I'm making an RPG game system and I'm having a hard time deciding on doing detailed or abstract character statistics. These statistics define the character's natural - not learned - abilities. For example:

  • Mass Effect: 0 (None that I can see)
  • X20 (Xtreme Dungeon Mastery): 1 "STAT"
  • Diablo: 4 "Strength, Magic, Dexterity, Vitality"
  • Pendragon: 5 "SIZ, STR, DEX, CON, APP"
  • Dungeons & Dragons (3.x, 4e): 6 "Str, Dex, Con, Wis, Int, Cha"
  • Fallout 3: 7 "S.P.E.C.I.A.L."
  • RIFTS: 8 "IQ, ME, MA, PS, PP, PE, PB, Spd"
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1st ed?): 12-ish "WS, BS, S, T, Ag, Int, WP, Fel, A, Mag, IP, FP"
  • HERO (5th ed): 14 "Str, Dex, Con, Body, Int, Ego, Pre, Com, PD, ED, Spd, Rec, END, STUN"

The more stats, the more complex and detailed your character becomes. This comes with a trade-off however, because you usually only have limited resources to describe your character. D&D made this infamous with the whole min/max-ing thing where strong characters were typically not also smart.

But also, a character with a high Str typically also has high Con, Defenses, Hit Points/Health. Without high numbers in all those other stats, they might as well not be strong since they wouldn't hold up well in melee combat. So things like that force trade-offs within the category of strength.

So my original (now rejected) idea was to force players into deciding between offensive and defensive stats:

  • Might / Body
  • Dexterity / Speed
  • Wit / Wisdom
  • Heart
  • Soul

But this left some stat's without "opposites" (or opposites that were easily defined). I'm leaning more towards the following:

  • Body (Physical Prowess)
  • Mind (Mental Prowess)
  • Heart (Social Prowess)
  • Soul (Spiritual Prowess)

This will define a character with just 4 numbers. Everything else gets based off of these numbers, which means they're pretty important. There won't, however, be ways of describing characters who are fast, but not strong or smart, but absent minded. Instead of defining the character with these numbers, they'll be detailing their character by buying skills and powers like these:

Add a +2 Bonus to Body Rolls when Dodging.

for a character that wants to be faster, or the following for a big, tough character

Body Building
Add a +2 Bonus to Body Rolls when Lifting, Pushing, or Throwing objects.

What are some pitfalls with a small stat list and a large amount of descriptive powers? Is this more difficult to port cross-platform (pen&paper, PC) for example? Are there examples of this being done well/poorly?

  • \$\begingroup\$ This question, admittedly, feels a bit subjective. Is there a site for game designers like programmers where subjective questions about game design can be asked? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 9, 2011 at 14:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would say the problem with this question is that it's overly broad, not that it's subjective. Even separating out the three questions into three questions, I would consider the first too broad to be useful for anything other than water cooler discussion. \$\endgroup\$
    – user744
    Feb 9, 2011 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Joe, I know. I just couldn't phrase it differently. Let me try. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 9, 2011 at 14:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Joe (complete tangent) I see you worked on Champions Online - Michael Surbrook (Asian Bestiaries, Ninja HERO) is part of my regular gaming group. Small world! \$\endgroup\$ Feb 9, 2011 at 14:43

6 Answers 6


I'll take a stab at this but first a couple of comments:

"The more stats, the more complex and detailed your character becomes.

If you mean complex and detailed in the sense that you've got more numbers in flight, sure. If you mean complex in terms of "Hey, my character is a nuanced being with a unique story!", eh. This especially falls short when dealing with min-maxing... if there are dozens of stats, but only one really useful combination, all you've done is put the annoyance of looking up the optimal build into your players' gameplay experience. You can have perfectly detailed characters (detailed in their interactions with the world) without a lot of stats--see Munchkin, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., or System Shock 2 (granted, that last does have a bit of a skill system involved).

But also, a character with a high Str typically also has high Con, Defenses, Hit Points/Health. Without high numbers in all those other stats, they might as well not be strong since they wouldn't hold up well in hand-to-hand combat. So things like that force trade-offs within the category of strength.

So, the distressing thing here is that you are assuming a playstyle where people are trying to actually have 'optimal' complimentary attribute loadouts. Why should a person not dump Con to get that many more points in Strength, or dump Defense to get more Health? What's wrong with letting people make glass-cannon characters? Obviously, not everyone will do this--but the option shouldn't be removed.

Now, as to your questions:

What are some pitfalls with a small stat list and a large amount of descriptive powers?

With a very small stat list you potentially limit what the user can do. The trick here is that, depending on gameplay, this can be avoided.

Dungeon Siege only had four stats, if I remember correctly: melee, archery, magic, and max health. These each incremented over time as the player used them, and each had a clear effect on gameplay. This system was a success, because while there were few stats each one completely governed some important aspect of gameplay.

Having secondary powers, or skills as D&D or Fallout would call them, is a good way of combining a limited number of stats into a larger number of game-influencing traits. Moreover, any mistakes the players make in allocating attributes is resolved after some gameplay as skill points are assigned.

The problem you face in those two-tiered systems is that anything that causes stat degradation (attribute damage in D&D terms) needs to be propagated forwards into the skills. For a computer, this isn't a big deal, and players will pick up on "Hey, my lockpicking isn't quite up to par today... lemme fix my agility". For a pen/paper game, this means an extra level of bookkeeping, which is annoying at best and error-prone at worse.

Note that a perk/powerup system is a way of patching up any mechanics or effects not covered by a two-tier system. Fallout did this especially well--"Lady Killer" is a perk whose effects are clearly felt, but have absolutely no convenient way of being expressed using the attribute/skill system.

Is this more difficult to port cross-platform (pen&paper, PC) for example?

The biggest issue going to pen/paper is that the more numbers you have the slower gameplay goes. Character creation goes from being a quick "roll numbers, start playing" to a "roll numbers/calculate armor class/frob spreadsheet" affair. Remember, computers are really good at crunching numbers. Every addition/multiplication you add to a pen/paper game adds delay to the player's actions, whether at creation or during game. This is pretty much unforgivable, and it's why every D&D group I've ever been with uses a strict subset of all of the calculations exposed by the game books.

Which brings us to...

Are there examples of this being done well/poorly?

So, as I already mentioned, Dungeon Siege is a really good example of a game that gets away with having very few stats.

Deus Ex had something on the order of ten skills/stats, each one again directly impacting some aspect of gameplay in a clear and obvious fashion. The player still could make useful decisions about their character's path in the game, but the system was simple enough that doing so was not burdensome. Similarly, the augmentation system as well as in-game items helped improve the skills usage yet further or--perhaps even more importantly--helped mitigate any problems the player would've had encountering a situation for which they didn't quite spec skills for.

Fallout does a good job on handling skills, as mentioned above. The big advantage for them was the ability to use a computer, as most of the bookkeeping is hidden from the player unless they look for it, and so minimally impacts the gameplay. This was so much the case, in fact, that they were able to turn the series into a first-person shooter in Fallout 3.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have FATAL. Look it up; it's got more numbers than you could ever need. Ever. I can't imagine this actually being played in a pen/paper setting, and it is so convoluted a system I can barely imagine implementing it in code (or even worse, as data-driving XML).

GURPS and RIFTS have similar issues with somewhat computationally-expensive systems. The sourcebooks are interesting to read, and full of detail, but actually running through a session can be a chore.

Pathfinder, in my opinion, cleaned up a lot of the issues that D&D 3/3.5 had with their skill system and game mechanics. For example, I no longer have to worry about rolling a rogue who is great at ropes but terrible at acrobatics and climbing, or vice versa. Other than deprecating a large variety of increasingly troublesome sourcebooks, Pathfinder's other big win is combining skills so as to give each a clearer influence on gameplay.


  • Don't worry about the exact number of stats, as long as they mean something to the player and aid gameplay.
  • Don't worry about the exact number of skills, as long as they clearly influence gameplay.
  • Do worry about how tedious calculations will become if you intend to make a pen/paper sytem.
  • Don't worry about tedious calculations as much if you are writing a system for a computer.
  • Two-tiered systems (primary stats, skills/derived stats) have been shown to work well.
  • One-tiered systems (skills or stats) have also been shown to work well.
  • Most importantly, do what is best for your players, and after that, what is best for your game. Anything else is just stroking your ego as a designer.
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 that's an answer and a half! @ChrisE thanks for the thoughts. Are there any pen & paper One-Tiered systems? I know Diablo and Dungeon Siege are one-tiered pc games, but they are little more than hack & slash... \$\endgroup\$ Feb 9, 2011 at 19:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ I actually am not familiar with any one-tier systems for pen/paper. If I come across any, I'll let you know. \$\endgroup\$
    – ChrisE
    Feb 10, 2011 at 16:30

Pure roleplaying aside, the stats should have some kind of effect in gameplay. Like with interactive fiction, whenever you introduce a new physics element, the whole game changes.

For example, if you add a torch in an interactive fiction game, the players will start to try to burn everything, and you'll have to have some kind of answer to what happens when the player tries to light something obviously flammable, or at least some reason why the player shouldn't do it.

So how does this relate to stats? There's no point in adding a stat if it doesn't have anything to do with the game. Adding charisma, for example, means the game world has to react to, at least, extremely high and extremely low charisma values differently.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent answer. It's the game equivalent to Chekov's Gun. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11, 2011 at 14:38

Basically what I think you're trying to do is compare two things: a game where your character has a relatively large number of base stats and everything is based off of a direct stat roll (canonical example being D&D) or a game where your character has a smaller number of base stats but a large number of "special abilities" or "feats" that give bonuses to a stat in a specific situation. And from your update, it looks like you are trying to compare these specifically with the design goal of portability between pen-and-paper and computer games.

The design goal is important here, because either method can work in some cases but not others. Overall, for a PC game, the fewer your abilities (in total, including both the base stats and specials), the simpler the coding will be -- consider that every new stat or ability is basically an extra special case that needs to be coded. Since you mentioned Diablo, realize that this game really had a minimal number of stats, only a handful of special abilities granted by equipment, and that's about it... but also realize that as an action-RPG, an overly complicated and detailed system would just make the game much harder to play because the player can't process that much info in real time anyway. On the other hand, as you're noticing, fewer stats offers less self-expression through character creation (which may or may not be important to the system you're designing -- for a total hack-and-slash game, who cares about personality anyway?).

That said, your main concern at this point should be what kind of system makes for good gameplay. Keep in mind that the ability to have a stat for every little thing a character might want to do is "realistic" but not necessarily fun; do you really want your characters spending half an hour making a series of die-rolls to determine the hardness and mass of their latest bowel movement? Decide what it is that is the "core" of the game, what do you want the players to spend most of their time doing, and then design the system and stats to emphasize the core.


To my way of thinking, the main pitfall of a small core stat list is when disparate capabilities wind up tied together in a counter-dramatic way. Maybe the most recurrent example is when perception winds up being a function of intelligence, making it impossible, or at least against the grain of the system, to play the extremely-brainy-professor-with-his-head-in-the-clouds type, or to represent animals having highly acute senses! The enormous mass of things that get lumped together under a Body stat can be pretty questionable, too, and don't get me started on Wisdom.

Your deviation-from-baseline traits can address this concern in a lot of cases, which is very helpful. The cases where they can't address it are probably a key indicator of where separate underlying stats are needed.

  • \$\begingroup\$ what do you mean by counter-dramatic? If I include things like Limitation: Absent-Minded or Animistic Senses? I feel like a character should not be a stack of numbers, but more like a list of adjectives and verbs? There are already games that do the numbers game well - HERO and GURPS come to mind. I'm looking for more abstraction in numbers, and detail in words. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 9, 2011 at 16:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Stephen Furlani: By "counter-dramatic" I mean undermining of the core drama of the game, the story of why one is playing it (be it only the struggle to get the most XP and gold). I totally support the adjectives and verbs (and further submit that for many purposes, it's ideal to be able to get the general idea of a character in two adjectives and a noun). The difficulty with relying too heavily on a large number of special-case traits, though, is that individual ability tests in your game wind up having to have a big laundry list of things they're checking -- awkward and unmaintainable. \$\endgroup\$
    – chaos
    Feb 9, 2011 at 16:52

Personally, I'm of the opinion that the fewest needed to represent the kind of experience you want for the players is the appropriate number. I'll always take decreased complexity for the user over increased simulation-accuracy - when that accuracy doesn't provide a measurable improvement in satisfaction.

You'll find a lot of pen and paper RPG designers at forum.rpg.net.

But I'd be careful of making sure the ideas translates medium well.


Well im kind of late to the party here but I once had been working on a system that went a little bit like this, There were 5 main stats, Body, Agility, Mind, Personality and Spirit. Each stat had two connected substats. For example the Body stat had strength and toughness. When characters were created the amount of points put into each stat dictated how many points could be put into each substat. Which in the end gave the characters the ability to put something like 15 points of strength into body and 0 in toughness. Thus making a "Glass Cannon" as someone earlier had mentioned. The Mind stat was also sort of unique in that the two substats were Knowledge and Understanding. Knowledgd being the booksmarts side and Understanding being the ability to well... understand things. So a character with a low Knowledge and a very high Understanding wouldnt know squat but could figure out almost anything... The whole point of this rant is to stress that a system can work very well with what I call a 1.5 tiered system so long as the derived substats are the two most important apsects of the core Stat.


P.S. Sorry about the grammar and puncuation... I sort of just typed what I was saying out loud and didnt feel like proof reading. I hope it is somewhat helpful.

  • \$\begingroup\$ all good. Usually I find that "glass characters" come from a resource limited system. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23, 2011 at 15:53

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