Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Attributes in D&D-variants

Almost all D&D-variants have been surprisingly stable when it comes to the attributes (also called "ability scores") that define a character. For about 40 years, we have used
  1. Strength (STR or S)
  2. Intelligence (INT or I)
  3. Wisdom (WIS or W)
  4. Constitution (CON or C)
  5. Dexterity (DEX or D)
  6. Charisma (CHA or X)
and the only thing that changed from decade to decade was the order in which they were written down (the order above is from the 1974 edition aka OD&D, the single-letter abbreviations are Delta's).

There is an obvious breakdown into three predominantly physical attributes and three predominantly mental ones: Strength, Constitution and Dexterity are physical whereas Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma are mental. This is presumably the reason why (A)D&D 3e reordered the attributes S, D, C, I, W, X?

There is, however, another breakdown that I have not seen discussed before. It may be that I simply read the wrong things online, so if you can find an earlier reference for the following please let me know. (I actually felt incredibly dense when I first realized this about a year ago and I cannot quite believe that nobody else has pointed it out before.) Instead of grouping the attributes
S, D, C (physical)
I, W, X (mental)
let's group them thusly:
S, X (influence)
D, I (flexibilty)
C, W (stability)
I know. It's horribly obvious in retrospect, isn't it?
Both Strength and Charisma measure the character's influence (impact?) on the external world: Strength focuses on physical influence (break down a door), Charisma focuses on mental influence (acquire and lead retainers).

Both Dexterity and Intelligence measure the character's flexibility (adaptability? speed?) to external forces: Dexterity focuses on physical flexibility (evade attacks and react quickly), Intelligence focuses on mental flexibility (learn a language or spell).

Both Constitution and Wisdom measure the character's stability (resilience?) to external forces: Constitution focuses on physical stability (resist poison), Wisdom focuses on mental stability (resist charm).
The only system I can recall that tries to group attributes orthogonal to mental/physical is Star Frontiers, it actually even affects (advanced) character creation there. But for what it's worth, I think this breakdown of the D&D attributes is actually nicer.

Now I have to admit that I cannot think of a good way of using the breakdown for anything in game, so as far as I can tell it's just a curiosity. Does anyone see a way to make it matter?


  1. Mayfair Games' DC Heroes did something like this. Had nine stats in a 3x3 grid:


    Rows were Physical, Mental and Social/Mystical attributes.

    Columns were the Action (how well you attack), Effect (how hard you hit) and Resistance (how well you resist getting hit) attributes.

    Additionally, the Action column attributes were added up to come up with an Initiative score.

    I liked the codification of the "mind, body and spirit" triad.

  2. As a counter point, I no longer view the ability scores as either mental or physical, but all as a combination of both.

    * Strength is not only muscle mass but the willingness to really hurt that guy or the gumption to *try* to lift that gate.
    * Sense is how sharp your eyes and ears are AND how well you focus on details
    * Dexterity is hand-eye coordination and the strength of character to try to pick that lock.
    * Charisma is a combination of looks, charm and personability.
    * Constitution combines physical hardiness and the sheer will to endure.

    Not sure the distinction is that important, but it frees you up to associate a skills or powers to more than just one ability score, grants justification to adjust Saving Throw, etc.