Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Evolution of the RPG Disadvantage

This article is likely to be of no interest whatsoever to anyone who has kept up with the state of the art of RPG design, particularly when it comes to so-called "indy" games. For anyone else who spent time in the eighties or nineties playing RPGs, this might be interesting to you.

One of the big developments in RPGs during the eighties was the introduction of point-based character generation. Prior to that characters were generated mostly at random with die rolls determining attributes and skills (if skills were even present). There may have been some playing around with points in some systems in the late seventies, but at best they were simple pools for assigning skill points or attribute numbers.

In the eighties we got two big point-based systems: HERO and GURPS. I'm not sure that either introduced the idea of disadvantages to generate more points to spend, but they are the systems that first introduced me to the idea. For those who don't already know, the idea is that everyone gets X amount of points to make a character. If X=100 and the character you want to make costs more than 100 points, then you can buy disadvantages for your character. These disadvantages usually come in different values based on just how bad the disadvantage is. Having a mild fear of marsupials might only be worth a point or two while a missing limb might be worth 25 or 50 points. You can then spend those points on other things.

This was a good idea, but the problem was that in most cases disadvantages were used purely to make a more powerful character in generation, and not to make a more interesting character to role-play. Most players would instead try to minimize their disadvantages as much as possible in actual play. The result is that from the players' point of view a disadvantage was simply something to work around after character generation. A part of their character they wish wasn't there.

Then came the current decade and some new thinking about how disadvantages should be handled. I'm not sure where these ideas originated, but I first came across them in Burning Wheel and Spirit of the Century. Both these systems use a form of point-based character generation, and both feature disadvantages, but neither gives you any extra points for taking those disadvantages, in fact, Burning Wheel charges you points to take them. Why would you take a disadvantage then? Because, unlike in the older games, in these newer games you get stuff in game for having your disadvantages come into play. Both systems give you special kinds of points when a disadvantage is used against you by the GM. Players can even invoke disadvantages themselves in an attempt to get those points! It's usually worth it because those points can be spent to help out the characters in big ways later in the adventure.

This concept is making its way into more mainstream games as well. The Cortex system, which is used in the licensed RPGs Serenity and Battlestar Galactica, is a fairly traditional point based system where taking disadvantages lets you take advantages. Unlike the more traditional games, you can then also use those disadvantages in the game to get you points similar to those given in more "indy" games.

I think this is an awesome way to encourage role-playing through a mechanical system. It encourages players to focus on both their strengths and weaknesses, rather than just focusing on the strengths and always trying to minimize their weaknesses. I have yet to actually play any of these new systems, but just the idea has me itching to.


Evil Hat Productions said...

I'll tell you where the original inspiration for the "pay for your disadvantages" side of Aspects in Fate/SOTC came from, as one of the developers...

7th Sea. That game had some very interesting ideas in it, not the least of which was ... what were they called, "backgrounds" or somesuch, where you *bought* your nemesis rather than got *compensated* for it. Because your nemesis made you more awesome.

We just sort of took that idea and ran with it. :)

Fulminata said...

That's good to know! I've always been interested in RPG design and evolution, but 7th Sea is one game that I never got a chance to look at.

Strangely enough, I've been spending a lot of time lately looking at Fate/SotC, and I have at least one post coming up soon discussing why that's the case and what I've been doing with it (unfortunately, that doesn't include actually playing it yet, but most of my RPG articles are going to be more theory and less practice).

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