On Perks (Them Deeper Bones design diary 9)

Them Deeper Bones is my OSR-adjacent retro adventure game that can be found over on https://themdeeperbones.com/ (as of writing this, version beta.1.2). There is a short preview available on the site, and if that piques your interest enough, anyone can get the full playtest document and supplemental materials by joining the game’s discord.

I recently had an online discussion about the General Perks in the game, and realised that it might not be immediately obvious to someone coming in from other sort of play cultures why these are things you get to pick at 2nd level, not at character creation.

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

Characters are created at random in Them Deeper Bones. You roll dice to get your Ability Scores, and based on these and how you want to play, you choose your Role out of the three possible Roles in the game. This Role selection is the only choice you have to make at character creation, everything else you need you can roll from a table (such as character background) or opt out of (such as buying further equipment).

The game has General Perks — mechanical advantages to certain situations such as a bonus to particular Saving Throws, the possibility to detect the presence of traps when entering a new space, or a chance the character does not have to spend rations when doing overland travel. Much like Feats are in some other games. And the question about them I got was “Why can’t you pick one of these cool things at character creation?”

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.

However, this approach to characters with unique cool things puts pressure on the guide (or the Game Master, GM) to tune their challenges appropriately. If a character is built solely around being able to swim real fast and control fish, to use an extreme example, the GM in that game would have to think twice if they were running that desert adventure to the group with this “man of aqua” character. Or at least tune the challenges so that there is a moat somewhere with water, or maybe throw in some flying desert fish to encounter. This is simply because a player has made extremely meaningful decisions at character creation and if they don’t get a return from those investments (decisions are emotional investments), they can feel cheated or not appreciated. If the fish-master has to solve situations by climbing walls and picking locks, it’s not really what the player came to the game to do.

In the Retro Adventure Game outlook on a game, the guide sets up challenges, and the primary tool to solve them is clever player-side role-playing, not cool powers or dice-rolling. Coming to these situations armed with only a hammer of fish control, and seeing everything as a very wet nail, would be greatly detrimental to your success.

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..

These are not really those “one cool thing”s. So what are Perks and why are they?

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.

As they’re more passive and responsive instead of an active cool thing, they are not something you pick up when you create the character. You most likely have no idea what sort of a game the Guide is running and what parts of the game you’ll be engaging with a lot when you create your character. But you should have some clue the first time you level up to which parts in the game you feel like you’re worried about the most and can make a decision about where you want that extra safety net to be.

Game developer, cat owner