Posts Tagged ‘attributes’

So things have been quiet here at the Toolbox; a part of that is because I’m doing a lot of prep work for a thorough investigation of Pathfinder feats, but an even bigger part is boring “personal life” stuff, like a big move for work that I’m in the middle of.  Anyways, hopefully I’ll have interesting things to talk about here soon, but my “hobby time” has been pretty scarce lately.

But that’s for another time.  Today is Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day!

So, Swords & Wizardry is one of many game systems that are indicative of the “Old School Renaissance  movement in tabletop RPG gaming. The idea is that RPGs these days aren’t like they were “back in the old days,” and that we’ve lost something in modern games that we had back then.  I generally agree with the notion, with the caveat that I don’t think modern games are bad, just different, and there’s value in reviving this older style of play.  S&W itself claims to be a “restated” version of the “Original Game” written by Gygax and Arneson in 1974.

In a lot of ways, I feel like Swords & Wizardry matches up a lot better with my assumptions about characters and the world than modern interpretations of Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons – not because those games don’t match my expectations, but because they are more-general systems that allow for a wider range of experiences, and Sword & Wizardry intentionally restricts itself to the grittier core of fantasy RPGing.

So, let’s look at some of what S&W does and how it does it, and I’ll throw my thoughts in as well.


So I’ve been scouting around the Internet for dice stats since LS posted his “race-weighted attributes” post because work blocks me from but lets me wander around all sorts of message forums (and with two sick daughters at home, work is the most likely time I can do this sort of research). I found a link to an old (circa ’93) newsgroup post that lists probabilities and expected values for 3d6-drop-zero to 9d6-drop-six (they’re arranged by “drop lowest” but you can reverse the tables to get “drop highest”). That’s useful information for a number-crunching nerd likle me.

But in a couple places in the thread I found a meme that seems all-too-common in certain parts of the hobby, and I wanted to address that.  Specifically, it’s the notion that 3d6-roll-in-order or other systems that approach it are better because you’ll get low scores, and low scores “provide much color to a good ROLE-playing experience.” I submit to the reader that this is crap.

I’m not saying that all characters should have 12+ in every stat to be “worth” playing. I’m not saying that playing a character with some (or many) low stats can’t be fun. I’m not saying that stretching your horizons and playing out of type isn’t a good thing. But I am saying that the notion that playing a statistically-average or mathematically-likely character, especially one that is wholly or substantially generated randomly, is a better roleplaying experience is disingenuous at best.

At it’s core, role-playing has nothing to do with statistics. Role-playing is about taking on a persona and acting through scenarios, making decisions as though you were your character. We make a game out of it and attach mechanics so that you can understand and predict the likely outcomes of your decisions in a consistant way, but those are structures we build up around the core of role-playing.

The statistics are simply a way of describing our persona in a common language so that players and GM all understand the character and how he interacts with the environment. To say that a mathematically-likely character is better than any less-mathematically-likely character, we are first asserting that one persona is better than another for role-playing, and are then further asserting that it is better because of the randomness of it’s generation. Or, perhapse, it is better because it “forces” the player to “deal with” a flawed character. But why is that better, for role-playing? Can you not have just as-satisfying an experience role-playing as Superman as you can role-playing as Jimmy Olson?

Even if your character is stronger, faster, smarter, and better-looking thabn everyone else, there can still be interesting motivations, internal struggles, and decisions to be made, and that is what makes for good role-playing. Statistics say that my character is weak or clumbsy or stupid, and that’s one class of flaws, but it doesn’t say if he’s an alcoholic, a misogynist, bound by his word, or an extreme pacifist.  That’s another class of flaws. You can have an interesting, flawed character who’s stats are all 15+.

And here’s the crux of it: you can have an interesting time with a character who’s statistically perfect, but that wouldn’t be a terribly interesting character to me. I wouldn’t choose to play that character, much the same I wouldn’t choose to play a character who was randomly handicapped. I might choose to play a character with low INT or WIS or DEX, but the love-affair that gamers have with random generation has rarely made much sense to me. I have a couple theories:

It’s a game, and since it’s a game the notion of “fairness” comes in to play.  People want to know that they’re on even footing with their opponents, that no one is starting out with undue favor. But the problem here is two-fold – firstly your fellow players are not your ‘opponents’ (nor is your DM, if you’re “doing it right”), and secondly, how is random generation “fair,” exactly? It’s like the card game “We Didn’t Playtest This At All” where the rules not that star cards are simply better than other cards, and for game balance every player has an equal chance of drawing a star card. Rolling 3d6 is only “fair” in the sense that everyone has an even chance of rolling a superstar (or a dead-weight).

I suspect that another factor is that “that’s the way it was done” in the old days, and that’s the way it continued to be done out of tradition (and probably the above notion of fairness), and so people who played back then (or have adopted that mentality) had to live with bad rolls.  And occationally, having to live with sub-optimal results causes some people to rationalize and justify and find some reason to believe trhat sub-optimal is better, or at least not so bad. And from what I can tell, in old school rules attributes meant a lot less than the do in more-modern games. In Swords and Wizardry (ostensibly based off the 1974 rules), most stats are either +1, +0, or -1, so the swing between a “good” score and a “bad” score was minor. In 3.X, though, the swing is from +6 to -6 which is +/- 30% (a swing of 60%) on a d20! That is significant. Modern stats try to cover a larger range of variation, from vegitative 3s and retarted 6s to genius 14s and Ozimandian 18s. I suspect that all of old D&D’s 3-18 range covers just 7-14 in modern stats, because old D&D had a narrower focus.

My point is this: yeah, random-rolling characters makes things quick and ‘fair’ and can give you the ‘opportunity’ to play a character you might not have chosen for yourself. That’s fine and good and if it’s what you like, have at! But it isn’t going to fit everyone’s tastes, and please don’t act like it’s objectively better in any way. The core of role-playing doesn’t care about stats, except in that it’s how we describe our personas to the game. Hand-picking stats is just as valid, so long as everyone in the game agrees on what an accepitble character looks like.

So while I’m working on a couple of longer-term projects (discussing Pathfinder feats at-length; comparing D&D3.5 and Swords and Wizardry, demonstrating that the systems focus on different scopes; discussing healing in D&D, particularly in D&D 5) I wanted to point you over to a really cool idea from LS at Papers & Pencils.

He noted (as I did this weekend, breaking in my new Swords and Wizardry books) that the fist experience new players have of D&D is “”roll these dice, record the resulting sum. Repeat this task five more times, then assign one score to each of these six abilities, the functions of which you probably don’t fully understand yet,” and that’s a kind of sucky introduction to a Fantasy setting.  Instead he suggests describing the Races (dwarves are strong but clumbsy, elves are graceful but frail, gnomes are weak but charismatic) and then weighting attribute rolls by Race, with take-highest and take-lowest rolls replacing flat bonuses and penalties. I haven’t chewed on the numbers yet, but LS claims that 5-take-lowest averages a 7 and 5-take-highest averages a 14 (and 4-take-highst/lowest is probably about 8 and 12 respectively), so you get the benefit of the flat bonus but eliminate scores above 18 at level 1. And if nothing else, I think I really like that result.

So check out his post and then leave me your thoughts in the comments; I’ll probably make another post on this topic once I’ve had some time to look at the implications.

I touched on this a little bit in my post about Wisdom, but one of my biggest complaints about the D&D Attributes is the designer’s apparent confusion over what Charisma is.

A high Charisma gives you a bonus on Bluff, Disguise, Diplomacy, Handle Animal, Intimidate, Perform, and Use Magic Device.  It also gives you a bonus when determining the followers you can attract (per the Leadership feat), and Charisma is used on any check that involves influencing others.  It describes a character’s personal magnetism and ability to lead.  A low Charisma penalizes these same things, making it harder to intimidate, persuade, beguile, or lead others.  In pretty much very case, Charisma is treated as a character’s strength of personality, their confidence, and their assertiveness.

But when describing racial traits, Charisma isn’t about confidence and assertiveness, it’s about likeability.  Dwarves are “a bit gruff,” Goblins are “unpleasant,” and both get a penalty to Charisma.  They got it right with Aasimar and Halflings and Drow, who are “Confident,” “Strong-willed,” and “Manipulative” but they mess it up with Gnomes and Tieflings and Catfolk who are “Agreeable,” “Unnerving,” and “Sociable.” Orcs get a penalty for being “savage.”  Sure, it makes sense for getting a penalty to Diplomacy for being gruff or unnerving or savage, but why should the samehurt Intimidate?  I agree that Goblins should have a CHA penalty, but it’s because they’re spineless cowards not because they’re rude or ugly.  Do people really believe lies if you’re likable (or, would you really be likable if you were known for being able to tell lies)?  Does a Magic Device really care how sociable you are?

So here’s a quick run-down of how I would recast the Races’ attributes:

Asimar: +2 WIS, +2 CHA; Insightful and Confident
Drow: +2 DEX, +2 CHA, -2 CON; Nimble, Manipulative, and Delicate
Dwarves: +2 STR, +2 CON, -2 DEX; Strong but Stunted
Catfolk: +2 DEX, +2 CHA, -2 WIS; Agile, Self-assured, but lacking Common Sense
Gnomes: +2 CON, +2 WIS, -2 STR; Hardy, Wise, and Weak
Goblins: +4 DEX, -2 STR, -2 CHA; Quick, Weak, and Spineless (or alternately -2 WIS for Foolish)
Halflings: +2 DEX, +2 CHA, -2 STR; Nimble, Strong-willed, Weak
Orc: +4 STR, -2 INT, -2 WIS, -2 CHA; Strong, Dim, and Unfocused
Tiefling:+2 INT, +2 CHA; Intelligent and Manipulative

So I recently had a few conversations that shared a common theme: the assumptions you bring to D&D can drastically change the way you approach the system.  Some of these conversations were about game-world assumptions and while those can change the way you approach the game (a setting where all rogues are thieves is different from a setting where rogues are more likely bored noblemen or commissioned spies), that’s not what I’m interested in talking about right now.  I’d like to put out my assumptions on the Pathfinder/D&D 3.X system mechanics and what they mean.

As I’ve mentioned before, my perspective on D&D is strongly influenced by Justin Alexander’s Calibrating Your Expectations post; I highly recommend that you go read it to get the foundation I’m working from.  I’m going to try to not simply recreate Justin’s post, but he’s covered most of the bases pretty well.

The very first thing to recognize is that, at least the way they’re done today, Player-Characters are not only above average, but they generally approach the peak of mortal ability.  This can be seen in two aspects: Attributes and Class.


As Justin notes, PCs use the “elite” array of 15,14,13,12,10,8 (which is the mathmatically expected result of 4d6-drop-lowest, which seems to be the fashion these days for random stats), and based on some statistics in the 3.0 DMG he concludes that this puts them in the top 5% of the population (as far as raw ability and natural talent goes).  Standard NPCs use the 13,12,11,10,9,8 array (this is the expected results of 3d6), and the theoretical “average person” would be 10,10,10,10,10,10 (I actually think that this NPC exists with fair frequency, since any given score describes a small range of ability).

It’s worth noting here that a score of 8 or 9 is “below average,” but that doesn’t mean it’s crippling disability.  I think this is easiest to show with INT, but it can be extended to other attributes.  In a lot of places (though I can’t remember if any were ‘official’) it’s been said that INTx10 gives you a rough idea of the character’s IQ score.  (Palladium Book’s RIFTS system states this explicitly).  “Normal” IQ is considered to be between 70 and 130.  The definition of “mental retardation” doesn’t kick in until below 70, but it’s only mild retardation if it’s above 50; these people can learn to live on their own and maintain a job.  Severe, “unable to function on their own” retardation is marked at 35 and below, and the D&D system marks INT 3 as the lower limit of sentient life.  A dim character has an IQ of 5 to 7; above 7 they might not be the smartest person in the room, but it’s unlikely anyone would notice.  Forrest Gump, I would guess, probably has an IQ of 5 or 6. At the same time, “genius” level IQ was originally set at 140, or INT 14.

I generally consider 18 to be the peak of natural human ability; above that there needs to be something beyond “natural” at work.  By the rules a human COULD roll an 18 and then apply their racial +2 to get a 20, but I generally consider this inappropriate.  I freely admit that this may just be my preference, but that’s most of what we’re talking about anyways.  Demi-humans can surpass the limit of 18, depending on how they’re measured on average versus humans (elves are smarter and more agile, orcs are stronger, etc).  I don’t consider this a double standard; humans are marked by adaptability and I feel that’s the appropriate use of their +2 bonus; demi-humans are noted for other things and as such are expected to surpass humans in certain ways.


When people think about classes, they typically think about Fighters, Rogues, Clerics, Wizards and so on.  That’s reasonable because these are the classes that PCs typically have.  The problem is when people assume that all soldiers are Fighters, all thieves are Rogues, and all priests are Clerics. (Personally, I think a given priest is as likely to be a Rogue as a Cleric, but that may be a discussion for another time).  In fact, these PC classes represent a significant advantage in terms of training and skill above and beyond what’s available to most people.  Most people have NPC Classes — Adept, Aristocrat, Commoner, Expert, and Warrior — these are classes that most people don’t think about because they aren’t meant to represent adventurers.  In 3.X I think these classes are only listed in the DMG, and I’m pretty sure they were essentially ignored in 4E altogether. (I could be wrong on both counts.)  Rogues and Bards are PC-quality Experts, Fighters and Barbarians are PC-quality Warriors, Wizards and Clerics are PC-quality Adepts, and so on.  The PC classes represent a higher level of training, either because you had a better teacher or because you were able to better develop the skills you were given, or some similar situation.  In fact, depending on your world, most people are probably going to be Commoners, with Experts representing artisans, etc.


So, Player-Characters are naturally more gifted than most of the population, and then get better training than even their peers.  This already sets Player-Characters well above the norm, which in turn makes them capable of adventuring and (one hopes) becoming heroes.  But my main take-away is this: although the game may focus around PCs as our protagonists, the mechanics can not be calibrated to PCs as the baseline, because they simply are not baseline characters.  For the world to be consistent, PCs need to be recognized as above the norm and systems should assume average or slightly-above-average NPC-quality abilities.

I have more to say on my assumptions and understanding of the 3.X system (possibly a lot more), but I think this is a good stopping point for the time being.

While I’m still slowly going through the 5E playtest materials, I’ve been looking around at what other people have to say about it.  Reading a couple of posts on The Alexandrian and Blog of Holding, it strikes me that 5E seems to be highlighting a misunderstanding by the system of the Wisdom attribute.

There are two things that 5E is doing that spotlights the problem, but I don’t think 5E is introducing the problem: it’s just making clear a problem that we’ve all been living with for years, though it’s been masked.  First,5E is dropping the triumvirate of 3E saving throws, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.  Instead, saves are made directly based on attributes.  You’ll make Strength saves and Dexterity saves and Charisma saves, and so on.  I’m not exactly sure what an Intelligence Save might look like (the materials say “against spells that try to overcome your intellect, but I’m not sure what they mean) but it’s in there.

The Alexandrian is tentatively supportive of this change (as am I), but notes that it might introduce the old hierarchy of saves issue.  It used to be you saves were based on what a thing you were avoiding was (death, dragonfire, ray), and later it was based on how you avoid the thing (jump out of the way, take the hit and power through, resist with your will).  But there was a question on what Save to use if a thing fell in to multiple categories (a ray of death, or something you can dodge or resist with will) — do you use the best save, or the worst save, or just whatever save the DM cares to call for?  This was relieved a little bit in 3E, I think, but in 5E it looks like both Wisdom and Charisma are fighting over the same turf.  Wisdom saves are supposed to be used to resist being charmed or influenced (and it’s noted that both Command and Charm Person call for Wisdom saves), but Charisma saves are supposed to be used to resist  “magical compulsions.”

The second point is 5E seems to be tossing away the idea of skills, generally.  I may have misread it, but is you want to bust down a door you roll a Strength check, if you want to tumble to safety you roll a Dexterity check, if you want to search the room for traps you make a Wisdom check, and so on. Some character options give a bonus to certain actions (the Rogue character does note +3 to “open Locks”), and maybe there’s a more-robust skill system than we’re seeing here.  But from the looks of it, if you want to be good at finding secret doors, you bump up your Wisdom.

Blog of Holding notes that this highlights the odd position we find ourselves in when the Cleric (who’s whole schtick is based off Wisdom) is better at finding things than the Ranger, Rogue, or Barbarian (if you accept “feral awareness” or “aggression-fueled blindness”).  In 3E this issue was masked by the fact that skill points and Class training could make up for a poor Wisdom, but all things being equal a Cleric would have higher Perception because it was based on his key stat.  He goes on to suggest moving Perception in to Dexterity not because it makes any sense but because then the classes we expect to be perceptive (Rangers, Rogues) would have it keyed to their attribute of choice.

Frankly, I think that’s just silly.  Blog of Holding claims that Perception doesn’t really fit under any of the 6 attributes and while there might be an argument for that the description of Wisdom says it represents “common sense, awareness, and intuition.”  I this that’s something of a perfect fit for Perception.  Definitely better than an attribute representing manual dexterity and agility.

The problem in both cases is one little word in the description of Wisdom: “Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, awareness, and intuition.”  One of these is not like the others; one of these just doesn’t belong.  And in fact, I think the place that “willpower” does belong is under Charisma: “Charisma measures a character’s personality, personal magnetism, ability to lead” (the 5E text says “ability to influence others and strength of personality”).  Both of those lines were taken from the Pathfinder SRD, and I’m pretty sure it meshes with the 3E SRD as well.

So my solution is thus: move Willpower in to Charisma, with “strength of personality,” where it belongs. Make Wisdom a stat of pure awareness and intuition so it isn’t fighting with Charisma any more.  And adjust Clerics so that their magic is based off of Charisma (like 4E Paladins), representing the strong personality and will necessary to draw the power and favor of the gods (bonus: Clerics are now best able to draw followers). It cleans everything up just by dropping one word.