Saturday, February 27, 2016

Character Creation Playtests: The Well-Rounded Character

We're going to take a quick philosophical detour into some of the ideas behind character creation in HJ today, specifically into the concepts behind what your beginning Hero looks like, and how playtesters have responded to that. It's been an interesting area to delve into, because of course everyone has a different opinion on what starting characters should do and have, and of course testers who haven't played HJ before are coming in blind to a certain extent when it comes to knowing what they're going to need or want to do.

Playtesting Issue: Players want to create "well-rounded characters" at the beginning of that game, but disagree about what that means and whether or not the game allows them to do it.

A phrase we often hear, both at character creation and in gaming in general, is that people want or seek to make a "well-rounded character". This sounds like a fine and lofty goal, but it tends to mean different things depending on who said it and in what context. Just a few of the definitions of "well-rounded character" we've run into include:

  • A character that has all the skills a player considers "realistic"
  • A character that can contribute or perform actions in every situation
  • A character that has what a player considers "reasonable" specialties (that is, they aren't min-maxed)
  • A character that has at least one point in every stat the player considers "important"
  • A character that has lots of options available to them for specialization later

And probably a few more. And as you can see, a lot of those things depend on player tastes, so they can be hard to judge; what does "realistic" skills mean, what powers are "reasonable", and what things are "important" to the game?

In general, the players who are looking for things that are "important" to the game are those players who are looking for tactical advantage. They've read the book and the system, they've decided on which stats they think are the most critical for succeeding at whatever they want to do and which stats they think are a waste of time, and they want to make sure they get all the "good" ones, even if that's a wide spread of things. (If you remember our post about playstyles from a while back, this is usually Pat's approach.) These are the players who have figured out exactly which powers and stats they think will be used the highest percentage of the time, and which other powers can be backdoor "cheats" for moments when they need them, and their version of "well-rounded" is getting all of those most important things as soon as they possibly can.

Other players say that they want their powers to be "realistic" when they make a well-rounded character, which could mean pretty much anything, considering that the idea of what's realistic for a given character exists completely in that person's head (back with the playerstyles, we're especially looking at you, Robin!). Around the mechanics balancing playpen, we affectionately refer to this as the "Navy SEAL Problem" or the "Usain Bolt Effect"; at some point, there's always some player who says, "look, it's realistic/reasonable for me to have all these different skills - Navy SEALS have to train to have them and they're just all regular people!", and therefore get cranky that even if they make a character who is a Navy SEAL, they can't have all the skills they think they should have. The Usain Bolt Effect is even more hilarious, because it usually involves a player saying, "Okay, I researched it and this is exactly how fast the fastest human being can be, so I should be able to be that without getting needing any 'extra points' and if you don't let me it's unrealistic," which of course they don't mean to sound silly, but here we all are.

Other players just mean that they don't want to be "locked" into any particular specialty right out of the gate, which we think is a pretty reasonable request, or that they don't like the idea of making characters that end up useless a lot of the time. These are easier issues to address, since they're more under our control and less ephemeral.


Since what's "reasonable" and "realistic" and "important" is a sliding scale known only to the internal processes of each individual player, we can't exactly cater to all of its possible iterations at the same time. What we can do, though, is make character creation clear - not just in where you put the points, but what it's trying to do and what the eventual character is meant to look like.

Like a lot of things in HJ, character creation isn't necessarily intended to be realistic; it's intended to be mythic, which might overlap but then again might now. Starting Heroes have a lot of Aspects to choose from, but they're really only going to be skilled in a few of them. This isn't so much because we think real-life people and heroes are only skilled at a few things, but because from the perspective of a mythic tale, Heroes tend to roll in good at some specific stuff - you know, being a Trickster and getting what they need through shenanigans, or being a Hunter who travels the perilous woods - rather than being pragmatically good at everything. That means that a brand-new, freshly-created out-of-the-box Hero won't necessarily conform to many folks' definition of "well-rounded" - and that they aren't supposed to.

This doesn't mean, however, that they are doomed to live and die in a tiny box and won't be able to do useful things on their adventures that fall outside their realm of expertise.

A large part of this is the Strive for Glory system we talked about a while ago: Heroes can and do sometimes do things out of their comfort zone and even do them impressively and well, so that option is always open to them, regardless of how they're statted, from the second they're created. It's not a good backup for someone who wants to do those things all the time, but it absolutely covers those who want to be well-rounded in the sense that they aren't by default helpless infants when it comes to a situation they might have to contribute to. Like most "realistic" Heroes, they have a shot at helping through luck, effort, and being the star of the story.

Another important thing that we haven't talked about yet is the existence of Insignificant Actions, which are exactly what they sound like: actions that are small or inconsequential and don't matter to the game. Everyone can successfully take Insignificant Actions whenever they want to, which means you don't need to have any dots of Creator to make lunch or any dots of Lover to say hi to someone without accidentally cussing them out. HJ's system doesn't automatically cause failures of normal, everyday actions that don't affect the story, whether you have dots in them or not, so players who were worried about being "well-rounded" because they'd been in games where a low Ath/Dex/Agi score meant they couldn't walk from the couch to the TV without falling flat on their faces were relieved to discover that this wasn't a problem.

And finally, of course, those who want to become more well-rounded - whatever that means to them - always have that ability immediately through the advancement system as soon as they're created and start doing things. There are no skills or stats that have to be "unlocked" before players can start getting them; they can go for it from day one, which means if they want dots in seventy different stats, they can do that, or if they want to go make a run for the magical effects of the Spheres, they can, or if they want to just min-max away at the inner workings of a few things, they have that option, too. (There are restrictions on how much of a stat they can get at one time, based on their progress, but not on which ones they can get.)

We're looking forward to seeing how players end up rounding out their characters as they move into higher tiers of the game, especially those who have expanded since their humble beginnings. We've been seeing more interest in buying different stats than in specializing through the Web of Fate than we were expecting for a lot of players, so we'll see if that trend continues at higher levels, or if the "well-rounded" effect tapers off as more specialized superpowers become available!

1 comment:

  1. This is neat. I've personally always been unable to min-max my characters as being able to fight but being dead damn weight in every single other situation is simply ridiculous. In my opinion, a game gets better if everyone (or at least most of the party) just have combat as a secondary thing so the GM can balance for that. One combat specialist and all the other players become close to redundant in fights as either the enemies get too strong for them or the player becomes too god-mode and slaughters everything without a challenge.