Provide a means to gauge universal character aspects within a game environment.
In order to judge the key capabilities of a given player’s character within an imagined world, games often give characters attributes, or stats. Attributes are specific, named gauges usually associated with numbers that have a pre-determined meaning within the game’s rule system (although non-numerical attributes are certainly possible as well). In many games, the types of attributes are of a pre-determined fixed number, such as Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, etc. However, this is not always so. Some games allow attributes to be made up to suit a gaming group’s needs. What is important is that attributes
Attributes allow a player to get a handle on the relative impact a Player Character has on an imagined world works and to what extent he can manipulate the world through his character.
Systems that provide pre-defined attributes can go into great detail in providing rules to appropriately handle game situations. This, in turn, allows the game rules to provide an appropriate level of “crunch,” or mechanical detail, in important game situations. Attributes also alleviate some of the need to make spot judgment calls that some players may find unfair.
To focus on the core aspects of a particular genre, some games assign different (but pre- defined) attributes to different characters, depending on the role a particular character plays in a story. As long as all characters portraying a specific role are assigned the same pre-defined aspects, the game could be described as following the Attribute pattern (although it could be argued that it follows the Class pattern instead).
Use the Attribute Pattern when you want to provide aspects that are common to all characters where these aspects affect game play in important ways. The majority of role-playing games use this pattern. Some games lack any common character aspects or limits. Childhood games such as “Cops and Robbers” and “Cowboys and Indians” frequently end up with insoluble arguments of “I shot you,” “Na-uh,” “Did so!”… where the game provides no means to allow the participants to resolve their dispute. If you are looking for a happy medium between these options, you may want to consider the Trait pattern instead.
The primary benefit of the Attribute pattern is that it provides a means by which character interaction with the game world can be gauged, thereby reducing the amount of time spent in debates over what a character can or cannot accomplish within a particular game setting. The drawback is that it introduces an artificial mechanism into play that some people may find intrusive. Such people may prefer pure storytelling or freeform style games to more structured games incorporating character attributes.
In using the Attribute pattern, you should consider whether the number of attributes your game assigns each character is going to be pre-determined or variable or some combination of the two. If you are going to allow a variable aspect to attribute selection, you need to determine whether you are going to provide a limited list of pre- determined attributes from which to choose or allow the players complete freedom in their choices.
Having a fixed number of attributes or a list from which to choose allows you to tailor those attributes specifically toward game goals and allows you to provide a thorough description of how each attribute affects play, but limits groups in deciding what attributes they find important in their own games.
If a list of pre-defined attributes is used, then the options available to a group in customizing their gaming sessions widen as the list grows. With proper attention to the writing of each attribute description, such a list can provide a great deal of flexibility in campaign design without introducing ambiguity. But, the longer the list becomes, the greater the workload that is placed on the game writers’ shoulders. And, even very long lists of pre-defined options can seem confining to some players. Keep in mind, though, that as the game’s designer, it is your job to make sure the game’s rules focus on its core ideas. What you find important in the game is key, because you understand what your game is really about. Creating lists of attributes is fine if that supports your vision. But, if you find yourself creating ever-longer lists of potential attributes you might want to step back and re-assess your approach.
Having a variable number of unspecified attributes where each group dreams up its own attribute list allows for even more flexibility. However, this flexibility introduces difficulties in deciding what exactly each custom attribute really means and how they interact in conflicts. Such a system must pay particular attention to the descriptions they provide of what constitutes a valid attribute and how they affect one another in game play. While this approach may generalize your system to being usable by a wider audience, it also dilutes your game’s focus and puts a great deal of game design burden on the players’ shoulders. This may not be a good idea, because game design is hard to get right. Current thinking in game design is that tightly focused, well-designed games are more consistently fun than games lacking focus. If your game ends up being a drag to play, people simply will not play it regardless of how universal its rules.
One way to gain flexibility and yet maintain a focused design is to design your game around a fixed number of unspecified attributes. That is, set up the mechanics of how specific character attributes fit into the game system, but leave the actual interpretation of those attributes open. You could, for example, give each character an “Obsession” attribute whose mechanical interrelationships with other gauges is fully specified and yet allow each player to customize its meaning for his character. So, one character could have an Obsession for cars, which allows that attribute to apply whenever that character was involved in car scenes. Another might have an Obsession for horses, so his attribute would apply in scenes dealing with equines.
In a game using the Attribute pattern, you should give some thought to the attributes that are assigned to non-player characters and objects as well, such as doors, rocks, griffons, robots, and/or trees. To keep a game as concise as possible, it is reasonable to put some effort into designing an attribute set that can be used universally throughout the game environment. That is, play may run more smoothly if all interacting characters, both player and non-player, use the same collection of stats. Of course, this is not true for all games. You will have to decide based on your design goals.
Comparing the attributes of one character directly to those of another may provide a yes/no answer directly in your game. For an example of this style of attribute usage, Bill the Barbarian’s Strength rating is a 5 while Carla the Crusader’s Weight is a 3. Therefore, Bill can lift Carla because his Strength is greater than her Weight.
In other games, attributes modify die rolls in determining success. As a simple example, Larry the Lush begs a few dollars from a passing stranger. He hasn’t eaten since yesterday at noon, but he is standing outside a liquor store. Larry’s Alcoholism rating is a 3 while his Hunger rating is a 4. Larry’s player rolls two d6. To the result of one he adds his Alcoholism score and to the other he adds his Hunger rating. The former sums to a 7 while the latter adds up to a 5. Larry’s addiction gets the best of him and he stumbles into the shop to buy a bottle of cheap booze in which to drown his hunger.
Fudge allows a Game Master to determine the set of common “attributes” all characters share in his game world. Words are used to describe attributes as Terrible, Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good, Great, and Superb. These are rated according to the “scale” of the game, where “Fair” is the norm. In a game where the characters are all snails, the average snail speed would be “Fair.” Similarly, in a game where the characters are centaurs, the average centaur speed would be “Fair.”
Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing has 10 “stats” of Agility, Constitution, Memory, Reasoning, Self Discipline, Empathy, Intuition, Presence, Strength, and Quickness. Players are given a resource pool of 600+10d10 points to distribute among these stats with certain limitations based on the character’s class. Optionally, a player may distribute 660 points rather than take his chances on rolling dice. Stat values above 90 become exponentially more expensive.