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Can someone explain the true reason behind "traits" (PtA style) to me?

Started by Markus, September 10, 2008, 07:15:58 PM

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Callan S.

Aye! Just like a poet could use words very, very effectively to convey their message, someone can use a system very, very effectively and yet still be like the poet, rather than a gamist player.

I wonder if naming traits is a matter of practicality (like turn order based on seating, or whatever) or if it's an authorship tool (like making thematically significant choices, or naming spiritual attributes in 'The riddle of steel' is)? Or can only the designer say?
Philosopher Gamer


Hi Ron, Callan,
thanks for your replies. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I don't understand them. Well, most of it makes perfect sense to me, but I have this strange feeling that what Ron described is only part of my problem.

I have this example in mind: let's say that I favor story now over everything else, and all the people playing with me share this mindset. No agenda clash whatsoever. In a lot of systems, I'll have at least two items from my previous list jumping at me from my character sheet. Let's say that this particular system tries to do both #1, #2 and #3. I think there is a good number of systems doing just that, to different degrees.

If I understand correctly, basically you're saying, 'drive towards your goal with whatever means the system gives to you'. I'm not thinking about gamism or sim or anything else: my goal is 100% story now. Regardless of my goal however, the system is saying this to me: "do *this* and you'll roll more dice!" "Do *that* and you'll roll less dice!" (or whichever effectiveness-bumping mechanic is at work).

So my question basically remains the same: do you really find that just any kind of "this", in the sentence above, can be a functional narrativist tool? Because I'm completely, utterly failing to see how Ron's "improved initiative" example is a functional "this" in this context.

I care about your answers a lot, because once I understand your point, a whole lot of games that now are just accumulating dust on my shelf could become interesting to me again. Thanks in advance!

PS: I'm noticing that very few people tried to answer to my previous questions about traits. So I'm planning to tackle this problem from a different angle, but I'd like to hear your comment on this before actually doing it. Basically, I'd like to start a new thread here in Actual Play, asking people for examples of successful use of 'traits' in their games, with the largest possible amount of detail down to the very words spoken at the table. I'm interested in all those 'real' events going on at the table, that in most AP reports get summarized with 'I used trait X'. I suspect I could learn a lot from this. Would that be an OK thing to do here in the AP forum, given that it's more an actual play 'request' than an actual play 'report'?

thanks again!


Callan S.

QuoteSo my question basically remains the same: do you really find that just any kind of "this", in the sentence above, can be a functional narrativist tool? Because I'm completely, utterly failing to see how Ron's "improved initiative" example is a functional "this" in this context.
Damn, yes, I see what you mean, I think! I usually spot the disconnect your seeing...didn't this time, for some reason.

Okay, I'll describe how I engage the situation. I watched a documentary once on people who make scupltures out of wood. One craftsman described the start of the process it as looking at the block of  wood and seeing what sculpture was in the wood, waiting to be made. Then it was a matter of carving it out.

So they'd see something in that block of wood that they could shape it into (you get what I mean?). The same goes for the improved initiative (in terms of how I engage this situation) - rather than Ron telling you what it means when he uses it in game, its about you seeing or trying to see what's in the 'block' so to speak. This includes the possiblity of not seeing anything at all - it might be too abstract (number nine syndrome is an example of high abstraction). Also, to see something in the 'block' requires creativity from you and creativity cannot be demanded (I could go on for a few paragraphs about that).

For example, what I could see in the improved initative 'block' instead is a character who doesn't necessarily have a problem with family or love. I think maybe he likes being a fast warrior, and like a workaholic, while he might try and placate family and love, it's potentially all token. If the character faced this, he might snap out of workaholism, or he might say in terms of whats important, hes doing it already and will keep doing it. I wonder which?

Pure invention on my part. It's not 'there' in improved initiative at all. It raised a question, a good question, in my mind. But there's nothing in the actual mechanics of improved intiative. Ron attached an issue to it(and I used part of that in forming my question), but its an attachment - its not inherant to the mechanics. It's the emotional attachment that matters.

If you wanted to do it like that, yeah, you look at the system use and you 'see' something in it (which is really just inventing something in it). This can be impossible to do if it's just too abstract - I don't have any answers for what to do in this case, except suggest rules can be written that have considerably lower abstraction levels. Also if someone else is insisting there's something in the trait, it kills the ability to creatively see something in it. Because they keep telling you exactly what to see. I don't know what to do about this at all.

From what you describe of the pools trait mechanics, it's just too abstract for you (too abstract for me as well). And it sounds like a valid system move to plug any old thing into a trait. Doing anything beyond suggesting they do something else would apply force*. There really isn't much to be done except give up on that particular system.

So yeah, it's really up to whether you can see a narrativist tool in any particular "this". If you can't, its doesn't work and that has to be accepted rather than trying to force you to see it. It's like looking at abstract art - sometimes you just can't see anything in it but blocks or lines. Some people might see all sorts of wonderful things, but sometimes it's just blocks and lines and vectors.

Or maybe I see the whole thing the wrong way or something. But that seems to be how it all works, to me.

Does that produce atleast one practical outcome for you, on how to cover this and move on? It might not be a happy one - those books on your bookshelf might be include a large amount of abstraction. But it is one way of moving on, I think.

* To do the full bookwork on this for the sake of general reading: Once in play, anything beyond suggestion is force. And if you just suggest, well they can decline a suggestion and still use Bobba Fett, leaving you at abstraction again. Finally, if you think 'Oh, maybe I didn't suggest in just the right manner' it's heading back over to force. Suggestion means genuinely accepting they might decline - its not suggestion if it involves figuring out how to get them to do something next time.
Philosopher Gamer

Marshall Burns

I'm thinking that the main thrust of Ron's "improved initiative" example is that he made the character such that fighting would not be an issue at all -- such that fighting would not challenge the character, which means that A) the character will look cool in fights, and B) effective (and therefore interesting) challenges would have to come from other arenas.  Arenas which, in this case, Ron was interested in exploring.  I'm not familiar with the game in question, but I am familiar with that technique.  In fact, in my game The Rustbelt, in chargen you set your scores arbitrarily to whatever value you want, for exactly this purpose.  This also strikes me as a potential use for traits in the Pool.


Ron Edwards

Hi Markus,

I'm glad you brought up the issue of "when does this Trait apply" in the [Space Rat] Femme babe action at GenCon thread, and I'll address that there. Here, I'd like to follow up on my L5R character Kakita Gan and bring this thread topic into the very important concept of Positioning.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Positioning is one of the three conceptual features of a role-playing character (yes, any character; this is high-level theory stuff). Rules for character creation, use, and change only make sense insofar as they play into these three things. Resources are like the battery for the character; if they are brought too low, the character cannot be played. Some games set them as "always on," like PTA, and recently some games have set them to fail at specific stages of play, like Polaris, but most of us are familiar with them through hit points, wound levels, energy levels, and similar. Also, in many games, lowered resources places limits on what a character can do. Effectiveness is about the impact a character can have on any aspects of play - the quintessential Effectiveness mechanic is a damage roll for a successful attack. But it applies to all rolls to do stuff, or for that matter, rules to do stuff including things which do not require mechanics like rolls or card draws. Positioning is about how the character relates to everything else in the game, both fictionally ("Loves animals, Extreme," "Hunted by his villainous grandfather") and procedurally ("spend a Story Point to say that this just-encountered NPC is a relative").

In this construction, many games use rules and points to combine and relate specific aspects of the three things. It's more typical to blend them, mechanically, than to render them distinct. So Experience Points in Champions, for instance, may be spent to increase a character's Strength or Energy Blast (Effectiveness), to increase Endurance or Stun or Body (Resources), or to modify what in that game is called a Disadvantage, e.g. reduce the harm intended by a designated enemy (Positioning).

In this day and age of RPG design, I think Positioning might rightly be recognized as the most central aspect of one's character, but as we all know, historically, the reverse has been the case. A good example: in the 20+ distinct in-setting magic "systems" in Talislanta, all of them feature a Bolt, Shield, and Wall spell, regardless of the absurdity of an "Alchemical Bolt" spell among others. This illustrates that effectiveness in the standing paradigm of combat as previously-established by Champions and RuneQuest, is more central to play than how thematic or flexible magic is. To be clear, by "absurd" I am referring only peripherally to in-game metaphysics and far more to an aesthetic, thematic standard.

OK, so what does all this have to do with Kakita Gan's traits? In this game, there are many detailed features of a character, in addition to the basic attributes and skills: Clan identity, Advantages, Disadvantages, and a list of 20 questions. My point is that most of them are very easily identifiable as Positioning, but that I am also choosing to regard all of them as Positioning, even indirectly. I suppose I could simply have chosen the +2 to inititative for its own sake, but as it happens, I chose it in tandem with many, many features of character building which maximized formal, speed + precision sword combat. On casual or raw inspection, that particular advantage is Effectiveness, but I have chosen to regard Effectiveness and Resources as expressions and reinforcements of Positioning - I took pains to make Positioning central even though the various rules of L5R are a bit of a mess in helping to focus on it, and, if I really had to pin it down numerically, tend toward Effectiveness as where most of character-building effort lies.

How about in play itself? Fighting in this game is pretty risky, so the Traits and stuff I took aren't guarantees of constant combat success. However, as far as one important element of successful fighting is concerned, speed and precision hits, Kakita Gan is about as maxed as one can get for a starting character. (There are other such elements, like going for massive damage or maximizing the interesting Void score.) My point is that the build-philosophy and choice of Traits is not about guarantees or walling off the character from one kind of problem, but it does establish him, in system terms, of having no defect whatsoever regarding a particular take on combat.

One of the most important points about this Trait discussion issue is always to keep in mind the other aspects of character design as well as whatever resolution mechanics are used. Doing so brings up crucial insights - for instance, whether the Traits affect resolution very much, or whether the Traits in question matter in a special way due to their relationships with other things, like attribute scores. For a simple example of that latter, in some systems, a Trait permits an increased attribute score which can ignore maximums arising from other factors. So one character might take the Speedy Trait and get +2 to an attribute called Speed because the character otherwise has poor Speed, whereas another character might take the same Trait to pop his high Speed above the maximum.

I hope that this shows how Traits were one piece of how the mosaic of this character comes together as a Premise-type question. Markus, you specified that we are indeed talking about Narrativist play as the straightforward goal, and I'm saying that if that's the case, then Positioning is the point of character construction, with Resources and Effectiveness not being ignored, but rather utilized as reinforcers of that Positioning.

If that element of character creation is well-understood by everyone at the table, then the rules-extent of Traits isn't a deal-breaker. You can use Traits which are extremely high-powered in how they affect the resolution system, and if the whole point of such Traits is understood to be directed toward Positioning, that's a fine thing.

That's why I tried to emphasize how, when playing The Pool, the importance of Narrativism cannot be overlooked. Not because "story is more important than rules," but rather the opposite: because if story creation is a top priority, then rules like the difference between a 1-die Trait and a 3-dice Trait can be a big part of Positioning for that character.

Bluntly, I do not see that in your account of play at all. As far as I can tell, the player saw no particular reason to use a Trait except for the dice; or if she did, then she was given no credit for that by everyone else. I can name a thousand ways for "My father is Boba Fett" to be a fantastic Positioning trait for heightening the Premise-y presence of a character in play - but unless the player, you as GM, and the rest of the group at the table want to do this and trust one another to do it, then it won't happen. That's especially important when a Trait is a relationship, because that means that the NPC is jointly played by player and GM, and so they must both be committed to its Positioning power. If they are, then the 2 dice (as opposed to 1) contributes to Premise, rather than distracting from it, which is apparently what really happened in your group's case.

Best, Ron
edited to fix initial link - RE

Callan S.

I think this ties into Marcus' point from before...
QuoteI don't want to criticize games that I don't understand fully yet, but how many times have I read the phrase "The key point in playing PTA is..." (btw, it also showed up in this very thread)? My opinion is that that key point, if it is indeed a key point, should be there in the text for everyone to grasp.
I think his lack of trust that she'd position is actually a good thing, IMO. It's critical analysis of why someone would do something they have not been told to do. To me, that lack of trust makes sense.

Why would she position when the text does not instruct her to do so? Or perhaps more accurately, how much has the text done to inform her that in order to play, she must position?

I think a certain lack of trust at the critical level should always be sustained. Is it possible to play the pool or PTA while maintaining a certain degree of distrust, or do you have to completely trust (no amount of distrust permitted) that she will position?
Philosopher Gamer


QuoteI don't want to criticize games that I don't understand fully yet, but how many times have I read the phrase "The key point in playing PTA is..." (btw, it also showed up in this very thread)? My opinion is that that key point, if it is indeed a key point, should be there in the text for everyone to grasp.

In my copy of PTA, on page 8, it describes Traits.  The last paragraphs talk about how a trait can be used : "A player can use a protagonist's traits to improve the outcome of a situation where the trait applies.  When the character is doing research, being a retired professor will help, but being an auto mechanic probably will not.  The Protaganist with the professor edge, then, can apply that trait to learn more from the research. Each trait can be used in this manner a number of times in each episode equal to a protagon'st's current screen presence (see below).  After that, the player must spend fan mail each additional time he or she wishes to use the trait."

So using the Trait indiscriminately, in every challenge?  That's this game's Drift, not the game designer not including how to use Traits.  I think that if you enforced that a Trait could only be used so many times an Episode, it might have made her ration how often she brought up the trait.

I still think the biggest problem as described in your actual play is that you expected a story with a different style than your player.  She brought in the Edge "louder" than you expected at that point at the story.  I don't think there's anything _wrong_ per se with that either, but it is a potential risk in a game that lets multiple players come up with the story.


Callan S.

I was reading the thread through again and looking at where I suggested to Markus he wanted informed consent (to which he agreed), then I looked back to one of Ron's posts.

Quote from: RonA person could be forced by the rules to write up all manner of Traits, for instance the Dogs-like progression you describe, and he or she could still play the character as a stupid theme-less mass.

What you describe as an uncomfortable risk, which is to say expecting people who play with you to share your agenda for play, I call a basic expectation. Simply put, [/b]I do not play The Pool with people I don't trust to do that[/b] - or more accurately, if I feel like playing Narrativist (which is most of the time), then I'm bloody well going to play with people who currently feel the same way.
No problem with someone playing with those who they trust to do a procedure and excluding others.

But in terms of designing, do we all just decide to leave it there? It's purely up to a player and not the text?

For example, I can imagine someone reading a game that forces the player to write up all sorts of theme based traits. I can imagine this person, if they didn't like thematic play, going "Eww, not for me" and they decline to play/they exclude themselves. They don't need someone else to decide if they can be trusted to follow the procedure - they simply exclude themselves to begin with.

There doesn't just have to be some person who decides who he trusts to do the procedure and exclude others. The text can inform readers enough that they will exclude themselves. And both of these can work in tandem!

But a trait which can, as Marcus notes, be defined as that rule informing a potential player enough to thematic content? Enough that they will exclude themselves should they dislike or currently not be interested in doing that?

Really that's all a design choice - as a designer you can leave it just to people to only play with people they trust to position. Or you can have both that and the text helps readers exclude themselves. Me? I'm leaning toward both! I think that the exclusion is so useful to supporting play, the text should support it too.

Or am I grasping at straws to draw some conclusion here? Well, even if I am, that straw looks a good one to keep in mind either way.

Side note: Markus' actual play account was using the pool, not PTA.
Philosopher Gamer

Ron Edwards


I think it's time for this thread to spawn sub-threads. One has already occured, the one about Space Rat. In it, Markus 'ported over the question about how exactly is the use of a given trait actually invoked during play. That's a really good question and for purposes of discourse, I think we should let it drop in this thread and deal with it over there, in the context of the specific game and instance of play which I've described.

Callan, the question you keep coming back to is how text is involved in the process. I think that it must be said: text alone cannot do it, at least not yet. For one thing, I can count the number of times that everyone at the RPG table has read the actual text on the fingers of one hand. For another, the state of the hobby is such that one-on-one, or one-on-group teaching is the standard expectation. A person who GMs a game is supposed to teach it to everyone else; if there's no formal GM, then the person who teaches it to everyone else actually becomes something of a formal GM anyway.

So the problem is not really with the text in relation to play, it's with the text in relation to whatever real-person teaching process is at work and only then in relation to play. Believe me, speaking as a struggling author in this hobby, the capacity of readers and role-players to read exactly what they expect, in full defiance of the words on the page, is astonishing. And unfortunately, since only one or at most two people are reading it, there is no corrective mechanism among the group as a whole for whatever they think they've read. We do not know yet, as a subculture, how to make text and learning and subsequent play actually work together. "Write more clearly" is a fine thing, I struggle with it constantly, but it's only one nail, and hammering it ever harder isn't the sole aspect of the solution. This is a work in progress at the largest scale, across many games and certainly across many years to come.

This isn't to shut you down - far from it. You are asking yet another excellent question from the guts of this thread: what should text fairly present about using a technique of this kind? I think it's fair and even right for you to claim this particular question as yours, the thing you're really seizing upon in this thread. It would be absolutely excellent to make a whole thread on just that one thing.

Because, I tell ya, I can't keep up with the convolutions and ins and outs of this thread. It's too big. It's had too many questions raised and too many (although few) settled. More stuff in it is too much for me to manage at the same time as working with parallel dialogue in new threads.

I think you're the best person to start a new thread about your question, most especially maintaining the pointed observation, perhaps even accusation, that I entered into the "teach this system" mode rather than "discuss this text's actual written rules" mode in order to talk about using Traits in playing The Pool. That was absolutely right. I want to get at that and we need a thread to do it.

Best, Ron

P.S. Added for clarity: I'm not closing this thread. Markus, I'm interested in whether my points about Positioning are making sense to you, and we can continue that here. (edited in - RE)


I have so many things to say I don't even know where to start... OK, let's do it step by step, most important things first:

(1) As I mentioned in Ron's hugely helpful Space Rat thread, I feel that this thread is now a tad too abstract for my taste, and most importantly I feel it's starting to going in circles without much actual progress (at least for me)... So if it's OK for everybody (and btw, thanks a lot to everyone who joined the discussion!) I'd prefer to move *most* of the discussion to other threads, in which we discuss specific side issues backed with pertinent actual play, and not in abstract terms like here.

(2) One thing I really, really cannot understand now is *why on earth* I called this thread "Blah blah...*PtA style*". And one wonders why us roleplayers have difficulties in grasping innovative rpg concepts? OMG, I even fumbled the TITLE of my thread, that should say all. OK, enough self-flagellation for now. On the bright side, the wrong thread title is also due to naive generalizations that now, after this discussion, I wouldn't do again. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that maybe another reason for closing this thread is that it's got a hugely off-topic title. Especially because: (see point 3)

(3) The one bit of this thread I think we can still discuss here (if anyone is still interested, that is) is about my actual play report and how/why *ThePool* as a system failed me (not as a whole, but in subtle, specific ways). I feel I have a lot to learn here from this.

(4) Ron, this 'positioning' stuff is so crucial I can't believe it does not appear in every other thread here (but in retrospect, maybe it does, under the cover of other stuff). It's also a bit frustrating for me: I seem to be close to grasp something new, but I'm also sure I'm not quite there yet. I *think* I understood positioning in general terms; but in my head, the new concepts perfectly 'lock-in' with my original questions, to the point of reinforcing them. Specifically, you said:

"In this game, there are many detailed features of a character, in addition to the basic attributes and skills: Clan identity, Advantages, Disadvantages, and a list of 20 questions. My point is that most of them are very easily identifiable as Positioning, but that I am also choosing to regard all of them as Positioning, even indirectly."


"On casual or raw inspection, that particular advantage is Effectiveness, but I have chosen to regard Effectiveness and Resources as expressions and reinforcements of Positioning - I took pains to make Positioning central even though the various rules of L5R are a bit of a mess in helping to focus on it, and, if I really had to pin it down numerically, tend toward Effectiveness as where most of character-building effort lies."

In my understanding, you (and, very importantly, all the people playing with you) had a clear creative agenda in mind, and according to this, you used whatever tool the system gave you to make it happen, even if the tool itself wasn't probably the best to do that, and even if the tool turned a simple thing into a complex one. Yes, you can eat a pork chop with a spoon, if you want. Which makes me wonder, isn't this an exemplary case of system drift?

Now, if the above is true, one alternative way of describe what you did could perhaps be the following. You read the L5R rulebook, which was your sole medium through which you could learn what this game was. The text was completely silent in how to support your crateive agenda, but you saw how that system could be used toward that end nonetheless. And now the crucial point that's giving me hedaches: in my opinion, even if you then played L5R completely by-the-book (re: the system mechanics), you *added* a meaning that wasn't originally there, by functionally drifting the system. So, in my current way of seeing things, you didn't play *the* L5R game; the text vagueness renders it impossible to state whether the way you played is the one that its author envisioned, or not.

Now, I'm finding strong analogies between what you described for L5R and what you suggested I should consider for ThePool. I can see the merit of your suggestions, and they'll help me a lot in my future sessions. But, given the reasoning above, did't you basically suggested me something very close to drifting the system? I mean, with ThePool it's a way more subtle and small drift wrt that you needed to do with L5R, but isn't it system drifting nonetheless? I ask this because I still cannot tell how my way of communicating/playing ThePool was less "by the book" than yours (prior to my "patch"); BUT, I can see that mine was a *much less functional* drift given my Story Now CA.

What was the specific system portion drifted? The traits rules. Why? Because The Pool, I literally mean the written text, leaves me in the dark re: how to use this technique in my games. I was in a position in which I *needed* to add something to the system; and that something I added was probably not the best solution. Now I can see it.

...Even as I'm writing this I can see how this thread is moving more and more into abstraction and away from real, at-the-table play, which is something I feel is not what I'm searching for. So if any of you has specific comments on this I'll be happy to hear them, BUT I'll also be happy if you just ignore my last post; we'll continue discussing the 'real' stuff in other threads.

thanks a lot again!


Peter Nordstrand

Quote from: Ron Edwards on October 27, 2008, 01:52:11 AM
I think it's time for this thread to spawn sub-threads. One has already occured, the one about Space Rat.

Hm. I'm not normally one to blow my own horn, but if I could I would, as Letterman says. Traits in While We Were Fighting.


Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.
     —Grey's Law

Ron Edwards

Thanks for including that as an important related thread, Peter, and perhaps those of us who are interested can generate some discussion there.

Given Markus' last post, I have decided to dictate that this thread is now closed. I'll be starting a new one to address the issue of Drift, quoting his questions about that.

Callan, I don't want to put you on the spot. I don't know if you want to start a new thread per my recommendation, but if you don't, I'll be happy to do it, attempting to preserve the issues you raised and obviously making them subject to your revision or clarification. However, probably not for a few days. Let me know by PM.

Best, Ron