Addendum: Brief Comment on Attributes

Addendum — after the last post a friend made this comment about why modern games still have attributes:

I think it’s something about the desire to simulate reality. We perceive that there’s an element of nature and an element of nurture to most people’s abilities, so the game needs to reflect that. Equally though, you can make an argument that if people want to be able to create a character who is generally physically competent without scattering their skill points among a few dozen physical skills, attributes can come to the rescue

Let’s say RPGs need a backup mechanism for any situations where the normal moving parts don’t apply (skills, class, saving throws, fighting, etc.). Attributes have usually filled that role — even if that’s not what D&D explicitly tells you to do, it’s the way things have evolved, and it makes sense. And it’s likely to persist — like a path through a field that isn’t on a map, but it’s there because people have trodden it down over years, because it’s where they want to go and the pavement 100 yards away isn’t.

So there’s a point where the player says “I’ll try this!” and the GM says “hmm, no point of reference or mechanic here, just give me a roll on…” and it all works.

The problem I specifically have with the stat+skill design, specifically dice pools (Vampire, ORE) is scaling. On the face of it, you split the competency between Attributes and Skills so that when no skill applies, you fall back on the Attribute. Good so far.

But in practice the way it scales means if you have no skill, you’ll have close to zero chance of success. This changes the tone of the game from “try something, we’ll see what happens” to “never attempt anything you don’t have a skill for”. Trouble is the game gives every impression that it’s the former when actually it’s the latter. So Vampire, ORE and others are lazily appropriating the Attributes motif from D&D, RQ and others without really thinking about what function they provide, and needlessly complicating their system in the process. That’s a bit crap.