On Abilities (Them Deeper Bones design diary 10)

Them Deeper Bones is my retro adventure fantasy role-playing game that can be found over on https://themdeeperbones.com/ (as of writing this, version beta.1.3). There is a short preview available on the site, and if that piques your interest enough, anyone can get the full playtest document and supplemental materials by joining the Them Deeper Bones discord.

We recorded a short demo video session with a couple of my friends (the first video from that is already published: Them Deeper Bones :: Combat Demo), and during the character creation for them I explained the reasons for changing the Abilities to the ones you see in the game from the more “traditional” ones seen in many other games, which came as a surprise to them, so that will be the subject of today’s dev diary as it’s begging to get mentioned.

People discussing Ability Scores (Tappelu toukolaisten kanssa, Akseli Gallen-Kallela)

The Abilities

As a quick walk-thru copy-pasted straight from the book, there are six Abilities in Them Deeper Bones: Physique, Reflex, Stamina, Knowledge, Insight and Power.

Physique (PHY): Bodily power, athletic ability and general physicality. Used for physical attacks (both melee and ranged), athletic endeavours, carrying capacity and feats of strength like forcing doors open.
Reflex (REF): Speed of movement and how quick one is to react. Affects the character’s Armour Class, initiative order, and ability to dodge out of the way of danger, or where reaction speed would save the day.
Stamina (STA): Quality of metabolism, measure of life-force, general indicator of healthiness. How long one can hold their breath, combat poisons or diseases, or stay focused without a proper night’s rest. High Stamina is the most reliable way to survive near-fatal wounds.
Knowledge (KNO): Book-wisdom, folklore, and their practical applications. Healing skills. Knowledge is also the Ability that determines the number of starting spells for a magic-user.
Insight (INS): How in tune one is with the world and interacts with it with precision. Perception, intuition and common sense fall under Insight. Also nerves, and steadiness, when hand-eye coordination is needed.
Power (POW): Force of will, force of personality. Ability to resist mind-affecting magics or stand their ground against something frightening. Power allows a caster to weather through casting taxing spells.

It’s easy to draw the parallels to the “traditional” line of Strength, Dexterity, Consitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. But, they are not just renamings (except for one). There are two major reasons I had for the changes.

The Role-Playing Dilemma

One of the age-old beefs I’ve had with RPG systems that use the old Ability Score spread is that of “but my character is too stupid to figure that out, so I won’t contribute even if as a player I know how to solve this puzzle” and its mirror image “my character would be wise enough to know what to do here even if I have no idea, so please spoon-feed me the answer to this” — in order to cater to the emphasis of role-playing as a problem-solving tool, and the idea of the character sheet not dragging players down, the “mental” Ability Scores had to change. Knowledge and Insight as concepts are far less likely to drag the player down to a passive path, being more akin to the physical characteristics in their interaction with the fiction than the “original” terms. This also means that the contents of those two Abilities are a bit different, and while most of the burden contained within is moved to the realm of role-playing, they also lack the direct connection to magic the originals had. But more about that later.

The Dexterity Umbrella

The other big issue I’ve always had was with the Ability Score Dexterity. It is a one singular number that somehow affects a whole lot of things. Everything from how fast you act, acrobatics, shooting bows, picking locks and dodging blades goes under this one stat. Thus, if you had to describe someone who is dexterous it’s not really a simple task. After a very short deliberation after the mental scores got changed I knew removing all that baggage from the stat was a priority for what I wanted to do next. I decided on creating the Ability “Reflex” and making it just about being fast — it affects how well you get out of the way by affecting your Armour Class, and how fast you move (so it affects Initiative Rolls and Saving Throws when you being fast enough matter). And not much else. Attacking with ranged weapons goes to Physique as that’s a good general stat for making that sort of things. Picking locks and other detail work that requires good hand-eye coordination goes to Insight. Makes the spread a lot better.

Snowballing Changes

So, that’s the big two things, and from them come the rest. From changing Intelligence and Wisdom, it’s natural to look at Charisma that is another one of those stats that players sometimes let interfere with their role-playing, albeit to a lesser degree. But as I noted earlier, the system now having Knowledge and Insight means that there is no clear spell-casting stat, and that willpower (another staple of “Wisdom”) is nowhere on the sheet. Enter Power, a repurposing of the Charisma slot on a six-stat spread, and have it be the force of will and presence of the character.

Strength felt a bit lackluster as an Ability name, as now it was encompassing more than raw physical power, so I expanded the concept, which became Physique. An ability of all athletic action.

This left me with Constitution. And it would have been weird to have one of the Ability Scores be just like the “old ones”, so I renamed it to Stamina, even if it effectively the same.

All in all, the new Ability spread has kept the players focused on the fact they can actively participate in every challenge through role-play, which was the primary function, while also streamlining the way individual Abilities function, making it a lot clearer when each is used.

Game developer, cat owner