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Character Attributes in Role-Playing Games

An essay by Bob Hall

Copyright © 1997, all rights reserved.

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This write-up is my attempt to explore one of the fundamentals of character design within a role-playing game system. Naturally, your opinion is likely to differ from mine on this subject, and I hardly pretend to write a treatise on the matter. Instead, my hope is to provide some food for thought by writing an editorial on the subject. At the end of the article, I put my words into practice by designing a character attribute system.

What are Attributes?

At the most fundamental level, Role-Playing games allow a group of players to assume the role of individuals within an alternate game world created and/or managed by the Game Master (GM). While such a character could easily be played completely free-form - much as a game of "make believe" is played by children - creating a more believable figure requires a set of rules to model actions and behavior of the characters and other figures in the story.

Most role-playing systems use a standardized set of numerical values that describe the relative capabilities of a creature. Rather than making an arbitrary decision about the outcome, the GM can use these value ratings, along with the procedures described in the rules, to evaluate the result of an event. The outcome, hopefully, is a consistent world physics that gives the players a reasonable chance to determine the odds of any action being successful. As a result, this allows realistic decisions to be made from the point of view of the character.

Now, at some point in the game design process, a decision is made concerning the level of detail at which a character is to be modelled. The designer must make a strategic trade-off between the ease of game play and the accuracy of the model. An elegant game design will provide a good balance between these contrary aspects, allowing relatively easy evaluation of events and simplicity of character design, while providing consistent and realistic results under most circumstances.

The best possible model of a character would use a huge number of parameters, and an immense set of formulae, to evaluate the outcome of every possible event. Of course, such an exact model would require computing resources beyond anything the human race is likely to acquire in the immediate future, never mind the lone GM with only a set of dice and a simple pocket calculator.

To simplify our model to the point where it becomes useful requires repeated application of the 80-20 rule: 80% of the cases are handled by a simpler model, and the remaining 20% are dealt with by special cases, or via a judgement call by the GM.

The ultimate result of this character model simplification process produces a core set of parameters known as Attributes. (Several game systems also refer to these as Characteristics or Stats.) Efficient application of these Attributes to a game model requires that they be as independent as possible, and for the combined set to be significant factors in the outcome of almost all random events. Here again, the designer must make a trade off in the number of attributes required - fewer for simplicity, or more for better modelling. Because this limited set of parameters can never possibly be used to model every event with a reasonable level of accuracy, further supplemental values will still be needed. So most designers settle for a simple set of primary attributes that are applicable to the large majority of game situations.

If the type of game world is restricted in some fashion, perhaps by limiting the types of characters that can be played, then some of the attributes can be specially tailored to fit the system, and inconsequential values eliminated. (An example of this might be the elimination of a psionic or magical aptitude rating in a mundane game world.) Likewise, multi-genre systems that need to cover a wider variety of game worlds will need more attributes. A typical solution is to create a set of universal primary attributes, then add a set of optional and/or derived attributes that leverage off the primary attributes.

Finally, the question arises about the difference between Attributes, Derived Attributes, Abilities, Skills, and other character quantifiers used in the game. An Attribute is a numerical value which rates a fundamental facet of a characters physiological or psychological makeup. Derived Attributes, such as Movement and Fatigue, are computed from one or more Attributes plus a possible modifier, and are used as a convenience factor during oft repeated game activities. Next, an Ability is a specific talent that only certain characters can perform (or at least use with some degree of facility.) Skills are abilities that are acquired through training and experience.

Attribute Value Range

The next step in the design process is to choose a range of allowed values for the aattribute ratings. (Note that some recent experiments in free-form role-playing systems have investigated the elimination of numerical values for Attributes, and instead employ descriptive terminology. This method is particularly suitable for a story-telling style of play, where the emphasis is on role-playing and atmosphere, rather than closely modelling a game world. While such a gaming style has its proponents, and may even be a more enjoyable experience for some (given a suitably skilled and fair GM) it won't be examining any further in this essay.)

As the attributes are going to be used for evaluating most random events, it is important that their values can be easily compared to the results of the random result generator, whether it be a handful of dice or a deck of cards. In addition, to make the event models easy to evaluate, multiples of the attribute ratings should also lie within range of the available random results. (It being quicker and easier to multiply an attribute by a small integer than it is to divide.)

As the number of regular dice shapes is typically limited to 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20-sided, this restricts the attribute range from one to twenty for most dice-based systems, unless percentile dice are used. Even in the later case, attributes below 25 are relatively easy to multiply by an integer of four or less, then compare to a 1d100 dice roll.

Of the possible outcomes of all random events in a game situation, odds close to 50% are the most likely to occur, so it makes sense that the average result of the random dice roll should match the average attribute of a typical member of the population. Also, since it is far easier to play the role of a being with whom you are familiar, the game systems typically treat a human as the norm against which all else is compared.

Conveniently, a roll of three six-sided dice, two ten-sided dice, or a single twenty-sided dice, is 50% successful on a ten or less. Hence a baseline human attribute value of 10 is commonly used in role-playing systems. (Besides, as we all know, 10 is a very natural number for a human.)

Now that the average attribute score has been established, we also need to determine the distribution of the attribute about the mean for the general population. This will allow the characters to compare themselves to others of their kind, and will provide a measure for determining how many members of the population would be successful at any particular activity.

Fortunately, assuming you believe in genetics and natural selection, nature provides a convenient mechanism for building such a distribution. Since the population attributes are the end result of an immense series of random events (both genetic and environmental) the distribution for most numerical attributes will form the classic, bell-shaped Gaussian curve. (Examples of such a distribution would be the scatter of missiles thrown at a target, or the scores of a class of students on a lengthy test.) The peak of this symmetrical curve matches the mean attribute score, and range should be selected so that the large majority of the population falls between the minimum and maximum values.

As the sum of a large number of dice rolls has a distribution which is very similar to a Gaussian curve, such an attribute distribution becomes relatively easy to replicate by the GM. Realistically, the best fit to a (truncated) 20 point Gaussian curve would use a large number of random events, such as 20 coin tosses with a 'head' being a one, and a 'tail' equal to zero. In reality, however, six-sided dice are easier to toss and commonly available, so the sum of three six-sided dice is typically used.

On the other hand, a bell-shaped distribution of attributes tends to produce a clustering effect about the mean that will reduce the amount differentiation between two similar individuals. Which of two characters with an attribute score of 10 is better? In real life, given a sufficiently large number of repetitions, the slightly better individual would eventually prevail. Not so in this limited model. (A percentage-based distribution of attributes has an advantage in this respect, as no two individuals are likely to have the same rating.)

Other systems use varied scales for the different attributes, allowing better differentiation between values that are more likely to be compared. However, this 'refinement' has the disadvantage of adding complexity to the system - making evaluation of an event different depending on the type of attribute used. For the sake of simplicity, it is preferable to use a common scale for all attributes, and vary the models used to evaluate the outcome.

It should be pointed out that unless the character is being selected as a random member of the general population, the distribution of attributes should have very little bearing on the character building process. For the sake of game balance, the GM may choose to restrict attributes to a specific range, but otherwise the player should be allowed to choose attributes that create a character to fill a role, rather than being forced to fit a role to a character. This liberating design factor is what separates true, point-based character systems from the older, random character generation methods.

Categories of Attributes

Now that a numerical range has been established, the types of attributes need to be selected. While it might be possible to select an optimal set of attributes that most closely model the greatest number of events, in reality the attributes are selected to match our real-world perceptions. Thus, attributes like physical strength and intelligence are used, rather than, say, the fat-to-muscle ratio or pattern recognition capability.

At the lowest possible level, most systems assign separate attributes for our ability to plan and to execute actions - that is, between our mental and physical capabilities. These gross attributes are then further divided by the manner in which we mentally conceptualize our environment - using a fuzzy scale of time, distance, and mass. The distance factor is characterized by our ability to perform work, either by physical strength or mental intelligence. Likewise, the time scale yields the speed and/or acceleration with which we get from result A to result B, usually described by our reaction rate and dexterity. Finally, mass gives us our inertia, or resistance to rapid change - as represented by health and willpower.

In reality, of course, these factors are interrelated, and would be better modelled using physics and psychology. But we usually choose to select the attributes that more closely resemble our mental evaluation process.

Another major group of attributes describes how we interact socially. Physically, this is usually described by an appearance rating that is a measure of how close an individual conforms to a beauty standard agreed upon by a majority of the character's race (and culture.) Mentally, the selection of an equivalent attribute is more difficult, as there is a wide range of possible social interactions, such as leadership or comradery. In practical game terms, however, the most likely form of interaction will be an obvious or concealed attempt at verbal manipulation toward some end. This manipulation can range from bartering with a merchant to an attempt to rally demoralized troops.

The types of attributes just covered will successfully apply to a large majority of game situations. However, there are certain role-playing genre that focus on unusual types of actions or events. These specialized games will usually include one or more specialized attributes to cover these cases. Examples include a magical aptitude rating, an insanity level, or a psionic ability score. As these types of attributes are typically narrowly focused, multi-genre games will usually treat these as advantages or disadvantages, then apply a special set of rules to model their effects.

Finally, since there are likely to be more life forms than just humans included in the game, the attributes must scale well to the other creature types. The attributes may need to be applicable to human-to-creature, creature-to-creature, human-to-superhuman, and many other possible interactions. Linear attribute scales do not readily adapt to wide ranges of creature sizes and capabilities, nor to significant differences in technology level or magic capabilities. Thus, exponential scaling techniques are often adopted in some fashion by many role-playing systems. While improving scaling ability, such non-linear attributes provide their own set of problems in terms of realism, ease of play, event evaluation, and game balance.

Primary Qualities for Attributes

To summarize, here are the primary qualities that I consider to form a good, flexible set of attributes:

Of course, compromises will always need to be made to maintain the goals of the game design. No system is going to meet all of these objectives, so priorities need to be established. Game balance also needs to be taken into consideration, so the attribute generation method will have to be carefully chosen to prevent abuse by power gamers.

A Look at Some Existing Systems

What follows is a look at the attribute systems used in a number of common role-playing systems. Many other available games are highly derivative, so the comments can easily apply to systems outside this list.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1977 - By all accounts the most widely played role-playing system, AD&D has both the distinction and disadvantage of being derived from the first RPG ever produced. The game system is relatively easy to learn, although quirky and unrealistic even within the realm of a fantasy setting.

The standard characteristics for a normal human are generated by rolling 3 six-sided dice, resulting in a range of 3-18, with an average score of 10.5. This makes most event evaluation relatively easy, requiring either a 3d6 or 1d20 dice rolls. The set of attributes is compact, useful and easy for most players to understand.

The physical attributes are Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, while the mental attributes are Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The creature and magic scaling issue is handled, somewhat, by providing an exponentially increasing weight allowance for the strength attribute, and offloading a variety of other effects to an artificial parameter known as the character level, or number of hit dice. (This level/hit dice is equivalent to an exponentially increasing experience point total.)

There is no built-in mechanism for improving attributes, other than via artificial means. Magical proficiency is directly tied to the attribute scores, so theoretically there are few incompetent Wizards or foolish Priests. Finally, characteristics close to the average provide little character differentiation, especially since the resulting adjustments are often grouped by twos or threes within the players handbook.

Creatures, or Monsters as they are referred to within the game rules, are generated by an entirely different mechanism. For non-humanoids, the available attributes for monsters are: Intelligence, Morale, Hit Dice, Movement, and Size. While allowing opponents to be created relatively easily, this restricted attributes list has the disadvantage of making non-combat events more difficult to evaluate. Role-playing with non-humanoids becomes entirely dependent on text descriptions and the imagination of the GM.

RuneQuest, 1978 - Another random attribute generation system, RuneQuest is notable for introducing the concept of skills-based characters. The physical characteristics are Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity and Appearance. Mental characteristics are limited to Intelligence and Power. All player character attributes are generated by a 3d6 roll, save for Size and Intelligence which use 2d6+6.

RuneQuest employs the concept of derived attributes, which are simple mathematical constructs using linear combinations of the characteristics. Thus, the number of Magic Points is equal to Power; Fatigue is the sum of Strength plus Constitution; Hit Points are Size plus Constitution; etc. These attributes are used within the game for modelling common events.

The creature scaling problem is handled (somewhat) by the use of a separate Size characteristic. However, if they were being used realistically, the Strength and Size characteristics are not truly independent. (A Strength 10 human would be normal, while a Strength 10 Storm Giant would probably be immobile.) This issue is handled by means a random attribute generation table for each creature, with resulting limits on the attribute range. Using a random attribute for every creature characteristic in this manner can make the GM's life a tad tedious, however.

A notable aspect of this ability system is the complete lack of the psychological measure of a being. The lack of advantages or disadvantages only aggravates this missing dimension, and tends to gives creatures the appearance of an automaton. However, a well-run campaign can actually use this to advantage, allowing the players to role-play the mental state of their character. This does make events based on emotion, or mental resilience, more difficult for the GM to evaluate, however.

DragonQuest, 1980 - Produced by the premier wargaming company of its time, the DQ fantasy game system gave a much needed rigor to role-playing rules, especially in the realm of tactical combat. While only partially a skills-based system, DQ did introduce many novel concepts to role-playing, such as colleges of magic and weapon damage categories. The character generation system for DQ introduces the idea of spending points to determine the attribute ratings, although the total points are still generated randomly. (For game balance purposes, some quirky limits are placed on the maximum attribute rating, depending on the point total rolled.)

Physical attributes consist of Physical Strength, Manual Dexterity, Agility, Endurance, and Physical Beauty. For mental attributes, the character only has Willpower and Perception. Some interesting design decisions were obviously made, as there are no Intelligence or Leadership ratings, and the physical speed is separated into Manual Dexterity and Agility attributes. A Magic Aptitude attribute is also included, due to the fantasy-oriented nature of the game.

For a typical character, the average attribute rating will be 15, with an absolute minimum of 5 and a potential maximum of 25. Percentile dice are used to resolve random events, allowing the attributes to be multiplied by an appropriate integer - depending on the difficulty of the task. There is no differentiation between the standard attributes in terms of points - all cost the same amount to allocate. However, the standard attributes are reasonably well balanced in terms of game influence, especially since Dexterity has been split into Manual Dexterity and Agility. Attributes can also be improved through experience, although the price is steep.

Creatures are listed with a full set of attributes, although the values are randomly generated - making the GM's life more difficult. The only scaling is by means of an escalating point cost for skills - the attributes are all linear. However, for the limited scope of the genre, this is not a significant factor. The relatively small size of the attribute range, compared to the standard 1d100 dice, allows even large fantasy beasts to be modelled reasonably well. Likewise, the lower limit of 5 for human attributes leaves some room for quantifying diminutive creatures.

Spell casting is based upon the caster's Magic Aptitude, with some modifiers for Willpower (depending on the college.) This allows a fairly flexible design of magic-using characters, without the mental-based attribute limitations of AD&D. The use of multiple colleges is forbidden, however, a nod toward class-based characters.

Palladium, 1983 - All attributes in this class-based system are determined by rolling a number of six-sided dice for each attribute. The distribution is skewed, however, by the addition of a fourth dice when a natural 17 or 18 is rolled. (Therefore, there are no human characters with an attribute rating of 17 - a situation that must have the demographers in the game world puzzled. :) As usual, humans are the norm and use three dice for every attribute. The physical attributes consist of Strength, Prowess, Endurance, Beauty, and Speed, while the mental attributes are the I.Q., Endurance, and Affinity.

Palladium is a derivatory game system that borrows many ideas from AD&D, and thus acquires the same benefits and criticisms. Thus, the scaling issue is again dealt with via a level system using an exponential point schedule. The non-humanoid creatures are almost completely lacking in attribute ratings, even compared to AD&D, and the game focus is heavily combat-oriented. While this is grand for a hack-and-slay style of play, it becomes difficult to judge human-creature interactions, or even guess at the psychological behavior of a fantasy beast.

The ability to cast spells has been completely divorced from the attribute ratings, and is now only limited by the abstract level rating. However, there is also no correlation between I.Q. and spell learning. Whether this is realistic or not is left to the judgement of the reader, but it does make for more flexible design of magic-using characters. It was also a sensible design decision to use a Willpower attribute, rather than Wisdom.

GURPS, 1985 - A skills-based system that uses a standard number of points to build characters, resulting in a non-random, relatively balanced process that allows for a wider variety of designs. This is a departure from many role-playing systems of the past which completely relied on random attribute generation, and skills grouped by a few archetypes. The result is a flexible game system that now has the broadest scope of published genres in the industry.

The character generation process is not perfect, however, as the points balance is optimized for characters that are close to the human average. Exponential attribute scale is introduced by means of an increasing point cost to improve both attributes and skills. While this works well for low point level, skills-based campaigns, it becomes unbalanced as the base point total increases.

For example, suppose a player decides to spend 64 points on skills and attributes. If the player spends 0 points on dexterity (DX) and 16 points each on 4 average physical skills, the required 3d6 dice roll for success on each skill is 13 or less. However, if 45 points is spent on DX and 4 points each on the same 4 skills, the required skill roll becomes 15 or less, and you have an extra 3 points to spend! Clearly the incentive is to spend more points on DX and IQ, producing high talent, less trained characters. (It is easy to argue that the result is realistic in terms of the talent capabilities of the character, but the problem is one of game balance. To use game slang, the system is encouraging munchkinism.)

Similar complaints apply to non-human racial packages that apply an attribute modifier. The character can gain a hidden point bonus for selecting a non-human, especially if the bonus is large. Another problem arises because the same point schedule is applied to all four attributes. In mechanized game genres, Strength is less likely to be used than Dexterity or Intelligence, yet they cost the same number of points.

At first glance, there are only four main attributes, with Strength, Dexterity, and Health for physical, and Intelligence for mental. However, additional adjustable attributes of Willpower, Charisma, Magical Attributes, and Magic Resistance are contained in the advantages and disadvantages sections. This is not necessarily a bad arrangement, as these attributes are less likely to be modified for a typical character, and have a lower impact on the game. The point schedule for these extra attributes is linear, unlike the base four. The extra Magic attributes allow low intelligence, magic-using characters to be built, although an IQ-based skills roll is still required for the standard GURPS magic system.

Despite the minor inequities in the point-based approach, GURPS is still a big improvement over previous systems. Control of the character generation process is placed firmly in the hands of the player, and the result is better role-playing with more interesting and suitable personas.

Central Casting: Heroes of Legend, 1988. Intended as a gaming aid, this detailed set of character history generation tables includes a simple set of rules for converting the resulting character into another game system. The result is telling in terms of what is required to create a reasonably portable character. Unfortunately, a drawback of this tool is that there is no method to work backwards from an existing character and build a past history. You are expected to be building the character from scratch.

The physical attributes used in CC:HoL are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Appearance, while the mental attributes are Intelligence and Charisma. There is also a Magical Aptitude and the character's Age when adventuring begins.

Ars Magica, 1988. A medieval fantasy role-playing system with a focus on the magic-using party members, Ars Magica uses a skills-based character design system. The physical attributes are paired as Strength / Stamina and Dexterity / Quickness. Mental attributes are paired as Intelligence / Presence and Communication / Perception.

The primary Attributes have a range from -9 to +9, with a base of zero. The values can be chosen by rolling dice, assigning points, or using one of the pre-generated characters. Random attributes are generated by using four 2d10-11 dice rolls. The results are then divided among the pairs of related Attributes.

Due to the heavily magic-oriented nature of the game, every Magus is given what is effectively a Magical Ability attribute in each of the 15 arts. The arts are divided into five techniques (what you do) and ten forms (what you affect) that provide the basis of every spell. When combined with the ability to cast ritual (cookbook) spells or spontaneous spells, this produces a very powerful and flexible magical system. The character is not restricted to a particular 'style' of magic - rather an economic decision must be made by the player concerning where the magical abilities are focused.

Creature scaling is handled (somewhat) by means of an exponential Size attribute. The Size attribute increases the amount damage larger creatures can withstand, but has no such effect on smaller animals. Animal intelligence is measured using a Cunning score, which measures clever behavior, yet prevents the use of skills using reason or language.

Warhammer, 1989 - This English role-playing game was originally built around a fantasy game world that focused on the conflict between order and chaos. The attributes are designed for a medieval fantasy genre that is focused on short-ranged physical combat and a class-based social structure. Characters have a large number of attributes that intermix skills and characteristics in a peculiar fashion, with ranges a mixture of 1-10 and percentage. Fortunately, the game rules are simple enough that this peculiar mix does not detract from player understanding, and in practice the system does have a certain unique charm.

For humans, the attributes of Initiative, Dexterity, Leadership, Intelligence, Cool, Willpower, and Fellowship all have a range of 22-40, giving a slightly better differentiation than a 3d6 roll. However, the attributes of Strength, Toughness, and Wounds lie in the range of 1-10, making this a linear distribution with a very poor point differentiation. Finally, Weapon and Ballistic attributes (skills?) are randomly generated as 2d10+20, and Movement is in the range of 3-5.

No effort has been made to use non-linear attributes, and even the experience point scale is flat. However, the character is able to spend points to increase attribute values beyond the initial values. The large number of mental attributes is unusual for a medieval-era role-playing game, although some appear to be of only limited utility. Finally, as there is no direct connection between a skill level and the attribute scores, Wizards with low intelligence are only limited when it comes to learning a new spell, so dumb magic-users are possible, but unlikely.

Shadowrun, 1989. This future Sci-Fantasy game system uses skills-based character design, with a dice-heavy event evaluation scheme. The physical attributes consist of Body, Quickness, Strength, while the mental attributes are Intelligence, Charisma, and Willpower. To handle the interaction of magic with technology, the additional attributes of Essence and Magic begin with a fixed rating of six. (Magic is no greater than Essence, but can be zero.)

To build a character, a priority is assigned to five different categories of ability groupings. The priority assigned to the Attributes category determines how many total points can be assigned to the six core Attributes. (The total ranges from 15 points for priority E to 30 points for priority A.) The Attributes for humans range from one to six, while non-humans can have greater or lesser maximum values for different attributes. Dice rolls are compared individually to these ratings, hence the small range.

The small values for the Attributes does not provide good differentiation between characters, but the game compensates by including a wide variety of special add-ons, such as skills, magic, cyberwear, and gear. The scaling issue is handled by means of a geometric growth in the amount of karma (experience) needed to improve Skills and Attributes. (The use of karma in this system is actually a nice economic concept, allowing players to spend from a reserve to influence key events during a game.)

Creatures use the same set of Attributes as characters, with a fixed value for each attribute. However, only Strength and Body are generally given Attributes beyond eight. While this limits the impact of scaling, it does tend to make all creatures look similar. As this is an urban-heavy genre, this limitation is not a big issue.

Shadowrun uses a cyberwear-negates-magic approach to magical ability. As more cyberwear mods are connected to the nervous system, the character loses essence, and hence magic. This reasonable game balancing mechanism creates a strong distinction between magic users and the cyber-enhanced mundanes. Magic skill from the Hermetic tradition is weakly tied to Willpower, but no other Attribute, allowing flexibility in character design.

Hero, 1990. Benefiting from the lessons of past role-playing games, Hero has one of the most balanced and flexible character building systems in the industry. In many respects, the point-based construction method is similar to GURPS. However, the Attributes are now weighted according to their game value to the player. Thus Comeliness, which normally has a low impact in a game, only costs a half point per level of increase. In contrast, Dexterity costs three points per level of increase, as this is a much more useful attribute. (To see why, you will need to review the remainder of the rules system.)

The base physical attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Body, and Comeliness, while the mental attributes are Intelligence, Ego, and Presence. Normal human attributes start with a base score of ten each, with a maximum limit of twenty for mundane genres. Of the normal attributes, the only one that might be at issue is the Body attribute, since it would appear reasonable to derive Body from the Constitution.

Several derived attributes are also used, and they can be modified by spending points. The large number of such attributes, while required due to the Hero combat model, are probably confusingly excessive and result in overtuning of the creatures and characters. It would have been cleaner, and less prone to error, if the primary attributes were used directly - treating most of the derived attributes as advantages instead.

In a break from past systems, the physical attributes of Strength and Body are now based on an exponential scale. Every five points of Strength results in a doubling of true physical strength. This allows strengths ranging from a small mouse to a powerful ship to be modelled on a scale of only a hundred points, and allows Hero to readily model super-heroic characters without grossly distorting game balance. It now becomes clear why Body is required - as a counter-weight to the Strength attribute.

As all the attributes use a linear point cost scale, there is no particular benefit to selecting extreme values. Rather, the player is forced to make economic trade-offs between the attributes in order to match the character concept. The effect of the attributes are rather watered down when applied to skills, however, resulting in somewhat bland human normals.

The Hero powers system allows the development of virtually any type of magic-using character. The lack of Magical Aptitude or Magical Resistance attributes are missed in the Fantasy genre, however. Instead, the supplied colleges of magic use a rather heavy-handed incentive to encourage specialization. Attempting to build a component-based magic system, such as Ars Magica, is all but impossible in Hero, unless an absurd number of points are allowed to the players. {Note that I have since seen the error of this belief, as a VPP can easily be used to build such a system - 07/24/98.]

(Note that HERO is in the process of being reinvented in the form of a merged role-playing system known as Fuzion. The rules for this new system are available online at Many of the attributes remain the same, but now even more derived attributes have been added. It is not difficult to imagine what effect this attribute inflation will have on new players. However, take a look at the rules and judge for yourself. )

Dangerous Journeys, 1992. Following a highly promoted introduction, this role-playing system fizzled and was essentially snuffed following a buy-out by TSR. (The chief complaints by players seem to be the difficult writing style used in the manuals, and some major rules gaffs. The manuals were badly in need of a good editor, some major reorganization, and more play testing prior to release. The peculiar terminology and acronyms didn't help any.)

In many ways the game system is a throw-back to an earlier style of class-based character building, with a nod towards a skills-based systems. Characters are assigned to a social class, then they have a limited choice of vocations within that class. While the system is labelled as multi-genre, it appears decidedly oriented towards an era when a career was decided by birthright. (I.e. ancient and/or medieval periods.)

The attributes are categorized into mental, physical, and spiritual Traits. The Traits are sub-divided into two Categories each: Mnemonic and Reasoning for mental, Muscular and Neural for physical, and Metaphysical and Psychic for spiritual. Finally, each of the categories are further divided into the Attributes of capacity, power, and speed. Needless to say, this results in a lot of attributes.

For the player's character, the eighteen character attributes are in the range from 10 to 20. To generate this range, either a roll of 2d6+8 is used, or the numbers 50, 45, 45, 40, 40, and 35 are assigned to the attribute Categories, then dividing the totals among the Attributes. (By comparison, a typical human has an attribute rating of 10, plus or minus 1d6.)

Attributes can be improved with the expenditure of Accomplishment Points. However, the point scale is entirely linear, as, it would appear, are the attribute effects. Magic skill levels are entirely attribute-based, although the skill level can then be improved by spending points.

Role Master, 1995. This mix of a class and skills-based system uses percentage dice to evaluate all actions. Characters are required to have a fixed profession, but have some flexibility in deciding which skills to develop. However, skills outside the characters area of expertise require more experience points to develop.

The character generation system allocates a random number of points (600+10d10) that are used to build the stats. All stats have a value between 1 and 100. However, depending on the profession selected for your character, certain stats are designed prime, meaning they must have a minimum value of 90. All the remaining stats for a player's character have a minimum value of 20. For stats below ninety, the point cost is linear. Beyond that point, however, the costs begin to escalate from a cost of 91 for a stat of 91, to a cost of 190 for a stat of 100.

For physical attributes, the game uses Agility, Constitution, Quickness, and Strength. The mental attributes are Memory, Reasoning, Self Discipline, Empathy, and Intuition. Presence is used as both a mental and physical stat. Of these stats, Agility, Constitution, Memory, Reasoning, and Self Discipline are considered to be development stats, because they aid in character improvement. Each time a character climbs a level, they receive development points equal to the sum of their development stats. These can then be expended to improve skills, using a class-based weighting scheme for each skill category.

Each stat is given a temporary stat rating and a potential stat rating. As a character increases in level, a random check is made to determine if each temporary stat has changed. Increases in the temporary stat are limited only by the potential stat rating.

Creature scaling is implemented by means of an escalating experience point schedule. Combat damage is handled by the unusual expedient of using a separate table for each weapon category and armor type, but in general the damage level increases in a non-linear fashion. Finally, each stat has a bonus that increases more rapidly as the score approaches 100 (and decreases equally quickly for stats close to 1.)

If you like class-based systems with a variety of character types, lots and lots of tables for evaluating every possible action, and a convoluted skill evaluation and character improvement system, then RoleMaster is for you. There are players who swear by RM...I guess it takes all types.

Common Attributes

Now that the survey of the game systems is complete, it is time to take a look at what they all have in common. Here is a list of the attributes used in many role-playing systems, and an explanation their meaning:

Strength - A measure of the characters ability to exert physical force. The attribute is also referred to as Physical Strength. The Strength attribute factors into the ability to lift and carry heavy loads; the amount of damage inflicted through a blow; and restricts the types of manual tools that can be operated easily.

Dexterity - The relative ability to react physically to a brief event. Dexterity is also called Agility, Reflexes, or Physical Prowess. It differs from pure exertion of strength, and requires tight coordination between the central nervous system and the musculature. This attribute is used to evaluate most competitive physical skills, such as striking a target with a missile, or dodging a blow.

Finesse - The degree of fine motor control required to manipulate delicate objects. Finesse is also known as Manual Dexterity or Technique. It is related to Dexterity, but more focused on hand-eye coordination. Finesse is used to disable or repair small mechanisms, assemble delicate devices, and remove items from awkward locations.

Health - The gross physical well being of the creature, health measures the ability to withstand disease, toxins, and other unpleasantries. It also determines how rapidly recovery from damage occurs. Health is also known as Constitution or Hardiness. Health can be used to determine how much time is required to recover from long term exhaustion, such as might be experienced following a marathon.

Fatigue - The short term physical energy that the character can expend before becoming exhausted. It is also called Energy. This attribute places a more realistic cap on the characters activities during a battle, and is also used to limit magical powers.

Endurance - A rating of how much cumulative damage a creature can withstand before dying. Endurance is also referred to as Hit Points or Body. In systems that do not include defensive skills, Hit Points are also used to measure the amount of combat experience. This mixture of unrelated physiological and combat capabilities within a single parameter can have a distorting effect, resulting in an unrealistic model. However, it does have the side benefits of making combat less bloody and more protracted at higher levels, as the characters are rarely eliminated by a single blow.

Appearance - The physical attractiveness of the character, particularly with regards to the opposite sex. This attribute has also been called Comeliness and Beauty. The effect on game play is less useful than most physical attributes, being required primarily during social situations. However, physical beauty has been known to enjoy subtle effects on the human psyche, inspiring loyalty and trust beyond the norm.

Intelligence - The mental ability to remember facts and employ reasoning to analyze a problem. Known also as I.Q., Memory, and Reasoning. Intelligence is also a crude rating of the ability to use mathematics, solve puzzles, learn a new language, create music, etc.

Quickness - The speed of reaction to a rapidly changing situation. Quickness is also known as Reaction or Initiative. It determines who reacts first during a crisis, allowing a quick witted character to get the jump on a foe. Quickness is closely related to the Dexterity attribute.

Size - The gross physical proportions of a creature. Also known as Height or Growth. This attribute is often used to handle scaling issues, such as visibility, melee reach, minimum opening required to enter a room, etc.

Cool - This measures the ability of the character to remain calm under conditions of duress, such as during combat or when facing a truly terrifying sight. It is also called Morale, and is a measure of a creatures steady reaction to a panic situation. In AD&D, this Attribute is only used for creatures, and the morale aspects of the characters are handled directly by the players.

Wisdom - An Attribute that measures a characters worldly knowledge and common sense. Also known as empathy. It is used, probably incorrectly, as a magical attribute for priestly magic. Most modern systems use willpower or piety, and leave knowledge evaluation to a skills system, various advantages, and/or role-playing.

Cunning - A primal form of intelligence available to many animals, cunning measures a creatures ability to quickly formulate good reactions to stressful conditions. For humans, this measures wits, and is closely related (if not identical) to quickness. Cunning is useful for evaluating a changing tactical situation, coming up with a witty rejoinder during a discussion, taking advantage of a lucky break, and so on.

Willpower - The amount of self-control a character has over his own mind and body. This attribute is also called Mental Endurance, Self Discipline, and Ego. It is often used as a measure of a characters control over arcane forces, the ability to resist the imposition of another's will, and the degree of vulnerability to fearful thoughts and experiences. Willpower is closely related to cool.

Leadership - The ability to influence the behavior of others using a commanding presence, persuasive dialogue, and appealing behavior. This attribute has also called Charisma, Mental Affinity, Power, or Presence. It does not imply an ability to lead sensibly, but does enhance the loyalty and morale of friends and allies under discouraging conditions. Some systems use a separate set of leadership skills.

Fellowship - The ease with which a character associates with others in a social environment. Many systems use a skill to handle this ability, although some people do seem to have an innate ability to get along well with others.

Movement - This derived attribute is used to determine how far a creature can move during an interval of time. Movement is also called Speed. Typically the movement rate is a fixed value for each race, with a modifier based on the Dexterity Attribute. Separate factors are also used for measuring different means of movement, such a swimming, flying, tunneling, etc.

Each of the following special attributes are generally used only in a limited number of game genre:

Magical Aptitude - The general ability of a character to summon arcane forces for executing his will. It is also called Magical Ability. This attribute is usually employed when a game system creates a unique mechanism for employing magic, rather than relying on a character's mental attributes.

Psionic Ability - The measure of a characters ability to employ psychic forces using mental techniques. Willpower is frequently used to determine how much control the character has over the resulting abilities. This ability is usually used in a Sci-Fi setting, as a type of rationalized magical ability.

Piety - This attribute expresses the characters degree of belief and worship of a supernatural entity (or entities.) Piety is used to adjudicate the amount of influence the character has on the intervention of the entity in the real world. It is also called the Metaphysical attribute, and is usually related to Wisdom.

Sanity - Used primarily in horror genre, this attribute measures your psychological fitness as compared to the human norm. It is also known as Humanity. Many role-playing systems have special rules for handling the different forms of insanity.

Luck - The typical amount of good fortune that a character experiences. Luck is also known as Karma or Intuition, and can include bad luck. This attribute is appropriate for a genre where mystical forces influence character actions. Limited use of a luck attribute can also be used with a cinematic style, where the heroes sometimes receive fortunate breaks that move the story forward. (Systems that use this technique include Warhammer and Shadowrun.)

It is telling that in almost all role-playing systems the characters weight and age have little bearing on the resulting attributes except in extreme cases. Multi-genre systems do treat these factors as disadvantages when they reach abnormal values - resulting in penalties to Attributes and Abilities. Otherwise they are basically ignored under most circumstances.

New System

Okay, here is my attempt to put together a decent attribute system using the preceding analysis. I start by establishing the usual separation between mental and physical attributes, but I want to tie the two together by correlating mental thoughts with physical actions. This will allow me to make some interesting tie-ins between physical and mental combat, as well as making the attributes more intuitive to the player.

As I want to include a commonly used set of attributes to make the system easy to pick up for an experienced player, I will use Strength, Dexterity, Health, Intelligence, Willpower, and Leadership. However, I also want a mental equivalent to Dexterity, so I will use a Wits attribute to measure the ability to think quickly. The Leadership rating also needs a physical equivalent, so I will add in Quality. (A social attribute that describes physical desirability, symmetry, proper physical function, and general lack of congenital defects.) After a slight renaming, the attributes are arranged in the neat little chart shown below:

Type Physical Mental
Power Strength (ST) Intellect (IN)
Speed Dexterity (DX) Wit (WT)
Inertia Hardiness (HD) Willpower (WP)
Social Quality (QU) Leadership (LD)

The next decision is to use a logarithmic scale for all the attributes. This allows the game to handle wide extremes of creatures and abilities, and thus a large number of different genre. It will also make scale factors, such as area effects or force multipliers, easier to include when building abilities - we can just add or subtract a modifier, rather than multiplying by a fraction.

Choosing a reasonable, but purely arbitrary scale, I decide that every ten points of attributes will result in a ten-fold increase of capability. (Hence, a character with a strength of 20 is ten times as strong as strength 10.) This will cover most extremes of human capability within a twenty point range.

However, this non-linear scale could have some peculiar effects on event evaluation. To balance out the exponential scale, some form of skewed dice distribution will need to be used, such as adding the lowest three dice values out of a total of four rolls. To keep it simple, I'll assume that only six-sided dice will be used, and that a normal human attribute range is 3 to 18. (The lowest two out of three ten-sided dice could also have been used, with a larger variance in the results.)

To see why the dice distribution needs to be skewed toward a lower result, see the table below. The first column of the table lists the ability scores on our 3 to 18 range. The second column shows the real world power rating that corresponds to the ability score. (I.e. a rating that you could theoretically measure if you gave the character an attribute test, such as weight-lifting for Strength, or an IQ test for Intelligence, etc.) In the third through the fifth columns, the percentage odds for rolling a matching dice total is listed for three different methods.

Ability Power
Total of 3d6
% Odds
Lowest 2 and High of 4d6
% Odds
Lowest 3 of 4d6
% Odds
3 2.0 0.5 0.1 1.6
4 2.5 1.4 0.7 4.2
5 3.2 2.8 2.0 7.3
6 4.0 4.6 4.5 10.1
7 5.0 6.9 8.3 12.4
8 6.3 9.7 13.8 13.3
9 7.9 11.6 15.9 12.9
10 10.0 12.5 15.7 11.4
11 12.6 12.5 13.4 9.4
12 15.8 11.6 10.4 7.0
13 20.0 9.7 6.9 4.8
14 25.1 6.9 4.1 2.9
15 31.6 4.6 2.2 1.6
16 39.8 2.8 1.0 0.8
17 50.1 1.4 0.3 0.3
18 63.0 0.5 0.1 0.1

The weighted average power rating is computed by multiplying each of the individual power ratings by the corresponding odds, then totalling the results. The average power rating for a normal 3d6 roll is 14.1, roughly equivalent to an attribute rating of 12 - much higher than the population median of 10.5. When you use the lowest three out of four rolls, however, the weighted average drops to 9.4, a closer match. The decreased odds of rolling a higher score is now compensating for the rapidly increasing power ratings. Adding the lowest two and the highest roll produces an average power rating of 11.5, which is just as good but skewed to the high side.

The lowest 3 of 4 distribution comes at a price, however, as the median characteristic is now 8.5. This means that for any particular attribute, more than half the population is below average. Using the low 2 and highest roll has a median of 9.5, much closer to the population median. Of the two skewed distributions, the later method appears to produce the best results.

We've now got a method for generating random attributes for a member of population - roll four six-sided dice for each attribute and total the lowest two and the highest rolls. We can justify the slightly lower median score by saying that most people fail to live up to their true potential in all attributes, or we could just accept it as the price of game balance.

To provide better differentiation between population members, I'll also generate a potential attribute score - giving the maximum attribute score the character could achieve if he or she really applied him or her self. This will help to balance out the population median issue mentioned above.

To compute the potential score, use the same dice roll used to generate the attribute, and substitute the second highest dice score for the second lowest dice score. (E.g. on a roll of 1, 3, 4, 6, the attribute is 1+3+6=10, and the potential becomes 1+4+6=11.) This method will guarantee that that potential is at least equal to the attribute, and will usually allow a one or two point growth potential.

Genres with specialized attribute requirements, such as magical aptitude or psionic ability, are handled as advantages with their own set of special rules. The GM can have the option of treating them as modifiers to an existing attribute, or using them as stand-alone characteristics with a default base.

Finally, if a point-based system is to be used for character generation, we'll need to be consistent during the design process and use exponential abilities and skills as well. Built in limits will still need to be applied to prevent point abuse by power gamers.

That does it - a set of attributes that matches many of the criteria I had listed earlier. The effect of the remaining attributes common to other systems can be replicated by using derived attributes. (Likely candidates appear to be: Size, Fatigue, Endurance, Finesse, and Movement. The Cool, Wisdom, Fellowship, Magical Aptitude, Sanity, Psionic Ability, Piety, and Luck attributes will be handled as advantages, if at all. But that awaits another step in the design process.)


Disclaimer - Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and AD&D was registered as trademarks of TSR, Inc. Ars Magica was registered as a trademark of White Wolf. Central Casting was registered as a trademark of Task Force Games. Dangerous Journeys was registered as a trademark of Games Designer Workshop. GURPS was registered as a trademark of Steve Jackson Games. Hero was registered as a trademark of Hero Games. Palladium Books was registered as a trademark owned by Kevin Siembieda. Shadowrun was registered as a trademark of the FASA Corp. Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay was registered as a trademark of Games Workshop. Use of these names within this publication is not intended to constitute a challenge to their trademark status, either by past or current owners.