Character Distinctions

Last week I wrote about Scene Distinctions, which help to create a mechanic for interacting with the environment.  This week, I want to talk about Character Distinctions.  The FATE system calls these Aspects, and I like the idea of defining a character with an open and flexible system.  This could be a word, or a phrase, that defines the character.

Here are some examples:

Luke Skywalker

  • The Force is strong with this one, and the rest of his family
  • Farm boy turned Jedi
  • “I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m here to rescue you.”

Han Solo

  • A smuggler and a scoundrel
  • Made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.
  • “What good is a reward if you ain’t around to use it?”

Character Distinctions can accomplish a number of different things.  First, they can help solidify a players’ vision for their character.  They can do more than any number of feats could hope to do to describe a character.  They can optionally have mechanical benefits for the player during the game.  Finally, they can help signal to the GM the type of game the player wants to see and interact with.

The last bit is what 13th Age attempts to do with the “One Unique Thing” that acts much like an Aspect from FATE.  For 13th Age though, the purpose of the One Unique Thing is primarily to signal game content to the GM,  which gives the player some agency regarding what the game is about.  I think this is an underestimated feature of Character Distinctions.  These signals can assist the GM in generating content for the game, and they help connect the character to the world and provide content back to the player that we already know they’re interested in. 

I know already that I’m going to use Character Distinctions for Lost Worlds.  The open questions here are:

  1. How many Character Distinctions should a character have?
  2. What should Character Distinctions do, mechanically?
  3. Should there be different levels or types of Distinctions?

How Many?

I’d want to have enough so that characters aren’t too one-dimensional, but not too many as to dilute their potency.  I’m thinking  three is enough, at least to begin the game.  This means  that each person has three things to define their character and make it interesting, unique, and memorable to the GM and other players.

In Dresden Files, you get SEVEN Aspects (High Aspect, Trouble Aspect, Where Did You Come From?, What Shaped You?, What Was Your First Adventure?, Whose Path Have you Crossed?, Who Else’s Path Have you Crossed?).  I think this is either too many, or it’s getting confused with things I want to have a different mechanic for (such as Connections).  I’m going to settle on three aspects for now, and try to convince players to write interesting and evocative aspects.

What Should They Do?

First and foremost, I want Character Distinctions to bring a character to life.  I want them to make the character memorable to the other players, and to suggest content that the player wants to see.

With that out of the way, should they have some other mechanical benefit?  I’m inclined to say yes, otherwise I’m not really taking advantage of them.  In FATE, there’s a whole Compel vs Invoke mechanic that gives Aspects a dual-nature, but I don’t like the idea of a Compel, as even though in FATE a player can refuse a Compel (as long as they have a Fate point to spend), it’s infringing a bit on player agency.

Players could use their distinctions for a bonus to a roll, or to re-roll a failed roll.  Marvel, for example, lets characters include a die for one of their distinctions on any roll they make.  They could also allow for character narration of the game, taking over briefly as the GM to describe some coincidence of the world that benefits (or hinders) their character in some way.

We’re moving into the territory of dissociated mechanics here, and it’s making me a bit nervous as I’m trying to avoid them as much as possible.  I’m leaning towards either making the Character Distinctions character definition only, so as to avoid any meta-gaming on something I want to act as a true signpost for what the player wants from their character.  I’m definitely considering allowing a character a flat bonus or a re-roll when “invoking” an aspect (not dissociated yet) any time it might apply, or allowing a flat bonus and/or re-roll when invoking an aspect using some sort of meta-game currency (okay, now we’re dissociated).  I think I’m going to stay clear of player-cum-GM mechanics for now, as I think that’s more pressure on players than they’d like right now, and because I think that’s too dissociated for my tastes, this being a role-playing game and not so much a story-telling game.

One last option is to come up with mechanical benefits of Character Distinctions so that they act a little bit like Feats.  I’m intrigued by this option, but I already have a lot of free-form stuff going on in Lost Worlds.  To see some good examples of how this might work though, check out this list of example aspects (click through to see how they function).

Types of Distinctions

I really have three options here I think.  I can make all Character Distinctions equal and un-typed, and let players fill them in as they like, I can make one a “primary” Distinction, that acts more like 13th Age’s One Unique Thing, or I could have a couple of “types” of Distinction such as: Appearance, Catchphrase, Personality.

I’m inclined to leave them all untyped, and let the players define their characters how they see fit.  If someone wants to put more emphasis on a certain Distinction, that will shake out during play as they tend to emphasis it.  I think typing them can help as a guide, but with only three, I don’t think the players needed to be guided through the process.

2 thoughts on “Character Distinctions

  1. Andy

    Your blog posts lately are getting pretty far outside of my personal roleplaying experience so I apologize for being less helpful than in previous discussions. Having said that, I wonder if a little more handholding with aspects would be helpful at first. I think putting the aspects into types might allow us to be more comfortable with the concept and how it works. I can envision some aspects being more powerful than others and “typing” them would equalize that a bit IMO. More importantly though, I think it just provides some helpful framing for a new concept. If we master it quickly then maybe we could move on to untyped aspects.

  2. JackOfHearts Post author

    I’m still struggling on what mechanical purpose, if any, the Distinctions should have. Part of me thinks their just a super-enhancement of things like “eye color” on the character sheet – a much better way to describe your character.

    On the other hand, I don’t want it to be a wasted opportunity.


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