(Fear The Living) Making Self-Defined Talents Work

My zombie-apocalypse game, Fear The Living defines a character's skills, beneficial abilities with Player-described Talents in the vein of FATE Aspects. They're supposed to be written up in short, snappy sentences like "I'm freaking ripped." or "The soul of a poet."

Now my game doesn't have anything analogous to FATE points. I don't want to fool around with a token economy, because the game already has enough moving parts that adding an additional resource to manage would clog things up without adding much benefit. So to solve the ever-present problem of keeping relative balance between the player who writes down "I'm a badass mutha-fucker" as a talent with the player who writes "I'm like a surgeon with my Dad's old shotgun" I've split Talents into three categories: Broad, Narrow, and Specialized

Whether a Talent is Broad, Narrow, or Specialized is up to the player who takes it. Broad Talents apply to a wide variety of different situations, but give only a small bonus when those situations come up. Narrow Talents apply to a few different types of situations, and gives a moderate bonus when those situations come up. Specialized Talents only apply to a couple of situations but gives a large bonus when those situations arise. The game instructs the GM and players to discuss what sort of situations they see a Talent being helpful in for their survivor and thus whether it should be labeled Broad, Narrow, or Specialized.

Now where I'm lost is how the system should adjudicate on a case-by-case basis whether or not a Talent applies. I'm worried that leaving it up to GM discretion gives the GM too much power, and puts too much of a burden on them. As I've said before, I don't want to use any sort of token economy to balance it out, because that gives players and GMs one more thing to keep track of. Here are some solutions that I've thought of. Please let me know if you like the sound of any of them, or if you have some potential solutions for balancing widely-applicable self-defined skills with more narrowly applicable ones:

*A system wherein the group votes as to whether or not a Talent applies. The burden of proof would be different based on the type of Talent. A broad talent could be used any time any other player or the GM agrees with your justification for using it. A Narrow Talent could be used any time a majority of people around the table agree with your justification. A specialized talent would require unanimous consent.

*A system where the player writes down the situations in which the Talent applies next to the talent. This is essentially the same as GM fiat, but it at least provides the GM with some guidelines to make judgement calls about whether a Talent applies.

*A system where the GM rates how applicable a Talent is to a given situation, using a heavier hand with Narrow or Specialized Talents than with broad ones. This could be summarized as "Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, So-So" Thumbs up lets the Talent be used normally. So-So means that the character using it can benefit from it, but suffers from additional risks. Thumbs Down means that the character using it suffers from additional risks, and can only use the Talent this once in the Conflict.

As you guys/gals/non cisgendered people can probably see, I'm at a loss. Any ideas regarding keeping a handle on self-defined skills that:

*Balances power versus applicability
*Doesn't require a lot of GM fiat or oversight?
*Isn't time-consuming for players?


  • That is an excellent question. I am using the same overall Talent structure for my own game, Spark. I have tended to have players choose which Talents they want to use, giving the GM a chance to veto any particular Talent that doesn't apply.

    My only concern with the three above situations is that they have another mechanic to learn. It my experience, players tend to self-regulate once they get a good understanding on how the group interperets those Talents.
  • how about the use of tags to activate talents? if a situation and a talent have a # of matching tags, what if that got you bonuses proportionate to that #?

    kinda like your 2nd suggestion
  • You could borrow the same categories you're using for Talents and apply them to in-fiction context. Broad situations would be things anyone can try to do, no matter their background; Narrow situations would require appropriate training in order to succeed with full marks (so Broad Talents might partly succeed at best); and Specialized situations would be things only highly dedicated, elite pros can hope to accomplish.

    So, I'd use a variation of your first suggestion, I guess. When the time comes, ask the group to consider which category a given task fits best. Use the most suggested option (and common sense) as a base and compare that to the character's talent to establish the final bonus/penalty. This could also work for contests: beating someone with a Narrow Talent should be more difficult for someone with a broader background and easier for someone with more a specific, dedicated talent.

  • Three categories is a little confusing, but broad vs. narrow seems good to me. You could look at how Unknow Armies does self-defined skills, which seems to work pretty well despite lacking strict rules.
  • I'd love to see ant Fate-like game list aspects that fit a particular setting. Plain old choosing from a few lists that state "these are broad, narrow and specialized aspects" gives me less blank page syndrome. And it gives me a lot more solid references if I want to make up my own aspects, so it doesn't have to be a really restrictive system. Anyway, I'm sure a lot of Fate players learned to make their own aspects by watching other people do it, so this is kinda like the same thing.
  • Mortal Coil has a good approach to this - when two descriptors are in conflict, the more specific one gets a bonus. Basically it means you can have a big wide descriptor but in more situations you will be outmatched by the specialists.
  • edited May 2013
    So I can define any kind of talents?

    "I'm always eating bananas"

    "Comic book quiz expert."

    "Even a five year old can beat me in wrestling"

    Isn't the problem here that the traits lack of focus? Why not having the game present some categories in which the players can invent traits? I mean, both your examples sounds very combat like and that could be one of the categories. What else are the characters normally doing in your game?
  • Much of that would depend on the particulars of the zombie apocalypse that the player's survivors are trying to survive, as decided by the group as a whole when the game starts. People vote on options on a list that answer questions like "How did the apocalypse start?" and "What are the zombies like?".

    More generally, I'd imagine things common to all entries in the Zombie genre would be common character activities: scavenging, dealing with interpersonal relationship drama, perhaps trying to rebuild society or finding a cure, avoiding/fighting zombies and hostile survivors, or trying to find/save loved ones. I'd hate to limit Talents to particular categories of action like "Fighting" or "Dealing with other survivors" when with the current system you can have a Broad Talent like "I've Killed Before and It Shows" that'd give a bonus if you want to push around another survivor with the threat of violence, and help with the actual violence as well.

    "I'm always eating bananas" isn't a valid Talent because it's not a beneficial characteristic, skill, or trait (I guess if you wanted to be pedantic it could be justified as saying that your character eats a diet rich in Potassium...but I digress). Likewise, "Even a five-year old can beat me in wrestling" doesn't qualify under my system because it's hard to see how that might actually benefit a character. It'd make a fine Liability though (those are also self-defined, and reward characters who suffer from them using a "pay as you go" reward system).

    "Comic Book Quiz Expert" would make a fine Specialized Talent, as I'm sure that in most games it'd only come into play in a few different situations. But I could still see a survivor using it to forge a relationship with a geeky fellow survivor who rode out the beginnings of the apocalypse in the ruins of San Diego Comic Con, or using his knowledge of useless comic esoterica to amuse a psychotic wanna-be dictator enough that he decides to take the survivor hostage instead of killing him.

    I think I like the idea of putting out a list of examples of Broad, Narrow, and Specialized Talents-it provides guidance for players and the GM without taking up a whole lot of page count or time. I'll also check out Unknown Armies-I'm not terribly familiar with the system, but I've heard a lot about it.

    Thank you all for your comments thus far!
  • edited May 2013
    I'd hate to limit Talents to particular categories of action like "Fighting" or "Dealing with other survivors" when with the current system you can have a Broad Talent like...
    Mmm, but didn't you create the current system because it didn't work creating free talents? Having categories such as "combat" or "surveillance" seems boring because in that case you can have those as typical skills. Can't remember which game that has seven or something skills/attributes that the player should write beside it HOW the skill is used while rolling for it. That could be one solution, but not really what I'm talking about.

    I liked your list of what could happen, because that tells me that your game will have scenes with different themes. Perhaps one scene could be about the background, perhaps about a character's goal, perhaps a scene that have love/hate or an action scene. That's the categories that I'm talking about. Categories for scenes: background, goal, hate/love, action.

    When playing the game, the GM can declare different kinds of themes of the scenes, perhaps by using a token on a board to be clear about what's going to happen, and the players are then limited to use the talents from that category (or they can perhaps change the theme/category for the scene). If someone wants to make a broad skill, that player can then write the same talent in different categories. I've Killed Before and It Shows can be written in both backgrounds and action, as an example. The GM can than see what categories that the players want in the game and create an adventure based on that. That's pretty much the only thing I like with FATE's aspects. :)

    It also looks like you have a certain way of thinking when creating talents. Try to express how to think while creating them and how they should sound like. That was my purpose with my lame talents - it's not really a game where you can invent any kind of talents. Try to bring more focus into your game - make it breathe zombie apocalypse and what the game is all about - so the participants minds goes in the right direction.
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