Why do RPGs have Attributes?

OK, first of all, I know that not all RPGs do. This is only talking about the sort of RPG that tries to model characters with some combination of “attributes” and “skills”. For purposes of this discussion, “attributes” are character stats that are defined by the game as being more-or-less inherent, and either they don’t change or they don’t change easily. They’re meant to capture how we think about intelligence or healthiness in the real world—we don’t usually think of someone as becoming more intelligent or less prone to illness. “Skills” are defined by the game as learnable, or at least explicitly improveable.

So I was just thinking about what purpose do attributes serve in this model? Mechanically, (1) they often provide a baseline or fall-back for skills. If your character doesn’t have the history skill, they can make an intelligence check to see if they know who was regent in 1237; if they don’t have the athletics skill, they can make a strength check to climb a tree.

(2) Attributes often mechanically reinforce the notion that people have inherent aptitudes. Skills will be cheaper with a high attribute, or attributes are added to skills so you get to a higher effectiveness with fewer points spent on skills. There are other methods, of course, but the point is that usually skills are either coupled to attributes or stacked with them in play.

But then I was thinking about research questioning the notion of intelligence as an inherent quality, and how a person could seem to get colds easily but be physically resilient, or smart about math but poor with language, or agile but have butterfingers. Obviously, one solution to this is to have more, narrower attributes. But at some point, you get into the same problem that dis/advantage systems sometimes create, of encouraging excessive specialization that creates characters that aren’t believable.

But maybe we could capture the verisimilitude that attributes provide without needing attributes? Part 1 is completely solvable: you just need to have something to roll if your character doesn’t have a skill. You could define all skills as starting at 1 instead of 0, or have a dice mechanic that works without a skill input. Or say that without points in a relevant skill, you can’t attempt that action. You have to make some design decisions to go along with whichever one it is, but it’s a problem that has been solved multiple times in multiple ways.

But it’s particularly part 2 that got me thinking, because I’m not sure it’s been solved in without attributes (please, comment if you know of a system that has done something to reflect natural aptitudes without using attributes). Back to actual research: we’re increasingly finding that things we think of as inherent aren’t, and things that we think of as connected aren’t (and, meanwhile, other things turn out to be (maybe) connected). On top of that, some things that are typically treated as skills in RPGs may be more inherent than learned. But even then, obviously all the aptitude in the world doesn’t help if you are never exposed to something.

So, the split between learning and aptitude is probably artificial, and the grouping of “related” aptitudes is at least somewhat arbitrary. My thought experiment is: instead of trying to reflect these with attributes, lets just work directly with the skills.

The core of my idea is: the more skills you have in a given area, the cheaper it is to improve them or to learn new, related skills. If you want to make an athletic character, you don’t put a bunch of points into “strength” and “agility”, which then make it easier to get higher scores in the various athletic skills. Instead, the formula for cost of skills takes into account related skills, and costs fall as you acquire more related skills.

You’d have to define the skill groups, of course. For a rough version of this, you could start with a system that has attributes, and use the attributes that skills are based on/linked to define the groups. But the next level would be to have finer control over the skill groups—having 15 attributes gets unwieldy, but grouping skills into 15 categories shouldn’t be too much of a problem. And if you felt it improved verisimilitude, there’s no need for all skill relationships to be reciprocal: music skill and physics skill could both benefit from math skill, but music skill doesn’t benefit from physics skill, say. (n.b.: not making any claims about real-world accuracy here; just inventing an example.)

The cost to raise a skill might be something like ({new skill value}×3)−{number of related skills}. So putting a point into a skill makes every skill it is related to a point cheaper for every increment—a very similar result to putting a point into an attribute in many systems. But without having a separate attribute to track, and without having to decide what is “inherent” and what is “learned”—if it’s a thing you want characters to be able to roll dice to do, make a skill for it.

Is this actually reducing complexity over a typical attributes/skills system? I’m not sure. It would depend largely on how complex the math ended up being and how hard it was to create skills to fill in any gaps that attributes were handling. And even in the real world we often think of some abilities as being inherent and others learned, so would this be too jarring, and make verisimilitude harder? I don’t know without trying it. Let me know if you try something like this out.


#RPGaDay2015: 26 – The “Wrong” Genre

Everything is an inspiration for my games—but I can’t think of any one thing that’s particularly noteworthy or recurrent. Mostly TV shows and books—the usual suspects. I suppose the one thing that might be a bit odd is that I usually am more inspired by other genres. That is, when I’m running a supers game, I tend to look to every genre except supers for inspiration. When I’m running a space opera game, I’m likely to lift ideas from detective shows or fantasy novels. And so on.

I’m a huge fan of genre mash-ups, crossovers, and genre deconstructions, so I generally try to create something similar when I’m creating a game, running a game, or even, to the degree that I have the input, playing in a game. Looking to a genre other than the one I’m currently running (when I’m running a single-genre game) thus gives me inspiration.

Smallville via Lost Girl

For our latest weekly game, it was my turn to run, so I pitched some games that I thought would be interesting and engaging for our group. Mechanically, Smallville was one of the favorites, but 3 people vetoed supers, and the other 1 was only indifferent to the genre, so we decided to tweak it a bit for a different flavor setting. After some discussion, modern fantasy, somewhat in the vein of Lost Girl with a dash of X-Men: Evolution (we’re actively working to not echo Harry Potter, on several levels).

So that meant we needed magic, and probably some other changes. I immediately decided that the Stresses would need changing, and the others insisted that we change up the Values. So far, some of these changes have been more successful than others.

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Game Chef 2014 Design Notes

“A game of alienation and romance.”

The tagline I should’ve included in my Game Chef submission this year.


Last week was Game Chef 2014. My semester had just finished the week before, and I hadn’t been watching so I missed the announcements. The initial design period is Saturday to Sunday, 9-ish days, and it was already Monday when a friend asked me about it. I’d already missed an entire weekend, Monday night is booked, and I knew I was going to be busy all of Saturday. I looked at the theme (“there is no book”) and the ingredients (absorb, wild, glitter, sickle), and basically threw my hands up. I had no idea what to do with this. I figured I was going to be taking a pass this year. 

Then Caitlin looked at the ingredients, and had an idea, I think mostly triggered by “absorb”. At first I rejected it, but it grew on me—and grew and morphed and evolved over the next couple days, until it took hold and I had to write something. The core of it was “aliens come to Earth and need to absorb the roles/auras/presence/charisma of famous actors in order to stay here”. 

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Success? Failure? Take Your Pick!

I was digging through some old notes I’d made to myself, and came upon this snippet.

What if you could always choose whether your character succeeded or failed at any given thing in your RPG?

And I’m not just talking about when you have narrative authority, or shifting the game mechanics to the level of gaining/losing that narrative authority. This idea doesn’t really make sense in games where character success isn’t a goal or currency–this is not for games like Fiasco (and Fiasco already does something a lot like this–but, even then, it’s tied up with narrative authority, so you only sometimes get to decide whether your character succeeds or fails).

No, this idea is very much for games that are about character skill and competence and success. Games in the vein of D&D or Fate Core.

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What Are the Odds?

Probably the central conceit of the dice part of the rules in Four Colors al Fresco is that it’s the step size between the dice, not the actual sizes of the dice, that matters. But is this true?


Four Colors al Fresco isn’t a number-cruncher’s dream system, but I still want the rules to actually do what they supposedly do and thus stay out of the way. I’ve played some “story-oriented” RPGs (and even some that were actually concerned with the math) which didn’t stand up to scrutiny, so I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. So here is where I show my work. 

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