Cinemechanix Edges: Changing Direction

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 28 December 2018 Written by Steve

After I realized that the path I’d been following with specializations didn’t work, I started considering alternatives. One idea (with many possible variations) that kept coming back to me was mixing fixed and player-generated descriptors: A small group of very broad fixed skills at the top level, with freeform narrower skills below them. A tweak on the general idea that I also really liked was to derive the stat for the big skill from the smaller skills. A commenter in the playtest group suggested something along the same lines (his suggestion was to limit the Edge number based on the number of Tags). The common theme of thinking of things from the opposite direction (starting narrow and going broad) seems worth exploring. 

Before we start, let’s cut out the third level of specialization. Even in the previous examples, they were often either arbitrary or meaningless. For example, how do we differentiate between Swordsmanship (Inigo’s Tag) and Fencing (Inigo’s Focus)? Unless our combat system is extremely detailed, we mostly take the player’s word for it. There might be a few situations where the GM can say “that clearly doesn’t count as fencing,” but they’re going to be rare.  Therefore, there’s no need for mechanical differentiation, assuming that example applies across the board. 

What about a skill with more clearly-defined degrees of specialization? For instance, there is a clearer differentiation between History (Edge), 20th Century History (Tag), and World War II History (Focus), right? Sure, there are some ambiguous cases because history is messy (does the Focus apply to events of the time period that aren’t obviously related to the war?), but if you’re rolling to see what your character knows about D-Day, it’s clear that the Focus applies. The next question is, from a game mechanics standpoint, should we care? I’m not sure we should. From a design perspective, there’s a slippery slope, with each level of specialization begging the question of why there’s not another level of specialization. If we drill down to World War II History, why allow a further specialization in the European Theater, further specialized to Operation Barbarossa, then even further to the Siege of Leningrad? From a fiction perspective, we usually don’t care. We’re going to expect the same kind of knowledge from a historian in a book or movie regardless of whether they’re introduced as “Professor of History,” “World War II Historian,” or “Siege of Leningrad Expert.” The generic Historian knowing an obscure fact about Leningrad or the Leningrad Expert knowing an obscure fact about the French Revolution isn’t going to ruin our suspension of disbelief. 

So let’s go back to my “The character sheet is not the character” mantra and remember that we don’t need to quantify everything in mechanical terms. After a certain point, specialization is a matter of characterization, not stats. The differences between our historians is a matter of roleplaying: The Leningrad expert’s office has more books about Leningrad than the generic historian, he’s more likely to be a member of the Siege of Leningrad message board, and if a situation reminds him of a historical anecdote, chances are good it happened in Leningrad. The GM can give the player things like automatic successes or situational bonuses for specializations if she feels they’re warranted, but those are basically cases of GM fiat that don’t need a special mechanic. 

Then scheme I’m currently thinking of is probably going to require some changes to terminology (and possibly to other parts of character creation), so for now let’s just call them Level 1 Traits (the artist formerly known as Edges) and Level 2 Traits (kind of corresponding with Tags). Since the L1 Traits are fixed, I want to keep the number of them limited, so they’re going to need to be broad, effectively fitting into the “Attribute” slot that so far Cinemechanix has avoided (fortunately, I think this method avoids some of the problems that caused me to leave out Attributes in the first place). Level 2 Traits are freeform, but the assumed level of specificity is similar to what I’ve always thought of as the “default” breadth of Edges: History, Occult Lore,  Swordsmanship, Firearms, Breaking and Entering, Persuasion, etc. There are a few ways to “enforce” this default without forcing the player to choose from a list:

  • By Example: Every setting should have its own list of sample traits, and as I mentioned last week most players will choose a lot of their skills from these lists. I can use the list to set the tone. 
  • GM Veto/Forbidden Traits: The GM can veto any trait that she considers too broad, and there should be a section in the GM section with guidelines, warning signs, and examples. There may even be a list of expressly forbidden overly broad traits. Also, all L2 traits have to be more specific than the L1 traits (which shouldn’t be hard). 
  • No Descriptor Fuckery: If a trait is a more specialized version of a default-level (example) trait, the character gets the bonus in the same situations he’d get the bonus for the default-level trait. So the Leningrad Expert would add his full bonus to any history roll, the fencer would get his full bonus for all sword-fighting rolls, etc. If the relationship isn’t clear-cut, the GM still award a partial bonus. I’ve got a feeling that developing the skills system will suggest more specific guidelines for this general concept. 

So without trying to figure out the L1 Traits just yet, the basic idea is that players buy their L2 Traits using character points and assign them to an L1 Trait. The number of L2 Traits tied to an L1 Trait determines the character’s score in the L1 Trait. When you make a roll, you only get to add a single L1 trait, but you can stack L2 Traits (including those that aren’t under the L1 Trait you’re rolling). Let’s assume that our L1 Traits are “Fighting” “Knowledge,” and “Athletics,” that each point in an L2 Trait gives you 1 point in the relevant L1 Trait. For the time being, we don’t care what the bonuses mean. Here’s a sample character:

Fighting 3

  • Swordsman +2
  • Firearms +1

Knowledge 1

  • History 1 

Athletics 1

  • Acrobatics 1

Here are how a few rolls would play out:

  • Shoot the bad guy: Fighting + Firearms (+4)
  • Identify what kind of gun the bad guy is using: Knowledge + Firearms (+2)
  • Name the members of Motorhead: Knowledge (+1)
  • Swing across the room on the chandelier: Athletics + Acrobatics (+2)
  • Flying kick the bad guy: Fighting + Acrobatics (+4)
  • Answer a question about 15th Century fencing: Knowledge + History + Swordsman (+4) 

The Attribute + Skill construction isn’t new (it’s used in d6, Storyteller, and lots of other systems), but I’ve always like the Storyteller-style version where the skill wasn’t tied to a particular attribute. Feng Shui has section that describes what a skill means where it specifies that buying a skill includes several elements like ability (you can do the thing), knowledge (you know about the thing), connections (you know other people who are into the thing), and probably some others I’m forgetting. The unlinked version of Attribute + Skill fits that perfectly: When you want to shoot a gun, you roll Fighting + Guns; when you want to identify a gun, you roll Knowledge + Guns; when you want to buy a Gun, you roll (let’s say) Social + Guns. This gets rid of the overdefining of skills that some systems do (Firearms only covers shooting; you need Repair to fix your gun when it jams and Connections to buy a gun semi-legally). 

My version allows the benefit of the unlinked variation of Attribute + Skill construction, but having them linked in another way (Skills determine Attributes) allows players to use their skill selection to help define their character by their choices of where to put particular skills. If you put your Baseball under Athletics, you’re a player. If you put it under Knowledge, you’re a fan. Making Attributes a derived stat based on skills also gets rid of my biggest complaints about attributes: the tendency for them to overshadow other traits or result in counter-intuitive characters who have enormous raw talent (a high attribute) that they never develop (the player doesn’t buy any Dexterity-based skills because he’s got such a high Dexterity he doesn’t need them). 

There are a lot of details that need to be worked out in order to turn this basic concept into a usable addition the rules, but I like the idea enough to keep playing with it until it either works or hits a dead end.

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Cinemechanix Edges: Changing Direction .
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