Let the record show that I Stan for Austin Walker. There are few people in the world who speak as eloquently as him about games, pop culture, and living out the (we hope) death throes of capitalism. In several episodes of actual play podcast Friends At The Table (and their patreon-only Tips At The Table and Live At The Table shows), Austin asks a question like "what are the verbs here?" That is, what things might you want to do here; what shape is this possibility space?
Often in games, this list is short. In videogames, it can be practically binary - fight or flight; murder someone or run away (lest they murder you). This is most obvious in shooters (although current mega hit Fortnite with its Minecrafty building mechanics is an exception to this), but even many comparatively non-violent games work in this same space - what else can Mario do besides stomp goombas or flee them?
In the analogue domain, things aren't necessarily any more nuanced. The DnD party of 'murder hobos' add some murder adjacent activities like theft (to gain resources for more effective murdering) or magic (to protect against being murdered) to their M.O, but they're hardly furthering the limits of human endeavour. Of course, the designers may not have intended that. It's a product of genre conventions. And there are, naturally, designers working to make the space more expansive. Burning Wheel, or the growing story-game subgenre (Jason Morningstar's Fiasco, Avery Alder's The Quiet Year, etc) are taking RPGs somewhere new, but I feel these are about a different mode of play, rather than a more multidimensional take on a familiar space. I want fantasy/sci-fi adventure, but when I look to Ursula Le Guin or Iain M Banks, I find more options than hitting things or running away.
So that's my jumping on point. These modes of action come about, I think, because the skills and stats that the players engage with lead down familiar paths - I can use my strength stat to beat down an NPC, or my charisma to talk my way out of this tight spot - the verbs I'm choosing between are still few. I want to play in a system that encourages, even prompts, different actions.
John Harper's Blades In The Dark and the growing list of Forged In The Dark games take some steps toward this. Actions like 'skulk' or 'consort' point toward a wider choice of options, and are in the DNA of the idea I'm currently working on.
My first attempt is a list of 6 verbs:
A couple of notes here:
Firstly, these words were mapped loosely to classic DnD stats:
Strength - Engage, Coerce
Dexterity - Avoid
Intelligence - Parse
Wisdom - Perceive
Charisma - Convince
(I purposefully left out constitution. If I handle physical trauma in this game, I'll do it with hit points or debilities)
Secondly, the words are paired for a reason. I wanted these pairings to suggest either/or choices and also ways they could mesh together or reinforce each other.
An empath character should put points into perceive to reflect their emotional sensitivity. Let's say they also put points into parse. Does this help them to process the barrage of sense data they're under, or does book learning interfere with their natural abilities?
A charismatic character might have a high convince score. How does their coerce stat interact with this? Is it harder to put someone at ease because you're physically imposing, or is the gentle presence you project disarming?
My next goal is to figure out a an advancement system that leverages this push/pull relationship. In thinking about a kind of give and take system - you can boost one stat, but only at the expense of another, or maybe new skills cost you stat points. I want downtime sessions that are just as engaging as the story you're telling. More notes to make, and more ideas to play with...