Stat Word Games

A. Shipwright

Systems that use three stats: Into the Odd, Electric Bastionland, Maze Rats, Red Ink Adventures, AKA systems I tinker with and love dearly. These systems have made me examine the typical six ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) and found them lacking. I too have been disillusioned by the D&D stats I’ve been told to hold sacred.

For one, Strength AND Constitution is dumb. One covers active muscle use, the other passive? Sure, you might be able to “explain” more body types, but really? Does it matter, like, at all? Can’t you just describe yourself as super buff or skinny or super tall or small and be done with it? Why do in two stats what you can do with one? Strength will do the trick. It’s more common and understandable than Constitution anyways.

And then there’s Dexterity. We all KNOW what Dexterity is. We also recognize it as the most powerful stat on the block (hehe, get it?). It factors into defense (both reflexes AND Armor Class), ranged attacks, “quick” melee attacks, sneaking, acrobatics (which EVERY thief will argue for as an alternative to athletics), sleight of hand, and initiative. This single stat, only one of the SIX, accounts for 50-60% of the numbers in the game. It’s incredibly bloated and forces rational players to never EVER choose it as a poor stat. It is simply too useful to leave with an 8 or lower. If there are fewer stats, Dexterity will seem like more of a reasonable option, rather than a “must-have.”

While I’m on a roll, I’ve always thought Intelligence and Wisdom to be stupid. Like, why both? I have never heard a proper justification for the existence of both that holes couldn’t be poked in. Every time people attempt to explain the difference, they just end up using a silly tomato analogy or try to tell me how IQ and memory are “fundamentally different” or at least different enough to merit using more precious space on a character sheet. Yeah, no.

So, to clarify:

  • Strength and Constitution can be combined as just “Strength.” It includes using raw power, stamina, and physical resilience.
  • Dexterity is fine, so long as other stats are brought up in overall usefulness. It includes speed, agility, and precision.
  • And then there’s an elusive third stat. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

The role of stats in RPGs

I’m a bit of a stickler for making each stat useful. That doesn’t mean all stats should be rolled the same number of times each session, but the utility of each stat should be obvious enough that that could conceivably happen in a given game with a given genre of adventure game. There should be an equality of opportunity among the stats, not necessarily of outcome.

So the first two stats of Strength and Dexterity cover us physically. We have power and speed, endurance and precision all covered in two simple numbers. But what about the mind? The mind is usually presented as opposite the body and therefore, it should have its own stat. The reasoning is a bit simplified, but let’s go with it.

Now, if you’ve read my ramblings on Knowledge and Perception and you know mind stats have been a tricky thing for RPGs to handle, historically speaking. Most RPGs say, “when a smart person rolls high, they should be rewarded with a slap in the face of Wikipedia information and exposition. Yeah, stop the game to a dead halt. That’ll be fun. Oh, and if they fail just let all the other fools roll until someone succeeds.” Yuck.

The mind stat is a unique problem. For one, other stats don’t have a problem of representing a difference between the player and character. When it comes to Strength, you can very easily play character who is stronger than yourself. Same for Dexterity. Pretty simple. But when it comes to the mind, you cannot play a character who has substantially greater intelligence than your own. If you were smarter than you are, you would just be given the solution by the GM or told the best approach to a given problem based on your superior intellect. Knowing the best path to take at any juncture would ruin the fun of a game built on making choices. Unless RPGs are all about escaping and self-gratifying and making everyone else at the table watch how awesome you can be in a game of pretend elves. Then you just go right ahead.

The upside to you having a different mind from your character is that you own your own intelligence. Your experience and skill as a player transfers from campaign to campaign, scenario to scenario. As a game, you can develop the skills to play RPGs better, just as you can play chess more often or practice swinging a bat to get better.

Now take everything I said and apply to social skills as well. It’s the same thing there.

Think of it this way:

The player decides the approach and the PC’s stats determine how good they are at executing that approach should a roll need to be made.

Any PC stat that is used to determine the “best approach” a situation is a reduction of RPGs as medium about making choices. This does not mean that PC stats are not able to help inform the likelihood at succeeding at using a given approach. For example, my 18 Strength means I should probably smash the wooden fence in my way instead of sneaking past a patrol of guards with my Dexterity of 6.

There needs to be a stat that suggests approaches, without declaring one to be superior. The “mind” stat should not be something that gives more information, from either knowledge or perception. So what should it be?

What has that third stat been in other games?

Into the Odd and Maze Rats use Willpower/Will as that third stat. According to Into the Odd, Willpower is “confidence, discipline, and charisma.” In Maze Rats, Will is “force of personality, perception, or willpower.” I kept this the same for Maze Rats 5.3. Looking back, it may be cheating to define “Will” as “Willpower.” That’s like defining a horse as “1 horsepower.” Whoops.

Red Ink Adventures and Electric Bastionland use Charisma. Red Ink defines it as “force of personality, willpower, and luck.” Electric Bastionland defines is as simply “charm and confidence.”

Here are some differences I’ve noticed both from a language and gameplay perspective on both sides of the screen:

-Will works well for both casting magic. It would be strange to think of a wizard using their charm to overpower the mind of their enemy with a fireball. It might work for a specific brand of fantasy, but not for anything classic.

-Will can be used to resist magic and manipulation. The “force of mind” keeps them wary of the influence of other minds. “Sanity” would fall into this category.

-Will can be used for wielding magic items. “You work for me now, magic sword.”

-Will can also be used for perception, though I would probably change it to be closer in line with “awareness.” This is “save to avoid being surprised by goblins.” This discipline of the mind makes the PC more aware of their surrounding. They’re like a hound or Tarzan or something else with very high intuition.

-Will makes more sense for primal and aggressive social encounters. It falls more in line with intimidation and everything becomes about scaring the “weak-minded” or changing their mind with social pressure.

-Will seems more internal than Charisma. This makes it harder to role-play someone with higher or lower Will. What does that look like in play?

-On the flip side, it may be TOO easy to role-play someone with high or low Charisma. Awkward gamers seem to assume high Charisma as “extroversion” and low Charisma as “socially tone-deaf.” That’s not a criticism, just as observation about how people tend to interpret Charisma. It’s also why I called it “force of personality” rather than just “personality.”

-Charisma is already in the gamer lexicon. Having a common language helps the game, but also brings its baggage.

-Charisma has more of an element of luck to it. Swashbuckling, “devil-may-care” characters seem to thrive on getting by “by the skin of their teeth.” You could always just use a Fortune Roll too, but this gives the option of both and makes luck specific to the character.

-Charisma has the aspects of bluffing, negotiating, intimidating under “charm and confidence” but has a different angle than Will by including “charm.” Now listing all of these approaches isn’t to say that all of those approaches have the same effect. Climbing a 20′ wall and trying to jump over that same wall both use Strength, but the effect of success and failure are different for both of them.

So what should that third stat be?

It depends.

The difference between the two comes down to inward-facing versus outward-facing, internal versus external. The litmus test for me is the role of magic in the game.

For a game where players are actively using and/or resisting magic, Will or Willpower is the way to go. It has more believably as the stat for conjuring things with your mind than charm and confidence.

For games without the active use of magic, Charisma. Players seem to have a better grasp of Charisma than Will thanks to D&D. Electric Bastionland as an industrial world is more about being charming and confident towards NPCs than using magic on them. Red Ink Adventures is filled with scoundrels. The only mages are NPCs, really. Think more Link (the sword boy), less Zelda (the wizard princess).

Will/power

  • Mages
  • D&D-like games
  • Call of Cthulhu

Charisma

  • Scoundrels
  • Fallen London
  • Cyberpunk 2020

I would advise against using both at the same time. Like the athletics/acrobatics conundrum, there’s just too much overlap, especially in social situations. “Am I forcing my will upon that person, or charming them to be convinced of my argument?”

Post-Script

Isn’t it strange to think that D&D 3.5 (and 4e too, I guess) could have been boiled down to a three stat system? Fortitude, Reflexes, and Will roughly equate to Strength, Dexterity, and Willpower…

How would a game of D&D change with only those three stats? Would it work if you really tried to make it happen? Or would it just break down?

Further Reading

Bastionland: Charmed

Bastionland: A Place for WIL

Angry GM: Social Encounters

12 thoughts on “Stat Word Games

  1. Thanks for writing out your thoughts in detail like this.
    I’ve also always been particularly irritated with STR + CON not just being combined, but I think I just keep them all as they are for the sake of compatibility – I really get behind Patrick Stuart’s post about using B/X as a lingua franca of sorts for the OSR (at least as a base, which is how I use it). I think there’s an (mildly) interesting debate to be had on how much thought we should give to compatibility in our design.
    Also, is there anything wrong with just having 4 stats here? STR, DEX, WIL and CHA?
    Thanks as always for the post!

    1. It took me a while to organize and write the whole thing out, so I’m glad it was of interest to you.

      That is a good point with compatibility. I’m just used to running systems that are so loose and simple that converting things are a breeze. For instance, monsters in Maze Rats are six numbers at maximum and then their special abilities. The game also has an excellent framework that goes through has to ballpark each number on the fly. The easier the system you use, the less there is to worry about converting. I’ve been using Tomb of the Serpent Kings and Hot Springs Island across three different systems, none of which were directly compatible with those adventures. Easy breezy.

      With four stats, I’ve seen it and I don’t buy it. You can sometimes see the same problem between STR and DEX that you do with WIL and CHA. For getting over climbing a wall, there’s always that one guy who insists on rolling DEX because unlike the guy using their muscles to climb, they’re flipping up the sides like a ninja. That’s “Dexterity.”

      This same problem would creep up in social situations. Am I forcing someone to do my will or am I convincing them with my charm and confidence to do my bidding?

      There’s still an internal/external distinction with WIL and CHA just as there is a power/grace distinction with STR and DEX, but anything done to keep the lines clear is a boon.

    1. The eight stats absolutely cover all the bases for any action you could take in an RPG. It’s also has a sense of completeness due to every aspect (physical/mental, force/grace, attack/defense) getting a slot on the character sheet. It covers life in its entirety, which gets back to usability and opportunity of the stats. For an adventure game, this might actually cover too much.

      BUT, when designing a new game, this will be a handy list for me to return to. In a game about politics, mental grace attack may find way more use than one about plumbing the depths.

      I have more praise for this framework, but my thumbs hurt. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I have liked three stat systems since my first encounter with the Tristat system. GURPS really annoys me because it has three physical stats and one mental stat and nothing for either social or spiritual.
    Your definition of stats is different to how I think of them but horses for courses. Internally I debate about splitting social and intellectual into two stats giving four. Your will would be my spiritual, your charisma would be my social, I don’t separate strength and dexterity, and I have a mental attribute. In each case the player can lean towards power (strength, memory, presence or will ) or subtlety (dexterity, analysis, empathy or glamour).

    1. I can see the social/spiritual distinction somewhat. It’s external versus internal influence and control. Good call.

      I’ve had a game where STR and DEX were not separated where everyone played mages, but for adventure games, I’d want those separate.

      I would advise you to attempt a game without intelligence stats. Can’t link it because I’m on mobile right now, but my article on Knowledge and Perception touches on this. At the very least, I hope it would be an interesting exercise for you to try.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I too find GURPS annoying, but that’s just whenever I see people recommending it for any setting under the sun. 🙂

  3. Cryptomancer has Wits, Resolve, Speed and Power as it’s 4 stats.

    Each of those also has two substats:

    Knowledge vs Cunning for Wits
    Presence vs Willpower (mana points) for Resolve
    Agility vs Dexterity for Speed
    Strength vs Endurance (Hp) for Power.

    You can see it on the character sheet nicely.

    Click to access character_sheet.pdf

    I haven’t actually had a chance to play this yet though, so I don’t know how well it works.

    1. Knowledge, in general, is really iffy for me. And I think I get what “Cunning” means, it seems open to exploitation. You could describe lots of actions as “quick thinking.” Is the distinction for Presence and Willpower internal vs. external like I mentioned with CHA and WIL?

      I like taking down Dexterity as both Agility and Dexterity. Good split that I’ve seen in other games. Endurance is basically Constitution. It’s baked into gamer thinking enough that I think it gets a free pass.

      Thanks for the thoughts! I’ll check it out.

  4. I like what you ended with, that it ultimately depends on the story you expect to tell, to fill in that third slot.

    Personally, i love Genesys’s 6 stats of Brawn, Agility, Intellect, Cunning, Willpower, Presence (which match nicely with Fate Accelerated’s approaches) since it sidesteps a few criticisms you mentioned about D&D’s classic stats… Though there’s still that finicky thing about intellect or intelligence as a stat. I also quite like the Tri Stat list of Body, Mind, Soul, and PbtA’s unique lists of 4-5 stats for each game.

    Maybe it’s just me, but almost every alternative bunch of stats seems better than D&D’s list of 6, but i’m sure it’s also because the stories i like to tell are not so D&D-ish.

  5. I’ve tried a different approach to get beyond the classic names, by having BODY, HANDS and WITS. Are you using your BODY, like when breaking down a door or jumping out of the way of a fireball. Are you using your HANDS, like when picking a lock or shooting an arrow. Or are you using your WITS, like when you try to deceive or persuade someone. This has worked rather well in my games, so far. It still leaves some of the “climbing” overlap between body and hands. And I strongly agree with you on not making “knowledge” or “perception” a stat. It is why my third stat is not “HEAD”.

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