Balancing player-created and preset attributes?

edited January 2008 in Story Games
So I'm writing this roleplaying game for my girlfriend. We're looking for a rules-medium fantasy game that we can pick up and play one-on-one with very minimal prep, get through a whole story in an evening if we want, but extend to longer-term campaign play if we're enjoying the way things are going. Basically, we want D&D without the homework but with a little extra "story stuff".

She likes learning and mastering rules, that whole idea of "ooh, if I take ability X and class feature Y, I'll totally kick ass at Z!" So this game definitely needs a good-sized list of concrete abilities to choose from. Which is cool, because those are fun to make up.

She also likes making up characters -- not in an RPG sense, but in a writing sense. We've worked on some collaborative writing projects together, and she's just great at throwing together complex, believable characters at the drop of a hat. We talked about player-created attributes in games (cliches in Risus, specifically) and she really liked the idea of coming up with personality traits, goals, background stuff, etc. and having them actually make a mechanical difference, rather than the "numbers on one side of the sheet, description on the other" that you get in D&D. So this game also definitely needs to incorporate some kind of "make up your own stats" feature.

What I'm concerned about is how to incorporate both preset and player-created attributes without either overshadowing the other. Does anyone have any ideas on how to strike a good balance between the two, or experience with games that do it well?


  • Make them the same. You could say Spirit of the Century has a list of preset Aspects to choose from, but really, they're just samples of what you can make up and helps give you ideas if you find yourself spinning your sheels. Same with HeroQuest and Unknown Armies and most games I can think of where players can make up abilities. The lists are really there as a guideline and the game works whether you use the examples or make up something on your own.

    Make them completely different. Either because the preset attributes and created attributes work independently, or because they combine in specific ways (again, I'd point to SotC's skills and aspects and how they work together, or UA's attributes and skills and how they work together, or how Wild Talents' preset stats and skills don't impact the player created powers).

    Regardless of which way you go, as long as the attributes have a mechanical impact that's separate from the flavor impact, you should be fine. To use a HeroQuest example, taking an ability of "Decapitate Foe" doesn't mean you cut off heads on any successful roll. What it does mean, is that you're developing an ability that's pretty gruesome and meant specifically for murder.
  • Aternal Legends uses player-created traits combined with set traits. You create your basic capabilities and add them to set attributes and then extend them through a Sphere that includes "class abilities" based on archetype. Rules exist to narrow traits to make one character the preeminent user of a trait in the group.
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