Saturday, May 9, 2015

Observations II: Daring a new perspective on ability scores ... (Design Post)

Yesterday we had the third session of testing bits and pieces of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. It's true what they say, there are things that sound good on paper, but fall flat in the game. Ability scores in LSotN (I call them "qualities") are a good example for that. This post is about how I intend to address the flaws I saw. I'll challenge the general concept that high stats are good stats and that they need to grow with experience, so those not into LSotN might still find some meat to chew on in this post ...

Popular choices and the hard sell

This is going to be a hard sell. One could say that the principles behind ability scores are a universal scheme among almost all the role playing games out there. Regardless of how those ability scores (or what ever name the designers thought better/more distinctive) are generated, be it random or point buy or divine intervention, you'll have the general assumption that there is some sort of distinguishing scale to those stats, almost always in connection with the idea of possible growth and expansion.

So if "high" is "good" than "higher" must be "better", right? It's not far fetched to assume that those ideas are directly connected to in-game level advancement which, in turn, is (most likely) derived from our cultural conceptions of education, advertisement and achievements. "Better" in this context means "more" and/or "new", so if you advance a level it wouldn't feel like an achievement if you didn't get something for it to show.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. "Needs" are, if you think a about it, the basic catalysts of every game. We want that new skill, more hit points, more spells and all that. It drives a player in a game to get that next advantage. There's also some importance to the illusion that there is no tangible limit to expansion.

So it's really understandable why high stats and mechanics associated with that are so popular in role playing games. It's quite natural. So natural, in fact, that tinkering with those mechanics might very well incur some people's displeasure with the proposed changes, despite the merits they might bring to the table.

But ability scores could instead ...

First of all, the problem I encountered. Ability scores in LSotN are considered pools that get drained during a game. A character could get damage to his sanity or health or, well, all of them, really. Once that damage reaches a certain point, it'll be harder to heal and even leave scars or permanent damage. Even to a point where the permanent damage lead to an unfortunate end for a character (too much damage, going insane, getting betrayed, stuff like that).

But generating ability scores kept following the good old "3d6 in a row" routine (here is the post explaining it in detail), which turned out to make book keeping that much more difficult.

It's not that the players didn't like the idea or how it affected the game, but the particulars made it cumbersome to use at the table. I think this is mostly due to the high level of abstract variety in the original results. It's too easy to loose track of what's happening, because math rears it's ugly head and smiles nasty. So yesterday I came to the conclusion that I needed to do something about that. It needs some streamlining.

I think the solution is already in the system, but instead of allowing a random generation of ability scores, every player gets a fixed set of ability scores. To allow some variety, I'd go with three sets of values. Players get to decide during character generation two high ability scores (18 each), two normal ability scores (16 each and two low ability scores (12 each). That's it.

Working with fixed numbers makes it easy to illustrate how getting them damaged affects them (since it's always the same procedures with the same numbers) and with that out of the way, the effects are more palpable during the game.

So level zero characters are all more or less of the same mold. They have the same potential. The rules for permanent damage ensure the development of individual characters over time, but the beauty of it is that those changes are always connected to what happened to the characters. It's personal, so to say, and as such easier to follow in each individual case because it forms the history of a character. It also allows for a learning curve as the mechanic is used in an organic way during play. It's a very different kind of bookkeeping, as a player not only notes the permanent damage his character gets, but also links it to how the character is affected by it and where the injury occurs. 

This is what ability scores could do in a game: they mirror what a character has experienced, translating it to solid data in the process. But it also means that ability scores will get lower and lower over time and that's the problem I was talking about earlier in the post. People want their characters to get stronger over time, not weaker.

Decreasing ability scores vs. level advancement

Although it's a hard point to sell, I believe it's the way to go. To some degree it's how it is in real life: we all have the same potential and life has a way of changing that over time. With age we get weak, collect our own little idiosyncrasies and little pains, all the small things that make individuals what they are.

But we also grow in areas. We learn things, we try to overcome our deficiencies (or not) and we fight to keep what we achieved in life. And if the system allows for the one aspect (collecting little scars over time) it needs to embrace the other aspects, too. This is where level advancement comes into play.

I'm lucky in that regard, as the advantages a character gets with level advancement are already disconnected from the ability scores. A player decides which ability score gets a +1 with level advancement and that's independent to how high that ability score is. The idea here was to keep ability scores flexible (they change a lot during play) and give some permanent values connected to advancement and the decisions a player makes for his character.

A character will be good with a sword, if the player decides so and the ability scores have some influence on that in the game, it's just not that much of an influence anymore. You keep what you learned, the body gets just weaker with age.

The Silver Horde: old and scarred, but also experienced as hell (from
Terry Pratchett's "The Last Hero", illustrated by Paul Kidby) [source*]
And the permanent damage doesn't need to be that permanent, too, as a character could regain some of it if he takes the time to heal those wounds (as described in this post).

All this forms a strong connection between system and narrative. The game changes and marks characters with what they encounter, but the players decide the directions their characters take in their journey to becoming heroes. I am quite happy with that.

The big picture and final observations

Character creation is fast and simple. A character starts as level zero, the player decides the values for his ability scores as described above. Then he rolls his bloodline (detailed post is here) which results in a (small) selection of starting skills, advantages and items. It's where a character comes from and what he could gather from his upbringing and family background. It also connects a character with the group, as he'll have a status and some family bonds with other group members. A roll of 2d6 finally determines a characters health (lower result) and his endurance (higher result). Give him or her a name and it's done.

As the story now unfolds a character gains experience and encounters difficulties. With experience he'll advance to what makes a hero. He'll learn to use magic, how to move with stealth or how to become a superior swordsman. But the things he'll encounter will form him, too, and he'll collect scars on soul and body along with the stories how they occurred. Some of those scars will stay with him for the rest of his life, some might even lead to his demise, but every so often he'll be able to overcome them if he takes the time and he could regain his former strength once more to face fate yet another season.

The system supports this struggle and a DM using the ability scores appropriately will have all the tools he needs to produce the tension that comes along with such struggles. And without much fuss, I might add.

But I am again at a point where I have to ask myself if it's justified to call this a clone of D&D, as what sure enough started as a retro-clone strays more and more away from the original design choices that made D&D what it is today (even in all it's variety). I'm still undecided, but I will say that it's still close enough to D&D to allow some reflection about what D&D does and how taking a different perspective on something like ability scores opens up new possibilities. Taking nothing for granted makes us free to end up with informed decisions about the way we play our games and I believe that's a good thing.

*Seems also to be a very interesting blog, by the way ...

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