I don’t like attributes in my roleplaying games. I don’t like them because, to me, they don’t mean anything. In my games, I want to have mechanics that utilize descriptions in everyday language. My role models in rpgs, so to speak, are based on how literature and movies differentiate between characters.
As first consequence, this means getting rid of as many numbers and other quantitative descriptors as possible.
Let’s take a look at traditional roleplaying games. Original D&D has attributes. But Dave Wesely’s Braunstein didn’t. Blood of Pangea, another favorite of mine, doesn’t, and Pits&Perils doesn’t, as well. Sword&Backpack has no attributes, and Sorcerers&Sellswords doesn’t have any, too. Searchers of the Unkown uses no attributes, neither does 1974 Style.
All these games have one thing in common: Either, they’re original oldschool games, or they fit squarely into the OSR category. This might come as a surprise for some, but both the OSR and original old school gamers like Jeff Berry (who gamed for a long time with Prof. MAR Barker, the creator of Tekumel) know and play games that work entirely without attributes.
Playing without attributes forces us to think harder about the character we’re playing. If I play a barbarian in an attribute-less game, and the DM asks me how strong I am, I can’t give him a number. Instead, I have to come up with a description of his strength, on the spot. The DM bases his decision on my description. This is what Matt Finch mentions in his notorious Quick Primer for Old School Gaming: The game is played more with rulings than rules.
Let’s take a look at an example.
Raknar, a barbarian from the Cold North. Civilization with its laws and trappings amuses and angers him. I imagine him to be really strong and pretty good in one-on-one combat. Surviving in the wilderness is a given.
Raknar is chasing a rotten wizard. The wizard somehow manages to climb the tallest building in town. He is now leaping from roof to roof to get rid of the barbarian.
The DM asks me, „Norbert, how good are you at leaping from one building to another?“
I frown and answer: „I’m a barbarian. I grew up in the fucking wilderness, man. I don’t have a clue about cities and buildings and civilization and shit.“
DM: „So you don’t have any experience?“
I: „No, apart from my general physical prowess I guess I don’t have any.“
The DM rules that my character is at a disadvantage. If we were playing Blood of Pangea or Pits&Perils, I’d have to roll 9 or more to be successful. If we were playing Sword&Backpack, I’d subtract 5 from my roll. In Sorcerers&Sellswords, I’d be allowed to roll 1d6 and no expert or preparation die. In 1974 Style, I have to roll on or above 15 with d20+Level.
All the decisions I just listed were made on the fly. Classic rulings. Not rules written in stone. And the result is a blindingly fast game, without the need to consult rulebooks or DM screens. You play two hours, and you have a two-hour, almost real-time experience. That’s why I like attribute-less rpgs so much.