Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #58:

Thinking Mechanically, Part 14: Yes, We're Still on Personality

by Travis S. Casey
May 9, 2003

Passionate Characters

Last time, I started into the personality mechanics used in the paper RPG Pendragon, a game based on Arthurian legends. It uses a set of thirteen opposed personality traits, with characters having ratings in each.

Every character has a rating in each of those, but Pendragon also has personality traits which not all characters have: passions. Unlike the thirteen pairs, passions in Pendragon are unopposed — if a character has the passion Love (Lady Amber), then that character doesn't have to have an opposing passion of Hate (Lady Amber).

There are four passions which almost all Pendragon characters will have, due to the nature of the setting and the normal sorts of characters played in it: Loyalty (lord), Love (family), Hospitality, and Honor. Love of one's own family is something that most people will have, period, while the set of loyalty to one's lord, hospitality, and honor form the basis for the knightly code which most Pendragon characters have sworn to live by.

Let's take a quick look at the other passions available in Pendragon.

Loyalty. This can be to a lord, to the king (most knights won't be direct vassals of Arthur, but will still have some loyalty to him), to one's own vassals, or to some other group (a knightly order, a band of friends, or whatever).

Amor. This is chaste, courtly love of the type idealized in late medieval times — distinct from the less courtly type of love covered by the Love passion. This is an example of how personality mechanics can help to reinforce particular genre conventions — the simple fact of having a separate Amor passion helps to remind players that the ideal of "courtly love" has strong differences from modern ideas of love.

Love. This is love in the more modern sense. It can include physical attraction, but isn't limited to it — one of the examples mentioned is Love (God), for strongly religious characters. Love is restricted to be for someone or a specific group of people — you can't have Love (Justice), for example. Loves of abstractions are covered either by the non-passion personality traits (e.g., instead of having Love (Justice), one would have a high score in the Just personality trait) or by Loyalty (you can't have Love (knights of the round table), but could have Loyalty (knights of the round table).

Hate. This isn't quite the opposite of Love, in Pendragon. For one thing, it does double-duty... while some abstract loves wind up under "Loyalty", and there's Amor for courtly love, there's no such adjuncts to Hate. A character can have Hate (magicians), Hate (monks), Hate (peasants), Hate (English people), or any other Hate which the GM agrees to.

The benefits of passions are two-fold: first, a character can try for Inspiration. When doing something related to one of his/her character's passions, a player can ask to roll on the passion, and the GM may approve. On a success or critical success, the character is Inspired, and receives a bonus to one skill of the player's choice which he/she is using to do something related to the passion. An experience check is gained for the passion as well. The second benefit is Glory. Famous passions generate Glory for the character who has them, enhancing his/her fame as a knight.

Passions can also affect a character in negative ways as well. On a failed passion check, the character is Disheartened, and gets a penalty to actions relating to the situation which called for the passion roll; once the situation is over, the character becomes Melancholic — which doesn't impose any penalties, but must be roleplayed. On a critical failure, a character can go mad. Either way, the character loses a point of the passion for having failed the roll.

(Note as well that the GM can call for passion rolls, if a character has a passion of 16 or higher. With such a high score, the character will most likely succeed, but failures can be very entertaining. Sixteen is also the cutoff for Glory; lesser passions don't generate any.)

The exception is the one passion I haven't mentioned yet — Fear. Fear has to be of something, and one cannot be inspired by fear, nor gain Glory from it. Fears are generally only acquired in play, and it is possible to gain Glory by overcoming one's Fear, thereby getting rid of it.

The point of these rules again is to model the reality of the Arthurian tales, especially of Malory's version of them. Things like Lancelot going mad when Guenevere rebukes him after discovering him in bed with another, not knowing that he was enchanted to do so. The passion rules are interspersed with bits from Malory, relating things that happen in the tales to the game mechanics meant to reflect them.

Out of Arthurian Myth, Into The Three Musketeers

Another paper RPG which uses personality mechanics to try to reinforce a genre is Lace & Steel (L&S). L&S's mechanics are not as complex as Pendragon's, but do have some features which Pendragon's do not, and take a different approach. So let's look at them quickly.

L&S has three basic mechanical things which relate to personality: the Self Image score, Ties, and Antipathies. The Self Image score is a positive or negative number, which is used as a bonus or penalty to certain other characteristics in the game. By default, it's zero. Thanks to the way L&S's mechanics work, a positive score is a poor self image (makes it harder to do things) and a negative score is a good one (making it easier to do things).

Ties are those things which a character feels an emotional attachment to. They can be people, abstractions, groups, or anything else — the primary rule is that they shouldn't be trivial things — they're supposed to wind up being the focus of the game, and focusing on trivialities usually isn't desirable.

Antipathies are the opposite of ties. They could be dislike for a person, group, or thing, or could also represent fear — e.g, an antipathy for fire could represent fear of fire.

Players are given points to divide among their starting ties and antipathies. There are also rules for determining if there's an initial tie or antipathy when meeting someone, represent love or hate at first sight.

To improve a character's Self Image score, characters perform tasks or keep promises. A task which a character has set on or a promise given has a Self Image "investment" set for it. Successfully keeping a promise or performing a task lower Self Image (lower is better, remember) by the amount of investment; failure, though, raises Self Image by the same amount.

Ties and Antipathies come in in deciding how much Self Image investment a task or promise should get (promises to someone a character has a strong Tie to should mean more). Further, successfully contributing to or rescuing something one has a Tie to improves Self Image, as does harming something one has an Antipathy for.

These rules encourage characters to make promises and set tasks for themselves, especially in relation to things they have Ties or Antipathies for. The penalties associated with failing at a task or breaking a promise are meant to model the depressions that characters in the genre sometimes go into. The rules for love or hate at first sight also try to model the genre.

The personality rules also show up in another place in L&S — in the magic rules. Specifically, when a character summons a demon, the total of that character's Antipathy scores can be used as bonus points to the demon's attributes. The nastier you are, the nastier a demon you'll get. The summoner's Self Image score also affects the demon.

Let's Review

Well, this column and the previous one were mostly example of mechanics... and unfortunately, it's easy to get bogged down in the details of example and forget what it is they're supposed to be examples of. So I'd like to take a moment to review.

The basic question is, what are personality mechanics good for? As usual, there's several answers, shown in the example of the last couple of columns:

  • Helping to keep players playing their characters in line with an established personality. This can be either by enforcing, where characters are required to act in a certain way, or by encouraging, where players are offered an incentive to have their characters to act that way (or a punishment for not acting in that way). GURPS and Theatrix were used as examples here.
  • Communicating to players about what's supposed to be important and what characters should be like. Pendragon stands as an example here, with a very specific list of personality traits, rules which make it clear which personality traits are desirable for characters of different religions and types, and the differentiation between Amor and Love in the setting.
  • Modelling how characters behave in a particular genre or subgenre. Both Pendragon and Lace & Steel try hard to do this. It should be noted that in both cases, the personality mechanics are designed to sometimes force characters to do irrational things — e.g., go mad from an amor's or lover's scorn in Pendragon, fall into deep depressions in both games, or fall in love at first sight in L&S.
  • Feeding into other aspects of a complete system. The way the demon-summoning rules in L&S tie into the personality mechanics is an interesting case in point.

In summary, there's a lot of things which can be done with personality mechanics... think about it and see what you can come up with!

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