Mechanical Personality Vs. Abstract Personality

September 15, 2009

In my last post I brought up a term that was probably a little unfamiliar to some of you: mechanical personality. This, and abstract personality are terms I use to describe the set of tools that a game designer gives the player and game master in order to give their character flavor.

Abstract personality is flavor given to a character that has no bearing or root within the games mechanics.  In other words it’s bits of character history, personality, distinguishing marks, and in some games even a characters height and weight.  The key to abstract personality is that no matter which extreme a player takes these aspects they have no bearing on the physical and mechanical aspects of the game.  Just what these aspects are vary from game to game.  Those that include morality systems as a mechanical function of their game hammer that aspect down into the concreteness of mechanics and lose any abstract possibilities gained by leaving that aspect of the character out of the game mechanics.  This si not necessarily good or bad it’s simply whatever the game designer feels the need to have portrayed.  To me there has to be some physical reason for such systems to exist outside of an abstract set up where the player can make stuff up.

Designers provide the tools for characters to build on their characters abstract personality by providing what is commonly known as fluff.  Fluff, for those unfamiliar with the term, is simply the parts of the game that never directly influence any physical mechanics.  Setting information, racial information, info given about the personality of a npc, the systems of government in the world, if it’s something that’s not point bought, rolled for, or otherwise fleshed out in the big world of successes, failures, and fate points then it belongs to the realm of fluff.  Fluff isn’t always long paragraphs about the histories of some fictional world.  It can also be a simple chart illustrating the average weight and heights of a specific race of beings, or the religious customs contained within a game.  In short if you can change it on your character with zero effect on the games rules but still redefine your character in some fashion then that is abstract personality.

MEchanical personality is the characters flavor that is derived purely from mechanics.  A characters class, morality systems, attributes, virtually everything on a characters sheet that can be measured is an aspect of its mechanical personality.  It’s because of this concept that designers must take great care in the design of their rules because in deciding on how something works directly impacts the personality of the characters the players make.  Most of you are probably going, “Well no shit, Tark, what’s the point?”

The point is that a lot of new designers, eager to try out interesting new combinations of mechanics or copy old ones find out that as players without their form of enthusiasm pick up the game they form characters and stories very different from the visions of the creator.

Let’s consider DnD.  In 3.5 edition it is statistically superior to be wearing full plate or a breastplate then any other form of heavier armor.  The result?  Virtually no one in existence willingly purchases the other armor choices.  Sure, in the fluff you might say one army issues out one of the other armor types, but why would they do that?  According to the laws of the universe set out in the players handbook fullplate is better and according to the dungeon masters guide just as readily available as anything else.  So let’s face it if a fluff writer says everyone wears banded mail without giving a very compelling reason as to why then he is deliberately ignoring the games mechanical personality.

I take this philosophy seriously even when making characters I play.  I tend to make balanced characters with some emphasis in an area or two.  Why?  Because I believe that roleplaying and ignoring what’s on the sheet is simply the wrong way to go about it.  If you’re ignoring the laws that dictate how smart, how evil, how strong, or how skilled you are then you might as well just not be playing that game, pick up something else, put away the rules, do anything because you are not playing that game.

Anyway, I felt that needed explanation.  In other news I’m still desperately looking for an artist or two to do work for Gnome.  I’m not offering money, but I am offering as much exposure as I can give which is almost always at least a lot better than a deviant art page.  I’m also very easy to work with as I think an artist is an artist for their creativity not for their ability to draw halfway decent, so I give a lot of freedom.


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