Representing Traits

February 17, 2007

One of the lessons of Vincent’s lego mech game Mechaton (borrowed from the miniatures games tradition) is that visual representations of character traits are awesome. In Mechaton, the lego “attachments” that you have clipped onto your mech tell you what the mech’s abilities are. When the mech loses those attachments, by having them blown off, the mech loses those abilities.

Shreyas and I were recently discussing a game concept where you would draw a picture of your character and that would serve as a character sheet. This embroidered belt represents the character’s relationship with his mother, who wove it for him. If the relationship starts being in trouble, maybe you’d alter the picture to show it fraying. Or maybe the character would stop wearing the belt or start wearing a special buckle on it, given to him by a rival for his mother’s affections. Meg Baker’s 1001 Nights hinted at going in this direction, with its focus on dress, but then used it mainly as color.

Going from there, imagine a game of Dogs in the Vineyard for which each player has prepared their own coat, which serves as their character sheet. This patch on my elbow is “Never Back Down 2d6.” This frayed edge across the bottom is “Remember What Happened at Three Rivers 3d4.” That’s a larp trick.

Likewise, imagine a character represented as a poem, described line by line in a series of images, or maybe with each important trait separated by a comma or colon. For example, say the characters find themselves in Hell, which is represented by these lines from Milton:

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.

If they are to triumph over the horrors of hell, they must surpass it’s various qualities: the furnace, engulfing visible darkness, the sights of woe and regions of sorrow, torture without end, the fiery deluge, etc. This kind of thing would work equally well with prose passages, of course. The literary approach to trait representation is implied by Hero Quest and Weapons of the Gods, but taken in other directions.

Shreyas, in his various Torchbearer drafts, experiments with using props to depict traits that are passed around between the players, representing (in part) shifting things like relationships or leadership or the like. If a lit candle represents my character’s trust or love, I hand that candle to another player, and they blow it out, the symbolic meaning of what just happened should be pretty clear, even without saying anything.

Mridangam uses gestures as a way of negotiating resolution, but there’s no reason that body language couldn’t representing static or, better yet, changing traits. Holding up different numbers of fingers on each hand, sitting or standing in a particular fashion, orienting yourself relative to objects or other players in the room, using mudras or other hand gestures, making certain facial expressions (though those might be a bit trickier to implement).

Likewise, the kinds of diagrams that I’ve played with in the Avatar game and the Exalted Hack (inspired by Shreyas’ work on Ninegun Choir) work similarly, though, in that case, you’re positioning board-game-like pieces on a diagram in order to represent the current state of your character or another aspect of the game. All sorts of board game symbology works here: you can move pieces around in a line, you can jump pieces, you can knock pieces over, you can flick pieces with your finger, you can have pieces move in particular patterns, you can have different shapes and colors of pieces, you can do any number of things with the board itself, etc.

Any other major ones I missed?

It’s interesting, coming to the end here, to see how many games by Shreyas or myself are related to these kinds of ideas (mostly unfinished games, but whatever). I guess that if you were to try to speak of “play/design schools” among indie game designers, looking for alternative representation methods (alternative symbology, really) is one area of game design that we’ve tried to develop in recent years. I imagine we’re not going to stop any time soon.

(Once I get a chance, I want to write another post about “traitless” games, kind of a pet project of mine, as in Heavenly Kingdoms, Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan, Waiting/Tea, and the Game for Josh’s Girlfriend.)

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