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Author Topic: Are Abilities Necessary?  (Read 8199 times)
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« on: July 07, 2008, 11:15:21 PM »

Every game system I've seen (admittedly, not a whole lot, but bear with me) gives characters abilities and skills.  I've been contemplating the possibility of a new game system for TCJ (my current project), and I'd like to share an assertion with you: Abilities are redundant.

Note

I don't necessarily believe this firmly, I'm arguing a point for the sake of presenting it, and I hope to read your thoughts on it.

At face value this assertion seems preposterous.  Abilities form the baseline of many (perhaps most) game systems.  A character's skills, combat abilities, ability to withstand damage, etc. are all based on abilities.  Having abilities seems obvious from a "realism" point of view: of course the "fighter type" is muscled and powerful, while the "wizard type" is intelligent but weak.  Indeed, having abilities seems to be presented as a given in most of the new game system threads I've read on this board (perhaps unsurprising considering their ubiquity).

It is my belief that abilities are made not only redundant by skills, but also ridiculous.  The argument is most clear when discussing physical abilities, so I will begin with that.  Imagine a very good football player; his "football skill" is very high.  Perhaps he is an epic footballer of legend.  What would his strength score be?  In "real life," it would certainly be high.  Have you seen a weak footballer?  Is there any professional football player who you would describe as weak?  Undoubtedly not.

You may argue at this point that professional football players are universally strong because their abilities improve their skills.  To use a D&D example, an athlete with 18 strength has more bonuses to his "Football skill" than a person with a low or average strength (humor me here and agree that Football is a STR-based skill).

But this is preposterous on its face.  In reality you would never call a physically weak person "skilled" at a physical task or a strength-based athletic activity.  Having a high level of strength is part and parcel of the "skill" of playing football; strength training is the basis of improving your skill in strength-related tasks.  We can expand the argument to break down the D&D system completely: how do you have an expert dancer with low DEX?  An expert chess player who is mentally handicapped?  A champion weightlifter with a Str of 3?

So we leave the D&D "abilities modify skill checks" system in the dust, but I believe the observations here are more far-reaching.  What I'm trying to assert here is that abilities, in general, are necessary components of skills, and as a result abilities are rendered superfluous in systems that track skills.  In any skill that you consider to be keyed to an ability, it is fundamentally inconceivable that you could have a high skill with a low ability (barring ex post facto intervention, like a champion weightlifter being hit by a ray of enfeeblement).  I challenge you to come up with an example of a skill in which you can be highly proficient with a naturally low score in the relevant ability.

In fact, abilities rise and fall with skills; an ability is a dependent variable, not an independent one.  Practicing strength-related skills makes you stronger.  It is commonly asserted in the medical community that one must engage in mental activity to "stay sharp."  People with "low charisma" can become masterful speakers with speaking coaches and plenty of practice.  If you stop practicing your skills, your abilities start to atrophy.  It makes no sense to have abilities modifying skills; skills modify abilities.

I put it to you that abilities are superfluous in any system that uses skills.  Many arguments for abilities can be easily countered by a thoughtful application of skill mechanics.  For example, a strong football player will probably be better than the average cubicle jockey at rugby, because he's in better shape - but there's no need to introduce a strength score, because you can solve this easily with 3rd edition-style synergy bonuses.  Athletic skills could give synergy bonuses to certain other athletic skills, so a character skilled in one will at least have a passing ability in the others because of his general level of fitness.

Often "general tasks" are assigned to abilities, like breaking open a door, on the basis that these are tasks using "brute" or "raw" strength/intelligence/whatever rather than practiced skills.  This dividing line is entirely arbitrary, however - what makes Jump a skill, while smashing a door down is an ability check?  Any task that appears to require an ability check can be easily assigned to a general skill, avoiding the use of abilities altogether.

It can be argued that some people just don't have a "talent" for a task; someone is "naturally" a klutz, or just plain dumb.  Even if we take this at face value (I don't necessarily - many people who say they have no talent just don't like X and therefore aren't motivated to practice it, and many people who are very talented say they just practice a lot), a "natural" talent or lack thereof can easily be simulated with a skill-affecting trait, like feats in D&D or advantages and disadvantages in GURPS.  Racial differences need not require abilities, as once can easily translate "-X strength" into "-X to all physical skills" (or just those that rely on muscle, rather than physical grace or flexibility).  One can have skills grouped by abilities (like Footballing and Weightlifting being "strength skills") without actually having ability scores.

Q.E.D. ;)

Your thoughts?
« Last Edit: July 08, 2008, 12:12:37 AM by Crippled Crow » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: July 08, 2008, 12:41:00 AM »

There is a natural difference between the two variables, though, even if they interact. For example, take the aging pro tennis player and match them with the up-and-coming rookie -- skill vs. youth/health. I think we start bumping into real-world vs. game-world problems here. In the real world, an active warrior will always be fit, but intellect does not behave like physical fitness. So while a wizard could easily bulk up and become a competent fighter, a warrior with a weak mind could never become a wizard. If we allow a character to increase their strength score through exercise than balance is shot in the foot.

My instinct is go with the freeform-esque solution, which states that a warrior character will be physically powerful, as will a wizard who makes a special effort to exercise. Balance, in this instance, is not a problem because focus has been shifted to how these characters live within the story, and not how many goblins they can kill.
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« Reply #2 on: July 08, 2008, 12:43:46 AM »

It really depends on how abilities are factored into things. In most games, abilities are the only way for you to "break cap" with skills: In D&D 3E, a 1st level character was limited to 4 skill points in a single skill, so if they had an 18 in the ability score they then have a +8 in said skill.

In "Legend of the 5 Rings" (3rd Edition is the one I played) they had ability scores and skills. You rolled a number of d10s equal to the sum of your score and skill, but you only kept a number of dice equal to your skill. Having higher ability scores gave you extra chanced to roll high (especially since 10s followed the "and again" rule, letting you roll any 10 over again and add 10).

Another issue is that most systems would break if you allowed someone to raise everything their scores applied to as they would a skill.

I can understand what you're going for here, but I feel Ability Scores are important to conceptualizing characters, and adding diversity.

Besides, the "football" skill is about more than just raw strength, otherwise olympic weightlifters would all be football players (I'm pretty sure the NFL pays more than weight lifting competitions).
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« Reply #3 on: July 08, 2008, 12:52:00 AM »

Redundant, perhaps. Ridiculous, I'd say no.

I've always seen it as the distinction between raw talent and practiced skill. If I can flip a coin through my fingers, will I be able to deftly maneuver a surgeon's scalpel? I doubt it, but I'll be a heck of a lot better than the guy who can barely keep a coin in his hand.

Going to your football example, I would argue that someone who knows the moves, has memorized the best way to block, or kick, or throw a pass, but can barely lift the bar can be as good of a football player as your strong shmoe. He's skilled, not talented. You're also making a rather large jump in that the system only 'breaks down' when someone without the ability (the talent) actively pursues a skill. In "Real life," your example would never have made it past little league; since none of them have the skill, his abysmal failure in the talent department would leave him with several broken bones and parents searching for a more creative outlet, never to put the needed skills in to make him a good football player.

A better example if your chess one. Computers are skill-based. They analyze the situation and carry out the best mathematical move. Chess masters do much the same thing, but they have talent, an ability to see and determine things that mathematics alone won't recognize.

I agree with you insomuch as that abilities aren't used as well as they should. However, they are still the best way to show that inborn talent. You yourself demonstrate the need for it by suggesting synergy bonuses. Disassociate that bonus from the skill list, and you have a set of numbers that effect a number of skills. They're abilities, all that you did was come up with a different (and interesting) way of generating them and hid them in the skill list stack.
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« Reply #4 on: July 08, 2008, 12:59:39 AM »

Raelifin

There is a natural difference between the two variables, though, even if they interact. For example, take the aging pro tennis player and match them with the up-and-coming rookie -- skill vs. youth/health.
skills[/i] be implemented in the same manner?

Quote

In the real world, an active warrior will always be fit, but intellect does not behave like physical fitness. So while a wizard could easily bulk up and become a competent fighter, a warrior with a weak mind could never become a wizard. If we allow a character to increase their strength score through exercise than balance is shot in the foot.
My instinct is go with the freeform-esque solution, which states that a warrior character will be physically powerful, as will a wizard who makes a special effort to exercise.[/quote]always true[/i] that the warrior is physically powerful, there is no need to track his physical power separately from his skills as a warrior.  His skill doesn't just imply strength, it requires strength, so why quantify strength at all?

Quote

Another issue is that most systems would break if you allowed someone to raise everything their scores applied to as they would a skill.
I can understand what you're going for here, but I feel Ability Scores are important to conceptualizing characters, and adding diversity.[/quote]Besides, the "football" skill is about more than just raw strength, otherwise olympic weightlifters would all be football players (I'm pretty sure the NFL pays more than weight lifting competitions).[/quote]does[/i] contribute to the extent that it is impossible to imagine a player who is both skilled and lacking in strength - strength is an irreplaceable part of the skill.  High skill both implies and requires high strength, so it's meaningless to track strength separately.
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« Reply #5 on: July 08, 2008, 01:21:30 AM »

Stargate525


I've always seen it as the distinction between raw talent and practiced skill. If I can flip a coin through my fingers, will I be able to deftly maneuver a surgeon's scalpel? I doubt it, but I'll be a heck of a lot better than the guy who can barely keep a coin in his hand.
(Football example)[/quote]You're also making a rather large jump in that the system only 'breaks down' when someone without the ability (the talent) actively pursues a skill. In "Real life," your example would never have made it past little league; since none of them have the skill, his abysmal failure in the talent department would leave him with several broken bones and parents searching for a more creative outlet, never to put the needed skills in to make him a good football player.[/quote]A better example if your chess one. Computers are skill-based. They analyze the situation and carry out the best mathematical move. Chess masters do much the same thing, but they have talent, an ability to see and determine things that mathematics alone won't recognize. [/quote]I agree with you insomuch as that abilities aren't used as well as they should. However, they are still the best way to show that inborn talent.[/quote]You yourself demonstrate the need for it by suggesting synergy bonuses. Disassociate that bonus from the skill list, and you have a set of numbers that effect a number of skills. They're abilities, all that you did was come up with a different (and interesting) way of generating them and hid them in the skill list stack.[/quote]
If synergy bonuses were abilities, why did D&D include both with no apparent complaints about overlap?  Synergy bonuses avoid my main problems with feats, as discussed above - they appropriately model a character's fitness from one skill influencing similar skills and allow for certain "skill sets" without disassociating skills from abilities in a way that simply doesn't make sense ("20 ranks in Sleight of hand, and a dex of 3").  They also circumvent the problem of raising abilities; I've heard new players comment that it doesn't make much sense to have skills that constantly increase but abilities that almost never do, even abilities like Strength that can conceivably be "trained up" with some practice and dedication.

Remember that I'm not necessarily saying that talent and skill should be conflated or that talent isn't important.  I'm questioning whether abilities are the best way to represent talent in a skill, considering their (in my view) significant drawbacks and apparent inconsistencies.
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« Reply #6 on: July 08, 2008, 01:47:49 AM »

I'm going to use an example here. I like the ability + skills = how good at something you are system. Here's why. Let's say I want to be a meat-head. Good. But I want a meat-head who can crack into computers but only has an int of 9. To overcome his smart deficiency he can dedicate some of his training to cracking computers. Will he be good at doing other brainy things? No. But he can at least crack into a computer. It keeps the whole, anybody can learn anything, but not everybody can learn everything. The same could be said for the nerd who practices his jump skill... a lot. And that's all he does.
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« Reply #7 on: July 08, 2008, 01:58:21 AM »

Falcon, your example with jumping reinforces his argument. I am a nerd, I did some work on high jump and pole vault a few years back, and because I had to learn to run to get better at those, I became a better sprinter, which later helped my endurance in fencing.

A meat-head who has been taught the specifics of how to use a computer and has been shown how to do basic hacking (there are things wrong with this specific example) could also easily be thought of as inept until he learned to problem solve and be creative, which would help his general aptitude in mental areas.

Carp, I'm liking your idea more by the minute.

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« Reply #8 on: July 08, 2008, 02:38:33 AM »

Raelifin

A meat-head who has been taught the specifics of how to use a computer and has been shown how to do basic hacking (there are things wrong with this specific example) could also easily be thought of as inept until he learned to problem solve and be creative, which would help his general aptitude in mental areas.
Carp, I'm liking your idea more by the minute.[/quote]
It's just an idea at present, but I want to try building a simple "proof of concept" system eventually.  I'm on the lookout for a system for TCJ, my current campaign project, and this might be just the thing, or at least inform my decision.
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« Reply #9 on: July 08, 2008, 02:49:19 AM »

Just quickly chiming in. tongue

For one, I once had the idea of a system that is completely attribute- and skillless, describing each character and monster purely with advantages/disadvantages/feats.

Second, I think removing attributes will just lead to a load of redundant skills. Especially if you consider all mental abilities. How would you describe one's ability to think logical or how good one's memory is?

Third, I think your example with the football players is a bit backwards. Think of it this way: those guys aren't strong because they are football players - they are football players because they are strong. ;)
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« Reply #10 on: July 08, 2008, 03:15:39 AM »

Ra-Tiel

For one, I once had the idea of a system that is completely attribute- and skillless, describing each character and monster purely with advantages/disadvantages/feats.
Second, I think removing attributes will just lead to a load of redundant skills. Especially if you consider all mental abilities. How would you describe one's ability to think logical or how good one's memory is?[/quote]Third, I think your example with the football players is a bit backwards. Think of it this way: those guys aren't strong because they are football players - they are football players because they are strong. ;)[/quote]
But they're strong because they practiced football (in addition to their other exercises and strength training).  At any rate, the point is not so much which one results from which, but that they necessarily go together - high skill, by definition, requires high ability.
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« Reply #11 on: July 08, 2008, 03:32:24 AM »

My question is what will you use in place of abilities? Because you cannot go without something that shows the bodies natural tendencies and its effect on skills. So far all I can see is either a needlessly complex system of showing natural talent in regards to each and every skill through a set of formula. Or you could turn them into skills themselves. However then you still have attributes, just renamed as skills.
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« Reply #12 on: July 08, 2008, 03:56:36 AM »

Nothing replaces abilities.  The point is that the very fact of having skills displays the body's abilities adequately.  A character with a huge "wrestling" skill is, by definition, quite strong.  There's no need to quantify that strength separately from his skill, because that would be redundant.  In other words, I sumbit that this:

Quote

you cannot go without something that shows the bodies natural tendencies and its effect on skills.
dependent[/i] variables that are in large part determined by skills, and can be safely eliminated.  The abilities are necessarily implied by the skills and there is no need to track them.

I also believe that "the body's tendencies" are far overplayed in gaming systems, and that a few traits (like feats, remember) can easily describe notable talents (and the opposite).  If you want a strong character, give him plenty of ranks in strength-related skills.

Synergy bonuses would not require any formulae.  Skills would simply be categorized into types, eg. Physical (Coordination) for skills like Use Rope or Sleight of Hand, and having ranks in a skill would impart a synergy bonus to other skills in that same category (or something, I haven't thought about the exact mechanics yet).
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« Reply #13 on: July 08, 2008, 04:01:21 AM »

Nomadic


My question is what will you use in place of abilities? Because you cannot go without something that shows the bodies natural tendencies and its effect on skills. So far all I can see is either a needlessly complex system of showing natural talent in regards to each and every skill through a set of formula. Or you could turn them into skills themselves. However then you still have attributes, just renamed as skills.

My understanding of his system is that there is not need to quantify the abstract abilities of Strength, Intelligence, and the like, because, for one, different skills use different kinds of Strength, Intelligence, and the like.  A weightlifter may not be good at long lumping, so it does not make sense to have "Strength" provide a uniform bonus to all things.  Rather by training the skill Jump, it is assumed that you train the muscles necessary to jump.  Because you have trained the muscles in your legs, this may provide synergy bonuses to swimming or climbing, because the new strength in your legs is applicable to other situations.  There is no need to turn "Strength" into a skill, because strength is implied in the skills that benefit from it.

I suppose I myself am not clear on how it incorporates natural talent.  Perhaps the initial ranks applied at 1st level (I am presuming a level based system which may not be correct) represent natural talent, while those added later represent training.  On the flip side, however, is there something inherently wrong with a system that does not presume natural talent?

Edit:  Guess I took too long.  At least (to my understanding) I understand. (How's that for redundant!)
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« Reply #14 on: July 08, 2008, 04:19:29 AM »

Quote

Edit: Guess I took too long. At least (to my understanding) I understand. (How's that for redundant!)
complementary[/i]. ;)

You're exactly right with your explanation.  As for "Natural Talent," it exists in two fashions.

Firstly, "talent" can be to some extent abstracted within your skill choices.  Consider someone who plays a rogue in 3e with a maxed-out Move Silently score.  Some players, when describing their character, would say that he learned it over years of painstaking practice.  More, however, would probably just say "he has a talent for sneaking."  Talent is to some extent already reflected by the skills you decide to buy (and as you say, especially by those purchased upon character creation).

Really exceptional talents can be represented through traits.  3e already has feats that give bonuses to skills, and optional flaws that subtract from them.  Traits would be like these feats/flaws or dis/ads in GURPS, and would be used (sparingly) to accentuate particularly skilled or inept characters.
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