On Perks (Them Deeper Bones design diary 9)

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, “Miehen pää, harjoitelma teokseen Tuonelan joella”, 1902–1903, CC0, Kansallisgalleria

The Curse of the One Cool Thing

The idea in many modern role-playing games is that each character has special powers or abilities that the player chooses at character generation and then gets to display off during play. This is sometimes called “paper doll play” in the circles I come from—you come to the table with your paper doll and their accessories and the fun of the play is to show these off and combine them in interesting ways, possibly with what the others have. And this is an excellent way to approach games where the special things and the mechanics tied to those form the core of the game’s challenge solving apparatus. Especially in those that focus on trying to create a particular narrative out of the games.

The Inherent Un-Coolness of Perks

To return to the Perks. At first glance, they sound like they are a list of cool things you can choose from. You could have protection from explosions! You could spot traps more easily! Or have the ability to survive without food! But if you look at the Perks more closely, they are not that cool. They’re not special powers that direct you to make certain types of actions. If you chose the Improved Saving Throw: Devastation Perk, it will not make you invulnerable to explosions or make you want to jump into situations where explosions are a possibility. If you take the trap detection Perk, it just means that sometimes you get to skip the step where you look around for traps. Same with the ability to skip the use of rations sometimes..

Perks: An Opt-Out Tool

Perks allow the player to feel more confident about the rules being there to catch them when role-play fails them, or to let you move more responsibility about a particular part of the game to the mechanics side. The Improved Save: Devastation means that if you, as a player, mess up with a trap that causes an explosion, your character has a greater chance of surviving it. Picking the Trap Expert one lets you sometimes spend less time searching for potential traps, as the chances are you can immediately notice their presence. And the Survivalist one lets you ignore rations and food upkeep a bit more.

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