Thursday, September 26, 2013

Some More Thoughts About That Smeaton Character Sheet

So this is going to be some just off-the-top-of-my-head ramblings about the new character sheet vs. the old, with some digressions into general game design stuff. So happens that these old game materials I'm running across are things that came to light during the gradual clean-up that occurred during the Great Power-Down and was never finished. The end result was that the piles of stuff scattered around my house were more organized by common themes than before.

So along with the notes on the campaign world I ran across yesterday was Smeaton's original character sheet. I'm not going to include it here, because there's a lot of stuff. But if you compare it to the minimal Fate system character I posted last time, it's incredibly complex. Eight basic attributes, three derived attributes plus a damage modifier for Strength, 29 skills, and some gear. Oh, and his middle name was Hamish. I'd forgotten that.

So on the one hand, it looks as if the Fate character sheet could not possibly yield a character as complex as Smeaton was in the original game, with his 10 skills and 5 aspects. And to a certain extent, that's true, a I'll discuss in a moment. But when you look at what actually goes into playing a character, the Fate sheet has all the high points covered. It's a matter of emphasis. The old sheet, following the old-school game paradigm, lists a lot of skill percentages, but not much about Smeaton as a person. The focus of the character sheet is on mechanical resolution, with the role-playing side left entirely up to the player. This is a valid approach; I said at the time, and I still think that the Atlantis campaign was the best game I've ever played in.

But the skill resolution system was often very frustrating, with the entire party trying and failing to climb a twenty-foot rope in one session, and another character spending an entire combat locked in a futile struggle with a single minor enemy while everyone else was mowing through people to get the battle won. True, Fate Core's skills aren't as granular. If I take Fight in Fate Core, I am equally capable with fists and swords and knives and clubs, whereas in the Atlantis game, I had to take separate skills for all those. This does give a different flavor to combat, especially with the very different skill advancement system, but I don't think it's a game killer.

The emphasis in Fate is on role-playing, so that the mechanics of the game center on it. Therefore, aspects instead of attributes. Much of the game runs on Fate Points. You invoke aspects and spend Fate Points to get advantages, such as my trying to solve a mystery by invoking my "Ex-artilleryman" aspect to contact my old military buddies for information. On the other hand, I can also receive Fate Points by accepting a disadvantage based on my aspects, like being distracted in a fight by a cool piece of tech, which gets my "Hell of an Engineer" curiosity going.

But here's the thing that prompted me to write a follow-up. While there's no role-playing emphasis on the old sheet, one of the pivotal role-plating elements of Smeaton's character developed from the skill system, or more correctly, the skill buying system.

See, when making up our characters, we bought our skills using two pools of points. One pool was for Core Skills, the kinds of things all adventurers end up needing to do, and the kinds of things that aren't necessarily taught in a classroom. Fighting, listening, climbing, sneaking: these are all core skills, and there are never enough points to go around.

The other pool is Knowledge Skills, the kinds of things you CAN learn in a classroom (and which are far less useful in game terms). And in the four games I've played under this system, I've always ended up having more Knowledge Skill points than I can really spend, given the GM-imposed limits on how good a skill can be at the start. I end up buying a lot of skills that I never really use.

So in Smeaton's case, I ended up having some spare points and bought skill in the clarinet, for the hell of it. But this throwaway skill got me thinking of a justification, which is what led to Smeaton's love of poetry and eventually, his Secret Romantic aspect.

So although those points were wasted in terms of game effectiveness, they ended up being something like an aspect in Fate or a disadvantage in Champions: a means to ask questions about my character and deepen his personality.

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