04 July, 2018

Context and Social Theory

I think it was a great step when D&D took the shift from making non-human races their own separate classes and allowed different races to be like humans and choose what kinds of vocational paths they followed. At the time that AD&D 2nd edition was around, I was playing games like MERP and Rolemaster, where characters with a bit more versatility and uniqueness to their design was encouraged.

The newest incarnation of D&D (5th Ed) has races, classes, and backgrounds, which links into ideas I've been using for years in my games where "race" provides physical and biological factors, "culture" provides social context and abilities based on the community in which a character grew up, and "occupation/class/job" provides the specific training that a character has chosen to pursue. This is one of the reasons I feel like both Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Apocalypse World are regressive steps in the hobby.

In the latest LARP system that I wrote, I got pretty specific with this. Character creation in this system followed the character's path through life until they became an adventurer, following them through "childhood", "adolescence" and "adulthood" (I assume about 12 years for each, although this has developed as a result of studying Indigenous Australian communities, where there are a number of nations who traditionally divided a lifespan into 12 years segments matching a seasonal pattern that varied over a 12 year cycle. If I was to develop a similar concept for a traditional Japanese setting, I might drop that down to 10 years because of traditional ideas that a persons first 20 years were formative, their next 20 years were more productive to society, while the third 20 years were more reflective in nature, and most people who lived beyond 60 lived out their days in monasteries or as family elders and advisors). Everything in this LARP system basically provides the same types of effects, so everyone starts pretty well balanced against one another. The key here is that racial traits can only be purchased during the childhood phase, they are from that point onward locked into a character's biology. Cultural traits can be purchased during childhood or adolescence, they may later be learned by adults, but the formative years have seen these social and cultural elements forged into their psyche far more easily. Occupational traits may not be purchased during childhood, because a child-like mind requires a degree of structure before it can make sense of the abstract concepts involved in many vocational fields. Occupational paths provide occupatonal traits, and anyone can follow an occupational path as long as they meet certain prerequisties. For this system I allow six points to be spent at each.

This basically gives us...

Childhood (6pts worth of race or culture) - You can buy mixed race but you'll have to divide the character's 6 points between them. A "pureblood" will spend all six of their points on a single race and claim an exclusive ability that only the purest of their lineage can possess, but this comes at the expense of not focusing on the benefits of a wider community. You can also get by without any racial traits at all, and for he purposes of the LARP, anyone without racial traits basically defaults to the baseline group of "Mixed-Blood" which is analogous to "Human".
Adolescence (6pts worth of culture or basic occupation) - Characters who maxed out their race during childhood may now expand their connection to the community around them, or may gain knowledge and influence with a second community. Other characters may take this opportunity to start following a specific occupation (which will be one of the basic ones because the adolescent mind doesn't have enough context for one of the advanced occupations).
Adulthood (6pts worth of occupation) - Those who focused on races and cultures earlier now have the opportunity to develop a specific vocational path, while those who started a vocational path earlier may now ascend to a more advanced path (as long as they meet prerequisites).

The system reflects a characters journey before they come into the game, but it's a slow process. It's been something that has seen a few hiccups when I've tried to digitise the process to allow players to create characters through an online website.

It's also very similar to the direction I'm planning to head with Walkabout, where richly developed characters linked to their communities are an important element of play. It feels like a journey has already begun, we are meeting character who have a bit of prescriptive depth, and a drive in a specific direction before we meet them. While the characters may have a tendency to act in certain ways, and might have specific tools at their disposal that incline them to manipulate the story according to specific patterns of input and output, they are free to go in numerous (if not countless) directions. Tendencies pull at them, and the story is as much about reacting to these tendencies as it is about balancing the unbalanced post-apocalyptic world. The issue here is that the characters in Walkabout are predominantly human, perhaps a few mutants, possibly some descendants of cryptids and flesh-borne spirit beings who now exist in the setting. Cultures will generally play a much larger role than races in this game.

Then we come to the urban magic of the "Familiar" project, with familiars drawn more commonly to people who want to see change in the world, while they tend to ignore those who are already in positions of power who are ambivalent about social issues as long as they keep a stable world where the hierarchy is maintained. This would be a game filled with women, people of colour, people of indeterminate/flexible/non-mainstream gender and sexuality, people of minority cultures and religions, people of low socioeconomic background, and everyone else ignored by the mainstream. Again, like Walkabout, race isn't or shouldn't really be an issue here, but there are certainly biological traits that might be hardwired from birth, traits that might be acquired from family and close community members while growing up, and then the traits that are self-chosen during adulthood based on everything that has come before. It is my thought in this project that humans with power might seek the attention of familiars and darker spirits to gain magic of their own, to do this they need to break taboos of the dominant culture behind closed doors (hence drawing on concepts of necromancy, secret societies, heresy, and similar tropes), but this is only ever a conscious choice on the part of the adult... deeper magic is available to those born different, and this is reflected in many indigenous traditions around the world. This whole concept feels intertwined with Walkabout in many ways.

In this new "Bring Your Own Miniature" project, the whole childhood/adolescence/adulthood trilogy of backstory elements just doesn't feel right at all. I want the game to be fast to pick up, and easy to get into. I don't want players spending hours developing backstory for a figure that may only last a few minutes before a new character needs to be generated. Character differentiation basically comes down to the placement of 6 elemental scores, the selection of a range of basic skills that modify the abilities of the character in some way, and the purchase of some equipment and allies. In previous game projects like this I've just had a two-part template, often a cultural background and a reputation, both of which add a range of default elements to the character, allowing for a mix-and-match quick play solution.

One of my earliest incarnations of this game used that very system, and it echoes into the Voidstone Chronicles variant I made. Basically a range of scores is given to attributes by the character's culture, a range of scores is given by the class. They are simply added together... each half also gives a range of skills to choose from, where a character had to choose one cultural skill, one class skill, and a few skills that could be chosen from either. Even the first version of this latest incarnation had a similar system with three template fragments contributing to the overall character, where the six elements were each given a value from 1 to 3 as a result of the race (humans got 2s in everything, elves got a higher Air and Wood offset by a lower Earth and Metal, etc.), plus 1 to 3 as a result of the culture (those from the central lands got 2s everywhere, while different other lands got one element higher and one lower), then a final 1 to 3 as a result of chosen character occupation/class. Each fragment of the template offered an automatic ability, and a couple of abilities that could be chosen, where an ability might be cheaper to purchase if it appeared on multiple template fragments. It kind of worked, but with multiple contributing factors and a narrow margin of deviation in each of their contributions I seemed to keep generating fairly vanilla characters with elemental attributes of 5 to 7 across the board. Great for normal distribution and bell curves, but not for diversity of play...everything generally felt like variations of the same thing, and that really wasn't what I was going for at all.

Delve by Levi Kornelsen, blew apart certain ideas in this regard. A beautiful little game, based on d6s rather than the d10s I'd been using, with 4 attributes of character definition rather than the 6 elements I'd been playing with, but so similar to my intentions in so many ways. That game simply allowed the distribution of 2,3,4,5 across the four categories of Move, Fight, Shoot, and Focus...such an elegant solution.  So with 6 elements and the use of a d10, I just transformed the idea to the allocation of a 3,4,5,6,7,8 to the six different elemental values. But Levi's game doesn't really do races. It doesn't need to. Mine doesn't need to either, but I still felt like there would be some kind of benefit to adding them into the mechanisms in some way.

Initially I did the roleplaying typical solution of adding +1 to one element, and -1 to another (humans getting neither a bonus nor a penalty), also giving every race a biological advantage that was inherent in their genetics. This felt like a massive cop out, so I gave humans a +1 to fire because as a species we end to be aggressive to one another for no apparent reason, then justify our aggression through religion, or some other made up abstraction at a later time. I allowed the player of a human character to reduce any element by 1. But again, this didn't feel right. It was feeling like the idea of designing by exception, rather than developing a coherent easy to understand overall system that just made logical sense. I'm not even touching the further complications with cultural ideas compounding the problems.

Then I considered dividing the attributes into 3,4,5 and 6,7,8. Where a player might have to apply one of the higher scores to a particular element to reflect that race's genetic predisposition (or they might have to apply a specific lower score to an element). Under this system elves might be known for their beauty and speed (must allocate one of the higher scores to Air), but also for their tenuous relationship with death and the forces of technology (must allocate one of their lower scores to Metal). Humans would have any such limitations (or might still apply a high value to fire due to their aggressiveness)...again, it didn't feel right, and it was actually veering back toward the idea that racial differences are far more significant...



..which in turn led me to wondering whether anthropocentrism was a good thing or a bad thing in games. In LARP, everyone is basically human, so it's makes sense for this to be the baseline, but in miniatures there are so many options. Despite this, I want to have the concept of the Gue'vesa that Warhammer 40k had a few years ago, humans but they don't fight with the human empire, instead they have a more optimistic (some might say naive) outlook inspired by a connection to the Tau empire. The race plays a role, and the culture plays another role. This kind of system causes complications when a race might want one set of statistics and the culture wants another.

Either way, it was adding a level of complexity into things and that added level of complexity wan't necessarily moving the game in a way that I wanted. I want characters to feel different in the way they play, with different types of character having a tendency to play well in certain styles of scenario, or against certain types of opponent, but for choice to be in the player's hands rather than inherent restrictions built into the rules...

...time to go back to the source material.


Going back to the Confrontation rules (notably the Dogs of War expansion), there is a system in the back of the book for making custom characters capable of using magic. That basically uses a pair of templates that are modified by the culture, where Wolfen figures are big so they automatically get the large trait, Mid-Nor Dwarves are a specific group of demonically possessed Dwarves so they all get possessed... all the different groups get modifiers to the template too.

It aims back to some of my first solutions, so maybe I'm overthinking the whole thing.

There are certain things that will need to be accounted for in the rules, such as a mandatory variation in the rules relating to the size of the miniature (where smaller targets should be harder to hit, and larger targets easier), then there shuld be optional rules based on what the miniature clearly depicts (where muscle bound or naturally armoured miniatures have the option of buying natural armour as an ability, multi-limbed miniatures have the option of special multi-weapon attacks, and miniatures with claws/fangs/other-natural-weapons have the option of buying these as abilities). These are the inherent genetic traits associated with the figure. No modification to elemental stats, but if I give certain races and cultures access to abilities that get better based on their association with specific elements or derived scores, a player will be inclined to take this into account when making their character but it won't be forced on them.

Hopefully the next post will be a complete rule set, ready for alpha critiques by the outside world.   
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