RPG Stats: Doing More with Less

I was never a fan of the way Original D&D handled it's stats.

When I started RPGs with the Moldvay Basic edition of D&D the ability score modifiers ranged from -3 to +3 (-15% to +15%). This creates enough mechanical difference between the characters that it matters to players what numbers are on their character sheet and a definite sense for whether a character is good or "bad" based on the stats rolled in the first 5 minutes of the game.

Advanced D&D, Unearthed Arcana and the more recent version all allow for even greater bonuses from high ability scores. This furthers the desire for good stats and dissatisfaction with a "poor" character. Not surprisingly alternate ability generation methods (4d6 take the top 3) and point buy systems were introduced and proved popular with players.

Looking back at the earliest version of D&D, and in newer games like Swords & Wizardry, the most a character could gain to a dice roll from an exceptional ability score is +1 (5%).

When I first saw this system I thought it was much too simple:

3-8 -1
9-12 --
13-18 +1

With such small amounts affecting your chances for success it doesn't matter terribly much statistically what stats you've rolled. I'd always more or less disregarded this approach as "too simplistic".

Until I started thinking about what it was getting rid of and where that would let you move the focus. If most of a character's ability scores are between 9 and 12 you don't really need to be keeping track of that. You can just consider them an average person for anything you don't make special note of. You only need to record abilities that are above or below average, and taking that a step further - you don't really need to know the ability score at all, just whether it was a -1 or a +1. Finally instead of using any numbers at all you could just say "bad" or "good"... or perhaps something a bit more descriptive about how that character is bad or good in regards to that particular ability.

Instead of recording a character like this:

Strength: 15 (+1)
Intelligence: 10 (+0)
Wisdom: 8 (-1)
Dexterity: 12 (+0)
Constitution: 11 (+0)
Charisma: 16 (+1)

You could write down something like this instead:

* Strong
* Foolish
* Charming

It takes up much less room on your sheet of paper, and I think it does a better job of helping quickly give a sense for that character to everyone in the game. You could also use different descriptive words to make another character with the same attributes seem different:

* Wiry
* Obsessive
* Domineering

Both have the same stats, but immediately feel very different from one another. A lot of players won't take the time to write (or read!) long back stories or even descriptions for their character, but a few words provided for any exceptional ability scores should be much easier to get people to buy into.

It also gives players a chance to take their negative ability scores and turn them into something more enjoyable. A player might not want the character he rolled a 4 Intelligence for to be "dumb", but he could choose a term like "narrow minded" instead. Since the dice roll is just to determine whether an ability is exceptional or not, you don't need to worry about a '4' being a "very low" score.

As long as everyone is clear about which ability score your descriptive words represent I think this could be a great way to help people create more interesting characters - even though the mechanical differences between them might not be that much.