Which character attributes are worth keeping?

Comparing attributes between systems I see a lot of similarities but as much differences as well. Sometimes the list of available features is more or less convincing. Isn't there a universal answer to the question, which attributes are necessary for gameplay and which could be dispensed? Can we check suitability before starting a campaign or picking a new system?

The basic assumption of this post is that a roleplaying game even has attributes. In a game without character sheet this discussion is useless. All other games trigger the question of what is a useful attribute or feature  – even the narrative ones without numeric values that describe attributes with words.

Not every trait is an attribute in the sense that I am using it now. An attribute must be potentially purposeful for more than one character. The length of a character's hair is a trait, but probably never an attribute. The lenght of their hair is unimportant for the game. Race is an attribute in many fantasy games (humans, dwarves, elves) and triggers relevant distinctions and options. If there is only one race, all characters have that trait and it is no longer an attribute.

An attribute in a game is a feature that allows player to compare character differences relevant for the game.

Attributes express a character's capabilities and resources. Typical resources are state of health (hitpoints, sanity), wealth (money, equipment) and magical resources (spell points, spell slots). Typical capabilities are abilities and skills. The difference of both lies more in gaming history and combinability than in a profund differnece of function. Skills were created to finetune abilities.

Success of capabilities is deteremined by chance (dice, cards ...) or by consensus of the playing group while resource are used to "pay" for the result of activities. Characters do not defend themselves (good enough) against an attack and pay with hitpoints. They cast a spell and pay with invalidating a spell point or spell slot. A character sells an item and receives money in exchange.

Special capabilites that amplify or expand standard capabilities (like feats in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder or powers in D&D 4th Edition) would be resources by this definition. A character attacks and uses a special resource (feat, power) to enhance it.

Capabilities are used directly during play. Resource are used indirectly during play.

There would be tons of capabilities and resource that could be introduced to a game. But useful are only those, that are relevant for a game. In most roleplaying games the size of a character's home would be as useless as distinguishing the capabilities brewing, distilling and winepressing. Its good enough to just mention a character's home and to merge the three ways of making alcohol into one or to just drop that into the character's backstory instead of making it an attribute. In most worlds of play, size of a home and making alcohol is not relevant to the game. Therefore they are part of decoration and not part of mechanics.

To accept a capability or resource on my character sheet I must know if it will be part of play and if it will be more than decoration. It must potentially have an effect on events.

Relevant for the game is what affects the outcome of a regularly occuring and important activity.

Whether my character actually performs this regularly occuring activity or prefers to avoid it, is irrelevant. If the chance of having to use a capability or spend a resource is high enough, even low ranks and avoidance strategies become relevant for what is happening during play.

Most roleplaying games have their fair share of combat or it is at least a common thread that must be avoided. Almost all roleplaying games therefore have some attributes regarding combat. To simulate a duel it would be enough to let the players of both competing characters make a single roll for the capability "combat" and compare results. But usually this would be regarded as to condensed and boring. That's why "combat" is usually split into several capabilities, like attack and defense, melee and ranged combat, different weapon skills and so on. Each selection of available capabilities is directly connected to the level of details and attention the game directs to combat. The more capabilities available for a topic, the more elaborate this topic will be represented in game play. This may lead to spending a lot of time on these activites (like extensive combat) or to players avoiding these activities if deemed to complex to deal with (like matrix or drones in some games of Shadowrun).

The number of attributes in a game determine the level of detail. Too view details are underwhelming, too many overwhelming.

Each attribute must justify itself against other attributes of similar use. With regards to nature, animal and environmental skills, I immediately think of nature (studies), geography, survival, riding and animal handling. Knowledge about plants, weather and animals is something completely different from knowledge about the surrounding mountains, valleys and bodies of water. Both is useful, but if I find myself in the wilderness without provisions, I still need additional survival skills to get around. They cover different areas of the same topic. If this topic is just a secondary theme in my game, I merge them. If the difference between these skillsets are regularly addressed in my game, I split them in separate skills to allow for learning them separately.

While swimming a character may be elegant, persistent or fast. Would I introduce Fast Swimming, Elegant Swimming or Persistent Swimming as skills? Even in a campaign that would take place underwater for the most time, I would find this unnecessary. A persistent swimmer is most likely be persistent in other physical activities. An elegant swimmer wouldn't be clumsy ashore. It is probably enough to keep track if a character has learned to swim or not and just role Dexterity, Swiftness or Endurance. Or I introduce a single swim skill, but not one.

Each attribute must be unique.

Finally, it also is a question of how you want to play. In a LARP many if not all capabilities of a character are measure by the capabilities of the player. The extrems are "You can do what you can embody" and "You can do what your character sheet shows". In one, the character is limited to the player's capabilities. In the other, the player is limited to the character's capabilities. So, for each attribute two questions must be answered: Is it possible for a player to embody this activity during play? Should it be embodied or should it be represented by an attribute?

To solve a riddle or puzzle, the players may use their own head or an attribute on their character sheet. Either the character is limited to their player's smarts or the character may be smarter or dumber than the character. When introducing an attribute, I decide who's capabilities I want to address: the player's or the character's. A LARP will require more from the players, a tabletop roleplaying game more from the characters.

What is covered by an attribute does not rely on player skill. When player's skill is required, it must not be an attribute.


Originally published on Januar 3rd 2014

Photo credits: Wystan - Some rights reserved

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