"Is my character good at anything?"

This is a query about game design and the systems used to define characters: does it matter if your character isn't defined as being good at anything, with the mechanics of the game?

At one end of the spectrum, D&D centrally defines characters by their attributes, skills, feats, powers and so on: it is devoted to defining the difference between characters within the rules of play, so the Barbarian can do X attacks with Y chance to hit, while the Wizard has lesser numbers for X & Y but can instead cast Z spells, etc.

At the other end, A Penny for My Thoughts does away with all definition of character: you don't know anything about them until you begin playing and there are no stats or abilities attached to any of them, they are just defined by their experiences as the story unfolds.

In the middle of the spectrum though, how important is it to distinguish your character from others via their specialities? Imagine that the basic rule of the game is "Toss a coin when your character does something; on a heads, they succeed and on a tails, they fail." Are you happy that everyone has the same chance at everything, all the time? Or do you want to pick abilities for your character that let them toss more coins, for an increased chance of success under the right circumstances?

Would it make a difference if, instead of a random system like tossing coins, you had a more tactical system where the player had to choose whether or not to spend a resource? Or played "Rock-Paper-Scissors" against their opponent to see who succeeded?

This is mostly about short games and mini-games, not necessarily full-sized games for campaigning: is the trade off in the simplicity & speed of the rules worth it for the lack of definition between characters?


  • Being particularly good at something is probably only going to be important if the game is about being good at things. There are approximately one million other ways characters might be defined that don't involve their relative ability-to-do-things-well.

    But I mean, the fact that characters in Penny aren't mechanically better or worse at things doesn't have anything to do with "simplicity & speed of the rules" OR with "definition between characters" -- I understand that this was an example to illustrate the spectrum, but it just doesn't seem like it exists in the same universe as the question.

    A game like World of Dungeons or similar stripped-down OSR systems seems like a more fruitful point of comparison, since they still have the same general competency-of-characters focus as something like D&D, but support character differentiation in a much simpler way.
  • I don't need capability niches. I'm fine with playing Coin Flip the RPG (or Roll for Shoes).
    But if there are niches, I can see the frustration when one niche's capabilities are a clear subset of another's. I.e. what if the wizard could do everything the fighter could do but better, and can also do more.

    However, I'm more interested in narrative niches. I'd be fine with the wizard being able to do a superset of the fighter's game mechanical actions and results if the fighter had in-fiction moments to be in the spotlight a lot.
    That's why I use the "backgrounds" so heavily in 5e.
  • I had a period in my life when mechanics didn't matter, but instead how much space my role took up when it came to acting out in character - you can call it "influencing the social sphere" (in-game and out of game) or something.

    So your question depends on what the game focuses on - creative agenda, if you like. As a simplification: less mechanics requires more focus elsewhere.
  • I had a period in my life when mechanics didn't matter, but instead how much space my role took up when it came to acting out in character - you can call it "influencing the social sphere" (in-game and out of game) or something.
    Yeah, same here.
  • edited July 2015
    It comes down to the usual question: what is your game about?

    Having all characters equally competent in all things (as in Penny for My Thoughts*) is a completely valid design choice. However, in that case your game can't be all about "how competent is your character" (which is arguably the focus of a lot of mainstream RPGs).

    What matters, though, is how people play the game.

    Having everything decided by a coin flip doesn't give you any differentiation between characters, true. But it also - and more importantly:

    1. Doesn't give you differentiation between players. (Unless the game is made so that you can choose character actions which allow you to avoid coin flips, or change what's at stake, of course.)

    As a counter-example, consider Dread (the Jenga one). Here, outcomes are decided in a way which doesn't differentiate between characters: but now your skill as a player is important. The way to make your *character* more competent is to make better pulls than your friend.

    2. Doesn't give any weight to the way in which your character does something. Do they do it carefully? Are they willing to take great risks? Do they try to make sure circumstances are in their favour before they act?

    If fighting 20 armed guards is a coin flip, and running away or hiding from them until they leave is also a coin flip, my decision to fight or run or hide becomes almost irrelevant: it's just colour narration.

    That means people are going to make decisions differently in your game: based on how they want things to look, or how it will affect their character portrayal (after all, in the above example, the only reason to try hiding rather than fighting is to show that your character is a coward, or overly cautious, or is good at hiding)... not based on what you think is most likely to succeed.

    Character ability isn't the issue here; the issue is how does this design choice affect the way people play this game?

    ...and then the real question is:

    "Does that support or undermine my design goals and/or creative goals/agenda?"

    *: Note that, in Penny for My Thoughts, you can have very competent characters and very incompetent characters. It's just not decided by a die roll or coin flip - it's up to the choices the players make.
  • I'll add another question: what are your players like?

    I know the op question mainly revolves around mechanics, but it has always been my focus to consider social interaction into the mechanics as much as possible.

    My point here is that, taking the D&D example, the wizard may be able to do everything and more better than the rest of the party, but if her player is less inclined to roleplaying and the fighter's player is more inclined to it, you'll probably see both have the same amount of spotlight and fun (I'm being optimistic, I know we've all seen the opposite but let's not go there, i'm already derrailing the thread enough)

    Does this affect the game design-wise?. For optimal Flow and reaching a wider audience, I'd say yes, it should. Of course it's easier to just design the game you want to play with the people you know full well and let the audience out there find out if they like it or not; but if you can design at least a few procedures to help players sort that problem, that'll be awesome.

    Here's an idea on how to implement that: in the character creation part, include a procedure to create a narrative niche for the character, as in "once a player has chosen a combination of background features, no other player can choose the same combination, nor have more that one feature in common". Then, make the use of race and class features optional, free for everyone and unrestricted by requirements so GMs interested in balance can disregard that part, and players interested in the mechanical character building can build whatever they want.

    Worried about mechanical game balance? use the AW core: when players roll poorly, the GM makes a move. That way it doesn't matter how many skills the player has, each time they roll a dice, something will happen, and the more they roll, the more interesting things will happen. That solved about 70% of my problems with game balance.

    Of course, there are a lot of other ways and as I stated before, you can also totally disregard this and just make the game you want to play with the people you know better.
  • Good points, thanks folks. :)

    The deciding factors seem to be the type of game you're playing and whether it uses strongly defined roles for the characters: a game about escorting a Witch to Lindisfarne can be an action-adventure, with the characters facing hordes of demons intent on freeing the Witch, in which case I expect characters to be differentiated by skills & abilities... or, on the other hand, the story can focus on the personalities of the PCs, their histories & motivations, so the differentiation comes from the way they are portrayed, not what they can do.

    There's also the issue of target numbers and difficulty modifiers: as Paul_T points out, if the chances of success are the same no matter what I do, then the only things influencing my choice are how I want my character to be perceived and what the optimal choice is in any situation.

    The alternative to skills & abilities is motivations: instead of being better at doing a thing, you're better if doing that thing is in accord with your personality or situation, e.g. if the 20 armed guards stand between you and your goal, then you might do better attacking them than running away, but you would do equally well trying to sneak past them, bribe them, disguise yourself as a guard, bluff them into believing you have an army behind you, etc. Fictional positioning comes into this strongly, so you are 'better' if your approach to the problem is more plausible and you have laid more groundwork for it.

    TLDR: 'better' can be about the story and not the character.
  • (Yet another approach is balancing character success with other factors - in Primetime Adventures, it's whether you're the focal character of a particular episode or not; in games like the Pool it's about how important the player thinks a certain action might or might not be; yet in other situations it could a question of gambling - how much are you willing to put on the line for this?)

    (An example: When you do something, roll one die. If you're willing to risk life and limb, add a die. If you're willing to have your heart broken, add a die. If you're willing to lose your mind, add a die. Roll all your dice. Highest result wins.)
  • edited July 2015
    What's your game about, sure, but that isn't all the story…

    I'll submit that, whenever your role-playing game design includes any variation of:
    "[do some thing] when your character does something; on a [outcome], they succeed and on a [other outcome], they fail"
    …then your game is, at least partly, about succeeding at doing things. Therefore, whether a given character is good at something becomes psychologically significant.

    Now, I'm not saying "coin flip RPGs" don't work, mind you. They do exist, and be sure somebody somewhere is hacking them as we speak to introduce some formal way of discriminating between various characters' competence. (Heck, 2/3 or more of the design history of D&D - not limited to products branded as D&D - is people coming up with ways to discriminate between various characters' competence, as early rulebooks are not huge on that, but contain some hint, a promise of it.)

    But this long-time staple of RPG design, "checking whether you succeed at things", becomes wholly unnecessary when you try and make your game actually unmistakably about something else. And that's when everybody really stops caring whether character X "is good at" Y (while they could still care about actual character effectiveness, which for a given game might not relate to character competence at all).
  • some formal way of discriminating between various characters' competence.
    Yeah, I want to backtrack from my statement from the other day already :D
    Because I played LotFP yesterday (fourth session) and I'm really missing the features and doodads from 5e.

  • There was a system called EPICS in which you paid points from a pool whenever you revealed that your character was good at something, and put points back into the pool whenever you revealed under pressure that your character was bad at something. It wasn't really well balanced - I would call it an "interesting first draft", but it's something else to think about.
  • This is my really high level philosophical game design thought on this subject.

    From a scenario or situation design view point it is good to consider that if all things being equal is a 50/50 shot at outcome A vs. outcome B still interesting? If it isn't then something is off about the scenario or situation.

    But then when you add in players and characters then often 50/50 doesn't feel satisfying. Answering when and why it doesn't feel satisfying for THIS game is, in fact, game design.

    And that's assuming you've accepted randomization as an element of this game at all.

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