The mechanics of character

I’ve never really subscribed to the idea that rules have no place at all in roleplaying. I don’t believe they’re completely necessary, but nor are they anathema to the whole lets pretend I’m looking through someone else’s eyes thing.

When it comes to actions, games have got you covered. Especially if the action you want to take involves putting the hurt on the bad Orc. Even less violent activities like dancing, climbing and thinking are wrapped up sweetly under the skills chapter in most books.

But what about the other stuff that is literally encompassed in the word ‘character’? Not the things you do, but the way you are. How much mechanical weight should there be behind your, say, nationality? Or tastes in literature? Or favourite food?

(The poster child for this sort of thing is Aspects in FATE, but to be honest, good as that system is, it’s not what I’m looking for here)

Some traits do get system help. Take courage for example, it often gets folded into a skill check, or some sort of morale sub system. I suspect this is because it’s always brought up as part of a conflict, fight or flight. Maybe that’s the common denominator, if it can come up in a conflict, it gets mechanics.

So with my World War II Commando game, where will the rules extend to? I would very much like them to cover more than the obvious combat stuff.and I would like any mechanics to have as much rigour as the combat ones. Perhaps the nationality example i used earlier applies here. Will there be any different mechanically between an Italian and a Brit? Fantasy games have no problem here, but I’m not blind to the consequences of following that road into a real world situation.

Another way this is often handled is through advantages and disadvantages, something DnD has always shied away from. Maybe feats should extend out of the combat arena and into the character one? Of course lots already do, but there’s always a tendency to not want to ‘waste’ a feat slot by taking one that lets you, say, be a snappy dresser. So perhaps these feats should come from their own pool, so they’re an addition rather than a decision. And should there be anti feats to pay for them? ‘Heavy sleeper’ could cost you more than a missed bus in WW2, but what if you got back a benefit? And should that benefit kick in just because you have the negative trait, or whenever you use it?

Where’s all this coming from? Well I like to think of games in terms of their character sheets. For my game I really want a double sided sheet, one for firefights, one for out of combat. I can see the sheet literally being flipped over as you move from one scene and roll initiative. As such, I want there to be more on the non-combat side of the sheet than just some prose and a portrait. I also don’t want to have two distinct games. I want similar mechanics for chases and seductions, for infiltrations and assassinations, for drinking and sniping.

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7 responses to “The mechanics of character

  1. I can think of systems that do SOME non-combat stuff mechanically, and with a similar system. If I remember correctly, James Bond 007 does Seduction and car chases in a similar, incremental way (closer to or farther from the goal with every check). GURPS does drinking this way too. That answers your last question, but those are skill-based, and not quite the same as what you’re looking for under character traits.

    To me, the simple solution would be give each trait a bonus or penalty (or both) to skills and conflict actions. The Heavy Sleeper might get a -1 to waking up and a +1 to getting a good night’s sleep in a noisy environment (against whatever Attribute is relevant). Nationality, well, you’re not that far off when you mention D&D races. Really depends on the game, but if you aim to play into some of the ICONIC national traits (to better recreate a genre, for example), then I’d be up for a stiff-lipped Brit or an Italian loverboy. Either they get a range of bonuses and penalties related to their national presence, or you could even keep the mechanics solely in chargen by making choices like these open up new traits (nationality as prerequisite for traits that give bonuses). For example, the Brit might have access to the Stiff Upper-Lip trait that gives him bonus so that he never betrays emotions, or can be used to Taunt, but not all Brits would need take the trait. That way, Players can differentiate characters who made the same nationality choice. Similarly, other choices might open up trait pools, such as your chosen Profession, class background, body type, even hobbies and interests (chose gastronomy as an interest, opens up Strong Stomach, Open-Minded, Expertise [the food’s country] and Heightened Taste).

    Anyway, thinking out loud.

  2. Khopesh

    So, we have classes covered, in that the commandos will all start as the same basic class and will end up specializing into a more diverse set of classes. Instead of Race, we have nationality, which would presumably give stat and skill bonuses like a race, along with an encounter power (no free feat and skill just because everyone is human).

    You could then have Themes to define character archetypes, like grizzled veteran, well schooled officer, and other staples of the war genre. If you wanted to make sure that all of the characters didn’t simply depend on the attack stat (dex for everyone shooting), everyone’s theme could define their primary attack stat for their powers (so the soldier who can aquire whatever anyone needs by various channels can use charisma for his attacks, and the man who clings to his faith in the face of the madness of war could use wisdom).

    • Yep, that’s pretty much exactly where I’m going with this.

      • Khopesh

        One tangential question, unrelated to mechanics – Will you have a background element to the setting to differentiate it from world history, to address the issue of gender neutrality? I mean, will the setting be altered in such a way that a (presumably multinational) group of highly trained commandos would include both men and women, or would it be up to the GM to address the issue?

      • I’ll address it, but only in a sidebar. It’s up to folk how they decide to play their games after all. My vision is the one you see in films and comics rather than the actual history. It treats WW2 as a genre rather than an event. At the. At the end of the day, it’s for groups to decide at the table how much of an issue they want any of this to be.

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