Iterations, revisions, rethinking, and a bit of head-banging. I started this blog entry last week and got two pages into it and realized that what I’m trying to do with the Social Aspects isn’t going to work. At all.
I hate that. I still think I can keep to my core ideas, but here’s where I’m getting into trouble: Social Aspects need to support the Physical Aspects; There still needs to be some sort of resolution methodology or mechanic; and I need to come up with a reasonable and logical character build and improvement process.
Softening the Soft Attributes
I further realize there are three broad categories of “soft” attributes that, if I’m going to do this right, I need to build them separately, because they are distinct enough that the same process won’t work for each. They are:
Let’s break them down, and while doing so, bring in the terms I established previously.
Personality: This is how the character is played. What are the character’s traits, quirks, tendencies, perspectives, etc.? Some games ignore this aspect of the character. Some games offer a rough guideline. Some games go into excruciating detail.
The words I have in mind for this include: Carousing, Creativity, Empathy, Moxie, Relational, Sanity, and Wisdom. I don’t know yet if I’ll still use these word-category-facets, but they do provide a decent cross section of what I want Personality to cover in SligoRPG.
Interactive: These facets cover how the character interacts with others within the game – specifically, Non-Player Characters. This is influenced by Personality, but not governed by it. For example, being an effective liar isn’t a personality trait. However, being willing to lie is. It’s in this section that numeric assignments begin to make sense, even to the point where we can use The Universal Resolution Chart.
These words include: Animal, Deception, Diplomacy, Discernment, Leadership, Mentoring, Oratory, Performance, and Presence.
Knowledge: This category represents the training and experiences the character has been exposed to prior to the start of the game. I’m of two minds here: do I assign a numeric value equating to expertise (1 is novice, 8 is mastery), or do I come up with words that essentially mean the same thing? During character creation, my initial thought is to account for each year of life, but there are too many variables for the system to remain approachable. This is extremely important because this is what will support many of the combat-based physical aspects, like what weapon(s) the character knows how to use, and how well to use them.
I’m adding one word to the original list and I’m changing another: Business, Knowledge, Magic, Proficiency (new), and Tactics (changed from Sports).
Let’s discuss how we can bring these three Social Aspects into the game.
Before I dig into personality, let’s review what’s been done before.
Some games do not address personality at all. Tunnels & Trolls, The Fantasy Trip and nearly every Pseudo-RPG Board Game ignores this. Either these games are built solely around the combat system and there’s no room for role-playing, or the burden is placed on the player. These games have neither a measure nor a mechanic for guidance. The only recourse is for the Conductor to award experience for “good role-play,” but at best, it is subjective.
I maintain that computer “Role-Playing Games” are not role-playing games at all. At least, not in the traditional sense; and it’s because they don’t allow the player to express a unique personality through their avatar-character. It is true that some games have made attempts at this, like Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade scoring system, or the regional reputation score in Skyrim, but these are distilled game mechanics and are not a true measure of personality. How can one express a unique personality when all you have is a decision tree of options? You can’t. Table-top role-playing games offer an elevated level of freedom when it comes to developing a character’s personality.
Let’s turn to a familiar example from media: Most people are familiar with Bruce Wayne’s backstory and how he became the superhero, Batman. However, every actor’s portrayal of the character is distinctly different because they brought their own interpretation to the character. A player in a role-playing game does the same thing when they take on the role of their character, and this unique interpretation is what I want to encourage.
At the same time, I want to provide a framework that gives the player guidelines on how to play their character. Part of the appeal of role-playing is the opportunity to be something you’re not. Admittedly, some people are better at this than others. Imagine if Keanu Reeves (pre-John Wick) were to play the iconic role? How about Nic Cage? (Sorry, the thought makes me want to heave, too. But you get the picture.) My point is that the framework for establishing the character’s personality needs to be driven by the player so that the character is someone they can both enjoy playing and provide an opportunity to express themselves in a unique, creative, and accurate manner.
The next RPG-game example is the “Alignment System” established in Dungeons & Dragons. This system creates an arbitrary scale of Law vs Chaos, and Good vs Evil, resulting in nine basic options. In my experience, it created an artificial set of archetypes that, when coupled with race and class, nearly every character was played about the same. Even in Fifth Edition, where this system is somewhat deprecated, arguments still abound online about what someone with a certain alignment would or wouldn’t do. Penalties were imposed on out-of-alignment decisions, including paladins and clerics losing their powers. Fifth Edition did away with these mechanics, forcing the Dungeon Master to enforce this on their own, without support of the rules.
On the other hand, Fifth Edition introduced a new personality system: Background, Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. It’s a great idea, and it works well enough, though, once again, the limitation of the format created a new set of archetypes. The Players Handbook presents 13 backgrounds, which each expand out to a variety of options for the 4 components. Though finite, it’s significantly more than nine. However, it seems that every Charlatan, Hermit, and Street Urchin are just carbon copies of each other.
In my usual fashion, I took this idea and ran with it. Through a variety of sources, both official and unofficial (and even some considered questionable,) I created a massive database containing all the unique personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws I could find. On top of that, I added hundreds more. This list contains 3,250 entries. Additionally, I scrounged through numerous sites to find all the words and phrases I could that somehow describe an aspect of personality. This list contains 5,535 entries. There is overlap, of course, because I used the second list to add entries to the first list.
In my MS Access application, I can click a button and I will get a randomly-created personality. What is surprising is that the selection algorithm, which is based on Alignment, creates play-able character personalities. I generated a hundred “cards” that have a name, a personality, and a randomly-determined background which I use whenever I need a new Non-Player-Character.
I’d love to work from this to build the character personality for SligoRPG. However, the printed list of 3,250 traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws is over eighty pages. It’s simply not practical. Also, random generation isn’t what I want for players. Though it may be an option if they choose to go that route, it needs to work cooperatively. Unfortunately, this system won’t work for me. I want the players of my game to have flexibility in that they should be able to define how their character is played but do it within a mechanical framework that doesn’t take eighty pages to describe.
Another approach, which becomes a hybrid of both the personality and alignment system is to create a series of slider-scales. I’ve already chosen seven words that span a cross section of personality traits, which can be represented as a scale where 1 is the “low” extreme and 8 is the “high” extreme.
Let’s look at these seven words: Carousing, Creativity, Empathy, Moxie, Relational, Sanity, and Wisdom. Let’s discuss how these words can be used to define the framework for a character without it being a veritable Rube Goldberg machine.
Carousing: This is a measure of how much you like to party. A low value represents someone who hates social encounters, avoids them where possible, but if they are stuck going, they’re a wallflower at best. A high value is someone who loves meeting people, likes to be the center of attention, and, in a lot of ways, is unafraid to let their guard down. This has nothing to do with how well you can hold your alcohol; that’s Vitality.
Creativity: Are you good at coming up with innovative ideas? There’s nothing wrong with having a low score. It means you are practical and methodical. You’re going to be suspicious of new ideas and you’ll want to examine them to make sure they are viable. At the other end of the spectrum, your level of creativity knows no bounds. You don’t need all the information, nor do you care about the consequences. It’s going to work: you can feel it.
Empathy: This isn’t a measure of reading people, it’s a measure of your sympathetic, or empathetic, reaction. When you see someone suffering, do you feel their suffering as if it were your own? This is a high score. If you are cold and unfeeling, you’ll have a low score.
Moxie: The best way to describe this is it’s a form of courage. Are you willing to take a leadership role and fight for your ideas, or are you the quiet type? Of course, the quiet ones should be consulted, because they may have the best plan already figured out, they just don’t have the gumption to present it. A low score doesn’t mean you’re an introvert. It means that you’re not likely the one to step forward and take control of a situation.
Relational: How good are you at “seeing” space? Can you look at a room and tell me its dimensions without using a tape measure? Are you good at seeing patterns and seeing how things relate to one-another? A low value in this Facet probably means you like to express yourself artistically. Disorder and chaos don’t bother you. A high score indicates your desire to analyze everything. You don’t like things to be out of place; symmetry and balance are important to you.
Sanity: Are you predictable and cool-headed, or do you ride an emotional roller-coaster? How do you react when things don’t go your way? Do you get angry and upset, or are you stoic? Do you take time to control your emotions before speaking out?
Wisdom: Are you cognizant of the consequences and do you take your responsibilities seriously? Perhaps you let the winds drive your decisions and you don’t care what happens, who it hurts, or what gets screwed up.
I think it will work well that every character starts with 2 in each and 21 points to distribute, with the caveat that none can exceed 7. This means that player characters can never hit the extremes. I think this is left in the realm of non-player characters the Conductor will run. I’d also suggest a rule that no more than 4 of these indicators can be the same value.
Normally, Personality Facets don’t change over time, but I do want to allow players the ability to adjust these scores. At the end of an adventure, the player may raise or lower one trait by 1 point. During an adventure, if something catastrophic happens, the Conductor may impose a temporary or permanent change to a Personality Facet.
Interacting with Interaction
This group of facets governs how a character relates to others in the game world. In a lot of ways, they can be treated like Physical Aspects where various challenges and conflicts are resolved using TURC.
I admit it that this goes against my original desire. I would prefer a system where all interactions are handled through role-play, and I encourage players and Conductors to do so. However, I must be practical in that the Conductor isn’t going to have a ready-made, fully created character sheet for every random guard, guildsman, merchant, peasant, or whatever. In other words, I must provide a mechanic to resolve social interactions.
I originally came up with nine Facets. Upon review, I’m going to consolidate the list a bit: Oratory rolls into Performance, and Leadership rolls into Presence. Let’s give them clear definitions:
Animal: I’m not a fan of this concept, but I recognize the need for it. It’s true that a lot of people relate to animals different than the way they relate to other people, and that’s what this facet represents.
Deception: How good are you at lying and deceiving? Do you have a tell?
Diplomacy: Are you good at negotiating? How well can you convince people to see your side of an argument? How good are you at getting them to agree with you?
Discernment: How well can you read people? Are you good at reading non-verbal signals? Of all these facets, this one is dependent on race and culture. Your score in this indicates how you are within your own race and culture, but the more different from you they are, the greater the penalty.
Mentoring: This Facet represents how well you are at teaching, coaching, and tutoring.
Performance: Assuming you know how to sing, act, or play an instrument, how good are you at it? I’m not talking about technical perfection. I’m talking about how well you emote. Can you call forth tears and get your audience to cry along with you, or is your performance dry, stale, and empty?
Presence: In a lot of ways, this is the culmination of the other facets, but I want to single it out. Are you the type of person whom everyone notices when you walk into a room? Do you command respect, not just with your words and expression, but with your demeanor? While there’s no Facet for appearance, Presence is the closest correlation. Like Discernment, appearance is racially and culturally dependent.
Like Personality Aspects, you start with 2 in each and you get 21 points to spend. However, there are two critical differences: First, spending points in this group works the same as spending Improvement Points for Physical Aspects: To increase by one point, you must spend IPs equal to the current value of the Facet. Secondly, no more than two Facets can exceed the score you have in Presence. While Presence is the least used for interaction resolution, you’re required to raise it if you want to be good at more than two other Facets.
This Aspect is the biggest can of worms in any system. What’s worse, it’s always poorly implemented and has very little application to role-playing. I don’t like that. I can’t escape the fact that, except in the most unusual circumstance, knowledge of underwater basket weaving isn’t going to be helpful to an adventurer.
However, I believe a good implementation of character knowledge can support other Aspects and Facets by providing specificity and circumstantial functionality.
As an example, a character who has been trained to use a sword will know the basic techniques of slashing, thrusting, and blocking. However, there are a variety of moves and maneuvers that enhance one or more of these basic techniques. Through advanced training and experience, the character will learn these techniques, and with practice, gets better at them.
To put that in game terms, I must have at least one rank in “Proficiency: Longsword” to use the blade. The Fight Facet governs how well I use the knowledge. With one Knowledge rank, I can slash, thrust, and block. I might even be good at it if my Fight Facet is sufficiently high. However, I still don’t know any maneuvers. For example, Riposte is a specific maneuver that allows me to quickly thrust after my opponent has missed an attack. For me to use the Riposte maneuver, which has an Increment cost of 0, I must have 3 ranks in Proficiency. As I gain more ranks, I unlock new maneuvers, giving me more and more options to use in a combat encounter.
This means two things. First, knowledge “ranks” aren’t on the same scale as the other Social Aspects. There’s no mechanic that calls for a die roll on a Knowledge Facet. Second, there is a direct correlation between some Knowledge Facets and how they are used, giving the player a motivation to invest Improvement Points.
Let’s go through the Facets in more detail.
Business: There are some aspects of business that are shared while others are very specific. You should know the type of business you’re experienced in. This is tied to your backstory in that a peasant won’t have experience in International Politics, and a noble probably won’t know a lot about running a bakery. For this reason, businesses are grouped into logical categories. Someone who grew up on a farm will gain benefits, over and above the normal build process, for facets like Animal Interaction. If you’re business is mercantile, that is, selling stuff, you’re going to get a bonus to Diplomacy and possibly Discernment.
Knowledge: This covers general knowledge that you’d learn through study and observation. Do you know how to read and speak languages other than your own? Beyond being good with numbers, do you understand basic geometry and algebra? Have you read historical texts, and do you know the lore of your own region or perhaps that of others? The Conductor isn’t going to ask for a “Knowledge” or “History” check. Rather, the Conductor is going to ask, “Does anyone have at ranks in Elf History?” If the answer is, “No,” then no one has the knowledge.
Magic: Since we’re in a high-fantasy setting, we must include the arcane. This Facet dictates what type of magic you know. The number of ranks invested unlocks a wider variety of spells.
Proficiency: For this, you must specify what you are proficient with. It isn’t limited to weapons but covers tools and instruments. If you don’t know how to use a lock pick (thieves’ tools), you won’t be able to pick the lock.
Tactics: I changed “Sports” to “Tactics” because this grouping gives us the concept of tactical positioning and how best to take advantage of it. Getting behind an opponent, known as flanking, isn’t effective unless you know how to exploit it. This Facet unlocks, through various knowledge trees, various combat maneuvers that aren’t related to your weapon proficiency.
When you build your character, you start with no knowledge in anything. You get a set amount of points to spend on these facets, in the same manner as buying Physical Aspect Facets. However, because we start at zero, the mechanic doesn’t quite work, otherwise you’d have 1 rank in everything. Here’s my thought: You start with 50 (or so) points. The first rank in the first item you buy in one of the five Facets costs 1. The second costs 2, the third cost 3, and so on. The exception is (General) Knowledge: These always cost 2 points to open.
Running the Races
This is something I haven’t covered so far. Partially because I don’t like the way it’s presented in other games, and partially because this breaks balance.
The problem is that racial traits typically give a character some sort of specialized ability that is unrelated to their stats. Thematically, racial abilities make sense – elves have better hearing, dragonborn have natural armor and a breath weapon, halflings are stealthy, etc. What inevitably happens is players will gravitate to the non-human races because they want these abilities, so game designers beef up humans for balance.
I reject this approach. Even if I go with a “plus/minus” model, where if I give something “good” to a race, I immediately give them something equally “bad,” there’s still too much room to exploit. The first answer I come up with, and still have some sense of balance, is to assign a IP cost to racial traits. And I don’t like this solution. How does “being born with better ears” translate to “one year less spent in school”? It doesn’t.
But then, I’m also working in my own setting, so I’m not locked into the common archetypes established by literature, folklore, and (shudder) other games. D&D created a precedent with “dragon origin” sorcerers, suggesting that some casters derive their magic from a strain of dragon blood going back multiple generations. How is it that only a specific type of caster has this? What about other classes? If they have dragon blood running through their veins, why can’t they benefit from it?
And, how in the world can you have a gold dragon dragonborn with black dragon sorcery? Mechanically it’s feasible. Logically? Head-scratching.
The answer is homogenization. I’m not talking about milk. I’m talking about the process of making something uniform or similar in composition of function. I heard it said once that if you run the numbers, every person in the world is roughly ten steps away from being related, by blood, to every other person in the world. As time goes on, this number grows smaller even though population increases. This is because as populations grow, racial mixing is an inevitable result. More and more people are born with “mixed” parentage or are products of at least one “mixed” parent or grandparent. I’m not being racist. I reject the idea that if one is 1/8th African American they are defined as African American, regardless their actual skin color. I’m told that I am 1/64th Native American. When I tan, I turn a reddish bronze. Do I qualify for any federal programs because of this? We’re all human. What’s to say this doesn’t happen in my fantasy setting? How regulated are the various races, and how compatible are they for interbreeding? All the time I see questions online like, “How do I stat a Dwelf or a Three-Quarterling?”
My answer: You don’t. Basically, all races are human. However, because of interbreeding, every character, during creation, does two things: What is your basic appearance? That is, are you short and stout or are you tall and skinny with pointy ears? Do you have green or purple skin? And so on. Secondly, you may choose ONE special trait from a limited list, which would include things like “Exceptional hearing,” “Exceptional eyesight,” “Tough skin,” and so on. All these racial traits are minor and if they have any impact on other mechanics, the impact is minimal.
Featuring the Feats
Some systems have a cool listing of feats and features that characters can gain as they level up. In most games, characters typically start with one. While some feats have minimum stat requirements or prerequisites, most of them just offer some sort of special ability in combat or other situations.
The ability to unlock new maneuvers and techniques as a character improves, by spending IPs on the appropriate Knowledge Aspects, covers this adequately. Furthermore, my system enforces a sense of logic to the process where it’s missing in other games. Those rules suggest that offering feats allows the player to customize their character. I think this fails conceptually because typically players just choose feats that enhance the abilities their character already has.
You might remember way back a few blogs ago that leaving rules out of a game is just as important as including them. If you want to create a game where there’s no combat, you leave it out. No magic? No magic system. It’s simple and straightforward.
Through all this, you may or may not have noticed that I left out a specific attribute that nearly every other game in existence has: Intelligence.
This is intentional.
In those other games, Intelligence typically drives other characteristics, but rarely is used in and of itself. Yes, in D&D 5e, there are magic spells that require a saving roll on INT. Likewise, when your character is trying to figure out something, you make an ability check. If you make it, you somehow, out of the blue, know the answer. If you fail, you’re screwed, so the Conductor must come up with some other way to impart the critical information you need to continue your quest.
If you’re going to learn it anyway, why have the stat? Also, it takes the burden away from the players to figure out puzzles, find clues, and solve riddles. “I don’t know the answer, so can I just roll on my INT to see if my character can figure it out?”
Furthermore, there’s another aspect of how Intelligence is covered in RPGs: people don’t know how to role play a character with an INT score other than their own. You can’t play a character that is smarter than you. It’s impossible. And while you can play a character that’s dumber, it gets annoying very quickly – especially since most players take an extremist approach.
The thing about it is this – measuring intelligence with a single score is disingenuous and misleading. A person can take three different IQ Tests and, very likely, they’ll get three different results. There are numerous psychological profiles that supposedly measure intelligence, but they are constrained by the theories and objectives of those that create the tests. Society recognizes this in that the SAT has two scores: Math and Writing. While still limiting, universities at least recognize that people can be strong in one and not in another, and still be a viable candidate for higher learning.
For SligoRPG, I break out Intelligence to a variety of Facets, both Physical (Wits) and Social. I give every character equal footing so that the player can build their character with as much in the way of smarts or as little as they want. These decisions are meaningful and directly affect game play in a multitude of ways.
However, without a Facet labeled “Intelligence,” we can’t be lazy and ask for a roll on it to see if the character just happens to know something. Either you know it, or you don’t; and if you do, it will be on your character sheet.
First Shot at a Sheet
I think I have enough information to create the first rough draft of the character sheet.
Defining the Details
All that remains now is filling in the blanks. The design principles are in place and everything is covered at the conceptual level.
The devil is in the details
The path that lies before me is coming up with the various lists of knowledges and all the combat cards. I’m not an expert on any of these things, which means doing a lot of research. This is where a team of developers becomes useful because I can delegate responsibility. If you’re willing to volunteer, let me know!
Part of this includes defining how magic will work in my setting. I have some ideas, but I don’t have them on paper. This is going to take a blog essay to explain, and most of what I’ll talk about won’t ever be part of the finished product. At least not in the same format.
Caring for the Conductor
It’s great that we have a detailed, dynamic system for player characters. What about the Conductor? Is each monster, from the lowly cockroach swarm to the greatest elder dragon, built the same? What information is needed to run a monster in combat? Do I need specialized combat cards for every monster, or is there some sort of shortcut I can devise that will make the Conductor’s job manageable and reasonable? Looks like another blog entry.
Rolling out the Rules
Putting all this together means creating a comprehensive rulebook. How big will it be? Starfinder RPG is over 520 pages. D&D 5e is split into several volumes. I’d like the core rules to be a single volume that is less than 200 pages (at most) which would include charts, tables, and artwork. Without artwork, I should be able to keep my total page count under 100. It will be a challenge!
All the Alliteration
I don’t know why I fell into this alliteration pattern for this blog. It wasn’t intentional until about halfway through. It’s a cute gimmick and I promise not to use it again.