These Questions Two: What are your traits asking you?

John Cleese as Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
I’ll pose to you these questions two,
Ere that action you do.

(I know the bridgekeeper said the line in the film, but Tim the Enchanter is cooler and it’s easier to find good screenshots.)

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!

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Good RPGs encourage good experiences—it doesn’t matter how!

Declaring that a game is “good” (or, worse, “bad”) is almost always a controversial prospect. In general, I prefer to say that I have liked or disliked a game rather than claim that it has an absolute or objective quality. “Good” is a subjective distinction, and opinion will vary from player to player.

That said, I feel pretty confident in defining what a good game is, as long as the definition itself leaves room for subjectivity.

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What I want in a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic

cortex-plus-hackers-guide-coverLast week, it was announced that Cam Banks has licensed Cortex Plus from Margaret Weis Productions. Cam co-created the Cortex Plus system, and he was co- or lead designer on three out of the four main games published using that system, not to mention the driving force behind the excellent Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide. He knows Cortex Plus inside out and he can do wonderful things with it.

I’m looking forward to seeing what his new design studio Magic Vacuum comes out with! I’ve no doubt that soon there will be new versions of Cortex Plus Action (used for Leverage and Firefly) and Cortex Plus Heroic (used for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying), which will make many fans of the system happy.

But my favourite is Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying, which was spun out of the Smallville Roleplaying Game. It’s the only one of the three that gives me something I can’t currently get from any other RPG. I love it, but it has flaws. It could use a new edition.

Here’s what I would want to be updated, changed, clarified or kept in a new edition of Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying.

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Character advancement vs Character development

Anakin Skywalker's journey to become Darth Vader: Fear, Anger, Hate, Suffering.
Character advancement and character development sometimes go hand in hand… but character development isn’t always a joyful experience for the character itself

One of the great joys of playing roleplaying games, especially playing a single character through a long campaign, is in seeing your character grow and change. In traditional high fantasy games, it’s fun to rise from humble beginnings to be an important and powerful figure in the campaign world.

However, it’s relatively rare in roleplaying games to see the sort of deep, personal character transformation that you might see in books, TV shows or films. That’s because the sort of growth and change encouraged by traditional roleplaying games is different from the growth and change that most popular media is built on.

Character advancement is not the same thing as character development.

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My (red) kryptonite: Mind control in Smallville RPG

Clark Kent (Tom Welling) with red kryptonite eyes, from Smallville via Wikia

Mind control is a staple of genre fiction. It appears in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It’s used an awful lot in superhero stories. As such, it’s hard to avoid in any roleplaying game that tries to emulate any of these genres.

But mind control is rooted in the idea of removing someone’s agency, and playing a character without any agency is just not very fun. Ask anyone who has had their D&D character under the influence of Dominate Person for round after round after round…

Smallville RPG includes mind control, at least in part because it was based on a TV show that was chock full of mind control and other forms of mental alteration. Given Smallville RPG’s commitment to the concept that no player can ever dictate another character’s choices, mind control could have been a fascinating addition to the game. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s either so weak that it can be ignored, rendering it meaningless, or it’s so overpowered that it violates the game’s core principle of protecting player agency.

In short, mind control in Smallville blows harder than Clark Kent’s super breath.

In this blog, I will describe various ways that we could hack Smallville to make mind control work better, taking inspiration from some other roleplaying games. The different strategies are not mutually exclusive, and two or more could be combined in the same game. Maybe even all of them together.

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“Why do I hang out with you again?”: The importance of group character generation

I am a huge believer in doing group character generation at the start of a new RPG campaign. I don’t just mean getting all the players in the same place to do character generation, but actually doing it together. Of the RPGs I’ve played in, nearly all of the ones I’ve enjoyed most have made character generation a group activity.

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