Dec 6, 2017

Ability Scores

Look at just about any RPG and you'll see little variations of what are essentially the same stats defined by Gygax and Arneson in the original Men & Magic book. This set of abilities has not been improved upon by any other roleplaying game. DC Heroes came close with its 3×3 grid of physical, mental and mystical/social character stats that expressed precision, force, and resilience in each area. Which was clever and novel, but really so specific to the DC universe it wasn't widely adapted to other genres, though the idea of each number being twice the power of the previous number so as to accommodate a game with characters as diverse in strength as Robin and Superman is an admirable design feature.

Taking a look at the wording on pages 10 & 11 of Men & Magic it is really quirky and awkward. First of all the order of the stats is random: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, & Charisma. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this order. It's not alphabetical. Not grouped in any meaningful way like physical/mental, or in order of importance.

Greyhawk mixes it up even more randomly: Str, Int, Dex, Wis, Chr, Con. Blackmoor doesn't really discuss abilities, and Eldritch Wizardry only touches on Dexterity with a lengthy addition to its effects in the game.

It is funny that this order remained like this and carried all the way through to 1st edition with one weird difference: Constitution and Dexterity are swapped. Why? Oh, just because. This little change seems to have first appeared in the Blue Holmes basic edition.

At least in 2nd edition an attempt was made to organize them by physical and mental stats: Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Chr, but strangely still not alphabetical. You can still see the original order lurking in there. All recent editions keep this odd order. Shouldn't it be: Con, Dex, Str and Chr, Int, Wis? Or even better with mental first and then physical (M before P). This is mostly cosmetic and doesn't affect the game however it is just another example of the chaotic roots of the rules and as much as things have been polished and organized these little artifacts still linger.

Here's a little chart to make it easier to see:

OriginalGreyhawkBasic2nd +Suggested

What is perhaps most interesting about reading the ability descriptions in M&M (Men & Magic) is how little useful game information is really given. Their primary purpose seems to be to provide bonuses to XP for class prime requisites. Beyond that only cursory and vague game information is provided.

Strength. Does any RPG not use the term strength? Grab any random rulebook, I happen to have Symbaroum at my desk. Alright it uses "Strong" not "Strength", but basically the same word. Runequest uses it. Even GURPS with all its effort in making everything advantages, disadvantages, and skills uses Strength.

Intelligence. Alright, GURPS uses IQ which I always thought sounded a little lame, but nearly every RPG has a version of this stat. In Men & Magic a lot of leeway is given to the DM to adjudicate the player's use of this stat. If a player wants to do something clever the DM can just say his character is too dumb to think of doing that, sorry tough luck!

Wisdom. This is expressed in a lot of different terms in various RPGs, but really what word is better than Wisdom to describe this ability? In M&M Wisdom doesn't seem to do much of anything though, the book basically says its the same as Intelligence.

Constitution. Of all the terms this one is probably the least used in other RPGs. Usually something like Stamina or Endurance or Health. I have to say this is my least favorite of the ability names and I was very confused when I first encountered the game. I thought the player had to write up a constitution for the character that represented his fundamental principles! Hah, how silly I felt upon learning it meant the character's health stat and was just another number. In M&M this stat is given some meaty useful game purposes: bonus hit points and resistance to paralyzation and petrification.

Dexterity. A good enough term. I might prefer Agility, but no qualms here. This is certainly one of the most basic stats that all games use. This provides a lot of oomph to a character and especially with Eldritch Wizardry is expanded into the most useful ability. Perhaps overpowered even. Hard to not make this overly useful and balanced with the other stats.

Charisma. Ah, the classic "dump" stat. I suspect in the early days this might have actually been one of the most useful ones as you could use it to recruit lots of hirelings and henchmen in the exceedingly high casualty games of the day. This one is also the most controversial. Does it represent physical beauty as well as force of personality? M&M certainly indicates that, but it becomes problematic because those are two very different things with sometimes related but mostly disparate effects. The addition of Comeliness (what an awful term!) in Unearthed Arcana tried to fix it, but was a disaster in terms of usefulness in an actual game that only served to show how well constructed the original list of six abilities actually was. Physical appearance is better expressed as an advantage/disadvantage not an ability stat all of its own.

In conclusion, not my most useful post here, but I've had these thoughts bouncing around in my head for a while and I needed to get them written down. I think the original six stats from the original rulebook are one of the best and most enduring elements of the game and I can't think of any RPG that does it better. While I've played a lot of RPGs my experience isn't comprehensive as I'm sure few people have played every RPG ever made, would that even be possible? Let me know what you think in the comments below or in discussions on G+.

ps. I did mean to mention the Size stat in Runequest which I always felt was clever and a much better solution to the Size relationship problem in combat. Early editions of D&D tended to complicate this with different damage values depending on small or large targets. Later editions have cleaned it up significantly, but still isn't the most elegant game mechanic. You could argue this is one improvement over the original six stats.

pps. The most obvious order for stats is just straight up alphabetical, because there isn't really any game mechanics associated with organizing them by mental and physical stats. So: Chr, Con, Dex, Int, Str, Wis.


  1. I always figured the old orders that started with Str, Int, etc. were the orders in which the stats were created and added to the game.

  2. Actually DC Heroes handles other genre well.

    1. I was a bit hasty about pronouncing DC Heroes too specific. But the point remains that its basic Abilities construct hasn't been adopted widely.

  3. Str, Int, and Wis were first because they gave xp bonuses to the original three classes: Fighter, Mu and Cleric.

    1. Good point, but the classes are in a random order. Or probably in order of popularity.

    2. Also, Greyhawk breaks that pattern.

    3. Maybe fighting-man (Strenght) and MU (Int) came first because they were the two original figures from Chainmail (Hero and Wizard), and the Cleric (Wis) third because he was the late comer .

    4. Agreed, it was certainly an organic process built a little piece at a time. It's just funny that this odd artifact should linger in the later editions for so long, and still kind of lurks.