Monday, May 31, 2010

Aspects, part 1: The Search

I've spent a lot of time talking about dice and mechanics, but my preferred games are those that lean toward a more narrative play style. I like mechanics to provide a means of resolution, but I prefer a light touch, and if they lean toward encouraging play all the better. I've played games that are highly tactical and that make a game of resource management, and I've played games that have massive tomes of character customization options. However, unless these things tie back into who the character is as a story person I lose interest in these things in short order. Lengthy discussions of character optimization plans bereft of any consideration of the character's identity beyond a playing piece bore me to tears.

Because of this, I knew from the outset that I wanted some kind of mechanic in this system that encouraged and rewarded role playing, and role playing in a particular bent. My list of essential concepts included "broken characters." I want people playing characters that have problems. As I noted when I made that list, flaws have been a part of RPGs for a long time, so this is hardly a revolutionary concept. In fact, this Shadowrun group I'm playing with now has made use of them rather extensively in the various mechanical systems we've tried. So far though, nothing's quite been "it."

The first type of flaw mechanic we used was an oldie: pick your flaws at character generation and receive extra build points for them. This has the weight of time and tradition behind it; almost all role players have tried a system like this at some point. Without any prompting from me, my players loaded up on the flaws. Drug addictions, enemies, cyberware rejection, the works. And then the ugly flaw in this system began to rear its head.

People didn't play their flaws.

The drunkard never drank. The drug addicts never needed their fix. The person who suffered double essence loss for cyberware never needed/wanted to get any. The combat monster acted the same in combat as everyone else. These flaws didn't manifest in broken characters, and gave out what amounted to free points.

I know the counter-argument, or at least one of them: why didn't I enforce them? I, as GM, could make the drug addict get his fix or impose detox penalties (which were in the flaw description). I, as GM, could make the combat monster initiate and refuse to leave combat without a Willpower roll (which was in the flaw description). And so on.

The reason is because I'm not that good. I, as GM, had my hands full keeping the run on track, the pacing up, and the plot details straight as the group invariably did something out of left field. Come combat, when a lot of flaws are really supposed to kick in, I was managing the opposing forces, all of which used the exact same rules as the PCs (no real mook rules in SR), and I was rolling a lot of dice, both when being attacked and attacking myself. I needed the PCs to track and mechanically initiate their own flaws, and they were paying more attention to their implants, powers, and gear, because that became more interesting at the time.

So when we switched systems, we switched flaw mechanics as well. Wild Talents doesn't give you any more build points for your flaws. Instead, you define your flaws, and they only pay off in play. In fact, they only pay off when you play the flaw and it causes you a significant problem. If you've got an enemy, that flaw only gives you something when said enemy shows up and makes things harder for you and your team. You want to be a drug addict? You can, but you'll only get something for it if you wind up high or in withdrawal at an inconvenient time.
The very first session with these new rules, the flaws kicked into overdrive. The drunk drank. The drug addict got his fix. It was as if life in the shadows suddenly came crashing down on this team of untouchable professionals and they all cracked under the pressure at once. That session saw not one, but two bouts of public urination and a pseudo-prank call to Lone Star Security's vice division. It actually lead to the team face getting an irate call from their Johnson demanding to know what kind of team he'd hired.

A little bit over overkill, but I chalked that up to a learning curve. The thing that bothered me is that the system granted bonus experience for invoking a flaw, and I didn't like that. I know some people aren't concerned with keeping the party on an even keel, but I've been in games where disproportionate experience awards leads to massive power imbalance, and those at the back become less and less involved in the game as their characters are less able to handle the challenges thrown at the top tier earners. In fact, I give full experience to every PC in the group regardless of if the player shows up for a game. Rather than use experience as a carrot/stick tool, I simply ask those who continually miss sessions without any notice to not come back.

But I digress. After that first session with the new rules where some earned more experience than others, I had a bad feeling about the flaws. I didn't know what to do with them yet, but I knew I wanted to do something.

More importantly than any of that though, is the element of fun. Is it fun to have the GM constantly slapping you with penalties and gimping your character? From my viewpoint, if someone thought it would be fun to play an addict, they'd want to play an addict, and they'd want to play the addiction. When they were worth build points, the disadvantages disappeared immediately. When they were worth experience, they were invoked when the characters saw an opportunity to gain xp. They weren't used as a tool to further define the characters as story people.

And that's when I stumbled across John Wick describing a development in his design of Houses of the Blooded. In this, he talked about aspects, which he first encountered in a Spirit of the Century game. I did some digging into these wonderful little tools myself, and came away feeling like I'd struck gold. They were exactly what I was looking for. I'll talk about them, and how I'm planning to use them, next week.

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