Character Attributes

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Attribute scores are the foundations of every RPG character. Attributes determine the character’s epic qualities and their tragic flaws. In many video and table-top role-playing games, there has been a standardization of these basic attributes with a little variance determined by the focus of the game. The goal of this article is to open a discussion to how character attributes in game systems can be understood and maybe improved. Some might argue that simply looking at one element of a game system and not the whole system would be out of context; nevertheless, it’s possible to compare the strengths and weakness of single game element that multiple game systems share in common.

This article will look at attributes in a couple of different ways, based on the types of characters the game system wants the player to role-play, and based on translating what feels right as a reflection of reality to describe the qualities of a person.

Dungeons and Dragons character attributes are as follows: Strength, the muscle mass of a character, adds extra damage for mêlée combat; Intelligence is book learning and logic, useful for magic; Dexterity includes hand-eye coordination for ranged attacks as well as nimbleness in athletics, which don’t really have a correlation with each other, but are helpful for distance attacks as well as dodging attacks; Constitution, a Victorian-style conception of the human body, useful for hit points; Wisdom, the combined knowledge of the past and a character’s willpower, useful for clerical and druid magic; and Charisma, the ability of a character to influence others socially, useful for characters achieving goals outside of combat.

For D&D, the character attributes were based on the type of character you wanted to play. Each character class in D&D has a main attribute that enhances its class abilities—depending on which attributes are high and low for a character will often determine his or her class. This is important in earlier editions when character attributes and classes rarely changed for a character, so a character’s role in the group was defined at creation.

White Wolf has the usual basic stats, plus a few unique to its system, such as manipulation—to make others do what you want. This fits well with the Masquerade since there are heavy political elements involved in the story lines, but it’s difficult to justify the additional stat when there was already the social stat of charisma. Charisma was a positive influence compared to the negative influence of manipulation, but usually both attributes are used together when we reflect on references in our own reality.

Cyber Punk’s Technical ability doesn’t seem like it should be separated from the intelligence attribute, but it is important for the time period. Cool is the game-specific attribute that is questionable; whether it is levelheadedness or style, this attribute is a reinterpretation of will or charisma.

In addition, the attribute of Luck in Cyber Punk, similar to Edge points in Shadowrun or Action Points in D&D, seem a little misplaced. Unless we are referring to Longshot in the Marvel universe, most luck-based belief systems are not referring to individuals as being lucky, but on objects a person possesses. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense as a character attribute, but there is a usefulness of having a meta-game system that allows players to use a limited amount of points to influence the game.

These points are useful for saving a character, in a non-cheating way, and both players and GMs can be guilty of “misreading” die rolls when a character’s life is on the line. These points can also be useful for a player having an effect on the overall game story, influencing a crucial die role that is important for their character’s story. So this is a good game mechanic, but shouldn’t be referred to as a character attribute.

Empathy in Cyber Punk works much like White Wolf’s humanity points or even Call of Cthulhu’s sanity points—it’s the meter used to balance power and the “soul” of the character. Once the character has reached their limit, they lose their “soul,” and the player loses control of the character.

This is an interesting dynamic, as if the character is playing with fire. It gives characters a goal and puts some restrictions on how powerful they can become, but also lets them decide if they want to maintain a balance or risk staying on the edge. The downside of this game element is, of course, losing control of a character, which after years of playing could be a frustrating end.

Shadowrun separates the mental attributes of Intuition and Logic, which acts like the Perception attribute in Gurps and is similar to the D&D attributes of Intelligence and Wisdom, but for a modern game.

Gurps’ use of a Fatigue attribute, measuring how much exertion a character can do, will lead to loss of strength and unconsciousness. This is a unique attribute taking into account the energy level of a character, which is important in our own reality.

In practice, a game system needs to keep attributes simple, but specific for the system. It is best to identify which attributes are excessive, because players will often use them as dump stats, giving them a lower score so the important attributes can have the higher ones. For example, in D&D, Charisma is a good dump stat for the unfriendly violent characters where the higher numbers are in Strength and Dexterity.

Strength could be separated into two concentrations: the lower and upper body, since the two have different implications and athletes have different body types depending on their sport or even the position they play in that sport.

Mental attributes are hard to define; separating wisdom from intelligence is more based on character stereotypes then any real-world measure. Mental attributes will always feel more like a game mechanic than a reflection of reality. In psychology, there are often different types of intelligences, but even those feel contrived. Literature is a better source of reference for mental attributes—a character’s Wisdom was important in ancient times, but is less important in our ever-changing modern age. Thus, the type of characters depends on the game setting: for a modern setting; the character attributes need a modern conception of a person.

Cyber Run

We use four physical attributes, which are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Attractiveness, and also have four mental attributes: Intelligence, Sensitivity, Creativity, and Guile.

Guile is common sense or street smarts, and it is separated from Intelligence because often in stories there are characters that are not book smart but possess practical knowledge.

Attractiveness is valuable for role-playing purposes and does seem to be a quality that people can possess. Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there is some consensus on how some people are beautiful while others are not.

Sensitivity is a character’s emotional connection to others, often important for social interactions.

Creativity is the ability to use what the character knows in new ways. Creativity can be in the form of art or invention.

Cyber Run also has Complex attributes that are the combination of basic attributes, which are used for specific game situations.

Will is the combined character attributes of Guile, Intelligence, and Constitution. For example, the Will attribute is used when a character is being tortured and is trying to hold out from talking. Intelligence is the cognitive determination, Guile would be the understanding that the character would be killed after talking, and Constitution is the amount the body resists pain. The torturers can do attacks on the character to lower his or her Constitution until the character fails a Will check.

Reaction is the combination of Guile and Dexterity. Guile allows the character to realize there is potential danger, while Dexterity gives them the ability to get away from said danger. Reaction is used for turn order during combat and for escaping traps.

Fitness is the combination of all the physical stats, except for Attractiveness, and determines a character’s overall physical ability. This attribute is used when comparing the overall performance of more than one athlete, or for situations that require more than a single attribute to perform a task. Fitness is used for wrestling or performance in sports.

Charisma is social appeal, using the combination of Intelligence, Sensitivity, and Attractiveness. A beautiful person that can carry on a good conversation is charismatic. Charisma is used when trying to influence NPCs or to defend against social attacks from others.

  • 09/04/15

About Atticus Evil

Lead Game Designer for Cyber Run a Science Fiction RPG.
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