Having begun a number of projects that never saw the light of day, and getting ready to begin two new projects, I often think about representing human attributes through role-playing games. One of the core things that I have come to realize, in multiple failed design endeavors, is the classic attributes chosen don’t always apply.
It is design reflex to start with what your attributes will be for characters. As a designer you try to quantify what makes a person. You try to come up with interesting names that set up apart from other mainstream games. I mean do you really want to have your attributes be Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma? You want to be original. I look at what a lot of role-playing games have done, and try to learn from that.
For example, Heavy Gear has ten character attributes (not including the five secondary attributes): Agility, Perception, Creativity, Knowledge, Build, Fitness, Psyche, Influence, Willpower and Appearance. Each represents a very small aspect of the character and don’t always come into play. For example, Psyche has no skills associated with it and represents luck and love of life. It literally has no bearing on the game at all. It is effectively a role-playing attribute. The same goes for Appearance. Unlike games such as D&D or World of Darkness, attributes in Heavy Gear do not have equal weight. There are attributes that give you more bang for your “character point buck.”
It could be argued that Heavy Gear’s attributes are poorly designed. From a system design standpoint, they are on some level. The nature of the system encourages players to have consistent “dump stats” such as Appearance or Psyche. One of the key aspects of Heavy Gear’s design is to simulate reality and military combat. So, there is going to be weight put into those favored areas. The system succeeds, but not because of the attributes, instead the die system makes Heavy Gear shine.
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, on the other hand, has made a concerted design effort to give each attribute equal weight. While only one skill is associated with Strength, that attribute plays an important role in combat hit success. Attributes such as Charisma govern more skills. This in turn makes each attribute useful and players have to make a choice where to put points. There isn’t a consistent “dump stat.” The “dump stat” is based on the build of the character. The attribute system is successful because of how it is designed, and that in turn makes the system successful.
What point am I trying to make? Well attributes need to be designed with the system in mind. Attributes will communicate theme and style to the player. If you are doing a game about teenage girls and their infighting, having Strength and Dexterity really has no bearing. It is pointless to have in that game, but having attributes such as Influence and Confidence would certainly be important.
The purpose of rules is to influence behavior. That is the core goal. As a designer I always make an effort to zero-in on that. How do I want people to play the game? Even something as simple as the attributes drives how players will use the tool set you have put in front of them. Design your attributes to fit the game. Also, don’t try to make universal systems. In my experience, both as a player and designer, universal systems tend to do nothing well. They can do everything okay, but rarely do they bring every game into their own.
Now let’s actually talk about attribute design with a practical example from one of my recent projects. One of my current projects is a super hero game. I have always been frustrated with super hero games because they try to define too much about the superhero. For example, Spiderman doesn’t have one of his listed powers as “Blinding Webs.” His powers are “Web Slinging” and he uses that power to create that effect. Most super hero games would require the former rather than the latter. It discourages players from thinking heroically and brings them down to playing a tactical game. Not a bad thing, but not the game I want to create.
So, I started to address the attributes like any game designer might, because that is what makes up the raw, untrained, normal person. I started with the standards of Strength, Agility, Endurance, etc., and started to realize that it felt wrong to me. One of my core concepts was players could create powers on the fly, and that was the primary way the player manipulated the system. This was all done through a die pool that provided resources for actions. The last thing I want to do is define the strength of player’s Incredible Hulk knock-off. He’s the Hulk because that is his power theme, and he does Hulk things like smash things and throw heavy things at people. That is what we need to know; he’s the Hulk, except blue and an alien. We want to be original here.
So with this realization, I stripped out traditional attributes completely. They just don’t exist in this game. Instead I focused on skills. The skills are the core for every action in the game, from fighting to invention. The player can then use their powers to define, and improve the way they are doing it. So the player doesn’t need put points into his super-intelligent mutant’s Intelligence attribute because we know he is a super-intelligent mutant from his power description, but we do need to know how good he is at doing something scientific. We know he is even better at it because he is a super intelligent mutant.
So, while designers will often focus on the raw attributes of characters, the thought process above shows that we don’t really have to go the traditional route. It is easy to fall back to that, because it is familiar. The problem arises when the familiar method doesn’t encourage the kind of game play you want drive players towards. Be willing to take risks with your design, and step away from the standard and comfortable design methods. There is nothing wrong with failing at your design, just makes sure you realize what it doesn’t work.