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Author Topic: Character Sheet Design for I-games  (Read 2251 times)
M. J. Young

Posts: 2198

« on: October 16, 2002, 04:03:25 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards

M.J. ... hey, I had an idea. Do you think there's any feature of an I-game that leads to different needs or standards for character sheet design? I'm thinking of the difference between Villains & Vigilantes and Stuper Powers, both I-games, in which the former (late 70s) uses the standard attributes of the time, i.e. you transcribe "yourself" onto the sheet; and in which the latter (mid-late 90s) does not - you merely "can" do the stuff that everyone at the table knows you can, subject to the one-step simplistic system for the game.

What an  interesting question; I'm going to be trying to think about it as I write, but hopefully we can arrive at something useful.

The biggest problem with creating I-game characters sheets is that very few of us are able to make an accurate assessment of our own abilities. I've said many times that I grew up thinking I was a guy of ordinary intelligence, to the point that extraordinary scores on the Differential Aptitude Test, PSAT, and SAT didn't shake that conviction--I thought I was good at taking multiple guess tests (which I am, but that's a separate issue). It wasn't until I had finished college that I was persuaded to sit for the Mensa tests, and realized that I was actually somewhat above average. This is apparently not uncommon. Freeman Dyson was once asked whether he ever wondered, growing up, why he was so smart, and he answered no, he wondered why everyone else was so stupid.

This inability to assess ourselves carries beyond merely knowing how good we are; it also applies to not knowing at what we are good. Sir Isaac Newton believed that his greatest contributions to human knowledge were going to be his works in theology (of which I, as a theology student, know nothing more than that they exist).

It doesn't help to have others assess us. They are going to be as wrong as we, most of the time. I've had people tell me I can't sing, even though I was All State Chorus two years in a row. Does that mean they are wrong, or that they mean something different by "can sing" than the judges meant? Others have told me I'm very good at interpersonal relationships, because they only know me through the written word--I'm a disaster at parties, and hate unstructured social situations. I once did a speech in which I said that the qualifications for a particular job were that the candidate was intelligent, articulate, and organized; that I was certainly intelligent and articulate but I couldn't prove it; and that I was not organized at all but believed I could demonstrate that I was.

Thus the big problem is, how do we actually translate a player into a character? Here are some options.
    [*]Keep the skill level categories broad; that is, if you divide things into a very few levels such as rank amateur, skilled amateur, professional, expert, you have a lot less argument about where someone falls. We did not do this with Multiverser.
    [*]Provide ample opportunity to improve abilities in play. If the referee says, "well, I'm going to put down that you're an average amateur, but once the game starts you can begin practicing and improve your ability to advanced amateur rather quickly", players are more willing to accept what they perceive as a lower statement of their ability than they believe. This is probably the primary tool that makes it work in Multiverser.
    [*]Provide real-world benchmarks for how good is good. If you can say that "strength 80" means you can bench 400 pounds, that's helpful. The downside is that it isn't helpful to everyone. I've no clue how much I can bench, or what it means to be able to bench that much. If some guy were to say that he could bench that, I would have no more way of knowing whether that was true than if he said he could pole vault fifteen feet. In some ways, this becomes less helpful. However, we did include a bit of this approach in Multiverser.[/list:u]
    In terms of creating a character sheet, perhaps the biggest point to grasp is this: the "most important aspect" of any particular character is going to be different from any other particular character. I've had players whose greatest character assets are that they are strong, or smart, or personable; I've had others whose advantages lie in engineering skills or medical skills they've developed over time, and still others for whom acrobatics or martial arts play a big part in defining who they are.

    When I was in radio I had the opportunity to interview politicians around election time. I recognized after a few interviews that I was going about it all wrong. I had my list of issues I thought mattered to my listeners, and asked each politician where he stood on that. I discovered that for some issues some candidates had no opinion, or didn't think it mattered. What I should have been asking was what issues the candidate thought was important; that was a much more significant factor than his opinion on anything else. For example, a candidate might say he favored lowering taxes if that was asked; but given his other priorities, he might choose to raise taxes in order to meet some other goal. Translated to character creation in an I-game situation, I've learned that you have to ask a player what things he believes are his strengths, and perhaps explore certain things he might have overlooked which might be significant (e.g., is he highly computer literate even though he doesn't see that as important? has he trained in combat techniques such that he's certainly not professional but is better than someone untrained? does he have religious beliefs that will impact his character's in game choices and expectations?), rather than trying to find out how strong he is, how smart he is, how fast he can walk. If an individual believes himself to be significantly above average at these things, it's going to come out as part of his self-definition. If it doesn't come out, it's most likely that the player perceives himself as average or slightly above average in these things.

    Since you can't really know what a player will consider his greatests strengths (indeed, most players couldn't answer that question) you can't design a character sheet which will put the most important things at the top. For one character, those "most important things" might be his combat and weapons skills, while for another it might be his charming personal attributes.

    What complicates it further is that this may change during play. Of course, with Multiverser it's very likely to change, as the worlds change so much that players are forced to adapt their approach to the new situations. Using broad generalizations, someone who is a combat monster in one world might find it better to be a diplomat in the next and a wizard in the one after that. But even without that, assuming characters develop over time, it seems entirely likely in an I-game that what a character does when he's been around a while will be different from what he did when he started. When I was in high school, just about everything I did was about music. After college, I was very much involved in ministry. Today mostly I write. Don't most people change the focus of their lives over the years (or am I just weird)? Even a character sheet customized to the individual character would eventually prove inadequate.

    My conclusion is that you have to design the sheet more with a view toward putting information where it is easily located than with trying to put "important things first". Since I know that martial arts skills are Bod Bias Level 7, if I've got all the bod skills in one place organized by bias his martial arts skills are easy to find when we need to know them. This actually works better in the long run than trying to put whatever are perceived as the "important" or "better" skills on top, since there will be times when those are not the ones that matter.

    I don't know whether I've shed any light on this; given that I'm always looking at ways to make Multiverser play better I'm very interested in any insights others may have on this. Also, I'm going to think about it, and probably come back to write more on it later.

    --M. J. Young

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