The Bazaar #18: Player Character Attributes
General. In a sort of follow-up to my post where I posit what I would look like as a Rifted character (hint, no great hero), I thought I would deliberate on the subject of character attributes. For many, the heart of the character starts-and-ends with the attributes. I’ve seen and heard countless times of players mentally cancelling the viability of their character before they really start gaming with them unless the attributes fit within a predefined range; for some, playing with less than heroic, high-end double-digit attributes is unacceptable. Although there are certain limitations to available OCCs based on the stats, unless you fail to miss these gateways, there really is no reason to give up on your character, regardless of some attributes coming in at “lower than expected.” That said, there are myriad methods to deal with this.
General. Whenever I play or GM, I typically try to keep things canon or relatively close to the intent of what’s been published; this latter statement already endorses a house rules approach. For the most part, my players have had an idea of their character prior to dice being thrown, which typically falls into the following: Men-At-Arms (gunslingers, robots or power armour, or close combat), Psychics, Magic Users, Academics (your Cyber-Docs and Rogue Scholars), or Adventurers (Wilderness Scouts, City Rats). The race typically adds flavour thereafter, most times to leverage specific capabilities or specialties to reinforce the character type. That said, despite the augmented approach to attribute generation, unless it completely negates the character idea (e.g. fails to meet OCC requirements, or the close combat monster’s P.S. is only a 5), in most cases I reinforce the idea that low rolls are more opportunity than hinderance, and try to entice players to (ahem) “roll with it.”
The Palladium Books Attributes. A few general comments on the Palladium Books attribute system in general, and the charm of the eight attributes versus the bog-standard six presented in any variant of Dungeons & Dragons out there. We all know and appreciate the six attributes; the six physical attributes from D&D translate fairly concretely to Palladium’s (P.S., P.P. and P.E. are relatively direct comparisons and self-explanatory), and one could make the argument that Wisdom translates to M.E.. I always found the other three never really had the granularity required to properly implement, in particular the internal balance of Intelligence and Charisma. I feel that the Palladium system solves this nicely with the M.A. and P.B. dynamic (separates physical attractiveness with a character’s persona and influence, vice the all-inclusive Charisma), as well as the I.Q. and M.E. dynamic (separates the raw intelligence with a character’s mental stamina and sheer will, vice the Intelligence). The one attribute that doesn’t quite translate is Spd, in that most modern systems tie the PCs ability to move into tactical ‘squares’ they could move per action. In the Palladium system, this is an abstract, more ‘theatre of the mind’ vice the tactical ‘square by square’ movement of modern D&D, which I much prefer.
Differences between Rifts RPG and Ultimate Edition. In the original construct, players would roll their 3D6 in order from I.Q. through to Spd, with the caveat bonus D6 on a first roll of 16-18. This would produce a range of results, as indicated in RUE:
3 to 6 would be considered “Low”
7 to 9 as “Unimpressive”
10 to 13 as “Normal”
14 to 16 as “Above Average”
17 to 30 are considered “Exceptional”
30 and above as “Superhuman”
Quick, easy, works fine for humans. The bell curve for the dice rolls actually places the average just a little higher than a straight 3D6 indicates (11-13, vice 10-11), which falls within the RUE “Normal” range. In the updated rules presented in RUE, if the bonus roll for first achieving a 16-18 was a ‘6,’ the attribute benefits from *an additional D6,* which allows for some very wide swings (max value 30, vice 24). Upfront, I’m not a huge fan of this new RUE approach to extra dice; justifying an I.Q., P.P. or P.B. of 30 seems a little silly in context of an average hovering in the 10 to 13 range.
Rolling Versus Point-Buy. Something introduced into the collective gaming experience decades ago, the idea of a point-buy system is just a variant on the traditional pure dice rolling mechanics for attribute generation. Typically, this is a baseline number per attribute, with a certain number of points to distribute to each attribute as the player sees fit; there are various mechanics for how this may function. This allows some agency in the attributes, but also leads to clear “mechanics manipulation” and in some cases, min-maxxing for pure benefit with little to no negatives. I’m not against the idea, but the Palladium Books system is very clearly based on a rolling mechanic, with a wider variance; I just generally prefer this.
Are Attributes Under 17 Useless? I’ve often seen this critique presented as a reason why the Palladium Books system isn’t quite as attractive. I've always wondered: what exactly are they trying to get at? In my estimation, the question implies that an attribute without a bonus has little value; second order implication is a min-max approach to character generation, something I personally give little value to. So, what is the definition of an attribute between 8 and 16? I’d suggest they support the normal distribution of heroic character attributes, not all of which have godlike statistics – nor should they! Attributes are not what makes the character heroic, it’s the actions they accomplish and the trials they grind through. Sure, bonuses are handy, but if you handle character generation based on the value of the attribute bonuses alone, I feel the player is relying on a crutch that takes away from the challenges of the adventure. So sure, you may not get a bonus for failing to roll 17+, yet once again it isn't the attribute rolls that make a hero. Having all stats in the 20s does take away from the subjective reality; one or two attributes earning a bonus places more value on that bonus. Besides, the GM has leeway on how they use comparative actions against an NPC with a 9 P.S. versus a PC with a 14 P.S. This should be clarified by the GM early on.
Let’s Talk Low Stats. RUE guidance on this provides an exceptionally fresh addition to the character generation process. In particular, it stresses the in-game opportunities these low-stat characters could leverage, but also gives the opportunity to boost other character attributes to compensate. The RUE addition that allows adding 1D4+3 to an attribute for having another attribute at 6 or less, boosted to 1D4+5 and another flat +3 bonus to a second for 2+ attributes at 6 or less, is a very nice addition. This small benefit may be just enough for some players to try playing what they’ve rolled. I’ve always endorsed the idea of playing what you roll and leveraging the role-playing opportunities they present. To be blunt, some of those negatives for low level attributes are no joke! This is something that GMs have to support through XPs supporting in-game play, otherwise players will not have the agency they need to continue. There are also a couple of weird-Harold’s in there: I.Q. reductions to OCC Skills by four choices (which four, and who chooses?); P.S. damage reduction for hand weapons (seriously, even M.D. hand weapons?); and, the oddity of having a (possibly massive!) Horror Factor applied for P.B. of 1 or 2!
Challenge to Players. The acceptance of “low” or middling statistics for your PC attributes provide opportunities for players and GMs alike. This allows for some great role-playing experiences for the willing, if not the necessarily experienced, player. I’m not suggesting you need to match or emulate Matt Mercer and the crew at Critical Role, but there are things that a low-score attribute can add to the experience; I wouldn’t discount the option, see where it goes! As incentive, the GM could certainly provide bonus XPs to a player that leverages these negatives with in-game play. Some examples:
A PC with a P.B. of 22 but an M.A. of 5 could be played as the vapid beauty with a toxic attitude (think mean girls to the extreme)
A PC with an I.Q. of 22 but an M.E. of 5 might have a hard time realizing they forgot to put on their pants
A PC with a P.S. of 22 but a P.P. of 5 as a muscle-bound hero that can’t stop crashing into corners or people
Let’s Talk Non-Humans. So we’ve kept this discussion largely centered on the impacts of human characters (fair notice, my preference is playing humans). What about non-humans that only have 2D6, or those rolling 4D6, worse still something like 2D6+2? In the cases of humans, we see bonus dice applied to what is effectively “max roll minus # of dice rolled,” max dice roll inclusive. The rules certainly don’t spell it out, but a PC with 2D6 could certainly imply that a roll of 11-12 might grant an additional roll. Myself, I would posit this is not the case. The differences of the myriad races and creatures presented demonstrates wider varieties of attributes to racial norms, but this doesn’t mean that all Elves are nimble and graceful as the 4D6 P.P. implies, just that the chances are there they would be. I feel the benefits and limitations placed on other races are intentional and unforgiving in order to help reinforce their differences from humans.
The Character Generation Process. Most players come to this game with a general idea of the character they wish to play; enigmatic magic wielder, laconic adventurer, powerhouse combat specialist, robot pilot, godling, what have you. This means most people start selecting the OCC before they ever roll a dice, which runs the risk of not being able to achieve the attribute gateways needed to play that particular OCC; this is a problem. There are some options on the technological front to augment a character to pretty much wipe-out/mitigate these low attributes (bionic conversion, Juicers, Crazies, use of power armour and robots, M.D. ranged weapons). But what of a Psychic that suffered the roll of a 6 for M.E.? What does a player looking to play a Rogue Scientist do with an I.Q. of 6? What about any other class the player’s rolls fail to reach an attribute gateway? Well, the solution falls to the GM, with a multitude of options: boost the attribute to the minimum required; allow players to place their rolls in the order they choose; allow an extra roll to be made to substitute for the failed requirement to meet the OCC; re-roll the whole series of attributes and choose the best of the two line-ups. The list goes on.
The GM Caveat. Of course, this is all up to GM, who ultimately knows their players and willingness to accept these impacts on their game play. If players are not going to be able to/unwilling to compensate for low rolls on attributes, save them and yourself from the agony of it. It is easy enough to switch characters and allow the player to rejoin the campaign as soon as plausible. The last thing you want as a GM is someone blaming the low stats as the reason for negative game play experiences, or look at it as a reason to simply kill off the character as an excuse to roll up a new one. This is particularly evident if other PCs have 3-6 stats in the 20s. Player envy is a thing, unfortunately.
Let’s Talk My Method. Whenever I have gamers roll up their characters, I start with the standard 3D6 rolls (in order) from I.Q. through to Spd. I allow re-rolling any initial rolls of 1s, but keep them on any re-rolls. This provides the baseline for the character. I then allow the players two more attribute rolls of 4D6, always re-rolling 1s and 2s, requiring a minimum score of 17. Those two rolls may replace any two attributes of their choice. This method still allows for some variance in the numbers, but gives the PC the chance to make one or two key attributes shine through. It also takes some of the stress away from the Scholar type O.C.C. that rolled a low I.Q.; the player knows they have at least two chances to give their character a high roll for a key stat.
Let’s Talk Maturity. My final point. It takes a certain level of maturity and respect to play a character with an obvious attribute deficiency. Of note, this also includes the Insanity Tables. Too often I’ve heard stories of players taking advantage of either their low attributes (or an Insanity) to cause problems for the gaming group; using these as props or excuses to make fun or denigrate is not acceptable. I see no viable reason to play a character with a lower I.Q. as a comical version of Rain Man or Forest Gump; stop trying to play a Crazy in a vague and bad attempt to emulate Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. If players or GMs are unwilling to commit a modicum of maturity, sensibility and respect, taking into account the real life implications for both of these issues, might I suggest you skip forward and boost the attributes to a range that doesn’t allow you to fall into this trap.
It’s been stated enough times in the official publications (RUE, Adventures Guide, GM’s Guide, and elsewhere), that low attribute rolls are not the end of the world for a character. They are, for all intents and purposes, an opportunity for a bit of fun. That said, there has to be a sense of agency on behalf of both player and GM in these cases. If a player is unwilling to “role(play) with it,” then it likely makes little sense to force the issue on the group as a whole, the player, or the GM. I would suggest they make for great possible adventuring, but we must accept a certain level of maturity about these things as well. The GM need just suggest a workaround and get from “Session 0” into the real fun part, adventuring. Are characters viable and potent forces for good or evil in Rifts without a plethora of bonuses to their rolls? You bet they are! So stop sweating the small stuff, and get your PC out into the adventuring realm and see what they got.
Return to All Posts