Attributes, Skills and Tasks

Something that puzzles me in many games is the rather abritrary way of how characters or heroes are defined by stats like attributes, abilities, skills and such and how those are used in the context of challenge resolution. Everyone wants to describe his hero just like you want to tell your best friend the cool assets of your new car or bike in terms like HP, speed, weight or other attributes. A car is just a car, everyone imagines a totally different thing under that term. A hero is a hero, too. No one knows what makes him or her a hero, though, without giving some more details.

Attributes (there are many synonyms for that term) usually try to categorize the very basic characteristics of our hero, like the most important characteristic of a race car in game of trump cards. For cars this might be stats like Top speed, Horsepower, Cylinders, Cost – for our hero this could be stats like Physical Strength, Running speed, physical agility, intellect and many many more. Those stats are not much good to do anything tangible, they represent potentials, although certain deeds are quite clearly connected to them. A strong hero would be able to lift a heavier load than a weak one. This does not make him a hero, yet. And it is only good in very rare and not very exciting situations. It is pretty nice to be able to carry more stuff through your adventure but this only makes a packhorse out of your character, not a hero. If your hero is goinf to be charming, a high stat in Appearence, Looks or Charisma says she may have comely looks and a voice like a flute – yet many people would not necessarily be very impressed by her. A lot of people (and creatures) simply don’t notice or fall for charisma or they only do for the signals sent from a being of their own kind (and usually sex). Try to impress another man by flirting with him, this could go totally wrong in some cases. Games that try to utilize attributes for challenge tests or actions, often fail. On one hand attributes are just too rough and undefined for most tasks, on the other hand many actions that are apparently connected with it an attribute are based on false assumptions. Every scale system needs a reference model. A hero with Strength 5 is very strong in a system where 5 ist the maximum for heroes and 1 is not weak but average. Charisma 8 is quite high in a system where 1 is repulsive and 10 is an angel. Yet, this won’t work well, when your female orc with charisma 8 is trying to seduce an elf. The elf would probably consider orcish charisma 8 as elvish charisma 2 or less and not react kindly.

Skills are learned individual abilities used to achieve something very specific. A skill is something not everyone else necessarily has – you could argue that everyon has the skill “smithing”, only 95% oft he population have it at level 0-5%, not enough to even make a nail. Some games like Call of Cthulhu do that and require you to to handle huge character sheets because all available skills have to be there from the start. A smithing skill, for example, could reflect how much a character knows about smithing, metals (some game make this a seperate skill like Metallurgy), and tools, as well as how good he is at producing some suitable metalwork himself. The skill would be tied to several attributes like Knowledge, Strength, Endurance and Dexterity. Reducing the skill to dexterity or strength alone would mean giants and barbarians would make better smiths, humans would actually be mediocre at smithing and dwarfs or elves never be the masters they are often claimed to be (if you use the typical stereotypes found in many rpgs). Often every skill is relted to one specific attribute, that it derives from. Everyone who has some skills in the real world will tell you though, that no skill is only related to one attribute alone. Most of the time skills are tied to attributes that influence them the most, but many skills derive from a group of attributes evenly, you wouldn’t have that single attribute that has major impact on the skill. Skills like hunting or survival are good examples. These skills require a multitude of attributes to work well. A weakling with no education and fragile endurance, zero agility and dexterity and bad perception will never make a good hunter. Connecting skills to attributes has another implication – it favours certain character builds over others. If many important skills (ones you can apply a lot) use Strength, players will all choose strong characters. If you play a mage and magic requires Willpower, but your dice rolling during character generation fails you at that attribute – your hero will suck badly.

It is also difficult to draw clear lines between skills. Interrogation and intimidation, forgery and art, melee weapon sword and melee weapon rapier – why should they be separate skills? Many games list hunting and tracking as seperate skills, but tracking is probably one of THE major sub-skills for hunting (same as animal lore). You have to buy two skills or more to become a solid hunter, while a diplomat only has to buy diplomacy – a skill that actually is made up out of a dozen subskills and attributes like eloquancy, culture lore, languages, politics, empathy, persuasion, charisma, bargaining, intrigue, law and the like.

Talent is just a small advantage someone has at learning new skills. No one knows where talent comes from, having high attributes is not the same has being talented. You can be agile and yet lack any talent in athletics, still you can become a moderately good athlete through hard training. You will probably not become world class at a young age, though. Talent is probably the right mixture of certain attributes required for a skill. Athletics could require strength, endurance, agility, coordination, willpower. If you are good 4 (maybe even only 3) of those attributes, you might be talented and get better in athletics much faster than other people. The lack of one attribute could be covered to a certain degree by the rest, so even a hero with low Strength could become a good athlete. Talent is quite unlikely in RPGs as most games don’t have starting characters that excel in 4 out of 5 attributes.

This is a mess and only works as long as you don’t start questioning ist. Which happens as soon as players fail at a task because their skill doesn’t cover something that it should (from real world experience) or penalizes them because it uses the wrong attribute. Should the skill running (long-distance) utilize strength or endurance? Or both qually? What about coordination? Runners need concentration, mental endurance, willpower, knowledge about what happens in the body under stress and how to react to it (technique), a sort of agility or body control not reflected in any typical attribute or skill at all.

Many systems combine an attribute and a “related” skill for their challenge tests. In systems that don’t do that and only use the skill value, you wonder what you have those attributes for. Attributes should be only minor modifiers for skill tests. In many cases any attribute can be utilized to get a better skill test result, it just depends on creativity and reason. Certain tasks require a specific attribute – hanging from a cliff by your hands alone will not make much use of dexterity or knowledge. Even willpower will not help a lot if your muscles simply fail you (it may giv you the extra 5% edge, though). Charisma won’t help in diplomatic negotiations with an artificial intelligence. Taking up a sword an hacking wildly at your enemy does not require a skill, but being a successfull swordsman requires many skills not covered by Melee – Swords. Someone who trained with broadsword will not suck when only a shortsword is around. Shooting bow and arrow requires not much dexterity, like sewing or agility like doing somersaults, it requires some strength, body control (mainly breathing), good eyesight and a lot of experience to correctly judge distance, winds, movement and other parameters. It requires more Reason or Knowledge than Dexterity or Strength. You won’t be able to string a strong bow when your Stength is too low, though. Depending on the situation a player could argue that his hero shooting an arrow could have advantages from adding the attribute Endurance (he wants to aim longer) or Reason (he has to exactly judge wind and flight curve) or even something more exotic. Melee weapons don’t do damage because characters are strong, they do damage by impact and/or cutting/piercing/crushing power. A knife can do lethal damage in the hands of a child, a greataxe swung wrongly but with force will give people a strong headache only. It’s more about precision and coordination than strength. An arrow to the knee will not kill instantly, one through the heart will not do 1d4 damage if you have 25 hitpoints. A cobblestone to the head can be lethal, even if thrown with “normal” force. Using attributes to introduce more modifiers like that only adds to the problems already mentioned – it favours certain character builds and makes others useless and undesireable.

What’s the conclusion?
Traditional fantasy games (but not only) often have blurry attribute and skill mechanisms and work in a way that expects the players to work that way, too. If you prefer felxible game rules for players that use common sense and creativity to solve tasks, you will need to rethink the traditional attribute-skill relations and certain skills, as well.

Every skill should cover at least 50% theory and 50% physical training or experience in practical use. Using a shortbow does not make you a hunter, knowledge about northern hemisphere wildlife will completely fail you in the southern desert. Theory alone doesn’t help – opening a safe can’t be learned from a book alone or by watching someone do it. Unless you have tried it (several times) and failed (several times) you can’t call yourself skilled. Skill is about learning and “un-learning” (applying theory in practice without the theory becoming a hindrance itself), trying and failing, until you finally become a master.

Think about skills and attributes. Do you really need attributes, if you have skills? Weight lifting is a skill and implies that you have enough strength to do it. Does a high Strength attribute mean you can do weight lifting without having that skill? Survival skill can mean you are apt at not dying in the wilderness, but it could also mean you are healthy and tough and get sick only rarely, as you know how to keep yourself healthy. Do you need constitution as an attribute for just that specific question? For every attribute you should check it’s ingame applicability. If you can use an attribute in less than 10 common situations, it’s most likely pretty useless for 90% of the players. Descriptive attributes are ok but as long as they are used in game mechanics, especially task resolution, be careful to not favor certain attributes over others. Many game worlds require specific skill sets to be successfull (in fantasy worlds you won’t become a hero if you can’t fight or cast spells or steal very well). If you are good at sowing and harvesting, you become a farmer not a hero. In certain settings communication and social skills might be important as violence is not a feasible way to solve conflicts. Your skills define who you are because they show what you excel in. Being strong is a potential, being a strongman at the funfair and making a living on that is who you are.

Another pitfall is skill diversity. Real life is complex and offers hundreds or thousands of skills, you can only handle between 10 and 30 skills in a game without problems, games that offer up to 100 skills or more risk becoming confusing and incalculable. Skipping certain skills or blending them into new reduced versions is introducing an abstraction level that invites arguing with players. Character sheets are only showing the highlights, the things where heroes are very good at and that set them apart from the masses. There can be flaws as well, but you can’t list everything where a hero is not good at. Attributes could be skipped completely (assuming everyone is average) and heroes only select one or more perks and flaws at the beginning, like “Strongman” or “Weakling”. People we admire for something usually are good at one thing only. Heroes are usually known for one trait that makes them admirable (and often one flaw).