Friday, November 11, 2011

On Attributes in Game Design

Of late, my gaming thoughts (such as they are) have been turning to my old Sword & Sorcery game, Swords of Fortune.  I started working on this game an Epoch or two ago; I'm not precisely sure when, but the last play-test draft I have up is dated October 21, 2008, which, if I can still do basic arithmetic, is like 30 years ago (that draft, incidentally, can still be found here).  I was really hot on this game for some while and S&S remains one of my favourite things in the cosmos.  I abandoned it because I felt that there were at least two better S&S games that came out between my beginning work and October 2008: Simon Washbourne's Barbarians of Lemuria and Tim Gray's Jaws of the Six Serpents.  Both are excellent, excellent games that do a fantastic job at delivering the S&S experience.

And yet, here I am thinking about Swords of Fortune again.  Tentatively, to be sure, yet I think I may still have something a bit distinct to add to the ludic pot.  As time goes on, I find that my Misfortune mechanic remains interesting to me and stresses things that neither of the other games does by default.  Also, I think my discussion of the literary genre has some value.  So, I'm playing with taking up the old gauntlet again.

Yet, if some mechanics seem to retain value, others don't.  And the one that just doesn't sit well with my anymore is Attributes.  As it stood three years ago, every Hero had six Attributes: Sword, Shield, Tome, Tower, Crown and Cloak.  The first of each alliterative pair is an active attribute (physical, mental, social), while the second is reactive.  Thus, one would use the Sword attribute to attack people or lift heavy objects (active physical) and the Shield attribute to avoid getting hit or withstand the effects of drugged wine (reactive physical).  I used to think that this set-up was the bees-knees - logical, symmetrical, full of kallos -  but it no longer sits so well with me.  

Which brings me to the actual subject of the post, that is, the nature of attributes in game design. One of the oppositions in attribute-design is between Standardized and Free-Form.  The first is by far the most common and dates back to Ye Auld Game.  I'm not sure when the latter debuted (although it might have been Robin Laws' Over the Edge from 1992).  The strength of Standardized atts is that you can always compare character's relative abilities and know who is stronger, faster, or whatever.  And, in theory anyway, you know what things are important to the game: if Social Status is an att, then presumably social status is important to this game.  The strengths of Free-From atts are less easy to explain; they allow the player to create a character that more precisely meets their idea and avoid the abstraction that inevitably occurs with Standardized stats by letting you say exactly what you mean.  Practically, they seem to encourage a lot of creativity in players.

The drawbacks are the inverse of the benefits.  Standardized atts cannot measure anything that falls outside their parameters; in YAG, for example, you can measure strength and dexterity, but there is no way to measure your hatred for the Six-Fingered Man.  Free-Form atts excel at that, but it can be impossible to compare relative abilities (how do you know how strong someone is if they don't have an attribute called "strength"?).  Also, they can create a kind of paralyzation if the player doesn't have a strong idea of the character in mind from the get-go.

I think a less obvious distinction, but one of equal importance, is between what I will call Denotative and Connotative atts.  Yeah, I just made those names up because I've never seen anyone address this idea.  Denotative atts have a kind of one-to-one correspondence with the world: Strength measures active physical force which can be brought to bear, for example.  Denotative atts are suggestive: one could find all kind of uses for an att called "Tough Old Merc". Another way to look at this is that Denotative atts are statically defined by what they measure (cause), while Connotative atts are defined by what they could do and that definition is an evolving one (effect).  "Tough Old Merc" might measure professional experience, physical state, weapon's training, social status, and on and on; indeed, the nature of Connotative atts is that you keep finding new uses for them (it frequently becomes a game within the game).

Most games with Free-Form atts allow - in fact, encourage - Connotative atts.  They suggest that "Strong as a Bull" is preferable to "Strong", but "Bull of a Man" is preferable to either.  And most games with Standardized atts assume that they are Connotative; even if they allow for a relatively broad use for any att, they assume that there are some clear uses for the att and that's that. Charisma in YAG may be the poster-child for this latter case; no one has ever been sure what exactly it measures, but whatever it represents, it helps with reactions, hiring retainers, and morale.

This second distinction is thus usually lost within the first, but it need not be.  Returning to old Swords of Fortune, you might see that the atts were clearly standardized, but they seemed to drift a bit between being Denotative and Connotative.  And maybe that's were I'm finding them less satisfactory now than I did some years ago.  Or maybe it's just that no one ever put any points into the Cloak att because I could never really say what it was good for.  Either way, I feel that I might be able to add something meaningful in this area.