Creating the Base Pool
After going through nearly the entirety of the resolution system and outlining the bits that happen once the base pool has been gathered, it’s well past time to cover how that base pool, and its baseline value of 5 dice, is generated. This is no trivial matter. As every test or roll made by a character begins with these values, what gets included, measured, and listed on the character sheet not only defines that character but also has a huge influence on the overall genre, tone, and playstyle of the entire game/campaign. These values say what’s important about the characters, and thus what’s important about the game. They influence how the players view the characters, how they approach things, and what kinds of actions they will take. They provide flavour and guidance and ultimately are the lens through which the players/characters know themselves. All in all, the way characters are measured and defined is one of the most important choices in designing the campaign.
Whether the base pool is generated from a combination of characteristics (such as Attributes + Skills) or a single one (such as Approaches), the key to assigning value ranges is remembering that the intent is to provide a baseline of 5 dice for an entry level professional in that field. Thus, in games with a combination of characteristics, each characteristic will be in the range of 1-3 dice each, while for single characteristic games the range will be higher, on the order of 3-6 dice per characteristic.
Furthermore, in games where the characters begin as professionals, the total values should be assigned such that they are rocking 5 dice total when doing something in their wheelhouse, with perhaps six dice if they are extra specialists in that area or if they have a narrative-based Aspect that applies, and with less dice in the areas where they are weaker. If the campaign instead begins with the characters as novices, they may only have 3 to 4 dice in their particular areas of semi-expertise. If they begin as veterans, and as they progress and gain more experience, they likewise begin with and gain larger and larger base pools.
Characteristics, Attributes, Approaches, and More. There are dozens upon dozens (upon dozens!) of examples to pull from other RPGs as possible systems to use to categorize, measure, and ultimately define a character. Even inside similar system models, such as the classic Attribute + Skills, how many attributes are characterized and what each one represents (plus how many skills are enumerated and how general or specific each one is) makes a big difference in how the game plays and how the world/campaign feels. Using three broad stats feels very different than using 12 “precise” ones, and even with 12 “precise” values if more stats detail physical attributes than spiritual wellbeing or social interaction it signals what the game considers important and, as such, the campaign will gravitate towards those certain actions and the accompanying playstyle, focus, and feel.
All in all, this is a way of saying that while some ideas are presented below, they are by no means exhaustive. The Cortex Prime SRD (when it’s fully released…) is a great resource here as well as an example, for it too dives into a multitude of options for attributes/etc and discusses using them in combinations with its own core resolution system/idea.
Attribute + Skill. The classic construction for an RPG character, useful for many game styles and genres.* For games and genres where distinct expertise is considered important, skill values should be emphasized, with 3d being considered as the value for a trained skill, leaving the “average” attribute to have a value of 2d in order to total five dice. For campaigns that emphasize more broadly capable characters, reverse the two, with 3d for an average attribute, and 2d for a trained skill.
*Also very appropriate, given my musings that began this whole multi-year journey towards this new RPG system started with a nifty idea for a matrix of attributes…
Attributes + Departments/Areas of Expertise. This way replaces individualized and distinct skills with broad categories tied together as a particular role, department, branch, or otherwise grouped area of expertise. This is great for genres where character roles are emphasized, such as the military or other department-heavy organizations (for example, Starfleet within Star Trek), genres with distinct archetypes (fantasy, heist-type campaigns, or a Firefly game), or genres with broad and reoccurring elements (superspies and spycraftian games).
One of the additional benefits of using this grouping is that with the proper naming for each of the roles, departments, or areas of expertise, it really sets and supports the tone and mood of the game. Top Secret/NWO uses an Attribute + Tradecraft system, and many of their names are deliciously flavourful: Nerve, Suave, Pulse, Intellect, and Reflex for the attributes, and with Sigint, Huminint, Techint, and Combat for the tradecraft categories.
… + Background. If the mechanism of Aspects is being included in the game, then the addition of a Background, Core Concept, “One unique thing” (to borrow from 13th Age), or similar all provide another way of defining a character. Often, these aspects will only come into play at dramatically appropriate times, adding a boost (or hindrance!) in great story-defining ways; as such their impact will be relatively infrequent and so can be considered separate from needing to be balanced into the base pool of 5 dice.
If, instead, these Aspects are intended to be broad and important enough to include in many or nearly all base pools, then consider their contribution while determining the contribution from the rest of the values that create the base pool of 5 dice.