[The Exchange / Justifiers] Great the second time around too

Started by Ron Edwards, October 29, 2010, 02:52:48 AM

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Ron Edwards

At the Dice Dojo, I GM'd two sessions of the same combination I described in [The Exchange / Justifiers] The right game with the right setting, of the Justifiers setting (StarBlaze Graphics, late 1980s) plus The Exchange system, 2.0 version, by Levi Kornelson. My explanation of what I'm doing with this combination of setting and system, among other science fiction RPGs, is pretty complex and exhausting, so I ask that you check out that thread's first post or two if you're interested. Tha handouts I used in both games are here. In this thread, I'll launch straight into an account of our game.

Characters and other prep

Everyone in the group was really excited about the politics and imagery,and the table-talk often concerned slavery, civil rights, and the social-justice dilemma the characters faced. I was in the precise mode that I described in the previous thread:

QuoteSo I went into the game thinking in terms of two basic dynamics: the mission itself, in however many conflicts the players wanted to go into before really trying to "take it down," and leaving open whatever conflict-goals or tactics they settled on to do that; and (2) the interactions of crew members, and what the players feel in the moment about what they want to do with that.

... and we had a lot more time and focus to spend than in the Forge Midwest game. The players and characters were:
Peter / Edgar Allen the lesser panda
Megan / Shelly the coyote
Sam / Lyle the pangolin (also, Sam's friend Shweta joined us for the second session as vocal spectator)
Timo / Barnabas the raccoon
J.P. / Joanna the Gamma fox

My NPCs therefore became Gavin the bighorn sheep captain, Rogelio the black bear engineer, Hamid the falcon scout, and Darcy the tiger security officer. First observation: which PCs are chosen make for very different GMing experiences. In the previous game, Gavin was played by Ralph, hence ultimate official mission authority was exerted by a player; here, that was me. In the previous game, both most disgruntled characters, Barnabas and Rogelio, were NPCs, hence maximum mission sabotage was my zone; here, one of them was a player-character and as it happened, Megan played Shelly pretty disgruntled too.

Second observation: wow, Joanna is a very interpretable character. In this case, J.P. played her less sympathetically than Faith did, although equally understandably, and really got into her going native. A great deal of the game concerned Shelly and Barnabas trying to convince the rest of the crew to kick butt but to the bare minimum in order to complete the mission with little risk, vs. Joanna and secondarily Darcy trying to convince them to be more sympathetic to the natives and probably cost the company money. Edgar Allen as played by Peter went a totally different route too, becoming something of the captain's right hand man and toughening up considerably to show that he could indeed be a Justifier. I had fun playing Darcy (he'd been a player-character in the previous game), having him really go to town with his idealism. He's a fun mix of pure physical threat and emerging high-mindedness in conflict with his official role.

I used a very different planet this time, primarily because it included straightforward natives, especially in the loaded and imperialistic meaning of the word, at least as far as the Earth corporations see it. I wrote it up as:

Intriguing equipment readings 1, Moisture-sucking atmosphere 1, Poisonous spiny plant 1, Elusive scouting party 1, Big riding lizards 1
Harmful solar effects 2, Sulphur explosion traps 2, Ambush 2, Rocks rolled from above 2
Sexy blue humanoids 3, Confusing tunnels 3, Spear-fighters 3
Philosophical insights 4, Swarming assault 4
Artifact treaty offer 5

On a slightly defensive note, the "sexy blue humanoids" were taken from two sources, a Justifiers supplement and a little-known RPG called Hidden Legacy. They were reptilian, or more accurately mammal-like reptiles so they could have breasts, and they did not spiritually commune with either nature or the planet. I have not even seen that particular movie yet, the one that everyone at the table named as soon as sexy blue humanoids showed up.*

As it happened, during the first session, I was really tired and had not had time to re-read the rules before playing, but again, the culture of play we seemed to developed at the Dice Dojo made this no problem. Peter absorbed the rules in about ten minutes and served as rules-man. The second session, the next week, was easier for me, but it was still handy for at least one other person at the table to know the system really well.

Events of the first session
We started with the characters' vehicle - which is not a spaceship; it's beamed into orbit and makes planetfall, without any space travel - arriving at the planet and going through a bad entry and landing. That gave me the opportunity to inflict much planet-based conflict upon them because they weren't in an area they would have preferred to land in, full of unpleasant geography and plants.

I wish I'd remembered to bring the original rulebooks, because the illustrations and lists do a good job of establishing what sort of technology is available. This isn't Star Trek, there are no "scanners" or other fantasy tech besides the Transmatt. During play, I had to keep reining in people wanting to "scan for life" and stuff like that.

Anyway, first contact with the natives was established, which went sort of badly into a combat situation, and as it turned out, the characters did very well. I quite liked Barnabas being caught out in the firefight and doing his best to be very very small while the big-ass tough-ass tiger, pangolin, falcon, and so on took a piece out of the attackers in classic semi-military style. The players made sure to inflict injuries on the planet like "Not as tough as it looks" and "Intimidated," all of which would serve them well later. But on the other hand, when more negotiatory contact was initiated, the natives turned out to be quite interesting and we were able to focus on more social and slower-paced play.

This sparked exactly the kind of policy crisis among the Justifier team that the setting (if not the original system) seems so richly designed toward. Basically, Joanna and Darcy were pro-native and wanted to negotiate a treaty their owner/employer corporation would hate, acknowledging the natives' ownership and so on. Barnabas wanted nothing more than to earn maximum Buyback without getting killed, so objected strongly. The player actions instantly shifted into into characters running around trying to inflict social injuries effectively to make various other characters either inclined to like them or disadvantaged when disagreeing with them. The most extreme was Joanna sending Lyle dizzy with infatuation, so the ordinarily unflappable, cold-hearted, ambitious scientist was mooning around all over the place, unable to concentrate.

Personality traits as injury
All of that brings up one of the more subtle rules concerns which isn't so much a problem as a feature, but easy to misunderstand unless the group talks it over. It is quite easy to implant a personality trait, state of mind, opinion, or emotion into another character by winning a conflict with them. What does one do with this, and how does it play out? Levi put a lot of thought into this and I think it's one of the more explosive elements of the system, whether positively or negatively depending on how well the group understands certain points.

1. You can run with such an injury and treat it basically like a front-and-center personality trait, because you like it. J.P. really liked the "going native" injury I gave Joanna and effectively made it his character's primary motivation for a while. However, to do this, one must understand that it's still an injury by the mechanics and will probably give opponents bonus dice when it's relevant.

2. If you don't want to behave like the injury says, you don't have to. Just ignore it as a behavioral indicator and let opponents show how it is in fact "in" your character in certain stressful circumstances, for which they'll get more dice. It's important to understand that this is not a situation of "heal it so I don't have to act like this." Sam grappled with this issue for a while with the injury J.P. inflicted on Lyle, "infatuated with Joanna."

3. If in either case above, you want to get rid of the injury because you don't want opponents to get dice from it (and bear in mind that an injury can always be made more mechanically severe by a winning opponent, too), then there's a mechanism in place to do this. We found that it works best when you get some help from another character, and that such scenes are very fun.

4. If you like the content of the injury and would like to use it as a character asset instead, then that's possible by the rules, although it might take a little while. You have to beat the injury and get rid of it as per the normal healing rules, and you have to take a new trait at the next improvement opportunity. The cool thing as we saw it, although no one got around to trying this, is that you actually don't have to do it in that order. The thought of a transitional period during which the same attitude or emotion trait - or rather, the "bad side" and the "good side" of it, probably with different ratings - gives bonus dice both to you and your opponent is quite attractive.

J.P. speculated that if such a trait became an "injury character," then maybe it could be shifted to an asset then, but I think that's fiddly and something of an end-run around the consequences of losing conflicts.

The rules about this need to be discussed because they can run into long-standing habits of thought about the integrity of characters, personality traits on sheets as thespian directions, and various responses to Force can introduce confusion about it.

This time, I made sure that we used the improvement rules carefully halfway through as well as after each session, for a total of four times. Especially after the first time, this was an eagerly anticipated step of play. I also belatedly realized the obvious, that I should be doing the same thing, at the same times, with the planet! It has 25 traits, so by the rules I couldn't add without dropping one, but that is only a bit of all the options available. And since after the first session in particular, various aspects of the planet were effectively done with anyway, it wasn't even a noticeable lack.

Here's a comparison of Edgar Allen, before and after Peter applied the improvement mechanics several times.

Beta Lesser Panda 1, Friendly Demeanor 1, Barely-Suppressed Terror 1, Quick Learner 1
Courteous Speaker 2, Patient Listener 2, Steady Hands 2
Field Doctor 3, Tougher Than He Looks 3
Beta Lesser Panda 4


Beta Lesser Panda 1, Friendly Demeanor 1, Desire to Succeed 1, Quick Learner 1, Confident Officer 1, Xenological Researcher 1
Patient Listener 2, Steady Hands 2, Beta Lesser Panda 2
Field Doctor 3, Courteous Speaker 3
Tougher Than He Looks 4

I found that the "alter the name of a trait" option is extremely important. At first glance, it seems like the most lightweight of the options - note that it does not mean "martial arts" to "basket weaving," but would be more like "kickboxer" to "well-rounded martial artist" or something like that, or a shift from "shy" to "suspicious." But it turned out to be very useful and relevant for everyone. I found that switching "Artifact treaty offer" to "Activated artifact" was exactly what I needed as GM, and glory be, there was a mechanic just sitting there for me to use to do it. The Exchange has a really nice way of rewarding the concept of simply utilizing the existing rules rather than troweling on arbitrary material without any structure to do so.

Events of the second session
The first half of play centered around Barnabas and Shelly stealing the aliens' funky artifact, and Lyle inadvertently activating it. Brought in some great imagery ranging from all-out action to some comedy antics to social, dialogue-based drama. The second half battled it out among the characters' social maneuvering, and Joanna finally had to admit they must complete some kind of mission or never get off the damn planet. The climax came when the aliens attacked the crew (the artifact theft wasn't exactly the best idea), and the crew split into camps during the fight. Joanna and Darcy actually fought against the others, and I can't remember ... maybe one of the other player-characters too. As it turned out, the planet was not successfully Justified, which is to say, when the corporation comes to settle and exploit it, there's going to be trouble. Only by one success, though.

Anyway, and with some speed, the characters settled upon a story to tell the corporation, and probably the most interesting thing about it was that they decided to hide the alien artifact entirely, and also to leak the natives' existence to the media, because they'd be protected (or partly protected, like the Betas themselves) by law.

Single-individual characters and the one-big-pyramid situation[/i]
J.P. was interested in the rules options of running characters as full player-character-like pyramids of traits, vs. setting up major complex situations (like a fortress) as characters of their own, with named person-type characters or groups as traits. He had been kind of bummed that the alien chieftainess, who through role-playing had become a well-defined personage, didn't have any game mechanics and couldn't become (for instance) Joanna's ally in terms of a full character load of dice. He acknowledged that she could become a kind of pseudo-character as an injury to the planet or even to another character, but was clearly interested in a more formal way for such things to be managed in play.

As it stands, the GM basically has to decide at the outset how to do it: one big meta-character (the way I'm doing it here), a bunch of player-character like characters, or some combination. My only thinking at the moment is to decide for a given application of The Exchange and be damned sure to stick with it. A whole new pyramid of traits popping into play halfway through would be a major statistics-shifter and not at all fair, as I see it.

Buyback and Rank as injury
I'm still working out just how to do Buyback and Rank. This is a weird project in some ways; I'm almost hacking The Exchange as much as playtesting it, in that my priority is finding out the most satisfying way the system can be focused on the Justifiers setting. To recap, I'm treating both of these as formal Injuries, in that they can add dice to an opponent's pool during a conflict. My idea is that your rank acts against you when in dispute with a senior officer, and amusingly, it never gives you any dice at all - i.e., someone else's lower rank might be good for you, but your own rank has nothing good about it. This continues to work out pretty well, and it seems to me that I might specify that rank is not ever boosted via conflicts into an "injury character" (see the older thread for some discussion of what that is). Buyback is similar in that the owner/employer corporation benefits from it in conflicts; the important thing is, conflicts about what, and whether losing can be productive for play. Regarding "about what," I'm thinking that maybe the number of successes against the planet might be relevant too.

OK, so the rules insights about that were as follows.

1. Rank should be rated at 5 to start, meaning that a conflict could concern all kinds of things, and then someone can pull rank as a late-stage resort. Starting with it is possible but not especially effective. So given this slight tweak, I'm ready to see how it flies.

2. Buyback is a lot trickier. For one thing, the company is obviously very tough, and I wonder whether I should write it up as a 25-trait character just as with the planet/mission. I didn't do that, but I set it as a pretty nasty obstacle-based roll, and no one succeeded except Joanna (which is funny because she was the most subversive, anti-company character). And the unpleasant consequence is that characters racked up grotesque amounts of Buyback as injuries, meaning that my starting, not-too-critical concept for the mechanic is overwhelmingly harsh. So we kicked around some possibilities for fixing that, one of which is that this conflict does not itself increase Buyback, and that would happen only as during-mission events. Another idea is that the characters might team up ("get their story straight") in negotiating their status with the company after a mission, which makes sense, because the players did devote much time to concocting a thoroughly fictitious report at the end of the mission anyway.

GM role
The toughest part of this particular combination of setting and system, and I think it may be a system feature, is that it relies on a certain GM responsibility to wrap it up. Or in other words, the players have a hell of a lot of input concerning their characters' actions and means of getting things done, but not much on the larger tasks of framing conflict itself. I found myself using Trollbabe logic: if someone wanted to start a conflict, then we had a conflict, period, and I was just another "someone" by that rule. The trouble was, the way the scope of actions and traits work, player-called conflicts tended to be quite small-scale and didn't have much influence on moving the larger issue of the planet along. I found myself eventually saying, "OK guys, it's late, you've beaten this kind of round-robin influencing one another into the ground, I'm gonna have the natives attack now and we'll do the big planet-buster final conflict." Which isn't my favorite kind of role as GM; it's Plot Authority in my taxonomy of Authorities, and I prefer Plot Authority to be systemically emergent rather than imposed.

I may be over-psychologizing here ... my thinking is that this is a personality effect on game design. I like Plot Authority to be emergent because I like to be really brutal and uncompromising in the smaller-scale applications of rules and character play - which is to say, I don't like holding back or really, having any play-decision impacted because I have "plans" for what's going to happen next. That kind of play requires me to consider how pleasing my plans are going to turn out to be for everyone else, and I am, how shall I put, distinctly not a pleaser. Based on all my communications with him and observing his dialogues, Levi may simply be (a) better at and (b) more inclined to "please" in this fashion. In which case I'm talking about a feature rather than a bug.

Or maybe I am totally off the beam and instead I'm discovering a design issue Levi'd be interested to know about, who knows.

Best, Ron

* I have, however, seen this.

edited to add the handout link - RE


The setting is fun. The notion of "being a pangolin" seemed too often removed from roleplay, but it's an incredible world to work with - oddly feels a bit like Blake's 7.

I want to comment on The Exchange mechanic. Basically, it works great as far as resolving conflict in a hands-off-enough way to make roleplay key, still slightly discouraging one to use fuzzy logic to "game" the system (like using a trait like "Master Carpenter" to say, in a combat scene, you use it to swing an axe). What I especially enjoy is the level-up system of adding new traits, which may progress a bit slowly, but allows one to really expand a character without really affecting the mechanics of power.

I do have a strong ambivalence, however, to the notion of "injuries" in the game. This is where, upon winning a conflict, one can inflict several negative traits upon the defending character, to be called into effect in later conflicts by any opposing side. My problem with this is centrally the idea that mechanically, one should avoid injuries and try to heal them at all costs. What I observed in play, however, is that injuries are an utterly fundamental part of character development, thus it seems ridiculous that an injury can only be removed by actively trying to remove it.

I seem to get into a heated argument with Peter every time I tried to make this point, so let me be careful. My character (Lyle) was injured by the fox (Joanna) to be "infatuated with her". This quickly became central to Lyle's fleshing out as a character, such that I took on new traits such as "dark and handsome" to harden the point. However, the second I remove that infatuation, my character loses that motivating factor. Granted, the system does not fix one's traits as a limiting set, and one might say that my removal of the injuries is a sense of self-realization and security such that I can still be infatuated, but the infatuation does not control or hinder my actions.

But I also received the injury "sympathetic to the natives". At the climax of the session, all the justifiers had to effectively choose sides - either with the company or with the natives/planet. If I were to decide to support the natives, an attacker can invoke my injury to say something like "a bleeding native falls next to you and your sympathy requires you to stop and help him instead of fighting on". This feels almost counterproductive to the encouragement of character development through traits vs roleplay.

My suggestion, then, was to allow a character to absorb one of his/her injuries, at each level-up, into a tier-1 trait, thus preventing those injuries from being used against them and turning one's weakness into a strength. The reply from others at the table was an insistence that "injuries are bad". I just don't see them that way.

... Actually, upon re-reading the rules, it looks like we made a number of omissions as to how we handled injuries, their effects and their longevity. I stand by my point, however: injuries need not be bad.


I still disagree entirely.  There is no Gimme to get out of having an injury:  If you as the player want that injury to be a source of strength, then you must actively choose to do that.  As well, if you want to get rid of a negative influence on you, you have to do something to take care of it:  There's no easy pass to it.

The whole point of an injury is that it is a negative against you.  What that negative means in the long run really depends on what the players at the table make of it.  The "sympathetic to the natives" injury is not countering to character development, it IS character development:  You feel so strongly for them that you put yourself in additional risk in the firefight to protect the natives, or you do something stupid because you feel for the poor guys, whatever.  I don't see it as being oppositional to roleplay at all.

As you pointed out, the system encompasses paths by which you can turn a negative in to a positive, but it is something you in fact have to work to do.  While the rules do suggest you can give traits (positive and negative) durations, that's an optional rule that I really don't think is needed.  But you can always add the positive trait with exactly the same name, and there is the positive character growth you want.  Yes, you as the player have to choose to have your character go that way.  This I think is good design.
My real name is Timo.


You can attempt as often as the GM allows to fight your injuries to reduce them. This is about as easy a way out as it gets in an RPG. I don't see how waiting until the next level-up and then absorbing the injuries into traits is somehow an easy pass, especially if you have to sacrifice adding a trait of choice at the level-up to choose a perhaps-less-versatile injury trait.

In either case, this is not a system that lends itself easily to a play-to-win approach, which is mostly why I think it felt so seamless in a roleplay-heavy game. And as we know in such games, good roleplay requires viewing negatives and positives as not a goal in themselves, which as a rule itself makes the equality "negative=bad" quite nebulous.

An example: in D&D, as a Barbarian (or orc or something), you can get Bloodlust by getting to some very low HP. It is thus built-in to that class that a character may intentionally get to low HP simply to get that Bloodlust advantage in combat. In The Exchange, a character may be given the trait of "bleeding", but then the character may, upon level-up, take it as a positive trait with some implied relation to bloodlust (GM discretion), thus removing the negatives of bleeding. Granted, in D&D having low HP is still a disadvantage once the Bloodlust ends, and in The Exchange one can similarly invoke the fact that the character is freakin' leaking bodily fluids as a negative trait, regardless of the strength gained from such a thing.

BUT you agree that injuries play a big role in character development. In my suggestion, one sacrifices adding possibly-more-versatile trait to instead absorb an injury trait on level-up, thus acting as an encouragement to make such character development permanent, rather than just treating it as a plain setback to be overcome mechanically. And btw, the rules don't give an optional time limit, but rather allow the injuries to incapacitate a character once the injuries win a conflict as 1-2-3-4-x. This is a great nuance that we missed in play - I'd love to do this system again in a different setting.

I won't post clarification again on this, simply because now I'm interested on how others might weigh in.


I'll attempt to limit the amount of absolutely rules based analysis, but you have some misconceptions.  Specifically:

a)  There is in fact a stated limit on tries in the rules.  If an attempt is made to remove an injury, the margin of failure dictates how soon the healer can try again.  Its under the "Removing Injuries" heading.
b)  The optional rule for duration is one the page title "more options."  This is different than the chance of incapacitation if the margin of victory is high enough.

To more esoteric points: it's an easy pass because you're declining to deal with the injury in fiction.  The injury was received as part of a specific thing that happened:  The rules as they are mean that you cannot lose the injury without dealing with it in fiction.  The method you suggest means that you can simply wait long enough in a session and then remove it without doing anything meaningful fictionally.  I don't have a problem with that in all games, but for this one that seems a significant difference.  Especially considering that one of the negatives of trying to heal your wounds and failing is that you can NEVER heal the wound, that's a heck of a thing to sidestep.

You seem to be conflating "character development" with "helps my character."  That is not what I mean in the slightest.  Injuries make your characters life harder, but they are character development.  How the character faces adversity informs us as to their nature:  what they do, what happens to them, it all plays a part whether it makes them more capable or not. 

And once more, to hammer the point: No one has said "negative==bad."  What we are saying is "Injury == bad for the character" in that Injury is a description of a type of trait in the game Exchange.  You can have any number of traits that may seem negative (misogynist, club-foot, quick-tempered, drooly) but still help the character.  All that is being said is that if a character has an Injury (as the term is used in the rules of the Exchange) then it is a thing that works against them.

Let me put it this way:  The change you suggest adds nothing to the game that is not already there save for one thing: you don't have to face your injuries to get rid of them.  As you have pointed out, the system is relatively forgiving about removing injuries as it is.  So why add this to it? Why make it possible to remove an injury in order to gain a benefit in a purely mechanical way, when a path already exists that is mechanical but demands the creation of  fiction?  Isn't the point of a game like this to encourage people to do meaningful fictional things?
My real name is Timo.

Ron Edwards

Hey guys,

I think this issue has been tricky to discuss because there are several interconnecting rules to consider.

1. The biggest, most-encompassing issue concerns players' ownership of characters. By ownership I specifically mean saying what the characters do, and it so happens that people can exert influence on how others play their characters by somehow getting it established, at the table, how the characters feel. The long-standing non-textual use of alignment is exactly this - Person 1 says, "My guy does such-and-such," Person 2 says, "No, he's Lawful Good, he can't," Person 3 says, "Yeah that's right," Person 1 says, "Well fuck, then I guess he doesn't." So one of the main responses over time has been to hover over one's character like a little anti-seizure force field, regarding any and every input about that character as effectively as an incursion.

My jargon term for this technique is Force and a lot of other jargon concerns how it's applied at the table, whether as a GM-centric means of shepherding characters through given storyline in spite of their players (Illusionism) or even as a positive thing when its GM-centric use is acknowledged (Participationism). We don't have much jargon for non-GM uses, although my use of "seizure" above seems appropriate for effectively non-consensual use of that kind.

However, I think that not all possible shared or tandem play of a single character is Force. If it's always my job to say what a character does, and it's always your job to (umm) say what his or her effective attacks look like, then those are just our jobs, even if we casually speak of the character as mine rather than ours. If that looks silly at first glance, then I suggest looking again. My take is that this kind of tandem job-splitting is very common, simply not acknowledged. At many tables I've played in, a given person, not necessarily the GM, takes on an informal role as Color Guy for things like successful attacks. And more to the point of this post, I very often see that characters' internal or emotional states are subject to impromptu committee-talk, with gavel power given to the character's owner, and the committee results enter play as if only that one player had produced it. And weirdly the acknowledged techniques of play tend to erase any memory of that process and simply describe that "Princess Varna was played by Suzy" as if no one but Suzy ever said anything about the way Princess Varna thought, felt, spoke, or did anything.

So my first point is simply to smooth out any possible reactions among us to protect our characters from seizure. The personality-feature-as-"injury" in The Exchange can be played as a formal means of specific kinds of tandem play, including feelings (the new feature itself) and actions (narrated during conflicts by one's opponent).

Did we have some tension in play over this? I think we did. More than one person got a little tempted simply to fuck with others' characters because he or she could.

2. Another issue is less about player-to-character and more about context, concerning the setting and general situation for play. Specifically, how important are injuries and/or personality features in raw fictional terms? I can think of a lot of games I've played in which the fictional content of injuries was irrelevant, and only the tactical importance of the point levels mattered. Or (and) games in which you could write anything you wanted in the "personality" section of the character sheet, but you might as well have switched them around our sheets at random for all we cared or even bothered to look.

At first, this may not seem like a big deal for a generic-setting game system like The Exchange. But I think it is. I think vanilla Narrativism does lie at the heart of the author's playtesting and vision (see Frostfolk and GNS aggravation and [Frostfolk] Carrying on - actually these are pretty important threads for a lot of stuff).

I'm making this point because we were not only playing The Exchange, but Justifiers. I aimed it at the political and ethical conundrums of the setting like a guided missile. Or to use my jargon, every detail of the Big Model was in this instance set up to be savagely Narrativist. Also, it's designed to be used in immediate play, suitable for conventions like Forge Midwest or our games at the Dice Dojo.

One of these days I'll try The Exchange in a somewhat more open-ended context, more like what Levi did with the Frostfolk and what's implied by his one-page setting example in the rules. But my suspicion is that even so the game finds its maximum systemic and fun power when situations are at their crux-point for both morals and danger, which again, puts both personality and injury mechanics front and center. I think it's best suited to creating punchy, character-transforrmative novellas, such as The Black Cauldron (the book!) rather than winding-about, whoever, go-wherever, find-whatever "campaigns" (my quotes indicate the jargon use of the term in our hobby, not scare-quoting).

3. Putting #1 and #2 together instantly prompts concerns about broad techniques of play, specifically how personality descriptors on the sheet relate to player-stated character behavior or attitudes during play. There are basically two extremes for this technique-family: full-on thespian, for which the words on the sheet are literally one's assignment and to deviate violates expectations; and full-on suggestion, for which the words on the sheet are at most a jumping-off point for that character's depiction and impose no constraint on announced behaviors at all. We'll ignore for the moment the role of quantitative content, but it follows the same spectrum, such that in Champions a Code vs. Killing imposes constraints on player-character behavior based on its points (with 20 being the full Monty of "won't kill"), but in My Life with Master a Love of 1 doesn't have to be played any differently from a Love of 3.

The Exchange in general and this particular application are rammed right to the latter end of the spectrum. It could say "Infatuated with Betty" on your character Bob's sheet either as an ability that you wrote there, or as an injury, and what Bog does and says regarding Betty are completely up to you. I knew this would be tough given the anthropomorphized animal characters and the fact that the characters were pregenerated, both of which contribute to thespian thinking. I tried to emphasize this point a lot, during character creation, on the sheets themselves, and especially at the beginning of the second session.

It seems to me that once that is understood, the main objection to the personality-injury concept would probably be restricted to the issue of opponents narrating your character's feelings and actions. In other words, it's nothing to do with your own role-playing except if and when you want it to be, but it affords a handle or window for others to reach into the character's play. But if issue #1 is being addressed properly, that shouldn't be a problem either.

4. Once we know #3, then the issue becomes all practical mechanics application: reduction and recovery, time limits, anything similar. It's probably clear to anyone reading the thread that we were hardly experts in these details, me included. But we did know that, in the rules as written, you may eliminate the injury by beating it in a conflict, and you gain features by choosing that option during periodic opportunities for altering the character.

Considering something that can be both advantageous and disadvantageous: if it's an injury, you are literally giving it to others to narrate for you, including actions of your character; if it's a feature in your character's "pyramid," then you are keeping it mainly for your own contributions and narrations

We did not quite see the circumstances that a number of us were imagining, in which an injury and an ability shared the same name, perhaps "Sympathetic to the natives." I would really have liked to see that, perhaps across a number of characters with different things, to see whether the practical mechanics allowed for and facilitated punchy conflict content and outcomes.

As a note for the future, I am going to consider making an existing ability on a character's sheet into an injury when a conflict warrants it. So if someone's playing Rogelio, the black bear engineer character, they already have "Surly" as an ability they can call into action for a conflict. And then, as GM, I inflict an injury upon that character with the name "Surly." It seems to me like a lot of fun, as the player can call it in on his side, and I (or someone else) can call it in on mine, and in each case, role-playing the character is involved. It's not double-dipping, either, nor does one of those uses undercut the either. This strikes me as a very good introductory use of the technique, prior to getting into the placement of novel personality traits upon one another's characters upon beating them in conflicts.

There's another issue at hand too, at the same level as this one: when it is in fact legitimate to call in traits of this sort, period, relative to the fiction at hand. That's a huge and difficult topic, first broached by Markus in Can someone explain the true reason behind "traits" (PtA style) to me?.)

5. If #1-4 are all in place and making sense, then the real or final issue is whether it fucking works. I'm thinking especially in the longer-term of play, not one little conflict or character action, or even a session between advancement-points, but across the longer unit of play called "a story." I'm talking about going up the scale, from the character actions, to the conflicts and their outcomes, and ultimately to the interactions between advancements and injuries - all the way up to the big picture that we can look back upon and say "So, what did we do? Most especially, when and how did what we did, procedurally, feed directly back into what we enjoyed the most and spurred more to enjoy?"

(For the theoretical basis I'm using to organize these five points, see Beating a dead horse?)

In our case, I think it worked all right. In continuing to develop this particular project, which one day I hope to be able to make available as a really good and fun pick-up-and-play download, I need to think about the presentation stage of prep, exactly what the game organizer says and shows to people prior to play, and probably during the first conflicts in play.

I'm also thinking that for the discussion here to proceed well, I think we should avoid discussing more than one thing at once, or at least decide upon what aspects to hold steady while we discuss one or a couple in particular.

Sam, if what I've outlined makes sense and seems useful, can you identify which pieces are the tricky or problematic ones that you're talking about? And Timo, I'm trying to figure out whether your disagreement arises out of a genuine difference or if it's about more than one of the above points getting mashed together.

Best, Ron


I think this was a good way to clarify the issue, but somehow the main point hasn't been pinned down, as I answer #1:

There is obviously a difference in how ownership is handled between the injuries-are-negative and the more nebulous perspective that I saw would naturally result in a small addendum to the rules. However, I do not see that either necessarily results in more player-ownership than the other. When calling an injury, an opponent can manipulate the narration of another's character, which works well. But if the character decides to make an injury into their own trait, the character is instead accepting the narrative suggested by the person who caused the injury in the first place. There is a give-and-take of who "owns" the character when, but the simple question of more or less ownership does not seem the heart of the disagreement.

Tying in with #2 and #3: My problem in the start of any game is finding the flesh of my character, and definitely I had this problem in our sessions until I got the "infatuation" injury (originally I wasn't going to go near such an obvious subplot). Then I saw the injury as so essential to my character development that I didn't want to fight it, or be encouraged by the mechanics to fight it, which is the root of why I think this addendum to the rules feels so natural and needed. Timo - as I recall, you were the first to find your character into doing his own thing outside of the expectations of the mission or traits. It would seem (please correct me as I'm blindly extrapolating) that in finding your character, any injuries would feel somewhat alien and should be overcome.

So maybe that's it - there are definitely instances for me where a character has particular inspiration and gets a personality soon after starting, and thus environmental encroachments are instinctively resisted. But most characters that I create take many sessions to get to that point, and so this suggestion of mine feels like a faster encouragement to naturally evolve a personality.

#4 etc: It is necessary for me to have my character sheet contain information relevant to my character's personality, and so where there is a game mechanic, the personality should conversely be reflected on the sheet. This is why the trait list in The Exchange was both encouraging and lacking, another reason why I felt off-kilter in playing this obsession with Joanna without having anything official to reflect it, in spite of having a bunch of stuff about how "coldly logical" and "scientific" I am. Maybe that's just my own quirk.

Ron - calling in an opponent's ability against them then brings up the very simple counterargument to me: make both injuries and traits of the same name, using the regular system. Except that then is no narrative or mechanical encouragement to take on a potentially-less-versatile injury as a trait, or less-versatile trait and an injury, though it does make for very interesting conflicts. I hope that statement represents why I feel a rule addendum, to make this double-traiting an appealing option, is necessary.


Ah, right, I should have specified.  My disagreement is solely with the adjustment Sam is suggesting.  I thing it adds nothing to the game save for an easy out.  Your other analysis I pretty much agree with.

Most specifically the point you made of personal issues and injuries being front and center of the game rings very true to me.  The system is very simple very straightforward, and easy to use.  But it is the Injuries that really makes it pop.  It's interesting in that it removes the Onus of "true to the character" from the player: it becomes the domain of those who oppose the character in a given situation to expose how their weaknesses and injuries affect them.  It's a neat thing because it means the character ownership is very explicitly a group thing:  To know and understand a character you need to listen to everyone's input on that character.

I definitely agree with your point 4.  the system is very robust, with a lot of interesting nuance in how traits and injuries interact.  I'm still a bit leery about how tight the control is on the pyramid: it's very restrictive and I think for longer play it might be burdensome.  My concern is much more about "how easily can I switch out traits that no longer apply?" than I am with anything else.  Which is interesting, because I do believe that it's a better at the shorter, punchy story telling, but the pyramid is very resistant to change, which means you're going to see very little change in favour of the character.  Perhaps this is the same thing that Sam is talking about when he talks about less-versatile traits being less appealing?

I'm not sure what I just said makes sense, I'll go in to it a little more if people want..  Regardless, it just means more emphasis on the Injuries, and dealing with them.

Returning to Sam's point, and the Infatuation situation:  in that Sam took the infatuation injury as being a defining characteristic of Lyle what the system is modeling is not the existence of the infatuation, but the effect of that infatuation on Lyle.  Infatuation as an injury means it's something that works against Lyle.  Infatuation without a trait means it's neither for or against Lyle, it's just a thing about him.  Infatuation as a trait means it's something that helps him.

And I agree that a mechanical and stated representation of the things that are meaningful about the character is important.  I don't see how the system fails to do so.  If it is something that hinders the character, then leave it as an injury.  If it is something that helps the character (a source of strength, a hard-learned lesson, whatever) then take it as a trait.  If it is both, then have both.  If it neither helps nor hinders, is it really important?

Ok, so, the experience rules from the game are as follows:
Quote from: The Exchange
At the end of each of these sections, each player may choose to make as many of the following changes to their character as they like - but they may only make each change from this list once, and must follow the rules given for each:

  • 1.  Increase the rating on any trait by one:...
  • 2.  Add a single, new trait, with a rating of one:...
  • 3.  Alter the name of a trait:...
  • 4.  Reduce any trait by one:...
  • 5.  Remove any trait:...
If I understand you Sam, you are suggesting an additional choice:  "Change any one Injury in to a trait with a rating of one."  Either you are saying "Do this instead of option 2" or it is just another option on the list, in addition to those that exist.  Is this an accurate model of what you are suggesting?
My real name is Timo.


Okay Timo, I think we understand each other now. Let me start from the end of your post backwards: I am talking about adding an option, instead of adding a new trait at level 1, to incorporate an injury at level 1, this being slightly encouraged by removing the injury (which I think is fairly easy to do anyway). This encourages the adoption of what would be perhaps less-versatile traits - perhaps it could even be the backstory origin (after a name-change) of your famous "porn connoisseur" trait, which seems pretty useless otherwise. In other words, I just think it's a bit of encouragement to not "game" the system via adding broad, colorless new traits on level-up.

The RaW don't totally fail in this regard, as I've acknowledged before. I guess I'd want to see how other players work the system to see if people would really end up, consciously or unconsciously, blanching their character for the sake of competitive advantage.

As far as the pyramid goes, I think it's a nice idea for balanced, not-so-competitive character concepts, but certainly slow, which I think would be improved if we did maybe two level-ups per session or more. I'd like to see more encouragement to remove traits, too, since getting a level-5 trait kinda requires you not do that. But then again we haven't worked through the full character-creation process yet.

So basically, more level-ups are needed for a faster-paced story, but I think, from what I said in the previous paragraph, that perhaps more tweaks to the pyramid than just my suggestion would be a good idea.


ok, so we have some agreement on what this alteration would be.  Your concern seems to be "no one would take this, because a trait that is of the same name as an injury is too narrow to be a good min/max choice."  Correct me if I'm wrong in that understanding but if that is the case, I disagree due to the following points:

  • I personally believe that colour is influenced by mechanics, but is not forced by it.  "Infatuated with Joanna" is less broadly useful than just "infatuated," sure, but the when it comes out in play it's going to have to make sense to the situation.  Making the use of the trait fit the fiction is where the colour really is:  just having it on your sheet doesn't do anything for the story or the SIS.  Maybe you could broaden it out in to something more universally useful, but I still don't see a problem with that.  So it's broader, who cares?  I really don't see why we need to encourage people to have narrower traits if they don't want to.  And those who deliberately choose more narrowed traits are making statements about the game:  This narrow thing is an important part of my character, I'm going to be doing things involving it.
  •   These new traits are only narrow if the injury sustained is narrow.  One of the injuries on my character Barnabas was "paranoid."  By using your tweak, I could have switched this over to a broadly useful trait at value one as well as removed the injury.  What am I sacrificing?  Nothing, as paranoid is something that could easily be used in a lot of situations.  In this way, your alteration has done nothing to encourage me to take a more limited trait, it has just made it easier for me to lose an Injury.
  • Here's the body of the third experience option with more detail:
    Quote from: the ExchangeAlter the name of a trait:  If your character has changed the focus of one of their traits (the way it's used) you can change the name of that trait slightly to reflect that.  This isn't a rule to allow drastic change; if your swordsman becomes a monk, you'll want to lower and raise traits to reflect that, but if your infantryman becomes a sergeant, that's a good time to change the trait name.
    My interpretation of that rule allows for the drift of a specific trait to a less specific one.  Lyle started out being harmed by his infatuation.  Over time, he uses it to help him overcome the immediate obstacles of his situation.  Later in life as the immediacy fades it's no longer his obsession with Joanna, but his obsessive nature that becomes the defining thing about him.  Depending on the ongoing play, I would expect a trait like that to continue to drift and drift, to metamorphose until it does become a generally interesting (and mechanically powerful) thing.  Point being:  What starts as a narrow trait isn't neccessarily going to stay so narrow.
  • My final disagreement is purely aesthetic and comes from the kind of person I am:  I don't like exceptions.  I think systems are better when similar things act in similar ways.  As such, having most of the improvements be "you can always choose this once" and then having two that say "you can choose this once only if you haven't chosen this other one" bothers me.  The approach of this option as an "instead of" puts a hitch in the simple lines of the game, and it really is elegant in it's simplicity.
So yes, while we may have a better understanding of our positions, I still hold the position that such a tweak does more harm than good to the system.

This point aside, I feel that I should make the statement:  Porting this setting over to this system was an excellent idea, and I very much look forward to seeing Ron's final product.  There are some interesting thematic elements that come out because of choices he's made:  In making planets antagonists in themselves, he's reinforcing the "characters against monumental opponents" feeling that really compels.  It also put an interesting spin on our relationship with the statted NPC's:  with everything and everyone else expressions of the planet, the fact that all the Justifiers were fully statted characters meant they were somehow more real to us in a way that seemed very apropos for the setting.  The entire time we played it definitely felt like we were individuals facing overwhelming conglomerates and collectives.  I'd encourage creating the corporations in much the same way. 

I do think that we really needed to explore the mechanics of creating an assistant:  I think it would have addressed JP's concern about the chieftain quite a bit, as well as helped us populate the world in a more meaningful way.  Honestly, I suspect there is very little about the system that should be changed: mostly it'll just be making the universe fit right.
My real name is Timo.


Okay. I will concede to your argument, unless further playtesting by another group exposes some impediment to roleplaying as I expressed concern about earlier. You have made a solid point.

On another issue, and I think you'll agree, I feel levelling should be more frequent. The pyramid still concerns me, because it looks as though getting that level-5 trait mechanically requires you to not remove any traits. I think this might need tweaking - maybe just, for our purposes, a GM-sanctioned "super-level" where all pyramids fill out to level-5, so that short-term deletions aren't penalized. Or maybe a super-level in which everyone gains one level-5 trait, which looks like a little "antenna" atop the pyramid. Or maybe just not allow level-5 traits altogether.

And finally, for next time, I'd want to do a lot more with creating characters out of traits, both for PCs and for injuries. Perhaps that's how the planet creates offshoot characters based on roleplay, as for the chieftan of the natives, and then once created that character can level-up individually. The planet, though, then should have a more advanced levelling system... or simply GM discretion in creating new characters.


I'm not going to do a point by point on this as I feel the language is making things far more complex than they need to be. Also, I got bored trying to read Ron's WoT. Instead I'll just toss my opinions out there based on some of the things I read and remember.

1. Injuries are injuries. They are "mechanically" a negative. How you choose to RP your character is independent of that. If you choose to RP your character in such a manner that you feel an "injury" you've sustained is a "positive" thing for your character. Have at it. Being infatuated doesn't make you stupid. But as an injury it makes you vulnerable to manipulation. Being sympathetic is the same thing. Just because someone calls in your sympathetic to natives injury because you might get distracted doesn't mean you do, and if you do doesn't mean that you'll fail to both save the native and succeed in your goals. It just means they get a die.

2. "auto-healing"... While I have a problem with auto-healing injuries to the psyche, I am a little concerned that an injury like "bleeding profusely" could potentially last ad nauseum. If it's in the rules I missed it, but there should be something to address the fact that some injuries just don't stand out as the lasting kind. Or there should be some sort of "duration" for an injury that may be decreased over time by opposing the injury. If this has to cover mental/emotional injuries there is the element of absence does diminish infatuation. That kind of thing. However, I see this kind of thing as complicating what I appreciate as a relatively simple system. I would vastly prefer that the players/judge simply come up with injuries that aren't the kind that just "go away" like profuse bleeding and instead focus on long term effects like... "paranoid".

3. As to turning injuries into traits as "auto-healing", as has been mentioned repeatedly, you can do this already in the game. Spend your development actions or whatever they are called and create a trait. This is independent of the auto-healing and should continue to be. They are separate issues and should be treated as such.

4. Ron... much like injuries are mechanically "negative" traits are mechanically "positive". I greatly dislike the idea of using someone's positive "stubborn" trait as an injury against them. At that point why bother with traits at all? Why not simply RP and as people do things and act certain ways you can call them out for whatever seems appropriate. If you're going to have a system, have a system. If you're going to tear down the walls, then why bother with a system at all?

5. Sam... Your problem with having things about your character not necessarily reflected on the character sheet is, I think, a personal one. It's kinda like saying that I need everything that I am represented on my resume. Characters are people when they are at their best. There are always more things to people than you can see. The sheet is just stuff that you can use to manipulate the system and in good character based games that often overlaps with significant personal traits. It doesn't and shouldn't encompass them entirely. Had I been one of the grunts in the game I certainly would have engaged Timo's character in an epic discussion of good/bad traits of porn. I wouldn't have a trait on my sheet for it, but I would have played my character as having some investment and knowledge of porn without the trait.

6 Last... I had a ton of fun playing the game :) Thanks for running it Ron, and thanks for playing guys.


P.S. Please don't mind any acidity of tone in the post, it's just my natural speech patterns, no offense is intended, any condescension is purely incidental and not intended to speak to any personal opinions of anyone. I just don't feel like editing.