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Author Topic: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits  (Read 10876 times)
John Kim
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« 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. 
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- John
Sean
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« Reply #1 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).
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gsoylent
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« Reply #2 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.
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Emily Care
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« Reply #3 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
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Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

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Nathan P.
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« Reply #4 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.
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Nathan P.
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #5 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.
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John Kim
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« Reply #6 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.  
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John Kim
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« Reply #7 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. 
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Sean
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« Reply #8 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.
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Emily Care
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« Reply #9 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, that by "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
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greyorm
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« Reply #10 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.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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John Kim
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« Reply #11 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? 
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Sean
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« Reply #12 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.
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Sean
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« Reply #13 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.
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HMT
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« Reply #14 on: August 26, 2005, 12:15:32 PM »

... Cool!  Amend my statement again now to four solutions...

Storyboard 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.
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