Attribute Decay in RPG Design

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“You cannot pass,” he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”

This isn’t an original idea – I know that in Misspent Youth for example, your attributes change as part of the game – but attribute decay is something I have been using in Servants of the Secret Fire, my Middle-Earth RPG that I’ve been poking around at forever. I also just brainstormed an attribute-change system for another person’s game, so it’s on my mind.

In brief, the idea is that your attributes, or ability scores, or whatever the name is in the game for you character’s basic capacities, change over the course of the game. In Servants of the Secret Fire, that change is through decay which I’ll discuss below, as an example of this idea in practice.

To begin with, a character in Servants of the Secret Fire has five attributes: Bearing, Grace, Might, Wisdom and Wits. They’re in alphabetical order, but also in order of priority when conflicts arise, and they each interact in different ways that don’t matter for the purposes of this blog post. Those are the five attributes, and many other things in the system derive from them, just like the classic six ability scores in D&D or attributes in 99% of RPGs out there. Not trying to innovate here.

But one of the design goals for SotSF is to model the moral structure of Middle-Earth as Tolkien wrote about it. It isn’t just any generic fantasy world – it is a particular world with particular assumptions behind it. One of those assumptions is that evil is powerful but limited. Here, my mind goes to a W. H. Auden quote from his review of The Lord of the Rings that I love, which includes the following: “Evil has every advantage save one; it is inferior in imagination.” Evil is less flexible, and those corrupted by evil are unable to see beyond their own machinations – and that is how they are overcome.

In order to bake this into the system, I decided that each attribute would decay to a lesser attribute, and that this would reflect moral corruption, or the influence of the Shadow. It would make it possible to see corruption as an incremental loss of creativity and capacity, which I think fits well with Tolkien’s moral universe. (The decay breaks the alphabetical order, but no-one’s perfect.)

Bearing decays into Dread. Where you once had a magnetic personality and a larger-than-life presence that could inspire, you are now only able to coerce and threaten. We see this in the Orcs and the way the treat each other, or in Sauron overwhelming power that only manifests as fear.

Grace decays into Quickness. For Grace, imagine the way that Elves move through the world, both physically and interpersonally. This decays to mere Quickness, like the Orc stabbing Frodo in Moria, or Gollum lunging for the ring.

Might decays into Force. One might use Might to defend the weak, or even as Boromir does to plough through the heavy snows on Caradhras. But it decays into Force, useful only for violence and to impose your will on others.

Wisdom decays into Cunning. As an example, we can look to Saruman of Many Colours versus Gandalf the Grey, and then White. Saruman literally comes from Angl0-Saxon for “cunning man”, and he retains his ability to create engines of destruction but loses the insight and deep lore that made him a Wizard. He still knows how to do things, but not whether he should.

Wits decay into Subtlety. Instead of broadly useful cleverness that would let you solve a puzzle, or a riddle, you only have the ability to hide and dissemble and subvert.

Functionally, each decayed attribute is the same as the previous one but with diminished options.With Bearing, you can do four or five things, but with Dread, you can only do one or two. If this was an Apocalypse-style game, you would simply crossed off some of your moves. Your options narrow, so that you can still be powerful and formidable in a conflict, but you are less of a person.

I like this system, in part, because it reflects my own view of morality and my own experience of the world and other people. People who are evil are so often people who see few possibilities. People who resort to violence often do so, in my view, because of a lack of creativity and imagination. As someone committed to nonviolence in my own life, I have had this conversation many, many times. I say I’m a pacifist, and people ask what I would do in a certain situation, where they can only imagine doing nothing or using violence. My response is that I have an infinite number of options minus two – I can’t do nothing, and I can’t resort to violence. And then I list a bunch of other options off the top of my head, because I’ve practiced this kind of thinking.

Evil is so often justified as necessity, but to me, it is just a failure in the person in question. They have allowed some of their capacities to decay, to become corrupted, until their options narrow and their imagination is strangled. This is so common in the world that I wanted to reflect it in this game.

 

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