Fantasy Adventure #1: Abilities

Re-creating Dungeons & Dragons is a common pastime of rpg enthusiasts. I started doing it myself with the 3rd edition in 2001 or so, when I decided to run a traditional fantasy campaign with the rules set. At the time I ended up rewriting the whole game starting with the combat and magic rules and ending with experience, character classes and races. The fundamental core of a traditional adventure game was there still, however.

Looking back now, I think I’m at least double as smart as I was then. I haven’t put a pen to the paper over this topic for years, but I have thought about it now and then. Tonight I feel motivated to jot down some fundamentals on a new game that strives to do challenge-based adventure roleplaying in the D&D vein but without the things that annoy me in D&D, like the combat mechanics and cumbersome rules details. Sleeker, faster and more focused.

It should be noted that D&D is huge and adventure games are traditionally two thirds about local group paradigm anyway; I’m not supremely invested in creating a tight, canonical and closed game here. Rather, I’m just outlining the tools I’d like to use for implementing an adventure roleplaying game right now. Some of these particulars have stayed with me for years, others are recent developments. Some I’ve designed originally for rogue-like computer games, some for the D&D campaign I mentioned, some just for the heck of it. Likewise, I’m not that interested in getting this “finished” or anything; I’m just writing things down so I can move on with my musings.

The Purpose of the Rules

I want a D&D-like game that is less on the wacky and idiosyncratic side fiction-wise and has more streamlined mechanics. Also, the game needs to have a stone-solid focus on in-fiction challenge rooted in character and situation. Respect for the history and tradition of D&D is important, but pretty mechanics are even more so. The game may use the traditional die-set (this has been a huge point of contention for me, but finally I acceded simply because the 3d6 Ability roll is such a monumental part of the tradition), character sheets and all that other stuff a full-fledged roleplaying game utilizes.

What I find most annoying in D&D in its current incarnation:

  • Character optimization is not rooted in fiction. Players have to plan their characters in advance to maximize effectiveness. This sucks big. On the other hand, I like the current paradigm of having character optimization in the game at all, unlike early editions.
  • The combat system is slow and convoluted. Character death is no factored in the game functionally. The enshrined nerd culture paradigm feels dusty; I simply don’t get entertained nowadays by character specialization in specific weapons, slow hp attrition, clockwork initiative and all that.
  • The whole tension around encounter density is just screwed. That stuff has to be redone. The current D&D works as a miniature game, but for an adventure roleplaying game I want the players to be responsible of initiating challenges, not the GM, and especially not with tailored safe challenges carefully gauged to be “challenging”.
  • The game is full of dim shit that, while it has lots of tradition in D&D, fails to engage me as independent fiction. Character dependency on magic items, supremacy of wizards, rust monsters, cookie-cutter demihumans and all that stuff is just weird; I’d much rather play something with a poetically pleasing and understated fiction. I guess they call it “low magic”, and trying to do it in D&D is just annoying.

Hmm… there’s probably more, but that’s enough for now. As for why Burning Wheel doesn’t do it for me: too fiddly, not streamlined enough, too much GMing work. Just so you know.

Character Abilities

OK, so Abilities are at the root of the D&D “feel”, so I want to preserve them. There’s enormous resistance here from my sensibilities, but after much thought I decided that I can’t work with the traditional Ability set; there are simply so many enshrined separations there that do nothing for me. I simply am not interested in differentiating between a “strong” and a “nimble” fighter, which is an example of a crowd favourite when it comes to things that people want the Abilities to distinguish.

When redesigning the Ability list I want to focus on functionality. I could go with player-defined Abilities (this is the new millennium, after all), but at this point I’m a bit against it. Instead, a set of Abilities pertinent to my vision of fantasy adventure gaming:

Body The character’s physical fitness; pretty much everything that Strength, Dexterity and Constitution used to do.
Will As it sounds, the character’s mental fortitude. I’d imagine it’ll find use in magic and other kinds of mayhem.
Intelligence A scholastic Ability for discerning thought. Not sure yet if I’ll really need this one.
Wits An Ability for discernment, quick thinking, initiative and all that stuff.
Charisma Another social/magical Ability (I kinda like what the current D&D has done with redefining charisma as a magical Ability). I might drop this and combine with Will, we’ll see.

An important point about Abilities is that I want them to work in a balanced manner in the game while making enough sense in the fiction. Ideally all characters potentially need all Abilities, or if they don’t, this is taken into consideration in the other parts of the design. It should also be noted that right now I’m only interested in designing for random Ability distribution at chargen, with no point-buy options. Actually, ideally the game will involve no resource-distribution problems between individual Abilities at all; if the player never needs to priorize one Ability over another in improvement, then it does not really matter if an Ability is more or less important than another one.

Another point is that I’m not at all averse to shifting those Abilities around when I nail down the conflict resolution system particulars. Although I started writing this stuff down from the Abilities, in reality they’re the last thing to determine.

Ability determination

Characters get their Abilities with a roll of 3d6, in order, no rerolls. The traditional problems of this approach are addressed in other parts of the design, but there’s also a hefty chunk of not caring if a player does not get the optimal Ability scores he thinks he needs for a particular type of character. The character creation process in this game is, just like the character advancement process, pretty subordinate to fictional aesthetics; you can’t choose your own Abilities, so the character doesn’t get to do that either.

If I end up not putting that full die range to good use, I might swap the 3d6 with a roll of 3-5 d20, use the middle result. The important part here is a strong bell curve, not the exact distribution. I have some reasons for wanting to use 3d6, though.

Abilities will be explicitly fluid in the game: characters get regular Ability improvement checks to increase their Abilities, as a kind of a secondary experience mechanism. While I like it that characters in current D&D can improve their Ability scores, the utterly mechanical and controlled way it happens is the height of dullness for me. I’ll be stealing the skill improvement check from Runequest for this purpose, instead. This is also part of my control mechanism for the rolled Abilities: in the long run it doesn’t really matter if you rolled badly, because your character can try to improve himself in any lacking Abilities.

Using Abilities

Ability checks will be the main resolution mechanism in this game. Skill checks are just a special case of this resolution. The Ability check is most likely something like this:

Pertinent Ability + d20 vs. Difficulty

So it’s basically the same as current D&D, except I’ve removed the Ability modifier from the system as unnecessary. This increases the significance of Abilities considerably, which is part of the reason why I want to remove point-buy and other methods for min-maxing Abilities at character generation. If Ability scores >15 were commonplace like they are in current D&D, the impact of Ability would be too much for the above, simplified formula. I’m willing to take on that consideration, though, if it means not having to work with two separate scores for each Ability. Also, a larger impact from Ability scores suits me just fine aesthetically.

The removal of Ability modifiers also means that the most basic “average human” result of an Ability check will be 21 instead of 10.5 like it is in current D&D. A trivial matter to adjust for, to be sure.

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6 Responses to “Fantasy Adventure #1: Abilities”

  1. Antistone Says:

    You’re adamantly opposed to the idea of players picking their abilities, but it’s OK if they roll all 3’s because they can train the abilities they want “in the long run?” Seems kind of inconsistent to me.

    As you indirectly point out, it *does* make sense in most settings for characters to choose what they’re good at–because they’re good at what they practice. And even if it didn’t make sense for characters to choose their abilities, it makes abundant sense for players to choose WHICH character they want to play (no one wants to play the dirt farmer who gets killed by a random orc raid; it’s even unsatisfying just to play an effective wizard when you wanted to play an effective rogue).

    And having one player with all high stats who can do everything or one player with all low stats who can’t meaningfully contribute to the party might make for interesting stories in another context, but in a cooperative storytelling environment, most players find it gets frustrating pretty fast. Playing Pippin is really pretty boring as long as Gandalf and Aragorn are around. Even playing Aragorn is pretty dull while Gandalf is on-camera (“this foe is beyond any of you!”).

    I strongly recommend using ONLY point buy. Adjusting your math for higher “good” attributes just means adding a few points to your target numbers, and while extreme cases may be more common, they actually won’t be nearly *as* extreme as random ones (you can set hard limits wherever you want in point buy). Random abilities in D&D are a holdover from back when it was just war-gaming and you controlled lots of little men and it would take too much time to play if they were all important, so most of them were “fighting men” with no special powers.

    But if you really do want a game where you have to play the role that a die gives you, instead of choosing a particular kind of story you’re interested in, then I don’t see much point in letting players choose which abilities they advance in, either. If you’ve decided that abilites are granted by fate or luck or destiny or whatever and you can’t pick them, then having random advancement, or requiring players to maintain their initial ratios between abilities as they level up, seems like it would be more consistent with your philosophy.

    And creating rules that are balanced both for new, random characters and for advanced, min/maxxed characters is likely to be really hard.

    Of course, it’s your game. Play what you’ll enjoy.

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Thanks for the comment. Perhaps I should try to clarify what I find interesting in having a random factor in character creation and advancement: it forces players to think outside the box, and instead of picking their own gratification scheme, they have to work within unexpected mechanical constraints. I want a bit more organic development in my quasi-D&D characters, where the players have to conform to factors outside their control when planning their character advancement. This theme will come up again with the character classes when I get there.

    The mechanical challenges to balance and freedom are of course real, I’m not saying they’re not. Some of them I will defuse with design (like picking the Abilities and character classes in such a way as to make most Abilities pertinent to most characters, while none are crucial to any single class), while others are intentionally left for the player to work with however they feel prudent. Ultimately it’s not that difficult for anybody to use a fixed assignment scheme or whatever to replace my system if they’re not satisfied with it; after all, that’s the unique strength of the D&D tradition, a huge toolbox of different solutions for different needs.

    The whole reworking thing I have going on here shares an ethos with my earlier musings on challengeful adventure roleplaying. I don’t know if I explain the kind of play I want to encourage better there.

  3. Fantasy Adventure #2: Classes and Levels « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] the above skill definition is combined with the earlier Ability rules, it’s easy to see that just like D&D, the relative significance of Abilities will […]

  4. Eero Laine Says:

    This sounds much like direction I’m currently going with my adventure game design, so I’m expecting great things for this, at least some good ideas to be stolen. =) Less emphasis on violence, less fiddly little rules, less demihumans, less magic, less GMing. I guess the ideal fantasy level for me is found in the old samurai movies, where the supernatural things are scary and dreamlike, not abundant.

    I like the two Shadow of Yesterday innovations (?): experience awarded for good roleplaying (keys) and the two-tier conflict mechanic. I’m working my system more on a task-resolution basis, but at least I’m going to do my own version of keys: it’s gonna be something more flexible though. The old get-exp-to-get-better-to-get-exp -circle is anyway getting a bit boring already.

    The downtime concept sounds good, I have a gut feeling it’s a part often neglected. I’m not sure with random abilities or classes however: the point-buy system gives tremendous freedom of which I personally enjoy. If you want to enforce niche protection and avoid minmaxing you could also auction the abilities for players.

  5. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Sorry for putting you off! I was hired to do the layouts and graphic design for a history book with lots of illustrations on a short schedule, no time for blogging and other niceties.

    Thanks for the comment, Eero; I agree with you on the aesthetics, the old samurai movie, Stan Sakai graphic novels and gothic historical romance are all very much in vein for me as well. Also, sword & sorcery, a greatly misunderstood literary genre; I suspect that many roleplayers would like to have more of that and less of post-tolkienist high fantasy. All this comes to the fore very much when I play The Shadow of Yesterday or The Mountain Witch, two roleplaying games I’ve been playing a lot during the last couple of years.

    The random abilities have encountered some substantial resistance, so I’m going to write an anecdote about that for my next blog post; I just got to play a point-allocation adventure game last week, and I must say that I wasn’t impressed with the aimless nature of the character generation there.

    As for auctioning the abilities, that’s a great idea! It would go very well for a game where the characters are supposed to form a central, closed group of individuals, like Amber. I could well imagine using an auction for a game where the characters are all members of the same dojo, for example, and thus would primarily be compared to each other. Auctioning makes less sense if the characters are a primarily compared to the setting and not each other, like the D&D style ability scores with a clear average and mean distribution do, though.

  6. Kynn Says:

    Ability score thoughts — here’s what I’ve done in the past.

    I hate point-buy systems.

    But I hate random rolls because they come out too divergently random for my tastes.

    So when I feel like it, I use cards.

    Usually I do this: Take a deck of playing cards, pull out the A through 6 in each suit, and shuffle those. Player deals six hands of 4 cards each. Discard one card from each hand, add up the three other cards, and that’s one ability score; arrange these six ability scores as required. This is meant to stimulate the 4d6-drop-one method.

    For more powerful characters, I break out the Tarot and add a 5th “suit” (major arcana 1 through 6).

    You could do something similar:

    Take the A through 6 of three suits (hearts, clubs, aces) and shuffle them together. Deal 3 cards to each of the six ability scores in order and add them up.

    Or even:

    Take the A through 6 of three suits (hearts, clubs, aces) and arrange them in hands of 3 cards each for the six ability scores, player’s choice.

    This gives you a set of abilities in the right range, but allows player choice and minimizes the capricious effects of too much randomness (i.e. unrestricted die rolling).


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