Cinemechanix: Return of Attributes?

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 04 January 2019 Written by Steve

I’ve been brainstorming the whole “attribute + skill” idea from last week and even though it doesn’t really fix the problems created by a freeform skill list, it does introduce the idea of encouraging players to think about how their characters are doing something instead of just what they’re doing. It’s kind of like the rule in newer versions of D&D where some weapons get a bonus for Strength and others get a bonus for Dexterity. My biggest reservation is that I don’t see an easy way to just add the idea to the existing rules. Any new bonus that gets applied to all or nearly all rolls is going to change the roll ranges and add new complications, so sticking attributes or something like it is going to basically mean yet another redesign of the character creation system and basic dice mechanic. Since this is still very much brainstorming, this week I’m just going talk out loud (and maybe incoherently) about some of the ideas that I’ve been tossing around. 

Why Attributes? 

The thinking behind leaving out attributes in the first place was that it was unnecessary because a character’s competence in fiction is more often a factor of the character’s role in the story (Hero Factor) than natural ability. So the assumption was that all characters are slightly above average in all of the things you would normally describe with attributes and the players who wanted their characters to be better or worse could do that with Edges and Drawbacks. But realistically, very few players choose “strong” or “smart” or “charming” or whatever when they’re creating a character. This was also true of the QAGS idea that Body, Brain, and Nerve were holistic and you could describe variations (a character who’s strong, healthy, and agile, but ugly or weak, sickly, and clumsy but good looking) with Flaws and Skills. Even if they did, when you think about it, it’s an even bigger “broad skills” problem than something like “Fighting” or “Educated.” Also, characters in fiction aren’t just defined by whether or not they’re a protagonist. Sure, Hero Factor goes a long way, but most characters are heroic in a specific talent department that’s not necessarily a skill: Tony Stark’s intelligence, The Bride’s fighting abilities, Ferris Bueller’s charm, whatever. 

There are also some practical reasons to re-introduce the idea of skills. For one thing, it’s kind of awkward to write rules when the players are constantly told to vaguely “make a roll,” meaning that the players roll d12+Hero Die + whatever Edges apply. It’s just seems weird because we’re used to “make a strength roll” or “make a history roll” or whatever, but you can’t really say that when strength and history are just two possibilities from an non-existent and infinite list of freeform skills. Aside from avoiding the awkward “make an appropriate roll” constructions in the rules, attributes can help prevent situations where everyone’s making the same roll (since they all have the same Hero Factor and nobody has relevant skills) whenever everything about the situation screams that certain characters should have a better or worse chance of success than others. Tyrion Lannister should have a better chance than Podrick or realizing that someone’s trying to lure him into a trap, but if we make the (admittedly wrong) assumption that they have the same Hero Factor, Tyrion only gets a bonus if he has some appropriate Edge like Detect Lies or Read People or something. A perception-type attribute could fix that problem. 

I’ll circle back to this when I start talking about rules changes (possibly next week), but you may have noticed that a lot of the Trademarks are kind of a roundabout way of creating characters with high attribute scores. Brawler is a character with a high Strength, another is high Dexterity/Agility/Whatever, there are several variations that are high Brain or Charisma, etc. A few (like Monster Hunter and A Very Particular Set of Skills) don’t fit the bill, but a lot of the existing Trademarks are really just high attribute scores in disguise. I didn’t realize it when I added Trademarks, but if you look over the list of sample Trademarks it’s pretty obvious. 

What Attributes? 

If I decide to create an attribute-like trait type, the big question is “What are the attributes?” Before getting into how detailed the attributes should be (Is there a holistic Body attribute like in QAGS, or multiple attributes that describe physical ability, like Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution in D&D?), there’s a question of what the attributes are defining. I think there are three main categories to choose from:

  • Traditional: These are the kinds of attributes most gamers are used to, where each attribute kind of describes the character’s natural ability in whatever areas the game designer thinks are important: Strength, Reflexes, Charm, Endurance, Perception, and so on. The biggest advantage here is that it’s familiar and checks off all the “why have attributes?” boxes I talked about before. 
  • Super-Skills: In this scheme, the attributes are more like broad skill groups than raw talent. So you might have things like Combat, Mechanical, Covert Ops, Magic, or whatever. One pro of this option is that you can customize it to the setting: a fantasy game has a Magic attribute, cyberpunk has Hacking, etc. The biggest con is that since some characters would zero in some Attributes, the most logical way to do it would be “Pick X Attributes,” which removes the standardization and default roll perks of having attributes in the first place (and may necessitate rules for dealing with a zero in the attribute). It’s also less clear-cut which attribute applies (is lockpicking Mechanical or Covert Ops?), which could be a good thing or a bad thing. 
  • Style: This is somewhere between the two previous options, with wishy-washier traits like Forceful, Sneaky, Athletic, Precise, Charming, etc. I like it because it’s the most straightforward way of making the attribute about how the character is doing the thing: Intimidation is Forceful, a well-reasoned argument is Precise, flattery is Charming, etc.  That’s also a con because putting what stat to use in the players’ hands has an equal chance of leading to creativity or ridiculousness depending on the players. It also, once again, removes the standardization that makes attributes handy from a design perspective. And it's kind of a broad stroke approach that can be weird if you’re not playing a genre where broad strokes work (The character with a high Sneaky has a pretty good chance for rolls involving petty theft, international intrigue, sneak attacks, or computer hacking). 

There’s also the option of mixing and matching the three categories (like Star Wars d6, which had some traditional stats mixed in with things like “Technical” and “Fighting”), which is very tempting. With clear definitions and rules for dealing with overlap, it could be set up to allow for some of the benefits of all three options. Of course, it could also result in a huge, confusing mess, but at this point the whole system is a huge confusing mess. Luckily I’m still managing to convince myself that working through the messes is the key to making the game work the way I want it to. This may be an indication that my brain is broken.

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Cinemechanix: Return of Attributes? .
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