RPG Stats: Turning Disadvantages into Advantages

We've previously discussed using the more streamlined attribute system from classic D&D and Swords & Wizardry and how the lower bonuses and penalties to dice rolls can both streamline the game and encourage more character description. That was followed with a system to allow players to select a character's attributes.

The only drawback to both diceless character creation and having a single tier for exceptional abilities is that all Fighters and Dwarfs will tend to be the same amount of "strong", and all Wizards the same amount of "intelligent". This doesn't leave players room to have a *really* strong or smart character - one who is highly focused around that particular ability.

The desire to have degrees of excellence is what keeps the numbers exposed on the character sheets in most RPGs, and also contributes to the trend of attribute and attribute bonus inflation in later versions of D&D and other RPGs. Since we're using the OD&D / S&W system and then modifying it to downplay the ability numbers in the first place, we need to find another approach.

The trick then is not just thinking about what makes a character exceptional in a positive ability, but which of their negative exceptional abilities are the result of that positive one. Consider two characters: the first is Strong (+Strength), while the second is Strong (+Strength), Brutish (-Intelligence) and Heavy (-Dexterity). The second character feels stronger than the first one, not because of their positive ability but rather their negative ones.

When a player is creating a character, either randomly or by choosing their abilities, they can associate a negative ability with a positive one to distinguish it as being even more exceptional than normal. While this doesn't provide any higher attribute bonus to dice rolls it can factor into the game in other ways as decided by the Game Master.

The town strong-man might only agree to help characters who can beat him at an arm-wrestling match. This sort of direct ability comparison doesn't make sense to resolve with a dice roll. The GM may have decided that simply having a "strong" type description isn't sufficient for a character to beat him and a character would also need to have a corresponding negative attribute as well. Thom the Strong (+Strength) Warrior might not have what it takes to beat him, but his companion Grom the Huge (+Strength/-Dexterity) Savage (-Intelligence) from the Frozen North certainly would!

As demonstrated above creative use of descriptive words can sometimes cover both a positive AND a negative attribute. A character that is -Strength and +Intelligence might be Bookish. One that is +Wisdom and -Charisma might be Laconic. Having a +Strength and -Wisdom could mean a character is filled with Rage, and one that is -Strength and +Dexterity might be Nimble.

With negative exceptional abilities now offering some advantage to a player, characters with one of more "bad" abilities might now be seen as desirable characters to play.