Friday, July 2, 2010

The Other Thing

A little while back I talked about the 5 critical decision in making a 4e character: Race, class, style, paragon path and epic destiny. While mostly self explanatory, style kind of is the oddball. It represents the choices within a class that distinguish, say, one fighter from another. The choices that make up style lack the clear mechanical support that the other choices do, and are instead aggregated from various feat, power and equipment choices. This means styles are greatly varied, but it also means that different ideas for style have greatly different levels of support.[1]

I was talking about this at Origins, and about shorthanding 4E, and suggested that chargen really only needed race, class and style, since the other elements came later. The problem was that even as I said it, it sounded flat to me. It was a functional list, but it fell short of what I would really _want_ out of such chargen. Upon some thought, I realized that what i was missing was The Other Thing.

See, race, class, style and those other choices all form a coherent whole. Race and class form a tidy pair, style modifies class and subsequent choices expand that framework. That's great, but it's incomplete. Characters that really pop do not exist purely within those bounds. That extra element they have may be some background, a strong goal, a tangential interest or something else, but whatever it is, it's something which could survive the change of all these other choices. Consider, for example, revenge. If we made Inigo Montoya a Dwarven Sorcerer rather than a human fighter[2], that would change out all the mechanical bits of his character, but the only changes to his quest for revenge would be names and places (and perhaps trappings - his father's masterpiece sword might become a wand).

4e has a few elements that hint at this Other Thing -power source can speak to it, especially for Divine and Primal characters - and there are a few feat families that lean in this direction, but by and large this is not mechanically supported. And that's fine. By and large, this element is one that can be handled without mechanics, since it usually speaks most strongly to how the character is played. There are situations where mechanics might be useful (such as representing connections, privilege or scholarship) but by and large those are areas where 4e is not strong to begin with.

Personally, I like giving The Other Thing some mechanical support, but that's a personal bias. But even if you don't want to, it's still worth calling it out as something of note, if only to confirm its there. Because there's no mechanical element to it, it's easy to make a character without thinking about The Other Thing, and that's a shame.

And with that in mind, I propose that there are not five, but six choices every player must make about a character, and they all deserve equal consideration.

1 - There's a case to be made that class is actually style applied to role, but I think that falls short of the reality. Roles are fuzzy at best, and you can get weird disconnects when you think about things like the Barbarian.

2 - Or rogue, or some as yet undetermined class.


  1. IMO, the Other Thing often directly ties into the choices you make for style. In 4E so far all of the characters I've played have had their style choices determined by their backgrounds. My drow raised by Eladrin chose to be a duelist rogue to spite his Eladrin upbringing. My wild elf cleric is trained as a ranger to reflect her upbringing as a hunter. My warforged is an animated stone sentinel and takes resistances to reflect being made of solid stone.

    I have to agree that I greatly prefer when games mechanically support your usually non-mechanical character choices.

  2. @Alex You're totally right that style (or even other choices, like race) can really end up playing into The Other Thing, but there's no way to predict which element (if any) someone's going to key off of. All the more reason to call it out as a matter to discuss, I figure.

  3. Going back to a previous idea, should the story behind Epic Destiny expand to the entire game, and call the "Other Thing" Destiny or Fate or Mission or something. So you get Race, Class, Style, and Destiny?

    Giving characters a goal or a mission or a story is what really brings them to life, and that should be built into the game from an earlier position. I'm definitely digging the idea of making Epic Destinies apply in some way from level 1.

  4. I found that the [adjective][noun] descriptor used in Over the Edge/On The Edge to be quite often more powerful in play that the actual ability descriptors.

    It also tended to innately incorporate race, since the race was always incorporated in the descriptor (eg: "Elvish Sorceror" or "Priestly Orc"), but that may have been because of the relatively archetypical nature of race (also represented as being evil the primary or a secondary abilit6y of the character).

  5. Is The Other Thing what WotC has introduced with Themes (viz Dark Sun)? Sort of meta-templates of background/story/purpose that you can map onto a number of class/race combos to get a thematic stamp?

  6. I think the simplest solution would be to hack backgrounds to encompass character motivations. Make a tailored list of backgrounds for the campaign, each containing an explicit story function (Narrative role?) and mechanical effect.

  7. @highbulp it can, but it doesn't autmatically. Some suggest stories, some don't, and many in the middle only do so if you plan for them.

    @rev Adjective Noun is prettymuch one of my favorite things ever. :)

    @cam Dunno, but I'll take a look at them.

    @Tim Curiously, that was the solution I used for my never-completed 4e/final fantasy tactics hack, and I think it works, but it definitely takes some effort.


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