This post originally appeared on the now-defunct Arcane Game Lore blog.
As I’ve been thinking about this, I wonder if character ability scores are something that should come early in the design process or something that should come later. I also realized that this is one of those topics that are at least loosely coupled with the choice of skill system, which I discussed in my previous post.
At some level the choice of ability scores is closely tied to the mechanics of the game system. One set of mechanics would lean toward one set of ability scores while a different mechanic may lean toward a different set. And that is both in their mix and their value range.
For example, a system like RuneQuest or Basic Role-Playing (BRP) has mostly physical characteristics (strength, appearance, constitution, etc) and most of what I call the “touchy-feely” bits are handled by skills. Star Frontiers on the other hand has ability scores like Personality, Leadership, and Intuition as those types of actions are not really covered by skills but rather you use raw ability scores to determine your success. Thus to some level the ability scores you need are determined by the game mechanics.
Likewise the range of ability scores is influenced by the mechanics as well. In RuneQuest ability scores are based on 3d6 and lie in the 3-21 range typically. Plus there are skill category modifiers which are based on your ability scores that can increase or decrease your skills depending on whether the relevant ability score is higher or lower than 10. While you could do something similar with ability scores that range up to 100, you’d have to impose additional math on your players to keep the modifiers reasonable (effectively giving bonuses for every 5 points above/below 50 instead of simple +/- 1). Similarly, since Star Frontiers is a percentile based system and uses the ability scores for success checks or as basis for skills, you want the ability scores to potentially range up to 100. You could do this do this with ability scores in the range of 3-21 but you’d have to multiply by 5 (or roll a d20 instead of d100).
That also brings up the discussion of whether you need the full 1 to 100 range or if 1 to 20 is good enough. Does the extra gradation on the d100 really mean much? Or is rolling a d20 good enough? I think in the end, you have to pick something that works best with the rest of your mechanics.
Which brings us back to the original question: Ability scores or mechanics first? As I’ve been writing this I think that I’ve come to the conclusion, unsurprisingly, that its a little of both and possibly cyclic. I think you have to start with your skill/experience system. Once you have that you can chose the ability scores that best compliment that system, but not necessarily their scale. Then you go off and build the rest of the system and come back an look at your ability scores to determine the scale, range, and distribution that makes the most sense with the other mechanics you’ve written. Of course you’ll probably make an assumption about the scale as you start but you may find that you are having to make lots of exceptions or are adding in extra steps in the mechanics to accommodate that initial assumption. That’s a pretty good sign you got it wrong and will guide your choice of the correct values.
Coupled Ability Scores
On a completely orthogonal axis, there is the issue of coupled skills. In Star Frontiers, skills came in pairs, i.e. Strength and Stamina, Intuition and Logic. When creating your character, you roll once to determine the value of both ability scores in the pair. You could shift up to ten points from one to the other but they were tied together to the same baseline. As I’ve thought about it over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really like this. There is no reason you couldn’t have a really strong character (high strength) that was sickly or easily hurt (low Stamina which is your character’s hit points). Or one that is really smart (high Logic) but clueless about the world around him (low Intuition). I don’t think that the maximum 20 point difference does enough justice. So if I go that route with the skill system, I won’t be coupling the skills together, you’ll roll separately for each of them.
Coming Next Time
I had originally planned on a longer article but I’m also trying to post at least once a week and the last bit isn’t ready. As I was writing up the descriptions, I realized there was some more analysis I wanted to include and that simply isn’t going to happen in time for this post. So next time I’ll talk about what I’ve done in both of the two ability score systems so far.