[WF-General] Group ownership of characters

Bryce Harrington bryce at neptune.net
Tue Oct 10 00:17:15 PDT 2000

Ooh, fun thread.  :-)
Reminds me of my old days on Usenet discussing roleplaying.

On Tue, 10 Oct 2000, Tess Snider wrote:
> On Mon, 9 Oct 2000, Tom Austin wrote:
> > one thing that breaks up groups in online worlds is that people's 
> > levels get way out of balance over time. 
> This is where we mustn't fall into the trap of thinking only in terms of
> what EQ, AC, and UO have to offer.  A game, and the relationships within
> it, need not revolve around nothing but killing things, gaining levels,
> and, lest we not forget, acquiring "phat lewt."  

I so wholeheartedly agree here.  This was one of the biggest motivations
for me in creating Circe.  Most of the RPG rulesets I saw were so driven
by skill levels that it made it extremely tough to design adventures.
If I wrote an adventure for 4 4th level characters, but they decided to
hit Lone Catacomb beforehand, and thus advanced to 7th level, then
suddenly my carefully thought out adventure becomes a cakewalk.  

Of course, that's just the game designer perspective.  Players also find
it sucks to miss a game or two and suddenly be "behind".  Especially
when one includes training.  While the rest of the party is ready to
train for the next level, you're stuck 5000 xp's behind.

On the other hand, if your character never "advances" or get better at
his key skills, the player will grow bored and frustrated.  So achieving
the right balance in the game between "accomplishment" and "power" is

And - as I learned *real* quick - sucking off power (e.g., vampiric
touch to drain these pesky extra levels off) is _not_ well received.

Of course, note that rewards for achievement are all relative.  In one
game, gaining a level can be a rare and prized event, whereas in another
with freer flowing XP's, if you haven't gained a level or two by the end
of the session, you've evidently done something wrong.  I believe - to a
certain extent, at least - it works in reverse too.

Tinkering with rules and thinking about this, what I've come to believe
is that in most RPG's, power is defined by three things:  Attack scores, 
damage scores and amount of damage able to take.  Ability to avoid
taking damage would be a fourth item.  Typically, RPG's tie
accomplishment to these measures.  The longer you've played, the better
your attack score should be, the higher your hit points, the lower your
AC, and the more damage you dish out.  This can be due to direct stat or
skill changes, as well as to acquisition of appropriate equipment.

With Circe, I sought to emasculate these things in order to sever the
power/accomplishment links.  You roll your hit points once and they
essentially never go up (maybe by a point or two).  High attack scores
are useful, but you hit a point of diminishing returns once you've got
it up to 25 or 30 or so - the cost to boost it just one more point is
too high relative to the benefits - that score is sufficient for success
in most battles; you're better off raising some other (perhaps
non-combat) skill up several points - which *can* mean the difference
between success or failure.

Yet after a while of this, I've found that players get frustrated being
unable to really "get better" at combat.  One player complained that
putting skill points into some arbitrary second or third weapon just
because the primary weapon was "maxed" just seemed wasteful.  It wasn't
that he wanted the power, so much, but that he just wanted to "be more
effective" or more impressive.  

So my current philosophy is this:  Provide special "abilities"
associated with the weapon.  So once the character has reached 28 in
long sword, he starts putting points into "disarm" or whatever.  Sure,
that skill will not be used often, but the player will feel a sense of
progress in having the skills.  Diversification, as it were.  Of course,
I'd like to avoid the problems that D&D had with it's munchkin-factory
specializations/weapon proficiencies/racial powers/yada yada.  We'll
have to design these new rules with care.

Another approach is to provide lots of variety for combat-relevant
things to apply skillpoints.  In D&D, it's very simple:  You put your XP
into your level, and every once and a while get one choice of a new
weapon proficiency or a new non-weapon proficiency (which tends to get
put into the most combat-related skill one can find; or tumbling - go
figure).   I figured, why fight it when you can dilute it?  So in Circe,
if your goal is to increase your combat effectiveness, there are tons of
places to put points, but many are extremely expensive.  Gaining one
point of Health (which doesn't affect hit points but does affect rate of
healing) can take a LOT of points - but can be very much worth it to
compensate for a bad roll during character creation.  Other attributes
also play small but sometimes vital roles in combat effectivenes.
Weakness compensation is an excellent way for players to feel progress,
when really they're just "averaging out".

Now, all the above is addressing roleplaying issues with game
mechanics.  This is the traditional response game designers take.  I
guess because they feel security in laying out rules.  But in reality,
roleplaying at heart is not about number crunching or baiting players to
choose "roleplaying oriented" skills.  Sometimes it's like trying to
squeeze blood from a turnip.  So a different approach is needed there.

> A well-designed game will provide contexts for interaction which
> transcend statistics.  This goes without saying in a more
> roleplaying-oriented game.  After all, you're not going to be bounced
> out of the local tavern at storytime because your level is too low.

Precisely.  In my Circe campaigns I try to be extremely sparing with
Circe Points in adventures.  It's rare to gain enough to do much more
than buy up a skill a few points, or to raise a stat by a point.
Instead, I try to provide rewards that match the adventure.  Often I'll
give out "free" points for skills they used in the game (botany, or
desert survival).  Players aren't likely to put points into these things
anyway, since they're too specialized.  But the characters definitely
deserve them, having had to suffer and learn.  In fact, players
generally get more total skill points from these "random" or "gimme"
skills than they get with their Circe Points.

Of course, even this previous paragraph is, really, yet another use of
mechanics to try to solve the problem.

The best solution I've found to correcting of imbalances does not rely
on the rule system at all, but on what I think of as "board position".
In chess, every piece has a "value" - queens are more valuable than
bishops, which are more valuable than pawns.  But sometimes it is more
valuable to take out one piece over another just to get a valuable place
on the board.  A bishop in just the right place can make the difference
between victory and defeat.  Getting that bishop into place can be a
very important and valuable achievement.

This same game philosophy can be brought into roleplaying games.  Some

Over his adventuring career, Khaz has always chosen adventures that
help the Church's goals - even though he's just a fighter.  Having done
so much for the church, he's built a reputation as a champion for them.
In return, he's gotten the usual benefits - the cut rate on healing
potions, the shelter of the church when it was unsafe to stay in the
inns, or the research and guidance of the priest to help solve riddles
and problems.  But the biggest value gained is the reputation.  People
know and admire his position in the church's eyes.  Enemies treat him
with caution, knowing that if he gained proof of their evilness, they
risk the entire weight of the Holy Order crashing in on their villainous

Paythen is also a fighter, but his strength comes from networking.  With
his co-workers, he part-owns a number of businesses.  He keeps in
contact with nobles whose daughters he's rescued.  He is on good terms
with the goblins down in the gutters - whom he frequently hires en masse
for unskilled labor tasks.  When a problem arises, no matter how big,
Paythen can organize a solution.  He hasn't the brawn or magic-imbued
raw killing power of the heroic warriors, but he is often able to
achieve his aims without losing a drop of blood - his own blood that
is.  His principle is, "There's more than one way to skin a cat."  Why
draw your sword if five dozen goblins can brick-and-mortar the dragon
into starvation?  It may not be heroic, but Paythen's still alive, isn't

Obviously, for the above two cases to happen, it takes cooperation
between the referee and the player.  It is the referee's duty to ensure
that NPCs will react predictably and flexibly - yes, the local baron
*can* be depended on to keep his word, like a true nobleman should.
Yes, your blood brother *will* keep secret the location of your hideout
even though he might be tortured - he's your _brother_.  Representing
these in game terms is hard, if not a waste of time. But their presence
or absence can *really* make or break a game.

In order to unite this into the advancement system, I make a big deal
about social rewards.  "Okay, for solving the riddle of the Sapphire
Ghost you each gain 3 CP's.  You each gain 2 points in your Occult
Skill.  Galbraith, you get a chance to regain those two levels of sanity
you lost.  Oh, and Turaw, the townspeople were so impressed by the
courage and romance of your rescue of their beloved young Jessica that
they want you to know that you are always welcomed in their homes, and
if you *ever* need a favor, you need merely call."

> However, even in a hack-and-slasher, there are numerous
> inequal relationships that can be explored, such as knight-squire,
> master-pupil, and master-servant.  Or, hell, just unevenly-matched
> friends...  After all, every Holmes has his Watson. :)  The designer needs
> to find a way to make these relationships work out -- not to make them
> simply impossible because he's too terrified that a low-level character 
> might get some kind of advantage by hanging out with his higher-level
> buddy.  A character with a mentor *should* learn faster than a character
> without one.
> Tess

I think this is a really good point.  I too noticed the disjunction and
incompatibility of heterogeneous leveled characters in parties with D&D.
Less so but still problematic in GURPS.  In Circe (no doubt mostly due
to how slowly everyone advanced in power anyway) I never ran into this
problem.  Since a lot of the benefits were social, and often would spill
over to the group, inequalities did not really get in the way ("Oh,
you're friends of Khaz, I remember you.  Well, come in, come in.  How is
Khaz doing, anyway?  I hope ill has not befallen him...?"  "Ah, well
funny you should ask, Father...")  In another group, one of the
longer-played characters had managed to ascend to lesser nobility;
frequently, the newer characters would have to take "second billing" (or
act as his servants!) to get through the adventure.  Thus, the rankings
were clear in context, if not by points.

Bryce Harrington
bryce @ neptune.net

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