What abilities should define a character? On one end of the spectrum are extremely simplified systems like the Mind-Body-Soul (cf.) of Big Eyes, Small Mouth or Echo Bazaar’s “Watchful,” “Shadowy,” “Dangerous” and “Persuasive.” On the other, there are the thirteen attributes of Dwarf Fortress or White Wolf’s three-by-three system. Clearly, there are tradeoffs at work here: fewer abilities make for a simpler system, easier to learn and easier to keep track of. But that same simplicity also reduces the versatility of the system: imagine trying to make flags for all the nations in the world using only two colors. I guess I’ll just throw out a handful at first and see if anything is lacking or redundant; looking at what’s on the market, it seems like six to nine is a good range to aim for.
I’m a little tempted to use the theory of multiple intelligences, henceforth referred to as 7I, as a basis, but it’s not entirely suitable for what I want to make. “Musical intelligence,” for example, has a rather limited set of applications, while there’s nothing to model more purely physical qualities such as strength or endurance. I will refer to the 7I, but not rely on them exclusively. Anyway, here are a number of ideas I’m considering, in no particular order.
Willpower. I want this to be one of the abilities. It’s a very useful ability in life, as demonstrated by “the Marshmallow Experiment.” Perhaps the most difficult part of having Willpower (so to speak) will be to restrict my own use of it; modeling its real-world importance is fine, but I’d like to avoid having any one number be the most important number in the game.
Strength. Physical power. Self-explanatory.
Health. This gives me pause. Do I use Health for nothing more than physical wellbeing, and have “Stamina” or the like as a separate ability? To me, though, physical endurance is partially a matter of strength – of the slow-twitch muscles and circulatory system – and partially a matter of willpower. For the time being, I’ll have Health as a measure of the body’s ability to withstand any potentially harmful event or condition: fatigue, injury, disease, poison, etc.
Intelligence. The ability to process data quickly and accurately. Harking back to the 7I, this would be a combination of the spatial, linguistic, and logical-mathematical intelligences. Some games also use “Intelligence” to model memory, and I don’t think it would hurt to leave that as an option for individual gaming groups to use, but I won’t hard-code it into the system – player notes and memory can serve as well, and that can be part of the game of the game, so to speak.
But one thing that occurs to me is that a lot of what people think of as “intelligence” is actually a matter of skills. Abilities should model innate talent, and not (for example) large vocabularies or even the patience and experience necessary for rigorous analysis and computation. To emphasize that point, I want to rename this stat. The first likely-sounding name that comes to mind is “Wit,” so that’s what it will be.
Sensibility. As long as we’re referring to the 7I, this would encompass the musical intelligence I maligned earlier, as well as visual and other aesthetic sensibilities. “Taste,” if you will, but also including the intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential intelligences. (Yes, I realize I’m referring to numbers eight and nine out of a list of seven.) Unlike Wit (née Intelligence), this ability refers to data processing that remains subliminal and can only be expressed in intuitive terms. “Sensibility” is a bit long, though… with apologies to Jane Austen, I’m shortening the label to “Sense.”
Kinesthetic. Yeah, this is the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, but let’s call it by the more familiar term “Agility.” I suspect that “Dexterity,” as popularized by D&D, is more accurate… but why not use a term that can be applied to left-handers? I also like “Deftness,” but it sounds like “deafness.” Bah. Agility models an awareness of the position of one’s body in space and what it’s doing, and competence in its use.
I was considering also adding a “Speed” ability, but on reflection I feel that application of speed is a combination of one’s wits and sense, fast-twitch muscle strength and kinesthetic intelligence. So, no “Speed” for now.
Potency. Ha ha, no. I plan to include a magic system for fantasy gaming, and here I find myself facing a stylistic choice: do I want magical aptitude to be something innate? Do characters born under the right star-sign, or with the right kind of midichlorians, or whatever, have an edge over everyone else in the arcane arts? Or do I want it to be a matter of knowing the right secrets, importuning the right spirits, putting in the most hours of study? Both options have roots in classic literature, both have advantages.
Incidentally, even if I keep this one, the name may well change. Is the term “Potency” nifty or childish? Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu used “Power,” contracted to “POW” for a dash of vaguely-silly awesomeness, but I have the feeling that there’s some more esoteric term that I could use, and win extra points in style and distinctiveness. I’ll leave it as is for now.
Charisma. Yes, it’s been used, but the term is an accurate portrayal of what I’m thinking of. I spent a long time debating whether to include a social ability. After all, a lot of social competence falls under Sense, reflecting a subconscious awareness of the people around oneself and their moods. And lot of social skill is just that – the skills of self-expression and manipulation and so on. On the other hand, I do think that there’s a more innate combination of self-confidence, extroversion, considerateness and openness that makes some people more socially ept than others. So for now, Charisma is in… covering “interpersonal,” the final intelligence of the 7I model. Hah.
Stats I definitely don’t want to use: Luck; it’s a little too meta for my taste when the system itself depends on random number generation. Psionic Strength; if this goes in, it’ll fall under Potency. Appearance; I just don’t want to give it that much weight. Let it be an aspect of Charisma.
One more thought, in keeping with the renaming motif I established above: it occurred to me that the term “ability” literally means something one is able to do, and is thus applicable to skills as well as inherent traits. So (in part because I referred several times to this article during the writing of this post) I’m switching the term to “Attribute.”
Roundup: That leaves us with seven or eight attributes, depending on the genre: Agility, Charisma, Health, Potency (optional), Sense, Strength, Willpower and Wit. Next I want to talk about attribute generation options… or secondary attributes to be derived from the “primary” set above… or both.