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Descriptors: What's the big deal?

Started by Andrew Cooper, May 24, 2006, 12:17:44 PM

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Andrew Cooper

I've been reading advice on creating one sheets and prepping for Sorcerer play and creating new Descriptors customized for the setting gets a fair amount of press.  Why is this?  From just reading the rules the Descriptors just look like a bit of color for the players to latch on to.  They don't seem to have a great deal of mechanical punch.  Am I missing something?  I'd hate to start a game and realize I missed a crucial element of prep. Or that I glossed over something I thought was relatively insignificant only to discover that it wasn't as insignificant as I thought.


As I understand them, Descriptors define a conceptual field in which the trait functions at full dice.  Outside that range, effectiveness is reduced. Whether a descriptor applies in a particular play situation is decided by the group at that time.

- Alan

A Writer's Blog:


Don't underestimate the psychological power of a effectively chosen word to serve as a narrative springboard regardless of whether it has any mechanical impact at all.  You can define your setting (i.e. set your players' expectations of what the flavor of the game will be) more effectively in three short lists of descriptors than in 3 pages of background text.


To back up what Ralph said I think you're underestimating the power of "latching onto color," for establishing your setting.  Right now I'm setting up a Southern Gothic Sorcerer game and I'm working up a customized list.  Often you'll find that your custmizations are narrower versions of what's already in the book.

For example, consider the Stamina descriptor "scrapper" from the book.  In my game being sort of a streetwise thug isn't very approriate but nor is every character a clean-cut saint.  So I've replaced Scrapper with Brotherly Brawler to indicate someone who may have grown up as the runt of the family or had a rough time at school.

Similarly I've broken up Belief System specifically into Religious and Non-Religious because that distincition is WAY important within the genre we're working.

My Lore descriptor list is almost unrecognizable from the core book.



Hi Andrew,

You know how in many games you can good a good feel for the setting of a game by looking at what classes, clans or splat options are available for a character?  Descriptors do the same thing.  They help paint concrete examples of what characters are like in -your- sorcerer game, in this particular setting you've made.   

Descriptors tell everyone playing, "This is the stuff heroes (or at least protagonists) are made of", as well as provides examples of ways to approach situations in the game.  For example, if you include "Frenzied Berserker" descriptor, it's expected that some people will have frenzied berserk rampages- perhaps fine for certain settings, but probably wouldn't fit for a Lovecraftian mental-horror sort of game.  So the ones you choose to include, as much as the ones you leave absent really paint the setting, the heroes, and the approaches that fit the style of your game.



To give a practical example, here's some Will Descriptors from various one-sheets that have been posted in this forum:

Academically Trained
Commanding Presence

If a player whose character has Will 6 Commanding Presence decides to use his 6 Will to comfort a distressed 5 year old girl, the player should find a way to describe _how_ the character does that while maintaining the integrity of the Descriptor.  If the rest of the group doesn't buy it, the GM is justified in giving bonus dice to the opposition.

- Alan

A Writer's Blog:

Andrew Cooper

Thanks to everyone.  I really wasn't groking how Descriptors were used practically and this really helps.

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Alan, I think you're over-estimating descriptors' impact on dice. It's important to recognize that they describe how the character typically gets all those dice ... but acting in relation to that descriptor in any way is worth full dice - up to and including fighting against that tendency in oneself.

A character with "user" for a Will descriptor is typically not penalized for acting "off"-descriptor, because it's usually the very contrast to his or her normal behavior that makes the action interesting.

You are describing the rules very much as if they were enforcers to keep the players "in character," and that's not really the best way to look at it.

Best, Ron


A way I've often thought about it is that the descriptor is what hooks into the narrative being made, while the dice determine the influence that aspect has over the narrative.  That is, in Sorcerer a 3 in Stamina does not correlate to an absolute value of weight that can be hauled or even to a well set range.  That 3 merely means 3 base dice when doing Stamina things, a decent but not overwhelming impact on the narrative when things get physical.  The descriptor, Body Builder, would indicate a greater lift capacity than, say, Gymnast.  Even if they both had the same number of dice.

However, as Ron said, there wouldn't be a penalty for the Gymnast to lift or for the Body Builder to be graceful.  Those actions would suggest that something interesting and different is going on, as the Gymnast would usually bound over an obstacle and the Body Builder heave it out of the way.  Thinking about going with and against type is a good way to get bonus dice.

Sydney Freedberg

Think of the descriptor as a springboard for cool and appropriate narration, not as a straightjacket. People have this problem in Capes all the time: "Oh no, my superhero's Kewl Powerz have been neutralized by Kryptonite, how do I use my 'laser beam eyes' ability now?" "Well, how about 'I turn my fierce glare at the villain, my eyes flicker with energy -- and nothing happens! So I hit him with a brick!'" As I understand both games, and many others that use trait descriptors this way (HeroQuest, Prime Time Adventures, Dogs in the Vineyard), you still get your dice for narrating the struggle against the limits of your descriptors, or even, in many cases, for narrating the failure of your ability in an interesting way.


Descriptors are color and color's freaking important.  Color get's everyone on the same page.

There was always this silence when I would hand out the descriptor lists and players put them together in delightful and unexpected ways to create their characters.  Sometimes they came to the table with an idea and the descriptors would flesh the ideas out, sometimes they would come to the table with nothing and the descriptors would inspire them.

Descriptors tie the characters to the world, force players to let the GM know what interests them about the fiction and sometimes even they tie characters together in little odd ways.

Descriptors are world building, the important parts, because they are the parts the players can cuddle right into their characters.

Andrew Cooper

I know Color is important.  I didn't mean to sound like it wasn't and I "sorta" got the Color-related aspect of Descriptors.  My main concern was that I was missing a mechanical aspect to them somewhere.  It doesn't doesn't look like I was.  What I was missing was the strong tie-in to the setting.  I was thinking of them more along the lines of delimiters for Traits and that such delimiters must have a mechanical limitation built into them.  That was obviously not the case after reading the responses here.  Thanks for the help guys!


I dunno... I think there is a strong mechanical factor in the descriptors: I use them all the time for currency.

If a player is struggling against the cold of a blizzard and I call for a Stamina test, the player might say: "I've got Iron Will for my Descriptor (or 'ard as Nails or whatever...) and then I see that one is thematically tied to the other, and will allow that player to make a roll test versus Will and use that as Currency or to modify the Stamina test.

Likewise, a character who is a lawyer and is using his Lawyer cover would be allowed to use his Will Descriptor: Manipulative as currency for the Lawyer cover roll when arguing a case.

But perhaps I've been doing it wrong?

Ron Edwards

Perfectly all right. You're using Color as it's meant to be used - for opportunistic application of the System.

Best, Ron