Friday, March 4, 2011

Discussion: Do We Need Mental Attributes?

Table Top RPG systems are based on attributes and statistics for their characters. This is just a simple, base line fact for how the games work. We have numbers to represent how strong, fast, agile, smart, charming, and wise characters can be. These split across different games in different ways, and one of the fun parts of looking at a new system for me - at least now - is seeing how the designer opted to break down the stats, and what that can mean for the game.

Is there just a Body stat that covers strength, speed, and endurance? Or are those three things each their own stat? Which way it goes can tell you a lot about how the game expects to handle physical challenges, and how important it is to the story that strength be its own stat, or covered by something else.

Then, however, we get to mental stats. Now, I've said on this blog before that I'm not a fan of the intelligence stat. I'm not a fan of it, because "intelligence level" isn't something that most people can control. Sure, you can control knowledge and mental reaction time, but you can't really change how you process information. In reading the "new" version of Pendragon (version 5.1) I noticed that they also have done away with intelligence. In fact, in Pendragon you don't have any mental stats at all, and the book flat out says that the player is the "mind" of their character, while the numbers represent the physical attributes that can't be aptly simulated with the mind and imagination.

Effectively, the reasoning seems to be that we need the numbers for physical stats, our characters are vastly different than us physically. However, the player is free to be the mind for the knight, and with all the insight and knowledge they have. There is even mention in the book for giving a player an experience check for knowing things about the culture/world that isn't represented on their character-sheet, complete with a note about then being careful with medieval history majors.

Now, I see strengths and weaknesses to this. On the strong side, it frees the person to play up to the best of their abilities through the lens of his/her characters. They don't have to stop and check "would my character think of that?" When they have some crazy synergistic idea to use the tipped over ladder as a lever to throw themselves to the top of the battlements. On the other hand, it can severely penalize players whose only fault is that they don't know a whole ton about the world they're playing in. This doesn't seem too bad at first, but put it in the context of a new player versus an experienced player. The new player simply doesn't have the skills to adapt and overcome some of these hurdles in the same way the experienced player does, and it can rob them of the fun of the game.

I am, as always with these topics, very interested in what you think. Do we need mental stats? All of them? Only some of them? Which ones do you think we could do away with? Which should we hold onto for the foreseeable future?


  1. I really can see the point in not having mental stats. I have a pretty rough time playing a dumb character. I've tried and my brute usually ends up coming up with an important plan for how to defeat the enemy when he should be saying "I smash good ya?"

    But then again I do find them useful, not only as a player but as a GM. I use Intelligence stats to give the players clues that they aren't thinking of. It's my fall back when the group is stuck and they need help. Using an Intelligence stat can break the suspension of disbelief and give the feeling of railroading though, so I try and use it sparingly.

    I really believe that a Charisma stat is completely justified. As the GM you can't sell me on a story when I know what the players are up to. I can try and imagine if a third party NPC without the knowledge I have would be convinced but I'm a sceptic and nobody would get anywhere trying to barter anything with me.

    There is one other thing I find important about mental stats. Unless the setting is based on the real world (present), your mind and the character's mind cannot really be the same. I know how to make a cannon from brass, sulfur and saltpeter. There are things that I know that I really can't know in a lot of games and there are things in games that I can't know (like how to fix the hyperdrive). The mental stats model this difference and show that the character's mind and mine are not the same.

    So I see this could work intuitively in a lot of settings but in some, it starts to fall apart. If eliminating mental stats work in the setting the game is in then I'd give a big thumbs up to skipping them.

  2. I can see both sides of this issue, but to me, a 'mental' stat of some kind (whether you call it Intelligence or Knowledge or whatever) is necessary. Yes, characters tend to act as smart (or dumb) as their players do, but the point of playing most roleplaying games is to escape your normal life. You're playing people who are faster, smarter and more charming than you are- why can't they be more intelligent, too?

    As Emmett mentioned above, its a good way to give clues to players when they're stuck. It is also important when you're using a system that has skills that are largely based on a character's mental attributes. I mean, I may not be a molecular biologist, but my character might be, and there should be SOME basis for that knowledge that doesn't involve me the player looking up stuff in a reference book :P

  3. And this just ate a response.

    I like both your points, and agree for the most part. It seems like the closer your game is to the modern world, the less you'd need those mental stats.

  4. I don't hate mental stats simply because they are useful for skills. Whether it's your Arcana or Insight or whatever skill, if you don't have a mental stat to go along with it then it can't exist - provided the skills work in conjunction with the attributes.

    As for roleplaying, I don't really mind if the player plays his dumb brute as a dumb brute or as smart as he is; it doesn't bother me or my group. He just won't be successful when he decides to read the strange markings on the alter or whatever.

    I can see where a system might scrap the mental stats, and that's fine. I just don't see how it would work for any mental type skills. I guess it would encourage both player and GM to roleplay a bit more heavily so that if the GM wants the player to figure out that NPC is lying he needs to play it that way or whatever. I don't think a system without mental stats would be terrible, it would just have to work around certain things that other systems take for granted.