Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #57:

Thinking Mechanically, Part 13: I've Got Personality!

by Travis S. Casey
April 11, 2003

Well, having taken a short break to talk about non-mechanical things, I'm back into the mechanical swing! Last time, I talked about ways to encourage roleplaying, which naturally led into ways to reward roleplaying, which in turn leads me back to mechanics — namely, personality mechanics. But before getting into personality mechanics proper, a brief digression...

Enforcing vs. Encouraging Mechanics

We can separate out game mechanics into two types: enforcing and encouraging. Enforcing mechanics limit what characters (and through them, players) can do. Most mechanics which govern the "physical workings" of a game world fall into this category — the fact that a character can jump, say, (Strength/2)+1d6 feet with a running jump when unencumbered isn't just a suggestion, it's the equivalent of physical law.

Encouraging mechanics, on the other hand, do just what the name says — they encourage players or characters to do certain things, but they don't force. A classic D&D example is alignment: a player playing a Lawful Good character isn't limited in what actions that character can take, but there may be consequences if he/she acts "outside of alignment" too often — especially if the character in question is a paladin or a priest of a Lawful Good god or goddess.

(Once again, I'm indebted to a discussion over at for terminology.)

So, to get back to personality mechanics, an enforcing mechanic says "you can't do that" or "you must do that", while an encouraging mechanic provides either rewards or punishments for doing things. Both sorts of mechanics exist as personality mechanics, both on muds and in paper RPGs.

For example, many older muds had a good-neutral-evil alignment system, and the system prevented characters with "good" alignment from attacking other "good" characters, and in some cases from attacking "neutral" characters unless the neutral attacked first. This is an example of an enforcing personality mechanic — for a very broad personality feature, to be sure, but still part of personality.

The paper RPG GURPS has several more specific examples; e.g., a character with the disadvantage "lecherousness" must make a Will roll to avoid making a pass when encountering an attractive member of the opposite sex, with penalties specified for if the person is handsome/beautiful. This again is an enforcing mechanic, specifying that the character must make a pass if the roll is failed.

Personally, I tend to dislike the use of enforcement mechanics for personality traits in paper RPGs, and even moreso in computer games. Most people dislike having their character be forced to do something. With a live GM, a player can try to argue the point, or at least try to get a modifier to the roll where rolling's involved. Computer programs, unfortunately, can't be argued with effectively.

For example, consider the GURPS disadvantage of "lecherousness" described above. Let's say that a character is a knight with "lecherousness", and he's escorting his lord and the lord's beautiful daughter to her wedding. Is he going to make a pass at the daughter? Especially with her father right there? I think most people would agree that he either wouldn't, or at the very least ought to get a good bonus to resist... but unless such situational bonuses are already coded into the rules, a computer version isn't going to be able to apply them.

(What irks me even more is personality enforcement mechanics which rely on out-of-character information — e.g., in the mud example above, where "good" characters could not attack other "good" characters, how is it that everyone knows everyone else's alignments? Such a system prevents misunderstandings — and those can be a lot of fun to roleplay!)

So, what sort of encouragement mechanics could one set up? The D&D alignment mechanic is mentioned above. That's sort of a "discouragement" mechanic, but it's unfortunately end-loaded — at the point of actually switching alignment, there are definite mechanical punishments for at least some characters, but anything happening before that point is pretty much up to the GM.

Awarding experience points or other points for roleplaying is another form of encouragement mechanic. Some paper RPGs follow this route. Often this is a very non-specific "you should give players points if they roleplay well; we suggest one or two per session, or three for really excellent roleplaying", but there are games which get more specific.

For example, I've mentioned the paper RPG Theatrix before in this column. In it, players can choose "flaws" for their characters. These are traits which can work against the character in some way, and can be personality traits — e.g., things like "claustrophobic", or "hard to get along with", or even "will never break her word, no matter what". The GM can use a character's flaws against him/her — but if the GM does do that, then the player is given a Plot Point in return.

Further, either the GM or any of the players can suggest a subplot at any time. If a flaw is activated as part of a subplot, that character's player gets the Plot Point for the flaw being activated. Further, flaws can easily be "hooks" for subplots to hang on — e.g., for the "will never break her word" flaw mentioned above, it's easy to imagine someone coming up with a subplot involving an enemy getting that character to give her word on something, and that spawning a subplot.

In a Tiny-style game, this system could be used almost as-is... simply substitute "tinyplot" for "subplot", and have some mechanism for reporting the activation of flaws. In the original Tiny games, you could almost substitute "coins" for Theatrix's "plot points".

From a broader point of view, a formal system for players to describe what their characters' personalities are supposed to be like could be used in conjunction with a system of GM or other player awards for "good roleplaying". Simply having such a system in place gives more guidance to the players on what kind of roleplaying you're looking for — in this case, characters being played in accordance with an established personality. Thus, even without anything to force GMs or players to "stick to the system", it can be helpful.

Of course, one can always get more complicated. An example of a more complex paper RPG "personality system" is found in the game Pendragon. Characters in Pendragon have a set of thirteen opposing pairs of personality traits, such as "chaste/lustful", "forgiving/vengeful", "modest/proud", and "valorous/cowardly". (The game is focused on Arthurian adventure, so the personality traits are chosen to fit with that sort of setting.)

These are rated from 1 to 20, and the two traits in a pair must add up to 20. These traits are used as guidelines for behavior. The GM may call for a player to roll on a personality trait. If the roll turns up a critical success, the character is overcome with emotion and must act in accordance with the trait. The action taken must be noticeable, but doesn't have to be extreme — it will, however, be enough to make the character feel that he/she has revealed strong emotion. A critical success can optionally give inspiration, giving a bonus to other rolls in the situation. The character also gains an "experience check" in that trait, which may cause it to increase.

On a normal success, the character is swayed by emotion, but the player is still free to decide how the character acts. If the character acts in accordance with the trait, he/she will get an experience check for it. If the player chooses to have the character act in an opposite way, then a check in the opposite trait is gained.

On a failure, the opposite trait is rolled. A success in it indicates that the character acts in accordance with it; a failure gives the player free choice. Either way, no experience checks are gained.

On a fumble, the character must act in accordance with the opposite trait, and gains an experience check in it.

The GM may also award experience checks in personality traits when rolls have not been called for, if a character does something that the GM feels merits it.

This is primarily an enforcement mechanic (and is meant to be, reflecting the fact that the knights in Arthurian tales often fail to live up to the ideals they're supposed to be trying for). However, there are also some encouragement aspects — the prospect of gaining an inspiration bonus can encourage players to choose extremely strong personality traits. Further, some things in the setting use the trait ratings — e.g., in the religion rules, each of the religions has a set of virtues which correspond to some of the personality traits. If a character has all of the virtues of his/her religion at 16 or higher, then the character gets a "religious bonus", which varies according to the religion, but is a bonus to some game statistic. There's also a set of chivalric virtues — if they total 80 or more, the character is renowned for his/her chivalry, and gets a bonus to the Glory statistic each year of game time, so long as they continue to total 80 or above. These are more mechanics encouraging extreme personality traits.

Personality mechanics of Pendragon's sort could also be adapted for a computer game — different situations could be set up to call for rolls on various personality traits. The biggest problem there is judging whether actions are in accord with a roll or not. The idea of a fixed set of matched pairs of traits can also be useful, and the idea that particular traits from that set can tie into other mechanics is as well.

Next time...

I'll be continuing with personality mechanics. There's more ground to cover in Pendragon, and a couple of other games to talk about. See you in fourteen!

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