Selecting Traits Part Two: Looking for Miss Goldilocks
We talked last week about selecting the right Traits for your shiny new PC – traits that embody the aspects of the character that we the audience want to see the PC embrace time and time again. However, there is another critical issue in traits selection that GMs must pay close attention to – the Goldilocks Principle.
It’s about Trait utility. Here are two very different examples to demonstrate what can happen if the GM approves Traits that run afoul of this concern.
John is a player who loves playing powerful, effective characters, so right out of the gate he tells the GM that he wants one of his Traits to be just that: “Powerful”. John argues that his character is a rich and influential businessman who exudes power, and that this Trait encapsulates that.
Sam has a very different character – a street level loner who lives by his wits, and gets out of scrapes not by money or power, but by sheer willpower. Sam wants to take the Trait “Determined” to represent how his character through grit and resolve surmounts his obstacles.
But the purpose of a Trait isn’t just to give the players dice any time they want – it’s to give them dice in circumstances where their Traits make sense . This means that there will be times when you can invoke a Trait, and others where invoking a Trait isn’t possible. A Trait of “Golden Gloves Boxer” isn’t (one assumes) going to be generally invokable when trying to notice a clue at the crime scene. However, once the villain is uncovered, that Trait would be great for taking them down.
The problem with “Powerful” (and in a more subtle way, “Dedicated”) is very simple: When don’t they apply? Because a Trait that can almost always be invoked regardless of the nature of the Outcome Check isn’t so much a Trait as a request to always have extra dice available – and that is not what Traits are for.
The solution is simple. As a Dream Factory GM helping players make new Traits, ask them one question: “When can you not invoke this Trait? When does it not apply?” If they cannot answer that question satisfactorily, the Trait should not be approved.
This of course does not mean that the core thought that John or Sam had above can’t be encapsulated in a more well-defined Trait – assuming that said core thought wasn’t just the desire for more dice more often. Perhaps the GM can suggest some less abusable alternates for John, such as “Wealthy Venture Capitalist” or “Alpha Male Personality”, depending on which John was going for – or maybe John would want one of each. Perhaps for Sam the GM may recommend “Never Gives Up” – or even simpler, allows the player to take “Dedicated”, but makes it clear that it’s invocation for an Outcome Check will only be approved only when a test of mental or spiritual resolve is called for.
A Dream Factory GM should also be aware of the opposite problem, which happens more rarely, but does happen. Sometimes a player grabs onto a Trait idea that seems like a cool idea at the time, but winds up being so narrow in scope that it very rarely gets used.
For example, a player trying to make a character in game centered on mummies and Egypt might get the idea to have a Trait like “Speaks and Reads Ancient Egyptian”. However, the GM should ask themself if that Trait have enough opportunity for use – not just in one episode, but in each episode of each season of this game? With a Trait that narrow, probably not – so the GM should help the player widen it out, perhaps suggesting alternate Traits that would include the use of the original idea, but fill it out so that it can have more use. Perhaps “Egyptologist” or “Archaeologist” could include the desired effect in a less limited way.
So, we have covered two mandates: make Traits enhance the character concept and don’t make them too wide or too narrow in scope – but there’s one more key to picking (or approving) Traits that really make characters soar and pop – and that will be covered in the third and final installment of this series.