Four Realms: Secondary Attributes

I can has PC! I, in fact, do has PC, and is currently using it to write. I therefore do hopes to be able to resume regular weekly-or-more postings on the Four Realms in addition to any other writing that may appear in the Land of Nu. I apologize for both the lapse and the inexplicable devolution into lolcat grammar at the head of this paragraph. Back to business:

What are secondary attributes? Well, if they end up being part of the system, then the eight values laid out in the previous post would be distinguished as primary attributes.  The primaries would be determined by the player through planning or random generation (I’m still considering how I want to go about that). Secondaries, like secondary colors, would be determined through combinations of the primaries.

In contrast, there are a couple of attributes I definitely plan to include; let’s call them cosmetic attributes just to make the distinction. All physical phenomena, including characters, should have Mass and Size. Players will sooner or later want to know if their characters can carry each other, or stuff each other into barrels to make a trip downriver, or the like. This will make it easy to resolve that kind of situation.

But do I want to use secondaries at all? On the one hand, they would add an extra layer of versatility to the system and put a damper on min-maxing (the practice of placing an overwhelming emphasis on some aspects of a character to the detriment of all others) by making attributes more useful in combination than alone. On the other hand, it would add a layer of complexity when part of my mission statement is to keep the essential skeleton of the system simple.

Part of the issue is that character creation should reflect and support the intended style of gameplay. The original D&D was very much focused on player exploration of an environment, on the ability of the players to encounter a situation, decide what they want to make of it, and then bring those goals to fruition. Characters were merely the medium through which players achieved this end. And the speed of character creation reflected this. One could make a handful of dice-rolls, choose a “class,” assign a sketch of a personality and some equipment, and be ready to adventure. Even if the group were mainly composed of veteran characters and the new one needed to be fit in, the relatively low power curve allowed for quick and simple character creation.

In contrast, by the advent of 3rd Edition D&D, the focus of play had shifted to personal narrative. Characters were no longer the expendable, replaceable tools through which players interacted with the world, they were the vehicles through which players attempted to spin epic fantasy narratives. In computer-game terms, play had shifted from SimAnt to The Sims, with a corresponding increase in the amount of time and thought that had to be invested in the creation of each character. In addition to the rolls and choices of the original game, one now needed to select character race, skills and “feats,” and a number of other options. Joining an adventure in progress meant either being outshadowed by everyone else in a much steeper power curve, or going through a correspondingly more involved creation process, choosing all at once the per-level upgrades that other players had been able to apply at a more leisurely pace. 4th edition was even worse, with players feeling the need to expedite the character-creation process by looking up forums online and simply picking out “builds” to use.

So what kind of game-play do I hope to encourage? On the one hand, I feel quite sympathetic toward designing a “realistic” combat system where lucky single hits can kill a normal person. This would encourage intelligent, careful gaming, and players would be strongly encouraged to use strategy, negotiation, and a variety of other tools to ensure the success and survival of their characters. On the other hand, mistakes will inevitably be made, or unfavorable dice-rolling will take its toll, and characters will die. I’m already committed to a relatively involved skill-based system; do I want to make the initial time investment even more of a burden by adding another layer of calculations? Yes, I do plan to allow for quick character creation by adding templates, but still.

In the hopes that the discussion will help me make a decision, or at least be of interest to readers, here is how I think secondary attributes would work out if I decide to include them.

Hardiness – When originally contemplating secondary attributes, I came up with a little distinction that I thought would be rather clever. There would be one stat called Life, which “measures the strength of the connection between the character’s spirit and the physical world.” And there would be another called Toughness, which would “describe the structural integrity of any object whether it is alive or not.” Physical objects, including nonliving monsters such as zombies or golemim, would have Toughness and thus be subject to being hacked to pieces while gaining a built-in immunity to anything that threatens Life.

This distinction, despite adding complication to everything, would allow for some interesting effects in gameplay. Manga-style depictions of samurai who fight even after having limbs lopped off (or, if you prefer, Black Knight situations) would be modeled by characters with a high supply of Life remaining even as their Toughness is whittled down. The opposite situation, low Life but high remaining Toughness, translate to an injury causing someone to go into shock and die despite minimal physical damage. I also had the vague idea that ghosts and other incorporeal spirits would have only Life (somewhat oddly) and no Toughness, but on reflection, their existence would probably be better based on Willpower or Potency.

If I use secondary attributes, Life would be the average of Health and Willpower, representing both the durability of one’s mortal coil and one’s desire to cling to it. Toughness would be the average of Health and Strength because pure (muscle) mass is part of the equation. Why the averages? Because for simplicity’s sake it would probably be better to keep all attributes in the same range.

If I don’t use secondaries, then… what? Life is modeled by Health itself, or by Willpower? (That would resolve the ghost issue, at least.) Toughness would be modeled by Strength, or maybe by Mass? But I don’t want to make Strength disproportionately useful, nor do I want to make a cosmetic stat so vital to a character’s survival; everyone would end up massive.

Perception – In earlier drafts of the project I was thinking of including a “perception” attribute. It would have been the average of Sense and Wit, and used when characters had a chance of sensing something without the players specifically saying “I look at X” or otherwise actively calling for information or a die roll. But now that I’m leaning toward the senses themselves being skills, and toward a “passive” value of each skill to be used in that sort of situation, a separate Perception value seems redundant. Scratch that, then.

Reaction – Remember when I said that “speed is a combination of one’s wits and sense, fast-twitch muscle strength and kinesthetic intelligence”? This “reaction” is what Speed is become. It would be, perhaps, the average of Wit and Agility. Without secondaries, how would I model this? Just Wit? Just Agility? Or would I just do without?

Mana – Or magic points, if you will. Do I even want to include these? Any magic system needs some sort of framework to prevent abuse, and a limited resource that must be spent (whether that be sanity, as in Call of Cthulhu, or mana points, or fatigue levels, etc.) is a common one. Would Mana be the average of Potency and Willpower? In a primaries-only system, I figure it would be a direct reflection of Potency. But the problem with either of these is that I like the idea of wizards gaining the ability to work greater feats of magic as they grow in skill. I like that Schmendrick becomes greater than he was. The base value could be increased by ranks in a relevant skill, I guess. For that matter, the same idea could be used with the other attributes to some degree or other: Toughness through intense physical training of some kind, for example.

I like that idea enough, and the two “hardiness” skills seem useful enough, that for now secondary attributes are in. There are quite possibly others that can be added that I hadn’t thought of yet, but for now we’re going with

Life (Life points, if you will, or even if you won’t, because I will). For things that are alive.

Mana (or “magic points”). For things that use magical energy.

Reaction (aka Speed). For when someone wants to do something before somebody else.

Toughness (or “hit points”). For things that aren’t falling apart.

And that’s the size of it for now! Join me next time, when I look at the numbers to be used in attributes and the true fiddling commences.  In the meantime, thoughts?  Criticisms?  Have I left out anything potentially useful from my gang of four?


About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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