Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What's in a name (besides letters)

To paraphrase Shakespeare within the context of Gygax: does it really matter what we call attributes? A thread on the Goblinoid Games forums sparked this thought; I played my usual Socratic role in the discussion, although I'm sure most of the people posters thought I was being deliberately obtuse. Well, I was, but purely as an exercise in getting to the root of the matter. Isn't that what philosophers do? Piss you off because they don't understand simple words? I contend that the names of attributes are convenient placeholders for less wieldy (I swear, it literally took five attempts to type that...this keyboard sucks) terms, and do not in fact simply indicate one strict intent.

I made the argument that Strength, for instance, doesn't necessarily indicate how strong a character is; it could also indicate inherent martial ability. And it does. The game bears this out: an 18 STR character in B/X adds +3 to hit and damage. +3 is a huge bonus, especially at low levels. A 1st level Magic-User with an 18 STR will be as competent in melee as a 5th level fighter with average STR. A Magic-User with an average STR will not be able to hit as effectively until 11th level. Is being ridiculously strong really that important in swinging a sword? I'm sure it is, but there's a lot more to it than that.

This quote was posted in an attempt to dissuade me: "Strength (STR) measures a character's muscle and physical power." That it does. The question here is if you think power and muscle have the same meaning. I surely don't. Strength capital S is the attribute name. Strength lower s is what we use to denote the ability to move heavy shit. It usually is identified with large muscles. The second term, power, is where I take issue with the notion that STR is only musculature. Power is the ability to use strength at its maximum capacity, how quickly that strength can be put into action. Oddly enough, I talked about this very subject a while back. Bodybuilders and powerlifters are extremely strong, but they typically aren't powerful. Not compared to Olympic lifters, for instance. A 200 pound gold medalist may not be able to benchpress as much as a bodybuilder, but he can probably snatch twice as much as the bodybuilder. In D&D terms, the bodybuilder doesn't have an 18 STR, the Oly lifter does. Why? Well, because swinging a sword isn't merely about moving a piece of metal around as hard as you can, there's some skill involved, the ability to control that muscle. This is the power component of the composite STR score. Some people want to attach melee skill to DEX when talking about light weapons...why? The STR score already subsumes the very idea of "quickness" when talking about melee weapons.

In that same thread, I offered the following names for attributes in an attempt to divorce the notion that Strength only means strength:


In this case, it's more obvious that STR means "melee ability". Sure, you can also move bigass rocks around or lift a portcullis. That's straight out of Conan. However, in-game, 95% of the time a high STR means how well you fuck up orcs with a sword. Again, I don't think the name is the meaning, it is merely a convenient shortcut, a more user-friendly word than something like pugnacity.

This is the case with the other attributes as well. I called WIS piety above; and why not? It directly affects the ability of clerics for experience and spell casting. It also provides a bonus to spell saves. Divine intervention? From an in-game perspective, attaching some sort of additional meaning doesn't matter to me, ESPECIALLY within the context of Old School gaming. If we remember some of the anecdotes about the original D&D campaigns, it's fairly obvious the player's skill was challenged, not the character's. Puzzles and traps and riddles were solved by players figuring them out, not by merely rolling dice and consulting attribute charts. In light of that, it's hard to justify INT or WIS or CHA rolls. Those are the province of the player thinking intelligently or wisely or making compelling arguments to NPCs. As the players cannot actively perform physical activities to demonstrate their skills as sword-swinging or arrow-shooting, STR and DEX are convenient placeholders. But that's not all they mean. Within the game itself, STR is nothing more than a way to determine how good a character is at killing stuff, at least initially.


  1. I have to admit that I am actually in favor of redefining or ditching the subjective player-skill attributes like INT, WIS, and CHR.

    I had a blog post draft that I never finished about treating INT as book-learning education only, WIS as some kind of relationship to divine mysteries only (or willpower), and CHR as some kind of marking of social status and training. In other words ditching the elements of those attributes that correlate to player skill.

    Perhaps even using the Runequest II idea of CHR being malleable by circumstance (successfully leading an expedition or failing to do so).

  2. I know CoC has an EDU statistic; it indicates book-learning and education. Some versions of Basic RP have an APP score, some have CHA, some have both. I always thought the Comeliness score from Unearthed Arcana was a good idea, as it stressed that CHA was personality, not looks. Then again, I think the player should be able to determine what his character looks like, which is why implementing COM is clumsy.

    Chris, I'm of the opinion that D&D, when written, made these assumptions. Over time, the attributes took on more relevance, significance and meaning. It's becoming more and more obvious to me that the move from "playing a game" to "playing a role" has a lot to do with how people perceive roleplaying games.

  3. I think it's very easy to over complicate the original intention of certain mechanics, simply because they became more complicated as new versions of the game were released. It's also very easy to overlook the abstract nature of many of the original mechanics, forgetting that they were never intended to represent realism and real life.

    Saying that certain ability types are basically irrelevant because early D&D was about player skill and not character skill is not borne out by the original 1974 booklet Men & Magic, where it says:

    "Intelligence will also affect referees' decisions as to whether or not certain action would be taken..."

    ...or in other words, the DM can override player skill to enforce the fact that the character's skill is not up to scratch for a certain task. And this is obviously true for all the abilities.

    Bottom line is, of course, no matter what the designer's intentions were, it's up to the individual DM how he will interpret the rules in his game, or as it says in the original game:

    "...refrain from writing for rule interpretations... for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!"

    And that statement reveals the ridiculousness of arguing over rule interpretations.

  4. Good counter arguments are not allowed on my blog! DELETE!

    Would you also say it's ridiculous to argue about arguing over rules interpretations? :)

  5. Sorry Brad, I'm addicted to logic. Illogically it's probably because I'm a Virgo. ;-)

    As for arguing over arguing, that depends on the quality of the argument. :-)