Your Ability Scores Suck

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Last month, my ranty, pointless, rambling, pontificating BS article was about action adjudication in D&D and Pathfinder and how those games have this pretty good system for very easy action adjudication at their heart: the ability check, AKA the Core Mechanic, AKA the d20 System. But it was also about how that nice, elegant rule got buried in all sorts of crap so it’s hard to see clearly and how many of the GMs I talk to have a sort of “skill check first” mentality when adjudicating actions which makes it harder for them to figure out how to handle anything not specifically defined in the books. Which is a problem because (a) handling things not spelled out in excruciating detail is precisely what RPGs have to do in order to open the open-ended, do-anything gameplay that makes them a better choice than a video game or board game, and (b) because the GMs and the books both therefore train the players to not think outside their skill lists. Remember that? If not, go back and check it out. It was very good. And it also really broke a few brains, based on the comments. Which just goes to show how serious the problem actually is. Hell, it took a lot of discussion before anyone recognized that the things I was saying weren’t house rules, but part of the core approach of the game that was actually written in the rulebooks and then buried or overlooked. WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT I FREAKING SAID!

ANYWAY…

At the end of that article, I admitted that the article I’d written wasn’t the article I sat down to write. Originally, I wanted to rant and rave about ability scores in D&D. Because the other issue with the beautiful, elegant, universal core mechanic underlying the d20 System is that its’ bogged down by a really crappy set of ability scores that no one seems to be able to think past. And that’s a frustration I’ve been dealing with for a while. Well, thinking past.

Funny thing is that I was actually pretty happy that the article I’d originally intended to write – ranting about ability scores and how I’d do them better if I were writing an RPG – I was happy that article got swallowed up by something that provided what I thought was actually useful advice. So much so that I didn’t even classify that article as a BS article. I made it part of my series about becoming a better GM. So, naturally, the consensus from the peanut gallery – that’s all of you – was that you really wanted that article. You wanted to hear me talk about how screwed up ability scores are in modern D&D. And how I’d handle things differently if I were making a role-playing game.

Fine. I need an easy article I can crap out without half trying right now. I’ll give you all what you want. Let’s talk about ability scores in D&D and in everything else and why they need to evolve. And how they should. But first, let’s talk about how they’ve evolved. And how they haven’t.

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself…

Let me start this rant off by being uncharacteristically charitable. The thing is, I ride D&D’s design team pretty hard. And Pathfinder’s design team. But that’s a recent thing. I didn’t always. In fact, I used to be pretty damned supportive of what they did. Most of what they did. For example, back in the late 1990s – after I had been playing and running AD&D 2nd Edition for more than a decade – lots of people were pretty nervous about the death of TSR, the acquisition by Wizards of the Coast, and, most importantly, by what they were seeing of this scary, new upcoming 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Me? I was very optimistic. I liked what I was seeing. And when the game came out, it was revolutionary. Now, I didn’t have the design chops that I have now – says the amateur, armchair game designer who has one minor credit and one dumb book to his name – I didn’t understand design then as I understand it now. Now, I recognize just how brilliant, elegant, and revolutionary the D&D 3E was. And how it changed everything about how people play RPGs. It did. Make no mistake. The idea of systematic action adjudication – the idea of a universal set of rules that could be used to consistently and fairly determine the outcome of any action anyone could think of – that idea was BORN with the d20 system.

And keep that in mind. I’m coming back to it. I just want to make another point first.

I was excited about 3rd Edition. I embraced it as soon as it came out and I had a hell of a lot of fun. I ran it the eight years that it was the current edition. And in the context of the history of D&D, I recognize that it was – without a doubt – the strongest, most well-designed edition of D&D. And it remains so to this day. Then, in 2008, along came 4th Edition. Again, I embraced the hell out of it. I was excited about it. I followed every bit of preview material. I bought everything I could for it. And, if not for that excitement pushing me to join a podcast, get ousted from said podcast, and then start a blog out of spite, I would not be doing this today. The Angry GM is a product of D&D’s 4th Edition. And not just because of the excitement. Also, because it’s the first edition of D&D I really, really hacked the hell out of. And it’s the first edition for which I ran numerous public events at game stores and conventions. It was where I really joined the quote-unquote modern gaming community. Which has been a mixed blessing. But I won’t talk about that right now.

Now, my love affair with 4th Edition didn’t last as long. It was also revolutionary. I think it was almost as revolutionary as 3rd Edition. Yes. I said “almost.” As in “it wasn’t as drastic a revolution as 3rd Edition.” The thing is, though, some of it… just… didn’t… work. That’s the risk of innovating.

4th Edition was not a failure. I need to be clear on that. No matter how much revisionist history that WotC is trying to push today – and, by the way, that’s in their best financial interest – 4E did not fail. It grew the community, it brought new players into the game, and – at conventions and in game stores – it was HUGELY popular. I know. I was running those games. And I saw the rooms 4E filled at gaming conventions. The evidence was everywhere.

But 4E did cause a bleed of experienced players. Unlike when 3E came out, 4E had competition. Oh sure, you could ALWAYS stick with the old edition and refuse the new, but the difference was that, because of the Open Gaming License that allowed anyone to perpetually publish new D&D 3E material and because of a major third-party D&D supporter going rogue and republishing 3E in a new skin, suddenly, sticking with the old edition wasn’t just for stubborn grognards who hated change and who were afraid to try new things. And Paizo and Pathfinder took advantage of that to beat WotC at their own game. While WotC was creating a massive new and younger player base, their older player base was migrating to Pathfinder. And that must have made executives at WotC nervous. Because remember, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to gain a substantial new player base is to have experienced players – Older Cousins, as WotC nicknamed them – to teach them the ropes.

Now, I have to admit that I don’t know everything that went on behind the scenes. Some of this is conjecture. Some of this is the result of research. Some of this is the result of some people in the know telling me things they probably shouldn’t have. You can take it all with as big or small a grain of salt as you want. It doesn’t matter to the point I’m making whether you believe me.

The point is that, given that lead-up, 5th Edition was never going to take any major risks. It was never going to push the envelope. It was going to play safe. And I don’t think that was a choice the designers made. I’m sure that directive came from other parts of the WotC corporate hierarchy. And I’m also willing to bet that the open playtest thing that led to the design of 5E was also not a decision the designers would have made on their own. It was a marketing ploy. And I know that you will probably never hear a designer who worked on 5E admit any of this crap publicly. Or even admit they may not be happy with the final product. Privately though… well, I can’t anything about what anybody might say privately. At least, not without betraying more than one person’s trust.

What’s my point?

My point is that I ride the design of 5E very hard – and I ride the designers very hard – but I also have to understand how and why 5E turned out the way it did. It’s a throwback. It’s a de-evolution of D&D back to an earlier age. Or, rather, a divergent evolution. It’s like 3E but not quite as 3E as 3E. Maybe 3E simplified and made more approachable. Maybe 2.75E. Whatever. The point is, 5E is saddled with a lot of baggage. There are things it is stuck with. Things that are considered to be an indelible part of D&D. Sacred Cows. And it will be a long time before WotC is ever brave enough to start making hamburger of any sacred cows again. 3E changed a lot and it worked. But they remember 4E. It changed a lot and was ultimately judged a disaster. Rightly or wrongly.

After some really brilliant design innovations, D&D is now stuck firmly in its own past. And that’s not the fault of the designers. Mike Mearls and Chris Perkins are very smart and capable designers and developers. As are folks like Robert Schwalb and Rodney Thompson and James Wyatt and Chris Sims. Many of whom no longer work for WotC.

Keep all of that in mind as I say what I’m about to say.

What Are Ability Scores; Where Did They Come From

Now, I didn’t spell all of that out just to be nice to WotC’s current and former design team. I also spelled that out because, in order to discuss the ability score system in D&D and why it’s so freaking screwed up, you have to understand where it came from and what it actually is. So, I’m going to start with a personal anecdote that I’m going to use to illustrate exactly what I mean by “ability scores.” Because, yeah, everyone can list the ability scores in D&D and define them. But that’s not the same as defining the system itself. Remember, D&D invented this system of adjudicating action by ability score. And we’re judging that system. Which is hard to do because gamers tend to assume that ability scores and ability score systems and the six ability scores of D&D are just there. They are real things that have always existed. That’s just the way you make a role-playing game. Just like a story has a structure with a beginning, middle, ending, climax, and all that other crap, modern RPGs have ability score systems based on physical and mental capabilities and there’s no other way.

So, The Tiny GM is a big fan of Pokeyman. And she was lamenting the fact that there is no tabletop Pokeyman RPG. Not counting the delightfully brilliant and subtly meta-subversive Pokethuhlu. But then, she discovered a fan-made Pokeyman RPG which is totally illegal and unlicensed and you should never, ever go looking for it.

Of course, out of curiosity, I checked it out. And discovered that this particular Pokeyman TTRPG was a d20 derivative and therefore used the standard array of ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. And I was extremely disappointed. Because, well, that’s an AWFUL decision. It’s a stupid way to design a Pokeyman RPG. And I went on a bit of a rant about it for a while, but no one online wanted to listen to me. They couldn’t see what the problem was. The trainers in the Pokeyman game are human beings. Human beings have Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Apart from shuffling the categories a little, how else are you going to describe and define a human being?

And that, right there, is the problem. Well, it’s two problems. But one matters and one is minor. The minor one is that people think those six specific words are somehow a complete and logical description of all of the physical and mental capabilities of a human being. That they are, like, the DNA of a character.

The problem that matters is that ability scores aren’t descriptive anymore. And that point is why I had to establish all that context about the history of the game.

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Once upon a time, a D&D character’s ability scores didn’t do much. They described the character – how strong, how smart, how healthy, and so on – and they gave a few bonuses to specific actions, but that was it. You never rolled a Strength check to open a door. If you wanted to open a stuck door, you rolled a d6. And if you had a certain Strength score, you got a bonus on that die roll. If you wanted to stab someone, you rolled an attack roll based on your THAC0 and the target’s AC. If you had a certain Strength score, you got a bonus. And on and on and on. Mostly, what ability scores did was give you an XP boost if you the right mix of ability scores for your class. Smart wizards and nimble rogues advanced faster along the level track than dumb wizards and clumsy rogues.

Most of the time, the GM didn’t even consider your ability scores when evaluating the outcomes of actions. It wasn’t really until AD&D 2E that the concept of using the ability score as part of a roll showed up. That was part of the optional Non-Weapon Proficiency system. The problem was that the game had a set of predefined rules for resolving specific things: opening doors, coming back from the dead, saving against dragon breath, finding secret doors, and attacking monsters. But no two of those rules worked precisely the same. And anything that didn’t have a specific rule was left up to the GM to just figure out. To rule on.

3E changed everything because it gave the GM a way to resolve anything: an ability check. One rule that could handle every action that the rules couldn’t handle. And then, all the other rules were reframed to also use that rule. At that point, ability scores ceased to be descriptive. They didn’t exist to describe the character, they existed to resolve character actions. And, frankly, that was the smartest thing ever to happen to RPGs.

The thing is, characters have all sorts of descriptive elements that don’t have any general mechanical backing. You can decide, for example, how tall your character is or how heavy or what their sex is or what social class they were born too or what their hobbies are or how old they are or whatever. Most of those things have no mechanical game impact. Same with personality traits. A humorless character is something you just, sort of play. The idea that a character is more than the numbers on the character sheet, that’s not new. The point of designing the mechanics of the game is to decide what aspects of the character have a mechanical impact on the game and what aspects don’t. Or rarely do. Because, of course, the GM does exist to make the judgment calls that need to be made. It doesn’t matter, in general, whether your character is right-handed or left-handed. But if you get your hand chopped off, well, that’s going to have an impact. Your character’s height and weight don’t matter most of the time, but if someone is carrying your unconscious body around, well, they might. And the GM can make that call.

So, in the modern sense, the ability score system is a way of resolving the actions that character’s take that is primarily based on some, specific quality of that character. And that is common to all characters. At least, all player characters. I mean, consider in D&D, for example, whether NPCs need to have Charisma scores. NPCs never roll social skill checks against PCs. Why the hell would they ever need a Charisma score? It’s a waste of space in the stat block. And no one ever rolls a Constitution check for anything. There aren’t even any skills governing it. It’s just a bonus hit point stat. Why do monsters need that? Just add the bonus hit points and call it a day.

I’m being flippant, but hopefully, you see what I’m saying. Ability scores have gone from being descriptive aspects of the character that offer a minor benefit in some situations to being the methods by which the character interacts with the world. And honestly, most people don’t even give a crap about the ability score itself anymore. They happily take the Strength modifier to attack rolls and damage rolls and whatever else, but they don’t actually feel their character has to have any muscle mass to justify that. And lots of people argue – quite rightly, in my opinion – that it’s time to dump the system of having BOTH an ability score and an ability modifier. That’s an unconscious recognition of the fact that the score itself – the descriptive part – is vestigial. That ability scores are an action resolution tool.

Now, you might disagree. Or, you might sit in the middle. Like me. You might say there is value in the descriptive nature of ability scores; don’t throw that away. And I agree. But what I’m pointing out is that it’s the action resolution that should come first. Because that’s how the game works. And any descriptive aspect of the character that isn’t needed to resolve an action can be left as merely descriptive. It’s hair and eye color. Or it can be represented in another, simpler way.

Let’s just stick with that definition though: an ability score system is an action resolution system in which every character possesses some specific list of capabilities that are used as a core component of the system. Or, to put it in fewer weasel words, it’s a system in which every character has a bunch of numerical traits that can be used to determine the outcome of anything they do.

Okay?

How Strong is Ash Ketchup Anyway?

Now, hopefully, you see what the problem with the Pokeyman RPG using the d20 list of six ability scores is. That list doesn’t make sense for how Pokeyman trainers interact with the world. Pokeyman trainers interact with the world primarily THROUGH their Pokeyman. Whenever there’s an obstacle – say a heavy rock – Ash Ketchup isn’t going to shove it out of the way himself. Hell, Ash Ketchup is like ten freaking years old. Even if he did try, it’s not like he’d be much stronger than any of his contemporaries. He probably has the same chance to move that rock as Broccoli or Jessie Mist or whoever. And even if there was enough of a difference to make a big deal about, it’s such a rare situational thing that it’s not worth making Strength a core measure of every single Pokeyman trainer’s basic capabilities. Ninety-nine times out of ten, the answer to the question of “how strong is Ash Ketchup” is “who gives an actual crap?”

Instead, what Pokeyman trainers primarily need – what defines them in the world of Pokeyman – is how they interact with their Pokeyman. And the games and the cartoon shows generally seem to show three different traits. There’s the Pokeyman trainers who LOVE their Pokeyman, the Pokeyman trainers who share a MUTUAL RESPECT with their Pokeyman, and there’s the trainers who COMMAND their Pokeyman. So, ability scores for a Pokeyman RPG would all be social ability scores. Or, mostly social. And they’d show that trinity, say, Empathy, Spirit, and Command. The Empathy stat would govern emotional interactions, the Spirit stat would be all about inspiration and respect and bravery since it’s really about gaining respect and leading by example, and the Command stat would be about dominating and willpower and all that crap. You could, of course, add a secondary stat for Physical and one for Mental for times when you needed to resolve rock pushing and resistance to injury and how much someone knows, but those could be pretty broad and general since they’d be rarer in general.

For another example, the Harry Potter universe has four basic descriptors of each of its characters: Courage, Ambition, Intellect, and Loyalty. Each of the four main characters, Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Neville, represent those. Harry is all courage, Ron – the poor one who wants to stand out – is ambitious, Neville is loyal to a fault – to the point where his major act of courage in the first book is to stand up to his friends so they don’t get his house in trouble – and Hermione is, of course, all about intellect. Since everything else the characters do in the world is based on the spells they cast, that’s all you’d need to cover just about everything. You could even associate different schools of magic with different stats.

But this isn’t about developing ability score systems for other RPGs. I’m just using those as examples: ability scores are no longer about describing the character; they are about defining how the character interacts with the world. Anything that doesn’t define how the EVERY CHARACTER interacts with the world can be relegated to a situational trait, a bonus, a feat, a skill, or just a line of description. Ash Ketchup and Harry Potter don’t need strength scores. But Broccoli can have a Strong trait that gives him a bonus when he, himself tries to do something that normally only a Pokeyman would do.

Why Does SDCIWCh Suck for D&D?

Okay, fine, you might say. Great. Ability scores – in a system that is based on ability scores because remember, that’s not the only way to build an RPG – ability scores are not descriptors of the characters, they define the ways in which the characters interact with the world. And they have to be able to somehow resolve all or most actions, allowing space – of course – for highly situational things or skill-based bonuses or whatever. What’s wrong with Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma? It works as well as any system, right?

Well, no. That’s the thing. It worked well enough as a descriptive system. But if you were designing a system from scratch with the express intention of using it as the core of action adjudication, it’d be a bad system. D&D is stuck with it. I don’t deny that. But, let’s not pretend it does D&D any favors. And maybe it’s time for designers to stop porting it to absolutely every other freaking system ever.

Here’s the thing: to use an ability score system for action adjudication, you have to be able to take every action a character is reasonably likely to take – based on how all characters interact with the world of the game – and assign it to ONE and PRECISELY ONE ability score. That’s how action adjudication works. And, right from the get-go, D&D has some weirdness in it.

Take, for example, the old “wisdom vs. intelligence” debate. No matter how flippantly you want to define each of those ability scores in terms of tomatoes and fruit salad or knowledge and common sense and whatever, the fact is, none of those lines are particularly good, solid lines. That is to say, there’s no bright line between the two. A bright line, by the way, is a division between two things that is very easy to see. Why is the medicine/healing skill based on Wisdom? Last time I checked, treating injuries, illnesses, and diseases were based a lot on recognizing symptoms and remembering which plant or herb or treatment was the correct one for that condition. Aragorn didn’t intuit which plant to use on Frodo. He knew that kingsfoil was the right plant for the right job. Medieval fantasy medicine especially is just memorizing a list of plants and treatments to go with specific parts of the body, conditions, and treatments. That’s all intelligence. It’s only Wisdom because the characters who do most of the healing are clerics and other Wisdom-based characters. And what even is intellect. You can make a lot of noise about the difference between book learning and common sense, but if intellect is also reason and cleverness and figuring things out, then how is that not common sense? Frankly, if you want to separate the two – memorization and common sense – make those the ability scores. Why is wisdom perception and awareness? How did that get in there? Why isn’t that separate? And, while we’re on the topic, the division between Wisdom and Charisma is sometimes pretty muddy. After all, Charisma is also confidence and willpower, right? I mean, sometimes it is. Other times, it’s not.

The real problem though is that wisdom is accumulated knowledge. It’s worldliness. That’s what the word actually means. Wisdom is a consequence of experience. That’s why old people are wiser than young people. And that isn’t a basic capability. It’s something you accumulated during your life. Why isn’t wisdom wrapped up in experience and levels? It should be.

The rest of this discussion is basically the same discussion that I put forth in Being In-Flex-Able. It’s about how some things can fit into multiple ability scores and how that weakens the game. I don’t want to dwell on that. Because there’s other issues.

Just as important as making sure every action can fit into ONE and PRECISELY ONE ability score, it’s also important to make sure that none of the ability scores and none of the situations in the game are too specialized. Too specific. And no example of this is better than Charisma in D&D. Now, I am not going to get into the stupid collision between a skill system an and ability score whose basic definition is the social skills score. Instead, I want to highlight the participation problem.

Charisma is the one and only one score that governs all social interactions. And that means that only characters who have a good Charisma score will interact socially. And that’s a problem. Because social interaction is one of the three pillars of the game. Or so I’m told. It’s a core part of the experience. Something everyone should be able to participate in. By gating it behind one ability score that is also utterly useless in any other context, you’re limiting it drastically and unnecessarily. Wizards can not have intellectual debates and Clerics cannot use their empathy and intuition in social situations if they don’t have the Charisma score to back it up.

Take another pillar of the game, for example combat. Combat relies on pretty much every ability score. Strength and Dexterity govern melee and missile attacks; Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma govern all magical attacks; Dexterity also governs initiative and AC; Constitution governs hit points; and many or all of the ability scores affect saving throws and other defenses. There’s no ONE ability score that governs participation in combat. Sure, different characters have to participate in different ways based on their ability scores and how they interact with their class abilities, but there’s lots of options. It’s very open.

Imagine if we took all of combat and rolled everything into one ability score: Fighting. Everyone has a Fighting score. And Fighting is the only score that is used in 90% of combats 90% of the time. See the issue? That’s Charisma.

And no, the solution is NOT to have two or three different Charisma scores. You NEVER want to create a broad situation that everyone is expected to be a part of and put it under the auspices of only one or two scores. You want options for everyone. And that means, no, there is no social ability score. Instead, there’s social skills and ways to use all of the other ability scores – or several of them, at least – in social situations. Intelligence and Wisdom and the occasional physical ability score can handle almost everything that Charisma already does.

Finally, if ability scores exist to help adjudicate actions, then you don’t want any ability scores that aren’t about taking actions. I’m looking at Constitution here. Constitution is a freaking appendix. It needs to be cut off the game. It isn’t doing anything. Yeah, it informs hit points and some defenses. Well, so what? That doesn’t justify its existence as an ability score. Hit Points are already affected by class and by level. And some feats and magic items boost them as well. Do we really need more than that? And as for fortitude or physical resistance? Well, hoody-freaking-hoo. Dexterity governs armor class AND evasion AND missile attacks AND initiative AND finesse weapon attacks AND. Let Strength govern fortitude AND melee attacks. Maybe people will start putting something into Strength instead of going to finesse weapons because they rightly realize Dexterity is the most overpowered combat ability score on the list.

I could make a similar argument about Intelligence being pretty passive as well. If you’re not a spellcaster, there’s no good reason to put anything into Intelligence. It doesn’t govern any actions. And no, asking a question about what your character knows is NOT an action. It’s a speedbump in the decision-making process. Intelligence as knowledge and raw memory? That part of intelligence is uselessly passive in D&D. It can go. Let people just choose an area of expertise. You can have knowledge skills without ability scores if you really think it’s important to roll dice to find out what you know. Knowledge checks aren’t actions so they don’t have to live in the core mechanic anyway. That’s fine.

The truth of the matter is, as it currently stands, every character of every class should have the highest possible Charisma and Dexterity after they’ve satisfied whatever core requirement of their class exists. Wizard? Intelligence, Charisma, Dexterity. Fighter? Strength, Dexterity, Charisma. Cleric? Wisdom, Dexterity, Charisma. You need Dexterity because it’s overloaded with uses. You need Charisma so you’re even allowed to participate in social interaction, a pillar of the game.

And that – that simple rule that is really hard to dispute – that’s an indictment of the D&D ability score system. Of the six ability scores, only three are useful for any character. One is mandatory to participate in one pillar of the game. One governs seventy-five percent of a second pillar. And the third one is determined by your class.

Starting from Scratch

But, me, I’m not concerned with fixing D&D anymore. I mean, I still do a lot of that, but I’m more interested now in the question of what I could – and would – do if I weren’t shackled to D&D’s past. And I’m not. I have it easy. So, I can recognize that the real point of the ability scores is to classify all of the different ways that characters might interact with the world and to allow the GM to easily pick one class of actions – one score – for every action to resolve it. And then to make sure that the different ability scores are more or less broadly applicable to all of the core parts of gameplay. I wouldn’t start with a pre-existing list like the d20 system. And I wouldn’t even start with the illusion that I’m trying to come up with a system to describe the characters in the world. Or a way of differentiating characters. Tools to describe and differentiate characters can sit on top of the ability scores.

Instead, I would just figure out how the characters might interact with the world and figure out how to break those actions down along simple, bright lines. Maybe give the GM a list of simple questions to ask of each action that will lead him to the right ability score every time.

And, I probably wouldn’t call them ability scores.

And I definitely wouldn’t have constitution, charisma, or anything like knowledge and memorization. Fuck that garbage. Let D&D drown with those anchors around its neck.

121 thoughts on “Your Ability Scores Suck

  1. Your articles are always thought provoking. In my non-professional personal outlet blog I wrote about mental stats. It’s far less clear than what you have here.

    I appreciate the articles you merely crap out.

    Questions to lead a GM to the right ability score might be stuff like:

    Does coordination or power (or whatever else) affect the outcome the most directly?

    • This was covered in the “In-flex-ability” article. The best question is, “Which ability is the limiting factor in this action?” That is, lack of which ability will cause this action to fail?

      To use the example in that article of jumping a chasm, DEX is going to play a peripheral role regarding how graceful a character is while jumping, but STR is going to be the limiting factor in determining whether the character has the muscular power to launch themselves the required distance.

      Once that is determined, you can consider whether there’s a proficiency that applies if the character is trained. And there is: Athletics.

      So jumping over a chasm is a STR (Athletics) check.

  2. The RPG Pundit who allegedly worked on 5e seems to be very pleased with the results. But then again he is a major proponent of the OSR so that probably reinforces the point that 5e was a U turn.

    An also prominent problem that the D&D scores have created is that now they are by far the most accessible way for creating a universal action resolution system. People know them. It is no wonder that every other derivative rpg uses them as they are or slightly changed in order to patch things up with varying decrees of success, some of them not even changing the needlessly complex and un-intuitive way of figuring out the modifiers. It seems easier to ditch the idea of a universal action resolution mechanic based of broad categories and move to other core mechanics than try to break the habit.

    Or I am wrong and most of the rpg designers out there are just as fixated on the D&D orthodox way of doing things as the players.

    • As a software engineer this is what I was thinking about as I read this article. D&D has become a standard off of which many other games have iterated. So it’s no wonder people reuse the common attributes which have been used in video games and so many other places that they are intuitive to most others.

      Just like new programming language that “solve” old coding problems that come with languages like Java, the stalwarts will remain and people will keep using their standards in other places. For the self perpetuating reason that other people have done it and everyone understands it.

      Trying to do something new is all well and good but you are fighting against decades of ingrained culture and losing a lot of assumptions that you gain by using the standards. Maybe that’s what you want, but you have a whole lot more work that way, not the least of which is convincing people to care about and use what you’ve invented when they have a perfectly good option that they already understand.

      I’d also argue that the Intimidation (Strength) type paradigm used in the 5e rules actually eliminates most of the problems mentioned in the article with Charisma and the like. Trouble is, seems most DMs don’t often use alternate stat based skill checks.

      Last point – somewhere recently I learned that 5e originally intended to eliminate ability scores in favor of modifiers only but they were kept by popular demand.

      • One more quick note: in 5e, keeping a low ability score doesn’t necessarily eliminate you from play. You know quite well that a 8 / -1 in charisma is only 15% less likely to succeed on a given check than a 14 / +2 . That hardly eliminates the character from even participating. If they decided to play an uncharismatic strong PC that seems completely relevant that they would not be as likely to succeed in interpersonal conflict.

  3. Could it be argued that ability scores dont really diferentiate combat in 5e? I can have high strength, dexterity or even charisma (warlock) and be good at swinging swords. Weapon profriences from classes is what really matters. Hit points are mostly determined by class, AC is largely determined by class (proficiencies), spellcasting is limited by class and so on. I feel like if there truly was only one ‘fighting’ ability score, combat styles wouldn’t change very much if classes are still there. Would the game change very much if combat was fully determined by class and level?

    • There’s two different ideas you mention. For one, having just one “fighting” ability score into which you do or don’t assign attribute points is a terrible idea. The reason is that a character who doesn’t assign points to that stat would be severely penalized for ALL combat encounters, which for most people is a good 50-80% of gameplay.

      However, dispensing with stats for combat all together and basing combat entirely on class and level isn’t the worst idea. It could be immersion breaking to realize the tough, burly fighter doesn’t hit any harder than the nimble rouge. As you mention that is actually the case in D&D already, but the attribute system makes it clear WHY a rogue does as much damage as a fighter. Without attributes it would be harder to describe how the characters do what they do.

      • Dungeon World handles this well I think. Anyone can use any weapon. But the class dictates the damage dice. W wizard does 1d4 damage with a sledgehammer and a dagger. While a fighter does 1d8, or something.

        Wizards and other low damage classes are given other options for interacting with the game in combat. Usually it’s not just “deal some damage”.

    • Well, you still need to be able to resolve non-combat actions, so you’ll still need something to base non-combat skills on. But that can (and probably should) be derived from class too.

      • maybe part of the problem is that were building characters backwards. Character creation starts with ability scores and governs what set of skills we can have and class determines what our expertise is afterwards if any at all. I hate knowing that I may not get to play the character that my background should let me play.

        Why not make a character, pick or create a background, assign skills associated with the background, and then determine what “ability” scores they have based on that background. Hell just simplify it more, have 3 scores that get bonuses added to them. Body, Mind, Social. Body for fighter types, mind for spell casting, Social for social. The skills you pick determine what kind of interactions you’d use. A thief may take deception as their skill they want proficiency in, but someone who gets proficient at lying has to be good at social so you’d add a +1 modifier point to social. A class would then could then determine bonuses to stuff and build your characters background. Heck you could learn new skills as you go that automatically up your ability modifiers. Feats already do it.

        Point being starting with ability scores is really limiting and doesn’t always play true to the character you are trying to play.

        Elder scrolls skyrim had it right in that you build your skills and not a lot of focus is put on your base stats. You get health, mana, and stamina.Those aren’t necessarily what governs your character.

    • The biggest problem here is that were starting character creation with ability scores. Classes are built around specific ability scores. So much of the game is determined by your ability scores. Why do we start with ability scores anymore? Why aren’t we picking a class, then skills, then determining ability scores last? I mean if you’re good at lying you have to have good “charisma”. Why not just add modifiers to stats based on what skills you chose. Someone good at cooking is probably going to have a good constitution. You could be a thief rogue who chose expertise in athletics because you want to be parkour expert whos good at stealing purses. You don’t really need strength, but to build the concept you’ll need strength. I only say you need strength because I don’t expect a DM to allow me to use dexterity for my athletics instead of strength.

      For those randomness needed from the rompy rolly randomizers on character creation you could just roll for extra stat points to place randomly or something. Point being it’s stifling to start with ability scores when building characters.

  4. This all makes a lot of sense and IDs a lot of what I’ve often found frustrating about non-combat action adjudication in D&D. But I’m a bit confused by this:

    [i]The idea of systematic action adjudication – the idea of a universal set of rules that could be used to consistently and fairly determine the outcome of any action anyone could think of – that idea was BORN with the d20 system.[/i]

    I’m not sure whether you mean this idea was born within the D&D lineage with d20, which makes sense to me, or if you’re making a broader claim across RPGs as a whole, which doesn’t seem right unless there are some parts of that definition whose nuances I’m not immediately understanding.

    I’m pretty sure the White Wolf games have had this approach to action adjudication, including reliance on attributes in conjunction with skills, since they started (albeit with their own set of initially-wonky attribute choices that were refined as they went). The West End Games system also seems like it qualifies — and Ghostbusters even does the curated-ability-score thing you point to in your Pokeman example. BRP is a bit clunkier and, similar to early D&D isn’t attribute-based, but still seems like it qualifies as having systematic action adjudication in some of its incarnations at least. And I don’t have much GURPS experience but I think the situation there is similar.

    There are pros and cons to each of those systems, but I have found that when running them, it’s easier to respond flexibly to players’ different ideas for less-standard kinds of actions than when running earlier versions of D&D (or even more recent ones, given the idiosyncracies of the attribute and skills lists), so I definitely take your point, but I don’t feel like I quite see what’s so unique about this aspect of d20 beyond applying this kind of approach to D&D for the first time.

    • Well, it’s not central to the article so it’s not a big deal, but yeah, those things Angry attributes to the D20 system were present in earlier systems. Case in point, Rolemaster had a VERY similar system since 1995(unified action resolution mechanic, and even with opportunities attacks, flanking bonuses, feats -called talents- et al) and a rather similar system going well back into the 80’s with MERP.

      But, it’s not really a thing until D&D introduces it, that how the world works. 🙂

      But anyway, whether or not D&D invented the core d20 mechanic, the truth is that it was the game that gave it a lasting impact and it certainly was probably one of the best executions of the idea. So in the context of the article it doesn’t really matter if other systems did it first. (I add this in the hope Angry doesn’t yell at us too much for nitpicking)

    • WotC bought the rights to Talislanta back in 1990ish and published an edition of that. It used the d20 system. It seems logical that WotC just ported that into D&D for 3E.

    • White Wolf’s “Storyteller” system differs from Angry’s take on the d20 system in a fundamental way.

      Storyteller: every action that requires a roll will be adjudicated via Attribute + Skill.

      Angry d20: every action that requires a roll will be adjudicated via an Attribute Check.

      The Storyteller system explicitly tries to slot any attempted action into a list of skills. The d20 system, in theory (and Angry’s take, explicitly), reduces any attempted action to a single attribute check, modified by circumstance.

      • That’s because white wolf built the core mechanic around attribute plus skill. And even they were trying to base attributes off of preconceived ideas, which is why something stupid like appearance being a on the sheet, also its a game mostly about goths wanting to be magical things. Whatever. But the idea was that the ways a character interacted with the world was broken down into 3 blocks for easy management. Physical, Social and mental. Each broken into 3 smaller bits that gets a little fuzzy. In my mind they should work as an active aspect, a passive aspect and a defensive aspect for the ability it sits in but that’s me. I thought white wold did some things right and did some things wrong.

        Personally I am all for angrys approach to looking at these old sacred cows like ability scored and such. Why are we so attached to this stuff. Have we not grown?

    • I’m certain that the point was, systematic action adjudication is exactly what d20 systems in general were born for. Not that D&D created it.

  5. Mike Russo, I think that’s all he’s saying – D20 created (popularized?) the simplified ability score approach and many – not all, just many – systems revolve around that particular deconstruction.

    I personally like the (blatantly unbalanced and clunky) Palladium system for some games things, even though it is pretty characteristic heavy. I like the FFG dice adjudication system too which is less reliant on core characteristics though it still uses them

  6. I can vouch that I, along with my entire gaming group, began playing with 4e. I must say, I still have a soft spot for the different defensive scores, allowing someone to dodge a warhammer but not absorb a hit from a rapier or vice-versa.

    As far as ability scores go, the most counter-intuitive thing for me was intimidation being charisma based. The idea that the strong, ugly orc is worse at intimidation than the fairy princess just feels wrong.

    I hadn’t considered it before, but strength being combined with constitution just makes sense. It’s not that dexterity is overpowered, it’s that strength is underwhelming. Has anyone playtested houseruling combining strength and constitution?

    • We’re gonna start using this houserule with the new campaign. Doesn’t help answer your question now, but why not give it a try?

  7. “Or, to put it in fewer weasel words, it’s a system in which every character has a bunch of numerical traits that can be used to determine the outcome of anything they do.”

    Not sure I agree with that premise. It also represents everything that’s done to them. When you look at what the Abilities stand for in their entirety — being both reactive instead of proactive — then it becomes clear that the traits and corresponding numbers still symbolize the descriptive aspects of each character. What 3rd, 4th and 5th editions did was make them more relevant to gameplay, which is not to say that they changed meaning. They were given greater context.

    And reactive in this sense doesn’t merely mean Savings Throws, which are an important part. But they are also relevant to Contests, as well as benchmarks for what, and how much detail, might be known by a character but not known by a player.

    I agree with you entirely that the system isn’t the only one that should be strapped onto any game, or that there are multitudes of other ways to define character abilities that would be more relevant to a specific system.

    • Accuracy is more about training than dexterity and landing hits is often about being able to swing the weapon quickly which is based on strength.

  8. If I were smarter, I’d want to hack a system together to untie wisdom from the normal abilities and make it a separate progression track tied to level/experience. Give people an option to gain +1 to their wisdom modifier, up to +5, in lieu of a normal ability score increase, so people can be wise or work on their other stats. Then rework some rolls to use Wisdom instead of other stats. Maybe grant rituals, tools, or languages as Wisdom increases, to represent lived experiences. I dunno.

    • A quick ‘n’ dirty hack might be to just use Proficiency instead of Wisdom, and reassign other skills (like Medicine to Intelligence, say). Stacking with, well, Proficiency.

      • That’s the quick and direct answer, sure. I just kept turning over this idea that Wisdom required reflection and wasn’t an automatic bonus. If someone spent their ASI to increase their strength or whatever, they weren’t spending time reflecting on their life experiences as much and growing from them. I liked the idea making it a +0, +1, +2, +3, +4, +5 scale instead of a normal attribute too. Sure, it’s probably a BAD idea. But it’s just one that got stuck with me.

  9. I think some good points are brought up here. I would like to point out that in the core books the skills are tied to certain abilities but not immutably sealed to them. A DM and player has freedom to say I want to use a physical display of crushing a skull with my bare hands to intimidate that person and in that case strength would make sense to be used to influence the intimidation roll and not charisma. I can recall plenty of movie scenes using precision with a knife thrown or stabbed right next to someone to intimidate them which could be a Dexterity based intimidation. I can easily think of a movie intimidation scene that would draw on each different attribute, including a constitution based one. And the same can be said about virtually any social skill.

    Once agin, I think in the end this article brings up some great points. I guess I’m in the camp of not letting the rules limit you, but inspire you and how your particular group wants to play. That’s the vibe I get from the core books of 5e.

    Being clear from the start I think goes a long way. Saying I want my character to be good at both swinging a sword and intimidating people with said sword and cutting through vines when exploring makes perfect sense and could all be lumped together under one or two ability scores for THAT player. If a player wants to just be good at EVERYTHING in every pillar of play and have it all be tied to one attribute for them then that would probably be unfair to everyone else and make the game less fun.

    • I’m curious, what’s your Intimidation example for Charisma? I generally find the better the smooth talker, the less intimidating the individual. Persuading or decieving makes sense, but intimidation I struggle with.

      • I would tend to interpret Charisma as being more like Gravitas or force of personality. Maybe Assertiveness. You can see a soft spoken Robert De Niro being intimidating without being loud – he just has that depth of personality and nuance.

        Charisma is otherwise a mess. The least socially accepted races (Tieflings, Dragonborn in some cases) have huge bonuses to Charisma – but why? The more ostracized, the less likely they should be to influence others innately.

        “Hello, I am a Tiefling Warlock.”

        “A demon-spawn and a practitioner of the dark arts? I’m definitely listening.”

      • Watch Ian McShane or Gerald McRaney in Deadwood and try to tell me how the menace they project has anything to do with Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom or Intelligence instead of their pure Charisma. The CLOSEST to Charisma might be a History or Insight check from the other party to see if the person dealing with them knows those characters’ reputations, but is it the MAIN factor, or just supports for how anyone in the same room with them know they are not men to be trifled with, and that what they want you BETTER give to them?

        I mean, if you are going to parse between Intimidation and Persuasion like the game wants you to (and not saying you have to, either), and you’d seemingly rather be saying “He’s Persuading them as to how intimidating he is”, might it not be easier just to say he’s Intimidating them, right? Especially if the Intimidation is the goal and part of the character, and not so much the persuading part?

        Ian McShane is of average height and build and wears an ill-fitting pinstripe suit, and Gerald McRaney is frickin’ Major Dad, but if you think it ain’t Charisma that makes them Intimidating, and or that they have to use Deception to prove their threat or that their menace requires any Persuasion to support outside of the fact of the menace itself, well, lots of dead characters on that show that thought otherwise too, hehehe.
        https://gph.is/1hyajXk

    • “I can easily think of a movie intimidation scene that would draw on each different attribute, including a constitution based one.”

      My solution in the context of the current rules would be roll an ability check against the attribute being used, then use the difference in die roll and target number as a modifier to the intimidate check (the charisma intimidate check being convincing the target creature that the player actually WOULD crush the targets skull with his bare hands). If the player’s thus generated modifier then winds up big enough, automatic success. Depending on the circumstances, I might invert a penalty for low charisma, since that is a reflection of being viewed negatively, already. Real world example: who is more intimidating pulling a gun on you, a cute soccer mom or a skeevy meth head? Who’s got the higher charisma, though?

      The rules can’t (and never will) cover everything. We have to interpret, adapt and improvise. So long as it makes sense and remains consistent at your table, it’s really just “whatever works”.

  10. The party needed to throw a stone to tap a third-story window to wake a friend. Who was more accurate at throwing stones – the paladin or the ranger?

    The stone didn’t wake up the friend, so we climbed up. Who was best at climbing to the third-story window, the paladin in plate mail or the rogue?

    When we got there, we spotted the window was trapped. Who was better at spotting the trap, the priest or the rogue?

    We saw through the window that the room was empty except for some religious symbols. Who was better at knowing the religious symbols, the priest or the wizard?

    A guard down below saw the climbers, so we brandished our weapons and scared him off. Who was better at scaring him, the barbarian or the bard?

    • >The party needed to throw a stone to tap a third-story window to wake a friend. Who was more accurate at throwing stones – the paladin or the ranger?

      The ranger, since he’s got more dexterity. The paladin’s strength lets him do more *damage* with throwing weapons, but doesn’t make him any better at hitting his target.

      >The stone didn’t wake up the friend, so we climbed up. Who was best at climbing to the third-story window, the paladin in plate mail or the rogue?

      Given that plate mail has something like a -6 armor check penalty, I would imagine the Rogue. Unless the Paladin put skill points into Climb and the rogue didn’t, in which case… duh, the beefy guy who practices rock climbing in his free time will probably do better.

      >When we got there, we spotted the window was trapped. Who was better at spotting the trap, the priest or the rogue?

      The rogue is the only one who can find complicated traps at all, and finding traps is Search (Int), not Spot (Wis).

      >We saw through the window that the room was empty except for some religious symbols. Who was better at knowing the religious symbols, the priest or the wizard?

      Whichever one bothered to put skill points into Knowledge (religion), since you need training to know more than common knowledge (although holy symbols sound common to me). If the priest slept through his World Religions class and the wizard is a walking encyclopedia, well…

      >A guard down below saw the climbers, so we brandished our weapons and scared him off. Who was better at scaring him, the barbarian or the bard?

      This one is dumb, but it’s also the one example that literally everyone knows is dumb and complains about.

      Most of these either aren’t ambiguous if you’re applying the right rules, or are actually arguments that the skill points system should be replaced with some sort of “if you’re this class you automatically get these skills” system.

      • What edition are you playing?
        This person is talking about 5e.
        1. By RAW, throwing things, even small stones, is Str-based – you add STR mod to hit, not Dex. Though, it could be argued that throwing a pebble at a window, the pebble could have hte “Finesse” trait so you could add Dex instead.
        2. No such thing as an Armour Check Penalty. Climbing is an Athletics (Strength) Check, so unless our Rogue is a Thief, the Character with higher Strength will climb better, regardless of the Armour they are wearing. Every Paladin, Str-based Fighter or Barbarian BETTER have proficiency in Athletics, because that’s really all they are even supposed to be good at.
        3. Again, you are looking at the wrong edition. Spotting traps is a Perception (Wisdom) check, for which the Cleric probably has a higher score due to higher Wisdom. That is unless the Rogue took Expertise in perception (which would mean they don’t have it in one of Thieves’ Tools or Stealth…)
        4. 5e has different rules, again. Religion is an Intelligence Check. So the Wizard will have like, +4 or 5 without investing in proficiency in the skill. If the Cleric has proficiency in Religion (they had to invest, and +0 to Int checks (which would be pretty typical), they won’t get +5 to Religion checks until level 10.
        5. Everyone knows it’s dumb, and yet here we are…

  11. There is almost 50 years of installed user base knowledge with the 6 ability scores. Other systems experimented with other lists, but the Classic 6 have won the Darwinian struggle.

    This doesn’t mean anyone knows or agrees on what they are. But I have an answer, that works in all systems where magic or psionics is anything close to a thing. Mind over matter is a principle of the universe.

    Wisdom is your ability to intuitively understand the world. ESP, Spider-sense, Jedi force senses, intuition, primeval awareness, etc. Also includes mundane methods like sight, hearing, smell, etc. Close your eyes and listen to the world–that’s Wisdom.

    Charisma is your ability to influence the world, to reach out with your mind/spirit/etc and change things. Force telekinesis, influencing people, etc. Close your eyes and spread your will out into the world–charisma.

    Strength, Dexterity, Constitution are pretty well established and defined.
    Intelligence isn’t that controversial, except in terms of distinguishing it from Wisdom.

    • In that case, there should be no Wisdom based spellcasting right? Which just goes back to one of the main points – 5e doesn’t have bright clear lines between adjudication option for how characters interact with the world.

      • Hmm. That is the logic of my position.
        Maybe you grok the world so deeply that you find the energy to power spells? No, that’s weak.

        • I mean it may have some unforeseen balance issues. But if staying with 5e game structure you could (It’s just a spew idea) trash wisdom, port everything wisdom handles to intelligence except perception.
          Make perception primarily situation based. Trash passive perception score.

          Assume players are checking around them if not performing another task, and assume they notice if “it” isn’t hidden.

          If it is hidden they have to search for it (therefore the game should provide a reason to search for it).
          Something hidden that is moving (something sneaking up on them) is easier to notice. Something that is closer (thus something moving and very close to you is much easier to notice) or larger is easier to notice. Something that is obscured is harder to notice.

          You could have perception categories that help you determine when character notice something (primarily important for how much time does a character have to react – do they notice ahead of time and get a full or multiple turns, do they barely notice in time and get a reaction, or are they completely surprised?)

          I ramble-spewed about this idea in april on my still-under-construction blog. Mostly just getting ideas on *virtual* paper.

          https://thegishroleplay.wordpress.com/2019/04/07/senses-darkness-and-light-sight/

          Another option would be to take those same ideas into consideration but build it as an “Angry’s Rule of Ten” structure. Have some auto-win conditions (specifically checking the right area).

          IDK. I’ve just never quite agreed with D&D perception. Felt it could be less abstracted AND better used.

    • Darwinian struggle or appeal to tradition? Either way, that, alone is not a very compelling argument for the system’s merits. But, with that attitude, you could work for WotC.

      • Yeah, I wouldn’t call the 1st version of the game a Darwinian struggle. That would be if there were dozens of RPGs in the beggining and then only one survived, which clearly isn’t the case here.

        In fact, from a Darwinian point of view, the fact is that there are dozens of succesful(read: not bankrupt) games out there that don’t use the ‘Classic 6’, therefore there are spots for different ways of doing things.

  12. If someone at WotC was actually inclined to “fix” Ability scores, one way to go might be something like Physique (combining STR and CON), Precision and Agility (splitting DEX), Education (what INT actually is), Awareness and Willpower (splitting WIS with the latter subsuming the non-social bits of CHA)..

    • You could also conceivably keep dex as is but flavor it as Coordination. The more coordinated you are then the more quickly you can perform action that require high levels of coordination thus it would be a character domain governing quickness, accuracy, balance, and fine object manipulation.

      • That’s what I was getting at with “Precision”. Things like aiming, fine motor skills etc. As opposed to things like balance and full-body coordination which would be “Agility”.

        Basically, dealing with the over-representation of DEX checks in the game by splitting it in two. You could still have “finesse-based” melee styles, they’d just use a different stat from ranged attacks.

        Conversely, merging STR and CON into “physique” would encourage players creating melee-based characters to go for a style more in keeping with the psuedo-medieval setting of most D&D campaigns. They’d get more bang for their buck.

    • Wow, I’ve got a bunch of very recent houserule note vaguely outlining that exact scheme! Here’s the short version.

      Awareness – Perception and alertness in physical, social, and even supernatural capacities
      Deftness – Manual dexterity, hand-eye coordination, fine motor control
      Erudition – Education (formal or otherwise) and ability to absorb and retain information.
      Grace – Agility, athleticism, balance, quickness
      Might – Physical strength and sturdiness
      Steel – Willpower, courage, and strength of personality

      • I also appreciate separating Dexterity from Agility if only because I like the idea of the crusty old dwarf who’s just as good a shot with a crossbow and handy with tools as the elf, without all the silly tumbling around and sliding down stairs on a shield and such.

        Two things I would change, though: I would relabel Erudition as Cunning (a character’s ability to figure things out that aren’t already obvious) and separate it from education entirely for the reasons Angry stated above. Then rangers and barbarians could be as Cunning as wizards and bards, even if they have don’t have the booksmarts.

        And also just rename Steel to Willpower, because it’s a more natural description. One could argue that courage and personality are also acts of Willpower.

        • 100% agree on separating DEX into the “manual dexterity” and “bodily agility” parts.

          DEX in DnD etc. ist basically “the Legolas stat”, which allows him to be a great archer but also do crap like using a shield like a snowboard.

          I also like the “cunning” idea, as I always have the feeling that most Fighter/Ranger/Barbarian characters drop INT because it does not fit the character, but also many people don´t want to play a dumb guy.

        • Ah, see the whole reason from switching from a stat that describes actual intelligence to one that only describes education (admitting fully that “education” is fundamentally more of a skill thing than an intrinsic ability thing) is TO LET rangers and barbarians (and other folks who don’t get a lot out of investing in Int) be as smart as their players want! This way, you can dump-stat the “book learning” ability score all you want, without actually defining your character as stupid.

          That said, I’m not sold on Erudition! I think there’s also a good argument to replace it with something that’s explicitly about magical power (call it, I dunno, Power or Arcana or something), and ditch completely the idea that there’s any stat to use for knowledge checks. I’d just have to figure out some things that non-spellcasters could use such a stat for. Saving throws vs. magic are pretty obvious and very useful, but that still not much. I guess I could bring back the old Use Magic Device check. Hmm…

          On Steel vs. WIllpower: Yeah, I could kinda go either way on that. I’ve been going with “Steel” because it’s got a bit more flavor (same reason I’ve got “Grace” instead of “Agility”), but I’m not sure I really committed hard enough to that vibe to pull it off.

          • I try to avoid to min-maxing or dump stats. I only let my characters have a negative modifier if I WANT them to have a specific weakness. Also why I prefer point-buy for character creation; I like to build the stats that support the kind of character I want to play. For example, my current goblin wizard has a Wisdom of 9 because I want him to be kind of oblivious, and a Charisma of 14 because he’s very uppity and expressive and good at talking over other people.

            And part of that goes into what Angry said (because if you don’t take my word for it, you should take his) about Ability Scores vs Skills, because your ability scores are supposed to be a starting place. More than that, a starting place that applies to ANY character, PC and NPC. Making Education one of those starting places is basically wasting space on a monster’s statblock, because shambling mounds and slimes and animals would have Education 0. An ability score like Cunning or Intellect might only be a 1-3, but that’s still something they can use, if only poorly.

        • I think resourcefulness (which is what I felt your definition of cunning here was) cannot be a stat. Resourcefulness – playing a macguyver – first starts with correct dispensing of information. The second part of resourcefulness requires the player to come up with ideas. Players who want resourceful characters will choose options that help with skills & knowledge, they’ll know more gated knowledge than other players, thus their crazy plans will generally be more successful – they have better information.

      • Seems rather similar to the way I approached it (elsewhere in the comments). Merge STR and CON into one stat. Split DEX into two stats. Make INT explicitly about education/knowledge. Get rid of CHA, spreading social interACTION! over all stats and merging the non-social bits into the non-awareness bits of WIS.

        As for a “magic” stat, just use “Steel” (“Willpower in my version) to govern that. Well mostly.

      • I’m kind of a fan of a three- stat approach: Power, Precision, and Toughness. Each is divided into three spheres, Physical and Mental. Power is the raw force you can bring to bear on a problem; feats of strength, memory, deduction, or charm would fall under this umbrella. Precision is a measure of how well you can guide your power, like focusing your will on a spell or throwing a dart at a dartboard or inciting a mob to kill a specific person. Toughness would cover your ability to withstand damage, like taking a punch or insult.
        With this system, you might not even have skills, just combine whichever two attribute modifiers best fit the attempted action. Or go with stat+skill, saving stat+stat for actions you don’t have a skill for. Or maybe I’m getting too complicated.

        • Technically, you don’t “have skills” in 5e anyway. You have a proficiency modifier that you add to checks within your character’s wheelhouse.

          But the article covers Toughness (well, Constitution). Basically it’s a passive stat. Your system also lumps together qualities not obviously connected.

          Perhaps a better trio might be Body, Mind and Spirit.

    • Why not just do mind, body, social? Those are the three interactions you normally deal with. Determine your class, your skills, get some fun bonuses for those picks and then just determine you’re mind, body, and social scores based on your picks. Then for some randomness roll some dice to determine extra points to those three. Your class is basically your combat prowess and your skills are your role playing abilities. It’s weird that your ability score determines your class and skills and not the other way around.

  13. Personal opinion here, I actually enjoy the characters created by the dragonlance saga system. I also appreciated how open the system was to taking just about any action. It had plenty of flaws sure, but I think that the core idea was great. The demeanor/nature was a fresh approach to alignment. They also separated Dex into Dex/Agil and Wis into Spirit/Perception. I liked the way they seemed to be headed, I just don’t feel like they had enough time to get there.

  14. Personally, I’m more drawn to the idea of dropping ability scores and having skills take their place entirely. So being good at intimidating people and being good at lying are not both being boosted by the same ability scores– you roll your bonus to any applicable skills or proficiencies ONLY, and DCs are lowered based on the assumption that no player will be getting a -1 to +5 modifier on any of their checks on top of their proficiencies.

    • The reason not to do that is because it means your skill system has to handle basically every possible action that exists. Or else, any action not governed by a skill is just a straight roll. A coin toss. Whenever any party has to deal with a situation which they don’t have a skill for, there’s no difference between the characters. It’s just whoever wants to roll the dice. Which is a shame because situations are at their MOST interesting when a party has to get by without the right skills. That’s where cleverness comes in. Choosing to apply a skill isn’t a choice unless the skills are very broad and many can apply to many situations. Or unless you’ve got lots and lots of very specific skills and the PCs have a lot of them. Few, broad, overlapping skills is basically ability scores. And many, highly specific skills puts a huge load on the GM to know – intuitively – the entire skill list. The point of ability scores is that they’re broad, universal, few in number, and intuitive. It’s easy for the GM to adjudicate actions based on ability scores and have the players invoke skills situationally.

  15. I was hoping you’d go over the Pokeyman stat question ever since you brought it up the first time. I have several children who are deep into pokeymans, and I have avoided coming up with a game for them to play trainers specifically because of how clunky the Big Six are for such a purpose. So many of the things I have tried to fix with ancillary rule changes over the years really do lead back to ability scores. Very very useful article.

    It is also of note that a lot of fan games like Zelda20 (also a nono copyright bad don’t look at) sort of play with this same understanding and group the ability scores together into related game-specific groups (Power, Wisdom, and Courage). I remember thinking they’d have been better off just going with those three.

    • Following the information I gathered (from a healthy dose of stalking Angry’s digital footprint), Angry already lied some kind of foundation for such a pokemon system:
      – It’s based around to what he said in this article: the trainer interacts physically with the world primarily through their pokemon. Thus, the scores he mentioned are based on what are the styles in which the trainer develop a relationship with the pokes.
      Any trainer’s scores must be mental and social.
      – Health and Finese scores can be added as well. Since the trainer can get injured, dodge and throw pokeballs.
      – Other recomended traits are: Afinity, Likeability, Cleverness and Trustiness. Though, I think Trustiness might now be part of Spirit.

      That said, I don’t know if Angry’s thoughts on its details have changed, seeing how the ability scores used to be named: Charm, Determination and Authority, and now they have a broader meaning.

  16. I feel a little bit like your thinking is leading you towards something like Fate Accelerated Edition’s “approaches”: Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky. They’re all applicable to combat, social, and exploration/investigation scenes, and they’re theoretically all individually useful for any character. I’d say they’re kinda lacking in those “bright lines”, though.

    • I will forgive you for suggesting I’d be leaning toward anything from Fate, but only if you never say it again.

      Okay, they aren’t actually a bad way to handle things, but they throw out a little too much descriptiveness with the bath water for my test. They really don’t say much about the inherent capabilities of the characters. They are more personality descriptors. Which is fine. But it emphasizes different themes. Just because I argued that ability scores should be primarily viewed as an action resolution tool, that doesn’t mean I think that’s all that should be. I like loaded mechanics. Mechanics that serve a lot of purposes.

      • Ah, I dig. So you’re still thinking of sticking close to D&D’s existing level of descriptiveness, but to consider the categories of actions the system needs to model FIRST. Any concrete idea how you’d divide up those categories, yet?

        I guess the real first question is how many categories of actions you’d want to divide the game into. There’s nothing magical about the number six, of course. I think there are some obvious reasons to consider the number four, given the four core classes and four core races. But I personally wouldn’t go out of my way to build those cliches into the foundation of a system. It’s probably better to look at gameplay itself, as divorced from setting specifics.

        So is there a way to define meaningful qualities that interact with all three of D&D’s “pillars”? I find myself wanting to name things like Ferocity and Trickery and such, but that’s really close to the vagueness level of FAE’s approaches.

        • I doubt he’ll say anything until the article on his ability scores releases. Which I hope is soon, as its looking to be going in exciting directions.

        • How many categories of action would you really need to interact with the 3 pillars? Why not just 3? What about physical, mental, and social. What other ways at the core can you think of solving a problem. Your either gonna find a way to physically do something, talk your way into a solution or attempt to think of some way to deal with it. Why not just have 3 stats. 3 general ways to approach a problem. Give each category an amount of fluid bonuses to reflect the personal touches in the class or character or whatever fluff. As and example
          Physical can effect DMG, chancel hit, reflexes, endurance, durability whatever.
          So the player gets whatever bonus they get from whatever the numbers are but they parcel that total into those things that the category governs.

          Just a thought.

    • At the risk of infuriating Angry, I thought something similar to you but more in terms of how FATE has a list of “broad” skills that try to include all the different aspects of the skill in a general sense instead of the approaches you mention. For example, you have a “Fight” skill that encompasses how good are you fighting independently on the specifics (e.g. Dex vs Str or Swords vs Axes).

      If you consider the “Stuns”, which is a way to include specific qualities for your pc (my fight skill is even better when I use swords) and the fact that you can change the skills to better define how you want the characters to interact with the environment (E.g. replacing fight for warrior which now includes everything that a Warrior should do) I think this is more related to what the article discusses.

      Being said that, I believe what FATE tries to accomplish with those mechanics and its assumptions on how a RPG should be played do not necessarily go in the same direction Angry is discussing here.

      • I think Fate (meaning Fate Core, here, rather than Accelerated) has a good example of a skill list that actually covers basically everything you want to do—mostly by being very broad and including several “skills” that D&D players would call abilities. But it definitely works.

        • Agreed. I wonder, though, to which extent this leads to forcing the situation to fit the tool (e.g. I try to use Fight because it my strongest skill even when it is barely applicable to a particular situation) instead of allowing more creative approaches.

          One positive aspect of the traditional ability set, from my point of view, is that it focuses more on what the character is and not specifically on what he can achieve. The first seems more open (mmm. If my character is dexterous, maybe I can try to use the rope there to jump the chasm) whilst the second depends more on the Designer / GM creating a complete set of skills. If the game does not, for example, include an acrobatic skill it may be difficult to think on that as a potential approach for a particular problem.

  17. Is it better to have stats and actions tied like Physical, Mental, Social, Melee combat is ALWAYS Physical, or is it better to have overlapping like Strength and Dexterity and you can use whatever to hit with a Sword?

    Also, I play a Brazillian RPG in which the Attributes are

    Strength – melee power and damage and physical force you can generate (with whatever weapons and methods, not necessarily muscular power)

    Ability – not sure on the best translation. It’s op as hell: Int, Dex and so on. It is described as “the opposite of being clumsy”. You are quick and skillful in body and thoughts.

    Resistance – both physical AND mental determination to persevere, survive and resist to things. You can justify is as Fortitude, Willpower or whatever.

    Armor – your protection. It doesn’t have to be literally armor. It could be anything, like pain tolerance or protection from your God. But it reduces the damage you take.

    Firepower – meaning the ranged power and damage (with whatever weapons or powers you have).

    It is supposed to be an anime / videogame system. What do you think of that?

    To hit you roll Strength (melee) or Firepower (ranged) + Ability against Armor + Ability, the difference if positive is the damage.

    What do you think of adding Attributes to the same roll?

    • I feel like a Dex based sword should be more accurate, while a Str based one should deal additional damage. If we used Dex for attack rolls and Str for damage rolls, we could place limits on individual weapons. A rapier can have up to +5 from Dex on attack, but only +1 on damage from Str, compared to a greatsword with a max of +1 to attack but +5 to damage.

      • What is a dex based sword? Rapiers are heavy, you need muscles for using any weapon. (Also, Rapiers are one handed so they needed even more muscle than something like a longsword that’s twohanded anyway.)

        • I confess that I’m not an expert on swords, however it stands to reason that some weapons rely more on swift manoeuvering , while others rely more on powerful blows. Granted, both will require strength and dexterity. However, this is accounted for in the system I propose in that someone with no dexterity would struggle to land a hit with either, while someone with no strength would land a hit but with minimal damage.

          Almost every form of dexterity requires a level of strength. For instance, archers were traditionally stronger armed than swordsmen to overcome heavy draws on their bows.

        • If you want to talk “real life” weapons, then dex vs strength based has a lot to do with what kind of combat style you’re using. Having used both, a rapier is definitely a nimble rather than a strength based weapon. It’s fundamentally a thrusting weapon, which means you don’t need a lot of force to do damage to your opponent, you could in theory use it to strike, but it wouldn’t be effective. Much more important than the overall wight of the weapon is how the weight is distributed, more blade heavy swords are less nimble, but hit harder, allowing you to make effective strikes, axes and maces lean even more in this direction, while weapons with more mass in the hilt will pivot and dodge well but are often not very effective cutters, because the blows lack mass. All that said, rapiers were only useful against unarmored opponents, as they lacked the stiffness and force needed to puncture armor, they were very much a civilian self defense weapon/sidearm/dueling weapon rather than something a soldier would carry into battle, at least as long as armor was still around.

          To bring this all back around, to game terms, what you choose is going to be arbitrary, but if you’re worried about historical grounding, there’s definitely room for nimble weapons.

      • That sounds like a pretty cool idea Adam. You might not want a 1 to 1 relationship between hitting and damage in D&D (I’m sure people know the math) but it seems like a good way to have Dex-based melee (or Str-based ranged)

      • Regarding Dex-based weapons being accurate and Str-based weapons being powerful: That’s how they did it in Gamma World 7e (that being the edition of GW that was based on D&D 4e). It worked just fine, as I recall.

    • Good old broken (3)D&T. It is worth mentioning that the system uses a single D6+ what you described.

      It’s been years since I played it but I remember always being puzzled by the fact that Ability was an outright necessity if you wanted to accomplish anything, even more so in combat. There was no point in hitting hard if you could literally never land a blow (the system was broken to the point that if you didn’t keep up with ability you wouldn’t be able to mathematically hit anything. 0% chance).

      On firepower vs strength. Everyone would specialize on one or another because, again, the price of spiting your points was being ludicrously as outside your bonuses you only rolled a D6.

      And what about the fact that HP and MP were calculated as resistance x5? So, you could either spend 1 point on reducing all the damage you taken by one (armor) or spend a point in resistance to get 5 HP and 5 MP. Magic points (MP) were used for any special combat maneuver and magical abilities, so even a plain fighter could benefit from high MP.

  18. I ended up coming to a similar conclusion about ability scores, and decided to eliminate them but keep the modifiers. I then stumbled upon the Microlite 20 miniaturized ruleset, which collapses the six “standard” abilities into three: strength (STR), dexterity (DEX), and mind (MND). I played around with introducing a second mental ability, but couldn’t find a sufficiently bright light between it and MND to justify the additional complexity. Anyway, I think the combination of these two approaches (modifiers only and just three abilities) might be a useful way to proceed.

    • Looking back at 4e, it seems likely to me that the designers were headed in the direction of a three-stat Ability system (going by the way they grouped STR & CON, DEX & INT, WIS & CHA to generate the three non-AC Resistances (the replacement for saving throws).

      Body, Mind and Spirit perhaps?

  19. As you said “tools to describe and differentiate characters can sit on top of the ability scores.” I don’t see how you could have ability scores with bright lines around actions and also have them describe a general aspect of a character at the same time. Anything generally descriptive will by nature be applicable in a fuzzy way. I’d love to be proven wrong though.

    But then why not use both bright lines and fuzzy descriptors and have the advantages of each? Go ahead and use ability scores with bright lines, but when you’re resolving the action a player can also optionally add a descriptor (like the Fate Accelerated approaches) if applicable. Used in this way they’re an obvious alternative to skills, I could easily see replacing Deception and/or Stealth with Sneaky.

    Personally I like the idea of removing the middle-man and just using a list of actions as the ability scores (Attack, Endure, Evade, etc.) instead of a list of traits (Str, Dex, Con, etc.). Then when you want to resolve something you figure out what the character is doing (ability) and then how they are doing it (approach/skill). Surprise attack = Attack + Sneaky/Deception; Terrifying attack = Attack + Flashy/Intimidate; Hiding = Evade + Sneaky/Stealth.

    • Your first paragraph makes no sense. There’s nothing in the nature of descriptive traits that precludes them having bright lines. Nor anything that requires them to be fuzzy. I can’t even fathom where that “nature” you’re citing comes from.

  20. Curious what you think about Savage Worlds – Strength, Agility, Smarts, Spirit, Vigor seem to get at what you’re talking about, with Vigor yes being “vestigial” like Constitution but functioning to force some choices in character building about where you want to allocate points. Specifically turning IWC to Smarts + Spirit more cleanly resolves how we evaluate “mental” actions.

    I will also say that a “Debate” social skill that’s Int-based would really help. A model I’ve considered is making social skills not about the intent but the method – Pathos Ethos Logos.

    • That’s so obvious and I hadn’t considered it – CON is vestigial the second you start playing but first acts like an ability points tax when you roll up the character. Urgh, I think I like it even less now.

    • The point is that skill proficiencies shouldn’t be tied to any particular Ability ( an “INT-based” skill is missing the entire point of how Angry looks at Ability checks) and that social interACTION! should be open to PCs of any build.

    • I think the biggest problem with Strength, Agility, Smarts, Spirit, Vigor is it just reiterates the same formula and problem. You’re trying to distill broad descriptions into manageable categories. It’s like trying to specify who makes up a group of people. What makes a democrat? Theres plenty of general traits, but plenty of people don’t fit perfectly into the “Democrat” group. The definition changes from person to person and no person perfectly fits that group. Skills, events in their past, what kind of equipment they use defines a character more then something like Vigor. It’d be easier to define a characters description by their skill sets and what kind of body you need for that skillset.

  21. I do think there’s some merit in arguing that the designers of fifth edition would’ve wanted the game to look different than its current iteration.

    For instance, Robert Schwalb pretty much applied all of your proposed changes to the D20 system he created when he left Wizards of the Coast. In Shadow of the Demon Lord, he merged Constitution into Strength, and scrapped Charisma and Wisdom altogether. He also got rid of fixed skill lists, which is somewhat in line with your previous article.

  22. I feel like you’re right on the edge of the Story Games idea: figure out the heart of gameplay you want to see at the table and build your mechanics around that. I love the suggestion for a Pokeymans core mechanic, and would def try that out.

    Have you played any Story Games? (I’m new to the blog so please forgive me if you obviously have, lol)

    • Everyone sees what they want to see. I’ve talked a bit about story games in the past. Basically, story games aren’t. They are usually a load of pretentious bullshit whose creators don’t actually know what a story is. But they do sometimes manage to have some clever mechanics. The idea of a story game is an inherently misguided goal.

      • Personally, I really enjoyed The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Fantasy Flight Games. It is, of course, a loosely-structured bullshit session in which roleplay (along with the consumption of food and drink) is encouraged and not an actual RPG.

  23. Riverhorse’s Tails of Equestria is the My Little Pony RPG and it…no wait, listen. Listen, I play it with my wife and our three-year-old. Ok? Ok.

    Anyway, it’s great. Character sheet is lovely and simple and instead of numerical bonuses, each ability is assigned a die. If you’re untrained in Flying, say, you roll a D4. Level that up, it’s a D6 and so on. The fact that a top-level flyer can still roll a 1 fits the setting perfectly.

    Your Ability scores (Mind, Body, Charm) use the same level-with-dice mechanic but get this – they are wholly unrelated to your skills. Skills are perhaps closer to Feats in how you acquire them, but they involve a die roll and you train them up as you level, so they definitely equate to skills. But disconnected from abilities in how they increase.

    So where you want to do something specific like fly or use telekinesis, you ask for the skill check. Where it’s a bit fuzzier, you switch back to the abilities and decide whether it’s mind, body or charm (which, all the same problems as charisma and I wish they’d just left it out completely).

    Wouldn’t work well in DnD etc, where you really want everything to stem from those core abilities to make the character grounded. But, when the penny dropped on this setup it made my thinking on all this stuff a lot clearer.

    Btw if you have a kid who likes MLP, get this game, it is a perfect intro to tabletop. Some beautiful gameplay design – simplification done right.

  24. Here is a comment I left as a response to a discussion on this post that was posted on my Patreon site. It should still make sense without the context of the comments I was responding to. And it’s important enough to bear repeating. Because people in these comments seem to be missing some key points:

    This is actually why the ability/skill dichotomy is so powerful – and why I don’t understand why so many people are keen to throw it out with the bathwater. The ability scores represent the abilities that EVERYONE has to interact with the world generally and provide a way to adjudicate all actions. The skills – or whatever you want to call them – represent specialized interactions. Either interactions that aren’t things EVERYONE can do, or else things that some people can do better or differently than others. Skills allow for a great deal of expression on the part of the player as well. In fact, I could do a whole article on what skills do for a game and why the dichotomy is so powerful.

    I forgot that if you hit enter in a Patreon comment, it posts the comment. It doesn’t start a new paragraph. Continuing… The problem in D&D is that it wasn’t designed that way from the get-go. As a result, the ability scores don’t really serve that purpose. They’ve been kludged into it. But they are lacking. Because they were designed to do something else. The other problem is that D&D presents the wrong situation as the default situation. Despite what the rules say, everything in D&D is presented as “use a skill check and if there isn’t an appropriate one, drop down to the ability check level to resolve it,” instead of “use an ability check and then add a skill if you find an appropriate one.” It’s a subtle effect, but it really does change the way a GM handles action adjudication. And it puts much less cognitive load on the GM.

    • I can image you would dislike a system like fate given this comment. Since it is essentially skill based and defaults everyone to an unmodified roll. Compelling, I’ll admit, and something I hadn’t honestly considered.

    • “The ability scores represent the abilities that EVERYONE has…”

      I think ability score represents the raw power available to the character, and proficiency represents training in how to apply that power to the world around you in some way.

      For example, every strength 13 character has the same musclepower and can lift the same amount. Someone with athletics, however, has trained in how to apply their strength so they can lift more than their strength score would indicate.

      I definitely agree with linking proficiency to multiple ability scores, if applicable.

      For example, the training in athletics would also apply to using intelligence to design weight training programmes; to using their wisdom to observe how powerful a foe is, and so on.

      I’m also becoming more and more of a fan of ditching CON.

  25. I love this article – I think it’s really well written (you really lead me into your ideas so well that it’s impossible to argue). In trying to improve my game using this article, do you think a GM should pay more attention to social encounters and call for checks using other ability scores more often?

    For example, as you mentioned, if a Wizard is trying to impress someone with intellectual conversation, their GM should call for an Intelligence check?

    • I’d say it’s more like if a Wizard lays out the logic of a particular situation (i.e. “listen, we have there rapiers trained on you, and soldiers patrolling the situation, tell us what we need to know” as intimidation, or “I lay out systematically exactly why this is the rational course of action” as persuasion), but basically yeah.
      For my game, recently I’ve talked to the two players who don’t have high charisma to encourage them to try to come at social problems in an indirect way (like the above, or “I want to try and say exactly what he wants to hear” as wisdom/deception). The way we tend to talk about social stuff, yeah, it’s just charisma, but it doesn’t have to be.

      • I love the way you phrased that last idea ‘I want to try and say exactly what he wants to hear’. This sounds like a perfect way of using another stat instead of Charisma.

  26. I ran 3e for years then after a foray into Pathfinder switched to GURPS 4e with GURPS Dungeon Fantasy added in.

    Fate

    It’s more complicated at first and takes more prep, but I find it easier to run than 3e D&D now and my fantasy games feel more like playing 2e D&D than anything else I have run.

    But it is a skill based system and can be intimidating at a glance.

  27. You end up not far from the ability scores I often fall back on when thinking about design–strength, speed, wits, and will. Coincidentally, also mirrors the original four classes.

  28. I think there might be some merit to dissociating abilities from skills. Maybe using skills as the intent (what you are doing) and abilities as the approach (how you are doing it), and then pairing them as needed, instead of having each skill map to exactly one ability. Similar to how classic ability + skill + die systems work, but having abilities more related to different approaches, like the example given by Matt Sheridan about FATE approaches. But maybe less vague, more connected to the game world. Just a random thought that would need more in depth analysis.

    • That’s essentially what the white wolf storyteller system does. Pairs base stats with general skills, depending on action and approach.

    • During the 5e playtest, there was a phase of the design where this was exactly the case. Hard-baked in. Skills were not tied to an attribute, but just a bonus. There’s still an optional rule suggestion in the DMG proposing this same thing. So, your character might have “Intimidation +3”. Depending on your character’s approach, the DM will ask you to make an ability check to intimidate someone, and since you are trained, you get the add your +3 bonus for being good at it. Regardless of whether you are using clever wordplay, a dashing swirl of your blade, or bending an iron bar with your bare hands.

    • Yeah, the one-to-one relationship between skills and abilities in 5e is pretty disappointing. There’s that “Skills with Different Abilities” variant rule (PHB 175), but the way it’s described makes it seem really edge-casey. I think it wouldn’t be too hard to reframe the skill system a bit so that skills are broad areas of expertise and arenas of action. So, if you’re proficient in Religion, you add your proficiency bonus to Intelligence checks to debate theology with fellow believers, or your Charisma checks to deliver moving sermons, or your Dexterity checks to mummify corpses, or your Constitution checks to flog yourself for sinful thoughts. Or, you know, whatever would be appropriate.

      But really, this whole general direction leads me away from the idea of codified skills towards another variant rule: Background Proficiency (DMG 264). Why bother specifically considering the Religion skill when you’ve already got the Acolyte background? You can do a lot more with that. “I was an acolyte of this faith, so I think I should add proficiency to my Int check to find my way through this temple.” Unfortunately, so many mechanics in the game interact directly with the skill system that it’d be hard to comfortably remove it.

  29. I’ve wondered many times reading your rants about various systems what you think of the GURPS system, and it seems particularly relevant here. How familiar are you with GURPS, and what do you think of it’s attributes and resolution mechanics?

  30. You say:

    “The idea of systematic action adjudication – the idea of a universal set of rules that could be used to consistently and fairly determine the outcome of any action anyone could think of – that idea was BORN with the d20 system.”

    I gotta ask, what pre-d20 games have you played?

  31. It’s pretty easy to show that 3.0 was not the first RPG to put the “one mechanic to resolve basically everything” rule into effect (try FASA’s old Doctor Who game from 1985 for an example – everything is resolved by setting a difficulty and then finding a skill or attribute to cross-reference on a table), but you could also easily argue that it made that approach much more popular in gaming than any of the systems that used a unified basic mechanic before it.

    • Yeah, but those are two very different things.

      I think D20 had to go that route because pretty much all of it´s competitors used that route, and they played better.

      Saying it was born in d20 is (EDIT) incorrect (/EDIT) [[ there, I took out the needlessly personal invective so you wouldn’t seem like an asshole, – Angry ]]

  32. I have been toying with narrowing the abilities down to 4 different ones, and letting folks come up with 2 more on their own (with some pre-made suggestions) that fit the character concept, and then letting everyone know that any score not explicitly mentioned is assumed to be a +0. I will have to tinker some more because I love a lot of what I see in the comments here.

    If you do not select Intelligence, for example, you are considered average. +0. that lets you select Honor, Hijinks (for pixies), Innate Arcana, Luck, Attractiveness (different from Charisma and opening a lot of bad doors but also opening some interesting ones), Willpower, Cunning, Etc.

    While typing, it makes me think of having a race-specific stat too. I’ll have to consider that (Honor for Dwarfs, Innate Magic for Elves, Hijinks for Pixies, Cunning for Goblins, etc. etc. etc).

    At this point, I have nothing more than ideas, but I have been playing with it for months.

  33. Do you have a working title for your numbers that will replace ability scores?

    Will they be an approach based array (potentially more complex), pillar based (potentially less complex), or something else?

  34. If you take out Constitution what do you use to win drinking contests?
    What about winning an endurance race?
    Holding your breath?
    Pulling an all-nighter?
    Or pretty much anything that involves just being healthier or tougher than someone else?
    Use Strength instead? Don’t we all know people who are in great shape but not particularly strong? (Well, maybe you don’t – we are talking about gamers here, after all, a demographic not particularly known for their general healthiness)
    In any case, Constitution might be vestigial in your games, but it isn’t in mine.

  35. I’ve been thinking about ability scores for a couple of years now and how to define them. Here’s what I currently have inspired by conversations with my wife (whose played one session of an rpg) and the blog posts on this site:

    Core Traits are what defines how you interact with the environment:
    * Strength
    * Agility
    * Reason
    * Awareness
    * Confidence

    Defences (10 + core trait modifier + any other relevant modifier)
    * Strength Defence: Resist being moved.
    * Agility Defence: Avoid physical attacks.
    * Reason Defence: Avoid being confused or deceived.
    * Awareness Defence: Resist being surprised.
    * Confidence: Resist being scared.

    Checks (1d20 + core trait modifier + any other relevant modifier):
    * Strength: Apply force to something.
    * Agility: Aim, nimbleness and fine motor control.
    * Reason: Deduce something.
    * Awareness: Find something or intuit something about someone.
    * Confidence: Rally your allies.

    And yes. It might seem like these are just 5 out of 6 D&D ability scores renamed. And to a degree they are. However by renaming them the emphasis on what they do changes. For example there isn’t as compelling a reason for clerics to have high awareness because why would divine magic be related to perception? Also confidence doesn’t have to be used to convince people. It can e, but it doesn’t have to be. Often people will be reasoned with or physically intimidated.

    Something else my wife struggles with in munchkin is the difference between class and race. She just cannot understand which is which. This, along with comments on this site about racial stereotypes being good, makes me wonder if we are better off with race as class and including 2 or 3 classes per culture.

  36. What do you think about development trees for classes? If action adjudication is based on ability scores plus situational skills, then would skill acquisition need to be tied into class development or hang off a separate mechanic?

  37. The d20 mechanic is certainly simple and useful, but not universal, and most definitely not the first of its kind. Combat is a more intricate, multi-ability score affair than an ability check simply because D&D’s core activity is combat, and resolution of non-combat activities will always be ancillary to it.

    As an aside, all other systems that strive for universality fold their combat resolution into their overall skill system; there were many opportunities for subsequent authors of D&D to do this and they didn’t. Nor will they ever.

    Ultimately, a system with _both_ ability scores and skills is more complex than it has to be (I’m not arguing the merits of this here, because some designers like their games that way). If someone is good at persuasion, let the player have a high skill or bonus, and she is free to say whether it’s because of menacing fangs or a dazzling smile. In games that do have both, I’m a fan of decoupling abilities and skills – as long as players know that strength-based persuasion might generate ill will the next time the same two people meet.

  38. It took a long time, but I finally had enough of the d20 system after returning to D&D with 5e. And the thing really did it for me was the broken attribute skill system. As this article points our so well, many of the skills in D&D rely on weird combinations of a skill that makes no real sense or even worse one off skills like Cha.

    Maybe because I’m a old gamer, but I have to admit I have a lot of love for Rolemaster (Rulemaster, ChargeMaster,…etc, etc). In that skill based system, it’s not uncommon to have a skill with three different, yet completely relevant ability scores. I.e., a skill category like Social (iirc) might draw on Empathy, Intuition and Presence generically, but a sub skill (like impersonation) might use Empathy, Intuition and Memory.

    Of course we all know the downsides of that more nuanced system; complexity. Ten stats, a spreadsheet for a base character sheet, and hundreds of skills is more than a casual gamer wants to look at sober (or perhaps even a half sheet to the wind )

  39. Per Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

    This doesn’t cover the most egregious ability score issues. I plan to play X class, but my ability scores are rolled randomly.

    There is a more subtle assumption that runs through every RPG discussion and is evident in the comments here. Do you fundamentally view RPG play as a game or a sport? Angry GM comments throughout this website illustrates his place on the spectrum. I write this, because there are many such assumptions to be outlined before you can assess Angry’s proposals in this article.

  40. Yeah, I’ve always felt the ability scores sucked, even since 2E. There’s far too many dump stats, and it leads to problems like the charisma issue where it just sucks. Con and Str should be merged, because pretty much 99% of the time in fantasy, big and strong also means tough. In the rare cases you do get something that’s small and weak but supernaturally tough, having a special racial power to handle that covers it just fine.

    Mental stats are kind of just stupid for the most part. An overall education stat may not be terrible to represent how well-read your character is, but intelligence and wisdom are pretty terrible, because it’s the players that end up determining that anyway, not the character. There’s no way you can play a character supposedly wiser than you are, or more intelligent than you are, so why are we having these things as stats? Really those stats have only existed as a placeholder to say “I’m a good wizard” or “I’m a good cleric”, which has always been stupid because we have a level stat to determine that. Maybe having a good education should mean your character has a bigger set of spells in his spellbook or potential prayers as a cleric, but it shouldn’t be influencing the power of his magic.

    The social issues pretty much hinge on the fact that inherently all D&D social rolls assume you’re influencing purely by emotion and not fact. When the high charisma guy intimidates or uses diplomacy, he’s basically making a pure appeal to emotion, not to reason. When the barbarian pushes you against a wall and threatens to crush your skull, it’s an appeal to reason, not emotion. This dude is huge, that’s a fact, and if he wanted to he could crush your skull with his bare hands. Similarly, you can use your knowledge to make a good argument for something without specifically appealing to emotion. You hear that in most of a lawyer’s legal arguments to any judge, where they argue the letter of the law. There it matters how much knowledge you have, not just how persuasive you are at throwing bullshit. But D&D basically doesn’t care about any of that… it got close with 4E skill challenges, but it never quite adopted it as a true philosophy for convincing people, and 5E reverted back to the purely emotional arguments.

  41. Well, if you allocate ability scores by point buy rather than randomly, then it shouldn’t be much of a problem to look ahead to what class you might want to start out in, and take into account whatever background you want your character to have. If you instead have ability scores set by your class, then they seem more like skills than something innate and fundamental to your character.

  42. I feel like while Passive and Active is an important distinction, character-based vs player-based is the more important distinction. The problem with Charisma is that people say what they want. A non-charismatic player can have a character with a high charisma score but not know what to say. Intelligence feels like the same thing.

  43. And then there’s Knave, a OSR game that just uses the 6 attributes and gets rid of classes and that makes Constitution a prime stat for everyone, as it determines how many items you can carry. So the fighter needs it for armor and weapons but the wizard needs it for spell books (everything is driven by items like a Zelda game).

  44. I make 2 simple (but controversial) changes to stats to avoid the “dump stat” problem.

    Use Int for initiative (not Dex).

    Use Cha for saves vs fear (not Cha).

    High Int characters not only can think quickly and decisively about what to do but can quickly discern *the most effective action*.

    High Cha characters are bold in spirit, rally their own troops and have confidence. It’s not all about etiquette and protocol.

    Has worked really well.

    We do (pick 1 of 3 sets of 4d6-L in order) for character generation — and non-arcanists *actually* can be happy about decent Int and Cha scores.

    Also — monster Int and Cha scores can matter (on certain occasions Cha works great for a mundane morale check too) … I think that’s a nice bonus too.

  45. I’ve just started reading this blog and found it enlightening, although it’s difficult to sell your abrasive style to others.

    But there is one thing I’m left wondering that noone seems to know the answer to.

    To the best of your knowledge, if the primary purpose of ability scores pre-3E wasn’t to give bonuses and penalties to things… what /was/ it? And why did the designers specifically choose Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma?

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