by Robin D. Laws
Dropping the Trait Bomb
Back in the roleplaying olden times, designers wrote skill descriptions with a legalistic exactitude, making it, if not clear, at least seemingly so, what each allowed your character to do. The later advent of narrative-driven play brought us the broad, player-designed trait, as seen for example in Over the Edge. This, along with the parallel approach of a short list of broadly encompassing skills, brought the freedom to characterize protagonist actions in the loosey-goosey way seen in other narrative forms. However, because self- and broadly-defined skills overlap one another, the question of what exactly they can do in play can lead to the frustrating prospect of trait bombing.
Trait bombing occurs when a player struggles to justify any and all actions as related to his best-ranked trait.
Is an ogre cyborg trying to take my head off with its electro-axe? I’ll use my Knowledge to defeat him! (I must know something about electro-axes.)
Do I need to penetrate ogre cyborg headquarters? I’ll use my Knowledge to sneak in! (I must know something about cyborg security measures.)
Must I persuade the ogre cyborg queen that Earth’s defenses only seem weak, and that her fleet should depart before it suffers tremendous damage? I’ll use my Knowledge to convince her! (I must know something about cyber-humanoid psychology.)
Clearly this breaks the spirit of both self- and broadly-defined skills. If a game presents more than one skill, it doesn’t propose that all players resolve all actions with their single, best one.
(Though this raises the prospect of a game in which there is only one skill, Awesomeness, and everyone has it at 100. Someone get on that.)
Trait-bombing is dysfunctional in a couple of ways. First, it takes a sub-system designed to bring variety to characters and replaces it with a boring omni-competence. It abuses the game’s creative freedom to an uncreative end. Second, it hogs the spotlight from players who do obey the spirit of the rules. If you paid your points fair and square to be the best in the group at Fighting, you do not want me stealing your thunder by defeating the ogre-cyborg with your Knowledge. It’s an issue of schtick preservation.
Several strategies allow you to keep the freedom of self- or broadly-defined skills, while minimizing the annoyance of the incorrigible trait-bomber.
The simplest and thus perhaps the best method already prevails in most groups. The arbiter of who gets to do what—the GM in most cases, but sometimes the collective or the designated narrative controller of the moment—listens to the proposed action, senses intuitively that it feels wrong, and disallows it.
“If Knowledge is your best defense against a cybe-ogre’s electroaxe, you’re about to get a hair cut.”
Upside: The smell test is fast and simple, and relies on the creative intuition a game with bombable traits was designed to facilitate.
Downside: In some personal dynamics, for example with an extrovert trait-bomber and a less-than confident arbiter, a mere “eh, I’m not feeling it” seems an inadequate justification for a shut-down. One might argue that it’s the dynamic that needs fixing and not the method, but that’s easier said than done.
The arbiter asks if the apparent trait-bomb eclipses another player whose character has a more clearly applicable trait. If not, the attempt goes forward. If so, it doesn’t.
“You can apply all the Knowledge you want to that cyber-ogre, but it won’t make you as big a bad-ass as Sally, who has Fighting prowess oozing from her every pore.”
Upside: It addresses one of the main drawbacks of trait-bombing with a clear metric.
Downside: By focusing attention on player territoriality, you might inadvertently increase it.
Player concern for schtick preservation is often situational. You might not want me outshining you in this fight against the cyber-ogre, when both of our characters are present, but might not care how well Mr. Knowledge fares in a solo battle later on. Or, in a desperate fight, you might care more about winning than being outshone in your specialty.
In this approach, the GM asks the group if anyone objects to the trait bomb. If not, it goes forward, no matter how many schticks it theoretically tramples.
“Knowledge instead of Fighting? Again? Does anyone object?”
“Ehh,” grunts Sally, player of the combat monster, expressing her discomfort.
“Objection sustained. Trait bomb overruled,” you reply.
Upside: The player only gets shut down when the proposed skill use actually bothers someone. Responsibility for the shutdown is distributed among the entire group, freeing a shy arbiter from having to play the bad guy.
Downside: Some players might hide their actual annoyance in the name of group amity.
Allow the trait-bomb, but at a penalty making it unlikely to succeed. If it does, it feels like a lucky fluke. If it fails, both schticks and aesthetics are preserved.
(This approach appears as a rule in my game HeroQuest 2.)
Upside: Often all the trait bomber wants is a chance to do something, not the certainty of massive success. This gives him what he wants without disrupting play.
Downside: Some might complain that this is just the smell test wearing a colorfully distracting hat.
The One-Line Justification
In genre sources, characters are sometimes able to bend their established traits in unusual situations. As they do this, they supply a pithy line of explanatory dialogue. Ask the trait bomber to justify the action in character, in a single quick, smooth sentence. If it’s entertaining enough, allow it. If the player bobbles, the attempt does not proceed.
“Can I use Knowledge to fight the cyber-ogre?”
“Sell me with a justifying tagline.”
“Back at the academy, we studied the exhaust ports on the, uh, thingies. Oh, never mind.”
Upside: Forces the player to add enough entertainment value to the trait bomb attempt to compensate for what would otherwise be a boring, repetitive choice.
Downside: The judgment it requires of the arbiter feels more intuitive than objective. Advantages verbally facile players, which trait bombers tend to be.