The Interrobang Diaries: Identity & Aspects

What's your whole deal, anyway?

So, I've attempted to write multiple drafts of Interrobang's rules of play and character creation, both in and out of that order, and mostly they've said basically the same things but I haven't really liked how they say it, and each time I try to resolve that problem, I wind up finding a slightly different approach to the underlying issues.

This is fine. Game design is an iterative process, and problems you find in trying to explain things to someone are problems you don't have to find in playtesting.

But I think part of the trouble is that I do my best thinking "out loud"... only in text, so it's not that loud. So rather than putting out a document that has the rules all laid out as rules, I'm going to basically write them out as if I'm liveblogging the game design process, writing one newsletter entry that covers each facet of character creation and each major rule feature, then at the end gather up the actual crunchy center of it all, dust it off, and polish it up.

Call it the Interrobang Diaries. At some points I'm going to be covering ground I've gone over by myself and explaining how I got there, and at others I might be reasoning things out for the first time as I go.

Character Creation Part 1: Aspects of Identity

I don't think you should think of a game purely in terms of other games, but if you're setting out to make a roleplaying game it can be useful to think about why you're doing... why it exists, what it does in particular that you want. And in that sense it can be useful to look at other games and what they do, and make comparisons.

For instance, I like the bit in the Fate system where you define your character by choosing a high concept aspect, like "rebel without a cause" or "foppish duelist" or "space pirate" or whatever, as an equivalent to choosing a character class and heritage in a game like D&D. The idea of characters as a mash-up of core concepts is one that appeals to me and one that Fate Core embraces and encourages..

I don't like the implementation in Fate, where you've got a laundry list of generic action skills you can use over and over again and your high concept has to be invoked through interaction with a point system. To me that makes them feel more like precious items you carry around than something key to your character.

This is, I think, part of my larger antipathy to the Fate system and the Powered by the Apocalypse system: they both in different ways concern themselves with story dynamics more than with defining what characters have and what they can do. I find the level of simplicity and abstraction appealing but I am way more into roleplaying games where the focus of the system is on the player characters. They are the players' viewpoints and limbs in the game world.

So here's my starting point for character creation in Interrobang: the first step is you define your character's identity, which might be something like [diamond-in-the-rough] [street rat], or [lightning-fast] [genius] [bruiser], or [mysterious] [gunslinging] [witch], or [warrior] [poet], or even [orc] [paladin] of [nature].

Your identity can have between one and three different aspects, which you bracket or underline separately when you write them down, to make compound words and phrases clear. A [rough-and-tumble] [street fighter] and [horrible] [goose] both have the same number of aspects, even though one has a much longer identity in terms of words and letters

A character's identity, for game purposes, is not the whole of who they are but a pithy summation of what kind of hero they are, relative to the genre. In a murder mystery, it might be very important to know that someone is an [investigative reporter] [from the sticks] and another person is a [reclusive] [billionaire] [detective]. But if you were writing up Superman and Batman for a cosmic-stakes superhero game, those little tidbits, as key as they are to who the characters are, probably wouldn't make the identity line.

The major effect common to every aspect, no matter what it is, it helps define your character's whole deal. Your whole deal is not limited to your identity; if it was, we wouldn't need a term other than identity. More things are added to your deal in subsequent parts of character creation.

When you make a gambit (the game term for any risky action -- e.g., anything requiring a roll is a gambit), it is considered on-brand for your character if it is part of your character's whole deal.

Having a gambit be on-brand for a character is roughly analogous to being proficient in something, in D&D 5E terms. It means your character can bring their full expertise to bear on the situation. For now let's call it a +2 bonus on a 2d6 roll. The next entry in this series of musings will elaborate on what the numbers actually are and mean, but +2 on 2d6 is good enough for a basic understanding.

I realize the terminology "whole deal" and "on-brand" are kind of cutesy, and anyone developing a game/setting using this system is welcome to replace them. For me they just sum up what I'm going for so well. Part of my thinking in every version of A Wilder World has been that if your character's signature weapon is a whip or a boomerang, you should ought to be able to do the sorts of things we'd expect a character in an action/adventure story who shows up with a whip or a boomerang would do. In early attempts I spent a lot of time trying to define precise mechanics for what a whip or a boomerang can do, but after watching more freeform styles of gaming, I think it's kind of sufficient to say "Well, if your whole deal involves a whip, you should be able to do whip stuff, you know?" and trust that anyone invested in playing an adventurer with a whip will have some ideas about the range of possibilities.

Ranking The Aspects

Once you have defined your identity, you put points in each aspect. Depending on what power level the game is meant to be, this might be between 0 and 6. The only rule for how you allocate these is you can't raise any one higher than 1 while you have a score of 0 in any others, so having a broader identity like [cowardly] [elven] [alchemist] in a 3 point game means you'll have to put 1 point in each, while a character with [alchemist] will have 3 points in that single aspect: the trade-off for more breadth is less depth. An [elven] [alchemist] in the same game will have 2 points in one and 1 point in the other, their choice.

The ranking of aspects via points doesn't indicate how good you are at that thing but how heavily it factors in your identity. A [gunslinging](5) [wizard](1) will lean more heavily on the gunslinging than the wizardry, while a [gunslinging](1) [wizard](5) will be the other way around.

What the points represent is your ability to tap into that aspect of your identity for an extraordinary result. So it's less a measure of "how well" and more a measure of "how often".

Tapping into an aspect allows you to stretch, flex, or stunt. Stretching means describing a way you are applying it to something that would normally be outside your whole deal, making a gambit on-brand. Flexing means applying extra effort, adding an additional die to the normal 2d6 roll for a gambit. Stunting means you pitch the game runner on something that is just plain impossible through normal means, but could be explicable through a wicked awesome application of the aspect. A stunt is not guaranteed to work, but the game runner will tell you the difficulty before you commit to spend the point.

Whether you flex, stretch, or stunt, any time you tap into an aspect you mark it with an X above it on your character sheet. When there are as many Xs as you have points in that aspect, it is tapped out. A tapped out aspect is still part of your whole deal, but you can't tap it further. Normal, routine uses are still fin.e. Extraordinary uses are used up.

In a one shot (which Vanilla Interrobang is kind of great for) or single episodic adventure, you can't necessarily expect to refresh your tapped aspects, so if you've got 1 point in master of disguise and you really like the idea of just pulling a costume change out of nowhere as a stunt, that's a "once an episode" kind of deal for you. If you've got 5 or 6 points in it, you could probably do it as often as the opportunity presents itself in a short self-contained scenario. Hence why I noted that it's more about "how often" than "how well".

But with 1 point or 6, the character with master of disguise has all things disguise-related as part of their whole deal and could plausibly argue that vocal impersonations, imitating mannerisms, coming up with a cover story, and piercing the disguise of another are all on-brand for them.

Balance Considerations

So, one obvious balance concern is that it’s possible to define your character’s whole deal as being very broad or very specific. The example of a [genius] [bruiser]… well, if your character is very physically powerful and very mentally capable then you can be good at about 90% of what a typical adventure game throws at you. You can basically come up with three aspects that cover a lot of bases and give you the equivalent of no dump stat.

A few things balance that out, though.

First, it doesn’t really matter how many different things you’re good at when in the moment you’ve got to pick a solution and run with it. A character with a more specific deal might have an easier time narrowing down what they’re doing, and then they’ll be just as good at it as the character with the broader deal. This doesn’t eliminate the advantage of a broader character, it just means that mechanically it’s not a game breaker.

Second, there is a second layer of character ability that more strongly reflects the difference between a specialist and a generalist. If you want to make a character who really is good at everything, their brand will wind up be worth +1 across the board where other characters are pulling out +2 and +3 on the stuff they do most often. This distinction’s just not part of the identity/aspect layer, which again is more about “how often/how important”than “how well”.

Third, the game does allow the game runner to reward specificity. If something is very specifically part of your whole deal, you can declare “that is exactly my jam” (NB: you don’t have to say the words) and get an advantage on the roll. This is more art than science and may involve a brief negotiation, but the examples include things like a [sniper] using a sniper rifle for a sniper shot vs. being in a more generalized firefight, or a [soldier] taking the sniper shot. The more specific your identity is, the easier it is to claim these advantages. Specificity is also factored into the difficulty of stunts.

More than any systemic fix, though, it’s mostly a matter of trust at the table. If players understand that they don’t have to try to build a do-anything character in order to get to do anything, they won’t. Someone who tries to powergame in obnoxious ways during character creation would also do it at the table even if they were playing with a pregenerated character. Letting them make a character who seems omnicompetent on paper might let them feel like the flavor of big dang hero they want to, and as long as they realize that making a do-everything character doesn’t mean they get to do everything in an ensemble story, it’s not a problem.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in decades of playing, designing, and running games, it’s that you can’t build your game around curtailing problem players.

Toybox vs. Playground Stuff

Now, Vanilla Interrobang (Vanerrobang? Vanillabang? Definitely Vanillabang.) does not define any aspects or lay out what's in scope for them or what stunts are possible with them, so character creation is a collaborative process between the player and the game runner  that requires some conversation about what each aspect means to the player and what sorts of things they expect to be able to do. The line between what you can simply do as a gambit and what is a stunt will depend a bit on the genre and style of game. Anything that is halfway realistic should not require a stunt, but "realistic" is relative to genre conventions, not actually reality.

For anything completely fantastical like, say, wizardry, the rule of thumb is: if whatever you're attempting is something a hypothetically completely average and unremarkable adult human being more or less in your position could try to do *without* magic, you can attempt to do it with magic, with a difficulty level related to how tricky it would be. If it would be downright impossible, it's a stunt.

Using magic to open an unlocked door with a wave of your hand? Eh. That's just showing off. Using magic to blast open, melt the hardware off, or step through a locked door? A gambit, as there are mundane skills for dealing with locked doors. Opening a door in a solid stone wall? Effectively impossible, no equivalent gambit you could attempt without magic. Definitely a stunt.

The distinctions I’m drawing here will be familiar to people who’ve followed my design experiments, as I used them in previous drafts of A Wilder World. The game doesn’t care that the method is impossible (that’s true for any act of fantasy magic) but what the outcome is, in terms of game and story goals. Getting on the other side of a door is something you’d be expected to be able to manage without magic. Getting on the other side of a solid stone wall isn’t. That’s why any magical method you can imagine or describe to do the former is a gambit, but the latter is a stunt.

There are more restrictions on magic than that, as an aspect like wizard would otherwise be a bit of a green lantern power ring or Swiss army knife, if you can just use it to attempt any gambit. But we will get into those in further installments.

For a setting-specific variant of Interrobang, it will not be unusual to have a predefined list of identity aspects that includes a description of what they represent in the world, a brief list of different things that fall within the scope of their brand and a few other things that they can stretch to cover, as well as any special rules that cover characters with those aspects.

For instance, the fantasy game I'm developing Interrobang to run features a wide range of different fantasy folk you can play as, from slight variations on the post-Tolkien standards to original creations. 

For this game, I might define [dwarf] as incorporating fighting with picks, axes, hammers, and other weapons that are adapted from or double as tools in its brand, along with the use of those tools. The dwarven brand would further cover navigating underground, recognizing features of stonework, and identifying minerals such as metals and gemstones. As a third point, it might cover resistance to poison, intoxication, bone-breaking, and head injuries.

Now, there's a lot there but I could sum it up with three different bullet points and give them pithy names to make them easier to remember. It covers a pretty wide range of things but in D&D terms, a lot of it would be considered a "ribbon" -- a strip of color that makes a character more interesting without necessarily making them more powerful -- and what you're left with in terms of game mechanical advantage in a dungeon crawling situation is proficiency with some weapons, some situational awareness, and resistance to some harm. Not game breaking at all.

In terms of complexity, it's pretty simple... rather than being special abilities that have their own individual rules to remember, you just know that when you're making a roll dealing with these things, it's on-brand so you can add your bonus.

We could flesh dwarves out further by saying they can stretch to read and identify ancient writing, identify runes, and identify magic items and traps that incorporate runes.

That gives us some idea what it means to be a dwarf, even if it's not the be-all, end-all of it.

But back in Vanillabang, there's no definition of such a being. If a player wants to introduce the concept in their identity and the Storyweaver agrees it fits the game (which may be completely open ended, or pretty flexible, or could be modeled after a particular story or show or setting in which fantasy dwarves may or may not factor) then they need to talk out what they expect to go along with the concept, aided as our prefab version was by a shared pop culture understanding of fantasy dwarves.

There's a comedy gaming show I've watched a few episodes of on DropoutTV called Table Pop, where the high concept is they take a pop culture property that has little obvious potential for such -- like children's cereal commercials, Scooby-Doo, baking shows, or The Golden girls --  and turn them into a quick-and-dirty, rules lite one shot RPG. I will note that I've only seen a very small number of episodes and the ones I've seen all included disturbing sexual content and violence beyond what the source material would suggest alone, so, you know. Be advised going in.

But it's really one of the biggest reasons I'm looking at Interrobang as an engine that can support this kind of really free-form playground experience, insofar as now I've seen some actual play of things like a player and a game runner figuring out what being a cartoon tiger in the real world means, in story terms and game terms, and I find it more compelling than I did before.

Anyway, that's the first step of character creation in Interrobang: defining your character's identity and aspects.

Next time (possibly tomorrow, though I have to get ready for Capclave) I'll talk about strengths, which is how you figure out what exactly you add when you do something on-brand (and also how you figure out the rest of your whole deal).

Summary of Identity & Aspects

You begin character creation by defining an identity for your character with from one to three aspects, such as [army] [doctor] or [eccentric] [detective]. You then assign points to these aspects, from a number set by the game runner to represent the power level for the player characters in this game. You can assign the points as you see fit but cannot put more than 1 point in any aspect until aspects have at least 1. The number of points an aspect has is called its weight.

Any aspect you have is considered part of your character’s whole deal. When you attempt a gambit (risky action) that involves any part of your character’s whole deal, you add a bonus to the gambit’s roll.

You can also tap into any aspect you have a number of times equal to its weight before it is tapped out. When you tap into an aspect, you can stretch (use it for something outside its normal scope), flex (add another die to a gambit), or stunt (attempt something that completely exceeds your normal capabilities.)

Magic plays by its own rules that need further explanation, but they include the tidbit that something one could potentially accomplish in the moment through mundane means may be attempted as a gambit and an outcome that is plainly impossible requires a stunt.

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