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Issues with Use-Whenever Stats

There’s been something gnawing at me for a bit, which crystalized when I starting thinking about Logan Bonner’s FAQ setup with Leverage. In his rebuild of the Attributes, he just has three: Forceful, Analytical, Quick. At first blush, I liked that because (much like Rob Donoghue’s said) if I had my druthers, I would have redone the Attributes. But we were looking to keep some of the fidelity for what’s essentially Cortex+ Action.

To be clear, I’ve seen this elsewhere, but Logan’s good people, so I’ll work with this as an example.

In his, like in Leverage, you have stats you assign different dice to. Whichever approach is your best is your d10, your middle a d8, your worst a d6. But there’s not additional meat on those. It’s “Describe what you do, pick dice, roll.” These are “use whenever” stats, because you just decide which one to use without additional constraint or meaning of choice.

I’m a damned creative player, so if you’re giving me stats based on how I’m accomplishing something, I’ll find a way to always use my highest die. d10 Forceful? I’m cracking that safe with a shaped charge. I’m beating up those thugs with a crowbar. I’m hacking brute force relentlessly. I’m staring down the Mark like I’m going to get all sickhouse on him.

d10 Analytic? I’m cracking that safe with precision and studied talent. I’m sizing up those thugs for weak points. (In the recent Holmes flick, Holmes was all about the Analytic fighting.) I’m *ahem* analyzing the security system for a backdoor. I’m reading the Mark and figuring out the best approach to disarm him socially.

d10 Quick? I’m cool under pressure on that safe, and it’s getting handled in seconds. I get all combat-slash-parkour on those thugs, leaving them beaten and in my dust (I could see a Jet Li-type character doing this). I get to reuse the “cool under pressure” thing for hacking into the system at the same time Parker’s in the ducts. I grab teh Mark, lead him by the arm into the other room, working my quick mojo on him with misdirection.

I wrote that in like two minutes. Give me a situation and a generic approach, and I’ll make them fit. Which really means I have these three stats:

  • d10 Be a successful-but-one-note character
  • d8 Show a but more color to your character, at a penalty
  • d6 Like I’m going to use this stat

Oh, and if you’re not able to be on the fly creative, you have:

  • d10 Yay I know how to use this at this moment
  • d8 Well, at least I figured this one out
  • d6 I’m being punished for not figuring out how to work the other two in

Now, back in the day, we privileged[1] certain skills/stats/whatever by saying you could only access certain subsystems or they had different effects on subsystems. In GURPS, combat was done with DX, but affected by ST (until you get firearms involved), and mitigated by HT. In Unknown Armies, Body was health, Speed was how soon you got to act, Soul was Magick shit. Now, often in indieland we have thrown away those for more use-anywhere traits, but I think at a cost.[2] If our stats are about approaches, they need more hooked onto them to privilege approaches. I should have a genuine reason to roll the d6 before I’m just bored and want to do something other than roll the d10.

I had this issue in an older Mythender build, which I threw away because of this very problem. I tried a “If you use all your stats, get a bennie” trick, which didn’t work.

Smallville does similar, but not with the question of “how.” That game approaches the same setup, but with “why” and “for whom,” which are interesting choices. I might not always be able to work in my d10 Glory is The Only Thing of my d10 Oliver is a Prettyboy Douche. And because Smallville also gives you an additional option, to challenge those elements for character growth, there’s more to the decision than “can I use my highest die”? Thus, they aren’t really “use anywhere,” even if there’s no further crunch handle on those particular pieces.

I suspect use-anywhere stats are a model that’s successful in convention games of competence porn, which is where a hack like this probably sees a lot of play. Still, adding a touch of depth to each approach — and right now I don’t really know how I would, aside form Talents that required a specific approach (and even that could be weaksauce) — would breathe life into something

- Ryan

Edit: Some followups:

[1] Heh.

[2] Apocalypse World shows how indieland is starting to pick that (games without use-anywhere stats) back up again, those that’s not use-anywhere. Which is a stark contrast to In A Wicked Age’s setup.

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46 Responses to Issues with Use-Whenever Stats

  1. Leonard Balsera says:

    One interesting nugget that Vincent posted on the Forge as an alternate way of playing Wicked Age was to tell people what you’re doing, and have them tell you the forms you’re using, rather than you picking them.

    I’ve used that sometimes in PDQ games to decent success also – the player doesn’t get to pick what Qualities they’re using. The table listens to their description and says, “Oh, that’s definitely X and Y.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lenny,

      Right, I remember that. I think it works better in something with language closer to Wicked Age than this, though. Saying “I totally see you doing that …with love, so grab your d6″ is different than “I think you’re being quick, so grab your d6.” The latter would get a “fuck you” response from me. The former, that’s interesting language at the table.

      - Ryan

    • Leonard Balsera says:

      I wonder if there’s fruit in having the privilege be based on the stat the other guy uses – like, certain stats just can’t be used to respond to certain actions.

      So if you go with Rob’s trifecta (Force, Grace, Wits, Resolve), you might say that if someone leads with Wits, you can respond either with Grace or Resolve, but not Force.

      That gives an interesting positional advantage to being the guy who initiates, because it allows you to force the other person into using what might be a less than ideal stat.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lenny,

      I was thinking similar. But that still puts the competition at either your d10 or d8. Now, if there’s a bit of a rock-paper-scissors element here, I could see something like “If you’re up against Force, you can get an additional d6 if you use Quick. Quick->Analytical. Analytical->Force.” Not that I buy that specific setup, but a thought.

      - Ryan

    • Leonard Balsera says:

      It’s important to note that Wicked Age also has an orthogonal incentive for using weak stats, which is that you get on the Owe List. It might be that the answer lies outside of these dice interactions.

      So let’s say that if you’re facing a Forceful action, you can’t respond with Analytical – you either have to meet Force with Force, or be Quick. There might be an additional incentive you could add that would give someone an incentive to roll the worse of those two stats, rather than the better one.

      You might also suggest that using the same approach over and over again makes the opponent wise to your shit; take a d4 if you use one method twice before you’ve cycled through all of them. So sticking to the same tactic means you open yourself up to Complications, and you have to, at some point, figure out a way to incorporate your weak stat.

      Not perfect, but there’s a breadth of potential directions.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lenny,

      Totally. It also reminds me of why I don’t like the “only have one d4 Role” hack. As-is, that’s a decent hack, but I also include “if you roll a d4 for Distinction or Role, get a Plot Point.” So, you can roll your d8 Information Badass with your d4 Grifter because you’re doing it in person, and still get a Plot Point right away. Similarly, if you got a Plot Point for using your d6 (or, hell, d4) Attribute, there’s a reason.

      So, if you want to look at it like this:

      * If you use the same approach the Mark or other person is, the GM gets a d6 Asset. (Why? I dunno. If it doesn’t suck, the fiction can be added in later.)

      * If you use your d6 approach, gain a Plot Point. (Doesn’t stack with the Plot Point gained from Distinction or Role dice).

      Suddenly the choice is a bit less boring. In this case, tactical- rather than drama-driven, but I’ll take that in an action game.

      - Ryan

    • Rob Donoghue says:

      Force/Wits/Grace resolve system was actually initially designed with an explicit RPS element and a hidden hand element (it was for online play, so you could have each side choose blind) to make the “good” choice less clear. Haven’t yet translated it to the tabletop in a satisfying fashion, but it’s pretty good when it works.

      -Rob D.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Rob,

      That’d be enough of a crunch handle for me. But I’d be curious how you’d translate that, and how much it would resemble something like this. Or if you’d have to depart from this attribute setup further.

      - Ryan

  2. Lots of great stuff on the blog lately, Ryan. Thanks!
    Interesting you’d mention IAWA. When we played Arts, Grace and Guts – what it was called in early playtest, named after the stats you used – this problem was prevalent, and interfacing with the mechanics was at times quite dull. In the final version the stats were renamed into approaches (like “For Others”, “With Love”, etc – combine two of the stats and you have a dice pool plus an approach), which are of course also use-anywhere stats. However, in play, these approaches coloured the characters’ actions in a certain way, reinforcing the choices the player made when they built the character – if I constantly use “For Myself” and “With Violence”, my character is going to be seen in the game as an egotistical, mercenary, brutal individual. The switch allowed for a more nuanced method of describing your approach, made it easier for the GM or other players to challenge the approach, and proved far more interesting than when we played with the original set of statistics.
    There are two ways of looking at this, and they can be mixed up in play by the GM and other players. First, you might look at this as a great thing for the game because it reinforces the characters thematically, which is generally good for Sword & Sorcery episodic play. Secondly, as a GM or as another player you may attempt to force a player out of their character’s comfort zone in order to show a different side of the character and allow them to grow. In fact, the player may opt to do it themselves in order to get on the We Owe list, which will make the character grow mechanically as well as thematically – a character constantly playing to their strengths will be a strong thematic force but may never reappear in a subsequent episode, or won’t change and grow within the story.
    That all is to say that use-anywhere stats can certainly be used consciously to great effect, if what you’re aiming for is reinforcement of character themes, especially if you can also build in methods to encourage the player to grow their character thematically and/or mechanically by use of their less strong statistics.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Mikael,

      Thanks!

      Honestly, if the only solution is “you can reinforce genre/character stuff,” then it already fails. If I’m rolling during moment of little consequence, sure, showing color then is cute. Near meaningless (because those rolls are of little consequence), but cute. Now, if you bring me to a moment where the chips are on the table, where everything I love and hold dear is on the line, why would I not use my best stuff? Because it’s thematic? That’s an uninteresting, zero-note system. Make my choice matter in that moment, and you have real fruit.

      - Ryan

    • So there are two points of potential tension there in IAWA, one mechanical, one narrative:

      1. I’m at this big juncture point in the story, probably towards the end of the session / episode, and so far I’ve been making mostly “cute” rolls – I’ve been dominating most scenes with my cool “For Myself” + “With Violence” moves, reinforcing my character’s theme and personality, and haven’t yet put myself on the We Owe list (or I’m far down, whatever). I know this is one of the culminating rolls of the session / episode. Do I continue on my path, probably win, but write myself out of future stories? Or do I take this moment to transform my character’s image by using a different approach, and get an opportunity to reappear in the next episode?

      2. I’m at this big juncture point in the story, and the GM or other players have set it up such that if I win the roll using “For Myself” + “With Violence”, I may achieve my immediate goal fine, but it will severely compromise another goal (such as “Winning the admiration of the Sorceress” or whatever). If I choose “For Others” + “With Love”, I may get both. I now have a meaningful choice to make for my character, one which will further reinforce or put a twist to the kind of character I’m really portraying, and have it matter greatly in the story’s final outcome.

      In the end it’s about making meaningful choices. If your game doesn’t link approach to the exact nature of the outcome of an action – e.g. the issue is whether or not you get into the safe, how you did it doesn’t matter one iota – then all-purpose stats based on approach is boring as hell. But if the final outcome is shaped by the approach, like:

      Player: I want to win the admiration of the Sorceress by besting her pet bear in unarmed combat! I will roll “For Myself” + “With Violence”.
      GM: If you really want to win her admiration, you have to do it for her and with love – otherwise you’d just be savagely killing her bear, not winning her admiration. Fair?
      Player: Hmm – how about “For Others” and “With Violence”?
      GM: Cool, roll it. I can’t guarantee the bear won’t accidentally get killed or hurt badly though, but she’ll at least know you did it for her.

  3. Dave T. Game says:

    Doesn’t that all kind of assume all active rolls though? Some of what you list as a bug I see as a feature- you can take the same kind of action, but it’s flavored by what type of approach you are good at. Then there are times when you don’t get to dictate the circumstances- if I really want to act, I’ve got do it Quick or not at all- and then your character’s weak die becomes important, not just punishment, but as a flaw. And that flaw is less likely to come up because you’re doing more active stuff in the game than having to react or forced into a corner.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Dave,

      Leverage is an active game. And if you think I can’t figure out how to be forceful, analytic or quick as a reaction, you’re not giving me credit as a player.Telling me what approach you think my character needs to take is close enough to telling my character how he or she acts for me to call that BS. And one that would cause me to politely walk away from that game.

      - Ryan

    • Dave T. Game says:

      Oh really? I think that’s a big thing by itself that might have to be spun off into its own post, since I’ve yet to play or run Cortex+ where the GM didn’t say “roll this + this” fairly frequently. I agree that it’s an active game, but are you arguing that ALL rolls should be active? Because I’m saying even if the balance is 90/10 active/passive it still has the desired effect.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Dave,

      I think that’s training wheels play. In Smallville, you’re totally choosing your own dice, or you’re probably playing it wrong. If you’re telling someone what to roll, it’s because it’s unclear or you’re teaching them. That should stop the moment neither’s true. Sometimes it doesn’t out of habit.

      And even at the times where it’s reactive, I need to hear how the reaction is happening, not just “I the GM am guessing you’re going to react with Quick, so it’s Quick or nothing.” I guarantee you as a player I will tell you “Nope, this is Force.” and start describing. Which means that I-the-player am still being active even if the character is being reactive.

      - Ryan

  4. jessecoombs says:

    Agreed. Also, forcefull, analytic, and quick are just boring-sounding.

  5. Ben Woerner says:

    This reminds me of a fundamental issue/flaw I never overcame in my design of my pirate rpg. Evey stat had two versions Quick vs. Strong, Boisterous vs. Quiet., Perceptive vs. Knowledgable, etc.. You got to place your dice on each stat bar and depending on where you placed it you either gained no bonuses (in the middle) or a bonus to one stat and a negative to the other.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ben,

      Yeah, it’s a common thing you see in early game designs. The reason you don’t see it too often these days is for this reason. But then because you don’t see it, new game designers think they’re being clever by trying this thing they thought of and never see. :)

      - Ryan

  6. Ben Woerner says:

    Damn phone publishing before I’m done. :P

    My problem was the one you describe, and while it sort of worked in opposing situations: You’re a loud friendly guy? Then a negative when you sneak. It tended to fall apart as you described. Any ideas on overcoming that issue?

  7. Judd says:

    How is AW an example of use-anywhere stats again?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Judd,

      It isn’t. I find it interesting that indieland is geeking on that right now.

      - Ryan

    • Judd says:

      I need to go back and work on my reading comprehension.

      Sorry about that.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Judd,

      And I my clarity on hastily-scrawled footnotes. :)

      Editing the note.

      - Ryan

    • Ryan, are you scratching/digging at the issue of “Keeping the Role-Playing Game a Game?” That is to say, do you want failure to be both an option and a statistically significant possible outcome?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jeremy,

      What I want is for there to be better than the weak choice of “do I use my best thing or not?” Because the answer is boring. Games that routinely ask boring questions are either hacked or ditched.

      And, in a team game like Leverage, saying “no” is also a mild dig at the Crew as a whole. Which is cool, if that’s also otherwise an interesting choice.

      - Ryan

  8. Ben Woerner says:

    That reminds me of what John did with the Swordsman Schools in Blood and Honor: Every school had a strength vs. two schools and a weakness vs. two other schools.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ben,

      That’s another weird-ass meta-thing that I have to think about. But I haven’t read B&H to see how he’s implementing it.

      - Ryan

  9. Ben Woerner says:

    Do you want to?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ben,

      Want? Yes. Have a copy? yes. Have time in the next month? Not really. :)

      - Ryan

  10. Given I just started working on a little game that uses stats like the ones you described, I’m keeping an eye on this thread for ideas and reference.

  11. I’ve been pondering this for a while (partly in reaction to listening to IAWA AP sessions that seem to fall flat) and think it’s an example of the mechanical incentives that appeal to the rational part of the brain clashing with artistic or character-oriented decisions that appeal to the emotional part of the brain. I wrote a blog with my full thoughts: http://www.danmaruschak.com/blog/2011/06/03/rpg-player-decisions-emotional-vs-rational/

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Dan,

      Good post there!

      Also consider the idea of team-play. Not only is my rational brain thinking “grab that d10, yo,” so are the other players from a rational and at-the-moment-emotional stance. It’s easier in a game like Smallville where it’s PC-on-PC.

      - Ryan

  12. Fred Hicks says:

    So give the other players plot points when they create a situation where the other guy has to use his lowest stat. “okay, Eliot, we need you to get in there and play the geek.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Fred,

      That example would work, if that were an approach rather than a role. I get what you’re saying, however I don’t think it works with approaches. Far too broad.

      - Ryan

  13. Amaranthine has “use anywhere” stats. We only bothered with three stats though because the core of the game really doesn’t use those stats too frequently. If you use them more than a couple of times in a game session, you’re probably not using about 95% of the rules text.

    That said, I made the system with “use anywhere” to inform more iconic, narrower characters that try to approach everything with a specific type of behavior. We have a cookie for using your lowest stat (it’s the only way to get back an important resource, and you have to fail when doing so) but I would say that most roles will use a primary stat because it informs character actions.

    I might be wrong. I might be stupid. I might piss people off with my decisions. But I believe I made the right choice for my game, and I’m willing to stand by my decision.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      David,

      I’d have to see the game to comment firmly, but I suspect it’s not going to be up my alley much if there isn’t more meat to all three stat-choices. I see you have two choices, with a middle-ground stat. Is that stat actually cared about at all? Do I misunderstand what you’re saying?

      - Ryan

    • The middle-ground stat doesn’t have unique mechanics. It’s a sort of “default state.” The low one and the high one get focus. The incentive for the middle one is: You do better than when you use the low one, but you don’t have the same risk inherent in using the high one. The high one has a risk mechanic attached. The low encourages failure for special points. The middle one has neither of those attachments.

      But again, the stat choices really aren’t the bulk of the game. I’ve seen games where they weren’t rolled at all. Some time, I wouldn’t mind chatting over the way it works, and getting your thoughts.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      David,

      That last paragraph is so so so its own thread, so I’m not even touching it here. :)

      - Ryan

  14. I don’t think I made my point clear. Instead of discussing something that isn’t really the case for my game, I’ll expound. So as to not take too much of your comment space, I decided to do a more complete blog about it.

    Bam.

    http://machineageproductions.com/2011/06/stat-choices/

  15. John Powell says:

    Wow Ryan, great topic.

    Did you just make the argument for T.W.E.R.P.S.?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TWERPS

  16. JDCorley says:

    A few things about how wrong you are. WAIT I mean about this interesting topic.

    First, I’m not sure that even if I grant you the whole blog post that the kind of stats you’re criticizing are bad design. Just because you’re good at fitting everything into the strongest stat at the moment doesn’t mean everyone is, or that testing this skill isn’t a good goal for a game. If you’re a Forceful sort of person and your player creatively Forceful-s their way through a scenario, couldn’t that be considered a good thing? “Ha ha, yes, I figured it out AGAIN!” I mean, once you’ve mastered it maybe you don’t want to play it that much (or that way) anymore, but it’s not like the game couldn’t be about that kind of character direction.

    Second, returning now to why you’re right, I think what you’re saying is also connected to “roleplay bonuses” at least insofar as they reward players for 1) learning each other’s preferences, their “moves” if you will, and 2) not ever, EVER deviating from them. This is something my best friend and I struggle with as we’ve been gaming together for 20 years now. There is not much I can say to surprise him as a GM and not much he can do as a player that I won’t think is great. Otherwise we wouldn’t have gamed together for 20 years. This makes mechanics like fanmail or whatever pretty lame for us. Yeah, I know he’s fuckin’ great, creative, etc. Do I really have to also give him a reward for it? How can I avoid constantly giving it to him? Similarly, the person who’s mastered an approach gets rewarded for never changing their approach or pushing their limits or trying something new. In a long-term game this is fatal. (In a short term game, like a convention scenario, it makes much more sense.)

  17. Rob Donoghue says:

    Curiously, the answer to this is a lot more obvious in systems other than Leverage. The explicit mechanization of complications makes it a little bit too easy to not think about outcomes in terms other than die values, but it’s essential. Yes, the player can really use any stat for any roll with the right explanation, but just as the player is expected to be creative in doing so, the GM is expected to be creative in understanding how different stats mean different outcomes.

    More broadly, this is a much bigger concrete by an example, and that is “My ability to bullshit the GM breaks the game”. I won’t say there’s no mechanical element to that, but it’s much more a social issue, and one that shows up in almost any game which allows room for interpretation. Using social mastery for game advantage is a problem as old as games, and a lot of the non-interpretive game rules you cite exist for pretty much exactly this reason.

    As such, I suggest the solution is not as simple as a mechanical fix. Correcting this example? Trivial. Correcting the underlying issue? Tricky.

    -Rob D.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Rob,

      I’m nodding along here. Most of the justification has been able a specific social space — the convention game in a particular atmosphere. But given that you have no idea what the social dynamic of a given game will be in that arena, the social issues are difficult to deal with.

      But I’m sticking to my guns here of calling grievously flawed any interpretive mechanic that involves choosing an approach or method and doesn’t provide at least one further crunch handle to make a choice meaningful.

      - Ryan

    • Rob, you said what I just came back here to say. I think there are two different but connected issues here, the social one and the mechanical one. Both are important.

  18. Marc Majcher says:

    “I tried a “If you use all your stats, get a bennie” trick, which didn’t work.”

    I almost recall you talking about this before, but can’t remember the specifics. Can you talk a little bit more about why that trick didn’t work?

  19. Okay, what I see with the situation that Ryan is describing is a failure of mechanical design. I made a recent post about mechanics on my blog, I won’t repeat it all but I’ll link it at the end.

    I think that game mechanic should have 3 qualities: interest, significance and fun. If it fails to meet all three of these it needs to be reworked. Fluff can support or hinder that mechanic, but if the decision is mechanical then the mechanics need to meet all three requirements.

    The choice between a d10, d8 and d6 is, as far as I can tell, only significant. It has an effect on how the situation is going to be resolved. This is not an interesting choice. When you ask a player “Do you want to use the ability you are good with or the ability you suck with?” that is a no-brainier. Players will want to use the ability they are good with.

    This also makes the choice no fun, because there is a single default, go to option. If you usually get to use the d10, when you are forced to use the d8 or d6 it makes it feel like you have been penalized for not being clever enough to get the d10. If this choice is one that is arbitrarily up to the GM then that makes it even worse because it’s not the system screwing you, it’s the game master.

    I’m going to be mean here for a moment. Any argument that starts with “But a good game master can…”is probably not a good argument for a game mechanic. A good GM can make a pile of shit seem like gold. It is not the mark of good mechanics that a GM can make them workable. It is the mark of good mechanics that the GM doesn’t have to.

    If you want players to have things they are good at and things they are bad at and use each of them then there needs to be a mechanically sound reason to do it (delayed gratification, as Ryan pointed out, is one possible solution). “It’s what my character would do” only makes sense if the course of action is reasonable within the rules the character lives by. If he can always get what he wants by being Forceful then you need to give a very solid, reasonable reason why, in this special instance, he can’t be Forceful. If it’s just that the GM doesn’t think that Forceful will work right now then the player will either a)Change to a different tactic that lets him use his forceful dice (“Fine, then I’ll use the c4 to blow off a piece of a metal I-beam from the wall and beat the safe open with that!”) or b)Feel that he is being slighted by the GM (“I guess you don’t want me to be good at this so I’ll just use the stupid d6”). And yes, some players will just come up with a Quick solution if Forceful doesn’t work and completely ignore the mechanical implications. That doesn’t mean it’s a good mechanic, that just means some people ignore the mechanics.

    If you care to read the full post on my thoughts on good/bad game mechanics here’s the link:
    http://maledictiongames.com/?p=82