Archive for February 18th, 2007

Humble Mythologies d20

2007 Feb 18

So back in… I don’t know, 2004 or something, Eero Tuovinen and I were discussing this game concept called Humble Mythologies. The idea was to write a game about the real world, in which normal people did normal things, but have game events be driven by a secondary, abstract layer that was superimposed over the top of normal life. I think it was going to be kinda Tarot influenced. So that businessman might be the Knight of Pentacles. And he might try to capture The Star, which would mean reaching some personal or professional goal. I hope you get the sense of what the premise was.

Anyway, Ashi apparently invented the same game with a few of her friends, though using d20 as a base and set during the protests of 1960s America. Very cool.

Games Without Traits: Part 1

2007 Feb 18

What was going to be a single post is turning into a series. I discovered I have a lot to say.

Ninety-five percent of all published roleplaying texts and, probably, eighty percent of all roleplaying groups presuppose an artificial divide between the rules of the game and the content of play. Not everything that happens in play is considered to have “weight” when it comes to resolution systems, the mechanical core of ninety-nine percent of all published games. Instead characters, events, situations, locations, items, and the like are distilled into lists of descriptors, measurements, resources, and the like. It doesn’t matter, mechanically speaking, if a given character has a competitive relationship with her sister if that is not somehow embodied in a Trait of some kind (though, occasionally, Traits are improvised on the spot).

The storytelling movement in roleplaying, to which the indie roleplaying movement is closely connected, tries to make heretofore mechanically inconsequential details more important by turning them into Traits. In Vampire, characters have a Humanity score that measures how well they are able to maintain their composure and morals despite being blood-sucking monsters. Games like Sorcerer, Riddle of Steel, My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Breaking the Ice, Polaris, and Shadow of Yesterday to name just a few, are clearly part of this tradition, turning things like “Attraction,” “Self-Loathing,” “Light,” “I Will Rule This Land,” and “My Daddy Used To Whup Me Good” into Traits.

Games that turn really interesting and unusual things into traits are sweet. My last post talked about different ways to represent traits in play and many of those representation methods arose, I suspect, from trying to represent things that are sometimes awkward to contain in a description, a single word, a number, or a die roll. Having many different ways to represent Traits and being ever more creative with Traits, picking fascinating and non-obvious things to give mechanical weight to, enables us to explore a nearly infinite range of potential play content.

However, in other ways, thinking of game content in terms of Traits has the potential to limit roleplaying’s development. Roleplaying groups develop rich symbolic languages in the course of building communities of practice, and the nuances and depth of these languages is not always reflected in Traits. My own dissatisfaction with the focus on conflict or task resolution in most game design discussions may really be a dissatisfaction with Traits. After all, why do we describe game entities in terms of Traits?

1. To summarize things to make them easier to remember (like taking notes).
2. To enable things to be processed or compared in traditional resolution systems.

I tend to think that [1] can be accomplished in plenty of other ways, without requiring Traits. But [2] is a big deal. Traits are in bed, effectively, with traditional resolution systems, which in turn trace their roots back to wargaming. Now resolution can do a lot. I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. As Shreyas just commented to me, “It allows you to do a lot of neat stuff: compartmentalize things, manipulate them abstractly, etc.” But, like Traits, it’s not the be-all and end-all of roleplaying and, in the next post, I’ll talk about a few alternatives.