Friday, July 9, 2010

Might & Magic & Ability Scores

Grey Star the Sorcerer: weak, slow, and clumsy, but lucky and smart

Might & Magic is the first game in which I'm really noticing the affects of ability scores. Every game up until now has had them, but I didn't really think about them once the game started. Here, their effects are front-and-center.

Ability scores, attributes, characteristics--whatever you call them--are an element that almost all CRPGs share. In this, of course, they are adapting rules from pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons. The earliest games had only one or two scores. Rogue, I think, just had strength. But fairly quickly--by Ultima I, really--games had grown into the standard set of five or six ability scores. It's rare to find a game (like Ultima IV, which only had strength, dexterity, and intelligence) that reverts to fewer.

I'm always amused by the numerous ways different games try to be original by changing the names of the ability scores. The standard D&D list is strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, and constitution. Perhaps in an an effort to avoid copyright violations, Wizardry offered a slightly different but nearly synonymous list: strength, IQ, piety, vitality, agility, and luck. "Charisma" was presumably left off the list because in early CRPGs, there were few ways to actually base anything on it. "Luck" is an innovation for Wizardry--an extra score that has subtle influences on just about everything--and it would carry over into other first-person, multi-party games like The Bard's Tale and Might & Magic.

Wizardry's character screen with ability scores.

Might & Magic's contributions, such as they are, to the evolution of ability scores is to use "might" instead of strength, split dexterity into "accuracy" and "speed," and combine wisdom and charisma into "personality," the prime stat for clerics (in this they anticipate the third edition D&D rules). Like D&D games, each character class has minimum levels of attributes.

Although the names change, the purpose of different ability scores remains fairly consistent. In descending order of prevalence, we find:

  • Something that determines how much damage the character does when he hits something. This is almost always called "strength" but of course is "might" in Might & Magic (otherwise, it would have to be Strength & Spells). Secondary uses of this attribute in some games include determining what type of weapon one can wield (Phantasie), how much weight the character can carry (Elder Scrolls) and whether the character can force doors or chests (D&D-derived games).
  • Something that determines the character's spell power. Usually this is "intelligence" but it also goes by "IQ." Like strength, it has secondary uses in more advanced CRPGs. In D&D games, for instance, it helps determine whether you can translate scrolls and identify magic items. In Baldur's Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, and Icewind Dale II, it also determines the sophistication of your dialog responses.
  • Something that determines how likely a character's attack is to connect. "Dexterity" is the D&D term, but we also have "agility," "accuracy," and "aim." I can't think of secondary uses for this one, but see below.
  • Something that determines how fast the character moves and, hence, how likely he is to be hit. In D&D, this is also "dexterity," but some games, including the Might & Magic and Elder Scrolls series, split it off into a separate "speed" score. In continuously-scrolling games (like all games are after the mid-1990s), this score may literally determine how quickly you move across the screen. Some of my fondest times in Oblivion is when my speed-enhanced character rushes up and down mountainsides, blasts through forests, and leaps across rivers. In turn-based games like Might & Magic, speed determines the attack order of characters and enemies (more on this in the last paragraph).
  • Something that determines how much damage you can take. Usually, hit points are a "derived" statistic based on your level and an ability score. In D&D, that ability score is called "constitution," but we also have "endurance," "vitality," and "stamina" in the repertoire. As games get more advanced, this statistic also determines how likely you are to succumb to certain spell effects and how much liquor you can hold.
  • Something that determines how charming you are. "Charisma" or "personality," generally. This has a bunch of different uses depending on the game, including spell power for clerics or priests, prices at shops, and relations with NPCs. In the Baldur's Gate series, it determines how easy or difficult it is for the PC to hold together a party of differing alignments, and it determines who the PC can romance.
  • A secondary characteristic for priest spells. In games that separate cleric/priest spells from wizard/sorcerer spells, "wisdom" or "piety" or "personality" will determine the power of those spells and how many the character can cast. Except when combined with the above attribute, this doesn't seem to have many secondary uses.
  • Do you feel lucky? Finally, as we've seen, Wizardry and its posterity introduced a "luck" statistic just to shake things up.

Setting ability scores in Ultima I.

CRPGs offer a lot of variety as to how these statistics are determined. Some automatically generate them and you take what you get. Some allow you to "re-roll" until you get the outcome you want. Some give you a fixed score pool and allow you to allocate the numbers the way you want. A few (Pool of Radiance and Temple of Apshai come to mind) allow you just to specify the attributes you want, which offers a usually-insurmountable temptation to just max everything. Perhaps the most unique attribute-setting method was found in Alternate Reality: the City, in which a constantly-spinning series of dials fixed in place the moment you walked through a portal.

"Hold it...hold it...Now! No, wait!...Okay, now!"

Perhaps one of the most variable aspects of CRPG playing is how mutable these statistics are once fixed. In D&D games, it practically requires an act of the gods to change your ability scores, and even then you can only change them by a little bit. This makes sense in the context of the D&D worlds, in which there is a theoretically upper limit for any human, no matter how heroic. In later Might & Magic games, by contrast, it hardly matters what statistics you have at the outset because you're final characters will have many many times that initial number. I remember starting out Might & Magic VI with 15 or 16 strength and--thanks to potions, wells, barrels of colored liquid, magic items, and other fortunate finds--ending up with almost 300.

Oh, let's quickly cover a few other aspects of ability scores worth thinking about:

  • They can be damaged. Spells, poisons, curses, and other assorted calamities can give you the strength of an infant and the intelligence of Glenn Beck.
  • They can be enhanced. Other spells, potions, and magic items can elevate your stats. I particularly like finding Gauntlets of Ogre Strength in D&D games and immediately transmuting a character with a strength of 6 to one with strength of 18 (the third edition ruined this).
  • They are modified by race and sex. If the game allows multiple races, very often you'll find yourself with higher strength (dwarves), lower charisma (half-orcs), or some other adjustment after finishing your character.
  • Each character class usually has a "prime requisite." Strength for fighters, dexterity for thieves, and so on. There is usually a minimum acceptable ability score for those classes. In some games, you choose the class first and the ability scores get adjusted; in others you get your scores first and have to choose from a limited selection of classes based on the results.

With a charisma of 6 and an intelligence of 4, I could only choose between the "Fox News Commentator" and "Galoot" classes.

Bringing this back to Might & Magic, as I said, I'm feeling the results of my initial ability score selection choices. I did well enough with might for my two fighting classes, and when their swords connect, they connect with a satisfyingly-high amount of damage. I did well with accuracy on my archer, too (19)--she lands every shot she makes. But I skimped on speed except for my robber (16). The result is that he almost always attacks first, but with an accuracy of 13 he often misses, and with a might of 8 he hardly ever does any damage.

What you really want, I'm discovering, is a sorcerer with a high speed score, so he can immediately blast groups of enemies at the opening of the battle. Conversely, you want a cleric with a low speed score, so she can go last in the rotation and heal any major damage taken by party members in that round, getting them back on their feet for the next round. This is important enough that I'm considering ditching my existing cleric and sorcerer and re-creating ones with better (or, in the case of the cleric, worse) scores.

Other than that, I'm still exploring and mapping, and collecting screen shots for a post later about the different things you encounter in the Might & Magic world.


  1. The only RPG I can think of, in which character gender influenced ability scores, is Arcanum. If I remember correctly, women had higher intellect (or was it dexterity?) and men had higher strength. Are there any other?

    Also, Fallout had the "perception" ability, that influenced the chance to hit in ranged combat, chance to spot traps and oddities and some other skills too.

  2. wasteland had female only toilets you needed a women to enter to read a clue on the wall.. Cures of the Azure bonds had a female only quest..

    I dont recall gender being much use anywhere else, certainly nothing memorable outside those two events strikes me.

  3. When I made an old school crpG last year, I made it so that males had a strength bonus while females had a charisma bonus.

    Charisma was useful with encounters for characters to greet intelligent monsters. It was also used for saving throws against charm and other magical attacks.

  4. I'm pretty sure that in the first "Gold Box" D&D games--maybe all of them--females maxed their strength at 17, while males could go up to 18(00).

    Might & Magic has an entire city in which you get your ass kicked if you're a male.

    In Baldur's Gate II, of course, your gender affected your romances and romance-related quests. Same in "Jade Empire" and "Neverwinter Nights," I think. I almost never play a female main character so I miss out on the variances.

  5. Ancient Domains of Mystery (and maybe some earlier roguelike games, too) gives a strength bonus to males and a dexterity bonus to females.

  6. I'm late to the comment party, but Morrowind and Oblivion (and presumably other Elder Scrolls games) also adjusted stats based on gender, but only two stats per race, and 10 points in either direction.

    For instance, a male Khajitt in Morrowind would have 40 strength and 30 endurance, whereas a female Khajitt would have 30 strength and 40 endurance.

  7. legend of faerghail gives males a str bonus and females a bonus to wis/cha if i recall correctly.

  8. Another, very late, comment. I believe Arcanum gave females +1 stamina/constitution compared to males and not dex or charisma as the previous poster talked about. Another gender-specific thing in Arcanum is the available quests in the brothel of Tarant ;)

    I think mostly it's just relatively minor dialogue changes in most games

  9. Regarding your opening paragraph, what about Phantasie 1? I'd say stats are extremely important in that game, especially STR in order to use things and CON to get decent amount of HP and in order to be resurrected if killed.

    But I agree stats didn't really have much impact in older games like Ultima and Bard's Tale.

  10. Agreed, Petrus. Note that I didn't say that MM1 was the first game in which they became important; it was just the first game in which I really noticed them. I agree if I'd been paying more attention in P1, I would have mentioned it there first.

  11. I really like Fallouts S.P.E.C.I.A.L system. Actually I like just about everything in Fallout.
    You can also get at least one point of every stat increased during your adventure.
    I like to play with highly intelligent and charismatic character so I get all the dialogue choices. This means dropping my strength very low. Good thing is that all those games has it's own Gauntlets of Ogre Strength. My man usually needs the power armor to use rifles and shotguns.

    1. Interesting fact you may or may not be aware of: Fallout was originally going to use the rules to the tabletop roleplaying system GURPS (presumably slightly modified to work better in a computerized context), and in fact one working title was "Vault 13: A GURPS Post-Nuclear Adventure". This ended up not happening due to some disagreements between Interplay and Steve Jackson Games (publisher of GURPS), but reportedly there remain some notable similarities between the SPECIAL system and GURPS (though, not having played Fallout (yet another of the many classic CRPGs I need to get around to playing someday), I can't vouch for that myself).

    2. I love that system as well. I like that you can set every stat extremely low and that the game reflects that, so yes, you can play as a dimwit. In most games, your available character points can only be used to improve stats from a certain lower limit.
      And I love that certain dialogue options require certain skills, not just intellect, but also something like perception, or even single skills like your medicine skill. Fallout 3 made the mistake (in my opinion) to show the required minimum stats for certain options. That takes away some excitement.

  12. Omega (a roguelike) has the most unique stat system I've seen. You can choose to "play yourself," in which case the game asks you a series of questions ("What's your IQ? How much do you bench? Do you often get colds?") before explaining how you've been dumped Tron-style into the game universe. Your answers to these questions directly determine your starting stats.

    There's obviously a great temptation to lie and inflate your stats (and the game is programmed with a variety of snarky or sarcastic comments if you do so, although it generally accepts it), but it's a lot of fun.

    1. I did get to Omega in 2011, and I think I commented on this in my GIMLET. I keep meaning to go back and play it again; the version I had got hopelessly corrupted.

    2. I thought you were waiting until the next major version of it in your timeline?

    3. You are correct. I see it later on my list, but not until 1999. I have to go back and check the e-mails to remind myself what that was about.

  13. The implementation of attributes in the Gold Box games was pretty bad. In fact it extended right through the D&D catalog to BG2 and IWD (PS:T excepted).

    For most attributes, all scores from 8 through 14 were only minimally different. Charisma affected a handful of situations across the entire range of 1st/2nd ed D&D games. Wisdom meant something to clerics but intelligence was nigh-irrelevant even for mages unless high level spells were actually implemented in that particular game (they weren't for about half the titles).

    The 3rd Ed games marked the beginning of interesting character creation, thanks in part to the universal adoption of 'points buy' rather than the terrible situation where you'd have random rolls that were then modified as you saw fit.

  14. I have long been amused by early RPGs' slavish devotion to biological gender differences, for one pretty simple reason:

    In a world where characters can be gnomes with the innate ability to cast magical spells, why, precisely, are we so concerned about modelling perceived human gender differences? Certainly no-one can possibly care that much about "realism" when we are talking about encountering dragons and visiting alternate planes of reality?

    (Plus I love that women actually are naturally more endurant, and men are naturally stronger, and yet somehow women usually get a bonus related to male-driven "girly" stereotypes, thus bonuses to charisma or possibly wisdom [I do not remember any plus dexterity though they are cited above]). Oh well, things are getting far better in this respect, obviously, but it is worth thinking about how we got there. I mean, I remember only making female Clerics in the Gold Box games because the game was so directly telling me through the statistic alteration "women are for helping, not fighting;" talk about influential, ha.

    1. I think it makes sense that there are pluses and minuses associated with character creation choices. Want an elf for the +2 intelligence? Fine, but you lose 2 strength. That the same happens with sex doesn't bother me too much.

      Good games tend to be realistic within the framework of the worlds that they create. It may be fantasy world, but humans still live a maximum of around 100 years, ale still gets you drunk, people can't run faster than horses, and women are biologically weaker than men. If you start jettisoning these real-world imports with the idea that "hey, it's fantasy--anything can happen!" then the game loses any hold on logic and realism, much like those Chinese martial arts film where characters can inexplicably fly.

  15. and combine wisdom and charisma into "personality," the prime stat for clerics (in this they anticipate the third edition D&D rules).

    Hm? How so? Wisdom and Charisma are still separate statistics in 3E D&D, and Wisdom is still the prime stat for clerics. (True, Charisma does have some value for clerics that it didn't in earlier editions -- part of an apparent attempt to make all the stats more useful -- but Wisdom is still the main one, affecting how many spells the cleric can cast and so forth.)

    1. That's all I meant--that charisma, which before only had value in interpersonal relationships and buying and selling things, became important to priests' abilities.

  16. I think the most innovation in attribute scores since DnD was made in The Dark Eye (the German PnP system that powers Realms of Arkania series): it adds negative attributes (things like avarice or superstition) to the mix. Makes up for some pretty fun gameplay situations.

  17. In Wizardry 6 and 7(an maybe 8, not sure because the system is different) men gain more strenght and women gain more personality in the creation rolls.

    1. In Wizardry 8, the stats are the same for male and female characters. However, there are quite a few female-only items, especially for stamina recuperation. This makes female characters pretty popular in the game. However, one quest requires a male character to perform, so all-female runs with a full party (Wizardry 8 allows you to play the game with anything from 1-6 party members plus up to 2 RPC) are pretty rare.

    2. Are there male-exclusive items, too?

    3. Only one I know of, and it's exceedingly rare (only one chest with a pretty low chance of dropping). I guess it's called cameo locket for a reason

  18. I like it when games have SLIGHT stat differences for men and women, for the reasons stated above--there are certainly lots of women who are stronger than me, but there are no women who are stronger than the STRONGEST men.

    What I don't like it when the bonus for women is in personality/charisma. I think this reveals a bit of "neckbeardery" on the part of the developers--women are just as likely to be awkward as men (just usually in different ways than the male-computer-programmer demographic).

    I usually prefer to see bonuses to either dexterity or stamina/constitution (childbirth looks like it would kill me, but my wife survived).

    1. I tend to min/max which usually forces my race(s) and often removes several classes from contention.

      I like having character gender, weight, skin tone etc remain cosmetic. Let's people rp themselves as a warrior or wizard or whatever without feeling shoehorned by the mechanics.


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