Attributes? We need no stinking attributes! Or do we?

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci For the last few days I have pondered about attributes in roleplaying game. Most of them use a set of attributes that describe the basic physical and mental capabilities of a character. Basically everyone knows D&D’s six classic attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma. In one form or another the majority of RPGs uses attributes like these.

But one question bothered me for quite a while: do we really need them? In a lot of games they don’t play any major role. In most cases they provide a small bonus to relevant skills or act as a kind of fallback when there’s no fitting skill available. So, do we really need attributes or are there ways to replace them? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the concept of attributes per se, but I am interested if a game ditching them could work, and if so, what is needed to make it work.

There are already a couple of games that don’t make use of attributes in the classical sense. There are two more prominent examples I want to discuss here. The first is FATE, which has become more and more popular lately. FATE replaces attributes with aspects. Aspects don’t describe the physical attributes of a character but rather who he is, what his motivations are, et cetera. FATE shows it’s more narrative approach here, because the focus lies on who you are, not what you can do.

The GUMSHOE system entirely focuses on a character’s skills. As the name of the system suggests we are dealing with a system for investigative games here. In the GUMSHOE system investigative skills always work (you don’t need to roll). In GUMSHOE it’s not about whether the characters find the clues but what they make out of it. Usually basic physical or mental attributes don’t play that big a role in these kind of scenarios, so classic attributes aren’t needed.

As you probably know I am always throwing some ideas for roleplaying game systems around. Sometimes these ideas turn into fully-fledged games, sometimes they end up in some desk drawer never to be unearthed again. For the last few days I worked on a rules-light game system that used broad skills instead of attributes. The hard part was to come up with a list of skills that covered perhaps not all but the majority of possible character actions.

During my research on the internet I found out that several people have tried to do the same already. One of those people was Erin Smale, author of the Chimera RPG. I have written about his game a couple of times before and I have to admit I like it very much. I actually noticed that he released a new version recently which is available for free as Chimera Basic, but what I missed what that he had actually done what I was thinking about. He has ditched classic attributes and turned Chimera’s skills into 18 broad abilities covering all possible character actions.

I haven’t played Chimera Basic, yet, but I am sure it will work just fine. The interesting part is that Chimera started out as a system not that dissimilar from D&D and it still works even without the use of attributes. Aside from that there’s a lot to like about that game. It has a really cool modular class system that allows you to build the character you want and a consistent framework for all kinds of supernatural powers from magic spells to psionics.

The realization that Chimera accomplishes a lot of what I wanted out of my own game brought my work to a dead stop for now. One reason is that I like Chimera so much that I am tempted to “borrow” a couple of ideas from it. And in that case it might be easier to actually run Chimera itself instead of reinventing the wheel.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

12 thoughts on “Attributes? We need no stinking attributes! Or do we?”

  1. I just reviewed Terror Network and Crime Network, and they both ditched Attributes in the classic sense.

    Everything, literally, is a skill. You don't have a Strength stat, you have a Muscle skill. There is no Constitution, but there is a Hardiness skill, which is used as your primary defense against damage.

    Honestly, it's the first time I've ever thought a skill list that large was actually justified…I read the blurb for the book (something like 44 skills) and I wasn't sure I was ready for that, but it seems to work very well…(skills are also grouped into 7 groups to make them more manageable).
    My recent post Tommys Take on Agency Resource Guide Terror Network

      1. d20 (3e/3.5e) without numeric Attributes (just the bonuses/penalties) starts to look a lot like a variation of Fudge, that allows Attribute+Skill pairings.

        d20 Feats == Fudge Gifts
        d20 Attributes (-3 to +3) == Fudge Attributes (-3 to +3)

        True20 makes this even more true, using a damage system is almost certainly a rip-off of the Fudge damage system.

  2. The first post has it right. Attributes are just a special type of skill. They are meant to provide a broad cover so that you can have a fallback alternative when you do not have a more specific skill that you believe covers the situation at hand. Because no one wants a return to the days of Rifts and its labyrinthine skill system, trying to cover absolutely everything.

    Now, we often make attributes separate for purposes of game balance. Because they cover more things than a specific skill, you might want to make advancement in these skills more expensive. This demonstrates how the mechanics of leveling can often be at odds with the other mechanics in your system.

    With that said, if RPG is not intended to be a skill system, then yeah, they aren't so important.

    1. In my opinion, even with a skill system, RPG’s don’t need Attributes.

      a) if you want skills to have a default, give them a default.
      b) if you want characters to be good at “all Dexterity skills”, then make the player buy all dexterity type skills up to that level. Or give a Feat/Talent/Gift/etc. that says “this character gets a +1 on all activities that might involve dexterity”.
      c) if your skill system has holes in it, instead of filing them in with a kludge called Attributes, fill in the holes in the skill system with more skills, or make the existing skills broader.

      Attributes, in the D&D/Chaosium/GURPS/RoleMaster/Hero type conception are obsolete and un-necessary

      1. I say that RPGs should have attributes that represent skills and do away with skills. In this light attributes and skills are interchangeable with attributes being representations of many skills.

        Skills were never necessary and should have been removed early on since a combination of attributes and character goal/play suffice to handle their redundancy.

        Course I'm guessing my stance is the road less taken.

        1. I think if you eliminate one or the other, but still have something designed that can represent both breadth of ability AND uniqueness of individual characters, then it doesn't matter whether you call them Attributes, Skills, Abilities, Aspects, Traits, or Bananas. It just becomes different labels for different ways to handle the same thing.

          Take, for example, Dream Park's "Basic Skills" (the things every character has, and the closest thing to "Attributes" that Dream Park has): Melee Combat, Ranged Combat, Stealth, Dodge, Knowledge, Tinkering, Willpower, (and one that covers socializing, but I'm forgetting its name). There's a fairly good mix of "what is an Attribute" and "What is a Skill" in there. But it boils down to "How good are you at getting sh*t done?"

          Or look at Castle Falkenstien … Just one medium length Skill list, but it includes things like Physique (strength/health/damage-resistance).

  3. Other games that do away with Attributes:

    The old “Dream Park” RPG
    Castle Falkenstein
    WRM/RAG (sure, you call them Attributes, but they’re not the same as D&D style “innate ability” attributes — they’re sort of a hybrid of classes and attributes).
    SHERPA (a very light RPG by the guy who created Fudge, which in turn is the system that served as the genesis of FATE)

    I’ve long since thought that D&D style Attributes are obsolete. When I have something attribute like, they’re purely there for “capacity and resistance” (like a saving throw).

    Body == your ability to resist physical damage (since I don’t use hit points — an equally obsolete concept), resist physical diseases, etc..
    Spirit == your ability to resist magic, and resist mana drain (mana points being just as obtuse/obsolete as hit points).
    Wealth == your ability to resist “going broke” after a purchase (I tend to prefer d20Modern style “wealth” over “tracking dollars/gold-pieces/etc.”).

    The reason they’re obsolete is: I don’t care how you got good at fencing. I care how good you are at fencing. So, don’t tell me “My Dex is 17, and that makes me a better fencer”. Just tell me “I’ve got a +5 to hit with Fencing.” I honestly don’t care how much of that +5 is innate and how much is learned. That distinction is irrelevant at the game table.

    Having a high Dex that gives you a bonus to some skills (including fencing) only serves one purpose: making a min-max gamer happy. Instead, “having a high Dex” belongs in your character description, as a justification for why you have bought all of these skills higher than the others. But if you want 10 skills that are above average, you’re going to pay for 10 skills that are above average. WHY you did that (high dex) is character concept/character description, not game mechanics.

    That’s how I see it :-}

  4. I’d agree that a attribute system that isn’t really used in game could be done away with. We almost never used attributes in our Palladium games.

    That doesn’t mean that Attributes have to be irrelevant. When I design a system, I usually start with an attribute as a character’s base proficiency and the skill as a specialization of that proficiency. It costs less to specialize and more to advance the general attribute. This leads to an interesting choice for players, specialize or generalize? Both paths can be interesting and useful.

    I consider attributes to be a valid model of how things really work because a lot of people have varying “natural” (or untrained) talent. I know I do a lot of things like building homes and furniture that I’ve never done before. If you’ve never done it before it’s not a specialization (making things up as I go skill?). To me, if it’s not a specialization, then it is modeled by an Attribute.

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