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Apr 26 2012

Beyond Skills

I always love those moments in stories where the main character looks like a beaten broken mess on the ground but they just keep getting up and digging a little deeper to keep going. It not because their tough; they’ve already gone way beyond their limit. It’s because the character has something worth fighting for, something beyond their training, and beyond physical limitations. They’re fighting for an ideal, a goal, something that matters to them. They have the Will to push through and succeed. Those are the kind of moments I want to have in games. The question is how do we get there?

I’m a fan of Aspects in the FATE system. For those who don’t know what FATE is it’s a game system developed by Evil Hat Productions and is the engine behind Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files RPG. FATE uses Fudge dice, which are six sided dice with a plus symbol on two sides, a minus symbol on two sides, and two blank faces. In FATE you would roll four of these dice, total up the pluses and minuses, add or subtract the total from the attribute you’re testing to accomplish your task, and compare it to the challenge rating to see if you succeed or fail. Your attributes or skills in FATE range from one to five so this mechanic can have some serious variability on the success or failure during a test.  I like to think of this dice mechanics along with a characters skill set as one half of the FATE engine. The other half comes in the form of FATE points and Aspects.

If your skills define what you can do your Aspects define who you are and what you care about. FATE points allow who the character is and the things the character cares about to matter mechanically. If you find yourself in a situation where one of your Aspects might matter you can tag it and get a plus two bonus to your roll. If you remember most skills are rated from one to five so a plus two is a huge shift. It means who you are matters as much as what you can do in this game. The mechanics make it so. Now this isn’t supposed to be a FATE review or me gushing about the system. The point is the concept. I want my games to have characters where who they are and what they can do are of equal importance mechanically. This also needs to help reinforce the storytelling that occurs within the game.

I play a fair amount of D&D. I’m trying to move away from it and change the culture of the gaming groups I’m in. The thing is I don’t want to move sideways. What I mean is I don’t want to play Pathfinder because that’s just another game where who you are is much less important mechanically than what you can do. I’ve considered Savage Worlds because of the benny system but it seems a little weak to me. GM’s in Savage just sort of hand out bennies for whatever they feel like. A lot of times it’ll be for playing up your hindrances which is very cool along with being FATE like. Just for reference Savage Worlds did come first but their hindrances evolved from disadvantages from GURPS while FATE’s aspect system evolved from the traits found in Over the Edge. At least if you follow the game design family tree it looks that way.

Sorry I got a little side tracked. Back to my point about D&D and how I’m trying to move away from it and change the culture of the groups I play with. What I do is insert ideas from other games into D&D. With the idea of Aspects and FATE points I’ve tried a few things. First I tried just hacking Dresden and D&D 4e together and had great success. I used the Dresden City creation to make a Barony with my three players. I had them create 7th level characters mechanically and then I had them go through the background creation found in Dresden. This created high concepts, troubles, and stories where some of the other characters would guest star in other characters stories. I also re wrote the progression system from Dresden for this game since Dresden doesn’t use experience. It has milestones. I decided people would never level up but could get advancements of the minor, medium, or Major type and had guidelines for all those things. Since D&D uses a D20 I changed tagging Aspects from a plus two to a plus four and also had some specific rules for certain players like the druid. If they wanted to shape shift into something they couldn’t normally change into they could with a Fate point assuming it was within reason. I’d probably rewrite that to be a little more grounded these days but it worked for the game we were playing. Also, all the characters could basically stunt their abilities with a FATE point as long as it stayed within the characters high concept.

In the end I really got what I wanted from that game. There was still a nice level of tactical combat but the characters desires and beliefs as pertaining to their aspects mattered just as much. They played into the combat and social situations. It made the more cinematic scenes have more weight and option for the characters other than trying to figure out what skill to use. It just made for a more robust game. It also took a lot of work.

There are quicker ways to get more in character actions than hacking a game like that. You can just use a benny like system and tack it onto your D&D or Pathfinder game. It works really well. In D&D4e you can use a character theme or a couple of backgrounds as tags for gaining chips. Act along with your characters theme or backgrounds and get a chip. Spend a chip and re-roll a d20 roll. If you don’t like re-rolls and your more interested in having a resource that can accomplish things make the chips +2 bonuses on a d20 roll you can use after the roll. Make it more useful by saying a player can spend as many of the chips on a single D20 roll as they want to make something happen. If you want a more gambling mechanic you can ask the player how many chips they want to spend? If you want to be nice you let them keep the chips if they don’t accomplish the task. If you want to be mean you take the chips even if they fail. In any case the point is if the character is played to its theme or background the player gets a chip. That single change right there will give your players more incentive to play to the characters character instead of just their skill set. In Pathfinder you can use their themes in much the same way. You might have to make some adjustments to things like spell casting saving throws, maybe a single chip equals a negative one on the saving throw or negative two. I’ve never done it in a Pathfinder game but I’m sure you Pathfinder players can figure it out now that you have a concept work from.

Well there it is, an idea for how to make the mechanics of your game support the characters character. Please feel free to let me know what you think here in the comment thread or send me an email at chris@misdirectedmark.com.

Keep on gaming,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

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