Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #46:

Thinking Mechanically, Part 3: More Than Numbers

by Travis S. Casey
November 8, 2002

Numbers are one way to describe characters (and other things, for that matter, but more on that later), but they're not the only way. Let's start by looking at some things about characters that can't really be reduced to just numbers.

First off is description — what a character looks like. In many systems, "appearance" or some such attribute will be given, indicating how good-looking a character is, but that gives very little information, really. Height, weight, age, hair color, skin color, distinguishing features, even how a character dresses all form part of their appearance. Text games often allow players to simply enter freeform text descriptions — and some players will make descriptions that would stretch out to a couple of pages if printed.

An alternative to text descriptions is giving pictures of characters. This can vary from having a few stock pictures to select from, through having a system for generating pictures, all the way to allowing players to simply upload a picture. A picture is worth a thousand words, the old saying goes — and that can certainly be true of a good picture. Humans are for the most part highly visual animals, and we're hard-wired to recognize faces quickly and easily. For quick recognition, a text game is pretty much stuck with giving names for characters; with pictures, it becomes possible to easily distinguish between multiple characters without knowing their names.

Personality is a second area that's difficult to reduce to numbers. Is a character friendly? Shy? A partier? What's their favorite color? Personality is especially important in roleplaying-oriented games, and becomes extremely important when one wishes to give rewards for good roleplaying — without knowing what the role is that's being played, it's very difficult to judge good playing of it.

Related to personality is the area of history. Where was the character born? What social class did he/she grow up a member of? What are important events in their past? Who do they know, and what relationships have they had with those people? History ultimately ties in to both personality and a character's game statistics — it provides the "whys" and "hows" that underlies both. Why is a particular character taciturn and moody, while another is friendly and outgoing? How did this character become skilled with swords? Why does another know a bit of fire magic, but not other kinds of magic?

Just because these sorts of things can't be easily reduced to numbers, however, doesn't mean that we can't deal with them in a game. And that brings up a new subject...

Manipulating the Numberless

Just because something isn't a number doesn't mean that we can't use it in game mechanics. Let's take history for an example. As noted above, a character's history should have a lot to do with what skills and knowledge that character has. One type of character generation system which attempts to model this is what's called a lifepath system.

In a lifepath system, you generate at least a broad outline of a character's history in the course of generating the character. A simple example is the character generation system used in the Star Trek RPG from Decipher. For the most part, it's a fairly typical system — a character's attributes are either randomly rolled or assigned with points, and then skills are bought with points. However, it adds a lifepath element by having the player select "packages" for the background of his/her character. These packages carry with them choices for skills and special abilities that the character may have developed. For example, a player might take the "military brat" package — this indicates a character who grew up around military installations and equipment, and carries with it a selection of appropriate skills and abilities that the character might have picked up with such an upbringing. The player also chooses a package under his/her character's profession, indicating something about the focus of the character's past training and/or experiences. Lastly, the system allows for generating more experienced characters through the mechanism of the GM giving players a certain number of "advancements" — either simply giving them a number, or giving them the option of picking ages for their characters and getting their number of advancements based on age.

The starting character with the two packages selected, then, can be seen as being the character as he/she was at graduation from Starfleet academy (or at an equivalent point in their career, for non-Starfleet characters). Seen this way, any advancements chosen from those granted by the GM give a rough map of things that the character has done and achieved since then — e.g., taking a promotion indicates that the character was promoted, and taking levels in a skill indicates training or practice in that skill since then.

Other examples of lifepath systems include Cyberpunk 2020, Traveller, and FASA's Star Trek system. It's possible to get very detailed with lifepaths; I've seen an unpublished system in which each character is advanced through "birth", "early childhood", "late childhood", and "adolescence" stages before starting play, with multiple choices to make in some of those levels, and requirements for some choices (e.g., you can't choose to be trained as a knight during adolescence unless your previous choices have the character growing up as a noble.)

Working backwards through our list from above, personality traits can also be the subject of mechanics. One way to do this is by assigning numbers to personality traits, as the Pendragon system does — but we're talking about systems without numbers right now, so more on that later. The paper RPG Theatrix, however, uses personality traits without requiring numbers for them. Theatrix has a concept it calls Plot Points — points that players have which they can spend on behalf of their characters, to allow those characters to do things they normally couldn't. In order to do so, however, you use a Plot Point to "activate" a trait that the character has... and personality traits are one such kind of trait. Thus, in Theatrix, a player with a character with the personality trait "cowardly" could spend a Plot Point to activate "cowardly" to get an extra burst of speed when running away from something.

On the reverse side, the GM in Theatrix can make a requirement that a player must activate an appropriate personality trait in a character in order to be able to perform an action. For example, the GM could say that no characters can enter a burning building unless they spend a Plot Point to activate an appropriate trait — examples would include Bravery, or Love for someone trapped in the building.

Such a system requires some means of judging the appropriateness of a trait to an action. With current technology, allowing players to freely make up their own personality traits, as Theatrix does, would not mix well with using them mechanically, but one could have a list of possible personality traits for players to choose from, and use them in mechanics.

And for our third example — descriptions. A freeform, "type-in-whatever" description doesn't lend itself to mechanical manipulation, but other sorts of descriptions might. Descriptions could be either fill-in-the-blank ("hair color", "eye color", etc. being blanks) or even multiple-choice. Such descriptions could then be used in such things as arrest warrants — the system could assign a chance that the city guards will try to arrest someone, based on how closely they match a description of a wanted person.

I've also seen a system for calculating attractiveness of characters based on a combination of descriptions and personality traits. For example, a player might choose, "likes brunettes" as a personality trait; from that character's point of view, other characters who are brunettes would have a slightly higher attractiveness.

The point in all this is to remember that numbers aren't the only things we can work with in mechanics — and that some aspects of the game world simply can't be adequately described with simple numbers.

Next time, I'll be continuing this series with a bit more about numberless mechanics, and then we'll get back to the number crunching... see you in two weeks!

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