(Grabbing a post out of my private drafts and posting it now in response to a request that I update my journal...)
Robin Laws has a column
which discusses "on the fly chargen" vs. the need to "lay pipe", that is, establish character elements prior to their use, for the sake of credibility in a story. It might help to read the column before proceeding.
There are interesting dimensions of this. First I think Laws underestimates the value both of having pre-established characteristics and of realism--not for all games, but for some. Second, I notice that some reactions to the article e.g. at theRPGsite
talk about how the introduction of unlikely "on the fly traits" can strain credibility or lead to a "pulpy" feel. The first is clearly a negative result, the second a matter of taste. I'd add that, in some situations, the introduction of an unlikely trait, at least in a story, can have a positive, often comical effect. That is, in stories, surprising elements of character aren't necessarily something to be avoided or tolerated--and I think they can be exploited in RPGs as well. For example, in some
, not all, games, the mousy librarian who's revealed to be a crack shot, or the television repairman who just happens to know Ugaritic--these could be desired comical elements.
(For that matter, in a more storytelling type of game, they could be used as points of digression into flashbacks--a technique found in movies, for example.)
But the reason I'm jotting things down here is that the discussion, particularly this post
, jogged an insight loose. Kyle writes
If I put down lockpick, stealth, and brawling, then I have a certain idea of what the character will be like in play. If during play the character never uses lockpick, then my character's turned out differently to what I expected; likewise if they never use stealth, or never use brawling. The player can - does not always, but may - feel dissatisfied. "I made the guy to do X, but never got to do it!"
This is a variation on the concept of "character traits as Flags"--the idea of creating scenarios to deliberately highlight one or more traits of each character.
But the idea of Flags is problematic. How reliably do traits "signal" what we want to have happen to a character? In my opinion, this may be an effective approach to scenario construction, or to intra-scenario improv: a solution to "blank page syndrome". Polaris
, a completely improv-type game, is pretty upfront about encouraging this approach, since each sample trait comes with a list of suggested ways that players can introduce them into play. (The "thematic batteries" of Full Light, Full Speed
also come to mind, at least as they've been described to me by the author of the game.)
But as a general purpose approach I don't think that traits can be seen as signaling anything unless the group agrees that they do. In which case, you might as well work it this way:
Player: I want to have X happen at some point.
Player: This is the issue I want my character to grapple with.
In other words, traits-as-flags creates an unnecessary overlap; if you want to have mechanical Flags, then you can (and perhaps should) create a Flag metagame mechanic instead of having traits do double-duty. (What I'm recommending here is parallel, in a way, to my general preference that "hero points" be treated as an add-on/capstone mechanic instead of being integrated into the basic resolution system)
Traits-as-Flags does work IMO if (and only if) the goal of play is to highlight all aspects of character
--assuming the aspects can be sussed out mechanically. The problem, though, is that for example both a high Strength and a low Strength can be a Flag. Having a skill and not having skill can be a Flag, particularly when that skill has some sort of special relationship to the genre.
I'm afraid this post is going to end a bit roughly. It is perhaps not a coincidence, though, that two games by Robin Laws basically take the approach that any element of a character can be turned into a mechanical trait: Over the Edge
. For some reason I've never really read all the way through either one even though I own them. I do not think, though, that either game implements a way in which negative traits (disadvantages) can also be Flags.