Monday, 26 December 2016

Characterisation: Habituation and Instincts

So in my tireless quest for ways of modelling things, a couple of thoughts came to me that I wanted to throw out there. They're not inherently connected, but I feel like there's a similarity of ethos to them that means they might well end up in similar games. Which is to say, they both try to handle some quite complex individual differences by loosely categorising aspects of a character, in order to try and steer around detailed mechanics that I think would be not merely crunchy (nothing wrong with crunch), but fiddly.

These two ideas are (for want of any better shorthands) habituations and instincts.


Anyone reading this blog has probably (either in real life or in debate, or quite possibly in someone's anecdotes about a rather annoying game) encountered situations where there seems to be a mismatch between what a character can do and what their background implies. The most prominent cases generally involve two characters.

In the false negative case, Archibald is either totally or surprisingly incompetent at a task that, given his background, ought to be commonplace. Alternatively, Archibald is basically ignorant of something that forms a normal part of his life. For example, Archibald may be a vet(erinarian) living in small-town Ohio who is nevertheless unable to drive, or (depending on the system) unable to handle any kind of difficult conditions - like driving quickly down country roads in the dark and rain, which he presumably does quite often. Perhaps he's a soldier who can't light a fire. A successful professional who knows nothing at all about the politics, legal system or etiquette of his home country (you'd think he must at least read a paper sometimes).

In the false positive case, Belinda is mechanically assumed to have knowledge and skills that aren't appropriate to her background. For example, Belinda may be a privately-educated interior designer from Chelsea who is nevertheless able to plug a gangster between the eyes at 50 yards, fly a helicopter and transform a dead grizzly into a delicious array of travel rations. Alternatively, she might be a member of an obscure sect of subsistence farmers in darkest Cornwall who shun technology, and yet have an extensive knowledge of current and international affairs, pop culture and society manners. Or, as many stories like to throw at us, she might be a middle-class American sent back in time to Victorian London, and somehow manage to convince everyone either that she's the new maid, or that she's Lady Veronica despite having the wrong accent and no idea what either of the roles involves.

The glaring contrast is usually where Archibald and Belinda turn up together. The successful lawyer who golfs with the mayor ends up being exactly as good at social etiquette and current affairs as the Zmulvian tribal warrior who only left Zmul a month ago and doesn't believe in electricity. A lawyer manages to carry out delicate negotiations between two proud Zmulvian queens. A hunter fails to build a campsite. A toff walks into an inner-city bar and manages to track down, speak to and buy a shipment of weapons from a gangland boss in a single night. A Glaswegian labourer from a tough estate infiltrates a high society dinner and holds everyone spellbound, but is completely unable to think where the party might buy some drugs.

Obviously these are relatively extreme cases, and most GMs will cut them some appropriate slack. I was just interested in possible alternatives.

One of the more interesting variants I'm aware of comes from Call of Cthulhu, which features both the Own Language and the Credit Rating skills. As an artefact of the ways these skills operate, if you follow Rules As Written (RAW), being of a higher social class is always an advantage and never a disadvantage.

For example, Own Language is based on the character's Education stat (okay, this isn't inherently tied to class, but there's a likely link to the final social class of the character). Being better educated makes you "better at English" in some nebulous way. Because of how the skill works, a more educated person will do better at any roll based on understanding, deciphering or using language. This makes a certain degree of sense if you imagine a Professor of Literature, or even an ex-Etonian Harvard graduate, painstakingly studying a Middle English document. On the other hand, these upper-class types are likely to struggle to follow the dialect speech of rural or working-class folks, which they're simply not used to; a working-class Investigator should have a distinct advantage here. Similarly, I've seen Own Language used (somewhere!) for mimicking the accents of locals to pass undetected. In this case, the toff and the cockney should have about equal difficulty putting on a Yorkshire accent.

Credit Rating is generally used to impress people, but it's very one-sided. Important people can use it to make sure other toffs accept them, to sweep past servants and to get ordinary folks to accept their authority. There's no corresponding way for working-class Investigators to demonstrate solidarity, let alone a mechanic for establishing whether the simple country folk distrust the sophisticated city-dwellers.

Basically, these skills operate as simple cumulative measures, whereas it would be fun if they could instead operate as spheres of competence: an investigator with a given background is comfortable and accepted in their own sphere, but in a different environment they find it more difficult to operate, and may need to interact in different ways. A duchess and a washerwoman find it difficult to chat, and either party is more likely to get what they want by taking a different approach - one more in tune with their social station.

How does it work?

I think the broad idea here is that during character creation (in whatever hypothetical game this is) you would select backgrounds along two axes. The first is socioeconomic, the second is about where you live; based on this combination, a character would be assumed to have basic competence in things that are expected aspects of that sort of life. These axes would probably not be independent, because different locations have different types of social roles.

For example, a character might be from an urban background; depending on whether they're working-class (probably "urban"), mid-to-upper middle-class (probably dignified as "metropolitan"), upper-class ("cosmopolitan") or off the grid entirely (homeless or in the black market), they'll have quite different sets of knowledge and skills. On the whole, though, they're used to the ways of the city. Maybe there's a niche for the bohemian in there, living a fringe lifestyle.

Another character may be rural. Here there's a whole slew of possibilities. Working-class labourer or farmhand. Subsistence farmer/hunter/gatherer (not so much in modern UK, but historical settings or many other countries). Professional farmer. Squire-type landowner. Middle-class professional who understands the country but doesn't do that stuff. Aristocrat who makes some policy decisions, but doesn't need to know how anything works and mostly socialises, writes and enjoys their hobbies.

The suburbs are simpler in most respects, partly because there's a lot less community in many of them due to commuting and lack of shops or facilities. As such there's simply less knowledge to have. However, there's still general patterns to how people act, and how they interact, as well as the ability to "read" the geography to help you get around (where will the only shop for miles around be? how can I get out of this bizarre labyrinth of streets with the same name?), sensing which people will have the information you want, and so on.

The idea is that this socioeconomic habituation determines which things are familiar and comfortable for you, and which are difficult.

For example, Abdul, Beata and Clara are investigating supernatural occurrences in a deprived area of Leeds. They want to ask the neighbours about anything strange that's happened; wander around a rough district at night; watch a few properties of interest without attracting attention; and obtain some illegal items. They'll also need to fend off the attention of the police, make enquiries at the city museum,

Abdul was brought up in the inner city by a single father. He knows how to walk and how to talk, even though his accent is Manchester rather than Leeds. He knows when and how to talk to the neighbours - which shops to ask in, which pubs, which people on the street, and how to approach them naturally so nobody thinks he's an undercover cop nor a would-be murderer. When a few teenagers are blocking the alley at 11pm, he knows the right posture and the right remark to be let through quietly, neither seeming like an entertaining victim nor a direct challenge. He knows the right clothes, posture and activities to fit in as locals just minding their own business while he stakes out a house. Law-abiding as he might be, he understands which kinds of people will know people who know people who can get you... things. This is, in a sense, his home turf.

Beata grew up in a lovely eight-bedroomed townhouse on the leafy north side (and a holiday home in Cornwall), and was attending opera from the age of six. She doesn't understand how things are done in deprived communities, though she might have other approaches to getting information. When the police pause to ask what their group is doing at this time of night, though, she knows exactly how confidently privileged people are mildly perplexed that the police are bothering them, yet supportive and friendly enough not to get their backs up. At the museum, she knows the right sort of things to say, and the knack to spotting the director strolling past and buttonholing him for some technical questions.

Clara is from a small farming village in East Anglia, and has never lived anywhere with more people than cows. She's slightly nervous of crowds and confused by the matey-yet-suspicious mindset of the poor urban residents. She's no idea how to talk to gangs of strangers or passing police, since at home both the hoodlums and the sole constable are well-known to her. She's comfortable talking to the cheery old squire and even the snooty local baron, but can't handle the rather cold manners of metropolitans. If it turns out one of the NPCs is from the countryside, though, she may well have a huge advantage in winning his confidence.

It's really just an extrapolation and modification of what GMs tend to do anyway. For example, I don't know any GMs who would routinely refuse to let characters buy an item from a shop - an apple, or something - unless you made a successful Bargain or Trade or whatever roll. We assume that characters can do this because it's so utterly routine. And yet... you could probably construct an argument that Lord Poshly Richington lives such a rarified life that he has literally never purchased anything. He has people who have people to do that for him. He certainly acquires items, but this is a matter of instructing his secretary to have one of the staff arrange for a tailor to visit, or visiting a jeweller's and telling the owner that the pearl-encrusted diamond coronet will do nicely. He does not queue, he is entirely unaware of prices, he does not carry money, he interacts with merchants simply by conceding that one or other of their wares is adequate. If he's trying to buy an apple from a shop like a normal person, he literally has no idea how to go about it. Nor does a hunter from a barter economy in a society without buildings. Nor does a clone worker from the Communion who has always been provided with exactly her entitlement of supplies by the Great Computer. Nor does a demon. Nor does a freshly-awakened AI. Nor does a member of the warrior-sect who dine in the queen's halls, use clothes and weapons provided for them, and only occasionally deign to demand food supplies from those of lower castes.

What about different cultural backgrounds? In some settings, both modern and historical, being a hunter-gatherer or professional warrior might be a genuine socioeconomic option that comes with specific types of knowledge that aren't simply about your job.

Alveras the Ranger grew up as a nomadic hunter-gatherer in the Great Woods. We should assume that she can, regardless of any specific mechanical skills, do everything that's a normal part of that life. She can identify common woodland creatures and plants (and is not alarmed by them); she can light a fire; she can find a small amount of edible (if tasteless) food; she knows how to get around in the woods; she can read the undergrowth and geology to locate water; she can blaze trails, leave and interpret warning signs. She is used to interacting with other nomads and knows the social rules of wandering life - how to talk to strangers, when to remain silent, what you can and can't interact with (like other people's traps or caches), common nomadic laws and traditions, etiquette, social structure and so on.

Now it may well be that during the game, the group needs to make a fire in a storm, or find water during a drought, or interact with nomads from another world. It would be perfectly reasonable for the GM to rule that Alveras does in fact need to make a roll, because her baseline everyday skills don't extend to these challenging circumstances unless she's invested points in them.

But when Alveras is just hanging around in a wood and wants to make a fire, or sharpen a knife, or grind some grain, or identify some uninspiring-but-edible plants - something she has done daily since she was a child - she should be able to.


So this ties into my previous musings on how to handle morale issues, and looking for a relatively sleek way to model that. Science (pop science, at least) suggests there are three main emotional reactions to major stress or threat. When your ability to cope with a situation is overwhelemed, this is what you do.

This can basically be summed up as Fight, Flight or Freeze. I would want to have these as three game-mechanical instincts, which players choose between during character creation. There could be game-mechanical effects which trigger a specific one, but your personal Instinct is how you react to a general threat that overcomes your defences. For example, if you build up more Stress than your tolerance allows, or fail to resist an opponent's Intimidate attempt, this governs your reaction. Each instinct has advantages and disadvantages in different situations.

Note that this is about when you are basically overwhelmed by your emotions. There might be one or two different "steps" of Instinct, like Threatened and Overwhelmed. The first would mean you are driven by your Instinct but can still resist it, as when scared or under serious stress; the second would mean your Instincts have taken over, when you are terrified or stressed beyond your conscious control and your brain is desperate to escape the source of the stress.

Fight: You react aggressively, whether with fists or with words. You can fight and argue effectively, but this can leave you in danger. Moreover, your approach is aggressive and leaves little room for defence. This instinct is an advantage when you can overwhelm a threat or face down a challenge, but can leave you in serious danger and may get you in legal or social trouble.

Mechanically, this Instinct would probably materialise as something like this, although I'd prefer to leave this up to common sense:

  • You are compelled to escalate the current conflict - an argument either becomes heated or physical, depending on the setting and system and genre (in Office Politics, you might just be unprofessionally rude and risk disciplinary action). If you're shoving each other, you swing a punch. Maybe you draw a weapon.
  • You may not stop fighting until you win or regain control of yourself.
  • You can't take actions that aren't aggressive or supporting your aggression, only reactions (like dodging).
  • You suffer a penalty to defensive or rational actions, like placating someone, making a valid point in an argument, or blocking a punch.
  • You gain a bonus to aggressive actions, like intimidating, making a cutting (if unsophisticated) remark, or breaking a chair over somebody's head.
  • You don't have to do anything obviously stupid or suicidal, but you are driven to pursue the conflict if possible

Flight: You withdraw. This can manifest as yielding in an argument, or physically running from a stressful situation - whether that means hiding in the toilets or fleeing down the road. You can effectively escape and defend yourself to some degree, but you are heavily penalised at aggressive actions, or actions that don't directly help you get away from the situation. This instinct is an advantage in helping you avoid harm, but you might abandon allies, embarrass yourself, or end up trapped.

Mechanically, this might mean:

  • You must attempt to escape the conflict, whether physically or emotionally
  • You cannot make aggressive actions, although passing aggression might occur as part of your flight (for example, shoving someone out of the way to flee)
  • You gain a bonus to actions that contribute to your escape, such as placating, running, breaking past barriers or people, disavowing everything you care about, recanting, hiding and getting free.
  • You suffer a penalty on any actions that do not contribute to your escape, including noticing most things, including other enemies you haven't spotted yet.

Freeze: You choke up. You go quiet and let words wash over you, and your muscles don't want to move. You find it very difficult to take any actions at all, but you can instinctively defend yourself to some degree. This instinct can let you avoid stressors and dangers because you go unnoticed or because you don't seem like an interesting challenge. However, it can prevent you taking any active steps to improve your situation.

Mechanically, this might mean:

  • You must attempt to protect yourself until the threat passes.
  • You cannot take any actions.
  • You gain a bonus to reactions that protect you or contribute to making the threat go away, such as staying silent, looking non-threatening or nodding desperate agreement.
  • You suffer a penalty on any actions that do not contribute to this goal, even if they would increase your overall safety, for example by moving away from danger.


  1. False-negative is dealt with by FATE Aspects, or GURPS Professional Skills (Soldier is probably the best example of this, which basically covers "everything you get taught to do in basic training", though not as well as if you'd learned the specific array of individual skills). A more extreme version is Wildcard Skills, which (in one of their modes) are used to cover an entire profession or archetypal role.

    Several published Call of Cthulhu adventures have NPCs with non-standard skills like "Annoy" or "Protect Pension" which seem to cover this sort of base reasonably well.

    GURPS 4th has Cultural Familiarities, but they're a very blunt instrument: ten of them will cover the entire modern world. I like the detail of your suggestion here and may well steal it.

    1. I like the idea of FATE Aspects, though I feel like I'd really need to play in a few games run by a confident GM before I'd feel comfortable with the system. From the GM's point of view it does seem to call for a lot of system knowledge by the players, which I'm hesitant about. And I definitely need to play more GURPS.

      I'm also quite a big fan of non-standard skills for Cthulhu NPCs. Apart from this kind of thing, they can also just make the GM's job easier by painting in very broad strokes what a character can and can't do.

      Please, steal away. And let me know how it goes if you do! Always good to hear whether things work out in practice.