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Capability-based characters

The way I see it, the two least dysfunctional TRPG styles are:

  1. Games where the foundation is a “hard landscape” to explore/​change/​discover and be in. Pretty blorby games, in other words, after the spell in Enchanter that protects & preserves integrity of items. The players are adventurers.

  2. Games where you create a story together. “Nitfol” has been my name for it, after the spell in Enchanter that’s all about mutual communication on the other’s terms. The players are authors and actors at the same time.

Both very fun, but the second way kinda doesn’t need an GM.

I’m gonna seem like an even bigger blorb-monomaniac than I actually am, but I actually do think blorb is a match made in heaven both for rules-light and for rules-heavy systems. For rules-light, blorb is good, since with a solid blorby prep there’s lots of things to do even without looking at the character sheet for the answer, and for rules-heavy, blorb is good because it makes the character building decisions meaningful.


Questions like “Should I be good at lockpicking or herbalism? Greatsword or scimitar?” only matter when there is a hard landscape to try those decisions against. When the opposition is more improvisatory and vague, it can get foundationally meaningless to optimize & fiddle endlessly with character points and stats. When the character creation chapter is hundreds of pages and the DM section is “just make something up as you go lol” that’s just a huge waste. It becomes shadowboxing.

Pickup games

There is one advantage to the combo “rules-heavy” and “non-blorby” and that is “pickup games”, games where the goings-on are created from and around the character on the fly without having to prep. Burning Wheel and Fate are both set up that way.

But there’s still the foundational “shadowboxing” affordance mismatch where I, the player, is preparing a loadout for opposition but the opposition is post-hoc adapted after me. The winning move becomes to not try.

Capability-based characters

This “shadowboxing” problem is fundamentally inherent to systems with characters that are defined by capability, by what they can do and overcome.

Capability-based characters are an advantage in blorb, a good fit for blorby games, since the character’s capabilities is a framework for the player agency, it’s the interface for interacting with the game world, a game world that is “really there” since it’s defined & committed. (And even super light-weight games like SOTU and Knave and Cthulhu Dark have capability-based characters, just that a lot of the capability is universal and not character-specific. Any character can say “I pick up the box and try to move it around a little bit, do I hear anything inside?” The antonym of capability-based characters isn’t “rules light” or “the answer isn’t on your character sheet”, it’s hangup-based characters.)

They’re a bad fit for nitfol since that capability would be measured against something vague and something that’s not really there, and the nitfol way of playing would be better served by characters whose traits in-and-of-themselves drive story, with hangups, obligations, relationships, contradictory longings and broken ideals. The aforementioned Fate and Burning Wheel offers characters that are a mix of capability and hangups, but a game that strikes that balance much better, if you have a group big enough for it, is Hillfolk. (And of course in the world of GM-less there are so many more, like Fiasco or Svart av kval, vit av lust.)

If you wanna continue heading down the path of systems with capability-based character design, that’s when I’m gonna advocate for just embracing blorby play. To the surprise of no-one, I guess, even though I usually try to be the first to admit to the drawbacks and limitations of blorb and the legitimacy of other ways to play. In blorb, there’s plenty of room for unexpected situations. It’s a “play to find out” based style. As DM I get surprised every single sessions even after ten years of play. It’s the greatest show on Earth!

And for non-blorby games I’d wanna fully embrace all the opportunities and possibilities of not being tied down to blorb, like how games can be more player-created in an author/actor mixed model a la Fiasco or Untold or Ironsworn.