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Archive => RPG Theory => Topic started by: John Kim on August 26, 2005, 08:44:28 AM



Title: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: John Kim on August 26, 2005, 08:44:28 AM

This is a general rant about freeform traits, prompted by some off-board discussion. I'm not opposed to them in general, but I think that some designers choose them as a matter of course without thinking about the consequences.

The core problem is the schizophrenia in many (if not most) freeform trait systems. The system advice tells you to pick distinctive, individualistic, and unique traits. However, the actual result of the system is to reward the player for taking traits as broad and generic as she can possibly talk the GM or group into accepting. So if they can talk the group into accepting "Jack-of-All-Trades" or "Natural Genius" or "Highly Trained Super Agent", then they are rewarded by constantly getting to add in the bonus for those broad traits. Choosing narrow, distinctive, or idiosyncratic traits like "Repressed love for half-brother Juan" or "I can make a mean stew" rarely benefits the player system-wise.

So you either have to accept this as a part of your system and modify your advice accordingly, or change the system reward. The only two solutions I've seen in practice are (1) rating the cost of the trait based on how broad it is, as in Fudge; or (2) a "pay-as-you-go" scheme such as Descriptors in Theatrix. There you have to pay a Plot Point whenever you make dramatic use of a Descriptor. So the more often a Descriptor is invoked, the more it costs.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Sean on August 26, 2005, 09:02:47 AM
I agree that this is often a problem. A third solution is to give players substantial ability to frame conflicts in terms of what imaginary actions can be taken to resolve them. Then just as their imagination drove their character choices, it can drive what their characters do to deal with things that happen in play. A fourth solution (DitV) is to make the 'mere' relevant invocation of a trait the mechanically important thing, not it's direct use, so that simply narrating it in gets you the mechanical benefit, no matter what it does (your bard sings in battle means he gets his singing points for killing orcs, even though his sword is what's imaginarily doing the hacking and slashing, say).


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: gsoylent on August 26, 2005, 09:41:37 AM
I kind of agree. Generalisations are always dangerous but my first gut reaction when a game just goes for the "make up your own traits" is the feeling that the designer chickened out. I feel the same thing about movies when the ending is left deliberatley ambiguous (as opposed to those moives I'm just to dense to understand the ending thank-you-very-much-Donnie-Darko).

If design is about making choices, then surely the designer should provide a set of traits for the (mostly) paying public. You can always add an appendix at the end about how to customise them further.

Bah, what do I know.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Emily Care on August 26, 2005, 09:54:58 AM
Hi John!

The only two solutions I've seen in practice are (1) rating the cost of the trait based on how broad it is, as in Fudge; or (2) a "pay-as-you-go" scheme such as Descriptors in Theatrix. There you have to pay a Plot Point whenever you make dramatic use of a Descriptor. So the more often a Descriptor is invoked, the more it costs.
I definitely like the latter solution better since broad is as broad does (ie this can be pretty subjective and one person may make a trait broader by their usage than another would have).

However, this is all hinging on having effectiveness connected to traits. That doesn't match much of my experience of free-form play, but does match with some possibly-narrativist mechanics-lite play I've been in. Sean brings up Dogs in the Vineyard's approach which fits with what I mean. Also, Ben L. has told me that from his experience "smoker" is pretty much a broken trait for Breaking the Ice since it can be called into play in every scene just by lighting up. To my mind, it is not the fact that it can be used all the time that makes it broken, but rather the fact that it can be used in a way that won't add much to the players' experience of the game. The fact that the other player gets to award you a die or not should make it be brought in only when it matters/is pleasing etc., but I'm not sure if this address your issues.

Quote
The core problem is the schizophrenia in many (if not most) freeform trait systems. The system advice tells you to pick distinctive, individualistic, and unique traits. However, the actual result of the system is to reward the player for taking traits as broad and generic as she can possibly talk the GM or group into accepting.
Could you give some specific examples? How are the traits used for character effectiveness?

best,
Emily


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Nathan P. on August 26, 2005, 10:01:08 AM
Ah, but the flip side is games that give a list of traits, and then say "or anything else that the GM approves", or some such. In my book, thats basically freeform traits with a lot of examples, is what that is.

Another way to go is have all traits have the same mechanical effectiveness, with differentiation being part of the flavor. That is, something like you get a +1, or whatever, for every trait you bring to table, and you have to work them into the narration, or something like that. There's overlap between that and issues of scale (as in, how many can you bring to the table, etc.), but I feel that its another viable route.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Josh Roby on August 26, 2005, 10:47:10 AM
My solution that is going into Full Light, Full Steam is what I call 'Thematic Batteries' (the name is clunky, yes, but it's period clunky).  Basically, every character has three Thematic Batteries which are freeform descriptors of the character -- Gentleman, Fever Genius, Rake, Competitive, Loyal, etc -- which can be either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on circumstances.  So the Gentleman could get an advantage when attending a salon, whereas he could be at a disadvantage when trying to masquerade as a pirate.

Thing is, you have to charge your Thematic Battery by voluntarily taking the disadvantage in a die check, after which you can discharge the battery later to gain the advantage.  Since any player can call for a die check at any time, for anything, including for the explicit purpose of charging their battery, this serves as an incentive to express your character's drawbacks in order to express their special attributes.  It's also self-regulated.  You can't take 'Awesome Badass that Wins All the Time!' cause you can't make that a disadvantage in order to charge it in the first place.

For instance: my guy is 'Reckless Flyboy'.  As the game is just getting going, the ship is leaving the dock off to parts unknown, I call for a die check for me taking the ship out of dock.  I take the disadvantage, displaying that I'm reckless.  Later on when we're in a high-speed chase through an asteroid field, I can give myself an advantage cause I've got that reckless flyboy edge.  It mirrors a lot of character development and character expression as seen in movies and television -- screwups at the beginning, applying your idiosyncratic abilities towards the end.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: John Kim on August 26, 2005, 10:48:33 AM
While Director Stance (i.e. player ability to frame in traits) may mitigate this effect, it still commonly true that broader traits are easier to bring to bear than narrower traits. Maybe there are exceptions, but that has generally been my experience. Unless every PC uses all his traits all the time (which I have never seen), then it is still true that the system is rewarding having traits that are easier to apply.

Are there other mechanisms which make narrow traits actually easier to apply than broader traits?

Quote
The core problem is the schizophrenia in many (if not most) freeform trait systems. The system advice tells you to pick distinctive, individualistic, and unique traits. However, the actual result of the system is to reward the player for taking traits as broad and generic as she can possibly talk the GM or group into accepting.
Could you give some specific examples? How are the traits used for character effectiveness?
As actual play examples, the GMing section of Over the Edge has some very clear examples of a player dominating play by using very broad traits (I'm thinking of the magical-device-creator PC). As far as I have seen, that is very common -- even in, say, DitV. A Dogs player who has more dice will not only tend to win the Stakes he wants, but will also get more spotlighted narration time because he will have more turns of successfully being able to See and Raise. Applying more traits gets you more dice, so I think that there is a concrete reward for making traits which are easy to apply.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: John Kim on August 26, 2005, 10:54:29 AM

For instance: my guy is 'Reckless Flyboy'. As the game is just getting going, the ship is leaving the dock off to parts unknown, I call for a die check for me taking the ship out of dock. I take the disadvantage, displaying that I'm reckless. Later on when we're in a high-speed chase through an asteroid field, I can give myself an advantage cause I've got that reckless flyboy edge. It mirrors a lot of character development and character expression as seen in movies and television -- screwups at the beginning, applying your idiosyncratic abilities towards the end.

Wow! That's sounds great, and I will definitely have to note that down in my list of cool techniques to use. There are a bunch of games which have pay-as-they-apply disads; though only a handful which have pay-as-you-go advantages. But to tie them together directly makes a huge amount of sense, and as you say mirrors cinematic character development -- problems first which are later shown to be strengths.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Sean on August 26, 2005, 11:01:18 AM
There's always some of that, John, but in Dogs it's pretty darned minor. I mean, fighting a fire, your character can do things like get 2d6 for his excellent eyeglasses because you narrate that they got smudged with smoke. I'd say something similar about augments in extended contests in Heroquest, at least the way I'd run it.

I'd question whether it's rewarding traits that are 'easier to apply' if the goal of applying your traits is to use them to make a thematic statement about your character and the 'difficulty' is just thinking of how they can get narrated in in some way. I mean, I guess you're right that some people are unspeakably lazy, mentally speaking, so they're 'rewarded' in that sense for taking things that are a little easier to narrate in to the kind of conflicts they want, but I don't see how that kills a game that they play.

I'm not denying that the effect you point out exists in these systems, but to my mind it's far less of a problem than in systems where you have to actually 'directly use' the trait in question in imagination to achieve your end.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Emily Care on August 26, 2005, 11:03:20 AM
As actual play examples, the GMing section of Over the Edge has some very clear examples of a player dominating play by using very broad traits (I'm thinking of the magical-device-creator PC). As far as I have seen, that is very common -- even in, say, DitV. A Dogs player who has more dice will not only tend to win the Stakes he wants, but will also get more spotlighted narration time because he will have more turns of successfully being able to See and Raise. Applying more traits gets you more dice, so I think that there is a concrete reward for making traits which are easy to apply.

Okay. So the issue here for me is your definition of free-form traits. I had taken it to mean "traits used in free-form play". Over the Edge & Dogs are not free-form by any definition I know. So it must be the trait specifically that is being referred to as free-form, not the game in which they are used.

I take it, then, thatby "free-form traits" you mean "non-quantified traits used to apply a mechanical bonus." Is this correct? I think this may be a bit of jargon I haven't been exposed to before. If so, it seems very misleading. On the other hand, if people are referring to DitV & Over the Edge as free-form, I want to know.

best,
Emily


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: greyorm on August 26, 2005, 11:04:06 AM
The only two solutions I've seen in practice are (1) rating the cost of the trait based on how broad it is, as in Fudge; or (2) a "pay-as-you-go" scheme such as Descriptors in Theatrix. There you have to pay a Plot Point whenever you make dramatic use of a Descriptor. So the more often a Descriptor is invoked, the more it costs.

There is a third option, John, and it is the one I used in Orx. It's a purely mechanical solution that doesn't rely on the necessary fiat of other freeform trait systems, because I desperately wanted to get away from fiat in play.

It works something like this: it doesn't matter what you call the trait, the only thing important is the value of the trait. Further, the type of trait doesn't even indicate applicability to a situation, so the broadness or narrowness of the trait does not matter. That works because applicability is determined after use, because the scene is also described after use.

Thus having "King of the Thousand-Orc Tribe" is as valuable as having "Stupid Beggar". In fact, you could just erase the names and leave the values, but then you lose the Color the traits are used to indicate.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: John Kim on August 26, 2005, 11:25:54 AM

There is a third option, John, and it is the one I used in Orx. It's a purely mechanical solution that doesn't rely on the necessary fiat of other freeform trait systems, because I desperately wanted to get away from fiat in play.

It works something like this: it doesn't matter what you call the trait, the only thing important is the value of the trait. Further, the type of trait doesn't even indicate applicability to a situation, so the broadness or narrowness of the trait does not matter. That works because applicability is determined after use, because the scene is also described after use.

Cool!  Amend my statement again now to four solutions.  I haven't yet checked out either Full Light, Full Steam or Orx yet, but I'm reading more about them now.  I haven't seen the Orx solution used before.  Are there other games which do this?  To clarify, does only one trait apply for a given scene?  So you pick a trait to apply, then come up with a scene that uses it? 


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Sean on August 26, 2005, 11:32:47 AM
Emily,

I was thinking of John's rant as a kind of counterpoint to Mike's Standard Rant #4:

http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?t=2051

I think 'freeform traits' in John's post just means 'system where anything can be a trait of your character with the same mechanical effect'. And John's point is that in most games you're consistently interacting with some types of imaginary material more than others, so picking traits that effect that stuff (whatever it is) more is going to be a better choice from an effectiveness point of view. It follows from this, as John notes, that there's a kind of built-in-incentive to take traits like "fighter" or "lucky" or "jack-of-all-trades" or whatever that you can narrate in anywhere.

This is an issue that people designing games with open-ended trait selection need to take into account. Another way of dealing with it that should also be mentioned is for the GM to treat everything on the character sheet the way she's encouraged to deal with e.g. Keys in TSoY: if a trait's on the sheet, the GM should treat it as a request for opportunities for conflicts which involve that stuff, and try to provide them more or less equally.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Sean on August 26, 2005, 11:36:04 AM
Blah. Damn this editing. That's part of what I took to be John's point, anyway. The other part is that because broad traits are consistently rewarded you pay a price for something that often seems to be a great virtue of open-ended trait systems: the ability to characterize your character in unique, fun, idiosyncratic, stylish, etc. sort of ways.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: HMT on August 26, 2005, 12:15:32 PM
... Cool! Amend my statement again now to four solutions...

Storyboard (http://www.mcgames.com/storybrd.htm) presents another. In Storyboard, one rolls versus a target number and counts successes. The number of dice rolled is determined by the number of character traits that apply. The target number is determined by the specificity of the character's most narrowly focused applicable trait.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: lumpley on August 26, 2005, 12:21:47 PM
If anyone cares, I'm comfy with John's assessment of Dogs, with the caveat that it's about "easier to use," not strictly "broader." Sometimes broad traits are easier to bring to bear, sometimes narrow traits are.

If we had a hundred Dogs characters in front of us, it'd be pretty easy - not totally trivial, but we could make a start - pretty easy to put stars next to all the easy-to-use traits. I predict you'd find as many stars next to narrow traits as broad ones.

I'm not especially concerned about it. I don't think it can make-or-break play, in Dogs' case. Better I should worry about scene framing.

-Vincent


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: greyorm on August 26, 2005, 12:31:49 PM
I haven't seen the Orx solution used before.  Are there other games which do this?  To clarify, does only one trait apply for a given scene?  So you pick a trait to apply, then come up with a scene that uses it?

1. Not that I'm aware of; I developed this solution in a vaccum. If there are other games, I'd love to hear about them myself.

2. You can apply any or all of your traits to a roll to get bonus dice; however, you can only use each trait once per Scene.

Not relevant to the discussion, but to satisfy your own curiousity (and to let me talk about my game more): this is mitigated by the problem of "1s". That is, if you roll a "1" on any die, no matter if your best roll beats the opposition's best and you succeed at the task, you end up with a reduction of one of your main traits. You can also completely lose a trait this way, if other circumstances are right.

3. It can happen that way, but it is a bit more complex than that. Who gets to define the start of the scene is dependent upon who WANTS to do so; however, a scene doesn't necessarily have to USE the trait...or rather BE RESOLVED BY the trait at all. It just has to reference it or display it somehow.

I use the example in the text of an orc using his "Nose-picking Champion" trait in a battle. It doesn't help him in the battle at all, but at the end of his description of the battle, the players notes the orc picks his nose and flicks a booger off his finger.

I know Simulationists start screaming "IT BURNS! IT BURNS! AHHHH! I can't stand the LIGHT!" at this point because of the non-relational nature of the mechanic, but whatever. Fuck 'em. This gets by the whole, "Damn, that trait couldn't be of any use here," problem, and help supports the use of the traits as narrative Color-identity for the orc, because what defines them as characters in the literary/descriptive sense keeps popping up when they do things.

Frex, the example above could have as easily used "Long, Black Dreads" as a trait, and the whole schtick at that point could be the orc flipping his dreads out of his face at the end of the battle, or whipping an enemy with them, or something else I haven't thought of in the half-a-second it took me to think of those two possibilities.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: chadu on August 26, 2005, 01:01:39 PM
Storyboard (http://www.mcgames.com/storybrd.htm) presents another. In Storyboard, one rolls versus a target number and counts successes. The number of dice rolled is determined by the number of character traits that apply. The target number is determined by the specificity of the character's most narrowly focused applicable trait.

Awesome. Someone else who's heard of Storyboard.

CU


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: chadu on August 26, 2005, 01:12:33 PM
This is a general rant about freeform traits, prompted by some off-board discussion. I'm not opposed to them in general, but I think that some designers choose them as a matter of course without thinking about the consequences.

Some of us do think about it.

The core problem is the schizophrenia in many (if not most) freeform trait systems. The system advice tells you to pick distinctive, individualistic, and unique traits. However, the actual result of the system is to reward the player for taking traits as broad and generic as she can possibly talk the GM or group into accepting. So if they can talk the group into accepting "Jack-of-All-Trades" or "Natural Genius" or "Highly Trained Super Agent", then they are rewarded by constantly getting to add in the bonus for those broad traits. Choosing narrow, distinctive, or idiosyncratic traits like "Repressed love for half-brother Juan" or "I can make a mean stew" rarely benefits the player system-wise.

In the various PDQ-based games, I advise GMs to think about the "graininess" of Qualities they permit. Take "Teacher" for example: in some games, that's just right; in others, too broad (pick "History Teacher" instead). Or, consider ".38 Special" -- could be considered too narrow.

One way around this is the penumbra concept for abilities that I adopted from Unknown Armies. So, any reasonable use of the skill is kosher ("Gunplay" allows more things than simply shooting other folks -- finding a gunsmith, casting bullets, knowledge of the history of firearms, etc.). Provided the GM isn't a jerk, a Quality like "I can make a mean stew" could cover a lot of ground as regards cooking, spices, making things homey and comfy, etc.

Sure, broader traits like "Perceptive" or "Lucky" are more handy across the board... but they aren't necessarily more interesting or compelling or evocative that "High School History Teacher" or "In Love with Tess Trueheart."


CU


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Marco on August 26, 2005, 02:46:19 PM
In GEAR traits are free-form but are all built and designed so as to spell out exactly what they do. That was my solution to this exact issue.

-Marco


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Sydney Freedberg on August 26, 2005, 06:08:17 PM
3 unrelated comments

1) Joshua's "Thematic Batteries": cool!

2) Broad vs specific traits: In playing lots of Capes, and a bit of Dogs, I've found that the really broad traits can paradoxically be so vague or bland it's hard to narrate them into the conflict, at least if you care about impressing your fellow player with the coolness of your narration. Conversely, the narrow stuff, by being really specific, can stimulate your imagination and make narrating them in easier and more fun.

3) An additional method for pricing traits, although I've not seen this in an actual game: Choose whatever cost you like for your trait; the higher the cost, the more often it has to come up -- or, as Ben "Polaris" Lehman pointed out when I mentioned this idea to him, what you're paying for is scene-framing power. E.g. I could pay 1 point for "master swordsman" and only get to bring it up in one scene per session, which probably means the fight scene; you could pay 10 points for "master swordsman" and get to bring it up in every scene, which means either (a) your reputation as a swordsman impresses everyone you meet, your trained reflexes help you catch the falling puppy, your blade is so shiny you can shave in it and thus look prettier, etc. etc., or (b) every scene you're in becomes a fight scene.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Jason Lee on August 26, 2005, 07:03:29 PM
If anyone cares, I'm comfy with John's assessment of Dogs, with the caveat that it's about "easier to use," not strictly "broader." Sometimes broad traits are easier to bring to bear, sometimes narrow traits are.

This deserves repeating. The actual value of a trait is not determined by how broad or narrow it is, but instead by how often it interacts with play - how often it is used in validation. It's a seemingly minor detail, but it trashes the idea that just setting higher costs on broader traits will somehow create balance. If you have the skill Golden Battle Axe then sure, that'll likely interact with play less than Combat, but if you solve most of your conflicts with your golden battle axe, then that trait is worth quite a bit more than Scholar even though Scholar is more broad. Usually broad means more opportunities for use, so I'm not actually disagreeing. Im more quibbling over wording, perhaps unnecessarily.

In a broad/narrow point balance system the player who can't come up with angles to a conflict that would employ more narrow traits gains a significant effectiveness boost from broad traits. However, the player who can up with creative uses for their narrow traits gains an effectiveness boost by having additional narrow traits, due to the synergy that seems to happen when you aquire traits that more easily cover additional situations. For one player we have broad traits as more powerful, and for the other narrow traits are more powerful. In a point balance system, that is.

****

One other self-balancing approach is to assign a chance of something bad happening every time a trait comes into play - the more you use it, the more it can hurt you. Say you have a magic system where you pick a trigger event - it can be as broad or narrow as you like (every sunrise, every 3rd solar eclipse, etc). When that trigger event occurs you have a 50% chance of gaining a +1 and a 50% of incurring a -1 until the next trigger even. So the trait ends up balancing itself, because it confers no actual effectiveness bonus or loss. I don't image this would work too well for most systems, and I'm not sure how you would modifying it to apply to attributes/skills, but I just thought I'd toss it out there.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Callan S. on August 26, 2005, 08:06:45 PM
1 unit of reward for the first time a trait is used in a session.
1 unit of reward if the trait is never used or only used once in a session.

There, now you have incentive to take "Makes a mean stew". If it never comes up, your rewarded. If it does come up just the once, it's even better.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: chadu on August 26, 2005, 09:57:16 PM
A further thought:

However, the actual result of the system is to reward the player for taking traits as broad and generic as she can possibly talk the GM or group into accepting. So if they can talk the group into accepting "Jack-of-All-Trades" or "Natural Genius" or "Highly Trained Super Agent", then they are rewarded by constantly getting to add in the bonus for those broad traits.

(My bolds.)

This struck me after I'd left my computer for the day: If the player managed to convince the group into accepting their super-broad ability, well, they all have agreed that it was okay within their contract for the game.

So that wouldn't be a problem, unless the other players had already selected narrow traits, and for some reason refused to broaden them in the face of broader attributes being accepted, and only then got angry about it later.


CU





Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: John Kim on August 26, 2005, 10:24:58 PM

This struck me after I'd left my computer for the day: If the player managed to convince the group into accepting their super-broad ability, well, they all have agreed that it was okay within their contract for the game.

So that wouldn't be a problem, unless the other players had already selected narrow traits, and for some reason refused to broaden them in the face of broader attributes being accepted, and only then got angry about it later.

To clarify, the problem I suggested is the schizophrenia of the game design. That is, if a game design actually intends for players to have very broad traits and suggests this in its advice to players, then as you point out, that is fine. The game intended it, the group has accepted it, and everything is in harmony.

The problem comes from the mismatch in systems which claim (in text) to encourage distinctive, narrow individual traits -- but where the actual system reward comes from having as broadly-applicable a trait as you can get away with. It's like claiming to support cinematic action when your combat system is really gritty. Yes, players can still attempt cinematic moves like firing two-fisted while leaping through windows -- but the system actually penalizes those moves. Now, you might still see such moves in a group which really likes cinematic action, but that is in spite of the system rather than encouraged by it. The players are doing it in spite of a systemic penalty for that.



Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: chadu on August 26, 2005, 10:51:16 PM
To clarify, the problem I suggested is the schizophrenia of the game design. That is, if a game design actually intends for players to have very broad traits and suggests this in its advice to players, then as you point out, that is fine. The game intended it, the group has accepted it, and everything is in harmony.

The problem comes from the mismatch in systems which claim (in text) to encourage distinctive, narrow individual traits -- but where the actual system reward comes from having as broadly-applicable a trait as you can get away with.

I see what you're saying, but is it a systemic reward or a social reward?

I guess I'm saying if the system indicates a preference for "go narrow" but the players and GM (if any) "go broad" is that a problem in the game design (the text), or the way the game is played (the performance), or the way the game is judged (the evaluation)?

Look at Monopoly, which uses d6s. Some groups may see it as a benefit if they chose to use d8s instead. The Monopoly rules encourage d6s... is it the rules' fault that the players are going against that suggestion by using d8s? (A broad-stroke and flawed analogy, but I hope it expresses the perspective I'm trying to point out.)

Don't get me wrong, your point is eminently valid. But I'm just wondering if all the blame can be laid at the feet of the system. You cannot build a web of rules such that folks cannot minimax and push the boundaries and whatnot.

CU





Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Sean on August 27, 2005, 04:16:30 AM
Chad wrote:

Quote
So that wouldn't be a problem, unless the other players had already selected narrow traits, and for some reason refused to broaden them in the face of broader attributes being accepted, and only then got angry about it later.

This does happen though. It particularly happens if the GM (in a traditional game) favors a particular challenge mix (in my experience, often combat). You start out, the GM says: 'freeform traits! total self-definition! make the guy you always wanted to play!' and so we get Zen Origami Master and Girl in Every Port and all that kind of stuff.

But then in play the guy who made the battle-scarred veteran has traits that consistently apply to what's actually going on much more often, and the other players get pissed.

There are a lot of good solutions in this thread. One point I was trying to make earlier though is that if you're playing a game like this in a sense every freeform trait the player comes up with is a request to the GM: 'make this relevant in play'. So it's maybe good if setting detail or other material provided up front helps to indicate the things that are going to be generally relevant.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: chadu on August 27, 2005, 08:38:07 AM
Chad wrote:
Quote
So that wouldn't be a problem, unless the other players had already selected narrow traits, and for some reason refused to broaden them in the face of broader attributes being accepted, and only then got angry about it later.

This does happen though. It particularly happens if the GM (in a traditional game) favors a particular challenge mix (in my experience, often combat). You start out, the GM says: 'freeform traits! total self-definition! make the guy you always wanted to play!' and so we get Zen Origami Master and Girl in Every Port and all that kind of stuff.

But then in play the guy who made the battle-scarred veteran has traits that consistently apply to what's actually going on much more often, and the other players get pissed.

True enough. That's one big reason that I try to have everybody making characters together, out loud, and (when I GM) offer guidance on what's too broad and too narrow.

There are a lot of good solutions in this thread. One point I was trying to make earlier though is that if you're playing a game like this in a sense every freeform trait the player comes up with is a request to the GM: 'make this relevant in play'. So it's maybe good if setting detail or other material provided up front helps to indicate the things that are going to be generally relevant.

I think that's an important thing that probably needs to be made extremely explicit in rules. If player A takes Zen Origami Master, it's the job of the  GM (or GM-equivalent) to use that trait. Maybe not every session, but no less than one out of three sessions.

I'm not as sold on the differeing point costs for broad vs. narrow, though.

CU


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Troy_Costisick on August 27, 2005, 08:43:21 AM
Heya,

Quote
The problem comes from the mismatch in systems which claim (in text) to encourage distinctive, narrow individual traits -- but where the actual system reward comes from having as broadly-applicable a trait as you can get away with.

-Orkworld is an example of this IMHO.  But, there's a lot of social constract that goes into that game anyway.  So it's not been a problem for me and my group. :)

Peace,

-Troy


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Callan S. on August 27, 2005, 02:15:59 PM
A further thought:

However, the actual result of the system is to reward the player for taking traits as broad and generic as she can possibly talk the GM or group into accepting. So if they can talk the group into accepting "Jack-of-All-Trades" or "Natural Genius" or "Highly Trained Super Agent", then they are rewarded by constantly getting to add in the bonus for those broad traits.

(My bolds.)

This struck me after I'd left my computer for the day: If the player managed to convince the group into accepting their super-broad ability, well, they all have agreed that it was okay within their contract for the game.

So that wouldn't be a problem, unless the other players had already selected narrow traits, and for some reason refused to broaden them in the face of broader attributes being accepted, and only then got angry about it later.

CU
That's a really good point. They have agreed, but it's skewed the reason some of the players joined the game in the first place. If you were really keen on seeing traits like 'Makes a mean stew' and that's why you wanted to play this game, you might end up agreeing to the broad trait, but your not really getting what you came for.

Which is a testament to how system can be a catalyst that helps push someone out of their comfort zone into an area they otherwise wouldn't go. Here it's in a bad way, but the same technique could be used in a good way too, I imagine.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Darcy Burgess on August 27, 2005, 03:41:21 PM
Another kick at the very same can -- which really amounts to balance.  I implemented this in an early draft of Orbital, which hasn't gone beyond that stage, due to other difficulties.  However, evening the playing field between "better" and "worse" freeform traits it did do.

1) all rolls are opposed

2) Wherever the "buck stops" decides if a given matchup of traits includes one that's more applicable (read: focused, less munchkin-ey, or whatever your issue with freeform trait balance is) to the given conflict/task.  That trait gets a mechanical bonus.  (In Orbital's case, it was extra dice in the die pool.  I could just as easily be die modifiers or whatever.)

Done.

I imagine that this solution would work really well in both Narr- and Gamist-facilitating designs.  I could see some problems with it in a Sim-facilitating game, though.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: jaw6 on August 27, 2005, 06:15:38 PM
Maybe it's just me, but I see a different axis of interaction with free-form systems, in regards "balance". I mean, if it's free-form, and I say, "Stronger than a chicken" and some other player says, "Stronger than a moose" -- there's nothing in the system stopping me from being stronger than a moose, or panda, or Hercules, or whatever. I think the operating assumption is that if I chose "stronger than chicken", I must've wanted to play a stronger-than-chicken-character, for whatever reason.

In other words, if the sky's the limit, why should this kind of balance matter?


On the other hand (arguing with myself), I think advising a GM to watch spot-light time between characters whose trait vary in applicability is sound advice, but it's just the standard GM advice to "share the spotlight" -- I guess I don't see it deserving any special mention just for free-form traits.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Emily Care on August 27, 2005, 09:20:15 PM
Maybe it's just me, but I see a different axis of interaction with free-form systems, in regards "balance". I mean, if it's free-form, and I say, "Stronger than a chicken" and some other player says, "Stronger than a moose" -- there's nothing in the system stopping me from being stronger than a moose, or panda, or Hercules, or whatever. I think the operating assumption is that if I chose "stronger than chicken", I must've wanted to play a stronger-than-chicken-character, for whatever reason.

John is apparently not talking about freeform systems, but non- or minimally quantified traits.

Please correct as appropriate, John, others.

best,
Emily


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Mikael on August 28, 2005, 06:55:42 AM
I also really like the Thematic Battery idea. I think that it could be easily applied to many systems by requiring that the trait be "negatively charged" via free narration in a suitable context, and then discharged through normal use in a specific system.

That said, I am not sure whether the battery idea really addresses the question of broad vs. narrow traits - it will probably be easier to charge a broad trait than a narrow one, especially if boring, repetitive use of traits is somewhat discouraged, like it often is.

I thought that it might also be interesting to have one example of more quantified traits explicitly spelled out as an example in this thread. In Everway, Powers are rated with the following system:

Is the power Versatile? Can it be used in various, imaginative ways? If yes, cost: +1 points.
Is the power Major? Can it be expected to have a significant impact on the story? If yes, cost +1 points.
Is the power Frequent? Will it be used often? If yes, cost +1. Note that all combat-relevant powers are automatically considered Frequent.

The cost of each power is determined through negotiation and can range from 0 to 3 or more, as each of the categories above can be seen to apply multiple times - "twice Major" and so on.

I think that this system is a good blend of freeform and structured, but not automatically perfect. It still takes some negotiation and constant vigilance to ensure an "equal opportunity" game.

Cheers,
+ Mikael


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Josh Roby on August 29, 2005, 09:28:59 AM
That said, I am not sure whether the battery idea really addresses the question of broad vs. narrow traits - it will probably be easier to charge a broad trait than a narrow one, especially if boring, repetitive use of traits is somewhat discouraged, like it often is.

When you give enough control over to the players, this more-or-less becomes a moot point. Whether I have something very generalized like "Fever Genius" or something very specific such as "Cockney Low-Life", if I am empowered with the ability to call for a die check and apply my thematic battery whenever I like, I don't have to wait for appropriate circumstances to come up; I can fabricate them entirely.

The scene is set in a big marketplace where the party of PCs is going to go barter with Mister Such-and-Such. Before we get in there, though, I call for a die check and declare that my Cockney Low-Life is in a bar brawl in the marketplace. In doing so, I'm not derailing anything; I'm helping to contextualize the setting, giving it color, and characterizing my PC. The players can riff off of that, and all the sudden this isn't a boring negotiation session, it's bartering in a seedy dive full of dangerous people.

If player input is totally constrained to what the character is capable of (therefore barring 'I'm in a barfight'), then yes, the broad/narrow thing is a problem. The players sit around and wait for the GM to throw them a bone. You have to invert the dynamics a bit and allow players to help tell the story rather than just participate in it, at which point the broad/narrow distinction becomes meaningless -- the players can contextualize anything.


Title: Re: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits
Post by: Mikael on August 29, 2005, 10:17:36 AM
That said, I am not sure whether the battery idea really addresses the question of broad vs. narrow traits - it will probably be easier to charge a broad trait than a narrow one, especially if boring, repetitive use of traits is somewhat discouraged, like it often is.

<snip>

If player input is totally constrained to what the character is capable of (therefore barring 'I'm in a barfight'), then yes, the broad/narrow thing is a problem. The players sit around and wait for the GM to throw them a bone. You have to invert the dynamics a bit and allow players to help tell the story rather than just participate in it, at which point the broad/narrow distinction becomes meaningless -- the players can contextualize anything.

I agree completely. However, my point was that your statement above is valid regardless of whether we are talking about your charge-discharge system or freeform traits in general - and thus I think the Thematic Batteries are an excellent system, but not relevant to the broad/narrow discussion.

But perhaps I am missing something.

+ Mikael