This weekend I saw Your Highness and Bunraku. Both of them got me thinking about heroic characters and giving them explicit, system-fueled goals. Obviously, Aspects are a great, simple way of doing this, but I have something more complicated in mind. This week’s system is meant to be grafted onto other games (particularly D&D). Next week’s post begins an attempt to expand it out to a game engine that can stand on its own.

Character Theme

Each player character develops a theme that informs his or her character’s role in the game. Themes are short phrases with at least three significant terms. Example themes include:

  • Unhesitating, righteous vengeance
  • Situational cowardice is often justified
  • Deceitful charm comes with a smile
  • Interesting secrets are always uncovered
  • Unexpected kindness bears rewards

The goal is to pick a core noun (generally an idea) and differentiate it with at least two other terms. GMs are encouraged to come up with a list of nouns appropriate to the campaign before character generation for the players to pick from (or roll to choose). Random tables of appropriate adjectives and verbs to add might also result in unexpected but interesting themes.

The theme is a concept that is core to the character and drives his or her behavior. Stories featuring the character feature the theme as a driving force, or put that theme into conflict with a contradictory idea.

Theme Aspects

Once a theme is established, the player picks two action nouns with at least two modifying words each. All three terms should be directly relevant to the theme and, ideally, derived from the adjectives of the theme as well. These are situations in the game where a bonus is available due to playing to theme. Again, GMs might want to come up with a list of available actions. Examples include:

  • Unhesitating, righteous vengeance
    • A vengeful strike upon a betrayer
    • Alacrity in the face of unexpected betrayal
  • Situational cowardice is often justified
    • Evasiveness when running scared
    • Hiding from superior enemies
  • Deceitful charm comes with a smile
    • Lies to friendly strangers
    • Negotiation with an unpalatable agenda
  • Interesting secrets are always uncovered
    • A vital discovery at the last second
    • Discernment of a stranger’s lies
  • Unexpected kindness bears rewards
    • Diplomacy when force seems required
    • Favors asked of a previous beneficiary

The goal with these is to create subsets of actions that are going to come up reasonably often in the game but far from every roll. However, each should also be something that the players have some control over driving scenes towards. Essentially, working to get the bonus for an action should drive the game to support the character’s theme.

The bonus for an action should be small but significant to the system (+2 in d20, +1 in games with a smaller range, +10% in a percentile system, etc.). Any player in the game (or the GM) can use any theme aspect available to any PC (the player that owns the aspect might suggest it to other players when it’s relevant). It costs nothing to take this bonus.

Each time the aspect is used by another player or the GM for a successful roll (i.e., the action in keeping with the player’s theme won out), the owning player should place a check by it. The player can trade in four checks across all owned aspects at any time to get a point of whatever the fungible dramatic currency of the game is (action points, drama points, fate points, etc.). This should encourage players to drive the plot towards goals that support their themes, because getting the others involved in their own narrative yields immediate rewards.

Improving Aspects

The GM is also encouraged to create themes for each story that have their own aspects relevant to the threats of the plotline. These need not be directly revealed to the players, but if they are, and the players make use of the aspects, the GM also builds up dramatic currency for the opposition.

Whenever the GM uses one of his or her aspects in direct conflict with a player’s roll (that uses a player aspect), and the player-aspect-increased roll wins (or gets agreeably superior result if not in directly contested rolls), the owning player should underline the aspect. For example, the GM uses “The living cannot hide from the dead” as a vampire hunts for a PC who uses “Hiding from superior enemies” and wins the roll to remain hidden.

At the end of a session in which a PC underlined an aspect, he or she can improve it by removing a modifying term (thus making it more broadly applicable) or can add another aspect relevant to the theme with two modifying terms.

Going Forward

The system above is basically a fairly minor rules hack of FATE aspects designed to be grafted onto any game. Next week, though, my intention is to use it as groundwork to create a new system where the themes are the most important rules aspect, driving all rolls in play.