Sep 15

Social Engineering, Part 2: Mechanics


As a Geek Dad, one of my goals is to raise my young sons as gamers. An early game I ran for the boys was a BETA copy of Heroes of the Falling Star (HoFS) by Jay Steven Anyong.


The pdf describes the game as follows:

Heroes of the Falling Star is an introductory roleplaying game of magic and adventure in the land of Jianghu, a setting inspired by Wuxia films and literature. Players take on the role of Heroes bestowed with magical items by The Lady of Love and Mercy to help those in need.


I used HoFS to run a few sessions for the boys. A highlight of HoFS was the system of noble traits shown by the Heroes. To take action, Players roll 1d6 and add a small modifier from the trait appropriate to the action being taken.


I described the merits of this concept in my previous essay.





Social Engineering

Building upon the mechanics in HoFS, it is a simple matter to create a similar set of traits for use in any game. The process begins with identifying the behaviours you wish to encourage. HoFS has five traits, and this is a good place to start. So, what traits do you want your game to reward the young Players for displaying? Every parent knows the personal traits they hope to pass along to their children. Here are five of mine:

  • Cleverness
  • Determination
  • Empathy
  • Helpfulness
  • Kindness


Each Hero then adds these five traits to their character sheet. Each trait is rated +1, with the Player choosing one of the five as their dominant trait, and raising that rating to +2. Whenever a Hero is taking an action in support of these traits, then the Player may add the bonus from their trait to the roll. In this way, the Hero is rewarded for performing actions in alignment with these traits.


Depending upon the rules you use, it may be necessary to adjust the size of these bonuses. In a percentile based system, the addition of +1% will have little effect. Instead, +5% increments may serve you better. As a GM, you know the best way to tinker with the mechanics of your game.



Ruling on Traits

When applying the bonuses from these traits, there are a couple of issues to consider. Generally, the effects of these bonuses do not stack. While it is entirely possible for an action to be both kind and clever, for example, the Player must choose which trait to apply to any one roll.


However, in a climactic scene, or one with significant emotional power, the GM could allow multiple bonuses to apply. These are pivotal moments in a Hero’s life and should happen rarely. Yet, the emotion at the table merits multiple bonuses when the Hero is pushed to their limit in pursuit of their goal. You know when the climactic scene of a plot justifies such a heightened bonus as the Hero makes a desperate final action to thwart the villain.


The other main point for the GM is to rule on whether the bonus applies in the current situation. To help resolve the issue of eligibility, it helps if the GM provides a broad definition of the traits. Single terms are open to a range of interpretations, so a more exact explanation creates common ground for everyone at the table. As an example, here are my five traits defined:

  • Cleverness – the use of wit or wisdom to provide an innovative solution to a problem, acting with thought and deliberation or recalling a previous lesson to the current situation.
  • Determination – continuing a course of action after an initial setback, or holding to a choice in the face of opposition.
  • Empathy – acting with consideration for the desires or feelings of another person, understanding an unfamiliar viewpoint or aligning your emotions with those of another.
  • Helpfulness – acting to further another person’s goals or giving aid to a person in trouble.
  • Kindness – performing a selfless action which brings happiness to another person.


Broadly, the results need to be morally good, as these are the behaviours we seek to encourage in the young Players. Thus, helping the villain to burn a village may technically be helping, it would not qualify for a bonus. Likewise, a trait such a Determination is defined as continuing an action following a setback. This is the lesson I want my boys to learn, how an initial knock-back should not mean abandoning an action. Thus, very few initial actions will benefit from the Determination bonus, no matter how much the Hero “wants” to succeed.



Encouraging Creativity

Another potential issue with mechanical bonuses of this nature is how the Players often come to rely upon the same bonus for every situation. Thus, every action is framed as an example of Cleverness, especially where this is the trait with the higher bonus. Ironically, this repetitive style of play would not display the mental agility represented by the Cleverness trait.


The style of play I want to encourage is one where the Heroes cycle through their various traits. This principle also ensures the Players have each trait modelled for them. Thus, the Players are presented with a checklist alongside these five traits, perhaps in the form of small boxes beside the traits on the character sheet. When a trait is used, then the box is ticked. No trait can be used for a bonus when the box is ticked, requiring Players to choose a different trait the next time they want a bonus. Once all the boxes are ticked, and each trait has been used, then remove all the ticks, and repeat the process.


A couple of variations are possible here. Firstly, the GM could only require the box to be ticked if the action succeeds. A Player who rolls badly will thus save the bonus for another attempt. Another option is to allow a trait as many checkboxes as there are bonuses. Thus, if Cleverness is rated +2, then it can be used twice before it is no longer available, and the Hero needs to work through all of their traits to replenish the bonuses.



Character Development

In the style of most RPGs, you may want the traits to advance over time. This is an interesting way to illustrate personal development as the Hero matures, another useful lesson for young Players. Once again, every GM is familiar with how their rules handle character development, and how to manage the bonuses derived from these traits.


In a level-based system, such as the f20 games, then one more +1 could be added to a trait of choice at every level. In a more narrative-based game, then perhaps after every major plot, the Hero could increase one trait. A point-based game might allow for traits to be increased in the same manner as other abilities.


Finally, the GM could rule that all traits must be within three points of each other. This heads off a tendency among Players to focus on one trait to the exclusion of others. So, applying the three point limit, once Cleverness reaches +4, it cannot be raised to +5 until all other traits are at +2. Once again, this encourages Players to demonstrate the full range of desirable traits.



Altering the Virtues

The beauty of this system is the flexibility. You can tailor the traits to both the genre of the game being played and the traits you wish to encourage in the young Players. Astute GMs could even tailor the traits to either the Hero or the Player. Thus, the Fighter must be Brave while the Rogue must be Witty. Alternatively, focus on the child and require their Hero to display the traits you believe the child would most benefit from displaying. Such variations could be tied back to the class, species or culture of the Hero, ensuring the child is unaware of the social engineering designed to improve their behaviour.




Adding a layer of social engineering to an RPG for children is a simple matter. A short list of traits, possibly with a checklist of boxes to monitor their use. These traits can grow with the Hero, or evolve with the story as desired. As a Geek Dad, it is useful to find another way to model good behaviour for my sons.


What traits would you include in your game? Should these bonuses grow with the Hero? What problems would you predict when adding these bonuses to your game? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.


Happy Gaming



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