Flags, reminder

October 11, 2011

Some time back, when Riddle of Steel and Burning Wheel first came out, I coined a term, “Flags”.

Flags are mechanics designed for the players to explicitly tell the GM, and the rest of the group, what they want the story to focus on.

Unfortunately, the explicit part seems to get lost a lot, and I -keep- seeing people talk about flags and start saying, “Well, if someone gets a high Sword skill, it’s because they WANT to have a game about sword fighting! Clearly!”

…well, maybe. Players can take a high score or rating for a lot of reasons, not all of which is that is what actually excites them about a character:

1) Yes! I want more swordfighting! Woo!

2) If I don’t get a high combat skill, my character will die. I have to do this in order to actually survive long enough to enjoy the game.

3) My character has a background in military matters, I need to have a high sword skill because it fits my vision of plausibility. I don’t care if we have another sword fight again.

4) My character was once a terrible murderer. He’ll never pick up the sword again, but that skill is there as a reminder.

Notice: “Sword 8” doesn’t tell you what or why any of these reasons might be. Now imagine you just decide to toss a sword fight at them thinking it will be fun – the reactions are going to be very different based on the motivations:

1) “Alright! I get to shine!”

2) “Ugh. A fight. What a chore. I’m glad I put all those points into sword fighting so I could get this over with.”

3) “Huh. A sword fight. Ok, I guess.”

4) “I’m not going to fight. I’ve killed enough, already.”

This is why Flags are explicit. Scores are insufficient to tell you what a player wants from it, and whether their choices are made out of wanting more, wanting less, or just wanting it for background purposes.

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