The Angry GM just posted this interesting article about the problems with ability scores in D&D 5e: http://theangrygm.com/i-hate-ability-scores/
With Angry’s usual antagonistic and “I told you so” manner he made some great points that made me think I should explain a little about my “Thing I Learned From…” series.
As Angry puts better than I can the idea of D&D’s abilities are pretty well baked into all modern RPGs, which… isn’t necessarily the best thing. Which brings me to video games and why you should learn from them.
Video games have a different set of challenges from table top games, namely they can’t tell you how it works in person. A good video game has to make what you do obvious. They show you a challenge and you need to learn what you use to overcome it.
TV shows also deal with this. With recurring characters they need to define the strengths and skills each person has so when a challenge pops up the audience can know how hard to easy it will be for that character.
Since I’ve recently been re-watching Doctor Who this is very evident. Doctor Who had a secondary problem that they need to define different versions of the same character. Tennant’s doctor is very smart and knowledgeable while his reluctance to be violent and his compassion for the human race gets him through problems while Matt Smith instead has his comedy, brilliance, and extreme care for his companions.
Angry does a good job describing this process in RPGs: the GM must constantly be making action resolution decisions. How is a problem broken down and what can the players do to over come it?
So with this in mind I try to use these ideas to build RPGs. As an example let me talk about some of my upcoming projects.
Ever Green is a game about magicians in the Pacific Northwest. It’s supposed to be non-violent, whimsical, and based around mystery. Currently the attributes (or abilities whatever you want to call them) are: Survival, Agility, Strength, Intelligence, and Magical Power.
But when I got thinking about how I want people to play Ever Green I started to wonder if this was right. They might fit into the rough RPG ability list of everything post D&D, (or at least in my case post CoC) but did it convey what players should be using to overcome problems in Ever Green?
The answer is probably no. Survival was included with this already in mind. Ever Green players are meant to explore and travel around the Pacific Northwest and that includes a fair bit of camping, long drives, and staying in flea bitten motels. Survival is important to keeping players interested in doing that and reflecting how good or bad a character is at that type of challenge. Magic Power also folds into the main mechanic of the game. But here I have to stop myself. Is strength and agility things that should matter to quirky magicians trying to work out other people’s emotional problems? Should Intelligence be the only mental stat?
So here’s some alternatives I’m considering:
- Empathy – how well do you read other’s emotions.
- Intuition – how likely are you to notice stuff.
- Know-how – mechanical, technical, just gets stuff done ability.
- Inspiration – how well you get ideas.
Or how about?
- Comedy – how easy it is for you to laugh about something.
- Romance – can you solve things with flirting?
- Notoriety – how obvious your quirkiness is to everyone else.
For another example I began thinking about how problem resolution should work in a fantasy system I’ve wanted to design. Based on a friend’s game I really enjoyed being able to make really tactical decisions based on my feats in combat. So in my own version I would want each ability to represent how much of something you can do and then work out based on more modular mechanics exactly what I do with that.
So you might only have four stats, Talking, Fighting, Thinking and Exploring. (Hmm, I stopped after the first three… I like the idea of exploring or surviving in the wild being an actual stat thing. Maybe Surviving would be better?)
Then whenever the character wants to do something the GM can go: how good are you at Talking? Then the player will test their ability with a dice roll and that will dictate how much Talking she gets to do. Then the player can look at the feats she’s got and decide how to use that amount of talking.
A feat called Convincing Argument might push the negotiations her way, but it takes a lot of Talking to do. Instead she could use the feat Little Smile and Sudden Show of Force and do a lot more by combining them. The simplicity at first leads into more interesting tactical decisions. And those tactics are what I want out of this game.
Meanwhile to look at this from the opposite direction I’ve also been re-watching Durarara!!! Which is an amazing anime that any one interested in large scale RPG story telling should probably watch.
Durarara has a huge host of characters each with very different and quirky personalities, stories, and skills. Somehow it manages to keep these things straight even as every story is told and retold from different perspectives and the whole world opens like an onion.
To build a Durarara RPG I would have to create a system where every character has their one and only skill that is special to them. Sonohara would have parasitic magical sword. Izaya has incredible manipulation. Even characters that are more normal have basic character traits that keep them apart. Kida has optimism and jokes. Then on top of that uniqueness you’d pile a couple more skills and a dramatic backstory for why they have that one unique trait.
Each detail of any given character is eventually explained, down to why one character always dresses like a bar tender.
Then the players and GM would know that when a challenge came up for that character that trait was what they would face it with.
Which come to think of it is a little bit like how Fate works. But add to that an element of knowledge. The way Durarara creates stories and challenges is by determining what information each character knows, one person going into a fight might not understand what the other person is even fighting for. Discovering that fact later might throw the fight into a completely different light.
You can do this easily for most TV, books, and movies. Most video games already do this for you. Watch Doctor Who and try to come up with completely different attributes that describes each character: maybe compassion, knowledge, empathy, will power, and love? Watch any show and try to figure out what abilities are being tested, what is being skipped over, (like gun fights in Doctor Who, or even war fare in Game of Thrones) and what actually informs the story. Then use that practice to do the same for your games.