The ideas in the last post spiraled out of thoughts about handling things like character pets, beast companions, et cetera, that I’d also like to take the time to thresh out in blog format.
One of the things I really liked in D&D 4E was the way familiars worked. Specifically, the fact that instead of being limited to a very small range of very small animals, they ran with the idea that a familiar is not *quite* an animal to begin with and defined it as basically a meta class of creature that fits a certain size and has certain limitations in interacting with the environment, but can be just about anything, then defined exception-based templates for many different types, with an invitation to flesh out your specific familiar’s “fluff” in ways that fit your character (crackling elemental energy auras, metallic skin, demonic or fey appearance, etc.)
The original choices were mostly limited to the familiar animal fare, but the expanded offerings included everything from pet slimes to gear-driven automata to disembodied eyes and hands.
The basic problem with such an embarrassment of wealth when it comes to choices, though, is that you have to either define everything you can think of (the 4E approach), or you have to give players a reasonably balanced set of tools to build their own definitions (the GURPS approach), and both approaches tend towards bloat over time.
Jack in particular liked the idea of a roguish character with a disembodied hand as his accomplice, so making sure this is an option has been added to my General System Benchmarking Standards along with “can do all the character archetypes D&D players would look for”. Not in the sense that any system I design would have disembodied hands added to it in order to please Jack, but in the sense that “Can it handle a player who wants to do this?” is a pretty good question given that it’s reasonably specific, reasonably limited, and interesting.
The last major draft of AWW tried to do a compact point based approach to building companion figures, and I don’t think was terrible but was out of place next to the define-by-archetypes system for player characters. Figuring out how to work them out under the Strong Points/Qualities system I’m working with now helped me refine my understanding of exactly what the system is and how it works, which is why I’m going to use the idea of animal companions and similar abilities as an example of how it all hangs together.
Your character’s major features are sketched out by choosing a number of Qualities. Each Quality has its own level. These are the only “levels” in the game. Your character does not go up a level, except within the scope of a Quality.
Your level in a Quality basically means your ability to Get Stuff Done using it. What stuff? Whatever stuff that Quality applies to. All Qualities work on the same level scale, which when applied to Qualities representing a personal attribute like strength or speed or a particular skill set looks something like this:
- Would be considered outstanding in a small village.
- Outstanding in a good-sized town.
- Outstanding in a large city.
- Outstanding in a kingdom.
- Outstanding in a vast land.
- Outstanding in the world.
- Outstanding in history.
This is “outstanding” in the sense of “tending to stand out”. Only outstanding abilities register as Qualities; they are the things about you that people tell stories about.
All Qualities have the same basic effect: they give you better results when you try to do something, and shift the upper bound of what you can do. Again, the “something” varies from Quality to Quality. This is referred to as the Quality’s scope, and while some will have definite exceptions, what is part of the Quality’s scope is a matter of interpretation and negotiation.
Personal Qualities like Strength, Speed, Influence, or Perception have a fairly obvious scope. Archetypal Qualities like Alchemist and Thief, slightly less so. What about Companion Qualities, though? What does it mean to have a Level 1 Wolf, Cat, Horse, or Raven? Or a Disembodied Hand? Or Slime? Or Bottle Imp? Or Gear Thing?
Well, your level of a Quality determines how reliably you can do the things that Quality does, and how impressive the things you can do with it are. So if you have a Level 1 Raven, you can do anything you could reasonably (with dramatically flexible definitions of “reasonable”, as this is heroic fantasy fiction) expect a hero’s raven companion to do, with the same facility as if you were using Level 1 in your own abilities. Same thing with a Level 1 Wolf, or Cat, or Hand.
“So basically,” some people reading this will be saying, “you should put everything into animal companions, because a level in your companion is the same thing as a level of everything.”
Your raven is still a raven. It’s scope is defined as things that the person across from the table hears and says, “I could see a raven doing that.” That person also gets to decide how easily a raven could do that. Having more levels of raven cancels out the added difficulty of things the person across the table thinks are kind of a stretch, but your raven remains a raven.
It’s also an autonomous creature with a will outside your own, even if we’re constructing our character in a way that suggests a mystical bond, which means anything more complicated than having your companion follow you or perform a simple trick may call for a draw, which means possible complications. Even stuff that is automatic when you do it yourself involves an element of chance when you send your monkey or imp to do it, because it’s not you doing it.
“Allowing players to define the scope by the type of creature would be seriously unbalanced, because obviously a panther is more useful than a house cat.”
It’s not obvious to me. I’d rather have a panther who was attuned to my wishes in a tactical wargame, but in terms of actual problem solving the domestic feline seems to bring a lot more versatility to the table. I mean, in real life, I would rather have the cat familiar than the panther ranger companion simply because the cat would be more of a pure bonus whereas living (to say nothing of traveling) with a panther complicates things.
Once you get your head around the idea that the Quality itself suggests a scope of things that can be done/problems that can be addressed and the level determines how often you succeed at that, I think the possibilities for creativity become apparent. Balance can be addressed on the fly.
“So why can’t players define a deity as their companion? Level 1, scope: everything.”
Actually, being a character who benefits from direct divine intervention can basically work this way. You just have to add in some limiting assumptions that puts it down to a similar level of usefulness. I mean, it’s easier to imagine a character having access to the full resources and entire attention of a dog than of a god.
While the system would encourage players to define their own Qualities, I am planning on having a list of several specific animal companion/familiar types and a few off-the-wall ones with their scope sketched out, to give people a starting point and an idea of how to keep things on a more or less even keel. As a holdover from the previous version, specific capabilities (full combat, mount, flight, articulated hands, et cetera) are mechanically limited in a way separate from scope, so you can have a Wolf (combat!), Horse (mount!), Raven (flying!), or Monkey (hands!) more easily than you can have a Warhorse or Flying Monkey, and a simple animal familiar with none of the above more easily than them.
That disembodied hand? It would be a companion with the “handy” feature (letting it do anything a human hand could do). Its scope would be “anything you can do with your hand without exerting a lot of leverage by moving your arm” (because it doesn’t have any), with some wiggle room to represent the fact that the “handy” trait normally would give you two hands. So it could work thieves’ tools in a lock, even though that’s normally a two-hand job and it only has/is one hand.
Fairly easy to define, fairly limited in scope, but useful and cool.
To sum up: the scope of a Quality is not an exhaustive list of what special abilities you have under a Quality, but a general understanding of what it can be used for. When it comes to Personal Qualities, these are basically attributes. For Magic Qualities, they’re the type of magic you can wield. For Companion Qualities, it’s, “What kind of things could I see this critter doing in a story?”