The Problem of Strength

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.

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7 responses

  1. I think they are all the same in terms of real life complexity vs. game abstraction. Intelligence is often a composite of math skill, memory and education, and one can vary greatly in each facet. If anything, my bias is to say strength is one of the simpler things in real life as in games.

    I tend to think of attribute scores as representing a distance along a curve which approaches a maximum, but never quite reaches it. On a scale of 0 – 20, 20 is only very slightly stronger than 18, whereas 12 is noticeably stronger than 10.

  2. But, regarding your second point, taking D&D (ish — a D20 system) as the case, that isn’t mechanically true. Both represent a difference of +1 over the other. Now, an 18 vs 10 is a bigger difference than an 18 vs a 20, but it’s about the modifier spread when it comes to mechanics.

    My larger idea though is that Strength is much more difficult to model using skills than the other “D&D” attributes, whereas the others can be reasonably modeled only using skills, in most cases.

  3. Just for the sake of discussion, using games like Technoir as a basis, how would you react to a mechanic where adjudication is entirely based on the concept of the characters “reasonably being able/unable to do something” vs a mechanic where a specific trait was applied to a tier of difficulty numbers? Said Trait vs Target Number system would be invoked expressly in situations where there is no character with a vested interest against which to strive using the system’s normal method of opposed rolls.

  4. I’m all for adjudication — after all, I’m that wacky guy that likes diceless games — and I already see ways to get around the Strength problem in Technoir if I needed to.

    My main concern with games like Technoir is that the writers/designers make everything a competition. Which may sound funny considering how much of most games is about Combat — but I guess something about the way it’s presented just rubs me wrong… I can’t really put a finger on it exactly.

    It’s as if the writer of Technoir didn’t want actions to take place that did not involve specifically opposed rolls against a “present” opponent. And again, like I said, I see ways to work around that (which may have been intentional nuggets that are just not well explained) but ultimately, the game rules say, “here’s how to generate a dicepool” and “here’s what your character can do” and then suddenly you realize that if you don’t have an “opponent involved in something covered by your verbs” you cannot actually generate dice.

    Frustrating for me.

    1. It was a slight issue in our play testing of the game. I approached it in the spirit of the design process and only resorted to rolls when something was being contested, but as you know I am one of those dice-bound gamers who likes to abdicate authorial control and the perception of same to the fall of oddly shaped bits of plastic. As a result, my shaping of events and stories in Technoir will be more stylized than free and more controlled than my wont… but that is another tale. 😉

  5. There is a system I’ve read (but haven’t gotten to play/run yet) that uses a skill based system and still uses a str like skill called Athletics. It’s interesting for other reasons too. There are no opposed rolls in this system. You find out who the “active” player is and they get to roll vs an assumed “passive” result of the other character. For example, the same situation of a thief hiding from a guard. If the thief is trying to sneak past the unsuspecting guard, he rolls his stealth dice (1d6 per rank) vs a passive perception result (3 per rank). If the guard has an incling he’s there, the guard rolls instead. It gives the active character the tension and lets the other guy have to hope he’s just good enough to succeed. So I disagree with the dice-rolling premise of Technoir I suppose. (Full discloser: I’ve never read the product and am only basing my comments upon what I’ve read here.)

    I’ve also been thinking about the problems I have with d20 in general lately, mainly, that the results graph is completely linear. So it’s litterally like you said. +1 vs 0 is the same as +15 vs +14. It also allows the outlier results be too common, while the middle levels are not as common as you’d expect. This makes luck seem more important overall than any other modifiers unless the difference is substantial. For example, in 4E (since there is no perform skill): It lets the drunken asshole (12 charisma) step on stage and outperform a bard (20 charisma) more times than seems reasonable to me. Some of that might just be bad adjudication by the gm, but I think the flaw is in the core mechanic itself here.

  6. The idea of working with an Active character has shown up in a couple of games I’ve played. I find that I do prefer working that way (in some cases). I’ve been rethinking my feelings about passive defenses the last few days though. I’ve been considering — as I’ve gotten back into Pathfinder — that I actually enjoy the different types of attacks (touch, ranged touch, regular vs AC) and that it’s really the saving throw system that bothers me.

    Yours is a common complaint against d20 systems. I’ve been hearing it from some players since I first started running 3.5 but I find that I don’t like the solutions (2d10 or 3d6) much better so I’ve just kept with it. The bard problem you describe is more a problem with 4E’s skill system than with the d20 (in my opinion).

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