, but they all seem (to me, at least) to just be rejiggering the same 6 scores – moving the lines so that particular cases are less ambiguous, but in the process introducing new ambiguities.

    Given your ability to come up with brilliantly simple solutions that no one else could see before, I’d like to ask what abilities you would use in, say, a hypothetical brand-new Angry RPG, or if you were put in change of D&D 6E, or really any other semi-generic system (obviously, the answer depends on the genre/tone/purpose/etc. of the game, as you demonstrated with the Pokémon Tabletop RPG, so I’m trying to give you as much leeway as possible to interpret the question in any way you want).

  24. Angry, you should take Blades in the Dark out for a spin. I think you would enjoy the fact that a game exists that doesn’t copy the DnD 6 at all. Plus it does a good job teaching adjudication.

  25. I appreciate this article a lot. As a noob GM and someone who is relatively new to tabletop RPGs it is reassuring to find out that I am not alone with my confusion and problems with some of this stuff.
    Once I said on twitter that it is so stupid that acrobatics, fine motor control and hitting witha bow are under the same ability. And of course most of the answers were “it is fine, shut up, it’s not that important anyway” And it is really not that important, but it is still annoying. And I am also sick and tired that every other game also uses these same abilities. Sometimes it is fitting, but often it isn’t. I remember when I first started playing Neverwinter Nights on the PC (my introduction to DnD and RPGs). Oh boy was it freakishly overwhelming! It was fun, but I had no idea what is what for a long time. What are these 6 abilities and why are there skills AND feats?

    And the “holy cow” thing is also rather annoying in gaming and RPGs. This zealous reverence of ye olden dayz of oldschool gaeming and its most saecred wayz. Humans have an innate tendency to resent change at least initially. But it can be pretty vile in fanboys/fangirls and maybe especially games. Take Heroes of Might and Magic for example. So similar. Heroes3 attained “holy grail” status and when the studio tried a lot of bold new things in Heroes4 many people hated it. Then Heroes5 was a very conservative distillation of them, keeping some elements from 4 but mostly going back to 3 with better graphics and more polish. It was a fun game yes. but then they tried some more new bold things with Heroes6 and people hated on i too.
    For example they did away with the ridiculous 6+1 resource pool (ore, wood, gems, crystal, sulfur, mercury + gold) and decreased it to 4 (gold, stone, wood, crystal) because there is no justifiable need for 4 special resources. To be fair, the programming was buggy as hell too. They also removed the obsolete “town screen” which was pretty but useless. They had to reintroduce it in a patch. Because it is iconic and raaaarw *foams at the mouth. It slows down the pace of the game and gets boring after the 1st time you max out the town, but never mind that. So Heroes7 went back to 7 resources, townscreen, no innovation and fell flat on its face and no one plays it.
    …that might be a bit off topic, but it shows that holy cows do not serve the betterment of anything.

    • damit, sorry for the spam.
      PS: also Elder Scrolls Skyrim: they threw out the bizarre amount of attributes and only left in Health, stamina and Magicka, bc they realized the only thing the attributes did was determine those 3. And there was uproar, but then people realized it was a good idea and made the game a lot more approachable and user friendly.
      Okay, I am done commenting. honest.

  26. The 6 ability scores:
    We need something for close combat fighters
    We need something for sneaky types and archers – bc those 2 are absolutely related to each other and absolutely different from swordfighting
    We need something for atheist magic
    We need something for religious magic – which is like, totally different
    We need something to determine HP – which deserves its own ability, come on
    And let’s put in an extra just to be safe and cover anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere.

  27. I like wisdom as a score, and I don’t think it’s vestigal at all… In my mind, intelligence is the stat of wizards and inventors and scientists, while charisma is the skill of montebanks, confidence men, and rock stars. Wisdom is the skill of rangers in tune with their environment, the kindly old priest that guides his flock, and counselors who understand the people they are trying to help.

    D&D has always been about starting with, working with, archetypes. To decide which skill fits, simply pick which archetype should be good at it.

    The problem imnsho, is that the concept of that aetheric in-tuneness has fallen out of fashion. People want to play clerics that don’t worship gods, or rangers who are simply scouts. I feel like simply replacing wisdom with intuition or perception removes what wisdom is trying to say from the game.

    That’s fine in a game like WoD where in tune isn’t important. Games should focus on the stats they need. If D&D is really going there, that’s fine, but maybe we should get rid of Divine magic at the same time. There’s a lot of games out there that have clerics as just wizards with a slightly different spell set.

    • 5e, technically speaking, does not have “divine magic” and “arcane magic” anymore. There are certainly some spells that only the classic divine casters have access to and same with the classic arcane ones but those are no longer meaningful keywords in the game. Bards can grab any spell and thanks to mage initiate so can anybody else. So… wish granted I guess.

  28. This right here is EXACTLY what I run up against EVERY, SINGLE, TIME. Players (who learned to play with DMs other than me) do exactly this:

    “…the big problem is that approach to GMing leads players to choose their actions from the skill list. That is to say, players treat their skill lists as lists of buttons they can press to make things happen. Players declare actions in terms of skills and they are less inclined to think outside the skill list…”

    I almost leapt over the table and slapped one player for using the skill name as a verb after I had repeated told them not to do that. (“No, you can NOT ‘stealth’ across the room!”)

    But I get why they do it. As was said in the article, they look at those skill bonuses as their “action choice list”. And of course, they want to choose an action that they are more likely too succeed at doing. And so they go down a list, pick the highest skill modifier they can find, and try to somehow “pretzel’ their character into using that skill as a “catch all tool”.

    One thing that does come to mind in this discussion was the Skills & Powers options in AD&D 2e. There was one set of optional rules wherein the player would “split” each ability score into 2 “sub scores”. This would break down each ability into subcategories. It seems that the purpose was to attempt to make it easier to know which ability score to use for something (for example, I think Strength was split into Muscle and Stamina, or something like that).. But I think it just exacerbated the problem.

  29. The thing that screws with me the most with using Ability scores as a primary action resolution mechanic is that a lot of performed actions are a mix of those attributes. Case in point. I’ve been watching a lot of Forged in Fire as well as Man at Arms and there are multiple techniques that can be used to form a blade from the metal. Using the traditional hammer and anvil approach requires Strength, Dexterity and Constitution. Each one contributes to varying degrees. However if a power hammer is used to draw out the blade it becomes mostly about Dexterity and Perception as one has to keep in rhythm with the power hammer. Both of these approaches require Intelligence and Wisdom as various pools of knowledge are needed to make the form and judge how to proceed with each strike of the hammer. Trying to shoehorn an entire action into a single attribute feels clumsy as hell at best.

    I know 3e went a bit trigger happy with the skill system, pretty sure ‘bowel movement’ was a contender for the skill list at one point, but it did feel more intuitive from a player perspective. However there’s the problem as identified about skills looking like buttons for the players and it potentially limiting the player’s imagination. You could keep throwing on skills until a character sheet looks like you’re trying to pilot a space shuttle with those knobs and switches over every panel. But then GM’s would probably end up using character sheets as deadly weapons when there’s arguments about whether a player’s action fits into which variation of a family of skills.

    The only thing I can think of to adapt the current system to this problem is to identify which Attribute(I hate calling them Ability scores but that’s a huge rant) is the primary one being used and then add the modifiers of the other Attribute(s) in the equation, with possibly a maximum input to them.

    Going back to the forging example in the hammer and anvil technique I would make either make Strength or Constitution the primary. Whichever I chose the other I would give the full modifier effect to the other and then add up to a certain amount of the Dexterity, Intelligence and Wisdom modifiers or replace them with appropriate skill modifiers if they would factor in. So if a character was level 10 and had STR 16(3), DEX 14(2), CON 14(2), WIS 16(3), INT 14(2), CHA 9(-1) it would evaluate to 16(STR Primary) + 2(CON Secondary) + 1(DEX upto 1) + 1(WIS upto 1) + 1(INT upto 1) + 4(Artisan’s Tools Proficiency at level 10) to get 25 vs. DC of making super awesome blade for awesome super sword using hammer and anvil.

    Now with the Power Hammer approach things get stranger because Strength and Constitution for the most part have been removed from the equation. In fact we’re not even using the same equation because a different action is being performed altogether. Our DC is going to be different because now it’s the DC of making super awesome blade for awesome super sword using a power hammer. In this equation Dexterity seems outright to be primary as most of the time you’re trying to keep in rhythm with the power hammer, though you can make the case that Wisdom is a close secondary as you need to be aware of how the metal is being shaped by your motions. So the equation with the previously stated character becomes 14(DEX primary) + 3(WIS secondary) + 1(INT upto 1) + 4((Artisan’s Tools at Level 10)) to get 22 vs. DC of making super awesome blade for awesome super sword using a power hammer.

    To be perfectly honest you could factor out the Artisan’s Tools in both equations as they are needed to even enable the action to begin with and 5e has decided that characters are proficient equally with a whole family of tools, which is not the case. Certain smiths are more comfortable using hammer and anvil to draw out blades and really don’t know how to use power hammers all that well. Assuming the smith was equally proficient in both tools the power hammer would simply take less time and be less stress on the body but the final output of the blade being forged would be the same.

    After reading all back that I wrote I come to a series of conclusions.

    1. Making a small comment on Angry’s articles seems impossible(or any article that actually has real substance to it.). Also I despise social media style commenting.

    2. Basically any work around one comes up with for 5e’s ‘The Ability Score is All’ system is going to have to be balanced against the need to keep the pace of the game going as stopping to break down an action into multiple factors like I just did takes time and repeatedly doing that will put even more strain on the GM.

    3. I needed to pee after writing this.

    • I’m thinking along the same lines as you with the combination of abilities into certain skills. When Angry started talking about the definitions of the six abilities changing over editions, I popped open my PHB to look over and realized he was right. I’m DMing Pathfinder and switching to 5e soon, so I blame the transition for my assumption that Wisdom was part of common sense. After clarifying that and realizing Angry is right about Wisdom being mostly about perception and taking in clues from your environment, to me some of the skills that fall under there don’t quite mesh.

      My first thought is the Medicine skill. I would say Medicine is a combination of both Intelligence and Wisdom, or Perception and Investigation. That’s because taking in the clues of what is happening to your patient is important, but it’s just as important to know what to do in those situations. If you’re making a Wisdom(Medicine) check to stop someone from bleeding out, I would say that’s mostly a Wisdom-based check. Find the gushing blood and put pressure on the hole. However, if it’s something like diagnosing a disease based on their symptoms, then I would say Intelligence comes into play here. I think the most elegant option is to just throw a proficiency bonus on the check if suitable, but the disconnect does bother me a bit. Perhaps in some cases there should be two checks: a Wisdom(Perception) check to catch all of the clues, and then an Intelligence(Medicine) check to figure out what’s happening. And then to make things more complicated, if you think about surgery, that’s just as much a Dexterity-based check as it is Intelligence.

      Then I started considering the divide between Wisdom and Charisma. Wisdom is reading body language. Charisma is a mastery of your own body language and how you project yourself. So when you consider an Animal Handling check for a panicking horse, I would say that brings both abilities into the picture. Wisdom is reading why the animal is freaking out, and Charisma is putting a comforting front towards the animal. What are the best ways to deal with that situation? I don’t know, I guess the system already handles it with some elegance but in some ways, the simplicity and poor application of the abilities rub me a little raw.

    • If I’m reading 5e correctly, one major thing to keep in mind is that the ability to use depends on what the player and the GM determine is best.

      Using your forging example, player one can say “I’m going to hammer as long as it takes to get it right” while another says “I’m using a series of fast, precise blows”. One uses CON for the ability check, the other uses DEX. Assuming of course the GM doesn’t decide that only strength matters for shaping the mithril.

      Of course, this doesn’t change Angry’s core complaints. Heck, the blurring of Int and Wis is so bad the DMG tries to clarify the difference – and in the process I think makes it muddier. Certainly it doesn’t make it intuitive.

      But it does say – to me – that I can actually make the blurring work for me and use or let my players use the ability that works better for them. Provided they can make a case for it, of course, and that it doesn’t scramble my mind too badly.

      [specific example that is still twisting my mind is the consequences of the Observant feat. Passive Wisdom (perception) is +5 vs Wisdom (perception). And how the heck do you passively Intelligence (investigate) anyway to get that +5. Ah rules.]

  30. I designed a small (still incomplete) system with a total of 8 ability scores as a little thought experiment. Each score was paired into a category, which were in turn paired under either physical or mental. So under physical I had Brawn(strength,endurance) and Coordination(Agility,Dexterity) and under mental I had Guile(Charisma,Awareness) and Intellect(Knowledge,Thought). As part of this I wrote out a definition of what each score represented, in a general sense, and the types of conflicts they might resolve, with the idea that there would be (as you say) clear lines. I noticed two things.

    1. That by having the clear lines the game became easier to *design*. That is, none of the players I tested the system with had preconceived notions of what each score meant, because they had clearly changed, and been redefined. It also made it easier to see what had not been covered. One look at the ability scores and I can see that those eight don’t necessarily cover the character’s physical beauty, or size, or magic attunement… or… piety? Whatever.

    2. At some point names become at least a little arbitrary, and subject to connotation. Originally it was Coordination(Bulk,Fine) and the mental categories were Active(Charisma,Thought) and Passive(Awareness,Knowledge). But they were regrouped and renamed because “rolling bulk doesn’t sound like you are moving quickly or balancing,” and because “the mental categories don’t necessarily fit together with what they do, just how they are used.” Which I think are mostly-valid points, but the changes come at a cost. Like guile. Yes guile is for tricking people (charisma), and not being tricked (awareness), but it’s also for just plain convincing people (also charisma), or finding things (also awareness). And you aren’t tricking people with sleight of hand, or prestidigitation, because that falls under dexterity/fine and on and on.

    The point I guess is that I think you hit the nail on the head, with the cultural and practical issues of ability scores in D&D. But I have one question: Do you think much of the issue is a consequence of GMs deciding the kind of ability check based on intention, rather than deciding the kind of ability check based on approach?

    And I know people won’t stop saying this, but I would also love to see a complete system (either from scratch, or overhaul) by you. All in good time (and work, and money) maybe?

  31. How about keeping ability scores as they are and scrapping the skill list altogether?
    Rather than having players pick skills from a list, let them write down x words that describe what their characters are good at. Areas of expertise, “skills” if you will.
    They may pick perception, stealth, deception or something like climbing, fishing, tailoring, cooking, pickpocketing, or whatever they want.
    Once they are done with that, the skills they picked work the way skills were meant to work to begin with. When they’re asked to perform an ability check, if they also have a reevant skill for the task they add their proficency bonus.

    Seeing a big blank area under the “skills” section in their sheet might help players remember that the list of skills does not cover every action that can be accomplished in the game. Nor does it mean to, that’s the job of ability scores.

    • That’s a really great strategy for one shots with pregen characters.

      Use the skill set as a way to further define the characters. Sure, most of the players have modest ‘Shooting’ scores, but then there’s the guy with the stellar ‘Fighting’ score who is good at all forms of combat.

      That way, you’re taking advantage of the ‘list of buttons’ approach to hint to the player about the sorts of things their PC should be doing.

  32. MY only issue with all these checks is that Attacks are the only ones hat have criticals. but everyone wants them for skill / ability checks too. No just because you rolled a 20 doesn’t mean your jump was double as good.

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