A lot of games have a category of stats (often called something else) which may have some mechanical effect, but are most critical as signifiers of player intent. I’m calling them signifier stats because I need to call them something, because I’ve found myself thinking about them a bit.
The most famous and obvious example of a signifier stat is alignment in D&D. It’s not a perfect communicator, of course, but it does a decent job of conveying the kind of play that the player is looking forward to. Choosing Lawful Good is not (usually) an indicator of an interesting a shady political play or bloodthirsty mayhem. It’s incomplete – sometimes an alignment is chosen for contrast (the one honest man among thieves, or the secret betrayer) or because the player has seized upon a particular nuance (The paladin who is super lawful, but who does not recognize the current ruling power as legitimate, or any number of doomed heroes). But in any case, alignment is n obvious part of the communication, and when your whole playgroup chooses Chaotic Good, they’re telling you something.
A less famous but even more clear cut example is Good and Bad Stuff from the Amber Diceless RPG (and its successor, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow). Amber characters are bought with 100 points. Unspent points translate into “good stuff”, and you can overspend a little an pay it off by taking a few points of “bad stuff” . Effectively, if you spend 105 points on stats and powers, you have 5 points of bad stuff. If you spend 95 points, you have 5 good stuff.
Because Amber is a diceless system, “stuff” is where a lot of things dictated by luck come into play. Lots of good stuff? Things go your way. Bad stuff? It can feel like the universe has painted a target on your back. This was not entirely reliable – for many GM’s good stuff merely meant terrible things only happened frequently rather than constantly – but it established a spread of expectations at the table.
When the game first came out, I thought of this as a balance mechanic. It was tied into points, wasn’t it? Clearly, the point was to penalize players who overspend and reward those who didn’t. But in time I cam to realize it was and of the reverse – players taking bad stuff were agreeing to make the GM’s life easier and were getting rewarded for it. Players buying Good Stuff were buying a degree of protection, and paying for that1.
Now, collecting player intent before play starts is one of those things that it’s just worth doing. There’s no substitute for talking with your players about expectations before starting play. But unless you are playing a very thematically constrained game, that conversation will probably reveal a spectrum of possibilities that do not necessarily indicate where each player wants to go. Even if everyone agrees they want swashbuckling high adventure, having an explicit indicator of the kind of play each player is going for within that space can be a super useful idea.
Obviously, this purpose can also be served by direct hooks on the sheet – things like backgrounds or aspects – but those may not necessarily answer the same questions. Signifier stats occupy a space between the tone of the game as a whole and the specific character hooks, and used properly, they offer a bridge between the two.
To illustrate using an amber example, let’s say we have agreed on a nasty, political-and-fisticuffs game of Amber. I’ve made my character and bought a connection to my parent, one of the princes or princesses of Amber.
If I am playing a Good Stuff character, my relationship with my parent is probably pretty healthy. They’re quite possibly still a jerk, and they may yank me around of army own good, but I know they have my back. If I buy more allies over time, they’ll be reasonably solid – betrayal is a risk, but it’s the exception.
If I’m playing a Bad Stuff character, my parent may very well consider me one more playing piece. I benefit some because I’m a useful pawn, but we both know this is a relationship of expedience. If I gain allies, I must constantly watch my back, since I am in a nest of vipers. The occasional person I feel I can trust is a treasure (and a liability)
I could explicitly articulate these things with each connection and with each relationship, but with a signifier stat, I don’t need to. That saves hassle, yes, but it also means that players who are uncomfortable explicitly seizing the narrative can still express a preference. That’s some pretty useful mojo.
- But, critically, the game never said this was the case. Many players picked their Good and Bad stuff rating for entirely non-mechanical reasons because of the type of character the played ↩︎
During my briefest foray into playing Amber, I had a character with a lot of Bad Stuff. I lobbied to give it a story slant, making it so that, despite my character’s obscene loyalty to his family, every action he took on their behalf came across as villainous. It was fun flavor, and he also had the worst of all luck. I enjoyed this method, though the rest of the game was a little weird for me.