Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

It\’s All About Pen, Paper and People.

Character Effectiveness

Posted by Nathan P. on April 4, 2008

This turned out longer than I thought. Skip to the end for the point.

Characters are (usually, not always, but the vast majority of the time) the interface that the players use to interface with the fiction.

Character “effectiveness” is a good (and commonly understood, I think) phrase for talking about the way in which that interface works. A characters effectiveness may be because of the stats that it has, or it may be measured by a metaresource that is used by the player in order to change the fiction in order to “help the character out,” or whatever else. But it’s a trivial point to say that a 10th level D&D character is more effective than a 1st level D&D character, right?

Well, I’m not sure that thats a trivial point at all. Because, yes, a 1st level D&D character in the same party as the 10th level one will be overwhelmed – they just won’t be able to effect the fiction in a meaningful way through the manipulation of mechanics. They will not be able to hit any of the monsters, for example. Now, the person playing that character may be able to make them effective in a “soft” fashion – for example, someone plays a 1st level noble in that 10th level game, and he has social authority in the fiction that the 10th level barbarian doesn’t have. But, as a general statement, most characters in a given game usually have about the same amount of effectiveness, right?

Let’s keep looking at D&D. Whats the other measure of character effectiveness? Your hit points. When your hit points hit 0, you are no longer effective, because your character is dead.

This is the big thing that lurks in the background of most games, right? That your character, at some point, could die, thereby severing the players ability to effect the fiction.

Man what?

The point of a roleplaying game is that you are playing, right? So what is up with the constant threat of you not getting to play anymore?

Anyway, thats not what I actually wanted to talk about. Got sidetracked, sorry.


So, for a certain style of play, player effectiveness = character effectiveness. My GURPS character that I just made has a 15 in the Occultism skill, so I the player have a chance north of 90% of successfully influencing the fiction whenever I use him to find something out thats related to Occultism.

For another certain style of play, player effectiveness is completely disassociated from character effectiveness. My last GURPS character died because I talked to the GM and said “hey, I’m not really interested in playing Reyes anymore, and I know you think it would be appropriate for a PC to die during this mission,” not because Reyes blew any rolls.

My question to you, gentle reader, is whether it’s ever more desirable for thematic or genre-celebratory play for player effectiveness to be curtailed because the character effectiveness has gone down. Easiest example, why should you have to stop effecting the fiction because your character dies?

The problem that I’m seeing in some of my play is that I don’t want characters to be injured, because it makes them less effective, which means that their players don’t have as much ability to have input into the game, which make it less fun for me.

This is a genuine question. Is mechanically determined lowering of character effectiveness useful? Why? When?


10 Responses to “Character Effectiveness”

  1. Tommi said

    We tend to play games where the link exists, sometimes more clearly, sometimes less. The trick I used when running a Burning Wheel game is that when a player character is not doing anything interesting for a long while, that player gets handed another one. E.g. “Play the troll, stats close to these plus the belief “I will use the puny humans to steal the sword from my father.”.”

    I think that in general linking player and character effectiveness is not a design goal as much as a side effect of having players mostly play a single character, which I personally find a satisfying way to play.

  2. For one thing, there are some classes of players who cannot/do not/prefer not to sabotage effectiveness for story/theme. One player online was describe what he wanted from games as: this presented a virtual world for a character to be in (note: a world, not a story), and when portraying a character, she could not imagine doing anything other than the optimal thing for his character. So… it’s a real valid mindset, even if it’s really difficult to fit into my own brain.

    To your question, about why you would mechanically lower a character’s effectiveness / ability to affect the fiction (in a case where you cared most about story or theme): Perhaps part of the theme is that you need to reflect the consequences of earlier choices, and without consequences those choices ring hollow. It’s possible that ineffectiveness could itself be properly thematic. Also, mechanical ineffectiveness could push people to use other resources to find success. (Ex 1: you’re Dex is at -5 now, so may consider talking instead of fighting the dragon. Ex 2: Your Will is down to -4, so are you willing to activate your Demonic Contract trait to restore it?)

  3. I think, largely thanks to Fallout, we have better threats to throw at players during conflicts, rather than just limited character effectiveness. We have like: “Oh no, your character might change in unexpected ways due to this conflict!” Which is super hot. That’s not a disincentive for conflict; that’s an incentive. And, after all, most games want players to create interesting conflicts.

  4. Nathan P. said

    Tommi, thats an interesting tactic that I hadn’t thought about. Having multiple characters totally gives multiple vectors for you to effect the fiction in different ways.

    Dev, back to you in a sec.

    Jon, my thought progression is something like “my character changing in unexpected ways is always way more interesting than my character taking damage, so why would I ever settle for taking damage when I can generate interesting fallout instead?”. I’m kind of thinking here of when we were playing Mortal Coil and we had that lame conflict with you and the Congolese guard, and by the rules you took Harm. But, like, I didn’t particularly want your character to not be able to have as much effect in conflicts (which is all that Harm does). It so happened that we set lame stakes to that conflict, so it fell flat on both counts. So there’s a dissonance that I’m poking at – the interesting part of the conflict was the stakes, right? The Harm didn’t really matter one way or the other, except to make it harder for you to succeed down the road. Right?

    Dev, your comment is right on, and hopefully in responding to it I can be a little clearer in what I’m trying to actually talk about (which I’m having trouble expressing, as you can see…)

    So, yes, an appropriately designed set of mechanics can create interesting choices for thematic play. I’ll be self-aggrandizing a bit and submit that Approachs from Carry work like that – sometimes, because of the dice you have, you MUST make a non-optimal mechanical choice in a conflict, which tends to mean you make a thematic choice instead.

    But, like, if my characters stats are the only way I, as a player, have to effect the fiction, and they go down due to damage (or whatever), that limits BOTH character AND player effectiveness. Limiting character effectiveness is fine, for reasons you state. But if I, as a player, become less able to influence the game, that blows! For thematic play, it’s all about player desires changing the fiction. So, if a game is set up such that I the player get shut out when my character goes down, then that seems less than desirable for thematic play.

  5. Ewen said

    When I was reading John Wick’s “Play Dirty,” I was annoyed by his writing style, but the one point I could absolutely disagree with was when he said (paraphrasing) “Why would you care about a character who has no chance of dying?” The blindingly obvious answer is “Because he has other, more interesting stuff at stake.” Unless the GM has a solution like Tommi’s lined up, a dead PC usually means there’s a player who’ll be twiddling his thumbs for the rest of the session. That’s one of the more boring things that can happen to you in a game.

    Consequences are much more interesting, or they should be. In the OVA campaign I’m running it’s been working out that way quite unintentionally. The actual fight will be sort of interesting, but finding out later that the heroes inadvertently helped create a race of catgirls was the far more engaging part. In contrast, the player of the one PC that has actually died (albeit in a rather interesting way) so far has never been quite as engaged in the game since.

  6. […] is more often than not one of the most boring things that can befall a player, since (as noted in Nathan Paoletta’s recent blog post) the player’s input into the game drops to zero. Conflicts with fallout have less worry about […]

  7. Nathan P. said

    Hey Ewen,

    Thats another good point. Fights, in most fiction, are NEVER about whether the protagonist is going to die. Sometimes if there’s a cast of protagonists, one of them might be at risk (here I’m thinking of the first episode of Firefly, for example). A fight might be about whether you finally cap an enemy, but as long as there’s still pages left in the book (or minutes in the movie), it is the rare piece of fiction that kills off the protagonists before the end.

    This whole “the protagonists are always potentially about to die” is something pretty unique to RPGs, in my experience.

  8. “why should you have to stop effecting the fiction because your character dies?”

    The quick answer is, “There is no reason why you should stop effecting the fiction after your character dies.” The reason most players’ experience with character death works this way is because the kinds of games that allow you to continue affecting the fiction after death haven’t been written yet. This is an excellent design track to tackel, IMO. It would involve a lot of creative solutions to allow death to be a gateway into sustained fiction control. Your post is very well thought out, Nathan. I enjoyed reading it. 🙂



  9. Elizabeth said

    I played a game of Kindred of the East once, sort of. There’s this really interesting mechanic in KotE where when something happens that is significant, you roll on an “Auspicious Occasion” chart. You can get lots of cool things from it, IIRC, and there’s a brief list of Auspicious Occasions (the first time you enter the Forbidden City, for example), but you can always ask the ST if something that’s happening counts as an Occasion, and they can always declare something one. It’s a very cool rule, and one I’d like to steal and dismantle for.. something, in the future.

    If you botch an Auspicious Occasion roll, you get sent back to hell and have to make a new character, or wait a hundred years to be retrained or something like that. The beginning of our game involved being summoned to the Forbidden City. I botched. I “made” a new character exactly like my previous character, got summoned to the City, and botched again.

    Then I made lunch for the guys and stopped playing.


    I’m not sure how the threat of that is supposed to make the game more fun. I’m a big fan of rules that prevent awesome things from happening AS LONG AS the alternative is something else awesome. I think that’s the big point of the stakes thing in Mortal Coil; I’m weird in that I want to work for my fun, or at least, work for my achievements. I don’t want everything I think is cool to just happen, because it’s easy to think of things which are cool, right? Isn’t there some kind of rule or principle or other thingy which talks about how the fiction needs to be able to go in unexpected ways?

    I think if the players are too effective, you lose some of that. But completely castrating the players doesn’t do anyone any good, either. Maybe there’s a way for players to become effective in a different area than their characters, when character effectiveness is limited? Because players should totally be able to participate fully, even when it makes sense for their characters to have limited potency.

  10. Mike said

    One thing you may want to consider is understanding the “nature” of the game. D&D can get away with “If HP goes to zero, you’re out” because the game world has a constant and available system for resurrection, another thing brought from it’s wargaming roots.

    But most games outside of the high fantasy genre tend not to have this mechanic openly available, yet they keep the “Zero you’re out” rule. Perhaps going zero takes you out of the conflict and you won’t get to do much. The GM could take the player aside and ask him what he might like in this instance… does he want to do something that may kill him but could save everyone? Sit there? Hide? Get knocked out? A guy who just got his leg removed is pretty much out of a fight as much as the guy who got gut shot, although the fellow without a leg may have a better shot of surviving.

    The frustration is that while a couple die rolls are impartial to anyone rolling them, character death is the one thing that can’t be rectified later or a future challenge to later conquer, unlike losing an arm or a certain skill. I think that needs to change as the losing of the character should be up to the player and the GM together, with the dice strictly “suggesting” a strong change needs to happen.

    A hand removal can be fixed later on and that skill might have to require special training to get it back, giving him some sort of new understanding.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: