Lately in my designs, it seems as though I’ve been giving attributes to everything. But I don’t do so lightly. Every so often I tear my hair out and demand, “What can you actually do with these attributes? And why would you? Who will use this?”

Since many of my more recent systems borrow from character creation (6 scores; roll 3d6 for each) I ask myself, “if this were a character, what would it do?”

This morning I found the wall I’ve been hitting with the plot generator.

I asked myself what the point of rolling scores for a plot would be if it can’t do anything. I asked myself what a plot would do if it were a character. Then I asked myself what a character could do, and I drew a blank.

Ability scores are generally, how a character interacts with the setting.

But what can a character do?

A character has things, of course. They have ability scores, they have hit points, they have experience points, and they have uh, objects. Gear. Equipment. Tools. They’re all tools, actually. All the things a character has are tools.

But what can a character do?

Video games can help here. Characters can walk, right? They can go places. Characters can pick things up, they can touch things. They can take things. Characters can hit things. If they work at it, they can kill things.

I spent a good chunk of time tinkering with Interactive Fiction so I could learn about the things that characters can do. In IF, all you can do is do things. But there are a limitations on what you can do. There’s a language to it. Most of it comes back to going places, looking at, and touching things.

Certainly there are consequences for doing things, but how do you know what the consequences will be? I think ultimately, the answer is that characters can’t do anything but are deluded into thinking they can.

That isn’t the whole answer of course. But there are clues — in folk magic, narrative theory, gestalt psychology, and quantum mechanics. There are numerous and distinct rules for perception and expectation.

Simplicity – things are simple, regular, neat, and orderly
Symmetry – things have a center, and are the same on each side
Closure – parts of a thing are the same as a whole thing
Continuity – a thing always has been, and always will be a thing
Proximity – things near each other are the same thing
Similarity – things with the same properties are the same thing
Familiarity – a new thing is like an old thing

So, a character can’t really do anything, right? But they can influence things, which is like doing something. But in order to influence a thing, they have to have some idea of what a thing can or will do.

And that’s where the above comes into play.

Does a thing happen the way you think it will? Does it have another effect? How much can you influence a thing? How much of the thing was your influence, and how much was inevitable?