Worldbuilding/Game Trope: The Warrior, The Brain and The Utility

I think there is a (rough) trope within multi-species worldbuilding to include species in three (fairly broad) categories – The Warrior, The Brain and The Utility. Its also a gamebuilding trope to have three categories of player character – which often fit this Warrior, Brain and Utility triple.

Often species and classes actually end up as some sort of hybrid cross between these three concepts.

I think the origin of the trope is that worldbuilders and gamebuilders (new favorite word) are looking for ways to have their species differ from humans, without being some sort of uber-human. Therefore they need to find niches for their species relative to humans, and these three niches are the most obvious. Ancient and experienced Elves are really cool to have in game but (1) how do you play something so alien and (2) how do you balance something so experienced? You can do it, but its not easy.

The Warrior

I’ve compiled a few examples below. Often there are multiple entrants within a niche in more broadly built worlds. Sometimes I’ve written the name of a character when we only really see one member of a species. It’s a point in favour of the existence of this trope, that it sometimes occurs for just groups of characters not whole species.

SettingThe WarriorThe BrainThe Utility
The Lord of The RingsOrcs/Uruk-HaiElvesHobbits
Star Wars (1977)ChewbaccaC3POR2-D2
Star Trek: The Next GenerationWorfDataDeanna Troi
Mass EffectTurians/KroganSalariansAsari
Warhammer 40k Officio AssassinorumEversor/VindicareVanusCulexus/Callidus
FarscapeD’ArgoRygelZhaan
Wheel of Time AjahsGreen/Red AjahsBrown/White AjahsYellow/Grey Ajahs
D&D 5eHalf-Orc/OrcGnome/ElfHalf-Elf/Dwarf
The Inheritance Cycle (Eragon)UrgalElfWerecat

Okay so using Eragon is a bit of a cheat since it’s a composite of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings anyway but I think the point is being served.

Warhammer 40k doesn’t quite fit, but within each faction you’ll find examples of The Warrior, The Brain and The Utility, as evidenced by the 40k assassins. It’s just a matter of game balance really, most factions need to be able to do a variety of things.

The Brain

Using (and inverting) this trope

It’s a good trope.

It provides distinction between in-world groups and between players.

It’s worth being aware of it and bearing it in mind when worldbuilding or gamebuilding (I’ve used it three times so that means it’s a real word now).

Invert the trope

A nagging voice at the back of my head
  • No (or minimal) inherent specialisms
    • Some games do this – for example in Knave what you can do is based on your inventory, not a race or class
    • Continuum, the time travelling roleplaying game allows you to jump out to another time, take months learning a skill, then jump back and resume what you were doing. You’re spending your age to skill up, and everyone can learn new languages and skills.
    • Similarly, a game based on The Matrix would fit this because characters can download skillsets and just learn, for instance, kung-fu from a program. They are distinct due to their personality, destiny, fate and will.
  • Mono-class (or archetype) campaigns
    • A campaign where every PC is a Wizard (or Fighter or Bard or what-have-you) would enable the party to solve certain problems really well, whilst struggling with others. Even with the (massive) variations you get with 5e subclasses, a group of Wizards will struggle with healing whilst a group of Barbarians will struggle with utility.
  • Everyone is The Warrior
    • Games can (and do) differentiate between lots of types of warrior quite easily. From the top of my head there’s
    • The Brute
    • The Honourable fighter / The Fighter with a Code
    • The Ranged attacker
    • The Sneaky warrior
    • etc
  • Everyone is The Brain
    • When I used to run Star Trek Adventures (which I once accidentally reviewed) the players had different competencies, but everyone was a brain. They could all find solutions to problems, or clues to mysteries with treknobabble in a way relating to their character. They were actually all the utility too. I think Star Trek actually has too much utility to be easily gameable, but that’s a post for another time.
  • Everyone is The Utility
    • I’ve been working on-and-off for a while on a gamebuilding a magic school rpg. When its finished (if its finished) – everyone will be the utility, delineated by knowing different spells.
    • I’ve not played it but I understand that Mage: The Ascension fits this trope-inversion.
  • The opening to The All Guardsman Party is a classic inversion of this trope. If an Ork WAAAGH! are going to kill you all in ten minutes, it doesn’t matter that much if one player is a bit more of a warrior than another.

Let me know of any others I can add to either this list or the table further up.

The Utility

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Remember, remember the 5th of November.
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes Night

In the UK, Guy Fawkes Night is a pretty big deal. Random fireworks will go off every night for about a week beforehand. On the 5th, Brits gather at bonfires to eat, chat and bask in the warmth of the flames (whilst their back-half freezes in the autumn chill). An effigy of Guy is often burnt and a shower of fireworks will crack and sparkle overhead before the crowd slumps off home.

It gets very serious in some places, the bonfire night at Lewes (Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes Night are the same thing) is a particularly big deal. A procession is made through the town with various burning objects and effigies of various wellknown persons are set aflame.

Pictured: two panels from Alan Moore’s Graphic Novel: V for Vendetta, wherein V blows up the Parliament.

If you’re not British (or Commonwealth) and you know Guy Fawkes Night from anywhere, you probably know it from V for Vendetta. The traditional intent of Guy Fawkes Night is to remember/commemorate a failed attempt by Catholic rebels to blow up the Houses of Parliament, blowing up the protestant King James VI and I (he was the 6th King James of Scotland and the 1st King James of England and Ireland) and the majority of the upper crust of British politicians in the process. The intent of V in V for Vendetta is to remind the people of the UK that they should strike out against tyrannical rule and rebel on-mass against the facist party which rules the UK in the story.

Ed Balls Day

On the 28th of April, 2011, prominent Labour politician Ed Balls accidentally posted ‘Ed Balls’ on twitter.

Ten years later, some British people still celebrate Ed Balls Day, wherein adherents greet each-other by saying some variation on ‘Happy Ed Balls Day‘ or remind others of that great day by typing those immortal words into their social media and hitting enter.

So apparently Brits will turn anything into a tradition.

I’ve played through startlingly few day-specific festivals in roleplaying-games. Maybe its due to the slow progression of real-time relative to the in-fiction calendar year (which can be fixed by truncating the calendar year as I’ve previously suggested). Or maybe it’s because it’s one of those things that we forget to put into games which could really add to the verisimilitude.

Tables with which one can generate annual village festivals

d3Type of festival
1worship
2commemoration
3ironic commemoration
d6 twiceDeity to be worshippedHow it is worshipped
1fertility frog-god, bloated, four-eyeda sacrifice is burnt alive
2the guiding twin-stars of the nightsweet goods are baked and shared on the village green
3a laughing baby, personifying fortunea full-contact race to the peak of the nearest hill and back
4the great lidless eye of foresightfloating animal effigies are cast down-river
5Grom the destroyer, the foe-slayera sun-up to sun-down day of silence with a big shindig at the end
6the lady of the dead, clad in white robesa candle-light chanting procession around the village
d6 twiceEvent to be commemoratedHow it is remembered
1a local battlea barn dance
2a notable birtha great communal feast
3the death of a local heroa good old-fashioned apple-harvest
4the founding of the villagea march or parade
5the defeat of a local monstera story-telling competition
6the completion of the village churcha midnight bonfire
d6 Event to be ironically commemorated and how it is commemorated
1a miserably romantic marriage proposal – a bad-poetry competition
2the time an annoying lord came to visit – a parade of animals dressed in human clothes
3the time someone got stuck in a rabbit-hole – the village gathers for a rabbit-themed-feast
4the time someone fell of their stool – kicking seating out from under others
5when the local priest said ‘dow do you who’ instead of ‘how do you do’ – ‘dow do you who’ is the greeting of the day
6an absolutely dreadful pie Old Mrs Higgins once made – the villagers take turns knocking on Mrs Higgins door begging for pie

Dealing with single character death like in Heroes of Hammerwatch

There was a meandering conversation on discord which touched upon character deaths in roleplaying games, and Undead Bob said this:

I do get that, but from a GM point of view, while an interesting and timely death of a PC might be perfectly in keeping with the style of play, single character death is often a functional game problem. If it happens near the end of a session, not so big of a deal, especially if the Party can then regroup offscreen between sessions elsewhere and pick up a new PC. In a very real way, a Total Party Kill is less annoying on the GM end than a single character death mid-session and away from some sort of recruiting site.

Undead Bob (emphasis mine)

Essentially, one player is eliminated from the game and that’s annoying. (Many classic board games also have this problem: Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk all have the potential for a bored player at the table who’s out of the action.)

I have a suggestion on how to deal with this, although it’s a niche one.

Soul-linking in Heroes of Hammerwatch

Heroes of Hammerwatch is a roguelike hack-and-slash where you delve through the dungeon.

When a player’s character dies they can be brought back to life by a different player, but when this happens the two characters become ‘soul-linked’. Now if either of them die, they both die.

If they were both to die, then another character could come and resurrect them, but then all three have their souls linked, so now if one of them dies, all three die.

So if you have five character’s in the dungeon, this gives 4 respawns. On the fifth death, everyone goes down.

How to add soul-linking into games.

It can give combat a sort of death-spiral, as if the fighter has already soul-linked the wizard and then the wizard dies again, the fighter also dies.

There is a ramping tension as more and more party members become part of the soul-link. Knowing that if one of your allies goes down then all of them go down makes your thoughts wander much more toward potential escape routes.

I imagine that groups of cut-throat adventurers might be reluctant to use this mechanism, whereas groups of heroes are more likely to be willing to take on the risk to themselves to save an ally.

I would make soul-linking about a minute long – long enough that you can’t easily do it in combat but not so long that it weighs into other time considerations the party has.

I’d also make it nigh-impossible to reset soul-links whilst out on an adventure – maybe it takes a week-long ritual to undo or it can only be undone by a priest at a temple.

Alternatively, soul-linking can come from a specific magic item which is either unique or uncommon enough that it’s not a big worldbuilding concern.

There’d have to be a reason why peasants aren’t constantly soul-linking to recover from sudden accidental deaths or illnesses (actually there doesn’t have to be, but it’s less disruptive to the setting if the peasants aren’t doing this). I’d suggest that the ritual is done to a deity (saint/god/demon) whose domain specifically covers adventuring.

You could also have rival adventuring groups use this ritual. It actually gives a higher incentive for groups to de-escalate and bargain mid-combat. It also gives a greater incentive to not let that one enemy get away – they could come back and resurrect the whole group. Similarly hiding corpses and securing side-passages in dungeons (so that you don’t get flanked and have that whole lizardfolk guardroom you cleared out storm you from behind) become more important.

So soul-linking: it’s an interesting and quite workable solution to Undead Bob’s problem. However, there are campaign/setting implications so it’s hard to just drop it in thoughtlessly. A niche solution, and perhaps one worth orienting a campaign around.

This is part 2 in a loose series I’m awkwardly calling ‘like in’ where I take some trick from video games and apply it to tabletop games. Part 1 is about Truncating the Calendar Year like in Stardew Valley.

Truncating the Calendar Year like in Stardew Valley

I want my game to be epic, spanning many years, with the potential for characters to grow old; for new generations to come to the fore and take up the mantle; and for nations to rise and fall.

Problem: Even with a game/system which is well designed for that kind of long-term view, everything takes about 2 to 4 times longer than I expected to play out.

Untested potential solution I have not seen touted before: Truncate the calendar year down to 112 days. (This could also serve as a worldbuilding spark.)

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is a Harvest Moon-like video game where you have run cute, artisanal farm. As its a farming game it wants the seasons to change so crops can rotate and you can experience the bountiful summer and fallow winter. However, it doesn’t want you to have to play out about 90 in-game days for the season to shift. That would be tedious.

Instead it uses a 28-day season. Four weeks of 7 days makes up a season. There are four seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.

If my fantasy game is in a secondary world (not Earth), then I could truncate the world to have 4 seasons of 28 days – a 112 day year.

This would roughly third the number of days in the year, which is convenient since games take about 3 times longer than intended to play out.

Stardew Valley’s calendar, Winter edition

How to manage a truncated year

We need to change the durations of everything in the setting to fit our new 112 day year.

  • Events on the day-scale should still take roughly the same number of days as usual
    • Cows can be milked once per day
    • You eat three meals a day
    • You can walk about 3 miles per hour for about 8 hours without exhausting yourself (though you will still be tired)
    • Chickens lay eggs every couple of days
  • Events on the year-scale should take roughly the same fraction of a year as usual
    • Human pregnancies last for about 3/4 of a year (roughly 3 seasons or 84 days)
    • Humans legally become adults after 18 years
    • Lambs are born in the Spring

There are some events whose new durations will have to be chosen by you (as a game-master or as a table of players). Everything in your game is levers, and you need to decide which setting these levers are on.

  • Does health and illnesses resolve on the day or year scale?
    • Year-scale means quicker healing but quicker deterioration times when unwell or injured.
  • Do weather phenomena change on the day or year scale?
    • Year-scale means volatile sudden rains and storms. However, day-scale means a dry spell or cold-snap could have a massive destabilising effect on the crop growth of that year, as there is a smaller band of days to plant and harvest within.
  • Are settlements 3 times closer together than normal?
    • A 30 day round trip takes a whole season now (rather than a third of a season).
    • Closer settlements facilitates better trade and a more in-contact world, with closer cultural ties. It also increases the ability for centres of power to project their influence (though tax collectors and military patrols)
  • Does learning occur at the day-scale or year-scale?
    • Year-scale means skills and knowledge will match our expectations for the age of a character. However it will mean that learners progress more quickly day-to-day, probably though improved memory/retention or through increased rates of comprehension.
    • Day-scale means that everyone learns at the same rate, but it takes longer to build up a knowledge base.

There are so many areas to consider that you would probably have to discuss them a the table as they arose.

A rule of thumb is that day-scale results in a grittier game and year-scale in a more epic game.

What’s the use of this?

  • A thought experiment to help you think about how parts of your game are connected to time (and each other)
  • A worldbuilding spark (ask yourself “if this is true, what else is true?”)
  • A sci-fi world (take this idea and stick it in your traveller/star trek game).
  • A design principle. Just as DMs have talked about attacking every part of the character sheet, worldbuilders and game designers should challenge every assumption of the setting.

This is part 1 in a loose series I’m awkwardly calling ‘like in’ where I take some trick from video games and apply it to tabletop games. Part 1 is about Dealing with single character death like in Heroes of Hammerwatch