Where do they come from?
When thinking about game design, the idea of Attributes for a character is one of the basic things many of us first learned about when we started in the hobby.
Strength, that is a pretty easy one to understand. Intelligence, well we all know what that means. Then we get to Constitution, Dexterity and Wisdom, these seem like “yeah I can get it”. Charisma is the final classic attribute, but then when it’s your first time playing, someone tells you it’s how beautiful your character is (at least that was my initial introduction) which many called a “dump stat”.
If we step out of our comfort zone of the famous Dragon game, we may see different Attributes that, Classic Traveler for instance uses Education, Social Standing, and Endurance. Call of Cthulhu adds and changes some of these with Size, Power and Appearance. These add to the feeling of the setting, and often are used in conjunction with or outright replace other Attributes.
Character Attributes are just a part of TTRPGs. Some games use only three or four in their rules. Into the Odd and the slew of Mark of the Odd games typically use three Attributes, though some add a fourth stat like luck or a magic casting stat. Trollish Delver’s Scott Malthouse uses two attributes in his rules light system Dungeon Gits (cleverly called Bashing and Not Bashing). Troika! utilizes the old Fighting Fantasy book Attributes of Stamina and Skill.
How do we use them to enhance the rules of a game?
Procedurally heavy games can benefit from having Attributes. They can be the corner stone of resolution in a game. Want to know how your character fairs jumping across a chasm? Roll a check against their dexterity or strength or something related to those Attributes. This is a n easy way to plow through a game and move past seemingly trivial or mostly impactless decisions for the Referee in the game. Roll an move on. If this is the type of game you’re playing then by all means please do include Attributes that will help to flesh out rules and engage the players through the characters with the system.
Do we need ’em?
Regardless of the Attributes a game uses, they are a way that a gamer can identify with their character. Some people view their characters as an extension of themselves, while others joy in the fact that they can play anything that they are not. There is no right or wrong here, just different views.
Using Attributes in your own system can enhance the rules when there needs to be more granularity and distinction between character abilities. With the invent of so many different Attributes out there it is hard to decide when looking to create your own game how many and what Attributes your games should include. There is even an argument for no Attributes like in the Trophy and Brindlewood Bay.
How is it possible that games for decades have used these numerical representations of character Attributes and we are seeing games that do not call for them? Well in the modern times of gaming, we are seeing that player skill is really taking control of some parts of the scene, so much so that we no longer feel it is necessary to give those fiddly numbers to a character’s persona. In the real world we do not judge people based on their numbers (or at least in a better world we wouldn’t).
So we look to learn about people through their actions and the ways in which they approach the world. Who cares if you are slightly more nimble than me or have a lower intelligence? What is important is how we get along and the interests we have. Games like Into the Odd and Trophy look at your background and turn that into story based means to give mechanical advantages when using those rolly dice. They may utilize them in different ways but they are an important piece of the game that helps a player feel like their character is interacting with the imaginary world they are in.
I venture that it is unimportant if you have an 18 Charisma score if you fall and pour a beer down the back of the town jerk at the pub. I’m not interested in rolling to resolve what happens with the situation, I want to see what the players choose to do with their characters and how they engage with the situation, this to me is a better way of determining whether the guy gets into a scrap with you or if you become lifelong friends as he welcomes you into the fighters guild.
Attributes are not necessary for a role playing game. I often hear students talk about their imaginary dragon game, hell just this last week i was helping a couple students build a Sayan race for their fancy fifth edition Dragon game. But it only emphasized that I did not care for the proficiency bonus and the combination stat and bonus that comes along with Attributes. Give me a business card game with a simple roll system and I’ll be fine. Let me have a game where my character’s background allows me an advantage on a roll.
Derek Bizier, The “+20 to Dump Stat” Halfling Master