Cinemechanix: Role Reversal

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Thursday, 29 November 2018 Written by Steve

Right, so combat. It’s going to need to wait because of course I’m not done with the basic character creation rules. As you may remember, between con seasons I demoted the old “Character Concept” idea (which potentially allowed you to roll a d20 for any of a bunch of  different sub-traits) because it ended up making the free die for every roll a d20. I cut out a bunch of the nested traits, promoted the ones that still made sense to real traits, and made a new trait called “Trademark” as the thing that lets you roll a d20. Character Concept (later re-re-named “Role”) became a simple trait with a descriptor that gave you a dice bump when it applied. 

This worked fine in playtesting, and seemed to make sense. If you’re a cop, you take Edges and Trademarks and other traits in the cop stuff you’re really good at, but you still get a small bonus on all the other cop stuff so you’re slightly better at it then the guy who’s playing a librarian or whatever. I noticed in playtesting that the Concept Bonus came up a lot, but that made sense--you should get a bonus for the thing that’s your thing. In retrospect, I also now realize that there were a lot of Concept Bonuses for things that weren’t so much aspects of the Role as aspects of the world. For instance, everybody in the Lance Jackson and the Red Sun game got bonuses to things like fighting commies and flying spaceships because that’s shit even the science officer has some skill at in a pulp sci-fi game. 

It wasn’t until I started working on writing up the Hobomancer rules that I realized I had a problem, which is a lesson for you aspiring adaptable game system designers out there: playtesting isn’t the only kind of testing you need to do. You also need to test whether your system holds up when you start trying to design a specific game around it. Trying to apply the system you’ve created to a specific thing that’s meant to be played as an ongoing game exposes holes that you’re not going to notice when you’re slapping together characters for a one-shot playtest or con game. When you’ve got to write that shit down instead of just eyeballing it, you’ll notice problems you haven’t noticed before. A lot of the changes to Cinemechanix over the last few years have happened when I sat down and tried to apply the generic rules to something specific. 

The problem with the Role Bonus in Hobomancer is that making everybody choose the Role of “Hobomancer,” in addition to being boring as shit, makes the Role kind of meaningless. So you’ve either got to squeeze Hobomancer into the descriptor (“Fast Talking Hobomancer Flim-Flam Man”; this is the “Elf Wizard” option for QAGS Jobs), have two Roles, “Hobomancer” and whatever makes you interesting (the option we used in M-Force 1E with QAGS Jobs), or just have an invisible “Hobomancer” Role where characters get the Role bonus for doing Hobomancery stuff even though there’s not a stat anywhere officially proclaiming them Hobomancers. 

That last one is the default option for Cinemechanix, and takes the form of something called “premised-based skills” in the 1.3 version of the rules (it’s one of the many ways you can get to roll a d20). The basic idea is that there are certain things that everyone in the world knows how to do. In a modern game it might be basic computer use or high school science. In a Walking Dead game it might be fighting zombies. As of version 1.3, I was pretending it’s a feature, despite two big things that clearly make it a bug: The first one I mentioned when I downgraded Character Concept: If every Klingon gets a bonus to combat rolls, playing a Klingon Warrior is kind of dumb when you could instead play a Klingon Scientist and get the same bonus to combat rolls plus a bonus to science rolls. The other is if you want to include a PC who doesn’t have those premised-based skills, like if you want to play Tarzan in a modern game. He doesn’t get that bonus to computer rolls everyone else gets, so you’ve got to reflect that with the mechanics. 

The second problem is easy enough to fix: just give Tarzan a “Primitive Screwhead” Drawback. In the old version where Concept allowed you to roll a d20 if one of a bunch of traits applied, the first problem kind of got lost in the shuffle since most people had something to justify the d20 for most common roll types. When the bonus is a discreet bonus to the die, it’s more problematic. If everybody in the Walking Dead knows how to fight, everybody’s increasing their Hero Die for combat rolls, which makes it stick out more and raises the question “if practically everyone gets the bonus, why is it a bonus?” Just rolling it into the default roll would cut out a whole lot of fiddly dithering in the system rules about defining premise-based skills. It also (in the case of Hobomancer) alleviates the need to include a section in the rules that says “all Hobomancers get a Role Bonus to Hobomancer stuff” and then providing a list of examples about what constitutes “Hobomancer stuff” (or “M-Force stuff” or “Zombie Apocalypse Survivor stuff” or whatever). 

But if everybody just rolls d12 + Hero Die for anything they don’t have a specific trait for, a banker with Hero Factor 3 would have the same roll to jump a moving train as a Hobomancer with Hero Factor 3, right? Shouldn’t the Hobomancer get a bonus? At first it seems like he should, but I managed to convince myself otherwise in two steps. 

First, I considered what the default roll (d12 + Hero Die) should represent from a game design point of view. Hero Factor (and by extension your Hero Die) represents your baseline level of bad-assitude. The other traits aren’t things you know how to do, they’re things you’re especially good or (in the case of Drawbacks) bad at. You already know how to do anything you need to do because you’re the goddamn hero and if you couldn’t do it the screenwriter wouldn’t have written it. All Heroes with a Hero Factor 4 are d4 strong, d4 smart, d4 charming, and d4 good at fighting. This baseline represents stuff associated with the character’s Role (the guy with the “Cop” Role is d4 good at shooting things), but it also represents his baseline for whatever else he happens to do (the cop is also d4 good at fishing). If your character is noticeably better or worse at something, you take a trait for it. Our HF 3 Hobomancer will have the same roll for hopping a train as a HF3 banker, but a banker with a Hero Factor of 3 is pretty badass for a banker. In most games, the banker's going to be HF 1 or 2, so even the novice HF 3 Hobomancer has a built-in advantage. The Hero Factor 3 banker is clearly a square-jawed banker of action, so it doesn't really seem surprising that he can hop a train just as well as a half-starving hobo newbie. 

To convince myself whether this theory actually works and isn’t just a convenient rationalization to get rid of a problematic mechanic, I looked to fiction, which is the reality I’m trying to model here. In any given group of protagonists in a movie or TV show, everybody’s more or less equally competent when it comes to any action that’s enough of a plot point to require a roll just by virtue of being heroes. Deviations from the baseline are either a result of the character being a Bigger Damn Hero (higher Hero Factor) or having appropriate character background (Trademarks, Edges, Special Effects, etc.). In the Expendables, Stallone has a higher Hero Factor (because he’s the lead), Jet Li has some kind of Powerful Kung-Fu Trademark, Terry Crews has a Hero Gun, etc., but when it comes time to skydive or chase down a bad guy, they’re all making a default roll. There’s no need for a phantom “action hero” bonus because they’re already at an advantage by virtue of their higher Hero Factors. The only exception is when they’re going up against someone with an equally high Hero Factor, and it’s a safe bet that such characters would also be entitled to the phantom bonus if it existed. 

Leverage is a good non-combat example. For most of the stuff the characters do (whether it’s luring in a mark, fighting a thug, or stealing a car), at least some of the characters are relying purely on their protagonist status rather than any specific ability or training written into the character background. For example, most cons require some or all of the characters to do some acting, schmoozing, intimidating, or other social interaction-type stuff. When it comes to rolling for this kind of thing, Sophie’s got a Trademark, Nate’s got a few Edges that he can apply (and maybe a higher Hero Die since Hutton’s the lead), Hardison and Elliot are making default rolls, and Parker often has to take a Drawback penalty because she doesn’t really get human interaction. Even though Hardison and Elliot aren’t getting any bonuses, they’re still probably going to succeed because they’re the protagonists and their higher Hero Factor gives them a built-in bonus to the roll. When it comes time to fight, Elliot gets all kinds of bonuses for fighting, but they don’t come from his “The Muscle” Role, they come from his “Will Hurt You” Trademark and his Edges in “Kicking Ass” and “Taking Names.”  The same applies to Hardison's computer wizardry, Parker's thieving skills, and Nate's intelligence. 

Of course, if the Role Bonus goes away, doesn’t that make Role meaningless? I don’t think so. Even without a mechanical bonus, Role provides a starting point that encourages building a coherent character instead of just a pile of K3WL SKILZ!  Of course, I do think there are a couple of mechanics that we need where Role would be a major factor in the GM’s decision.  

Concept Bonuses/Penalties 

Since I don’t want a laundry list of skills, there needs to be some kind of generic bonus the GM can allow when the suspension of disbelief calls for someone to be better or worse at something than the existing stats suggest. For example, if Buffy and Xander are both rolling to see if they know Green Arrow’s secret identity (let’s just pretend her the GM is making Xander roll for that), Xander should clearly have a better chance even though they’re both making default rolls. So you give him a Concept Bonus, which is usually 1 Dice Bonus (the same as the former Role bonus). For a slightly more obscure piece of comic trivia (Doctor Midnight’s secret identity, maybe), Buffy might even get a Concept Penalty because it would slightly stretch suspension of disbelief for her to know that. Concept Bonuses or Penalties ONLY apply to default rolls. If the character gets any other bonus, the Concept Bonus disappears in a puff of Fiddly-Be-Gone. 

Hail Mary Rolls

The second use for Role acknowledges the fact that an author can rewrite scenes that kill suspension of disbelief, GMs don’t have that luxury. Players are going to try to do shit that the character clearly has no business doing. Sometimes the proposed action is so blatantly impossible that the GM can just tell the player it ain’t going to happen. Other times, though, it’s not completely inconceivable by genre standards (just very unlikely). That’s when you use a Hail Mary roll, where the player rolls only a Hero Die (modified normally) but not the free d12. Following our previous example, Buffy would probably have to make a Hail Mary roll to know who created Green Arrow. When to use Hail Mary rolls is very much a matter of genre. In a “realistic” game, you can’t fly a helicopter because you’re really good at playing a helicopter-based video game. In a typical action movie, you could probably make a Hail Mary roll to successfully fly a helicopter based on practice on a flight simulator-type helicopter game. If you’re a kid in the right 80s movie, you can fly a Helicopter using your default roll thanks to all the practice you had playing Fort Apache on your Atari 2600. 

I’m also mucking around with Edges a bit, but I’ll talk about that next week. THEN we’ll get back to combat. Maybe.

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