Thursday, June 9, 2011

A formal introduction to affinities

Two weeks back I introduced the general idea of affinities as a solution to what I perceive as a bad rule that disincents its own design goals. This link is a more formal introduction to affinities, how they would operate in play, and how they should be adjudicated. It is a quick three page .pdf that has a lot of strengths.

A summary of those strengths:
  • Encourages creativity. The argument is the same as in the last article, but in short it affirms that any character can try anything and do it in whatever manner their character might be good at it.
  • Puts more control in the hands of the players. Actions are no longer embedded in skills, so a player can try to succeed at some action however they want.
  • Puts more control in the hands of the GM. The GM quickly decides the extent to which the affinity applies to the task at hand.
  • Ability to add new skills or professions. Because actions are not embedded in skills, you can add new skills without diluting the action pool. This lets players customize their character or a GM customize their world without having to rebalance the number of skills given or what each skill does.
  • Standardization. Because affinities apply to a wide range of actions all following a standardized format, they get more familiar more quickly. Familiarity leads to quicker play and broad applicability leads to more opportunities for more creative play.


  1. I definitely like the idea of Affinities, in many ways they remind me of FATE aspects, in that they're flexible and can be used in a wide variety of situations beyond how they might seem to be immediately applicable. Much like with Aspects in FATE, I also like the idea of allowing personalized affinities so that players can create the exact sort of character that they desire.

    On the other hand, one problem that I've seen with Aspects, and that I could foresee with Affinities is that some will be more broadly applicable than others. Unless you implement some sort of cost for using an affinity (like the FATE point cost for tagging an Aspect), then you'll have a problem of everyone utilizing those few affinities that can be used for pretty much everything (or giving themselves affinities like "Lucky Son of a Bitch" which can be conceivably applied to everything).

    Another problem is that without some sort of alteration, this setup is very vulnerable to GM fiat in a way that can quickly become un-fun. What I mean is a situation where a GM and a player have a very different idea of what an affinity allows them to do, and so the GM denies the use of the affinity or says that it's only half-way effective nearly constantly.

    This has the effect of preventing the player from playing the sort of character he wants to play, and creates an adversarial dynamic between the two of them. I'd suggest some sort of middle ground between the formalized skill system and affinities, something like this:

    Each character has 3 affinities developed independently by the player. Characters can gain additional affinities by (insert means of gaining extra affinities here). Each affinity has 3 areas of focus, representing situations and problems it's good at dealing with. If a character has an affinity with an area of focus that applies to a roll, then he or she gains a +5 bonus to that roll.

    Alternatively, the character may choose to use an affinity in a way outside it's areas of focus (say using "Beast Lore" to mimic the silent strides of a Panther and sneak past some goblin sentries). In order to do so, the player must spend an Action point or a Surge in order to claim the privilege. If there is disagreement between a player and the GM over whether an area of focus covers an affinity then you "split the difference" and come out to a +2 bonus. And remember, the player always has to option to spend a hero point or a surge to get the +5 bonus no matter what the GM says.

    This solution rewards creativity at the table, allows players to play the type of character they want, and prevents GM fiat from completely ruining the show. What do you think?

  2. Great comment; thanks for the insights. I think you address two main weaknesses that I also sort of foresaw.

    The first is that aspects might be too broad and players may become too reliant on them. I hoped to address this by first having a proposed list of aspects modeled on 4e skills that are linked to classes to ensure that not most aspects come from a pre-set list. There is the opportunity to introduce new aspects (something I think is lacking from 3e/4e) but we still have a baseline. This baseline also helps suggest a default "aspect breadth" so that if someone comes alone with "Lucky Son of a Bitch" we know that it is probably too broad. This is also acknowledged in the sidebar.

    The second problem is that it opens the door to GM fiat wherein the GM could be a jerk and just never let the player come to full power. This is less well addressed in my writeup except for the recommendation that you adjudicate towards success and keep the game moving.

    Basically, both weaknesses is that the rule is less concrete and more a recommendation of how to play. I deliberately introduced more wiggle room for creativity and adjudication, but that simultaneously introduces more room for abuse and dickishness. I think 3e and 4e steadily marched away from wiggle room and that is, in general, a loss for the game because it means you spend more time in the rule book and less time in your imagination. I guess in some ways I want to trust that people will "resolve for fun" and under that scenario I think the rule will work.

    I like your proposal and I see where it is going. I think it shifts the ratio of player/GM empowerment to be like 75/25 whereas I was aiming at 50/50. Having seen your proposal, though, I might like 75/25...

    My problem with it is that I think it introduces even more opportunities for players to rely on a single affinity just by deciding to pay the cost. When the balance is 50/50, there is a delicate balance wherein the player has the ability to steal away time (by trying too many affinities) and the GM has the power to steal away effectiveness (by deciding things don't apply). That creates a gentle truce. When the balance is 75/25, I wonder if the truce wouldn't be broken and players would just pay the cost, succeed at everything, and then tick the GM off who would dispute affinity usage at every turn.

    Have to think on it more, but, again, thanks for the great comment.

  3. As for your concerns, I definitely think that they're valid but hear me out when I say that in the end I don't think that they'll be a problem. Let me address them one by one:

    Regarding the problem of "characters using one affinity to do everything". Firstly, in some cases this might be a valid expression of a character-think of how many barbarian characters in books and movies who utilize their savagery and strength in a wide variety of different ways.

    Secondly, if a character is constantly using their affinities in situations where they don't apply (and each affinity in this set-up should have 3 very clear-cut places where it does apply), then they're going to be paying a premium for it and as a result be less effective in other areas.

    Action points and Surges both seem to be important resources in your game's mechanical framework, and I'm guessing that players are only going to spend them to widen affinities when they need to most, rather than throwing them all over the place. Yeah, it's true that you might have a relatively unskilled character doing better than he might otherwise do because he's constantly expanding his affinities, but the same thing goes for characters who constantly use their most powerful trades and combat hook a lot in conflicts. Both players are making a choice about what it's important for them to have the best chance of succeeding at, and both might pay a price for it down the road because they have fewer resources to spare. The issue of the players succeeding at everything is only an issue if expending vast a lot of action points all over the place has no impact on character effectiveness (which, given that they're a big part of your class design, shouldn't be the case).

    Secondly, the 50/50 power split is mostly an illusion. Essentially, what it comes down to is "the player asks, and the GM says yes, no, or kinda". The player certainly has the power to ask, but it doesn't have any effect on the GM's decision beyond what's expected because of the player-GM relationship (which can be dangerous because of the risk of favoritism). With the so-called 50/50 split it really just comes down to "attempt to convince the GM that the affinity applies". This doesn't seem so bad on it's own, but can very quickly become a huge time-sink, and rewards players who know how to manipulate the GM.

    The 75/25 balance gives power to both: the player has the power to ask, and to pay a cost to get an answer of "yes", the GM has the power to say no, and if the player says no to that he has the power to say "pay up or compromise". In this situation, there's no risk of a long drawn out debate because once there's an issue between a player and a GM the mechanics step in to take care of the problem by saying "play nice and compromise".

  4. Damn. Some good points in there and they might make me have to redo work. While I think on this, tell me your thoughts with regards to the scope of the "three very clear cut situations" where an affinity applies. For example, would Athletic be more like climb, jump, swim? Or more like raw movement and opposed feats of strength?

  5. To address your concern that this will lead to conflict between player and GM, with the GM rebelling by disputing affinity usage, let me say that this is why I'm firmly in favor of defining three very defined situations in which the affinity applies. For example, you might want to play a character who's incredibly lucky and so write up one of his affinities as "Lucky Son of a Bitch" (just for an example) but you don't get a free ride. You've got to define 3 tasks for which it clearly applies. So to use an example:

    Lucky Son of A Bitch (Cunning)
    Description: The character, through some circumstance of fate or birth is beloved by lady luck who makes sure that some things just go his way.

    Areas of Focus:

    Gambling (The character's luck makes him incredibly skilled at all games of chance, even ones which have no skill involved)

    Diplomacy (This character doesn't need to try to convince other people to like him, the circumstances of his first impressions always seem to do the work for him)

    Escaping Bonds/Grapples (Since lady luck has plans for this one, it wouldn't do to have him bound and taken to prison, now would it?)

    So in this case you've got 3 very well defined situations in which this character being incredibly lucky helps him out. If the player wants his character (let's call him Larado the Lucky) to use his luck for other things (say "just happening to have a contact in the area") then he's got to spend an action point for the privilege. There's not a whole lot of wiggle room in the descriptions, but in the off chance that the GM says "eh....I don't see how gambling has to do with divining the future through dice", then there's a choice on the players part whether to compromise (and take the +2 bonus) or spend an action point to do it really well.

  6. That actually gives me an idea-there are now many different options for affinity boosting feats using this framework. Since players would create their own affinities, they could define the ability scores used for them. But to prevent characters from using a massive ability score for every skill check, we can limit characters to having no more than 2 affinities linked to a single ability score. This allows for specialized characters while allowing for diversification (since each task on the old 4th edition skill list can be an area of focus, you end up with a list roughly the size of the old 3.5 skill list), meaning characters will have to branch out to get full access to all of the tasks.

    Then you get into the boosting feats-in addition to things like "skill focus" and the like, you could have a feat which grants an additional affinity. This affinity would be subject to all of the normal restrictions etc, but would grant superior flexibility at the risk of using a less than stellar ability score.

    Then we might have something like "expanded affinity" which would grant an additional area of focus to a given affinity. This would allow you to use your best ability modifier for a given task, and would reflect certain specialist character archetypes but would limit your versatility.

    How this works in play:

    Grenn the Generalist (assuming 7 point buy)
    Strength +2
    Vitality +2
    Cunning +2
    Agility +1

    Feats: Extra Affinity, Jack of All Trades (+1 to circumstances when his affinities don't apply or when there's a corner case)

    Lucky Son of a Bitch (Cunning) (Gambling, Diplomacy, Escaping Bonds)

    Stronger Than He Looks (Strength) (Breaking/Lifting Objects, Coercion, Climbing)

    "A sucker's born every minute" (Cunning) (Lying, Feinting, Disguise)

    "Hard life on the mean streets" (Vitality) (Recovering from disease, Avoiding Starvation, Running)

    A knight's bastard (Strength) (Knowledge: Nobility/Royalty, Diplomacy, Detect Lies)

    Syrio the Specialist (7 pts)

    Strength +0
    Agility +5
    Cunning +2
    Vitality +0

    Feats: Expanded Affinity (x2)

    "The First Sword of Bravos does not run" (Agility) (Acrobatic Stunt, Feinting, Intimidation (scaring people rather than getting them to do what you want), Noticing People/Objects)

    "Think with your feet, not with your head" (Agility) (Knowledge Local (Bravos), Running, Detect Feints)

    "Swordplay is in the mind as much as the body" (Cunning) (Appraise Opponent, Trick, Appraise Item, Detect Lies)

    So to compare, one of them is going to be rolling at +10 for 8 tasks, at +7 for 3 others, at +7 and at +4 when there's a corner case for his affinities, and at +5, +2, or +0 for when his affinities don't apply depending on the default ability score for the task (Syrio).

    Grenn on the other hand is going to be rolling +7 for 15 tasks, at +5 when there's a corner case for any of his affinities, and at +3 or +2 for when his affinities don't apply (depending on the default ability score for the task).

    Both have their things that they're good at, although Grenn is going to have to rely on hero points less outside of his comfort zone, and Syrio is going to be better at using his strengths to his advantage through the use of action points.

    Just a few ideas-sorry for clogging up your blog with my idea vomit.

  7. I like that a lot. I think it is really bad game design when your rule relies on people behaving well and so I was sort of working hard to delude myself into thinking affinities weren't doing that. I initially developed affinities as a house rule for 4e and so was pretty locked into the model, but I suppose when you design a new game you're better off going back to square one. This might be a better square one.

    I am a bit concerned that a lot of players aren't creative enough to come up with this stuff on their own. One solution would be to still provide a recommended list of affinities and sub actions that might fall under them. This way, common rules or actions are basically recommended but they can still mix and match to develop their character.

    My original proposal for affinities broke the affinity away from the ability. The ability came in under the action itself--so jumping would be strength and then you could argue for whatever affinity you wanted. For instance, by arguing that you flip onto your opponents back and then spring off, you'd probably be able to add Acrobatic as related.

    I like that because I think it sends a positive message: you can use your affinities to help you succeed at anything you do. Importantly, though, abilities still matter because of the core action. Syrio is still going to lean towards Agile actions because he is +5, but if he can somehow figure how to incorporate one of his "Swordplay is in the mind as much as the body" uses into an Agile action... I'm all for it.

    Given the specificity of the affinity actions, this probably wouldn't come up too often (how do you agilely appraise an opponent?) but that is almost more of a strength than a weakness. Decoupling abilities from affinities also makes it easier to have more diverse actions in the same affinity. For instance, in your "Think with your feet, not with your head" affinity you have Know:Local and Running. Tying it to Agility makes Know:Local feel a bit odd, but I *like* that those three actions tie together under one affinity.

    I don't know, maybe I'm just vomiting back now. I like where it is headed and there is plenty of space on the blog for more, so type away.

  8. What I was considering earlier was the possibility of having players define what abilities they use for the tasks bundled under affinities based on what made sense to them. The problem that would create would be players choosing non-sensical combinations that play to their best stat. However, I dislike the standard "one ability for one task" model of what I think is best is a sort of compromise.

    In NWOD, you have a moderately long list of skills, each of which has a couple of different abilities that can be added to the roll based on the approach used. What I'm suggesting is to use this framework for the skill system you're developing so that it looks something like this as far as individual tasks go:

    Abilities: Choose either Strength or Agility when you roll.
    Description: You can leap, bound, and otherwise hurl yourself into the air. Note that this doesn't cover acrobatic flips and what not. For that, choose Acrobatic Stunt.
    Effect: Description of rules for Jumping.

    Ability: Cunning
    Description: Your ability to convince people to listen to your views and suggestions. This is not getting people to like you (for that, use the Charm task), but just getting them to agree with you.
    Effect: Insert rules for diplomacy here.

    Ability: Cunning (Threats or Force of Personality), Strength (Physical Force)or Agility (Torture).
    Description: You can force people to do what you want through fear. This is different from intimdation in that it's more focused. An intimdating character makes someone freak out, back down or run, a coercive character makes them do something...even something they normally wouldn't (though they'll likely hate you for it).
    Effect: Insert rules for Coercion.

    So you'd have lists like that for each task, with some tasks having only one relevant ability and others having multiple abilities which can be used based on the situation. By the way, one can agiley assess the opponent through bodily instinct, feints and testing attacks which tell you if one's foe is a green boy who's never held a sword or an experienced killer.

  9. I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this because I really like the idea and some of your comments put into clarity weaknesses with my current system. The thing that I keep getting hung up on, though, is that your proposal is strongest with a robust set of actions predefined. It is certainly possible to develop it with the intention that a player would pick any three actions they desire, but I know that (for my group at least) that isn't really practical. Some are creative enough to exploit the hell out of it and others are idealistic enough to assign worthless actions. It would introduce a lot of disparity based on the player's knowledge of the GM (me) at the point of character creation.

    One of the things that I set out to do with affinities is decouple the action from the skill. That way, a player could decide what types of things they are good at and see how that evolves as they face various challenges throughout the campaign--without the player or GM having to know what type of challenges those would be. That level of flexibility requires ambiguity in just when it applies.

    The strength of your proposal was in the flexibility of creating the skill at the expense of rigidity in applying the skill. I like it a lot and I think it has killer flavor. I even think I (as a player) would thrive under that particular system. But it doesn't do what I need this skill system to do and so I find myself at the drawing board. Regardless, I learned a lot about what I need this system to do and I really appreciate your insights forcing me into a lot of critical thinking.

  10. No problem. I find one of the biggest obstacles to good game design is either creating a one-man echo chamber in your head or else constantly second guessing all of your design decisions. I know I certainly tend towards the latter, as I've scrapped 4 or so different pieces of design as they mutated into horrible monstrosities that I had to put down.

    Also, knowing that you think my idea regarding affinities is a solid one, even if you don't think you'll use it makes me feel a lot more certain about including it it my own proto-game.

  11. I tend to combine the worst of both of those. I become a one-man echo chamber that motivates me to work really long and deep in a certain direction and then about 3/4 of the way through second guess it until I'm back at square one.

    I definitely think it'll be a fun rule and I'd love to see it in action.