Friday, March 15, 2013

Attribute modifiers: Who needs 'em?

X-plorers includes an attribute modifier table that gives across-the-board penalties or bonuses depending on how you roll up your character. Not sure if this is because it's a simulacrum and it's trying to emulate some ancient game mechanic or just for "fun". Anyway, it's in the official rules. But I'm ditching them, here's why.

Unbalancing Character Generation
For chargen, I have PCs roll four die and then--if they so choose--they can eliminate the lowest roll. It's worth noting that they haven't always opted for that. Sometimes they'll take the first three rolls out of those four--but it's up to them to do so. But then the modifiers come in during game play and mess everything up.

When I ran my first home game a month ago, we used them as-is, with the good, bad, and ugly intact. One player rolled some agregiously low scores. When the modifiers were taken into account during the game it was like adding a bag of sidewalk salt to the wound.

When I ran the game at Con of the North, I didn't like the penalties imposed on players who already rolled up low scores--seemed unnecessarily punishing. So we went with just bonuses. It was to the players' credit that power-gaming didn't ensue, but it was still unbalanced and I didn't care for the results in-game.

Roleplay With Your Rolls
I'm all for having low-attribute schmucks with laser pistols. In my eyes, that's exactly what the game is all about! But when a player rolls a 4 on four die (which has already happened in one of the games) asking them to take a -2 hit when they're already on the low end is grotesquely unfair. Attributes affect that PC's entire game experience. And a low score (again, in my opinion) is a deficiency.

More importantly though, I don't like the idea of having a blanket rule that masks whatever they rolled up. The modifiers are pushing the extremes on the bell curve, and what's the point of that? They should be able to play with the rolls they made. (And then add bonuses from the setting weve created, not the modifier table.) 
Plus, I have enough other house rules that will affect attributes that I think will be more fun to roleplay (see: Sartorial Bonuses). I hope it's more fun, anyway. I feel like foisting some weird cheat to arbitrarily supress or boost PC attributes is unneccesary. 
A Friendly Ammendment
The only two exception I can see (and actually plan on) would be:
  1. A player intentionally wants to play a character with some sort of handicap. Say they want to be Stephen Hawking with a 0 for Physique that would require some cool hover chair to get around. Fine, player's perogative, I say.
  2. The player has roled up a PC as alien, robot, or someone heavily mutated. Humans have a baseline level of ability, and I consider that to be 3-18 on the "Gygaxian Attribute Scale". Anything below or above is straying into sub or super human territory. And frankly, when it comes to some of those cool house rules--I need that wiggle room to allow for some of the fun stuff (i.e., power-harnesses vs. energy-draining manacles).
What about you? If you use attribute modifiers, how have they worked? Do you consider them a value-add to your game?


  1. I'm uncertain as to what you are saying-are you applying the modifiers to the attribute score rolled? e.g. You roll a '6', which results in a -1 modifier so you adjust the score to a '5'.

    Because in every other game I've played the attribute modifiers are applied to 'To Hit' rolls, Damage rolls, skill rolls (maybe), sometimes saving throws-but never to the actual attribute scores themselves.

  2. Ah, sorry Saroe, I totally should have clarified that. We've been applying them to the to-hit rolls. My goal is to use more setting-related rules (house rules, artifact finds, etc.) to accomplish those modifiers. I'm just not a fan of having something like a to-hit bonus attached to chargen rolls rather than some sort of in-game play--or say in the selection of playing an alien race that has specific modifiers (like the way you'd play an elf or a dwarf).

    I'll try and update the post a little later to clarify!

  3. I see the appeal of minimizing the impact of ability modifiers, but if you eliminate them entirely then why have ability scores at all? If it's just a matter of role-playing, or to provide a bit of guidance to the GM for particular situations, then why not just use descriptive terms instead (like strong, weak, average, etc.)? For that matter, why determine abilities randomly? Just let players come up with a reasonable character concept and go with that?

    -Ed Green

  4. @edowarsblog, to clarify--I'm not saying at all don't modify the abilities, I'm saying I don't like the way X-plorers adds a blanket rule. I'd rather come up with house rules and other ways to modify attributies.

    @Saroe/everybody, I've revised the post to be more clear that we were using modifiers in-game (to-hit, etc.) not as an modifier to the attributes before the game even started.

    1. Nothing wrong with houseruling it to do it a different way. That's what old school games are all about. :)

      Personally I'm partial to the modifiers from Swords & Wizardry Whitebox: -1/0/+1. Their impact is minimized and they fit well with simple d6 mechanics.

  5. I don't know, I like the simplicity of the modifiers. It makes sense to me that a low scoring character would suffer penalties and a high score recieve bonuses to their AC, attack rolls, skill checks, and saving rolls. But I wouldn't be bothered by ditching the modifiers for combat (I gather you're talking only about "to hit" rolls and AC modifiers). I think they still have a place for skill checks though and don't consider them much of a handicap when the base target number is the same for all characters of a certain class and level. The characters attribute scores and resulting bonus or penalty are what really destinguishes them from each other in these cases.

  6. edowars S&W -1/0/+1 would be a good compromise.