One of the first things I’m looking at in detail as part of my steampunk ttrpg system design is character creation.
More specifically, how the game models characters.
Classic for a reason
Thinking about this, I realise how much of a work of inspired genius the original D&D concept was, to the extent that the original six attributes haven’t changed through the game’s multiple editions and revisions, and have influenced countless more.
There’s a reason for that. STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA are a great way to describe the various qualities of a sentient creature, from how powerful they are to how socially adept they happen to be. It’s not perfect of course, but for a game of high-stakes action and danger, it’s rock solid.
That said, I don’t want my game to be an OSR clone. I want to play with mechanics and concepts to create something new(ish) and original(ish). So I’ve been looking at other games to see how they handle alternatives to the ‘classic six’ attributes.
Most games that veer away from the OSR approach seem to focus on four or five attributes instead. Wisdom is often a casualty, as is Constitution, with games like Vaesen collapsing Intelligence and Wisdom into a single ‘mental’ style attribute, and Constitution being scythed in favour of alternative methods of tracking damage and measuring fortitude.
Powered by the Apocalypse games often have five attributes, though one of these (like ‘Weird’) is often setting-specific. And obviously PbtA games take a far more narrative and crunchless approach to gameplay that they could probably get by on even fewer attributes.
So … what?
Taking a step back from this, thinking about what style of game I want mine to be is useful. I want it to be high-camp and pulpy, fast-paced and fluid. I don’t need it to be rules-light, and I want there to be relatively structured rules around combat and social encounters. And I want the alt-Victorian steampunk setting to seep into every aspect of it.
So I’m thinking of four attributes, bearing in mind they’ll govern combat, social encounters and also be used to modify proficiencies in the game’s skill system (that’s yet to be thought of in any great depth, but I favour categories of skills that are aligned to each of the four attributes, and receive modifiers accordingly).
I will also have secondary characteristics defined (soon-ish) to cater for some of the setting-specific things, like weird science and mysticism, but I’m planning on using different mechanics for those.
From a scaling perspective, I’m very much shying away from the nobodies-to-gods levelling up of D&D and similar games. I want players to improve by gaining gear, enhancements, abilities and feats rather than getting dozens of extra hit points or adding +17 to dice rolls or the like.
Deciding this is half the battle. Deciding what to call them is another. Again, I’ll keep my vision in mind here: the setting will influence what I call the attributes, not some need to crack open the thesaurus and make them different for difference’s sake.
So, here goes, with the inevitable caveat that all this likely to change as things progress.
I like this word. To me, it conjures up images of pulp heroes engaged in acts of derring-do. It also implies a combination of physical prowess and robustness, and is therefore the attribute I’m choosing to convey STR and CON combined.
I’m taking a leaf out of PbtA and Call of Cthulhu playbooks by keeping ‘hit points’ low and relatively standard between players. Gear and enhancements will modify the hit point pool, but that won’t grow as characters gain experience. So I’m happy losing CON, and having Fortitude as a single attribute that determines physicality, prowess in melee combat, health and resistance combined.
I’m currently planning on keeping this word, as it’s a good combination of ‘what it says on the tin’ and fit with my setting.
And again, much like D&D&Co, it will govern a character’s deftness, reaction speed and prowess with ranged weapons (and as firearms will feature heavily in the setting, it will be quite important).
Another combination attribute. I understand the difference between INT & WIS, and appreciate why they are separate in many systems (especially those where characters have a key attribute).
For this system though, I’m combining the two to represent a character’s quick wittedness, smartness and mental capabilities. The old knowledge vs experience difference will be catered for with a combination of role-playing, and maybe a secondary characteristic or a skill or two.
The word ‘Wits’ sums up what I’m hoping to convey with the attribute, and fits with the pulp setting too.
This was probably the hardest one to get the right word for. I want social encounters and interaction to feature quite heavily in the game, especially as there will be some class structure in the setting.
Charisma (for now) feels like the best word, as Charm will instead most likely be a skill (alongside Threaten, Cajole, Convince and others of that ilk).
I toyed with ‘Standing’, but that may well end up being a secondary characteristic rather than an attribute. ‘Social’ felt a bit too modern for the setting and ‘Magnetism’ is too ambiguous (especially given some of the weird science that will feature).
So, for now at least, Charisma it is.
Next time …
Now, with that decided (or in a good enough state to turn my ‘Wits’ elsewhere at least), I can start thinking about the secondary attributes that are specific to the setting.
Social standing, (weird) science knowledge, magical (aether) aptitude and more … coming soon.