As someone who tinkers with designing games in my limited spare time — and who just loves reading new games all the time (even when I shouldn’t be) I often struggle with different facets of Character Creation… specifically, the one thing I struggle with most is the Strength attribute. And I struggle with this for a lot of reasons. The first is that, mechanically speaking, I actually don’t like Attributes at all. I prefer a game with only skills — it’s one of the things that drew me to Castle Falkenstein.
I’ve struggled over the years and in many attempts at game writing, homebrewing, etc. to escape the trap of Attributes.
And while I feel confident dispatching the majority of these traits handily, I am always boggled by Strength. Raw strength is measurable in ways that, say, Intelligence or Appearance are not. Of course, I realize that we have a million intelligence tests in the world but let’s face it, we don’t really agree on what it all means most of the time, and some of the smartest people I know would not score well on an IQ test, simply due to the format…
But that’s a different soapbox for a different audience. In game terms, I suppose what I mean is this… I can quantify social abilities with skills. I can quantify intelligence with skills (in all the ways that matter at a game table) but I cannot do the same — easily — with Strength.
Because Strength is both easier and more complex than a lot of those other traits in terms of mechanical representation.
Here’s an example. I was tinkering around with Technoir a while back and there was a situation with a burning building, having to escape, blah blah. The problem is, there is a fallen beam and some rubble blocking the exit. At this point, turning back isn’t really an option… and that’s when I realized that the game has no mechanical way to interpret the simple act of “I need to test to see if I can lift a heavy object.” (At least none that I could see).
And that really bugged me. Out of all proportion to it’s actual merit, it bugged me. Mainly because I’ve struggled with this myself. The old Star Wars D6 system also has a problem with this, but it sits at the opposite end. In that game, Darth Vader and Princess Leia — in their official stats — both have a Strength of 3D. But Vader is stronger right? I mean, he picks a guy up with one hand off the floor and chokes the heck out of him (yes, I realize that he could have had a Force Assist but…). The game system represents a big part of this disparity with the “Lifting” Skill. Vader has a much higher Lifting score than the princess. And that’s okay too, except that SWD6 had no upper limit to skills. No upper limit to skills means that I have to ask the question, just what does a 12D Lifting score let a PC do?
And then there is the problem of different strengths. I mean, I’m a slight guy. I don’t have massive upper body strength, but I have strong legs. I was a runner for a lot of years, and I still have disproportionate strength between my upper and lower halves. But the point is, games don’t represent that well either. How many times have you seen a trait like, “Strong Legs” but realized that it was basically either A) Useless or B) a cop out to save some points but it never seems to matter in game because (for example) if the system doesn’t actually have a level of grittiness to account say, kicks and punches differently in combat, that PC will always be kicking?
Of course, this is solved by abstraction and making most strength traits more aggregate, whole-body things.
But the problem remains. If I want to dispense with Attributes and have a relatively open ended skill structure, what happens to Strength?
If this all seems somewhat odd, let me put it this way…
When I look at the people around me (and I’m not referencing anyone specific here, so don’t look) I think about it this way (in game terms):
If I know someone who soaks up knowledge and has a wealth of information at their fingertips I tend to think of them as smart (knowledge skills and learning ability assumed based on same).
If I know someone who I’d say has a high dexterity, it’s not because I think of them as “having a high dexterity” it’s because I’ve seen them juggle, and throw accurately, and do intricate work with their hands (all skills).
If I know someone I think of as Strong it’s because I’ve seen what they load up on the bar when we go to the gym, or because I’ve seen them pick up one of those concrete parking blocks and just move it… you know, that kind of stuff (raw strength) — but — (still limited by a fairly hard, upper limit based on the human body.)
And in terms of things like Appearance and Charisma? Subjective enough that modelling it in a game sense is a different animal altogether in my book (I’ve written about this topic before.)
Ugh. It makes my head hurt.
Thanks for Reading, and chime in… I’d love to hear what you think.
PS — just to be clear, I definitely fall into the Player Skill over Character Skill camp (though I don’t discount character skill) at the table, and that informs my thinking on this issue.