Thursday, March 24, 2016

Implementing Character Traits in RPGs

Inspired by Grant Howitt's blog post on Relationship Dice in 13th Age.

RPG characters are, by definition, defined in ways that characters in other mediums are not. Depending on your system of choice, there's a wide array of numbers and words describing the character; what they can do, and often how they got there.

On top of that, there are a lot of games where there's some interesting, non-standard thing about the character going on. Maybe they've got a complicated social relationship. Maybe they're nearsighted, have an old injury that flares up from time to time, or happen to be hunted by sexy were-leopards (it happens.)

Point being, there's a thing about the character that's true, and goes beyond the standard mechanics.

The way I see it, there have been two primary schools of thought on how to do this. The traditional one - we'll call it minutia - tends to do this through edge case rules. "Your family connections give you +2 to diplomacy when dealing with the noble caste" -type deals.

If these are negative, or have a negative side, they tend to likewise do this with edge cases, via additional minutia. "But, your family name carries obligations as well. At the GM's discretion, your family may need assistance, or provide a situational modifier that makes the character's life more difficult."

Courtesy of the excellent Darths & Droids.
So basically, it's a big ol' serving of "hey GM, please remember to do specific things in this specific way." White Wolf games were all over this with their Merits and Flaws, but it certainly predates them. AD&D Skills & Powers, anything by palladium, Shadowrun - it was a common enough way to do things, and usually get players some extra goodies at the cost of a theoretically problematic disadvantage.

I have found this unsatisfying. Mainly because it's One More Thing for the GM to remember, and often gets forgotten along the way. Also, players can wind up building characters with a suite of flaws that - if enforced in the manner recommended by the system - become more or less unplayable. The GM doesn't bother, some players are miffed at this, and the whole thing gets awkward.

If you're not going to do something interesting with flaws, etc., don't use them. If the players need more XP, give them some more XP. Rant for another time.

Anyway, the second school – we’ll call it “dramatic” shows up in games like Fate. Take our noble scion above; they’d probably have an Aspect called “Noble of House Noblepants” or some such, which they could invoke when it seemed appropriately helpful, and the GM could invoke when it seems like it might complicate things.


But unsatisfying for some. For one, it's tied to the Fate Point Economy, which artificially limits when that can come up (even if it makes sense in the fiction), and some folks really dislike that type of meta-mechanic, as they feel much happier when things come about “organically.”

Rather than quibble about What is Best in Life, I think I’ll borrow an idea from Mr. Howlett, which he in turn borrowed from 13th Age.

13th Age is like D&D, excepting that it's fun and full of good ideas. Opinions!
In 13th Age, every character has some relationship to the setting's Icons - which are somewhere between factions and demigods - represented by 3 six-sided dice, and set at character creation. At the beginning of each session, the dice are rolled; on a 6, hooray! Something related to that Icon is going to be important/useful/helpful this session. On a 5, you still get a benefit, but with some strings attached. It's a slick little way to add in some factional randomness.

Let's remorselessly steal it.

Thievery Without Remorse

So revisiting our above example,“Noble” becomes a trait on somebody’s sheet, and they roll a d6 at game start. 6 means benefits! 5 means benefits with strings attached! And because we want to model the downside of this, 1 means complications! Conversely, if we're modeling something that.s straight-up downside, we just switch it around - 1 is Big Trouble, 2 is Slightly Mitigated Trouble, and maybe we even throw in a 6 for Unexpectedly Useful Trouble.

Salt to taste.

I like this. It's tidy, and now I’m not asking anyone to engage with the game in a way they dislike. Furthermore, it's easy as hell to integrate with any game I happen to be playing/running. You've got an allergy in Shadowrun? Roll a d6 at the beginning of the game. Have a nebulously beneficial family name in 7th Sea? Roll a d6 at the beginning of the game. Hunted by Sexy Were-Leopards? 

Think about your life choices. What brought you to this place? Also, roll a d6. 

It's also pretty versatile. If our Shadowrunner with a deathly allergy to bee stings (why this allergy is so incredibly common amongst black ops mercenaries in the cyberpunk future, I have no idea), maybe you don't check that every game. Maybe you just have the player roll before going on a run. And if they have multiple complications, they get to roll multiple dice at once, not necessarily knowing which dice are triggering which complications.

Another benefit of this hack is that it lets players adjust how much they want complications to be a part of the game.* Three traits means you'll average one activated per session, with a 33% chance of badness occurring. If you want more traits that come up less, maybe they only activate on a six. Maybe you expand the negative range to two or three. Maybe you leave it as-is.

Point being, this mechanic isn't complicated, and it's not hard to bend it so it behaves the way you want it to. It's also perfectly compatible with the existing methods of implementation - so you can still have a -2 to actions in direct sunlight, or spend a Fate Point to get a boost, because you're The Gosh Dang Batfriend - but you can also roll at the beginning to see if your skin allergy or Bat-ishness is going to be a big deal today.

This is what came up when I googled "Gosh Dang Bat Friend." I LOVE THE INTERNET SO MUCH YOU GUYS. (Photo coutesy of
Anyway, that's the hack in a nutshell. I think I'll be applying it to a fair amount of things in the future. If you try it out, let me know how it went in the comments - I'd love to hear about how it helped/ruined your game.