The Interrobang Diaries: Spheres & Strengths

Part 2 of character creation.

(See the previous diary entry here.)

Step two of character creation in Interrobang is to rate your character's general abilities in each of several spheres, which in Vanillabang are divided into Physical, Mental, Social, Technical, and Fantastical.

Fantastical is the sphere that governs magic in a fantasy game, superpowers in a superhero game, cartooniness in a toon-style game, etc. It can be renamed to be setting specific, and in a game setting with no real equivalent, it can be dropped.

You rank spheres by taking four points and assigning them among them as you see fit, with a minimum of -1 (giving you another point to spend in another sphere)  and a maximum of 3. 0 represents a broad average for adult human beings , so the notion of having an equal number of points and non-fantastical spheres is that you can make a character who is noticeably above average across all areas of normal ability if you desire.

The assumption is most characters will be more specialized, though. The "quick pick" option is to assign 3, 2, 0, 0, and -1 to the spheres in order of most important to your character to least important.

Now, a key thing is that the game doesn't model "physical strength" or "mental strength" or "social strength" but assumes that a character may have multple strengths in each area. You add your score in a sphere to a roll for a gambit that happens within that sphere if the gambit is on-brand for you.

If there's some aspect of your identity that relates to what you're doing, you add the score. If not, you're assumed to just have average ability and get a straight 2d6 roll.

So what does this mean for 0s and negative scores? A score of 0 means no bonus but the roll is still on-brand which means you can flex your aspect to help it, as described in the previous section. With a negative score, the normal rule in inverted: you apply the -1 penalty unless the gambit is on-brand. If it is, you're at 0, but again you can tap into your aspect as normal.

So between part 1 and part 2 of character creation, we wind up with a sort of two dimensional map of a character's capabilities. Your identity determines what sort of things you're good at. Your attributes determine how good you are at different facets of that. A [gunslinger] with Social: 3 trying to stare down an opponent based on their reputation as a dealer of death is going to have an easier time of it than one with a Social:1 or 0, but it's on-brand for any of them.

Now, I did mention in the last dev diary that your brand is bigger than your identity. We're making the assumption that if your character is well-developed in a sphere, they have additional strengths in that area that go beyond their identity.

For each point you have in a sphere, you can add one strength to it. A strength is a trait like "tough" or "strong" or "quick" (for Physical) and "knowledgeable" or "imaginative" or "strong-willed" (for Mental). These things are on-brand for your character, but only for the sphere they're defined under. If you want to be quick on your feet, quick-witted, and quick-tongued, you'll need to define a separate strength under each of the relevant spheres... but on the other hand, if your identity has [quick] as an aspect, you can use it in any sphere.

This difference in scope is deliberate. The idea is that your identity is something that more thoroughly permeates your character, more of a foundation. Individual strengths are ways of filling in the gaps or filling out your character.

Technical Sphere

The Technical sphere is a bit of an oddball. I hope that in most cases it would be fairly intuitive if something is a Physical, Mental, or Social gambit, or something that can be made clear with a little explanation.

The Technical sphere exists as a response to a few weaknesses I see in the system. One is that some actions that would be resolved with a physical attribute in D&D seem incongruous with most things that would fall within the Physical sphere and would certainly include a large Mental component. I'm thinking here of things like lockpicking.

The other is that it feels like there's some actions that would be very difficult to perform without some kind of training or experience. Again, to use lockpicking: a very nimble person can't probably fumble their way through a lock any more complicated than a set of handcuffs. Computer hacking, deciphering runes... there's a lot of stuff where it feels like "skill" matters more than overall mental or physical ability.

So, the Technical sphere is used for anything that seems... technical. Fiddly. Strongly rooted in occupational or professional knowledge/training.

You don't *have* to use the Technical sphere for these things. It's not prescriptive. If your character is defined as an [expert treasure hunter] and you want to use Mental and Physical sphere for detecting and disarming traps, you can. Those things are firmly on-brand for your character and thematically fit in those spheres.

What the Technical sphere does is let you use one score for both aspects of trap management, meaning you can pump 3 points into it and get more out of it than 3 points in either of the other spheres.

From a metagame point of view, it might seem like it's smart to make Technical your pump stat, avoid what D&D optimizers call "multiple attribute dependency". There are certainly advantages to that... for highly technical characters. However, game runners are encouraged to be firm but fair in not allowing Technical gambits for things that are simply and straightforwardly Physical, Mental, or Social. A character with a high Technical score is very much a specialist.

Technical strengths? Rather than being inherent traits, they should be skills. You can list a style of combat (something as specific as a type of weapon, or a martial arts approach) as a Technical strength and use it for fighting!  And if your character identity speaks to some kind of combat training, you can roll Technical for those. You can roll Physical for purposes of attacking, but fighting is very much not a straightforward Physical thing!

But if your character is going to be combat-heavy, there are reasons not to dump Physical, as your Physical score affects your character's staying power in ways we'll get into in a later part. Essentially, it's like how dumping Dexterity and Constitution in D&D both make your character less survivable, even if you can fight by other means than normal.

The Fantastical Sphere

If the Technical sphere is a bit of an oddball, the Fantastical sphere is completely out there. It covers things that aren't close to possible in reality, but are possible given the fantastic elements of the game setting. As such, what exactly it can do and the specific limits on it are going to vary from game to game.

I think I'll continue to defer all magical/fantastical stuff for later because it really operates on a level of exceptions to the general rules of the system, but suffice to say that your score in the Magical sphere in the high fantasy version of Interrobang gives you a resource-limited ability to substitute it for other spheres by means that depend on the magical aspects of your identity, in a way that will be familiar to people who have followed my A Wilder World development over the years.

Points put into a Fantastical sphere (whatever it may be called) serve as a baseline for how often you can invoke it, so a character with a score of 3 is not only more powerful in that area but can do fantastic things more often than a character with a score of 1.

What constitutes a Fantastical strength will vary depending on the setting, but to continue with the high fantasy theme, it might include different "flavors" or "schools" of magic like illusion, summoning, etc.

Putting It All Together

So, you define your character to begin with by writing out an identity consisting of 1 to 3 aspects, giving you something like [troll] [minstrel] or [cowardly] [ghost-hunting] [dog] or [ace pilot] or [astronaut] [fairy] [princess]. You weigh these aspects by assigning some number of points between them determined by the desired power level of the game, with no restriction except you can't raise any aspect above 1 unless and until they're all at least 1.

You then divide 4 points among the following spheres: Physical, Mental, Social, Technical, and Fantastical, with a minimum of -1 and a maximum of 3. The score you put in each sphere determines how good you are at the things you're good at, when they fall within the sphere. When you make a roll for a gambit that is on-brand for you, you can add the related sphere's score, with negative scores following the inverse: you add them only if it's off-brand.

For each positive point you have in a sphere, you can assign one strength to it, which is a trait or skill that expands the definition of what is on-brand for your character within it.

That's it in a nutshell.

In the next part, we'll talk about the third stage of character creation, which is creating assets for your character. Assets are notable things your character has, including items and equipment, allies/contacts, etc.

The first time I tried writing this dev diary, I spent a lot of time trying to justify and explain the rationale behind things like having an attribute system but having no general attributes, tracking what a character is good at and not caring about the rest but also doing it in this two-axes system. I still might do a diary like that, or find myself answering a bunch of questions in the comments. But at the end of the day, I think it's got to stand on its own if it's going to stand at all, so I decided to just lay it out like this.