Ability scores in fantasy role-playing games up to 1983

While researching some posts, I looked at the ability scores in the fantasy role-playing games published from 1974 to 1983. My notes grew until they became the tables that appear here.

These tables encompass nearly every fantasy RPG published between 1974 and 1983 that I happen to have, and I must have almost all of them. I cannot find my copy of Lords of Creation from 1983. Sorry LoC fans.

The table lists a 13 character traits from strength to beauty, and indicates the ability score each game uses to represent the trait. To decide on the mappings, I drew on each game’s description of an ability, and on the ability’s mechanical effect in the game. If more than one score contributed to an ability, I mapped the score with the biggest contribution.

Trait Blackmoor
& Dragons
Tunnels &
Empire of
the Petal
& Sorcery
in Fantasy
Dungeons &
The Fantasy
Hero System
Game (1983)
Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical
Stamina Health Constitution Constitution Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Fatigue Health Mass Constitution Physical
Health Constitution Health
Durability Endurance Body
Magic ability Brains Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence   Intelligence Intelligence Power Intelligence Intelligence IQ Reasoning
Magical aptitude Will   Intelligence IQ
Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Wit Intelligence
Search ability                   Intuition Perception  
Willpower       Psychic
Ego       Wisdom Self Discipline Willpower Will   Ego Mental
Spirituality Cunning Wisdom       Wisdom Wisdom       Empathy          
Precision of
  Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity   Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Manual
Deftness Agility Dexterity Physical
Quickness   Agility Quickness Agility Speed Speed
Charm Credibility Charisma Charisma   Leadership
Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma   Presence       Presence Mental
Beauty Looks
Comeliness Comeliness Personal
Physical Beauty     Comeliness Physical

Throughout all the years, fantasy RPGs adopted ability scores descended from the original six scores in D&D. Sometimes the names change—only the term “Strength” remains constant—but the essential traits remain. Some games split one of the original ability scores into narrower abilities: Dexterity splits into an attribute for precise movements and one for quickness. Constitution splits into attributes for endurance and resilience. Charisma splits into attributes for charm and beauty. With Unearthed Arcana, AD&D experimented with the Charisma and Comeliness split.

Not all games represent every trait in an ability score. When no ability applies to a trait, the cell appears in yellow.

The table omits a few odd ability scores that share no comparable scores in the other games. Tunnels & Trolls includes Luck, which apparently gives players a chance to roll all their saving throws at once. Chivalry & Sorcery includes Bardic Voice, for your Feudal Idol campaign. Arduin adds Mechanical Ability and Swimming Ability because no one had invented skills yet.

These games come from an era when most designers worked to simulate game worlds more accurately than D&D. In the games that appeared in the early ’80s, this quest for realism shows in burgeoning numbers of ability scores. Powers & Perils appeared in 1983 and reaches a pinnacle for the situationist era of ability scores.

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils uses scores for Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Will, Eloquence, Empathy, Constitution, and Appearance. If designers had borrowed Bardic Voice from C&S, they would have covered everything. The game drops combinations of these 10 attributes into formulas for various factors used in the game. For example, to find your character’s Hit Point Value (HPV), calculate (S + St + C)/4, using Strength, Stamina, and Constitution. The game includes pages of similar equations, and thus defied my attempts to match abilities to my table. By 1984, unpopular RPGs such as P&P and Lords of Creation drove Avalon Hill to write a check for the RuneQuest license.

Meanwhile, The Fantasy Trip came from Steve Jackson’s man-to-man skirmish games, Melee and Wizard, and used just three ability scores. As the first RPG to use a point-buy system for ability scores, the abilities in TFT needed to be equally valuable.

The first Hero System game, Champions, also featured a point-buy system, but the system never balances the value of abilities. Instead, more valuable abilities cost more points. Other games on this list never needed to balance ability scores; players rolled the dice and took what chance gave them.

For comparison, D&D Next’s ability scores map as follows.

Characteristic Dungeons & Dragons
Next (2014)
Strength Strength
Endurance Constitution
Awareness Wisdom
Precision Dexterity
Charm Charisma

In the games that followed D&D, only the Wisdom ability score stands with few clear descendants. The story of Wisdom is a subject for a future post.

7 thoughts on “Ability scores in fantasy role-playing games up to 1983

  1. Pingback: Ability scores in fantasy role-playing games up to 1983 | Critical Grumble

  2. Don Holt

    It would be interesting to see which of these are derived values rather than primary values. For instance, charisma, personal combat factor, and command level in C&S are derived values. Or something like fatigue, which is no longer an ability, but a point value. Fatigue must be spent to fight or perform spells, which means that it has much more importance in the game than just making a save. Or other mechanics, such as the blows system, which not only helped determine initiative, but quickness as well. In this case, selection of weapon type influences the “quickness”. The example being that characters stabbing with a dagger tend to strike faster than characters wielding large heavy hammers.

    And though bardic voice can be used for your Feudal Idol competition, it also effects your ability to command and shout orders, which is important in a game where characters can represent command leadership in a miniatures game.

    As for the point buy system, in general, I think it solves one problem but causes a worse problem. The point buy systems lets players play a character they want to play. That’s the good part.

    Though min-max’ing play is bad, the biggest problem which the point buy system has is that there are not things that a character is extremely bad at. Most point buy system leave the character without any bonuses, meaning they are at least average in doing things they do not excel in. Good stories need these flaws. My players love to have a 4 wisdom character notice something that the rest of the party missed. So yes there are systems that allow/demand players to design flaws for their characters, but it is not the same.

    A better way for players to get the character they want to play, is to let them select one trait that is 18 or over(2D10) and one trait that is better than average(15-17) and then take the first random character that matches that criteria. This way you get a character with the general abilities you need to play a certain type of character, but may have some warts the player needs to work around. Of course if there is more background information, like horoscope, then players can choose to be positively aspected or a certain sign, rather than selecting a primary trait.

    I much prefer a selective random character over the point buy system because it hampers the min-max style of play and introduces good story elements.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Don,
      I tried to steer away from including derived values in my table, but this project had already gone much farther than I imagined. Thanks for adding details on C&S.

      I completely agree with you on the role-playing advantages of random characters over point buy, or even over random characters with stats arranged by the player. (Obviously, for some players, the fun comes from constructing optimal characters.) I like your method of randomly generating characters until one has key scores high enough to match the player’s chosen type.

  3. Don Holt

    I just had a chance to read your January 3 about the return of random characters in D&D Next and your championing of that move. I should have known I was preaching to choir.

    The thing I would like to emphasize is the body/fatigue breakout. In this case it is not an ability but a mechanic of the game. If you’ve never tried an RPG with this mechanic, you should. It will change your perspective.

    Critical hits and hit locations really mean something, especially if body damage can not be miraculously cured (meaning clerics can act to restore fatigue or serve as a physicians, but the body has to heal slowly on its own.) Players become more cautious in the actions they will have their characters’ take, relying on the story to help them decide if this fight is really worth the ultimate sacrifice. “Keeping it real”, was never about the feudal setting, it was about the play style.

    Now I think there is place for at least two styles of play, each has their merits. I wrote the following in the OSR (Old School RPG osrgaming.org) about in answer to a question about “excessive” rules (encumbered, lighting, terrain, etc.):

    The key concept here is do your players enjoy working around real constraints or do they want to be swashbuckling heros. 99% of players choose the latter option. But when I think about really good writing(both fiction and biographical), it’s about overcoming obstacles we all face. So if you objective is story development in a fantasy world, you’d be crazy not to include physical constraints. If you are running prepackaged or predetermined scenarios and out for a few laughs, you’d be crazy to include it.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Don,
      I always admired body/fatigue systems. I think DragonQuest had such a system. If so, that’s the one game I’ve played that used the concept.

      I remember while second edition was in design, I played a D&D game at Gen Con with a guy who said that he proposed such a body/fatigue system for the upcoming edition. He called it Blood and Wind. For all I know, he worked for TSR, but more likely he was just some guy with a suggestion.

      Some folks don’t want to be challenged, or want to solve the game when they create their character. Sometime, I plan to write a post on that. For my part, real challenges create *lasting* fun in the game.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi CL,
      Thanks for calling out your blog. I love the old RPG curiosities that you reveal.



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