One bit of emergent setting from the earliest days of D&D that intrigued me have been the titles characters earn upon attaining levels. Older versions of D&D assumed that the players wanted their characters to eventually establish some sort of personal strongholds. Fighters’ keeps, wizards’ towers, clerics monasteries or temples, and the like. The titles were a nice, flavorful way of suggesting progress along that path, that the characters progressively grew in renown and were acknowledged for the deeds they had been performing (which dovetailed nicely into their gaining levels as they performed the deeds that elevated them to such esteem).
But roleplaying games and the stories they tell are rich with titles of distinction. Harouk Orc-Slayer is a foe to the the orcish tribes. Reeva the Shadow is as silent as her namesake. Dyff Iron-Gut can drink his mass in beer without staggering and never takes ill from poisons he consumes. Cagey Pete the Brujah. “Cash” Tempest, the most profitable scrounger in the spiral arm.
I’ve been working on some systems to model these personal distinctions with an eye toward addressing the “big three” player motivations of Mastery, Autonomy, and Relatedness.
- Mastery: The distinction should provide a system that allows the player to perform acts of greater expertise (whether as a player or character).
- Autonomy: The player should be able to interact with the distinction system through acts she chooses of her own volition.
- Relatedness: The system should provide an anchor that grounds the character in the world and the player with other players.
You’re likely to find Harouk Orc-Slayer in the act of slaying orcs, and he’s damned good at it. It’s how he earned that distinction, after all. Cagey Pete is notorious for his ability to sniff out intrigue among vampires. “Cash” Tempest always takes home more credits for his haul than other scavengers think his junk should fetch. So how can we illustrate those via game systems?
How Distinctions Work
The system of distinctions is built on the principle of endogenous rewards: distinctions acknowledge and reward the player for participating in the action that earned her the sobriquet in the first place. With that assumption as a baseline, the system is already well on its way toward demonstrating the principle of Autonomy. Distinctions reward the sorts of actions in which the player has already demonstrated an interest, thereby encouraging her to continue engaging in those actions.
I’ll start by using D&D 5e for the initial modeling of the system, and I can adapt to other systems as I see fit to use them in other chronicles or campaigns. (Pathfinder, for example, would be a very easy port, and might not require any adjustment at all.)
The design starts with a very simple system. A character gains a +1 modifier to rolls related to actions related to his specific distinction. (I can add complexity to the system later, but a system is easiest to test and observe for function when it has as few variables acting on it as possible.)
With just that simple new rule, Harouk gains a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls when fighting orcs. Reeva the Shadow gains a +1 bonus to her Stealth rolls. Dyff gains a +1 to booze-related Constitution checks and saving throws against ingested poisons. These bonuses increase the character’s capacities, obviously, by increasing their likelihood of performing these tasks of note, and they provide a benefit for players to think creatively about how to apply their distinctions to the challenges posed by the game, both of which demonstrate an increased Mastery.
Just like that, a characters’ reputation provides her a tangible benefit to the sorts of things she’s demonstrated through play that she’s interested in doing. But how does a character gain that reputation?
Characters may gain distinctions through a variety of in-game events. (Remember, we’re using 5e as the systems baseline here.)
- A player character may acquire a distinction whenever he would gain Inspiration for an action, but the distinction must relate to that action. At the DM’s discretion, this includes the ability for a player to recognize a player for Inspiration-worthy action. (Relatedness among players!)
- The GM may choose to bestow a distinction on the character as a reputation or a form of permanent acknowledgement following an important game event or narrative benchmark. (Relatedness between the character’s actions and the game world or its NPC denizens. Ex. “The dragonslayer has returned victorious! Hail Ophelia Dragon’s-Bane!”)
- A player may choose a distinction instead of a feat or other feature at new levels for which her class would qualify. (Autonomy for a player indicating which the sorts of in-game activities he’d like to engage in more of.)
- Upon attaining a new level, the player may substitute a distinction for the material benefit already being provided by his selected background, with the provision that the distinction must be presented in terms of relation to the background. (Autonomy as above, with the added benefit of acting similarly to how many Backgrounds already operate.)
In practice, the mechanical benefit becomes one that reinforces the distinction and thus the identity of the character. Depending on how your players interact with one another, they may come to refer to each other’s characters by their distinctions. As well, they may use the distinctions by which to introduce each other’s characters’ to other world elements — “I present to you craven burghers the renowned Harouk Orc-Slayer, who can bring cease to the Moon-Eye tribe’s raids, at but small costs to yourself….”
Many games have some amount of systems that model a similar aspect already, but often they’re build into character creation systems. The Specialty rules for the World of Darkness, for example, allow a player to choose a narrow sphere of particular excellence for her character. And several games use tags or keys to indicate specific fields of typed bonuses or penalties.
Iteration and Adaptation
The next step is to test distinctions in play, or to bring them into the game of choice if it isn’t D&D 5e.
At first blush, they seem like they won’t break play, and in fact may be underpowered. There’s currently no provision for scaling them, and characters’ basic proficiency bonus is greater than the value of the distinction. Still, this isn’t intended to be a massive advantage, it’s intended to indicate a hallmark or calling card for a character.
Some DMs might wish to restrict the breadth of range for actions benefitting from distinction, but that’s not something that stands out as immediately flawed. Fear of munchkinism probably undermines more games than actual munchkinism, and it’s always better, in my opinion, to err on the side of the player being able to do something cool, fulfilling, and memorable. “The Adventurer,” a distinction granting +1 to all rolls a character right make while adventuring really isn’t a “distinction,” anyway. It’s a generalization, and not really anything that helps distinguish one character from another, and thus not really something that fits the terms of the system.
On to collect data from actual play, and to refine the design! If you end up using this system, please let me know your impressions as well.