Cinemechanix: Or Maybe Not?

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The original reason for adding Tags and Focuses (specialization) to the rules for Edges was to allow character to better describe their characters with more specific traits without being penalized compared to players who go with more generic skills. After a few modification, it seems to be working. The character who wants to be a master swordsman can now use a Tag and Focus to get a slight advantage in a swordfight over the character who puts the same number of points into a generic Melee Edge in exchange for a slight disadvantage if they’re using another weapon.

So far, I’ve been assuming a certain hierarchy of Edges, Tags, and Focuses. Specifically, the examples I used last time assumed a broad Edge (Melee Combat) with more specific Tags (Swordsman/Unarmed Combat) and even more specific Focuses (Fencing/Wrestling). That works fine with a set trait list for each level, but if players were required to pick from a list, the question of broad vs. specific Edges wouldn’t exist in the first place. I could just build the list so that all of the Edges are “balanced” (whatever that means). With freeform trait selection, do Tags and Focuses just spread the confusion over three levels instead of one?

Player A chooses “Guns–>Pistols–>Colt Desert Eagle”

Player B chooses “Ex-Marine–>Combat–>Guns”

Well, shit. Assuming both players put the same number of dice into their Edge, Player B gets a lot more bang for the buck. There are probably a few cases where the GM might deny a bonus to Player B but still allow Player A at least the basic bonus for the Edge (for example, if they’re using something the Marine obviously wouldn’t have training in, like black powder rifles, or something), but those cases would be rare. Most of the time, Player B gets the same bonus with any gun he picks up that Player A gets only with a specific model. On top of that, Player B gets the Tag bonus for brawling, knife fighting, and other forms of combat and an Edge bonus for anything he can convince the GM was part of his Marine training.

It looks like the specialization rules are a failure, but that’s partially my fault. This whole time, I’ve been thinking in terms of “broad vs. specific,” with the assumption that more specific was better, but if you go back a couple of post you’ll find that the I started out using the phrase “more relevant to the character.” If we take that to mean “which Edge (and attached Tag/Focus) tells us more about the character?” Player B looks a lot more coherent. We know he’s veteran (probably a combat veteran) who’s either naturally a good shot or keeps in practice. All we know about Player A is that he likes guns enough to have a favorite. Of course, that might not always be the case, and there’s no guarantee everyone will choose specialization. Here are three monster hunters built with 30 points:

Monster Hunter A:

Fighting Monsters 2→ Guns→ Shotguns

Occult Lore 1→ Monsters→ Werewolves

Investigation 1

Monster Hunter B

Monster Hunting 3

→ Combat → Guns

→ Monster Lore → Werewolves

→ Investigation → Corpses

Monster Hunter C:

Monster Hunter 6

Assuming Hero Factor 4 and a Trademark Die for both players, Monster Hunter A would roll d20+d10+d4 to shoot a monster with a shotgun. Monster Hunter B would roll d20+d12+d4. Monster Hunter C would roll d20+d12+d6. Pretty much the opposite of what happened when I was looking at one skill where everyone more or less played fair.

Well, again, shit. I can come up with a few ways to maybe incentivize Monster Hunter B to act more like Monster Hunter A (limiting the number of Tags per Edge, requiring a minimum Edge rating for a Tag, etc.), but none of those prevent the player for just going with boring-ass option C instead.

So, the new rules don’t solve the problem. I’m not convinced they’re completely useless (they still fix the Princess Bride problem we started out with, I think), but they’re just as exploitable as Edges with no specialization. The real problem, of course, is that freeform trait selection is by its very nature exploitable. Fixing the skill list would fix the problem, but I’m awfully attached to letting the players choose their own. The way I see it, there are three main options here:

  • Ditch Tags and Focuses and go back to just Edges.
  • Keep Tags and Focuses because they’re kind of useful even if they don’t fix the problem they were supposed to fix.
  • Come up with a fixed list of (probably relatively broad) Edges and let the players come up with their own Tags and Focuses.

The first two will work fine with a GM who’s willing to step in and veto overreach, especially if there’s a solid sample list to choose from. In my experience if you give players a list, 90% of PC traits will come from the list. I used to think of that as a bug, but maybe it’s a feature. The third option is better from the “let the game system do the work” perspective, but feels overly restrictive to me. There’s a fourth option of fixing the options for Tags and Focuses as well, but I can’t imagine choosing that one.

Right now I’m leaning toward option 2, but it’s entirely a gut reaction because I like the idea of specialization now that I’ve been writing about it for a few weeks and don’t like fixed trait lists. Objectively, though, there are good arguments for all 3. I might have to keep talking may way through it here to make a decision. Whether I do or not, I’d love some feedback. If you’ve got thoughts, let me know on social media or the playtest group.

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