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353vas - Stats & Character Promotion

353vas - Stats & Character Promotion



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Stats & Character Promotion
Stats & Character Promotion

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Stats & Character Promotion
Jim Vassilakos (jimv@uia.net)
In A&E #333 I talked a little bit about
character promotion (bit\u2192 minor\u2192 major
\u2192 main), but I failed to bring into the

discussion the question over how to flesh out a character's abilities and stats during this promotion process, and I neglected discussing how central the design of the game system is to this question. Likewise, in A&E #312 I talked a bit about the five basic stats in Ragamuffin (and I've since added a sixth), but this whole question of character promotion was one which I largely ignored. Hence, the crossing of these two ideas in this issue's IgTheme is something I find rather interesting and somewhat neglected.

In the current version of Ragamuffin, which is still on the drawing boards, the six stats are as follows:


My reason behind choosing these six attributes in this particular order was that I wanted them to form a qualitative gradation between body and mind. Durability, for example, is mostly about the body, but there's also a mind element, a sort of willpower component, if you will. Likewise, perception is mostly a matter for the mind, but it also involves the senses to some extent, the actual physical ability to see, hear, etc.

As for agility and dexterity, I reasoned that they should be split mainly for the sake that they are both combat-related stats. I felt that if they were combined into a single stat (as they were in my article in issue #312), the tendency would be for players to maximize that stat, whereas maximizing two different stats will be twice as costly, and hence players will be more likely to rethink this strategy.

Of course, all of this talk about body and mind and stats tends to obviate and dismiss through gaming tradition a rather more basic question, which is: Are stats even necessary?

When we think about people, we don't think about their strength or their durability unless these qualities are germane to some problem at hand. What we tend to think about are their looks (the mental images we carry around in our heads of the people we know), their personality (dour, happy, generous, arrogant, all of which ties in to whether or not we like the person), and their situation (economic/social status, career, who they know and so forth). As for their skills, talents, and abilities, we generally

don't think too much about these unless we're put in the situation of having to manage these people, in which case such attributes become important. In such a situation, a detached manager might not look at his or her employee so much as an individual person as, rather, a package of skills and abilities that can be directed to get a particular job accomplished.

Now, of course, GMs are managers in a way, and it's important for us to sometimes know a character's stats, skills, and so forth, but I wonder if all of this paperwork gets in the way of the players, the actors, in effect, and if perhaps the character sheet should be a GM-only preserve. In short, if we take away the character sheet, would the players end up doing a better job of sinking into character and actually roleplaying as opposed to trying to acquirex ability ory stat in this sort of penis-waving frenzy of never-ending one-upmanship that is traditional character advancement?1

Of course, players want to know what their characters can do, and they want to know their probability of doing it right before they try. That's what the rules of most game systems are designed to convey. But in so doing, it seems to me that the very notion of

character is often somehow lost like the
proverbial forest amidst the trees.

Do we really know with great accuracy what we can and can't do? I used to play little league baseball, but with what probability can I still pitch a perfect fastball? I have no idea. I can program computers to some small extent, but how efficiently can I write a bug-free program on paper under a time constraint (for example, while taking a test)?

I haven't the foggiest. It all depends. What's the program supposed to do? How familiar am I with the language? How much sleep did I get the night before? There are probably a dozen intangible variables. Hence, what sense does it make to have a well-defined programming stat? Stats can be good guideposts, but with so many clinging to our character sheets, perhaps they ultimately get in the way of what it is we're really doing.

This, of course, is the argument made by designers of freeform RPGs, minimalist games which purposely put forth as few actual rules as they can possibly get away with. And, of course, in so doing they leave much for the traditional gamer to be desired. Several of these sorts of games are available online free-of-charge.

One example, which I'll point you toward,
1I mention this in particular because it has
been a topic of some recent discussions.

is the Window2, a game created by Scott Lininger during the late 1990s. This system uses strength, agility, health, knowledge, and perception as it's five basic, recommended stats, although these may be modified according to genre by the individual GM. The system's gimmick is the competency ladder. Each level of competency is associated with a particular die. It works as follows:

Incredible (d4)
Very High (d6)
High (d8)
Above Average (d10)
Average (d12)
Below Average (d20)
Low (d30)

This, in itself, is rather interesting, because in marketing classes back when I was studying for an MBA, we were taught that a seven-point scale was considered ideal for questionnaires, because various cognitive studies have shown that the average person's maximum number of degrees of reliable, qualitative differentiation is seven. I wonder if Scott knew this when he created this system.

The other reason this is interesting, of course, is that there also happens to be seven types of dice that we are all familiar with. So, obviously, this system makes use of all of them.

Under the rules of the Window, you want to roll low, and, of course, the more faces on the die you're rolling, the harder that is to do. In general, the target number for most tasks is 6. For an easier task, the target number may be higher. For a harder one, it may be lower. There are no firm guidelines with respect to task difficulty. Hence, how high or low to make various target numbers is a matter purely up to the GM's whim, which, perhaps, is as it should be, although I wouldn't be surprised if many players might quibble over this argument.

Hence, if Joe is an expert marksman (very high: d6), he doesn't even need to roll to hit a moderately sized target at a moderate distance (this possibly being a failing of the system, as it doesn't account for highly skilled characters making that rare but critical error). Hitting the bull's-eye, however, should be considered a harder task, perhaps requiring a success roll of 3. So he rolls, and on a roll of 4-6, he fails, merely hitting the target, not the bull's-eye.

As to be expected of such a minimalist system, there are no firm rules for character generation per se. The prospective

2Seehttp:/ /www.mi mga mes.com/window

gamemaster is thrown some ideas but is essentially directed to design his or her own system within a system. And this may be good or bad depending on your point of view.

Now my point in relating these details of the Window is simply to demonstrate one example of a minimalist RPG and talk about some of the pros and cons of this particular system, which are common pros and cons for freeform systems in general. On the one hand, I like it as a GM, at least in theory, because it would allow me to define characters, and in particular NPCs, very quickly. I could scratch out a few words and the NPC would be ready, and then if that NPC turned out to be a regular character, I could flesh out the character to whatever degree necessary. In short, minimalist RPGs mean less paperwork and more freedom for the GM.

However, there is, of course, a certain problem with everything being so loosely defined. Many GMs as well as players want more structure, and I find myself leaning toward this camp if only because it's what I'm already used to. Perhaps if I GMed a few sessions of the Window or some other freeform RPG, the initial discomfort and feeling of nakedness at having no firm rules structure would evaporate with experience, and I would come to prefer it. I suspect that may be the case, but I really don't know.

If nothing else, it would force me to define all the game's particulars in my own way, everything from abilities to skills to character equipment and so forth, and perhaps that's the whole point. Perhaps it's not intended to be a system so much as a starting point for that next jump in personal creativity.

So I'm tempted to play around with it. Of course, I would probably have to develop more structure into the system in order to feel really comfortable with it, yet in so doing I might well end up returning to the original problem of too much structure and too much paperwork.

It would be nice to have a system which is modularized to the extent that a GM could quickly create NPCs on the fly but could then quickly upgrade them into major characters if the need arose. For the whole system to be self-consistent, however, I think it would have to be well-structured and fair, and that, of course, is the real trick.

I raised this question among others in my comments to Spike Jones in this issue, and I think a solution exists in this notion of modularity, character templates, and skill packages, something which the Window doesn't address but which many of the professionally published RPGs do. I'd be curious to hear what the rest of you think about all this as well as what you find works best for you and your players among the different game systems that you've encountered.

Comments on A&E #352:
Paul Cardwell: RYCT me: You make

some excellent points about international politics. I definitely need to learn more. Any highly-readable


thorough, accurate, non-partisan) sources you can suggest?

Myles Corcoran: Loved your examples

although I'm not familiar with HeroQuest, and hence your variant rules haven't yet processed. Nonetheless, I'm now curious to check out the system. My only question is whether I really need to put "gather clothes and skedaddle 5m1" on my character sheet.

RYCT me regarding your idea for a potential IgTheme question: "Player or GM? What draws you more to one role or the other?": That's certainly an interesting question which I have only fleetingly considered, and it ties in with another question which I think is somehow related: "How do you think you might be different today if, like so many other people out there, you had never been exposed to RPGs?"3

Of course, there is no rewind button when it comes to our lives. We can't go back to see what might have happened if only we'd taken that left turn at Albuquerque 353 issues ago. What we can do, however, no matter how nonsensical it may seem, is hypothesize. And in so doing we might somehow answer that other question about what it is about playing or GMing that attracted us and held our attention for so long, and whether or not that energy would have been developed at all, or perhaps found some other outlet, had it not been for RPGs. It's altogether a rather curious question which I'm not sure can ever be fully answered.

Michael Cule: I seem to be missing the last
two pages of your zine. No, wait, it got
mixed into Lisa's zine.

Regarding your problem of having two free evenings a week with nothing to do, I've got the perfect solution. Buy yourself a TiVo. I guarantee that all your remaining free time will instantly dry up. I currently have about 60-70 hours of programming on mine. It almost makes me long for the days when I didn't even have a television.

3This, come to think of it, relates to some of

my comments to Spike Jones in this issue
regarding the marketing of roleplaying as a
creative tool to non-RPGers.

Regarding your GURPS:Traveller campaign and your mention of the psi- phobic Lt. Commander: this psi-phobia has always struck me as rather strange, and I wonder if you've done anything to try to justify it within the setting. One idea might be to make it fairly commonplace for psis to band together for criminal enterprises, this at least giving people a reason to fear them. Another might be to link psionics to various forms of insanity or mental instability, giving all psis some form of psychological handicap.

In any case, I've rather fallen out with the

idea of allowing psionics in Traveller merely on the grounds that Traveller ought to be hard-SF. I talked about this in the most recent issue of APAcalypse4, citing my Travelleresque


Harrison Chapters5, and discussing part of what I think I did wrong when I wrote it. I'd be curious to hear your take on psionics and whether you think it really belongs in the Traveller setting, and if so, how you think it ought to be modified it if at all.

Robert Dushay: Next time you're in

Southern California, feel free to email me. I live in San Bernardino, the smogpit of the state, and during at least one recent year, the murder capital of the nation. Be proud of

what you've got, I always say.\ue000

Regarding the Morrisville Guild, I'm reminded of Toastmasters. They have a definite program on how to attain rank in the organization (unsurprisingly, it is by giving speeches). I wonder if a similar program could be created for GMs. A system of mentoring could even be developed, along with all the various rules and rituals which good GMs tend to follow. In this way, new GMs could be brought up to speed, and moderate-to-poor GMs could improve their skills or at least get some new ideas. This is

4Issue T-50 which should be coming out
soon. Seew ww.ke therian. org/revelations
5www.ele ktras ystem s.net/~jim v/har.ht m
all idealistic crap, of course, but honestly,
why not?
Lee Gold: In case you're on the lookout for

such things, there are some potential IgTheme questions in my comments to Myles Corcoran.

RYCT Robert Dushay on the city of Nyosa: Sounds like a hell of a place to visit. I'd be curious to learn more.

RYCT me on teenagers today being economically less mature but physically more mature: Excellent point. Your argument makes me think that perhaps the starting age for PCs in fantasy RPGs ought to be before or around the onset of puberty (perhaps slightly later for mages, depending, of course, on their training requirements).

Spike Jones: RYCT Paul Mason regarding

Ryan Dancey and his claim of five-minute character generation: That's funny. I actually rather dread working up a character in systems where the number of options are so many that it ends up taking forever. On the other hand, I actually remember enjoying character generation in Classic Traveller (which often took a considerable amount of time), because the career details of the

character's life were fleshed out in the
process. I think if character
generation were more life-
path oriented rather than
"choose from this list of skills

and combat-options" oriented, it would be more fun and interesting.

Of course, that still leaves the problem of creating NPCs. One thing I like about GURPS is the possibility of creating various templates and skill packages. For instance, it wouldn't be too hard to create a series of packages for various professions and classes of hobby. If I want a starship engineer who's also a big-time party animal, voila, combine those two packages. If I want an school teacher who is also a big-time outdoorsman (or outdoorswoman), voila. This sort of mix- matching shouldn't be terribly hard to achieve.

What would be more interesting, of course, would be to find some way for both mechanics to exist side-by-side, so that you could use the long-method for main characters, and the short-method for minor characters, but also so that you could convert from the short-method to the long-method when a character is promoted in status from minor to major.

I'm not sure that there's any gamesystem which has done this or even if any have attempted it. Would be curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.

RYCT James Reichstadt regarding how to turn the tide from roll-playing to role- playing, you have given a despicably, frustratingly pessimistic analysis of the situation, and I'm sorry to say that I completely agree. Here's one idea, however.

Instead of trying to target gamers who are not good roleplayers, how about trying to target non-gamers who could be good roleplayers?

As an example, there are several books and dozens of articles published every year on writing fiction, all of it aimed at creative people suffering from writer's block or perhaps just a lack of habitual typing experience. One way to bring them in would be to contact all the people who

write these sorts of books
and articles (or write some

yourself), talking about the great virtues of roleplaying to unlock (or rather exercise) the creative genius within.

As for the
example outline
of such an

article: (1) depict the problem of a writer staring at a blank screen waiting for inspiration, (2) explain how play-by- email roleplaying games can be used to examine and develop ideas from the comfort of one's own home, (3) summarize and examine a couple of publicly-available freeform rulesets, and talk about the pros and cons of each one, giving examples of how they are used to resolve conflict, (4) insert a list of web-resources for additional information, including a list of websites where the newbie can connect with other PBeMers, and finally (5) give some actual GMing advice aimed specifically at the PBeM medium.

I'm not sure this will actually make these people better writers, but it might turn them on to roleplaying, which is more or less the not-so-well-hidden agenda. In short, these gamers-who-never-were may be reachable, but nobody is presently reaching out to them. It almost seems as it the market expects to absorb them by osmosis, which may eventually happen, assuming, at least, that our public schools don't finish stamping out creativity first.

RYCT me regarding dialogue in write-ups and the inability to remember lines of dialogue verbatim: This is one of several reasons that I tend to prefer PBeMing over face-to-face play. However, for some of the difficulties I've observed, see my comment to Lisa Padol in this issue.

Joshua Kronengold: You want me to write-

up an outline of the Jinx campaign? Hmm... I can give it to you in a sentence. Jinx travels about the Hells having a series of semi- amusing conversations and develops into a goddess along the way. Anything more detailed than that and I would end up giving away the whole story, so I beg for everyone's extreme patience. After all, just as with any story, the devil is in the details.

Mike Kubit: RYCT Lee where you

describe starting characters in your game, you talk about PCs growing on the "horizontal and vertical planes" (depth and breadth as Patrick

Riley referred to them; see my comments to him in this issue), but you also indicate that you want

starting characters to be able to
buddy-up with veterans, that

although they may be less "well- rounded" they shouldn't be significantly less "puissant or


counterparts." And, of course, that creates a dichotomy,


if characters are allowed to buy combat-related abilities with "experience


or whatever mechanic you intend to use, then there is going


expectation that veterans should be significantly more effective and, hence, more viable in combat situations. The question, of course, is how do you think this dichotomy ought to be resolved?

I ask this question without having found any obvious solution, except perhaps to cite the tentative one I mentioned to Patrick, which implies that perhaps veterans are not more well-rounded than recruits, but rather than their skills are better focused on what it is they actually have to do. Perhaps it is the recruits who are better rounded, but that their extraneous skills slip away as they focus more and more on the skills they end up using day in and day out in order to keep themselves alive.

Perhaps, actually, the best solution would be to force starting characters to take extraneous skills in order to model a comfortable, civilian lifestyle. Then, the whole process of becoming a veteran would require a shedding of the superfluous, along with the training and honing of what is essential to the soldier.

I'd be curious as to your thoughts.
Brian Misiaszek: Nice game write-up. I

once had a player who knew too much physics and would work out things like this. He was fairly painful to GM, as I'm sure you can imagine, though certainly a good deal more painful to the monsters, as I think you effectively demonstrated.

RYCT Michael Cule: Writing hard-SF is

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