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Rough Quests

WHICH DESCRIPTORS?

by Sergio Mascarenhas
Jun 24,2005

 

WHICH DESCRIPTORS?

You already know the different human peoples and functional roles that will be present in Rough Quests. It's time to look more closely at what will define a character, though. In other words, which descriptors will be in the Rough Quests system?

Before answering this question it is useful to know how descriptors are handled in the systems I have listed for my reference. Since different systems use different terminologies and different sets of descriptors, we need to agregate the data for comparision purposes. That's what I attempted to do as you will be able to see in a moment, but before that there are some points you should be aware of:

(a) It is important to clarify what I mean by descritors in the present context. Basically a descriptor is anything that represents an aspect of the character and that serves as an input for the action resolution rules. I'm interested in traits that underscore the game's mechanics, nothing else. In other words, I am looking at different types of abilities or components of abilities used in the game.

(b) This means that I excluded things that may be important in character creation but that may not have impact in action resolution. Say, things like templates that facilitate the creation of characters as per the game world by agregating low level traits, but that are not played directly. Think about the professions in HARP, the ??? in Feng Shui or the occupations in d6 Fantasy. They help define the character by providing bundles of abilities but they are not functional descriptors into themselves. Because of that I didn't included these in the 'Roles' category (see below).

(c) Furthermore, as implied in (a) I didn't include descriptors that are there just to provide colour. For instance, most games may have something like 'character concept' or 'character description'. The moment there are no mechanics attached to these, I didn't include it in the list.

(d) I had to simplify things a bit. That means that I included in a single category descriptors from games that may have different approaches to them. I went to the essencials of the categorization of the different traits as I understand it. You may have a different understanding, of course. That's fine. Let's discuss it in the forums to the column.

(e) My list includes the games I have with me. There may be other game systems with completely different takes on characters' descriptors, takes that don't fit into the categorization I worked with. Once more, that's fine.

(f) Most important, the present exercise is only concerned with 'normal' or 'mundane' descriptors. It does not include traits for magic, psi powers, super powers and similar abilities. These will be handled in separate when I design rules for magic.

CATEGORIZING DESCRIPTORS

Primary Attributes. These are the congenial abilities of the character. It includes RuneQuest's characteristics, HARP's statistics, Iron Gauntlet's abilities, GURPS' attributes or The Shadow of Yesterday's pools, for instance. Innate abilities tend to be stable from character creation onwards. Their number can vary widely from 1 in the case of There is no Spoon to more than 10 in several games. Usually characters have all the attributes even if at variable levels, at least all mundane attributes.

Secondary Attributes. Secondary attributes are innate stats derived from primary attributes by some sort of formula. It includes RuneQuest's attributes, GURPS' characteristics, etc. (Notice that the same terminology may be used for different purposes in different game systems.)

Skills. These are the acquired abilities that the characters develop through their life. Skills correspond to concrete separate fields of action. They can be more or less broad or specialized, though. This category includes the skills of games like RuneQuest and GURPS or d6 Fantasy, the abilities of Shadow of Yesterday, and so on.

Roles. There are games where the acquired ability is not the skill but the role. Eck, that's exactly what was there at the start of it all with OD&D. In what sense is this different from skills? Well, if a game has different roles as its core acquired descriptors it means that each role covers an area of action that is not supported by the other roles. It has the advantage over skills that it is a syntetic presentation of abilities, not an analytic one. This simplifies the implementation of the character concept a lot. It has the disadvantage that it takes out a lot of flexibility from the representation of characters. Notice - as was pointed before - that I'm pointing to roles as basic descriptors, not as higher level assemblages of more granular units (be it skills, talents, ads/disads or whatever). For instance, in this sense D&D3 (a game not covered in my list because I don't have it with me) does not have roles as its unit of ability definition, unlike OD&D.

Advantages/disadvantages or similar. This includes specific abilities or traits that represent a stable bit of the character. They differ from skills because the latter concentrate on the character's performance in a particular field while the former represent a particularity that stands out as such, even if it is not related to performance. Furthermore, skills tend to represent a progression in capability where ads/disads, talents, etc. usually represent something that is stable. Let me use a metaphor to explain the difference: Skills work like plaster that you can extend, mold, add, etc.; while ads/disads or talents work like lego where you have solid blocks to combine.

This type of descriptors can either be: Specific to some particular aspect of the game world (a special set of powers like superpowers; magical powers; religious strictures; etc.), like the virtues of Ars Magica, the gifts and geases of some of RuneQuest's cults. Or be a list of generic ads/disads, talents, etc., supposedely appliable to any situation, like what you can find in GURPS, Hero or Tri-Stat dX, just to mention some of the most famous cases.

Personality traits. These are specifically directed at representing the psychology of the character. It can go from the alignments of D&D, to the SAN stat of Call of Cthullu, to the passions and personality traits of Pendragon (that actually debuted in RuneQuest). They vary widely from system to system. (Notice that this category can overlap with the previous one to some extent.)

Racial stats. Well, in any game where there are different races there will be specific traits associated with those races. This can be represented in different ways from mods to the Attributes, to racial skills, to ads/disads specific to the race, etc.

Special points. This category includes all the cases of rule devices that allow players to fudge the action of their characters. These can be called Action Points, Stunt Points, Fate Points, Luck Points, whatever Points. In all cases they exist to allow the players to out-rule the rules and do as they please.

Special situations. Some games, HeroQuest comes to mind, don't fit the mold and it's very hard to qualify the way they handle descriptors in the terms presented before. Most often than not these are games that give up with different categories of descriptors and ressort to a single category or to free-form character description.

ANALYSIS OF THE DIFFERENT GAME SYSTEMS

Here goes a list of the games and the type of descriptors they use:

Notes:
(1) Includes Rune.
(2) Includes Pendragon; RuneQuest 2st and 3nd eds.; SPQR; Worlds of Wonder.
(3) SPQR has ads/disads.
(4) Exists in Pendragon.
(5) Includes Into the Shadows.
(6) d100 System stats are very close to RuneQuest III's. Yet I decided to keep it separate since it cannot be considered a BRP game.
(7) Includes Fate, a game based on Fudge with a simplified set of stats.
(8) My own creation, I have two unfinished games using this system - Gentlemen Explorers and Donjonfeist - linkable from the present column.
(9) Based on Gostbusters, a game that I don't own.
(10) Includes Iron Gauntlets (IG).
(11) Includes Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot.
(12) Only apply to Demons.

As you can see, almost all games have a break up between attributes and skills and these two are the most often used sets of descriptors:

The exceptions tend to be games that agregate what is separated in other games into a single category of descriptors (games like HeroQuest, Formless) or games that don't have pre-defined descriptors at all (like my GlovEngine system).

Another thing to notice is that most games stick to a limited set of traits, there is no game that uses all of the different categories. There may be different reasons for this but I suppose that the main one has to do with the balance between simplicity/complexity of the rules. The larger the set of different traits, the harder it is to balance their role in the mechanics and the harder the game is to grasp. Most game designers seem to be confident with a level of complexity that asks for 4 different types of descriptors:

Interestingly, there are no games that fully use ads/disads by giving up on skills and attributes (a word of caution on this subject: As far as I know Big Eyes Small Mouth, the game that originated Tri-Stat dX, didn't have skills, only ads/disads. On the other hand, if I recall correctly, the Warhammer Fantasy RPG had skills but these were designed in a modular way that was mechanicaly not that dissimilar from advantages without disadvantages - my memory may fail me here since I don't have WFRPG with me and I didn't look at it for years).

CHOOSING DESCRIPTOR CATEGORIES FOR ROUGH QUESTS

Which types of traits will I employ in Rough Quests? Before I make up my mind there are some points to consider about this whole issue:

(1) Simplicity vs. complexity. Simply put, the more different categories of descriptors in a game, the more complex its system tends to be. On one side, more categories mean more things to explain. On the other side, it also means more potential interactions among stats in different categories, so there is more scope for design blunders resulting from overlaping or unintended interactions between descriptors in different categories. Of course, the advantage of having more categories is that it may allow for the representation of more things within the game system, and it can provide a higher level of detail.

(2) Gamist considerations. A thing to consider is the ability of the system to provide players with an enjoyable playing experience. Usually this means more alternatives and challenges in character design without sacrifice for playability. Having different categories of descriptors contributes to these two aims since: It allows for the reduction of the traits to a limited set that can be grasped in its whole; yet, it overcomes the limitations of a fixed set of traits by playing on the exponential combinations between traits in different sets.

(3) Realist considerations. Fantasy is fantasy... but how much? The truth is that at the core of fantasy is our own real world as the measure from where we can judge the 'fantasy' in fantasy. To a great extent fantasy settings incorporate conventions derived from our good old Earth and its inhabitants to the point that the real world is the basis to most things in fantasy, with a minor addition of truly fantasy elements. This means that a good fantasy game must be a good real world game first. If we apply this idea to character creation, a good fantasy game should allow us to be able to handle historical gaming in the real world periods that inspire fantasy.

(4) Cinematic considerations. The categories of descriptors should allow for the representation of the creatures (humanoid or not) usually found in fantasy settings in a reasonably faithful way. This becomes a major issue in a non-setting specific game. Yes, fantasy settings belong to a more or less cohesive genre, yet different settings may have vastly different sets of creatures. A judicious blend of descriptors is key to ensure the flexibility of the game and its ability to handle different fantasy settings.

Taking into account these considerations I look forward to a game with several different sets of traits: Not too many, so that the game does not become too complex or inconsistent; as many as allow for a varied and enjoyable gaming experience by providing a structured approach to character definition; the ones with which we can represent real world pre-modern people; and those that facilitate the representation of the type of personalities usually found in fantasy fiction, fueling the creative juices of the players.

So far so good, but what should I retain? As I said when I started this project, my aim is to avoid free-form character creation. I will not consider that approach. On the other hand, I think that the conventional break-up between congenial traits and acquired ones is conventional because it has a point. I'll keep it as the starting point for the selection of categories of descriptors.

Primary Attributes. These will be there, as expected representing the congenial capabilities of the character.

Secondary Attributes. These may or may not be there, depending on how we handle the primary attributes. Let's keep it with a question mark for the time being.

Skills or roles. I will also follow the common approach based on skills rather than roles, reserving the latter for the syntetical approach to character creation found in many games. It is an approach that provides a good balance between flexibility, detail and complexity.

Advantages/disadvantages or similar. I'll not use generic ads/disads, talents, etc. The reason is simple, I really dislike this type of rpg design. I think that most of what we find within these generic listings can be handled as specifications of either attributes or skills. On the other hand, I like setting specific ads/disads, talents, etc. but since the present game is not setting specific I can just ignore it.

Personality traits. I tend to favour a representation of the psychology of the character within the game system, the question is how. Should it require an independent set of descriptors? Or can it be achieved with a specification of attributes and/or skills? Here I'll place another question mark.

Racial stats. What I wrote about personality traits applies here ipsis verbis. A third question mark.

Special points. I don't know about you but I have a profound dislike for this type of stuff, a dislike on a par to the one I reserve to generic ads/disads. I think there are other ways to achieve the objectives reserved to special points. They have no place in my game.

Well, of all the different categories of traits I retained primary attributes and skills. I may consider at a latter stage of game design secondary attributes, personality traits and racial stats. I don't plan to include ads/disads and similar or special points. So far I have two categories of stats but the set may be expanded to as much as five.

Is that all or are there any other things worth considering? Well, I think there is. You see, I tend to think that there is something that can fit midway between skills and roles, something that in some games is handled as broad skills (versus narrow skills) but that I think it is better to call, when dealing with pre-modern fantasy, experience fields. At this stage I will not delve on this issue any longer, sufice it to say that experience fields are another category of descriptors that will be present in Rough Quests.

That's it for today. Within two weeks it will be time for Attributes for Rough Quests.

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