Random Thursday: Chained to the Sheet – how Stats should NOT determine Character

Recently I was involved in a conversation over at 4chan’s /tg/ (traditional games) sub-board regarding the rules for stat generation in the current version of Dungeons & Dragons. The conversation was tilting toward the realm of house rules and preferred method of generating PC stats but one voice stuck out to me and caused me to get involved in the discussion. This gentleman was lamenting the fact that it was hard to make a “talky-fighter” with the rules-as-written and how he was starting to lean toward systems like Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) to get what he wanted. I asked why the stats mattered when a “talky” anything was a matter of roleplaying, not mechanics. The response surprised me first because of how septic it was, and by how many people agreed with this sentiment. The response was that unless you have a high Charisma score you cannot roleplay a talky fighter because that is cheating and going against your stats.

In my course of conversion to the OSR mindset I have heard many times that modern gamers are “chained” by their character sheets and cannot see beyond the numbers written on those sheets. Up until this conversation I would never have believed that. I came from the 3.5 school and played 3.5 and Pathfinder for years as well as a healthy dose of 4e. Never in that time did I or my players ever see the stats for abilities and skills as anything more than a mechanic to resolve items within the game. I’ve seen my fair share of wizards who tried to grapple, barbarians attempt to negotiate trade deals between tribes, and rogues holding the front line. The modifiers from skills and ability scores only played toward resolution, not to the act itself.

Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games feature many players – only one of which is set-up as the mind, soul and morals of the entire game world – further rules were needed to help the DM in the course of the game. However, these rules were there NOT to define and limit the player but to aid the DM in the resolution of tasks. Nothing stopped the barbarian from trying to negotiate with a rival tribe, but the Diplomacy Skill was rolled and an appropriate modifier was given (in this case a -1 due to his “we will also have mammoth hunting rights or I will smash your skulls). If the player who played that Barbarian hadn’t stepped out of the proverbial chains of the character sheet he and his character would have lost memories and a play style that lasted to the end of the campaign.

Roleplaying games aren’t meant to be static collections of numbers and probabilities but living, breathing things that are as much informed by their mechanics as by the actions a player takes. The game is one of imagination tempered by mathematics, the numbers are their to serve the players in their shared experience, not the other way around.

Copyright 2014 Johua De Santo.

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