How Many Traits Are Too Many?

Today I’ve been contemplating how many different, proactive types of traits can you have on a character sheet before they become overwhelming. Too much and it takes forever to create a character and you get paralysis in the game, too few makes the game seem “too lite” and “dependent on GM fiat”, neither of which are good things to have in an RPG.

A good game should have enough traits of different kinds to make you feel like you can create the character you want and represent him or her well, but not so many that you have to ponder what to use for twenty minutes when it’s your turn to act.

To clarify, what I mean by a “proactive trait” is something on your character sheet that you can use (invoke, gives a bonus or special effect, roll, etc.). Something like health (HP, stress, consequences, conditions…whatever your flavor is) don’t count as they are reactionary – usually not requiring much in the way of purchasing in creation and not something you can typically spend during play. A proactive trait, essentially, is something that you have to think about using or manipulating during play.

This whole thought process began when I was creating the first pregen for the Jadepunk playtest. In Jadepunk, as of this moment, we have 5 traits (aspects, effects, qualities, specialties and equipment) as opposed to the 3 from its Fate Core origins (aspects, skills and stunts; plus extras, if you want to count it as equipment). When I drew up my first character with the system, it felt clunky, but I think that’s more because we don’t have a good system for quickly creating characters, yet. But then I started thinking that it may feel that way because it has so many traits.

Then again, Fate Core is extremely light when compared to other games, like World of Darkness’s 6-ish, depending on what you call a trait there (virtue/vice, attributes, skills, merits/flaws, supernatural ability, willpower), Marvel Heroic RPG’s 6 (affiliations, distinctions, power sets, SFX, specialties and milestones), Savage Worlds’s 5 (attributes, skills, hindrances/edges, equipment and power/trapping), Technoir’s 5 (verbs, adjectives, connections, objects/tags and push dice) and that’s not getting into the well-known complex games like D&D or GURPS.

Still, that’s the first time I’ve ever written up that list (did it as I typed it), and it doesn’t look like 5 is very off. In fact, I love World of Darkness characters – creating them is half the fun for me, as they do such a good job of making the traits evocative to the setting and characters; it has the evocative feel of Fate with the codified trait effects of D&D. When you make a character for that game, every trait says something about your character and you don’t have to guess at when you’ll be able to use it, nor spend a half hour wondering if you created the right effect to represent it.

I suppose it all comes down to how you position the traits on the character sheet, how easily they are created when writing the character and how often they come into play. Still, I’m for keeping things as lean as possible. After all, knowing exactly how many, and which, languages Batman can speak is kind of pointless when it comes up almost never.

What about you guys? When do you feel a game gets too complicated?

2 Replies to “How Many Traits Are Too Many?”

  1. Hi Ryan,
    Just found your blog a couple of weeks ago and have been picking through the previous posts, which is why this response is coming so late after your initial post.

    I think you might be mixing together two different aspects of choice–and really, you’re dealing with two different games that are interrelated. The first is the character generation game, where you use the mechanical building blocks available to you (stats, abilities, edges, aspects, etc.) to model a PC in a way that matches the character in your head. Should Spider-man’s web shooters be equipment, or a power? How granular should I get with all the things that Superman can do with his “Kryptonian Physiology”? As you mentioned, there are some systems where char-gen is so FUN that you make lots of characters you’ll never get to play. Sometimes this is because the char-gen sub-system is extremely intuitive and easy to use, other times it’s because you can find a challenge in bending a system to mimic a different kind of PC than what it was intended for.

    The other game, however, is what happens when your character has been written up, and now has to interact with the environment, other players, and NPCs or enemies. Now you’re dealing with a different type of choice altogether–should Spider-man use his webs to “catch” the plummeting helicopter, or should he use his “spider agility” to dash into the cockpit and save the occupants, allowing the helo to crash?

    In the first one, it depends on what experience you’re trying to elicit. IMHO, character gen CAN be fun, but is really more a means to an end: getting a useable character sheet, where “useable” means it incentivizes and elucidates how to play your PC the “right way.” You hopefully spend more time playing a character than creating one, after all.

    So that gets us back to the second game, the actual roleplaying. It’s my strong belief that character sheets should guide players toward 2-4 choices in any given situation. 1 choice is no choice at all, while 5 starts becoming too many to parse. Too many powers/spells/feats/etc. on a sheet leech the fun out of roleplaying, while bringing the mechanics to the fore in a way that turns RPGs into math games.

    1. That resembles my experiences, but much more eloquently. 🙂

      I prefer games like Cortex Plus, which have the capability of running a middle of the road, but seldom does with their licensed products.

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