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[Hippogryph] Designing Flexible Backgrounds

hippogryph system

One thing that I wanted to address in Hippogryph was the way fantasy races are handled. I don’t want to get into debates over racist coding; whether you call it race, species, heritage, whatever, the notion of reducing a people to a generic and stereotypical set of powers and bonuses is problematic. My goal was to allow characters to celebrate differences, without resorting to “all of THESE people are like THAT”. I think I’ve managed to accommodate flexible backgrounds.

Every character gets the same number of points to spend on their background. Those are straight-across bonuses that follow the Fate RPG ladder progression, i.e. spend 3 points and get the ability at Good (+3). Those are called (wait for it!) bonus-granting elements. A dwarf’s Stability, where they’re not easy to knock down, is a bonus-granting element.

When a feature allows a character to do something that other can’t, it’s called an establishing element. Those cost 1 point. Either it doesn’t need a rating, or the feature extends the utility of some other attribute or skill. An Elf’s Immunity to Sleep is an establishing element.

What this does is allows individual characters to be different. If you want your gnome to lean into the whole Communicate with Animals thing, you can put a lot of points into it. When that doesn’t fit your character concept, you can put in fewer points or none at all. Make the reason why they’re better, worse, or incapable of meeting the stereotype part of their back story.

Create New Things, Break Rigid Norms

This method also means creating new backgrounds a snap. If you want playable bugbears, you can list the background features, suggested feats and skills, and that’s about all there is to it. The whole point is to make customization, but both the guide and the player, a quick, painless, and transparent process.

What I really like is that this takes background beyond race. If you do want to create a seafaring culture, or a horse-centric culture, or a proudly academic culture, you can do the same. Because these people are so dependent on raiding, fishing, and seaport trade, the suggested skills, feats, and features will reflect that. A character that grew up around a nomad culture dependent upon horses will have those sorts of abilities available to them. It’s a way of modeling these things, but still allowing players to make characters that aren’t locked into rigid norms.

Designing Flexible Backgrounds

Dancing Lights Press is a lo-fi publisher of tabletop roleplaying systems and system-agnostic creative aids, including the best selling Building series, the DoubleZero action thriller system, and Hippogryph, a fantasy story game system with traditional  roots. Our products embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation because roleplaying is an activity, not a collection of expensive rulebooks.

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