Tuesday, 14 July 2020


This post was inspired by a post in r/RPGdesign by u/AsAHistorian concerning ability scores. In short, the question they posed was this: why have ability scores AND modifiers, instead of just modifiers? The most common responses were that a) rolling 3d6 creates a nice, bell curve distribution to determine those bonuses and/or b) it's just a legacy from OD&D, when decisions used a roll-under mechanic of either 1d20 or 4d6 vs ability score.
Source: thedarkfortress.co.uk
What only a few responses mentioned was a character's ability scores are a resource, like hit points, that need to be managed to ensure character survival: it's just that more recent editions of the game feature few instances of ability score loss. What follows is an exploration of the idea that, like hit points, characters can wager their physical and mental attributes in an attempt to overcome obstacles.

When I started writing this post last year two things were true:
  1. I hadn't read Knave or Into the Odd, both of which feature stat damage.
  2. I hadn't written Pariah yet, which features ability score damage as part of the death & dismemberment process.

Right now I'm going over this one-year-old piece of writing half pretending I am that person, one year ago, but also informing you that this is not the case. So it might get weird.

I mean, it won't get that weird: it's a post about imaginary ability scores. 

I'm really only doing this because it was half-written in my drafts folder and if I destroy it I'll feel weird... besides, even the greats have uninspired moments.

Okay. On we go. We can get through this TOGETHER.

* * * * * * 

How might a character lose their ability scores, and what would be the consequence of reaching 0 in that attribute?

STRENGTH: Strength is the best place to start, as the shadow (a core monster) is capable of draining strength points with its attack, killing the character when their strength reaches 0. 

While this has been a feature of shadows since at least the Mentzer basic set, third edition rules stated that under other circumstances a strength score of 0 reduces movement to 0, rendering the creature helpless, more or less functionally equivalent to 5e's unconscious condition.

  • PROPOSAL: Dropping to 0 strength causes death

CONSTITUTION: Constitution, like strength, is more or less representative of real world qualities, being a sort-of mash-up between cardiovascular health and immune system strength.

A lot of systems unify the two stats. I like having them apart: I like that someone can be a skinny 1d4 HD Magic user but still be super fit and have a little bit of extra HP even if they can't lift a two-handed sword from the ground.

Since con is so tied to HP, it stands to reason that:
  • PROPOSAL: Dropping to 0 strength causes death

DEXTERITY: I cannot find an example of dexterity damage, but can think of numerous circumstances that might engender this:
  • Alcohol or drugs reducing hand/eye coordination and/or reaction time.
  • Nerve or muscle damage.
  • Loss of limbs.
Dex is a weird stat anyway, as the argument has been made in the past manual dexterity and agility aren't in anyway related (counter arguments have also been made, is this interesting?)
  • PROPOSAL: Dropping to 0 causes near total paralysis and eventual death if not cared for 24 hours a day.

Once we get into the "mental" stats things are a little odd: what do these actually mean?

As with dexterity, this is a well-worn path so this is how it operates in my games, bearing in mind this is not actually meant to replicate any kind of real world truth.

Intelligence is "biological" and tied to the PC's physical brain. It covers reasoning, linguistics and all that guff. including academic magic.

Wisdom is intuition and perception and sits somewhere between the "physical" mind and the "spiritual". Which doesn't really make any sense now that I write it down, but this is how I've understood it since picking up the red book nearly thirty years ago.

Charisma is presence.

Will sits somewhere between wisdom and charisma.

Knowledge somewhere between intelligence and wisdom.

Skill somewhere between intelligence and dexterity.

Will could also sit between constitution and charisma I think?

If you're still reading this, thank you.

This is like pulling teeth.

The end is in sight.

INTELLIGENCE: I cannot find an example of intelligence. In fact, I'm going to stop looking for examples and wrap this up using first principles.
  • PROPOSAL: Dropping to 0 is brain death. 
WISDOM: 0 wisdom is having no common sense, no intuition, no awareness of one's place in the world. Have I got this far into this shitty post without mentioning that 0 should mean a -5 modifier to rolls? I guess so. I'm glad I'm saying it now.
  • PROPOSAL: Dropping to 0 and the character becomes a mindless husk, possibly an NPC.
CHARISMA: 0 charisma. What drains charisma? Age, in my case. Ohh also cocaine.

Magical item: cocaine. For every line imbibed, reduce PC's charisma by 1, while they perceive their charisma as having increased by 1. Regular use makes this damage permanent. This joke has been made in other forms many times before.

Someone with 0 charisma would be skew very heavily towards the AGGRESSIVE REACTION on the old 2d6 table, thanks to the -5 modifier. Such an individual would appear to be inhuman, in their countenance or bearing, which is my really weak argument for claiming that 0 charisma represents a loss of humanity and a similar outcome to the above:

  • PROPOSAL: Dropping to 0 is brain death
Charisma damage isn't just facial scarring, it can also be damage to one's voice or one's confidence! Think about it!

The Big Idea

Okay, you made it to the end, and now you want a pay off. My big idea was that stats don't give you automatic bonuses, rather that spending stats granted you bonuses. You're in trouble if you go below 3, and you suffer the nasty effects listed if you hot 0.

Roll to hit: high strength characters don't automatically get a bonus to hit and damage, instead they spend 2 points to get the bonus on this turn only.

Likewise constitution.

It starts to fall apart when it comes to dexterity. While you can certainly get clumsier and less accurate the more tired you become, it's not like trying extra hard to aim your bow a few times consecutively means you can't aim properly after a while.

Outside of combat it might get dumb, though I can imagine spending charisma. I've done it at parties. You leave when your personality runs out.

...and now I'm all out of intelligence so I'm declaring victory and leaving.

Peace out.


  1. Cypher system / Numenera does away with HP and magic resources altogether and has everything tied to the three attributes, and a lot of people are turned off by it but I think it's brilliant for a whole bunch of reasons. I'm actually working on a game for the Bastionjam and one of the mechanics I'm going to lean into is the idea that damage can be derived from all three attributes which all affect HP the same way, and only after HP is reduced to 0 it reduces the corresponding attribute. This way all three kinds of damage are viable in almost all cases, but also the affects are still meaningfully different, but also still all mechanically operate the same way.

    1. That reminds me thae someone mentioned cipher when I posed a similar question on Reddit https://www.reddit.com/r/RPGdesign/comments/cdfqpe/attributes_ability_scores_as_a_manageable_resource/ thanks!

      I'll keep an eye out for your Bastionjam entry, that sounds interesting.