RPGs grew out of wargames, and D&D one of the oldest, still uses a battle mat and rules to move around them. CRPGS embraced the stats and strategies or pen-and-paper RPGs, since computers are bad at handling real “role-playing”. We got nice numerical stats, and everything drove into some basic underlying formula that calculated our hits, or how much damage our characters do. These things were based on modelling combat, and so it is combat which they modeled.
While CRPGs fossilized into the idea of fighting badguys and levelling up to be better at fighting badguys, pen and paper RPGs branched out and started dealing with instances where you didn’t always fight badguys. Sometimes there weren’t even badguys, the conflicts were more nuanced, and we got different kinds of stories. There was still conflict, and conflict resolution. There’s still a sense of your player getting better at what they do, so they can do it better — it just doesn’t have to be fighting.
Not every pen-and-paper has embraced this, D&D still often feels like there are fighting sections and role-playing sections, and while the former has lots of complicated mechanics tied into it, the latter has almost none. Fourth Edition has changed that, but it turns that role-playing into a random dice game.
In Dresden Files RPG, a social conflict plays very much like a physical one, and there are a sort of “social hit points” which works like physical damage. It’s supported by tasks, powers, and aspects the same way that fighting is, and it makes for a different experience. But because aspects play such a crucial role, and bringing them to bear requires some role-playing and thinking in character, the mechanics for role-play and tactical play are in alignment with each other. Instead of looking to numeric stats, players are looking at character to determine how things will play out.
And that’s one of the benefits of aspects: by describing them in real language terms, and phrases, you bring the player closer to the character. An avatar or other character becomes a thing with a personality, instead of a thing with a spreadsheet of stats. It may still have the latter, and a CRPG might require that, under the hood, but properly chosen aspects can add more than just a number.
Aspects also give us another venue for story and setting, since they can be picked to add flavor beyond what a simple named stat like “Strength” or “Agility” might offer. Echo Bazaar would be an entirely different feel of game if you changed it’s aspects, but you could completely reskin it (you’d have a lot of rewriting to do) and have a different game, and feeling. Even so, it would be possible to add sections of content that open up based on aspects, which are in turn contained to that section, allowing for the modular creation of mini-stories.
I also think that re-framing stats as aspects opens up ways to re-frame the conflict in the game. We don’t have to be fighting all the time. Perhaps there are better was to represent other kinds of conflict, practice or training. (Assuming you wanted to stick to the CRPG format at all, which is about gaining competence and power to overcome obstacles.)
More about this later this week, although I welcome comments.