Monday, May 24, 2010

Stats from Scratch #1: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution

I'm not satisfied with the original array of six character abilities of D&D. I picture ability scores as representing the major, fundamental qualities of a character, and while the original six are serviceable in this regard, they don't perfectly jibe with what I'm going for. Some abilities seem over-broad in what they encompass, whereas others seem somewhat ill-suited for the purpose they serve. In this post, I'm going reexamine ability scores from the ground up, trying to keep the flavor of D&D in mind.

The first three abilities: Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution actually do correlate rather well to the respective areas of prowess for a fictitious character. STR gives an overall picture of a character's power, and is typically used for those checks I would expect. Swinging a greatsword? Breaking a door? Pulling a comrade to the top of the castle wall? It helps to be strong. You could quibble that some people are stronger in their upper body than in the lower body, and vice versa, but even I think that's going too far.

Likewise CON seems a natural fit for determining whether the fighter is able to resist that exotic disease contracted in the lizardman swamps, or whether the rogue succumbs to the poison from the trap he foolishly tripped. But what about CON checks to keep performing some strenuous activity? That seems more like stamina, or some measure of general physical fitness than some inherent, unchangeable resistance. I would think it's much easier to train oneself to run long distances than it is to train oneself to be resistant to extreme temperatures, or to disease or poison. So maybe instead of just CON, we tease out another ability: STAMINA.

For the time being, I will postpone facing a truly momentous choice: Which of those two stats contribute to HP? This question raises the further question of what do I consider HP to be, anyways? If HP represent bodily integrity, then CON should remain the modifying ability. If HP are more an abstract measure of fatigue level, luck and determination, then STA should be the relative score. Or are HP a mixture of both? That's another post.

When we get to DEX we finally see what I think are two truly distinct concepts that have been crowded into one header. From the 3.5 SRD:

Dexterity measures hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, and balance. This ability is the most important one for rogues, but it’s also high on the list for characters who typically wear light or medium armor (rangers and barbarians) or no armor at all (monkswizards, and sorcerers), and for anyone who wants to be a skilled archer.
You apply your character’s Dexterity modifier to:

Dexterity would certainly be of use in attempting to pick a lock, steal a wallet or aim a crossbow, but has nothing to do with dodging away from a blow from a mace, or jumping out of the way of falling rocks, or running along a narrow ledge. Those are all examples of AGILITY based action. One could even argue that you can drill down even further and separate out those tasks for which base SPEED is needed. That might be a more satisfying way of imagining the way heavy armor decreases the contribution of DEX/AGL/SPD to AC. The heavier your load, the slower you are. And maybe other armor affects AGL, more, being bulky but light. Either way, rolling SPEED would finally break the questionable convention that has EVERY human being just as fast as EVERY OTHER human of the same class, and the same for all other races.

So here I am at the end of this post, having talked myself into greatly expanding the first three "physical" stats from 3 to 6. Here's a first stab at what they may look like, taking into account some other house rules I'm toying with:

  1. Strength - Sheer physical might. Useful in lifting, pushing, pulling, carrying a load, swinging/throwing a weapon, wrestling.Add this bonus to melee attack and damage rolls, checks like Jump and Swim
  2. Constitution - Intestinal fortitude, raw physical resilience and health.When rolling on the Death and Dismemberment table, add this modifier and a cumulative -1 penalty for each subsequent roll. Also use this modifier for Fortitude Saves against poison, disease and the like. Do not use for Concentration checks (or Magic Frenzy checks). Will use another mental stat.
  3. Stamina - Physical fitness, endurance, staying power. This is the main modifier to HP; add double this modifier to HP every level. (Yup, I'm thinking about doing away with Hit Dice altogether). Also use this modifier for all checks to continue some tiring activity, such as running distances.
  4. Dexterity - Hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills. Use this as a modifier for attack rolls with ranged weapons, and also for damage if "taking aim". Also the prime ability for a host of thievy-type skills, like disable trap and picking pockets.
  5. Agility  - Gross body control and balance; flexibility. Add this modifier to Armor Class, as well as to skills like balancing, tumbling, sneaking. Also use this for Reflex Saves.
  6. Speed - Quickness and fleetness of foot. Add this to Armor Class and Reflex Saves. This modifier also serves to modify base movement for the character. For every point in speed, the character moves 5" (or 1 square) faster. Other components of base movement are tied to race and (maybe) class.

Hmmm.... no sooner have I finished this list than I begin to wonder whether I shouldn't break it down a bit further. Speed and Agility are kin to, but not identical with, Reflexes. To give an example from baseball, a fielder needs more than just speed and agility to get to a batted ball, he also needs quick reflexes to start heading in the right direction as soon as the ball is hit. A first baseman may be relatively slow and lumbering, but have good enough reflexes to snag sharply hit balls that go his way. I thought this would be the easy half of the ability score reconceptualization, but it's not turning out that way. Kind of exciting, actually.


  1. Have you checked out systems besides D&D derived ones. BRP SRD downloadable, it is the CoC system but maybe different thatn the CoC you are playing. Rolemaster/Harp I could lend you some books. Traveller Mongoose SRD avail. FUDGE/FATE freely avail.

    I'm fine with just two stats, physical & mental. Depends on how granular you want to go. I believe 6 stats is the happy funtime middle ground. If I want real granularity and character differation I'd rather use "traits" ala whatever they are called in FATE. things like "strongest man alive", "sliver tongued", "has motherf'er on his wallet".

    Also I'd definitely use names different than standard to avoid confusion.

    resistance instead of con
    quickness instead of speed
    coordination instead of dex

  2. I have a little bit. The Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay systems are percentile systems.

    Part of the reason I like more stats is the granularity, but also to leverage dice as oracles. More dice rolls means more possible combinations. But that also means a much longer chargen process, unless you decide to just take the scores in order. More dice rolls also means a higher chance of getting at least one good attribute, which can be the hook upon which you build your character. Players, particularly new players, like to be good at things. While it may be more of a challenge, and sometimes more rewarding experience to play a low-stat PC, newbies are less likely to get frustrated with the game if they experience success in at least one or two areas.

    I'm playing with getting rid of the whole 3d6 method of generating ability scores, only to then translate those scores to ability modifiers. I'm going to ability modifiers straight out of the gate.

    For example, using the normal 6 abilities, I just roll a d4 six times in order and I have my ability modifiers right there. If you want a less heroic character, or you just want even more variety, you roll a d6 minus a d4 for each stat. That gives a modifier range of -3 to +5.

    Man, I'm long winded tonight! I think this needs to be a post, so I'll ruminate and put it up in a day or two.

  3. You might look at the Atlantean Trilogy which breaks them down into 8: Str Dex Speed Con Int Will Perception Cha or Rolemaster which breaks them into 10: str agility reflex con selfdiscipline empathy intuition memory reasoning appearance (I believe)