Games Without Traits: Part 1

February 18, 2007

What was going to be a single post is turning into a series. I discovered I have a lot to say.

Ninety-five percent of all published roleplaying texts and, probably, eighty percent of all roleplaying groups presuppose an artificial divide between the rules of the game and the content of play. Not everything that happens in play is considered to have “weight” when it comes to resolution systems, the mechanical core of ninety-nine percent of all published games. Instead characters, events, situations, locations, items, and the like are distilled into lists of descriptors, measurements, resources, and the like. It doesn’t matter, mechanically speaking, if a given character has a competitive relationship with her sister if that is not somehow embodied in a Trait of some kind (though, occasionally, Traits are improvised on the spot).

The storytelling movement in roleplaying, to which the indie roleplaying movement is closely connected, tries to make heretofore mechanically inconsequential details more important by turning them into Traits. In Vampire, characters have a Humanity score that measures how well they are able to maintain their composure and morals despite being blood-sucking monsters. Games like Sorcerer, Riddle of Steel, My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Breaking the Ice, Polaris, and Shadow of Yesterday to name just a few, are clearly part of this tradition, turning things like “Attraction,” “Self-Loathing,” “Light,” “I Will Rule This Land,” and “My Daddy Used To Whup Me Good” into Traits.

Games that turn really interesting and unusual things into traits are sweet. My last post talked about different ways to represent traits in play and many of those representation methods arose, I suspect, from trying to represent things that are sometimes awkward to contain in a description, a single word, a number, or a die roll. Having many different ways to represent Traits and being ever more creative with Traits, picking fascinating and non-obvious things to give mechanical weight to, enables us to explore a nearly infinite range of potential play content.

However, in other ways, thinking of game content in terms of Traits has the potential to limit roleplaying’s development. Roleplaying groups develop rich symbolic languages in the course of building communities of practice, and the nuances and depth of these languages is not always reflected in Traits. My own dissatisfaction with the focus on conflict or task resolution in most game design discussions may really be a dissatisfaction with Traits. After all, why do we describe game entities in terms of Traits?

1. To summarize things to make them easier to remember (like taking notes).
2. To enable things to be processed or compared in traditional resolution systems.

I tend to think that [1] can be accomplished in plenty of other ways, without requiring Traits. But [2] is a big deal. Traits are in bed, effectively, with traditional resolution systems, which in turn trace their roots back to wargaming. Now resolution can do a lot. I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. As Shreyas just commented to me, “It allows you to do a lot of neat stuff: compartmentalize things, manipulate them abstractly, etc.” But, like Traits, it’s not the be-all and end-all of roleplaying and, in the next post, I’ll talk about a few alternatives.

One Response to “Games Without Traits: Part 1”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    If I dig up a symbol from an obscure, forgotten religion and show it to you, what happens? If it’s a good symbol, it may strike some chords and give you some meaning, but without the full context, you don’t get the full meaning. I think games are often this way. We get so caught up in the symbols that we somehow forget what they stand for. Without the proper game and group context, they can become useless.Something that seems to work for me, in games I run, is to reinforce the symbols with description. How it works: Assume you have D&D stats. Each player writes a few sentences of description about each ability and why it has the score it has. Ex. Murgro inherited his good Strength (13) from his father who was a circus performer, and then he further developed it as a blacksmith’s apprentice. They do similar stuff with a paragraph describing class, background, or whatever else. (Usually they write up some descriptions of what their characters look like and so forth, but that’s their thing and not mine.) I reward them with some small bonuses and off we go. Oh, and everyone reads everyone else’s descriptions. We try to make them entertaining, so they become part of the game.Now this works because my group doesn’t mind it. I’ve talked to some folks who simply recoil at the idea. For us, it has led to much deeper characters and the stats on the page mean something.I’ve found it to work well even with gamism, but I’m still experimenting with it.I think the next step is to get Strength, from the example, to mean blacksmith apprentice on a one-to-one basis.–David Chunn, who can’t remember his blogger login today.


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