Forthright Sneak Peek: Background Talents

By | September 26, 2015

Hello again!

In the run-up to Metatopia 2015, we’ve been running a series of Forthright Open Roleplay sneak peeks of Beta 3, with a general goal of laying out nearly the entire system in blog posts before November.  Here’s the series so far:

As development has progressed on Forthright Open Roleplay, we have wavered on how to handle tweaking a character’s uniqueness based on that character’s backstory.  We have tried, over the years, a flurry of techniques: a single racial benefit indicating a biological talent; a racial benefit and a cultural benefit indicating something everyone in a specific culture would learn; an array of options for both race and culture; a long list of talents that was neither racially nor culturally specific.

Each of these options, for Forthright, was a different kind kind of unwelcome: the first two led to “the best race” and “the best culture” for different Roles and the second two led to players feeling like they had to memorize an entire list before they could choose wisely.  Both of these were designs we were explicitly trying to avoid.

Early into development, we decided to change “Race” to “Species.”  “Race” is problematic because the traditional idea in roleplaying games that every member of a race has the same abilities is an idea rooted in notions of early 20th-century racial superiority and Eugenics.  That every orc must be a brute, that lizardfolk must be somehow inherently evil, is a product of the fiction that inspired roleplaying, fiction that was very much of its time.  Because these ideas can be traced back to such roots, we didn’t want to incorporate them into our own game.  Please note: we’re not saying games that incorporate these notions are racist or that players who play such games are racist.

But that problematic callback inspired us to find a different way of looking at character backgrounds and incorporating a character’s Species into that background.  The first step was using “Species” instead of “Race.”  This way, we were more clear in identifying “Species Talents” as talents that were tied specifically to a Species’ biology.  But even then, having specific “Species Talents” implied that all members of a single species had certain biological capabilities. . .and we found we didn’t care much for that, either.

After all, take a look at cats.  To say “All cats are graceful hunters” is to discount Persians, who are not so much.  To say “All cats have fur” discounts Sphynxes, and so on.  Certainly we could introduce mechanics to indicate Species / Breed abilities in the same way other games have Race / Subrace abilities. . .but why?  Ultimately, that would mean we would have to define the nature of the Gamescape for Guides and Players. . .hardly an ideal outcome for a supposedly universal game engine.

Background Talents

Background Talents now are no longer tied to a character’s Species or culture.  As part of character creation, a Player chooses his or her character’s Species:  Human, Orc, Elf, Automaton, etc.  Not all Species are defined in the rules, leaving players wiggle-room in building their own Species to populate their own Gamescapes.  With Species selection, the Guide provides perspectives on common cultures within that Species in the Gamescape the players will be playing in, in order to help stimulate the Players’ own imaginations.

At this point, the Guide will provide a series of suggestions (with help from the rulebook) on what Talents might be appropriate for the character based on Species and Culture.  These are present to indicate the “common occurrences,” the stereotypical expectations, without strictly forcing a player to play a character identical to every other member of that Species and Culture.

Players may choose one to three Background Talents depending on how many options the Players find interesting.  No character may have more Background Talents than any other character.

Background Talents do not provide benefits mapped directly to Fighting Style, Persona or Vocation.  Instead, they provide cool non-conflict-based abilities for characters to help illustrate how different they are from the “default humanoid.”  An Anurai (Frog-person) might choose Extra Limb to represent skill with his tongue, or Leaper to represent how powerful his legs are.  But another Anurai might not have so talented a tongue or such powerful legs, and might instead choose Amphibious (allowing him to breath underwater) and Swimmer (allowing him to move at speed through the water).

This allows character creation to be more interactive than it has been in previous iterations of Forthright, and it feels much more like a cooperative exercise in character creation without strictly forcing Players to have Talents other players have chosen for them.  It helps turn Forthright character creation into a storytelling sub-game in its own right, which is something we greatly prefer to the previous options of “look through the book and make your optimum selection.”

Additionally, it allows us to represent Species not as a single monolithic race/culture (as fantasy races are often depicted in roleplaying games), but as a collection of different cultures and ethnicities sharing the same fundamental biology but expressing it in different capacities.  Much like the way humans do.  With that, we’ve also been able to instruct artists to provide different skin colors and clothing styles for members of the same Species to ensure that the art for the book does not fall back on mono-cultural tropes.

Background Talents are how you start with a unique character instead of a character just like any other character that selected your combination of Roles and Proficiencies.  This serves as an extra layer of customization and provides interesting and sometimes surprising roleplaying opportunities.

Thanks for reading!  As always, we love to hear your comments.