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An attribute is a piece of data (a "statistic") that describes to what extent a fictional character in a role-playing game possesses a specific natural, in-born characteristic common to all characters in the game. That piece of data is usually an abstract number or, in some cases, a set of dice. Some games use different terms to refer to an attribute, such as statistic, (primary) characteristic or ability. A number of role-playing games like Fate do not use attributes at all.
There is no uniform consensus on what ability scores are, even if many role-playing games have them, but games that use them have a common theme. According to the BBC Cult TV website "All characters have Attributes — basic physical and mental abilities." and in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game "Each character has six ability scores that represent his character's most basic attributes. They are his raw talent and prowess. While a character rarely rolls a check using just an ability score, these scores, and the modifiers they create, affect nearly every aspect of a character's skills and abilities." In some games, such as older versions of Dungeons & Dragons the attribute is used on its own to determine outcomes, whereas in many games, beginning with Bunnies & Burrows and including more modern versions of D&D, the attribute works with a skill to affect the overall outcome.
There is no standard amongst role-playing games as to which attributes are important for the game, though there is a school of design which says you pick the attributes after you decide what the game is about.
Dungeons & Dragons used six attributes (there were brief attempts to add a seventh, Comeliness, in Unearthed Arcana and Dragon magazine, but this was short-lived). The six attributes used in D&D are:
The original attribute sequence in D&D was Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma in the original 1974 rules. This listed the three "prime requisites" of the character classes before the "general" stats: strength for fighters, intelligence for magic-users, and wisdom for clerics.
The attribute sequence in D&D was changed to Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma, sometimes referred to as "SIWDCC". This change was made due to the addition of the thief class, which used dexterity as a prime requisite.
The current "SDCIWC" sequence was introduced in AD&D 2nd edition in an attempt to divide physical and cognitive traits into two groups.
Many other notable games have followed suit while slightly varying the attributes, like Traveller (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, Social Standing) or like Cortex System games such as the Serenity RPG and the Cortex Plus Leverage with Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower.
Others use more, some fewer. Tri-Stat dX (including Big Eyes, Small Mouth), as the name would suggest, uses three (Body, Mind, and Soul), whereas a more common division of three, and used in the Cortex Plus game Firefly is Physical, Mental, and Social, but expands with the Storyteller System's attributes.
SPECIAL is an acronym statistics system developed specifically for the Fallout series, representing the seven attributes used to define Fallout characters: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. SPECIAL is heavily based on GURPS, which was originally intended to be the character system used in the game.
Some games have used particularly complex systems. For instance, F.A.T.A.L. uses a system of five attributes with four sub-attributes each, resulting in twenty total statistics to roll. This system was criticised for its complexity and for the lack of correlation between related sub-statistics, resulting in oddities such as a character with a higher Average Speech Rate than Maximum Speech Rate.
The first three editions of Shadowrun had three separate headings of Physical attributes, Mental Attributes, and Special Attributes, with three stats in each. With the six non-special attributes being Strength, Agility, Body, Charisma, Intelligence, and Willpower, and two of the three special attributes relating to magic and the third being derived, this is arguably a six attribute system.
The Storyteller System used in games like Vampire: The Masquerade took this one step further, breaking the attributes down into three by three classifications. Power, Finesse, and Resistance, and Mental, Physical, and Social, leading to nine different combinations each of which has a separate name with, for example, Mental Finesse being the attribute Wits and Social Resistance being Composure.
Some games think that attributes are not and should not be treated as entirely independent, and therefore make a lot of their attributes dependent on others.
GURPS uses two levels of statistic: four primary statistics (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Health) and four statistics derived directly from those (Fatigue, which defaults to strength or health (depending on edition), Hit Points, which defaults to health or strength (depending on edition), Willpower, which defaults to intelligence, and Speed, which defaults to half the average of health and dexterity.
Hero System 5th edition has eight primary statistics, and a further five derived from them.
Some game systems such as those using the Cortex Plus system or those Powered by the Apocalypse work on the basis that the attributes should emphasise elements of the setting thus making them different from game to game even within the same family. So, for example, Dungeon World is meant to resemble a game of D&D so it uses the same statistics as above, whereas Monsterhearts, with its mix of teen drama and paranormal romance uses the statistics Hot, Cold, Violent, and Dark.
Attributes are commonly referred to by a three letter abbreviation (Str, Int, etc.).
Hard statistics are those statistics which are generally physical in nature, and are often used to represent physical characteristics of a character.
Soft statistics are those statistics which are generally cognitive in nature, and are often used to represent nonphysical characteristics of a character. Alternatively, instead of being mental statistics, they may also represent certain nonphysical effects on a character, as with attributes such as Luck, seen below.