The traits we use in roleplaying games frame a lot about how the game works and how characters fit into it. Three years ago, Fred Hicks encapsulated this (in an excellent blog post on Fate Accelerated Edition) by saying that the traits in the game pose a question that is answered when you pick which trait to use. In Fate Accelerated, for example, the traits are Approaches and the question is “How are you doing that?”. When you pick the Approach to use for a given action, the question is answered: Quickly, Carefully, Forcefully, Cleverly, Flashily or Sneakily.
I’d been thinking about something similar before Fred’s blog, and I’ve been thinking about it on-and-off ever since. It’s come to the forefront of my mind again recently because of Cortex Prime. Cortex Prime is a modular game system, so players (and especially GMs) need to have a solid understanding of what the traits in their games mean and why they’re there. (Cortex Prime is also why I’m using ‘traits’ as a generic term for rated stats that you pick when you need to roll or resolve something.)
I now believe that, contrary to what Fred wrote in his blog post, traits don’t pose a question for players to answer: they pose two questions, which players answer at different times. As well as the in-the-moment questions when players pick the trait they’ll use, there’s another question, posed even earlier, when the players establish the ratings of the traits on their character sheets.
In this blog, I’ll look at what these two questions are and what they mean, then give example questions for the main trait types in use today (and some new ones!). Hopefully this will be useful for GMs working out how to make their Cortex Prime campaign, as well as game designers more broadly. Let’s get to it!
Question 1: A recap on in-the-moment questions
Fred’s blog post focused on the question that players answer each time the characters do something, and he covered it so well that I’m not going to repeat all his insights. You can check out the blog at: Fate Accelerated’s Question & Alternatives to Approaches.
To summarise, though, Fred said that different sorts of traits posed different questions about what character were doing, which would be answered when players picked the specific trait they were using. He gave the following examples:
- Attributes and Skills: What am I doing?
- Approaches: How am I doing it?
- Values: Why am I doing it?
- Affiliations: Where, or with whom, am I doing it? (Fred calls these Relationships, but while he nods to Smallville-style Relationships, he’s mostly talking about Marvel Heroic-style Affiliations. I’m sticking with the Cortex Prime terminology.)
Fred also talked about Roles, but with Roles I disagree with his interpretation. He thought that Roles asked “Who?”, as in “Who am I?”, but that’s not an in-the-moment question. The in-moment question could be “What required facet of the team am I filling right now?”, but that’s really another way of asking “What am I doing?”. Taking Leverage as an example, the Roles are split along the lines of the sort of actions covered by those Roles: Hitters hit, Hackers hack, Grifters grift, etc.
In any given action, Roles ask “What am I doing?”, just like Attributes and Skills. But there are differences between these three traits. To distinguish them from each other, you need a second question…
Question 2: The questions that start it all
The second question actually comes first; it’s posed at the start of the game, at character creation, when players decide how to rate the traits on their character sheets. From a rules/mechanical perspective, the question that the players are answering when they do this is well understood: “In what way do I want my character to be mechanically most effective?”
However, from a narrative perspective, the question posed at character creation will vary depending on the nature of the trait being rated… just like the question posed in the moment will.
As mentioned above, traits like Attributes, Skills and Roles all ask the same question in the moment of action (“What am I doing?”). If that was all that mattered, including more than one of these traits in a single game might seem redundant. And yet, not only does that happen, but Attribute+Skill is by a wide margin the most common combination of traits in games that use two traits. Why is this?
Even traits that ask the same question in the moment of action can ask different questions at character creation. In the cases listed here:
- Attributes ask “What are my innate characteristics?”
- Skills ask “What activities am I talented at or trained in?”
- Roles ask “What is my expected function in this group?”
So, even though Attribute+Skill is a bit one-dimensional in the moment of action (to the extent that, often, the choice of Skill predetermines the choice of Attribute), it is more nuanced when you consider everything else that the traits say about a character.
Sometimes the up-front question will be closely connected to the in-moment question, and sometimes the connection is more tenuous. For example, traits that represent equipment or props, the questions could be “What can I use?” and “What am I using?” In this case, answering the second question (“What am I using?”) necessarily provides an answer to the first question as well (you must have a thing in order to use it). That isn’t a problem, but just because the questions are similar doesn’t mean that they can be collapsed into one. Game designers should understand (as many do implicitly, even if they may not have thought about it in such terms) what the two questions are and what the answers are for their traits.
Example traits and questions
Having established what the two questions are and what they mean, what are the two questions for some other possible traits?
|Trait||Question posed when picking traits during play||Question posed when rating traits at character creation||Cortex Plus games that used this trait|
|Attributes||What am I doing?||What are my innate characteristics?||Leverage, Firefly, Dragon Brigade|
|Skills||What am I doing?||What activities am I talented at or trained in?||Firefly|
|Roles||What am I doing?||What is my expected function in this group?||Leverage|
|Affiliations||Who am I doing it with?||Who do I work well with?||Marvel Heroic Roleplaying|
|Values||Why am I doing it?||What do I believe in?||Smallville Roleplaying Game|
|Relationships||Why am I doing it?||Who do I care about (positively or negatively)?||Smallville Roleplaying Game|
|Locations||Where am I doing it?||Where am I most confident or effective?||Smallville Roleplaying Game|
|Approaches||How am I doing it?||What am I like?||none (but c.f. Fate Accelerated Edition)|
|Distinctions||Which of my characteristics are relevant?||What am I like?||All of them|
|Gear, Powers, Signature assets||What am I using?||What can I use?||All of them|
|Emotions||How do I feel?||How well can I control my feelings?||none|
|Phase (of a plan)||When am I doing it?||What part of a plan do I shine most in?||none|
|Risks||What am I risking?||What risks are worth taking?||none|
|Goals||What will this accomplish?||What do I want?||none|
|Social spheres||Who am I dealing with?||Who do I deal well with?||none|
The last few rows on the table include some traits that weren’t used in Cortex Plus, but could be very interesting for someone to try in Cortex Prime. I’ve given particular thought to Emotions and Phases.
- For Emotions, I wrote the blog post Applied Emotionality and am currently using the trait in an upcoming campaign about humans and fairies living together in a Goblin Market Town on the border of Faerie.
- For Phases, how about a game of thieves or supervillains with a trait set of Planning, Grandstanding, Showdown, and Getaway? These map reasonably well to Roles in something like Leverage (Planning is a bit like Mastermind, Grandstanding is a bit like Grifter, etc.), but could provide more structure to a session.
- For Risks, a good starting point could be the list of risks that Rob Donoghue identified in this blog post on Risks. The traits look negative, but that isn’t necessarily a problem: If you expose yourself to more risk, you roll more and are more likely to succeed, but there’s a bigger potential downside. The cinematic approaches in Nitrate City are also explicitly about what is at risk in a given situation.
In this blog post I’ve mostly used Cortex system games as examples, but the two questions of traits are relevant to pretty much any other roleplaying game that uses rated traits for action resolution. Dungeons & Dragons has Attributes (called Abilities) and Skills; so do Vampire: The Masquerade, 7th Sea and Savage Worlds. Dogs in the Vineyard uses Attributes (called Stats) and Distinctions (called Traits) and Relationships. Michtim uses Emotions.
However, there are some games for which this doesn’t hold, which don’t have two questions because they don’t have rated traits for resolution mechanics. For example:
- Risks in Psi*Run: Players make in-moment choice when picking what to risk in an action, but individual characters do not have rated traits so there’s no up-front question.
- Humanity in Vampire: The Masquerade: Although the main traits (Attributes and Skills, as mentioned above) do have two questions, there are other stats in the game that don’t. Humanity, for instance, is set by character choice but isn’t a trait used in play for action resolution. When it changes (usually as a result of the fiction), the player is answering the character-creation question again instead (albeit during play).
- Tones in Swords Without Master: Swords Without Master has neither of the two questions. In the moment, the question of which tone applies is answered by the result of the roll, not by player choice; there are also generally no character sheet traits that affect a roll.
Anyway, I hope someone finds this useful. Let me know if you do!