Wear your heart on your sleeve.

This isn’t directly related to a specific play experience, but rather a general subject that (for me) stretches from play to design to observation of other people’s play. I think it may be relevant to a few games that were recently played on AP, and maybe some of those that are being discussed/played right now.
The thread title is a bit pompous but the actual subject is very pratical, and requires a premise.

It doesn’t start with tabletop roleplaying games, so bear with me for a second as I’ll try to make this part quick. Due to the constant state of lockdown and quarantine, I have recently resumed the habit of playing videogames online with friends as a way to keep in touch. It’s a very low commitment effort compared to roleplaying games (which we still play, regularly) because it can happen at any time of the day, mostly at late night, and it’s a solid distraction.

The game we’ve been playing the most is called Monster Hunter World. You can look up online to see what it’s about if you’re interested, but in short – you’re a guy hunting giant monsters. Once you’ve killed or captured your prey, you can fashion gear from it and move to hunting even bigger, badder monsters. I’m selling it short and I’ll admit I consider it a small miracle of game design that shares many qualities of the best tabletop roleplaying games I’ve played in terms of using restraint and hardship as enjoyable play mechanics, but that’s another subject for another day.

Moving back to square one, you kill monsters, you skin them, you wear them. Characters don’t level up, and all your skill points are assigned on gear. Each piece has a few points (think of talents or perks), and you want to put together enough points of that particular skill across pieces to make your build work. It’s simple stuff and again, has nothing to do with TTRPGs. 
And here we get to the point. When you booth the game you’re greeted with a look at your character. The skills are immaterial, here, as you only see what he/she looks like. And that look is a story – because you’re wearing what you played. I got to my precious 6 points of Critical Eye by putting together some sort of samurai armor fashioned from a giant cat/bat hybrid. My friend is doing the same wearing a mix of bone and insect carapace. My brother is wearing a full suit of giant ape skin – and I’ve not been good enough to kill that, so I don’t have anything like it. Our numbers are very similar, but how we got there shows

This got me thinking.
Let’s go back to roleplaying games. How often does a character’s play experience show on his sheet? How often we get to say “I can do this, because I did that?”. Forget the generic “I’ve earned enough experience points to unlock a feature of my choice, or that I would have gotten no matter what”. I’m talking about “I ventured in that specific place, I’ve spoken with that seer, I’ve killed THAT ogre and this changed my character”.

I think the most immediate example is Runequest, but Burning Wheel also comes to mind. In order to become better at something, I must have succeed – or failed – at it. If we expand a bit beyond the cicle of gratification that the videogame example suggest, we can see evolution as loss and then Trollbabe with relationship and lost items comes to mind.
Loot is a potentially good example, too. A very specific and significant item carries its history with it. We got that thing there, and we did that thing with it that was amazing. Every time you use the item again, that history comes up again. 

I’m looking for mechanics and features (be them part of the written rules or a consistent by-product of play in that specific system) that give a solid meaning to “character growth” as a manifestation of how that growth happened. Old wounds, scars – roleplaying games tend to be good at doing that, at making loss a part of your character’s heritage. But are there good ways to make that work for your successes and your victories?

13 responses to “Wear your heart on your sleeve.”

  1. Descriptors in Sorcerer

    Before I present these as an example for your post, I have to clarify what they are, a little bit.

    Sorcerer characters have Stamina, Will, Lore, Cover, and Price, all of which are named uniquely for that character with descriptors. The options descriptors are fixed as lists for the first three and made up from scratch for Cover and Price.

    Unlike what people seem to expect, these are not bonus mechanics, as in, "when I'm doing military things, my Military Training descriptor gives me an extra die." They are the new names of those generic features for your character. In this case, the generic phrasing might be Stamina 4, but more accurately, for him or her, that is Military Training 4.

    At the conclusion of a character's Kicker, which is usually rather involved and requires multiple sessions, the player may rewrite any of the descriptors, up to all of them if desired. By "rewrite," that means choosing a different option from the respective lists for Stamina, Will, or Lore, or making up something else for Cover and Price.

    I have found that taking a character all the way through this part immensely affects a person's experience of play, even if they don't play the character again.

    An example from a game long, long ago, for a character named Victoria Carson.

    • Stamina 1 = quadruplegic, Will 7 = social competence + manipulative, Lore 2 = coven member, Cover = philanthropist, Price = severely limited movement
    • By choosing a value of 1 for Stamina, the player invoked the option to customize that descriptor into a reduced or disadvantageous version; as often applies in this case, this new term is conceptually tied to their concept for Price as well, which was more severe than the minimal expectation of the rules. Victoria could only move her neck, head, and a single finger.

    After six or seven sessions of play, the Victoria's rather deep Kicker was resolved and the player successfully increased her Stamina to 2. The new descriptors became:

    • Stamina 2 = athletic regime, Will = 7 social competence + zest for life, Lore 2 = solitary adept, cover = [I confess I don't remember; it was changed but not too drastically], price = in recovery
    • This example also clarifies that a given descriptor doesn't have to conform to stereotype, in that "athletic regime" does not mean Victoria is a gymnast or something like that.

    Not to be too uplifting, but this is straightforwardly about "finding a reason to live," especially considering that her original demon was her dead husband, whereas play had resulted in his true death and in her acquiring a stable of scary recently-deceased dead as new demons.

    • Two examples that come to

      Two examples that come to mind:

      The Pool: To create their characters, players write 50-word character sketches, and it is out of these brief narratives that they derive their traits. Then, after every session, the players can add 15 words to their story (or, if they choose, they can bank those 15 words, thus being able to add 30 words at the start of the following session). While the rules don't require it, the typical practice is for players to use the experiences in play for the new additions to the characters' stories. These additions can then be used as the basis for new abilities or bonuses that can be used in subsequent sessions.

      The Fugue System / Alas Vegas: Characters start with hardly any attributes and with significant amnesia, but during the course of play, you can generate new abilities and attributes by describing memories. The number of times you can do this in a session is limited by the rules. Your character sheet becomes a set of these memories (and accompanying "new" skills and abilities) that your character has recalled. 

      One common feature of both systems, is that they are radically open in terms of the attributes and skills, leaving it up to the players to define them. Also, neither has a traditional "level up" type system, but there is a character progression which is driven by the stories that are being written and built on the character sheet.

    • Other standout examples:

      Other standout examples:

      Zero, which I may not be able to summarize effectively here. One feature is that skills fall into three degrees of "focus," and the array you have chosen also determines your single Focus value. The relevant point here is that you can shift your skills "in and out of focus," as it were, and that getting more and more of them "into" focus turns out not really to be the best option in some ways. So your eventual organization of your skills may come to look different both from your starting version and from a simplistic notion of simply "getting better." Another feature is that the starting skills are all very Hive-oriented, i.e., they exist very much in the context of the Hive which now regards the player-characters as an outside threat. You're permitted to make up new skills de novo based on whatever has happened in play, so the development of your character as an individual is profoundly affected by doing this.

      Beast Hunters, which is essentially a formal version of the kill-it-and-become-it motif that you describe in the post. As a character proceeds through multiple matches (it is to some extent an explicit dueling game between two players), they become an effective shamanic-slayer based on what they have slain so far.

  2. Supers

    Superheros often undergo changes to their look and powers and even group affiliation. Change is one of the idioms baked into culture of supers. A friend of mine, in a game of Marvel Super Heroes I was running, was playing an armored hero who had pieces of other armored heroes he had collected over the years. And as he upgraded his armor, he would change the pieces based on the bad guys they had fought. I thought that was clever. Other players (myself included) began to follow suit.

    Previous to this I had been part of a MSH game where two players had been power-stealing characters ala Rogue and at least one of them would change their appearance based on the new powers they absorbed. (Alas poor Spiderman). 

  3. Dungeon World Compendium Classes

    This is one of my favorite features of Dungeon World.

    After running a bunch of Dungeon World, including one string of adventures that went into a double-digit session count (I don't remember how many), we loved the game, but I was afraid it would start to feel same-y with continued play.

    One reason for that is the core class playbooks offer a range of advancement options that seem like they would produce a pretty narrow range of combinations once you’ve played a few times.

    It was my second Dungeon World campaign that opened my eyes to the virtue of “compendium classes”. Compendium classes are what DW calls advancements that are unlocked by your specific adventures.

    What that meant for us is, we can just play the game without any thought about what the advancement options for any of the characters may look like. And then, some delicious exploits or setting material emerges that is too grabby to ignore. For example, the Bard decides to bargain with an ancient diabolical witch instead of counting her as an enemy to fight later when they get more powerful. Or the Barbarian adopts an orphaned child from the masacred neanderthal camp. Or the Ranger uses a holy relic to crack the lock on the Black Gates of Death’s domain. When those things happen, I get a tingle as the GM, and start jotting down moves for a compendium class they might take when they level up.

    As a consequence of this, compendium class moves sieze center stage when the characters level up. Any Fighter might get Armor Mastery, but my Fighter alone in the world has bested a troll in an unarmed grappling contest. You better believe I would pick moves based on that over Armor Mastery when it comes to advancement.

    • This reminds me of a

      This reminds me of a suggestion made by Diogo Nogueira in his addendum to Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells. That system is initially set up with barely anything in terms of special abilities and skills, but he advises that the players and GMs devise experiences, tasks, and adventures that would earn desired traits. He comes up with a list of possibilities. For example, a Stone Skin ability (which adds resistance to physical attacks) is acquired when a characters swallows the diamond heart from an elemental lord. The idea is that the GM and Players can imagine different abilities and then devise an exploit that would earn it. One thing I like about Nogueria's idea is that the GM sets up an ability that has defined mechanical effects or set of rules that acompany it, but there is not a predetermined set of these abilities at the start of the game. 

      This is similar to the Compendium Class idea, but it seems like in your case the players go out and have experiences first without the intent of pursuing any specific abilities. But the experiences of a character might spark the GM to consider a compendium class idea in their wake.

    • robowist, have you actually

      robowist, have you actually played that way? I wonder how it was?

      In Dungeon World (and the Dungeon World variants we played), I found I did not like to nurture the mindset of angling for mechanical benefits with compendium classes.

      One reason is, compendium class moves that were mainly focused on properties quantified on the character sheet were boring. In our experience, players were much more excited about advancements that gave them new and interesting ways of interacting with the fiction instead, whether it was stepping into any fire as a portal to hell, or unlocking special effects from a legendary weapon you formed a bond with. That isn’t to say our compendium class moves never included numeric elements, just that they were layered around a really grabby concept in the fiction that would be too cool to pass up by itself. And the more quantifiable or mechanics-oriented moves were usually supplementary within a compendium class.

      Incidentally, I find that is a good general principle for player-facing moves in Dungeon World and its variants. There are a lot of fan-made classes and playbooks, and not a lot of quality. One of the signals of rewarding playability for custom moves in Dungeon World is that they latch on to an interesting concept in the fiction and give the player multiples ways to explore that, instead of simply giving them the choice of numeric bonuses that rapidly become a burden on the system.

      Another reason is, the best compendium classes came out of interactions and events that none of us could have planned for or seen on the radar in advance. Especially through the crucible of the GM applying pressure by playing GM moves and Fronts, all unknown to the players before they appear; combined with unforeseen and unforeseeable reactions by the players, in terms of creativity, sharp wits, and luck.

      I guess I find this more satisfying because the advancements come from our mutual discovery of a dynamic, living world, peopled with NPCs who have compelling drives, filled with harrowing threats that make sense in the fantasy, while also revealing opportunities for treasure, wonder, and power—even unbalancing power. What Tolkien said about the fictional world being “subcreation” speaks to me. That is to say, I prefer emergent compendium classes and advances over the idea of predetermined unlockable advantages that we place into the scenario by artifice, because because it suits my aesthetic conceit that the shared imagined space has its own integrity.

    • I’ve played a bit of Sharp

      I've played a bit of Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells, but never with that variant involving acquired abilities. The idea, however, is in the same neighborhood as a quest for a special artifact which grants the character some special effect . . . except in the case of that addendum suggestion, you are acquiring an effect/ability embodied in the character.

      I'm quite intrigued by the idea of Compendium Classes in Dungeon World and went back to the original rulebook which is pretty light on specifics. This has led to a wide array of different ideas and applications among play groups (its easy to find literally hundreds of classes and compendium classes). One hesitation I'd have in using them is that new classes and moves have proliferated in the Dungeon World community and they are of mixed quality. But if I was with the right group, it would add some nice spice to the mix and I like the way that it encourages creativity in the context of play.

      I do wonder about the stipulation that the Compendium Class is only available to high level characters. If I'm thinking about fantasy literature, I  could point to many distinctive, formative experiences characters have had quite early in their "careers" which have granted them unique abilities and "moves."  

  4. Imps

    robowist, Diogo Nogueira's Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells came to mind for similar reasons, and reading your explanation of the advancement system has made me excited to get back to it.

    I love Imp of the Perverse because of how profoundly characters change. Even though it looks like an extremely minimalist free-form Trait system on paper, your character changes along so many diferent axes that it confounds notions of 'advancement.'

    Some traits are crossed off your sheet when they hit zero. Some, instead, are kept but rewritten upon zeroing out. Others don't have a numerical value but have new items/details added to them. And Relationships can rise or fall in value and switch polarity between being relationships of Sentiment or of Obligation.

    The scenes where a relationship of Sentiment went cold and became one of Obligation, or when a relationship of Obligation heated up and became Sentimental were some of the most striking moments in our game.

  5. Thanks for the answers!

    I didn't expect so many answers to this, thanks everyone. I'll check out the games suggested.

    As a small clarification, I think "I design my own feats/class features" examples aren't necessarily fitting to what I have in mind. It's perfectly possible to create and "pre-load" your own advancement perks without having any expecially strong tie to what the character's experience in play actually is. My experience with Dungeon World is precisely this – play is incredibly front loaded and you spend most of the game chasing after everything you pre-loaded in session 0.

    Ron's example about Sorcerer is quite accurately what I have in mind, instead – perks and advancements that can't be divorced from what play actually looked like.
    I'll look up the other examples. Thanks again.

    • Could you explain what you

      Could you explain what you mean by "front-loaded" in the context of Dungeon World?

  6. John Carter of Mars (2d20)

    Although the 2d20 RPG John Carter of Mars is not as explicitly focused on using mechanisms of play to change the character in the ways you describe as Star Trek Adventures is, one aspect of it that I find interesting is its use of Renown in addition to a more traditional form of Experience Points the player can use to increase or change elements of the character. 

    Renown – to be earned at all – means the relevant deed must be witnessed or at least have the story of the character's deed(s) become known. Once earned, it is used to develop the character's ties to Barsoom and thereby earn them the following and status they will need in order to effect change within the setting. It likewise helps to fuel the desire and establish the context of proactive behaviors among the played characters. Because the character has become known for specific deeds, and because those deeds have earned the character trust from those living in the area in which those deeds mattered, the character and those NPCs get entangled in alliances and relationships that potentially ally them with other groups elsewhere or put them in opposition.

    The character and the future of the character are definitely shaped by what they have done. 

    By comparison, the 2d20 RPG Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed of deals with Renown as a form of improvised mini-game between the titular adventures which includes random tables and dice rolls to determine the amount of renown and if a threshold is passed, an overall improvement – such as earning a title and the duties which come along with that title – might be assigned. 

  7. A witch in the land of skills created on demand

    In Coup de Greyhawk, a heavily divergent ruleset built on a foundation of BECMI D&D, we use percent skills. Succeeding at the percentage roll activates the skill, which typically gives +4 to the relevant d20 roll under attribute, but sometimes has other effects, depending on the skill and the context.

    There is no fixed skill list. When we need a skill, we figure out what value the character would have that skill at and set it there. This is based on the character's background and on the other hand how common or exotic the skill is. The skills also advance each by one percent per session where they were used or the character would have learned something concerning it, and also naturalistically by practice and such. (Thieves and some other skill classes advance faster by use, while monastic characters advance faster by practice.)

    Fridswid, a teenager witch who grew up with the circus, has following skills, for example:

    appreciation for nature 1 %, ascetism 7 %, survival 13 % – currently stuck in a makeshift shelter, trying to survive a storm

    theology of Suloisa empire 18 %, Suloise history 1 %, cosmic law 5 % – is under the rule of a priest of Wee Jas, who has been trying to teach her how the world really works

    party hostess 80 % – a simple skill from background, but also improved by having a cannabis party and now keeping up morale in the shelter while the storm rages outside

    rowing 16 % – by boat to Greyhawk castle and now also elsewhere

    shopping 23 % – buying equipment to store herbs

    spell research 1 %, magic theory 25 % – starting to understand how magic really works

    experience with justice 4 % – was charged of murder, twice now, plus once of demonology, and has survived to tell the tales

    murder 1 % – had to kill his acquitance whose soul was on the way to Abyss. I have very little idea about how this skill would actually be used in game, but who knows, it is fun to have on the sheet anyway.

    monster lore 2 %, dragon lore 8 %, meditation 39 %, lucid dreaming 14 %, astral politics 2 %, flying 2 %, oneiromancy 13 %, astral survival 1 %, snake lore 33 % knifing 31 % herbalism 78 % drug use 11 % – an astral adventure by drug use, and met a dragon and an astral serpent there and tried to stab the serpent

    tracking 8 %, orc lore 7 %, goblin lore 7 %, goblin woods -lore 4 %, sneaking 51 %, throwing 41 %, staff 31 % – these probably tell their own tale

    I did not mention regional lores and relationships with people met, as the way they tell stories is kind of obvious.

    Mechanically the character is a sorcerer, which means that they learn spells by inspiration. They saw an unnaturally large bug and a muscled barbarian Sven and were inspired to come up with the Svenlarge spell – enlarge with double effect on Sven.  From meeting the dragon they were inspired to learn an awe spell. Some other inspirations did not come to be, or where lost while adventuring.

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