Sunday, January 4, 2015

Character Building Guide - Part 4: Basic Attributes

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In this edition of the character building guide we will discuss how to determine the basic attributes of your character. These describe the physical or mental potential of the character. Whenever a character tries to do anything these attributes come into play and it helps determine their chance of success. Of course, if it's a trivial task that should be easy for anyone then these attributes won't come into play too often. This will help to keep your characters grounded. These attributes may keep your from having your characters perform a task that is impossible for them. I'm using the basic GURPS character sheet which contains four main attributes and several secondary characteristics based on those attributes. We will go over skills in another part of this guide, but every skill is based off these base values. The skills listed on the character sheet are ones that the character has had some experience or training in. Untrained skills use these base values modified depending on how difficult the task is.

Each attribute using the GURPS system is assigned a numerical value. You can write out your own description or use whichever system you choose. For the purposes of this guide I will use values based on the GURPS system on a scale of 0-20 for the main attributes. 10 will designate the average person, 20 would be at an all time best value, and 0 would be so low that the person wouldn't be able to function. Let's dig into it!


Main Attributes

  • Step 1 - Strength. This is pretty self explanitory. A weak character might not be able to do one pull up. This would prevent them from being able to pull themselves up if they are hanging over the side of a cliff. Adrenaline can help them pull themselves up once, but probably not more than that. A strong character might be able to lift a car or perform any of the tasks shown in strongman competitions.
  • Step 2 - Dexterity. This can mean a few things depending on what you look at. I'm using it as a blanket term to stand for the character's agility, coordination, and fine motor skills. You can seperate those out as needed for your character. This can help determine everything from skill at acrobatics to the ability to repair pocket watches. Obviously someone's ability to do a backflip doesn't mean they can pick a lock well. I usually will break this down into smaller categories depending on how vital it may be to the story.
  • Step 3 - Intelligence. The character's intelligence determines their aptitude at any mental skills. This could be further broken down into smaller attributes like memmory, intuition, creativity, reason, etc.. Most RPG systems use this as as a base for all magic use, but I think that depends on the magic system you intend to use or create. Psionics would rely heavily on this attribute as well.
  • Step 4 - Health. This measures a character's vitality. This attribute governs stamina, disease resistance, poison resistance, etc. If you're writing high fantasy or adventure this could be an important stat to keep track of. Stamina may come into play for every genre in one way or another even if your characters aren't in any mortal danger.

Secondary Characteristics

  • Step 5 - Damage based on Strength. This is more useful for people who are playing the characters in a pencil and paper RPG game, but it can be useful for adventure stories using mostly melee weapons. Any story that has hand to hand combat of any sort could use this information. Damage is usually determined by a dice roll in the GURPS system. I prefer to write out a description of the kind of fighter the character is.
  • Step 6 - Lift based on Strength. How much can your character lift with one hand in one second? Strength squared then divided by 5 is the GURPS way of figuring it out. Quadruple that and that is the weight they can lift with both hands. Most RPG systems stuff everything into a backpack and let the character run with it. I like to try to figure out how wide of a wingspan they have as well. Just because your character can easily lift 20 lbs. doesn't mean they have arms long enough to carry a 60 inch TV that weighs 20 lbs without it slowing them down. Wingspan is usually close to the same as the character's height.
  • Step 7 - Willpower based on Intelligence. The character's willpower determines their ability to resist any kind of psychological stress. That includes mental attacks through magic or psionics. It also determines their ability to withstand interrogation, hypnotism, fear, or anything else that could cause a character to panic. Physical resistance of torture to prevent passing out would be controlled by health rather than willpower. The rating for this would be equal to that of the character's intelligence in most cases. Characters who had been trained to resist interrogation or torture may have a higher willpower rating than their intelligence.
  • Step 8 - Perception based on Intelligence. This is vital for mystery or thriller stories as it can determine if the character notices or finds a clue that might make things a bit easier for them. What author wants to make things easy for their characters? This wouldn't necessarily be effected by poor eyesight or blindness as the character's other senses might be hightened to compensate. They may notice it in an entirely different way though. Normally perception rating is equal to the intelligence rating. For detectives or investigators who have experience in investigating minute details, this rating may be higher.
  • Step 9 - Reaction Speed based on Dexterity and Health. This will determine the character's ability to dodge or block an attack. If another character tosses a ball at them unexpectantly then this could help determine if it hits them in the face or if they are able to catch it whole holding something in both hands. The GURPS method requires a bit of math. It's (Dexterity + Health)/4. I prefer to divide it by 2 and use it in a similar manner to the other main attributes (0-20 scale) to simplify things. In GURPS they add 3 to this value to determine your dodge value. I think of dodging as being the character's reaction speed vs. the movement speed of whatever they are reacting to. It makes things easy when their reaction speed is 11 (slightly above the average human) vs. a speeding bullet (a lot faster than the average human). Yea, dodging bullets would be difficult.
  • Step 10 - Movement Speed based on Dexterity. Straight line running speed is depermined by this stat. For the GURPS system this is equal to the reaction speed, but rounding off any fractions. The GURPS number represents how many yards the character can move within a second while sprinting. That works well for short distances while role playing. I like to record this as a 40 yard sprint time similar to what they use at the NFL combine to determine their speed. It's easier for me to imagine the scene that way because I can use NFL players as a point of reference.


  • Strength: 9
  • Dexterity: 12
  • Intelligence: 11
  • Health: 13
  • Damage: She is not much of a fighter. Petra doesn't do much damage with her fists or any melee weapon. She does have a knife that could do damage if applied to the right spot, but she has very little combat training for the weapon.
  • Lift: 9 squared is 81. Divide that by 5 and you get 16.5. Quadruple that and you get 66 lbs.
  • Willpower: 11
  • Perception: 11
  • Reaction Speed: (12 + 13)/2 = 12.5 (The value would be 6.25 using the GURPS system)
  • Movement Speed: 6 using the GURPS system. This would result in a 40 yard time of 6.67 seconds. Slow for an athlete, but the average person would come in around 8 seconds.


Penta flies through the air. She regrets not pulling her hood back up before jumping. It feels like the wind is catching the hood, dragging her down. Her right foot lands on the corner of the ground on the other side. The dirt gives way and her foot sinks down towards the trench. Her momentum carries the rest of her body across. The left knee lands hard on the ground. Penta dips her shoulder to turn it into a roll across and pull her right leg out of the hole.

Penta lays on her back looking up towards the zombies still chasing after her in their slow and steady pace. She gets up as they get closer to the edge. The settlement's outer wall is within sight about five miles away. She sighs and walks towards it. After a few steps, the stench and grunts from the zombies behind make her turn back. The zombies had picked up the pace and were at the edge reaching towards her. She watches a few of them tumble down into the trench. They will wander down there for months clawing at the dirt, but they don't have the knowledge to climb out. That's what Penta has been told all her life anyway.

As she gets closer Penta can see the black paint scrawled on the outside of the stone wall. The uneven letters say "Morgantown". The gate on this side has a drawbridge with another trench that is too long to jump across, but only wide enough to keep any zombies from reaching the one vulnerable spot in the wall.

Penta checks the cross on her forearm. It's her pass to get inside the walls. A voice calls out from the top of the wall. A man with a red beard says, "Have you eaten today?"

She wants to say yes, but her stomach and lack of provisions in her backpack disagree with her. "No I haven't."

"Think Fast!"

An orange flies down towards her. Penta can't remember the last time she had one. It's thrown a bit short, and she has to run forward. She catches it at just below knee height. Tearing into it and with juice streaming down her cheeks, she realizes that she forgot something. "Thank you!"

"Stay where you are, and bare your cross. We're coming out." The bridge drops and Penta can see the heavy chains used to raise and lower it. They must have someone strong. She doesn't think she could do it. Hopefully they will let her in. She could use a warm bath and bed.
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