Distinction and the Character Sheet

By | December 20, 2014

Hello once again!

This week we’ve been doing further work on character creation, stepping through the stages we shared last week and generally trying to find the weak spots.  As it turned out, there was one glaring weak spot that we had that caused quite a bit of contention and discussion:  the Distinction.

Distinction was, at its core, an attempt to provide a variant on a 13th Age-like “one unique thing,” but largely as a reputational and cosmetic enhancement to a character rather than something that would give the character additional powers/abilities.

Of course, the first thing that happens is that playtesters try to backdoor into special powers with it.

“Shiniest teeth in all the land” was one distinction that was picked.  And that one worked, it was cosmetic and could have variant interpretations by NPCs (this guy is really clean, this guy takes care of himself, he’s pure, he doesn’t do any hard work, he’s rich, etc.)

But that was literally the only one that didn’t backdoor into power.

Two of the distinctions were “phantom wind” and “two tails.”  The latter was on a Hobdragon, essentially transforming a single extra grasping limb into two extra grasping limbs.  The former was more difficult to assess, but my gut told me that this could be manipulated somehow by a clever player.  “I use my phantom wind to knock something away from me” or “I use my phantom wind to protect myself from a gas attack.”

On one hand, that’s kind of cool and I like it.  On the other, the freeform nature of Distinction would mean that some players could develop something that is of clearer benefit than other players, and that could invite a chain of rigmarole that we as designers are trying to avoid.

So I went to the 13th Age core rulebook to remind myself how it was done there.  Surely, if it’s such a simple and beloved mechanic then it was explained very simply, right?

5 pages.

5 pages of rules, suggestions and examples to identify what was appropriate for a One Unique Thing.  That’s a lot of space to explain a single mechanic, and that space is required because it’s a “whatever you want, except…” mechanic.  I can now very clearly see why folks were selling lists of 100 appropriate One Unique Things.

We also discussed extensively the fact that if the distinction explicitly states in the rules that it offers no additional benefits, then it doesn’t matter that it might seem like a backdoor into power, because there can be no backdoor into power.  To which the chief argument against was immersion violation:  if there is a choice offered to the players, then that choice must be meaningful and have meaningful consequences within the Gamescape.  That was the chief takeaway of a Google+ poll about Species we ran this week, and it’s no less true for distinctions than it is for species abilities.

But the thing that we really got into was the distinction of “delivered by angels.”  As a Guide, I was very excited by that, because it offered me lots of possibilities, among which was “were they really angels?”  But this threw a massive wrench at the player – the player felt that the distinction should be absolutely true, whereas the intent from my perspective was always “this is true so far as you’re concerned.”  This way, the Guide has story-development fodder while at the same time providing interesting hooks and revelations for characters without being “locked in.”

This led to a very long (and heated) discussion about ownership of the contents of the character sheet and the character.  We unanimously agreed that the Player should own the content on the character sheet and that the character sheet should contain nothing that the Player cannot reference as being factually accurate.  The problem, of course, came in with the Renown aspect of the distinction.  Just because you are known for something does not mean that you are known for something factually true.

Ultimately, we decided to modify the structure of the renown-selection, streamlining it and making it clear that renowns can also be rumors on the character sheet.  This will hopefully ensure that the players have input into the Gamescape (NPCs will always react as if the renown is true), while providing the Guide with narrative flexibility.

Thanks for reading!  For everyone celebrating Christmas this week, we hope you have a merry time!