Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Mental Ramble About Abilities Leads to a Minor Conclusion

You know Abilities:


Unless you were born after 1974, in which case they are more likely:


The question of what the Abilities in Ye Auld Game really represent is a venerable one. As with so much in the LBB's, the gamer is more-or-less left to his own devices in figuring out these things. Some are fairly straight-forward: Strength seems clear enough, for instance. Constitution too is reasonably self-explanatory. Of course, the fact that Abilities really didn't do anything in that game, other than affect experience accumulation, meant that it wasn't too vital a question.

The debate over Dexterity has had some traction, with many ardent advocates holding the opinion that Dexterity encompasses too many diverse elements: agility, manipulation, and speed among others. I never had much time for this argument on the theoretical level, but it has some validity on the rules-level in later iterations of the game; exceptional Dexterity begins to accumulate a few too many bonuses for my tastes, what with a modifier to hit with missile weapons, a modifier to Armour Class, and a modifier to initiative.

Wisdom has been a good one, particularly when paired with Intelligence. The time I have spent reading arguments over how to distinguish the one from the other is time that I shall, alas, never be able to retrieve from the Abyss of Ages. But the idea seems to have settled down by seeing Wisdom as a combination of willpower and a kind of experiential canniness.

Those confusions all pale in comparison with the Great Mystery Ability, namely Charisma. Ironically, Charisma actually had more mechanical definition in YAG than anything else: it gave you the maximum number of hirelings you could retain. That makes it clear that it is some sort of transitive trait, but it turns out that this isn't as helpful as might be thought. The default assumption among everyone I knew or read was that it basically came down to "attractiveness" and that attractiveness pretty much boiled down to being hot or not. Therefore, the Princess in need of rescue and the Seductive Vamp would have high Charisma.

But that seemed a bit limited after a while. What if you looked like Dejah Thoris, but had all the charm and grace of Tars Tarkas? Even worse, what if you were trying to raise an army of Tharks? Wouldn't looking like the great jeddak be more helpful than looking like the most beautiful woman on two worlds in that case?

It got so bad that the Game Wizards actually addressed the issue in an official publication, the much (and to me, justly) maligned Unearthed Arcana. The UA took the unprecedented step of creating an entirely new Ability, Comeliness. Ah, Comeliness, what an abortion you were. Imagine if the thought behind Comeliness had been carried through and other new Abilities were created which captured some specific element of another Ability? We could have wound up with the HERO System! Actually, our imaginings needn't be so fanciful; some years later, the concept was actually revive in Herbert Westian-fashion when Players' Options: Skills & Powers was gurgitated upon the world for 2nd edition. Each Ability was there split into two Abilities, giving you twice as many things you weren't quite sure about.

Pulling back from individual Abilities, one might contemplate how they all fit together. Do six Abilities really capture all the nuances of a human being (or an elven being or whatever)? Probably not, but really they work just fine if one keeps to the design strategy of broad generalizations. Otherwise...well, see the above comment about HERO. So, returning to the context, it would seem that we have three physical traits (STR, DEX, CON), two mental traits (INT, WIS), and one social trait (CHR).

And there's that Charisma being troublesome again. A social trait? Really? Well, maybe not. During my thinking about spell saves in Spellcraft & Swordplay, I posted about how I had to define Charisma in order for it to make sense to me: strength of self-image. But it's actually a bit more than that, because it has that interpersonal quality. The more I think about it, the more Charisma, like other Abilities, encompasses various traits, one of them being self-image and another being the projection of one's will onto the world.

Huh? Yeah, I know. But the only mechanical effect is how it affects other people. So what if we stop thinking of Charisma as a social trait and start thinking of it as a mental trait? Then one (by which I mean me) begins to notice that an interesting pattern can be created:

Strength: active physical trait
Constitution: reactive physical trait
Dexterity: manipulative physical trait

Intelligence: active mental trait
Wisdom: reactive physical trait
Charisma: manipulative mental trait

I'm not saying that this is the context for Abilities or that I have entirely defined any of them. But for someone like me, who finds the pull of symmetry inescapable, I can't help but be attracted to this way of thinking which gives to the hodge-podge of Abilities that quality which the philosophers called kallos; a beautiful symmetry.


  1. I've always thought of it more along the lines of this:

    STR: physical power
    DEX: physical quickness
    CON: physical toughness

    CHA: mental "power" (i.e. willpower projected on the world)
    INT: mental quickness
    WIS: mental toughness (i.e. willpower in the defensive sense)

    Not a perfect symmetry, but it works well. And given the way other role-playing games have characterized the six abilities, sometimes this model is borne out, but sometimes not. Alternity, for example, replaced Wisdom and Charisma with Willpower and Personality, but left the other four abilities intact. I never liked this; it always felt "wrong."

    I do, however, like how Decipher's LotR rpg interpreted the idea. They went with Strength, Nimbleness, Vitality, Intelligence, Perception, and Bearing. This is, in my opinion, much clearer than D&D ever was. Wisdom is swapped out for a straight-up canniness attribute, and Charisma becomes "Bearing", which is defined as that noble or awesome quality that certain LotR characters possess and others do not -- the ability of great beings like Elves, Wizards, certain Men, and powerful servants of the Enemy to inspire loyalty, cow others with their mere presence, or otherwise exert their will upon the world.

    These days, when I ref a game of D&D for noobies, I explain Charisma the way that the CODA system describes Bearing.

  2. I think that your categories are more-or-less the same as mine, except that you flip the postions of INT and CHA and I can't gainsay that. I see INT as going out there and grappling with intellectual problems in the way that STR is used to grapple with phsycial ones, whereas CHA is used more deftly in the way that DEX is. But really, it could go either way.

    Hmn, maybe I ought to relook at my rationales for Saving Throws again. If INT is the Save vs. Illusion, is that more analogous to STR or DEX? Is an Illusion like a perceptual net which you have to fight through or one which you mentally dodge?

    Or does the analogy only go so far?