The Measure of a Man (Abilities)


One of the classic features of D&D is the set of ability scores: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.  Part of me thinks that I can’t truly have a different game if I’m using the same set of ability scores – it’s going to be difficult to feel like I’m playing a new game, and difficult to associate a different culture to the play-style of that game, if I keep using them.  On the other hand, I don’t want to change for the sake of change if these really are the best choices – and they’ve certainly stood the test of time so far!

So how do you measure someone?  Generally, a person is measured both physically and mentally, and this is what D&D has done with their primary abilities.  Interestingly, Marvel has gone a different route and eschewed abilities entirely – replacing them with a mechanic that looks like aspects rated on a 3-step scale.

Let’s keep the aspect solution on the back-burner for now.  While I’m happy with changing things up, I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of leap, and honestly I think it might be more appropriate for a more super-hero style game, and as I’ve already talked about in my post on levels, I don’t want to focus lost worlds on this level of power.  I think ability scores help presuppose that you’ll be building a character from the roots, based on the character’s initial raw materials.

So how do you measure a person?


When I think about how you measure someone physically, I think about how I compare athletes.  What does it take?

Strength: The most obvious, I think, when we discuss measuring someone physically.  How much can you lift?  How hard can you hit?

Endurance: Marathons, boxing matches, long drives in overtime – these are a few places athletes with high endurance shine.

Speed: Another clear physical attribute.  How fast a person can move is a key component of just about every sport.

Agility: When I think about athletes, you hear about players who aren’t the fastest in a straight-out run, but they seem to always be able to juke their defender and score.  Agility is a bit more nebulous, although the NFL combine has plenty of agility drills to attempt to measure this in a person.

There are, of course, others (coordination, accuracy, jumping ability, toughness) but if you have too many you begin to blur the lines and I want a pretty simple system.


Measurement of mental capability is done, but there’s a lot we don’t understand about it.  There are some pretty clear non-physical types of talent people that, while they may overlap, seem to be pretty easily distinct for a subsystem.

Intelligence: We measure IQ, and talk about doctors and scientists who are “smart.”  They do work other people couldn’t do because of their high intelligence.

Charisma: Unrelated almost entirely from intelligence (if not, inversely related) is charisma.  Politicians use it, as do sales people and businessmen.   How well can you relate to someone, get them to like you, get along with people, and lead others?

Willpower: When I think of “mental strength” it conjures the word willpower immediately.  Literature is full of character’s who were strong and smart but still fail in the end because they lack willpower.

Awareness: There are mathematicians, and then there are detectives who notice those little details.  It’s often tied to intelligence (he’s so smart for noticing that detail), but on the other hand, the oblivious genius is a common trope as well.

What am I missing?

So, Constitution has been replaced directly with endurance, which is simply a semantic choice.  Dexterity has been replaced by Agility, and those seem close enough to me as well.  I’ve added Speed which always struck me as a strange omission.

On the other side, we’ve lost Wisdom, which always struck me as very ill-defined, but it seems like the most significant omission from the bunch.

One of the nice things about the way I’ve broken it up, is that you no longer need to have “defenses” separate from ability scores.  You’ve got Endurance for physical attacks you must withstand, Agility for getting out of the way of something, and willpower for withstanding mental attack.  The new edition of D&D in play test is going the route of using all of the ability scores as defenses, and I could see doing something similar, although I’d still think the main three would be used far more than a Speed defense or a Strength defense (since those seem more active).

Let me know if you think I’m off-base anywhere?  What would you measure or make an ability attribute?


7 thoughts on “The Measure of a Man (Abilities)

  1. Andy

    I like these as the stats but I remember the issue I perceived when we tried this out before was trying to balance the stats. Strength, agility and intelligence are more important than speed and awareness as far as typical “heroic” activities go. We just need to make sure there are some good mechanical benefits of the less obvious stats.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      If speed really does determine how far you can move on the battle grid, I think it won’t be perceived as a dump stat. Awareness is close, but I intend to use it for initiative. In the end, I’d like them to be well-balanced, but different classes are going to end up want to put points into the stats their abilities key off of.

  2. Andy

    Not sure whether this should go here, but one concept I’ve always enjoyed in games is that of “weapon speed.” A dagger is almost never viable versus a longsword if both participants can only attack once per round (flat). But what if, because of your “speed” attribute combined with the speed of your weapon, you can make a mechanic that diversifies this a bit? For example, maybe a dagger is a speed 4 weapon. Which means that if you have a 4 speed you can attack with it twice per round. Meanwhile, a longsword may be a speed 7 weapon. Maybe strength should interact somehow here too? Maybe a mace is a speed 7 weapon/str 7 weapon, which requires a speed 7 AND a str of 7 to use twice per round.

    Really just brainstorming. I’m trying to think of ways that a rogue can be a more powerful combatant. Weapon speed makes more sense to me than the fluky current “backstab” rules that require a million conditions to make work.

    I’m also wondering if “toughness” and “beauty” should be added. Toughness splits out part of the concepts that would normally be in Str and Con (maybe adds to DR) and beauty seperates negotiation power (cha) with initial reactions. More brainstorming…

  3. Andy

    I’d be curious to hear about it in a later post. I’m sure “combat” will come up sometime soon!

    I think we should work hard to make all of the stats do something INTERESTING and mechanically significant so you always feel like you’re accepting a trade off by not taking one or the other. I hate that STR is a must have stat for 3/4 of PF characters (very helpful for all non-wizards/dervish dancers).

  4. Pingback: First Draft: Ability Scores | Lost Worlds

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