What Value Ability Scores?

I was recently working through some mechanics and I realized that my current approach won’t work the way I want.  I think it was a good decision to move to a 1..9 range for ability scores (in place of D&D’s 3..18 range).  Using the actual value rather than the modifier of -4..+4 (as in several variants of D&D such as True 20 and Dragon Age — both from Green Ronin, as it happens) was a good idea too, at first look.

It turns out this does not work the way I want.  Hit point calculations and ability pools look reasonable, and just about any kind of check works just fine (in simple checks I just set the DC five points higher than I might if the scores were -4..+4, and in contested checks all that matters is the difference between the values, so whether it’s 9 – 2 or +4 – -3 it works out the same).  However, subsequent calculations don’t necessarily work the way I want.  If two-handed weapons do the same damage as D&D 3.x (mStr*1.5) then instead of +6 for ‘Str 18’ you get +13 for functionally the same Strength.  Come to that, in order to have damage work at all reasonably I have to take the +5-to-everything the 1..9 range gives to damage.  I could give everything DR 5 (or DR 5*critical multiplier), or remember to subtract 5 from base damage, or….

Yeah.  That would suck.  I considered shifting back to -4..+4 (and applying a +5 to certain calculations such as hit points) and remembered something from my professional life.

If something is harder than it should be, go back to first principles, which might include questioning whether the thing you’re working on is even needed.  This should be the first question anyway, but I’d assumed that the convention is probably sound.

I wonder about that now.

What Are Ability Scores For?

As far as I can see, ability scores in D&D do a couple things.

Quantify Description

Ability scores let you put a number to just how much ability you have.  How strong, how agile, how smart, and so on.  This can be obviously valuable if you want to use such considerations in mechanics.

People are different, often in some fundamental ways.  Some are stronger than others, some are smarter, and so on.  This can be captured and shown by varying ability scores.

This also comes into racial and size considerations in D&D.

Indicate General Aptitudes

In general, characters with high Strength can be expected to take abilities that depend on (or at least benefit from) being strong, and characters with high Intelligence can be expected to take abilities that like smart people.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but effective characters tend to be those whose ability scores support their preferred activities.

Do We Need Ability Scores?

Now we get into the meat of things.

Does Echelon really need ability scores?  Or can we achieve much the same goals without involving them?  Let’s take a look.

Quantify Description

I’ve already reduced ability score resolution from 3..18 to 1..9 (or -4..+4).  While D&D 3.x made some distinction between Dex 12 and Dex 13, and Dex 14 and Dex 15, these honestly rarely came up for most people.  For the most part only those characters taking feats that depended on the ability score might be affected.  If you’re not taking Two-Weapon Fighting feats, Dex 14 and Dex 15 probably makes no difference.

I have to wonder, though, do people honestly really differ so much, that it’s worth tracking for everyone?  From a game perspective, in real life everyone you meet is likely to be ‘about average’ in most ways, having only one or two major areas of distinction.  There are exceptions, of course, but they tend to be modeled as higher-level characters.

What if we only note when someone is notably strong or notably smart?  If we only have to mention it when it’s actually unusual, perhaps it will have more meaning.

Indicate General Aptitudes

As above, strong people tend to do ‘strong things’ and smart people tend to do ‘thinky things’.  I’m fine with that.  However, it seems this to have a couple of negative effects.

  • Single Ability Dependent (SAD) characters have the bulk of their major abilities driven by a single ability score.  Spell casters, I’m looking at you.
  • Critical ability scores.  Dexterity is often seen as really important for some characters because it ties into so many things — Reflex saves, ranged attacks, initiative checks, many skill checks.  Having a moderate or low Dexterity score can easily mean death — I had a character die as an almost direct consequence of too many failed Balance checks, and he got set on fire by traps a lot, because he had Dex 10.
  • Multiple Ability Dependent (MAD) characters get hosed the other way.  Unless they were lucky enough to have generally high ability scores they don’t really get full advantage of their builds.  Personally I suspect this is not a bad thing, in that MAD classes should actually be considered more as ‘metaclasses’ (paladins and monks can each vary in their class abilities by their ability scores.  Or rather, I would if they weren’t generally weaker than the SAD classes even with high ability scores.
  • Dump stats, when a build has no real requirement for a good ability score somewhere.

If you throw in point buy, things get weird.  Overall, given the equal cost but wildly different value to different ability scores for different characters, it almost surprises me that this works at all.

What if, instead of using ability scores that are tied to varying numbers of abilities that have varying importance, we just identified the subset of abilities the creature is good at?  What if this comes either from native ability or from training?

Possible Approach

I think the purposes of ability scores can be better implemented in Echelon using talents.  Consider,

  • A learned character, well-read and broadly knowledgeable, might have the Scholar capstone.  This might require two or three Knowledge talents, and at the Basic tier provides a +4 bonus to all Knowledge checks.
    • A ‘Basic Smart’ character might just get a +2 bonus to Intelligence checks (which include Knowledge checks), but he is considered untrained.  A ‘smart scholar’ gets +2 to all Intelligence checks, +6 to all Knowledge checks, and +10 to his trained Knowledge checks (and can get ‘trained results’ for those Knowledge checks).  [Hmm.  This looks like it might be more complex than I really wanted… but then, he’s spent five talents to get here, so it’s probably appropriate]
  • A wizard, on the other hand, might not be so broadly knowledgeable,.  The Wizard capstone might require three Spell Knowledge talents and provide knowledge of all spells of a level equal to the Wizard tier.  That is, an Expert Wizard has detailed knowledge of at least three schools of magic and can cast up to fourth-level spells from those schools (probably with a higher save DC or other school-specific ability), but can cast first- and second-level spells from all schools.  (Remember that all spell levels in Echelon are one higher — cantrips are first-level now, magic missile is a second-level spell, and so on).
    • A Necromancer, on the other hand, might know only Necromantic spells and have more necromantic abilities that are not necessarily spell-driven.
  • A strong character, one who is just notably buff, might just get bonuses to Strength checks, but is considered untrained (unless, of course, he is trained).  A creature with Basic Strength might get +2 to all Strength-based stuff (Str 14 or 15 in D&D 3.x terms).  He can lift more (175-200 pounds overhead rather than 100 pounds), hit harder (increased attack bonus with heavy weapons and bonus damage), and so on.  At higher tiers this could get silly (lifting things that are impossible in real life) and ‘Strength tricks’ would come up.  However, someone trained with particular skills (such as Climb or Jump) can probably still do it better.  Someone with both would obviously be better yet.
    • To compare, a character with a Basic combat style centered on axes might get a +4 bonus on attacks with axes, do better damage (including the improved critical multiplier), and probably have some axe tricks not available to the strong character.

I’m trying to keep Echelon simple, so it will tend to focus on notable differences.  Many Basic creatures and characters generally don’t really differ all that much.  But then, most people in real life are, in game terms, pretty similar overall.

I think this approach can give me the capability for creatures to be notably strong (or fast, or what have you) without requiring that I track ability scores for all characters.  It gets me away from having to deal with ability score generation, it removes what amounts to subtle differences between characters.  It may lead to some increased interaction between talents (‘Warrior Born’ and ‘Toughness’ might both increase hit points — but possibly in different ways), but considering how it will likely simplify things for everyone else, I think it may be worth it.

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  1. You’ve hit on something I’ve wondered about for a long time. I never quite understood why 3e had feats, skills, AND ability scores when all three of them measure just about the same thing in practice.

    So if you’ve chosen to go with feats, essentially, I applaud that. If you assume that characters are otherwise totally average except for their feats, I can’t honestly see any problems. After all, what’s the practical difference between a Warrior with 10 Intelligence as opposed to one with 8 Intelligence?

    Very cool.

  2. I had noticed that Echelon characters could be defined using just “ability scores + big list of talents” (plus equipment) so it kind of makes sense to fold the former into the latter and streamline the design a bit.

    As an aside, I didn’t use ability scores in Hōpara, although for unrelated reasons (trying to keep the character sheet small). As with Echelon, if you want to be particularly good at Strength etc. then you just take an ability (cognate to Echelon talents) for it. WRPS does use attributes (although in a different form) but it does illustrate another point you made, namely that almost all people have roughly similar scores and only a few individuals have different values: in WRPS 9–11 is defined as normal human range of any attribute, with 13 being “greatest on the planet”.

    As we were discussing the other day, this will affect the pool mechanic. You had mentioned going back to per-talent pools (perhaps sized equal to your level?). Do these still recharge “after an encounter” or something different? IIRC the last time you were talking about per-talent pools you had mentioned such things as a Rage pool recharging by hitting or taking hits in melee.

  3. If I were to go this route and remove ability pools as I currently have them, there’s a decent chance I would go to a mechanism similar to Iron Heroes token pools. I largely dropped the idea when I started considering ability pools, if only because there would be too many pools to keep track of (six for the ability scores plus however many token pools you have) and they didn’t all follow the same general structure.

    However, with ability pools out of the way, having a small number of token pools (each character has only those he can actually make use of — if you don’t have Rage or Cleave you don’t need Fury tokens) becomes viable again.

  4. Pingback: Links of the Week: November 14, 2011 | KJD-IMC - KJDavies "In My Campaign" Articles

  5. Pingback: FASERIP Ability Score Interpretations? | Echelon d20 - An RPG framework based on the d20 system.

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