Thursday, March 29, 2012

Don't Take The Affiliation, Even Though It's Awesome

Affiliations are one of the neat ideas in the Marvel Heroic RPG. They touch upon what I had to say about normal the other day because they are (arguably) the central part of any roll you make in Marvel. That is to say, you could conceivably make a roll where none of your powers, distinctions and such apply, but you simply could not make a roll without using affiliation.

For the unfamiliar, affiliation is basically a measure of the character's interaction with others, measure in three values. One is for actin on your own, one for working with a partner, and one for working with a group. When you take an action, you use the value appropriate to the situation.

Now, this is a great mechanic for a bunch of different reasons.

First, it's a nice shorthand for more sophisticated social mechanics (as one might find in, say, Smallville). It has a social component, and it tells you something important about the character (for example, Wolverine is really good at going solo, while Captain America is a stronger team player) without really bogging things down.

Second, it's concrete enough to have a little bit of a tactical feel to it. Which die you use depends heavily on the fiction, and you can usually choose your actions to play to your strength, but not always. The GM can push things towards a tension point, or certain fiction effects (like, say, a speedball special) might depend on making the less-optimal choice. But, for all that, it's reasonably painless - less-optimal is still not _bad_ (which is an important trick t remember for lightweight tactical engagement).

Third, it really _feels_ appropriate to a comic book. It speaks to solo titles and super-teams and heroic team ups, which are really the meat and drink of super heroic comics.

So here's the catch. like all Cortex+ games, Marvel is crazily hackable, and the first thing people end up bumping their nose against in a Marvel hack is how to bring Affiliation into their game. After all, it's very clearly an awesome mechanic, so converting it is an important step, right? not so much. See, all the reasons that Affiliation works so well in Marvel are reasons you don't want it in your game. It represents something specific to comics which is probably not present in your game. That is to say, most fiction has a certain central dynamic, which is sticks to for the duration. Comics are distinctive in how often that dynamic changes, and how the roles of heroes change. If you can't say the same of your game, then you don't want it.

Instead, you wan to take it out and put it on the shelf, then thoughtfully regard the hole that it left behind. It's an important hole. As I said before, it's the foundational element of building a roll, the thing that comes up EVERY TIME you roll the dice. But at the same time, it's not necessarily the obvious thing - consider that for Marvel, that would probably be powers. From the perspective of supers, that seems far more foundational. The rub is that powers are varied and complex - your foundational die needs to speak to the game more than the action of the game.

Now, there's an easy solution. Just throw in some stats - Mind, Body, Spirit maybe - and you've got a completely functional replacement. But if you do that, you're actively passing up a chance to say something about your game, so don't fall back on that unless you absolutely have to.

Anyway, just something to think about.


  1. Good thoughts. When I first saw Affiliation, I realized just how well it fit with the genre. I don't think in terms of hacking systems for other kinds of play by default, though, so it hadn't occurred to me how integral Affiliation is to the design of characters within that genre.

    Which is to say, I realized it was a perfect fit. But trying to see it in anotehr context lets me see how it is an almost necessary fit.

  2. Dean Gilbert (Arcane Springboard)March 29, 2012 at 1:13 PM

    Yep. In my Torg hack (that I'll soon be writing up) I originally just kept in the Affiliation trait, since Torg does feel like a comic book a lot of the time.

    The problem is though, that in the first playtest it became obvious that it was almost always going to be 'Team'. It really wasn't a core part of Torg.

    But now that I've thought about it some more, I've found two traits that are much more core to what Torg is all about.

  3. Check out the Sword & Sorcery hack of MHRPG for a very clever tweak of Affiliation dice:

  4. I wonder if one couldn't use Social, Adventuring, Combat as replacement Affiliations for a hack. The idea that the situation drives the affiliation. Would that speak definitively to a character theme? Or does that allow too much munchkinism?

  5. That would be totally functional, and abusive only insofar as the game in question is skewed. If the game is going to be 70/20/10 combat/adventuring/social then there's very clearly a "right" way to allocate your dice, which in turn suggests that this is not the right place for a choice.

    By and large, I think there's a lot of use to be had from looking at it less in terms of _what_ is being done and more in terms of _how_. Suppose the affiliations were "Bold" & "Cautious" - it's a simple distinction, but it's possible to do either, and the fiction (are you being careful? do you need to do this quickly?) has a direct impact on which is appropriate. The RTS: Force, Grace, Wits, Resolve is designed in this way, though it's definitely fuzzier.

    But, bottom line, the concern is not munchkinism for its own sake - rather, a clear munchkin path suggests that it's not the right core set of ideas.

  6. What about a thriller type game with a low, medium and high, to describe those people that operate better under pressure verses those that need some calmness to shine? The scene that the other characters jump through hoops to create a scene of calm inside chaos seems really neat...


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