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player vs game defined characteristics

Started by poppocabba, June 10, 2001, 11:25:00 PM

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one of my players was qouted as saying once " what is the point of creating a detailed setting if the players can't destroy it", and what she was refering to was the fact that my narrative gaming style at the time lacked the a visceral feel on a tactical level, and perhaps some clarity.
the issue has been brought up again as I am considering game system design. is using exclusively player defined characteristics (describers) better then classic rigid game mechanics? In part I have answered my own question at least tenatively already, by making a decision to allow for game defined characteristics in the case of physiological task resoloution, and player defined characteristics in the realistically less tangible world of  of spritual or cognitive prowess.
this offers me several advantages, with a limited set of physical characteristics I can accomodate sqaud level tactical
"wargame" combat directly in the primary rules set, while forcing people to think more about personality directly in character construction when they are determining intelectual attributes.
the concerns I have right now in relation to going ahead in this direction are
1- how can rules be made to accomdate more narative combat styles when the need arises without losing a sense of suspense
2-with player defined cognitive characteristics how is the distinction made between background / education, and raw ability, or does the distinction even have to be made? how would a distinction between skills, and  ability be achieved?
3- when a task involving a combination of both mind and body comes in to play what is an honest, and fair way to resolve it?-mh

Don Lag

I'll do the easy thing and just answer the questions :smile:

1- how can rules be made to accomdate more narative combat styles when the need arises without losing a sense of suspense
I too am working on a game system of my own (cute huh?).

One of my main motivations was to have this system where character abilities weren't predescribed. I've fiddled around with it for a while, and I'm pretty satisfied to see that it really isn't a problem if you're a creative group (maybe even a creative GM is enough).

I think one of things I got mixed up with at first, and which seemed like a big problem, can be illustrated with the combat case.

How do you get a combat system were characters are able to choose from an infinite possibility of combat styles, but still keep the rules fast and lean enough so that the game can still keep some narrative tempo?

It seems to me (I haven't REALLY tested anything yet, just a few simulations) that you can still have a very basic, and simple, rules set and basically let the descriptive aspects of the character's actions be just that: descriptive. In my system all combat is just an opposition of combat abilities. Both foes use the exact same rule (roll the dice, compare as  specified => hit or miss).

However, when choosing their combat abilities th GM decides that said ability will have either physical, or physical & mental, or mental & spiritual, or any combination  (yes I'm using BODY/MIND/SOUL as attributes) as requierements for advancing it's skill level.

For example: one character might fight in a way that both physical training and spiritual maturity are required for improving his performance. Another character might choose a style that merely requiers more and more physical training.

Also, the style's description should be enough for the GM to decide what maneuvers are possible, impossible, esay/hard for that character. Someone that has a ninja type style can be allowed to produce flying jump kicks while a conventional knight in armor shouldn't (or should at least recieve some penalties in trying).

This approach translates the fighter's experience to the actual probability of success (a 5th level knight should have better options at defeating a 3rd level ninja), and makes the actual description of the maneuvers (jump kicking vs a sword slash) gain importance only as a description of the combat itself. I hope this will eventually mean that fighters would choose their maneuvers for both descriptive/emotional reasons, and also for tactical reasons ("I'll jumpkick him beacause then I can grab those drapes over there and try to climb my way out of the melee..."). I think that would make combat situations not only not interfere with the narrative, but also add to it.

I've played some games here combat styles were broken down to a very detailed repertoire of attacks, defenses, etc. (Ninjas & Superspies). I found that the narrowing down of each attack, with specified damaages and all. Only encouraged players to repeat, round after round, the same max-damage attack. Sure you can still have combats as the type I hope for above, but it seems that such a tight system is rather disencouraging (specially for the players).

I think this discussion can be applied to any other type of abilities/actions, not just combat.

2-with player defined cognitive characteristics how is the distinction made between background / education, and raw ability, or does the distinction even have to be made? how would a distinction between skills, and ability be achieved?
Again, in the system I'm working on, I have the players create their abilities based upon the character concept they have in mind. In creating this, the GM chooses what attributes will define the advancement of said abilities. This choice is based first of all on how the character percieves his own ability (a scholar would advance his Foreign Language mainly by MIND, while a worldly traveller might be more charismatic about it and advance based on SOUL). The character's background is implicitly included here, as it's part of what defines his personality.

Therefore, differences in character concepts for same abilitites are reflected more on the acquisition of experience, and I suspect this will have great effect on how the players expose their character's activities. At the time of executing an ability, different character's will probably have player's that describe their actions differentl, while their success probability (dice rolls) would be the same.

I really think it's a Good Thing to separate the game mechanics from the narrative choices made. It not only seems natural to me, but also simplifies the game tremendously.

3- when a task involving a combination of both mind and body comes in to play what is an honest, and fair way to resolve it?
On-the-fly decisions, as in "what attributes do I link this action to?" or "what level should I consider this unskilled action as?" should be solved by the same criteria as above. I'm aware this slows things down a bit the first time a situation comes up, but since I'm not using any skill slots once the GM rules on something you can just add it to your character sheet, or the GM can write something for future reference. As the game evolves, both GM anbd players should build a pretty good intuition on this kind of stuff.

I'm just starting to post material at

(yeah, I'm calling the system Penumbra, probably gonnna change it since I found out a few days ago Atlas Games has a game called Penumbra already...)
Sebastian Acuña

Ron Edwards


When talking about combat or other resolution issues, I'm a big fan of comparative play. You might want to check out the following, very different systems, all of which emphasize unique and customized fighting styles with relatively simple mechanics. Some are loose & light, and some are quite formal.

Epiphany (BTRC)
Swashbuckler (Jolly Roger)
Over the Edge (Atlas Games)
Hero Wars (Issaries Inc)

You'll note I'm not including Feng Shui or 7th Sea, not because I think ill of them, but because their design philosophies are not in this category.

As far as customized vs. fixed attributes or skills are concerned, I suggest that it's not as crucial an issue as one might think.

Amber, Sorcerer, Everway, and Story Engine - a few generalized attributes, but with highly customizable details for each character. Only the last one has a separate skill mechanic.

Over the Edge and UnderWorld - completely descriptor-based, customizable attributes/skills (the latter uses a list to choose from; the former does not, except in the form of examples).

Orkworld - fixed attributes, but completely customized skills (which use the same units as the attributes anyway; they may be thought of as "attribute modifiers).

Obsidian - fixed attributes and fixed skills, but like Orkworld, they are really the same mechanic, and everyone has all the skills to some degree.

Castle Falkenstein and Zero - no attributes, just skills from a fixed list (everyone has all the skills to SOME degree), but you customize the range of competency across them to taste. [Zero has 1 attribute, actually, but it's merely the basis for skill use.]

My point is that any and all of these are quite functional. There's no need to settle on any one of them as "best" for Narrativist purposes. However, I do think the comments in the "attributes or skills but not both" forum are useful, as long as one realizes that it's having separate MECHANICS for the two things that causes the problem.


Don Lag

I agree Ron. Unfortunately I don't have access (or much time for that matter), to check out the mentioned games.

Of course each GM should choose the system that best suits his philosphy (or whatever), I hope I haven't come across as trying to display some type of final solution for all RPG design problems (it happens to me a lot).
Sebastian Acuña

Max Tangent

1- how can rules be made to accomdate more narative combat styles when the need arises without losing a sense of suspense

2-with player defined cognitive characteristics how is the distinction made between background / education, and raw ability, or does the distinction even have to be made? how would a distinction between skills, and ability be achieved?

3- when a task involving a combination of both mind and body comes in to play what is an honest, and fair way to resolve it?

Here's a neat idea, and I think I'll answer the queries in reverse order, 'cause it suits this well.

(3) -- If attribute combination is going to be used, make it the whole system.  Noone likes alternate mechanics for task resolution.  Have everything use two attributes.  Here some examples; assume these use a scale of ten, using dice of the same hedronal nature.

Method 1: Attributes go one to five, average three (giving this system an average chance of success equal to 50%).  Add them together, rolling over is faliure, under is succes, result is the margin of success.  One being minimal, three substantial, five+ exceptional.  If you want this to be resisted, use a number between one and five (equal to a stat of a player, or difficulty of a task) and just a quick subtraction is the result.  Modifiers should be applied after the roll, but before resolution, such as weapons, skill, or cover.

Example 1: Gunner tries to shoot Jumpy, who is hiding behind a table.  Shooting is Dexterity+Perception, he has three in both.  He also fancies pistols (He has a skill called "fancies pistols", so this gives him plus one (This can be a variable if you like, from "Fancies Pistols", +1, to "Fancies Pistols Heartily", +2, to "Has Pistol Fancily Tattoed on Ass", +3) to shoot Jumpy, total seven.  His roll is a three, but it's a Big Ass Revolver (plus four), which modifies his roll to seven.  Jumpy's natural defense against bullets is Agility.  He's fleet of foot, it's at four.  But it's a card table, and the only protection it gives him is that he's harder to see (+1).  Math after the fact: Jumpy's been perforated for two.  (How much health they get is another matter entirely.)

Method 2: This grants a higher margin of success, and such, means number of skills should be lowered.  When using a skill, roll an aditional die; choose the favorable one.  This adds a nice curve to the mechanic, and reduces the effect from flat bonuses, being that when modifiers exceed the mean roll of the die, it begins to create impossible difficulties.  Also, skills at +2 or higher should be pretty damn rare (say like Obsession skills in UA, where each character has one), because those drammatically increase success rates.
Perhaps something spectacular happens when multiple dice come up the same, or when the attribute total is rolled.  
This method can have a greater degree of variation if the successful dice are added together.  Just to show how far a little training can go. . .

Here's a good way to do damage, especially if the game is gritty.  Whenever a character is hurt, mark the ammount of damage (equal to the margin of success of an attack modified), and whether or not it's from a leathal source.  Whenever they perform an action, if their margin of success is equal to or less than the ammount of hurt they've acculmulated (leathal and non together), they pass out.  Every minute or so of game time, there should be a single roll against two difficulties: the leathal damage making up the lower end of the scale, and the non-the higher.  If the roll fails (is higher than both) the character wakes up.  If it's equal to the nonleathal damage to greater than the leathal, nothing happens.  If it's equal to or lower than the leathal damage, the character dies.  Who makes the roll (player or GM) is up to you.  Minor NPC's should only get one roll vs. leathal, otherwise they stay unconsious.  Of course, this means if you've taken ten damage there's no chance of wakin' up without help.  

(2) -- Because these methods rely mostly on innate ability, if you use it, you've pretty much settled on the "distinction does not have to be made" category, but it also distiguishes the benificial effects of practice.

(1) -- These rules are pretty light, using only one to three dice for task resolution, so they won't impede gameplay.
-- Max Tangent

Don Lag

I'm not sure how much your answer has to do with my first reply specifically, but just in case you had that on your  mind as you wrote I think I should clarify a few ideas (just because I think they're interesting enough).

The rules I'm working on all use as many dice as the skill level of the relevant ability (Combat 4 would imply rolling 4 dice for combat actions). Only advancement of these abilities (which should be executed every 2 or 3 adventures on average) requieres reference to their underlying attributes (BODY, MIND, SOUL). As you can see, the mechanics are VERY simple as the only numbers interacting are the skill levels.

Taking the max die from a roll of 20-sided dice has, indeed, interesting consequences. I have a quick analysis of the probability distribution at in case you're interested.

I've played around a bit with ideas similar to yours for damage, but I don¡t feel comfortable with keeping track of 20-scale values, when everything else interfaces at a lower scale (skill levels, attribute ratings are all about 1 to 5 and indicate a number of dice to use).
Sebastian Acuña

Ron Edwards

Hello to all the new folks joining in!

I suggest that the traditional nature-nurture division between attributes and skills is not especially useful or interesting in role-playing design, UNLESS there's some specific reason to do so within that particular game.

Furthermore, if we're talking about Narrativist design and play, such a division tends to introduce mechanics that act very strongly AGAINST the basic goals.

Dav Harnish has come up with some pretty interesting ideas for a game which uses attributes as improvement-devices only, with all elements of the ability's effectiveness being handled by the "skill." He'll probably be willing to let you know how that's going.


Max Tangent

Allright, I cluttered that post up with too many words and too little said.  

I've seen "Nature-Nurture" Talent+Skill systems all over, and I'm no great supporter.  What my systems all amounted to was this: each character has a set of abilities, these standard to each other character, however many is inconsequential, though, to have only two would hamper things.  When performing an action, combine any two of these together (even one twice, if that's the action's nature) and roll under, (and still high so it doesn't seem counter-intuitive, and at least with a relative scale, some actions that have shades of grey in their success or faliure can be represented, numerically, for the GM or player to expedite through probation).  If there is a resisting force, like a character's ability, or just difficulty of an action, just subtract it's potentcy from the margin of success.  Should the system include formal training, i.e. character skills, just represent this by allowing a second roll; pick the best one.  

Because of the fantastic benefit this creates, keep the number of skills to a minimum; things that define the character only; how many this is should probably be well under ten.  Five?  Four and one 'Passion' skill, that is what the character lives and breathes (give 'em two extra rolls)?

Oh, and always give a bonus roll for well described, thoughtful, or at least, in character actions no matter what the test is, either physical, social, or otherwise.  By doing this, system reflects that good role-playing is as great a boon as years of training.

I really wish I was able to articulate that the first time around.  How's that?
-- Max Tangent

Don Lag

Ron, I will eventually check up on Dav Harnish's stuff since it seems to have the same focus. I'm using 3 very general attributes that represent, also, only the potential of acheiving in certain areas, and unlimited abilities for whatever the GM/Player feel should be registered as a relevant field of action.

Thus learning/acquiring is done through attributes, actions are done through abilities. I think it somewhat echoes the Chomsky Competence/Performance paradigm of language, but applied to all general actions... but I haven't thought about it too seriously.

The purest application of my basic premises would probably be to also allwo unlimited attributes, but I think I should stick with my current setup until it's "stable", and then try to figure out how to interpret (and if it's even useful) a character-defined attribute set, in the whole scheme.

The only aspect left is damage. I'll avoid any damage points accumulation system, especially if it includes subtracting (especially subtracting 2 or more dice!). I'm thinking that upon a hit a damage roll is performed competing against the target's protection roll. If the protection roll wins: no-damage. If the damage roll wins, you keep re-rolling until the protection roll suceeds. The amount of times you re-rolled would be the severity of the damage.

The main reason for this is that I want to keep wound severity ratings in the same scale as ability and attribute levels (which indicate a number of dice to roll, where the highest die counts as the roll's value).

Has anyone seen this before?

>btw, if the forum admin thinks this should be already in  a separate topic I totally agree with him :smile:
Sebastian Acuña

Ron Edwards


I am very much a fan of keeping all the quantitative elements of character in the same numerical scale, at least for any "parts" that interact mathematically. I think you'll be very interested in my discussion of character currency one of these days.

You should take a peek at Swashbuckler, which has a damage system very much like you describe, though not identical. In Swashbuckler, a given offensive move has a number associated with it; a slash is a "2," for instance. When slashed, you roll your Physique against a difficulty of 2. If you fail, down you go, incapacitated. If you succeed, no penalty is incurred to your actions, but the damage of the next hit you take adds to the previous ... thus, a second slash means you roll Physique against a difficulty of 4. We found this system to give a freewheeling, unpredictable, yet very plausible and fast feel to combat. (And in combination with the game's very original combat-resolution system, it was excellent.)


joshua neff

huh...swashbuckler's damage system sounds similar to 7th sea--when you receive wounds, you roll against the wounds number, & if you succeed, you take no damage--but the next time you take wounds, you're rolling against the accumulated wounds. when you fail a roll, they go from becoming a "flesh wound" to a debilitating wound. interesting.

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes

Don Lag

Hmm, that Swahbuckler thing might do the trick.. I'll consider it, thanks for the tip!

Another subject, on rolling d20's and taking the greatest...

although I like the probability distribution very much (analysis at ), I feel it could gain a bit more if one used a higher resolution die. Has anyone here played with d30's or d34's ? I'm not sure if they're harder to read, less stable (as if it's hard to slide them around and not lose the roll), or impractical in any other way.

I'm thinking of buying a bunch of d30 for use with the system, and I'd like to know if anyone has anything to say about these dice.

[ This Message was edited by: Don Lag on 2001-06-14 00:36 ]
Sebastian Acuña