Cinemechanix: Attributes Redux

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 01 March 2019 Written by Steve

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If there’s one constant in my goal for game design, it’s that I don’t like “grocery list” style skill lists. It was a design goal in QAGS. It was a design goal in Cinemechanix. So imagine my surprise when I realized that Cinemechanix has turned into a “grocery list” style skill system. With no modifier for Role (except maybe a small concept bonus), players are going to trend toward trying to make sure they’ve got skills for all the stuff they want their character to be able to do. I know this because I’ve been doing it myself in thinking through what character creation might look like in the current system. The number of skills a character “needs” is way higher than I’m comfortable with. 

You might be thinking that I’m completely missing the point that between the Hero Die and Attribute scores, most skills are redundant. If an average person (Hero Factor 2) puts all his character points into one skill, he’s going to top out at something like d12+d6+2. A Hero Factor 4 character rolls a minimum of d12+d4 even with a zero attribute and no skills, so even a low-level PC is nearly as competent at literally anything he tries as a bit player with years of training and experience. The problem is that Hero Factor (especially) and attributes (to a lesser extent) are abstract. Most players aren’t going to look at Hero Factor 6 and think “my character is good at [skill of choice]” and even the relevant attribute only makes a weak connection to all the specific rolls that the attribute applies to. If that Hero Factor 4 character has a Strength of 3, the typical analysis will be “my character is big and strong, which helps him in combat,” not “my character is a combat monster even without any training.” It’s more about psychology than system, but it makes you think you need skills for the things your character is good at doing. 

There are also other problems with the “raw talent” kind of attributes (Strength, Agility, etc.). The first is also due abstraction, or at least vagueness. While Strength or Agility are less abstract than “Hero Factor,” there’s still not always a clear connection between a given attribute and a thing the character is doing in the game. You roll Strength to lift a heavy rock, but does it necessarily make sense to use Strength for all melee attacks? D&D’s “finesse weapons” rules suggests “no.” And that’s without even acknowledging that intelligence or instincts or other traits defined by stats might also play a role in combat ability. Depending on which side of the slope you decide to slide down, you either end up with sloppy rationalization, system-bloating derived stats, or letting the players justify using their best stat instead of the expected one for dozens of rolls because they make a good point. 

Another problem is that since attributes are useful, players are more likely to build the character concept around the stats than the stats around the character. If we see a movie where two action heroes played by guys named Chris fight, we’re going to assume they have about the same stats. You need to throw a The Rock (or at least a Hemsworth) into the mix before we mentally tag a character as a “Chris +1” because he’s clearly bigger and stronger than the other Chrises. But if every +1 to Chris raises your combat die, players are going to end up making unnecessary distinctions around average (if Pine’s a Chris 0, Pratt is at least Chris +1), which requires bigger bonuses when there’s a real difference (if Hemsworth’s a Chris +2, The Rock is at least Chris +5). If you can be a good at fighting with a Chris score of 0, and your Chris bonus only applies to roles that are specifically Chrisish, players are only going to pump up those Chris numbers if the character is strongly defined by his Chrisness.

I think most of these problems can be solved by (mostly) swapping the “raw ability” kind of attributes for the more “super-skills” kind of scheme I briefly considered. Instead of Attributes, there’s a small group of core skills (I haven’t come up with a good name for them yet) that boost your Hero Die and cover the majority of rolls players will make in a typical game. So, for example, a character who wants to be good at fighting would buy up his “Combat” core skill. Whether he’s good at fighting because he’s strong, quick, or just a badass is more about characterization and allocation of skill points. If being strong is a defining character trait, you can give him a Strength skill. If not, you spend your skill points somewhere else and he’s got typical Chris-level Strength. 

Giving the character a skill also works for characters who are good at a particular weapon or fighting style, which is also a distinction that has more to do with gamer brain than how we consume fiction. Most characters who are good at fighting are good at fighting. Perceived “specialization” is more a matter of storytelling. Most gamers would give Daryl Dixon a higher skill in “Crossbow” than “Guns” or “Melee” because the crossbow is a key character prop that he uses a lot. If you actually went through and figured out what percentage of the time Daryl hits or kills a walker with different weapons, you’d probably get similar hit-to-miss ratios for the crossbow, guns, and whatever other weapon categories you counted. The reason we think he needs a Crossbow skill is because his 90% accuracy rate with a crossbow comes from hitting 900 out of 1,000 shots, while his 88% accuracy rate with a rifle represents 440 hits out of 500 shots. The real reason to give Daryl a Crossbow skill is because the crossbow is a signature prop for the character. 

I think reworking the attributes as core skills will solve these problems while still providing the benefits of attributes. Here’s the checklist:

  • If the core stats cover most of the common rolls needed in a game, the grocery list gets a lot shorter without reintroducing a Role bonus and all the ambiguity about default skills that comes with it. The core skills cover the abilities the character needs, the standard skills are for fine tuning and characterization. 
  • The direct correlation between the stat (“Combat”) and specific rolls (“shoot that guy”) brings at least the attribute aspect of the character’s “hidden” competence out in the open. The player doesn’t feel like he needs a guns skill and a swords skill and a boxing skill because the Combat stat has them covered. 
  • The direct link between the stat and rolls also cuts down on ambiguity about which stat is more appropriate to a particular roll. 
  • Since core abilities aren’t defined by attributes, you don’t need to be The Rock to be good at melee or Jackie Chan to doge. You can just be a regular Chris who’s good at combat. You do need to use skills (or drawbacks) to define “attributes” that vary from the average, but since skill costs are now weighted by how broad or narrow the skill is, they fit in a lot better. 
  • While some players will probably still put more points into skills that seem more useful (like combat), I think this scheme is more likely to lead to building around the character concept than building around optimizing the stats. If nothing else, covering the core adventuring rolls with a separate kind of trait frees up the standard skill slots for more interesting traits. 
  • Best of all (from a “the guy who has to write the rules” standpoint”), we’ve still got standard roll types that can be referred to by name in the rules. It’s just “make a Combat roll” instead of “make a Strength roll” now. 

My current list of attributes-that-aren’t-quite-attributes has 6 stats: Combat, Thrilling Heroics, Tradecraft, Persuasion, Brains, and Wits. I’ll get into what they mean and how I came up with the list next time. 

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Cinemechanix: Attributes Redux .
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