Why skills are in, attributes are out in modern role-playing games

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
It took four or five levels gained for me to realize something was different. I was playing the Diablo 3 open beta last weekend, merrily leveling my monk up, when I noticed that half the time a gained level just happened, without me needing to do anything. Sometimes I could choose new skills, yes, but I wasn't given five points to distribute to my core attributes like Strength, Vitality, etc. There's a little bit of text that notes which attributes have improved, but that's all. Diablo 3 isn't the only major recent role-playing game* to downplay the importance of its characters' core attributes. Mass Effect 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, both released within six months of Diablo 3, avoid core attributes entirely.

Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 don't include attributes at all, in fact, something that would have been unthinkable for a computer role-playing game at the dawn of the genre. But the lessened importance of attributes isn't necessarily a sign of the simplification of the genre (although that's often part of it). Instead, it's part of a trend in which skills, not attributes, serve as the most important statistical measure of an RPG character.

The importance of attributes comes directly from the computer RPG's origin as a representation of tabletop RPG combat systems. Wizardry, the game which really kicked off the genre, was mostly Dungeons & Dragons with the serial numbers filed off. By the late 1980s, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games officially translated the tabletop rulesets to the screen. Creating a character was known as "rolling" because you threw the dice to discover his or her inherent Strength, Agility, Charisma, etc. In D&D, those statistics were largely permanent, defining the character through the entire game or campaign. Some video games, like Ultima, took advantage of the malleability of the medium to allow attribute increases. But apart from spells, attributes tended to be the bulk of character customization in terms of mechanics.

But computers and consoles can process information faster than a dungeon master with a set of dice, so more complicated statistics were introduced. Wizardry VI and Wizardry VII introduced a complex system, balancing permanent character race with dynamic class and attributes, using dozens of different skills as the primary mechanism for character progression. Other games in the early 1990s followed suit: Betrayal At Krondor made skills far more prominent than attributes (which only included Speed and Strength anyway). The Elder Scrolls: Arena, first in that series, used both skills and attributes.

Most skills were passive early on, barely affecting the way you played the game beyond ease or difficulty based on character proficiency. There were a few active skills, like Lockpicking in Wizardry VI/VII, where you had to do more (in this case, a random number probability mini-game) in order to successfully pick the lock. As time went on, though, more and more games started using active skills.

It's easy to see the change just looking at the original Diablo compared to Diablo 2, released in 1996 and 2000, respectively. In the original Diablo, each of the three classes could attack and use the same magic. It was horribly inefficient for a warrior to cast spells, while a Sorcerer was built for magic. If you were playing a warrior, all you did was click-click-click to attack. For a Sorcerer, you could cast one spell, attack, cast another one, then switch back. This imbalance is irrelevant in games where you control a full party, but in single-character games, the increasingly dominant form of western RPGs after 1995, having that one character be boring compared to a differently classed character looked more and more like bad design.

In Diablo 2, all of the classes have roughly equivalent active/passive skills. Sorceresses learn their spells and improve them through different skill trees, yes, but so do Paladins and Barbarians, the rough equivalents to the original's Warrior class. A Paladin can learn the Zeal skill, which costs magic and allows him to make multiple fast melee attacks, like a Sorceress learns Fire Bolt for blasting single enemies.

As skills became more and more important, attributes decline, at least in Diablo 2. Each level up grants you five attribute points, yes, but go to virtually any FAQ and it'll tell you that once you reach the bare minimum for wearing your gear, you should dump all your points into one stat, usually Vitality for health. It offers the illusion of choice and customizability, but primarily offers the ability to mess up more than to successfully build a different kind of character. This is also a problem with skills in Diablo 2, but most skill-based games are less punishing. Diablo 3 seems to be built on a model of giving the player fewer choices, but making those choices more interesting and relevant than the cookie-cutter builds of Diablo 2.

This is part of the appeal, and why I don't think we're going to move away from games with robust skill systems. Unlike core attributes, skill systems allow for consistent player adaptation and character growth. The player can take an active role in how their character grows stronger, instead of simply watching. Attributes are still used and important in games like Dragon Age, Fallout, and Legend Of Grimrock, but skills are as or more important. That is the way of modern role-playing games: skills are the focus of character growth, and attributes are flavor, if they exist at all.

*I'm aware that there's a debate about whether these games are RPGs. For the purposes of this column, I'm taking a "Big Tent" approach where, if you can make a decent argument, it fits. All three of these games can, have, and will be discussed as RPGs, here and elsewhere.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.