The Boring Part

So, there are a few things you need to accept as baselines for a Fantasy heartbreaker. Characters will probably have some manner of race/class combination, there might or might not be some skills or feats (or feat-like things), maybe some levels, and perhaps most importantly, stats.

Statistics are one of the first things you think of when you look at a character’s sheets, so much so that “Stats” is conversationally synonymous with the character’s sheet. With that in mind, that’s the first mechanical thing I’m thinking about. The choice of stats can be a simple thing, but it’s worth some time and thought, specifically to determine how many stats to use and what they should represent.

Setting aside special stats[1], the classic split is between the mental and the physical. It’s entirely possible to get by with just those two stats, but fairly dull. Still, they make a good foundation, and how you split them says a lot about the game.

The first split is probably one that it may seem like I’m overlooking: Social. Only slightly less common than the 2 way split is the 3 way split between physical, mental (knowledge) and social (spiritual). This 3 way split is the basis of Tri-stat and Storyteller/Storytelling stats. In two-way splits fold social under mental, usually when social interaction doesn’t get a lot of mechanical support.

D&D is actually kind of fascinating to look at through this lens. From a physical/mental perspective, it’s a split set, 3 & 3. From a three way perspective you get a 3:2:1 split, which is probably more reflective of the real priorities of the game. Contrasted with White Wolf, which has a 3:3:3 split.[2]

I probably want to have at least a little social support, so let’s go with a 3 way split as the foundation.

Given that, I could stop at 3 stats, but that’s still pretty dull, so the question is how to split them.

The first option is to split them consistently. The Storytelling system does this by splitting each category into three subcategories that correspond roughly to power, finesse and resistance. This is pretty intuitive for physical stats, but not necessarily so much for mental, and it’s definitely jarring for social stuff.

The second is to look at how they’ll be used, and split it like that. Unfortunately, I’m starting from scratch here, so I have no real answer to that. Still, I may take a lesson from that.

Another possibility is to look at stat systems I like. Rolemaster left its mark on me, for example, but to be honest I’d be hard pressed to remember all the stats it used, so perhaps not the best example. Dragon Age has a pretty nice set of 8, though one of them (magic) is a special stat, with the rest having a 3:3:1 split, with social getting the short end of the stick with the nicely named “Communication” stats. However, arguably it’s actually 3:2:2 depending upon how you use Cunning.

Now, here’s where we start getting into the more trivial-seeming areas of the decision making process. First, I don’t want names of stats that sound too stupid or too technical. Second, I’d like an even number of stats within a given range, so 4, 6, 8 or 10. The good news is that these limits actually clarify things: 4 is too few, and 10 is more than I really want to try to keep in mind, so 6 or 8.

6 would be ideal. It’s easy to remember and the fact that it’s D&D’s number speaks well for it. Eight would be a function of necessity if I want to flesh out the possibilities. Part of the problem is that Strength, Dexterity and Endurance really are hard to go without, and that’s half of a 6 point spread right there.

Assuming we’re going to go with 8, I want at least a 3:2:2 split. This prospect leaves me waffling a bit, and this has me inclined to steal a page from Dragon Age, and shuffle magic back into the deck. This will introduce some complications – making the magic stat mean something for non-magical characters will be important, but I have a thought on that[3] – and it rounds things up to 8, nice and tidy.

So, we’ve got 4 stats already: Strength, Dexterity and Endurance (maybe Agility rather than Dex) and Magic. That leaves 4 slots, and I think I’m going to go with a structured split (active/passive). For mental, that’s say Cunning and Willpower, and for social I’ll steal from our own playbook and go with Rapport and Composure.

[EDIT: Discussion in comments has convinced me that the mental pair is actually Intellect and Focus.]

This almost certainly seems like overthinking a fairly simple decision, especially this early in, but it’s important to think about why you make a choice so you’re prepared to change it later on if you find the design suggests one thing, but your earlier decision is still saying something else. Right now, this spread of stats isn’t saying a lot (intentionally) but it’s suggesting an emphasis on the physical, classical sensibilities[4], the presence of magic, and a non-trivial role for mental and physical activity. Will those still be the case down the line? if it’s not, then by understanding why choices were made, it’s easy to understand how to change them.

1 – Such as for things like magic.

2 – There’s an instinctive desire to consider a symmetrical distribution to be automatically superior, but it’s an unfair assumption. The distribution should reflect the priorities of the game – if it does that well, it’s the right distribution.

3 – Theft continues to be fun, so I’m going to steal from the Liavek novels and tie magic to luck. No, I’m not sure what that means yet, but it seems like an idea to start with.

4 – Compare with my non-Amber stats (Force, resolve, grace, wits) or a non-stat system, like Aspects or the Smallville iteration of Cortex.

14 thoughts on “The Boring Part

  1. Marshall Smith

    I’ve been grappling with stats for a while for my own homebrew. And, your thought patterns pretty much mirror my own.

    I happen to really like the symmetry of the White Wolf system. My main problem with it is that I’ve never gotten the hang of the difference between mental resistance and social resistance, except where mental resistance opposes mental powers.

    Your note on priorities, though, has me re-thinking. I’m OCD enough to always trend towards symmetric structures. This has definitely caused problems for me in the past. Your post has made me think that I may be sliding into that bad habit again.

    I like the magic/luck connection. It says some interesting things about mages, though. The other way I like to use the magic stat for non-magic characters is as a resistance stat.

  2. Rob Donoghue

    @Marshall I was thinking a bit about resistances on the car ride down this morning, and one of the elements was definitely the question of differentiating between social and mental resistance if you don’t have psi-warfare and the like.

    One possibility that occurred to me was to define mental resistance as focus, and the ability to stay focused on something. This means that it’s not just resistance against mental fatigue, it’s protection against distractions. That offers some interesting mechanical options.

    In White-Wolfy terms, disarming a bomb in a lab might be intellect + Demolitions, but doing so in the middle of a firefight might be Focus + Demolitions.

    In a less white-wolfy system, Focus might be the limiter on action in distracting situations. Picking a lock in a firefight might be a dexterity action, but your dex bonus can’t be higher than your focus.

    With this in mind you get a decent mental split between Power (straight intellect/knowledge), Speed (quickness of thought – ability to quickly reach conclusions) and resistance (focus).

    That said, talking this through has totally crystallized my own thought on the mental split, and I think the new stat pair will be “Intellect” and “Focus”

  3. Robert


    If you are going with a race/class model, why would you have a stat (re: Magic) that is inherently included in some classes and excluded from others (ie, wizard vs. fighter)?

    How would having a magic stat help a fighter build? Does this insert the “dump stat” dilemma into the system?

    Does having a magic stat mean that you could have average Intellect but high magic (powerful, but still limited)?

    A primary issue I have had with D&D over the years is that I couldn’t have a strong wizard or a smart fighter because (a) limited amount of points/currency with which to buy stats and a high class stat is always required, (b) melee combat attack success is almost always directly attributable to strength bonuses on top of proficiency bonuses (Wizard becomes as good as a fighter), and (c) smart fighters received no added benefit for being smart.

    Thus, they become dump stats, nerf the efficacy of a build, promote power gaming or unbalance a character in relation to other PCs.

  4. Rob Donoghue

    @Robert That thought is very much on my mind, but I think it’s not insolvable. I really see there are two paths.

    First, if it’s a genuine dump stat, then you need a way for players to offload it (such as how Dragon Age allows stat swapping). This is not a very satisfying solution because it doesn’t always work. Using the Dragon Age example, a high magic stat or a 0 magic stat both work fine, but if you’ve got a middling one, you probably don’t want to waste your one swap on it. Those points end up feeling wasted.

    I don’t like this solution because it hides a cost. Basically, you’re paying to be a mage (with a reduction in other stats) but not _really_, because if stats are randomly generated, it’s not a price, really, and if stats are bought, then you can usually take strength (or something similar) as a dump stat.

    The better answer (and the one I’m leaning towards at the moment) requires that the logic of magic in the setting be such that the magic stat makes sense and is useful for mages and non-mages alike.

    In my mind, the idea is that mages (whatever form they ultimately take) must pay for their power in a cosmic sense. Using luck as an example, imagine that the luck stat is something generally useful. Roll it when coincidence dominates a situation, and all that. But it also represents the strength of your destiny, so it represents a certain number of get out of jail free cards. Certain doom and other bad things can be averted by reducing your luck stat by a point, representing the power of your destiny. Mechanically, this works like an incredibly powerful fate point.

    Mages have traded their destiny for power. Whenever you’d roll luck, you treat it as zero. And forget about your destiny saving you: you cast that all aside and will live or die by your power alone. Good luck with that.

    (As an aside, this also suggests that Clerical magic, if it exists, comes of selling your destiny to your god. You get less magical power than a mage, but you can continue to use your luck as luck, but ONLY for things your god approves of.)

    Anyway, not saying that’s definitely going to be what I go with, but I hold it up as an example of how to make a magic stat work in a larger game.

    -Rob D.

  5. gamefiend

    in that interpretation, I’d think that you’d want rename magic as more generically “Power”, and let the players determine what context the power takes. Mundanes have luck, Mages have magic, Clerics have Faith.

    It also works really well for expansion later. Think of it as a 4e “power source” in a stat, and with much less overhead.

  6. Rob Donoghue

    @gamefiend Yeah, I’m pondering renaming it when you choose a path, but figure I’ll worry about that when I get to actually designing that system, for fear of getting too far ahead of myself.

  7. Matthew Neagley

    The way I look at stats is as follows: You have to define what your RPG is about before you can choose any mechanical aspects. Once you know your themes and concepts, you should be able to pick out your encounter types. For example. in the RPG I’m working on Gnomecha Victoriana, I want physical challenges (duels, sports, powersuit combat, etc..) intellectual challenges (debates, mech design, etc..) Social challenges (schmoozing, securing investors, cotillions, romance, etc…) and magic challenges (casting, seances, etc…) In another system, you may feature different sets of challenges. Once those challenges are decided, what stats you need fall into place naturally. Do I need the big three of physical mental and social? Only if those kinds of encounters are important to my game (which they are). But if my game had no magic (a decision I toyed with since Victorian age magic is all mystery cults, seances and stuff that can be glossed over by con men and quackery with social rolls and no fireballs or similarly flashy effects) I would need no magic stats. Similarly, if I discarded the physical or mental aspects of my game, I’d dump those stats too since they’re no longer important.

  8. Rob Donoghue

    @Matthew That is, I must concede, a far more sane approach than the one I’m taking. I blame it on the nature of this as an experiment with loose guidelines. Since I have no _particular_ game I’m designing towards (at least not yet) i have yet to establish any pole stars.

  9. Helmsman

    Back when I was designing stats for my little homebrew I stumbled upon some articles on the big 5 personality traits, and started thinking about how to implement them as game stats. Our personality defines a lot of what we’re going to be good at and also how tenacious we are, which in my opinion is more important that gauging actual raw talent for something in an RPG.

    (To clarify:) Say a PC wants to install a bigger/faster/stronger engine in the dream car he looted after the boss fight last session. The character has minimal mechanics skills and doesn’t really have the right equipment but has a lot of free time and the player is being quite tenacious about getting it done. The die roll could conceivably be just representing if the character can finish the job before he gets frustrated and gives up. (A function of personality.)

    I’ll be getting more into this in a post I have scheduled for nevermet press, and you can see the preliminary rough results of this work in that proof of concept file I sent you a few weeks back. But basically it works out to be add an Affability (or niceness… I really can’t find the ideal word/representation for it), Wits and Discipline (represents conscientiousness, Wisdom is a good game term for it too). I didn’t include a stat representative for Openness because I felt that the Experience Points system all RPG’s had made it redundant. And then I added Calm which functioned as mental hit-points. The inverse of neuroticism.

    So if you add in the 3 physical stats, with this model you can have 6 and an extra set of mental hit points that can be implemented for magic or whatever you like.

    It’s something to consider anyways.

  10. Dave Bozarth

    I will echo what @Matthew said about choosing thematic needs and then Stats… but in a way you have already said as much with the stats you have chosen and why they need to be given thought. You just have not outlined them in the post to give them form. Also, you have said this will be a Heartbreaker, so the general idea is “things you do in D&D.” While that may mean a lot of things to a lot of people, they must mean something specifically to you that you really like.

    In regards to Stats, I really like the Houses of the Blooded breakdown; Strength, Cunning, Courage, Beauty, Wisdom, Prowess. Though in that case, the totemic element was very underutilized.

    If I may, I humbly suggest the term Wyrd or Mana to replace Magic. Wyrd being a better choice as it is an amalgamation of mystical power, luck, and something akin to the Greek idea of destiny.

  11. Greg

    Hey Rob,

    You might want to check out my game Synapse. It is a hair’s breadth from going public beta (I am finalizing appendices right now). I have a description up on my blog about how I break down a character.


    Bottom line is that there are 7 attributes, all of which are mental. Then there are 3 body stats which are used for health, stamina, and immune resistance.

  12. Reverance Pavane

    My default seems to be 4 stats: Body/Physique, Agility, Mind,** and Charisma.*

    Each of which is splittable into two more stats if the player desires to alter one at the expense of the other: (Strength/Soak), (Speed, Dexterity), (Awareness, Knowledge), and (Willpower/Influence). The split represents the external/internal use of the stat. To paraphrase the Tao de Ching:

    Knowing others is wisdom;
    Knowing the self is enlightenment.
    Mastering others requires force;
    Mastering the self needs strength.

    The stats themselves form a square, and around them is a ring of the eight standard “professional archetypes.” So using clock positions in parenthesis [with Physique (10.5), Agility (1.5), Mind (4.5), Charisma (7.5)], we have Knight (9), Fighter (10.5), Ranger (12), Rogue (1.5), Craftsman (3), Scholar (4.5), Sorceror*** (6), Noble (7.5).

    What really works for me here is the pattern formed by the geometry of this representation. If I want to push a standard metaphysics on the characteristics I can do so easily [Physique (earth), Agility (water), Mind (air), Charisma (fire)], and the professional archetypes form a zodiac of sorts.

    [* Used in the older sense of strength of character rather than the more common misinterpretation amongst the RPG community.]

    [** I’ve always had problems with Intelligence as a characteristic since I find it’s use in the game as fairly nebulous, outside of character creation So I tend to split it into a Holmsean awareness/perception and a pool of general knowledge. Together they make what most people consider intellect – the knowledge and the ability to make use of it. Which is also why I purposefully avoid using “Intelligence” as a descriptor.]

    [*** Overt magic is probably heavily based on Charisma moderated by Mind. Some may say this is overkill on Charisma (since it also has social ramifications) but I feel it fits as Sorcerors tend to need to be larger than life to fit the archetype. Which is not to say the other archetypes won’t have magic of their own, just that it probably wouldn’t be recognisable as actual spellcraft. In a sense, all stats are usable for magic.]

  13. Uncle Dark

    Rob, I noticed that you seem to have skipped an obvious use of the magic/power stat: as resistance to hostile magic.

    For that matter, it could be used as a limiting stat on the active use of magic, in much the same way Discipline and Conviction work in the DFRPG. The stat would determine how many points of magical power (or however the system gauges the strength of a spell) the mage could control.

  14. Jagash

    In my own game, I pulled back and decided for a degree of abstraction.

    Body – Physical and tangible
    Heart – Social, emotional and communication
    Mind – Mental, analytical and perceptive
    Spark – Mystical, protagonist attribute used for funky powers and luck effects.

    Tri-statish but it allows me to build the conflict system with all four aspects on equal footing.


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