Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Semiotics of the 6 Attributes

At a glance, the six original attributes of D&D seem elegant in their simplicity and symmetry. There are three physical stats (Strength, Constitution and Dexterity) and three arguably mental ones (Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma). For anyone who started roleplaying with the game, it is largely by these 6 that we define all our characters, as well as judge how other RPG systems emulate them. But what do these terms actually signify, and does this match what they do in practice?

(NOTE - All pictures are the first Google image result for the attribute in question) 


This was the first attribute handed down by uncle Gary (Men & Magic p. 10), and has arguably become the most important. Although it began as merely the mark of class for Fighters, coupled with a nebulous application to “opening traps and so forth,” it developed into the characteristic allowing the most direct influence on the gameworld via damage, attacks, and feats of strength against barriers. But the word by itself is vague enough to be nearly meaningless. Would the uninitiated think we are talking physical or mental strength? People say “I haven’t the strength to go on” after mental or physical duress, which would seem to make this term closer to Constitution. In this light, having undead drain Strength seems rather more fitting. Overall, wouldn’t ‘Brawn’ have been a clearer, more apt word to use?


Where Strength fails in D&D Intelligence prevails, specifically in the form of magic, which is probably why this was the second attribute. Once again, it starts as merely a mark of class, namely Wizards, and gradually comes to determine all spell access, languages, and proficiencies. Although there are other collocations of the word such as ‘military intelligence,’ in general the term conjures up the associations of scholarship and mental prowess it is intended to. If there is one flaw, it is that intelligence is normally paired with reason and logic, and one wonders how these are supposed to interact with the illogic of magic. Perhaps Intuition would have better served that purpose, but Intelligence would still have been necessary for skills and languages.


This is an odd choice for the third attribute, as it would seem less important in keeping a character alive than Constitution or Dexterity which follow it. It begins as a mark of class like its precedents, this time for Clerics, and later affects magic saves, although not for any discernable reason other than to spread out benefit among the attributes. Wisdom would also imply a character’s ability to see connections in what they observe about the world, but since this is mostly done by the player, one wonders whether Wisdom is necessary at all, and whether retroclones like Microlite 74 haven’t the right idea by replacing both Intelligence and Wisdom with Mind.


This is an equally odd lexical choice. Definitely not an everyday usage for the word, with the online database of the Corpus of Contemporary English (COCA) overwhelmingly giving the political or legal meaning of the word as the most popular. Still, we use it in talk of ‘morning constitutionals’ and other health-related topics, so it is fairly true to function in its modification of poison saves and hit points. Alternatives like ‘Endurance’ would seem too limited in scope, while ‘Health’ sounds a more commonly understood term that could have stood in just as well.


This doesn’t exactly seem to do what it says on the tin. As collocations like ‘manual dexterity’ indicate, Dexterity largely implies talent with feet or hands. Although the modifiers to Armor Class for which Dexterity later became prized do fit with this meaning, bonuses to missile attacks and initiative would seem more aptly attributed to hand-eye coordination and reflexes, respectively. However, it is this very type of overly realist analysis of the meaning of attributes that loses sight of the utility and charm of the original 6 and falls into a needless proliferation of supposedly 'representative' attributes that, as we shall see, plagued AD&D's designers as the years wore on.

Strangely, although tables of attribute bonuses and abilities would later become a staple of D&D for all attributes, in OD&D only Charisma was afforded such attention. This is ironic given that Charisma quickly become the ‘dump stat’ in other editions. Clearly, uncle Gary valued PC-NPC interactions in a way that was lost among the average self-taught D&Ders of the 80s, and was exacerbated in the move in later editions towards PCs combat machines who have no need for interaction with NPCs of any stripe, from henchmen to kings. Speaking of the ubiquity of henchmen and other NPCs in OD&D, shouldn’t gold temporarily pump up your stat when hiring meatshields?

The original 6 attributes not only bound our conception of character, they inspired many games that came thereafter, but were increased or modified to suit the differing worldview of particular game creators. Take Basic Role Playing (BRP), which brought to life the saga of Elric as well as Great Cthulhu, and especially for this latter needed to add Size to reflect the cyclopean horrors the PCs would battle. In BRP, Strength is useless in modifying damage without Size, and it also initially modified hit points before Chaosium began systematically nerfing attribute applications to reduce chargen bookeeping. Since BRP is a percentile system, maybe Size could also be used to determine difficulty to hit, or be the base for an attack, with larger creatures easier to hit? BRP also added the nebulous Power attribute, which served as a base for magic powers in Stormbringer/Runequest and Sanity in Call of Cthulhu.

Likewise, DC heroes added Will, Mind, Aura and Spirit to reflect the different types of powers costumed heroes would both yield and be attacked by, while the addition of Influence reflected the importance of wealth and celebrity of characters like Batman. Vampire: The Masquerade made a major effort to arrange the terminology of the original 6 into a balanced taxonomy of attributes, arranging a total of 9 ‘traits’ into three categories - Physical (Strength, Dexterity, Stamina), Social (Charisma, Manipulation, Appearance), and Mental (Perception, Intelligence, Wits).

D&D itself was not immune to the perceived need to balance out attributes more, and both Unearthed Arcana and the reviled 2e Powers book suggested additions or alternatives to the original 6 attributes. This latter seemed to attempt to mirror Vampire’s ‘balanced’ taxonomy, with the division of each of the original 6 attributes into bloated troikas of influence. Simply read the following list to get a feeling for how AD&D’s creators mistakenly sacrificed the beauty of the original 6 for a misplaced attempt at balanced realism - Strength, Stamina, Muscle; Dexterity, Aim, Balance; Constitution, Health, Fitness; Intelligence, Reason, Knowledge; Wisdom, Intuition, Willpower; Charisma, Leadership, Appearance.

These bloated attributes didn’t make it to 3e, which conversely began the simplifying process by reducing saving throws to 3 categories (Fortitude, Reflex, and Willpower) more directly based on and modified by attributes. The OSR took this even further, with Swords & Wizardry’s one save and Microlite’s aforementioned consolidation of attributes into 4 - Strength, Dexterity, Mind and Charisma. The movement back to the simplicity and symmetry of the original 6 attributes (or less) is, in fact, one of the things that unites players across editions, as well as being one of the charms of the OSR.

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