In general I am against the concept of power gaming, but mostly I am against the part of power gaming that has the bad rap from being abused. When it comes down to it, most of the theory that leads and contributes to "power gaming" is essentially being skilled at a system. I mean, who doesn't want to feel like their character is competent and powerful? With that in mind, today I want to look at a couple systems (namely the ones I know) and identify what some of the power stats are. From there, maybe you'll have an idea for other games of what to look for so you can get the most bang for your buck.
What Is A Power Stat?
Before I can talk about which power stats I feel I've identified, it's important to know what a power stat is. For the purpose of this post a power stat is a stat that will make you better at what your character is trying to do (or just better as a character). If you take a power stat to the extreme, this is identifying one of the stats you never make your min when min-maxing (unless you have very good reason.) Otherwise, it's just a stat you're almost always going to want high.
D&D 5th Ed
I'm not a huge D&D 5th ed player, but I've been doing some research lately as I ponder either running my own game or joining one in progress. From what I can see, and backed up by a large number of guides, the two most important stats in D&D 5th Ed are Dexterity and Constitution. These are so important that Rogues now want Con as their secondary (where before it would be Int for more skills or Charisma for being social.) Even other classes, which may have their own "priority stat" for things like spell casting all benefit from giving Dex and Con higher numbers.
Why? Well, Dex increases your initiative. Con increases your hitpoints. More importantly though? Reflex and Fortitude (Dex & Con) are the most common saving throws you're going to face in your normal D&D game, so why not have higher stats there?
It's weird to think of a system as open as FATE having a power stat. In fact, the game doesn't even have stats, so why is it here? Well,because while FATE Core is a great system, there are some skills you're going to want on almost every character. Those stats? Whatever ones your GM has flagged as upping your stress tracks. I can't think of a character or game where being able to soak more damage (whether social or physical) isn't a great thing. I mean, you can't be a social/mental character without expecting damage on the social track, and you can't be a physical fighter if you can't take a hit. I mean, you could build that way, but at that point you're deliberately making a character that gets to consequences faster.
Shadows of Esteren
I really like Shadows of Esteren, and one of the things I liked the most was that it seemed a system that finally didn't really punish you for having low stats because your stats were more personality traits than how good you were at things and so even a low stat could be useful in other ways. And then, on accident with a character and with some other stats I came to a realization: Empathy is probably the most important stat in the game.
Empathy is the primary social stat in the game, but also so much more. You use it to navigate natural environments and for farming, you use it to talk to people, you use it to sneak. All of those are good without making it super powerful, but Empathy is also a key part of your character's Defense for combat, and - I believe - your character's speed for initiative.
Yes, there are other stats that are very important. But a high Empathy helps for social characters, combat characters, and sneaky characters all at the same time. Of course, the downside is someone with a high empathy is more likely to get involved in the plights of others, so maybe that's intentional.
Legend of Five Rings & Star Wars (by FFG)
I've included both of these because while both systems have stats you definitely want to prioritize, it's not always the same one for every character. For L5R your combat characters should never neglect their earth ring, just like in Star Wars you're likely going to want at least a decent brawn (for both carrying the big guns, and not getting insta-gibbed.) However, other character types can genuinely have different priorities and be ok.
A fighter pilot, for instance, doesn't really care about anything but Agility because their personal soak doesn't matter for their fighter. A non-combat utility character wants Intelligence because almost all the needed non-combat/non-social skills proc off of that. The social monkey wants presence.
Every stat is perfectly capable of being a dump stat depending on what you want, which can make for interesting party dynamics.
Back with L5R though, there is almost no stat you can neglect without it hurting you in some way. This is because stats are tied to your progression as a character through ranks, but also because of the world. Being an anti-social fighter is a common trope...but in L5R your lack of social grace will put you, and the party, in more danger of being wiped than almost anything else. A ninja neglects their perception at their own peril. Anyone, really, ignores perception at their own peril. Agility and Reflexes are always useful - except maybe for court characters, but even then they don't hurt.
I'm not saying these games don't have power stats. They do, or - perhaps - they more have the opposite. You can likely get by with a lower cunning in Star Wars without much problem. You can do much the same with Strength and Intelligence in L5R. There are stats you can neglect, which is also important to note, without necessarily harming your character's ability to be functional and top level.
Together You Get...
Does this help in looking for power stats? Do you see the criteria? The fact is, any system can be gamed and every system has optimal routes through it. In most RPGs building durability is better than being hard to hit because almost every game has a mechanic for an automatic hit, but don't have rules to prevent being 1 shot. This means a dodge tank gets hit once and is out of the fight, while a durability tank will soak multiple shots because the build already expects to get hit.
When you can't increase your durability, you make it last longer. This is why Empathy for Defense is so good in Esteren. The damage you take is the difference between their attack roll and your defense, so a higher defense means you take less damage and progress slower across your wound track. In old school World of Darkness it is why soak pools were so important.
So what stats make characters better in your game? Which hurt you the most when left low?