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Author Topic: John's Standard Rant #1: Freeform Traits  (Read 10811 times)
lumpley
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« Reply #15 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
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greyorm
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« Reply #16 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.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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chadu
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« Reply #17 on: August 26, 2005, 01:01:39 PM »

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.

Awesome. Someone else who's heard of Storyboard.

CU
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Chad Underkoffler [chadu@yahoo.com]

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chadu
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« Reply #18 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
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Chad Underkoffler [chadu@yahoo.com]

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Marco
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« Reply #19 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
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #20 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.
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Jason Lee
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« Reply #21 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.
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- Cruciel
Callan S.
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« Reply #22 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.
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Philosopher Gamer
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chadu
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« Reply #23 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



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Chad Underkoffler [chadu@yahoo.com]

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John Kim
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« Reply #24 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.

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- John
chadu
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« Reply #25 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



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Chad Underkoffler [chadu@yahoo.com]

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Sean
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« Reply #26 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.
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chadu
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« Reply #27 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
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Chad Underkoffler [chadu@yahoo.com]

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Troy_Costisick
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« Reply #28 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
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Callan S.
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« Reply #29 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.
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Philosopher Gamer
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