Monday, November 9, 2009

The Abstraction of Character

Perhaps my post about the abstraction of character progress was a bit premature. I defined the progress of characters without defining characters. This post will fill that gap. I aim to present vocabulary and set of patterns of defining and analyzing character abstractions as they exist in RPGs. (This may also be applicable to other genres, as well.)

A pragmatic view of a character in a game world would consist of two facets:

  • State: A physical manifestation of the character in the game world, this implies a description of the character.
  • Behaviors: A set of abilities that the character uses to interact with the game world.

More simply stated: a character’s meaning consists of what it is and what it can do. Characters allow interesting gameplay because their state affects what they can do and what they can do can affect their state.


What is the character?

Typically we describe a character (in terms of game mechanics) using a set of attributes. Attributes are the “ability scores” that are ubiquitous in modern RPGs: strength, dexterity, agility, constitution, intelligence, leadership, wisdom, charsima, etc.. Attributes only exist because they effect the abilities of a character; they represent the capacities of the physical being of the character.

Attributes are either intrinsic or derived. Intrinsic attributes belong to the character’s very being—you can’t break down their capacities further than intrinsic attributes. Intrinsic attributes are the individual variables in the various equations that dictate the effectiveness of abilities. Derived attributes are constructed through the mathematical combination of intrinsic attributes.

Although it doesn’t matter in most MMORPGs, attributes can be used in either their base or modified form. The base form is simply the attribute’s value when no novel effects apply to the character. The modified form arises when some effect happens to the character that changes the attribute. Permanent attribute damage or permanent attribute growth, as happens when a character levels can alter the base attribute value.

Behaviors and Effects

What can the character do?

Usually characters are quite limited in their actions. They can move about the world at varying speeds, but can only touch the world through killing creatures or combining ingredients to make items. On a smaller scale, characters are limited to a certain set of relevant abilities in each kind of activity they can undertake. In crafting, this is usually restricted to each type of item they can craft—an ability is to execute a recipe. In combat, a character has a number of abilities that center on changing the attributes of itself or other characters involved in the combat. The effectiveness of all of these abilities is dictated by individual abilities’ mechanics and the attributes of the character executing the ability.

A Schematic for Describing RPG Character Systems

Here’s my attempt to define a generic way to describe any RPG system. This is not set in stone: it may be incomplete, so please let me know if you can think of systems that this does not cover or anything else I’ve omitted. I will edit this schematic based on input from comments.

Define a set of attributes. Each attribute has

  • A name.
  • If the attribute has mutually exclusive values (like eye color).
  • If the attribute can have multiple values simultaneously (like heritage).
  • If the attribute is to be represented as a number:
    • Its resolution. (The smallest increment possible that the attribute will recognize or allow.)
    • (Optional) Its range. (The smallest and highest numbers possible.)

Define a set of abilities such that each ability has

  • A name.
  • A list of effects, such that each effect has
    • (Optional) a name.
    • A magnitude, either as a flat number or as an equation in n-dimensions that may refer to any set of attributes or external conditions. (The amount of damage dealt, hp healed, strength regained, etc. may rely on character level, strength, the color of the character’s hair, the phase of the moon, etc.)
    • Either:
      • An attribute effected.
      • Something created that has its own unique state, which may consist of a different attribute system entirely and different abilities that should be defined on their own terms.
    • A duration. (Instantaneous, permanent, or expressed in some unit of time.)
    • A set of targeting rules. What will this effect affect?
    • A set of triggering conditions. The effect could happen immediately or be reliant on some other condition, such as a certain amount of an attribute, the character’s knowledge of non-euclidian geometry, etc..
    • A set of keywords that describe the effect. (A fireball would have the “fire” and “area of effect” keywords, for instance. These exist to allow effects to be modified by one another.
  • A list of costs, such that each cost has:
    • A duration. (If an effect needs to be sustained and the cost isn’t paid up front or if, for instance, the character debuffs itself in exchange for some other benefit.)
    • A magnitude, either as a flat number or as an equation in n-dimensions that may refer to any set of attributes or external conditions.
    • An attribute or object in which the cost is paid.
    • A list of triggers that could cause the cost to be paid, modified, or diminished.


Nils said...

This is a description of what is, not of what should or could be.
Interesting, but not enlightening.

However, great blog here! :)

evizaer said...

It covers all bases, I think. This particular post (and the character advancement one) are not meant to be enlightening. I'm trying to hash out some of the basics so when we discuss more advanced or complex topics we have a consistent vocabulary and a set of core concepts we can all work with.

Sara Pickell said...

Personally I think the process of creation has a lot of these bits. For instance the 25 Essential Expressions Challenge( first required someone to break down 25 expressions that would seem essential. Having the parts of a character broken down to their most fundamental states and variables can be just as useful.