C Series • #8
A few weeks back, I talked about how different editions of D&D generated ability scores and their importance in gameplay. This time around I would like to present example from some of other systems and look at the effects these attribute systems have on gameplay. Specifically, we’ll be looking at GURPS and the Storyteller System (also known as the World of Darkness and now as the Chronicles of Darkness).
GURPS is a pure point-buy system, lauded by many to allow the creation of any character you can imagine. In my experience, I truly know this to be the case as I have never been able to not create the exact character concept I envisioned. At the heart of GURPS is the point-buy concept, through which a player uses the character points that a GM has given for character creation to build the desired character. Often there will be some further specified limits prescribed by the GM which vary based on the particular genre or campaign model being used. Everything about the character is bought from this character point pool — attributes, skills, and advantages while disadvantages give points back to the player for further use. So, a GM may set the limit of a “standard” fantasy game at 150 character points (or CPs) but also allow 50 CPs to be further gained by taking disadvantages. This effectively gives the player up to 200 CPs for their character, if they wish to suffer character flaws in exchange for some (or all) of those particular 50 CPs.
With GUPRS being a skill-based system (as opposed to a level-based system, such as D&D or Pathfinder), almost everything a character does or can do is governed by attributes and skills. A skill is based off of a governing attribute and points can raise that skill to, or even beyond, the base skill. The four main skills in GURPS are Strength (ST), Dexterity (DX), Intelligence (IQ), and Health (HT). Most skills derive from either DX or IQ and this is balanced with these two attributes being more expensive to buy. Attributes range from 1 to 20, with the human average being 10. Skills are broken down by their inherent complexity — easy, average, hard, or very hard. This determines how many points it costs to increase the skill — fishing is considered a much easier skill than practicing alchemy. And most skills (but not all) have a “default” which, in a worst-case scenario, can be rolled against the governing ability when the character has not invested points in said skill. Attributes and skills are checked by the rolling 3d6 and hoping to roll under the score being tested. This is the core GURPS system.
Attributes scores in GURPS matter but with the nature of the point buy system it does not make or break a skill. They determine where the skill starts, but CP investment makes the ultimate determination for skill aptitude. For example, a character could have a low IQ, but invest points in an IQ skill and therefore have a very competent level in that skill. This could represent years of on-the-job training, specialized training, or perhaps being an “idiot savant” with that skill.
Chronicles of Darkness (CofD) and other Storyteller system games are representative of a dice pool system. In these systems, the more proficiency a character has with a skill or expertise means that more dice are rolled. The dice are either totaled or a certain score is sought to represent a success. It is this latter method in which CofD determines skill success or failure (but more on that in a moment). This is another “point buy” system with regard to abilities and skills but, unlike in GURPS, a PC is given different points for different parts of character creation. Characters have nine attributes, divided into mental (Intelligence, Wits, and Resolve), physical (Strength, Dexterity, and Stamina), and social (Presence, Manipulation, and Composure) aspects. Each of these nine starts with one “dot” or die, and the PC is given three sets of “dots” to add to the three groups as he or she sees fit — one group gets five dots, the next gets four, and the last one gets three. Skills are likewise divided into the three broad categories, and the player is given another three sets of dots/dice to distribute how he or she desires — eleven dice are given for one category, seven for the next, and four for the last group. Unlike attributes, skills have no initial dot allotted to them.
Attributes and skills are paired up and the total dots in each defines the dice pool that will be rolled. Examining a crime scene? The PC would combine their Wits and Investigation scores to form a dice pool. Trying to climb a 10-foot high fence? That would be a pool of Strength and Athletics. If, in the former example, the PC had a Wits of 4 and an Investigation of 3, a dice pool of 7d10 would be rolled and any score of an 8, 9, or a 10 would indicate success. Penalties remove whole dice (so a “-2 penalty” to the check would mean only 5 dice are rolled in this case) while bonuses add dice to the check. One success typically indicates the action succeeds, though multiple successes are often beneficial as well.
In the Storyteller system, attribute scores play a very important factor in the success or failure of an action but so do skills. In the example above, over half of the dice rolled in the Wits + Investigation pool comes from the attribute score. Imagine if the attribute was a one? Or what if the skill was a one or a zero? The dice pool would be very different, and success more difficult to achieve. Like GURPS, skill investment can help make up for a low attribute score, but attributes have a much more tangible effect on the skill check in the Storyteller system. And skill competency has an equal effect on success in this system. This system, where attribute and skill play equally important parts in the success of an action, is somewhat of a rarity.
I’ll close with an anecdote. I once participated in a conversation about ability scores, what they meant to the game in question (3.5 D&D in this case), and the “best” way to have players generate them. We all had our preferred methods, but one DM said something odd … and interesting. He said, “I let my players simply write down what they want for their scores. Even if they want all 18s. I can kill them at my whim, so what does it really matter in the end?” I still remember that even probably 15 years later. I convey this to express the idea that most players, regardless of system, have a concept of their character. You might want to put your best score in Strength because you envision a Conan-like character, or you want to put that 7 in Constitution because you want to play a sickly mage who spent too much time studying books and not enough time out running and playing. Regardless of the system, what attributes are present, or what methods you use to generate those scores, I believe it’s all about the concept. Who that character is and how you want to play them. That is the constant. Everything else is secondary!