About Me

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Seattle, Washington, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Background Ratings

I've been toying around with the player-character aspect of Stellar, which up until now is really only a tactical space fighter game.

As mentioned previously, I do not believe class vs classless really affects player creativity. However, I also don't feel constrained to rely on a class system.

Setting that aside for a moment, I have also spent time contemplating possible attribute models. I found a great list of attributes used in various games on Fudgery.net.

It's like a miniature thesaurus! Except it only has synonyms for Strength, Agility, Hardiness, Intelligence, ....  you get the idea. The synonym chosen reflects the flavor of the game. For instance, InvaderZ uses "Meat" and "Brain Meat" as attributes. That tells me quite a lot about the game, at least in theory (I've never played it). Additionally, some games use frequency of attribute type to illustrate desired gameplay. So, if a game has 6 different physical attributes and then one attribute called "Mind and stuff", it is safe to assume physical activities are more prevalent and/or important.

I confess to being somewhat bored by the prospect of making yet another game that uses these approaches.

As mentioned in the link at Fudgery, we as gamers usually associate "attribute" with "inherent" or "born with it". In every attribute-based game, eventually someone asks a question like, "If I'm Strength 14, why can't I work out more and get Strength 15?" or "Why can't I study more to get smarter?"

Good questions.

Game systems overcome this sort of probing in one of two fashions: either completely ignoring it, or by letting characters improve attributes somehow. Improvement can come over time/experience, or through magic items (which generally just support ignoring the basic question).

So I asked myself, are attributes inherent to RPGs?

The Meaning of Attributes

I think so, but I believe there is a lot of unexplored variance. Of course no idea is really new, so apologies to whoever has already thought about this, but mechanically attributes serve one primary purpose: to form the character's general concept in our imaginations.

For instance, STR 17 DEX 6 CON 15 INT 10 WIS 10 CHA 10 immediately indicates to our minds a strong, hardy fighter that probably relies on heavy armor for defense and spends a lot of time trying not to trip on small plants.

If that character choose Wizard as a class, then whoa - mind blown. Warmage, perhaps?

Cybernetically Enhanced, of course
photo credit: Anna Fischer via photopin cc
So, are there other ways to achieve the basic purpose of attributes, to form a general character concept, but with a different mechanical feel?

Even excluding pure descriptive formats, I believe so. Oh, and I'm sure a pure classless skill system would claim it does this, but I want to reserve skills for future design use.

BR (Background Ratings)

I'm going to experiment with this idea: A basic character concept can be expressed by their background experience.

If I spent 20 years in the Marines, does that tell you something about me?

What if I spent 10 years in prison?

Ok, so it is a different mindset, but let's try it out. I've come up with the following list for Stellar:

  • Academics (AC), or the pursuit of knowledge through schooling or independent study.
  • Combat Training (CT), or learning how to kill others, frequently as a result of military or paramilitary training, but not always.
  • Command Experience (CE), or time spent leading others, whether in a military, business, or other concept.
  • Criminal Behavior (CB), which can indicate time spent committing crimes, time spent catching folks that commit crimes, or borderline activities such as espionage.
  • Social Interactions (SI), or time spent networking, partying with the elite, being an actress, or any other involvement with celebrities or the social elite.
  • Luck (LK), which illustrates a background that would have been much less interesting if not for spectacular timing or improbable occurrences.

If I let players put points into each of these, can we describe a wide variety of archtypes?

  • Mad Scientists: High AC, High CB
  • Han Solo: Some CT, Some CB, High LK
  • Judge Dredd: High CT, High CB
  • Ender: Some CT, Some CE, Some CB
  • Average Fortune 20 CEO: Some AC, Some CE, Some SI, and a crapload of CB (well this is my interpretation anyways)

Seems reasonable so far. If faced with a High CT, High CB character I can immediately envision either a mob hit man or the policeman that eventually captures him, or a number of other possibilities, but I won't be thinking of a mad scientist. So I am slightly reliant on a brief description but it doesn't need much.


One enjoyable side effect of using BRs is that they lend themselves to a quick and easy system of generating contacts. If a PC is in a situation where it sure would be nice if they "knew someone", like say needing to know an expert in Cybernetics, they could roll against the associated BR (Academics in this case). A successful check - however that is defined - would indicate that the PC does, in fact, know the Professor of Cybernetics at the Jupiter Institute of Biotechnology. Open hailing frequencies...


For me, skills represent actual expertise in a specific field. I have a list of about 20 for Stellar, and these are not low-granularity like Jump and Climb and StandOnMyTippyToes. They are larger granularity, for instance:

  • Life Sciences
  • Physical Sciences
  • Engineering/Salvage
  • Linguistics
  • Starship Operations
  • Business/Economics
  • Ground Assault

These skills are associated with one or more BR. Having a higher BR in, say, AC, means that more Academic skill ratings can be bought during character creation, like in Life Sciences or Physical Sciences.

This is all a loose concept right now but feels worth some pursuit, testing, and refinement, so we'll see where the rabbit hole leads.


  1. After reading this it still seems you have followed the basic attribute score check determines whether you are successful in a game action or not.

    Have you thought of any other ways of differentiating characters without using the old stat check + die roll mechanic?

    I suspect its a pretty good mechanic and I can't think of anything off the top of my head.

    1. I know of varying conflict resolution systems used in some games, from the obvious dice and cards to the likes of dominoes, rock-paper-scissors, and even Jenga.

      The vast majority fit the model of a random probability tool intersected with some target success. So dice pools, like what I'm playing with in Stellar, are only one of many variations that accomplish that.

      The real question is, what would you like to see in a game??

    2. And your question is the reason you are designing and not me.

      I'll just go and refer you to rule 1, I want to see fun. Exactly how its accomplished isn't terribly important.


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