Tuesday 7 December 2021

Objective Differentiation

I like each player's character to feel different to the others. It doesn't need to be full-on mechanical niche protection, but you should feel like you've got your own thing going on. 

In Electric Bastionland or Into the Odd this is likely to be through your equipment, arcana/oddities, or just strange abilities.

In this Primordial Thing I'm messing with there are still special abilities and gear, but also more of a focus on having specific knowledge and hooks to the world around you.

But an area I've been wanting to explore for a while is that of character differentiation through Objectives.

I touched on it with the Agendas in Collaborative Bastionland, and more so with my dip into Matrix Games/Open Strategy Games.

There are lots of tabletop games that focus in on differentiating players through objectives rather than focusing on abilities. One Night Ultimate Werewolf has variable powers and player knowledge, but some characters like the Tanner exist purely to disrupt the game through their unusual agenda. In this case, they're the only player that wants to get eliminated, but otherwise behave exactly as a regular villager. 

Naturally, things that work in a board game don't always work in an RPG, but I'm always interested in seeing if the fun-essence can be extracted. The obvious hurdle is that the examples I've given have all been competitive, rather than cooperative, but we can get over that. 

Let me try and put it into something a bit more useable. 


Each character has three Objectives, the first of which is always a common objective shared by the group. The remaining two are personal to each character. 

Each character's personal objectives should be unique. They might clash with other characters' objectives, but should not be in outright opposition. 

At the end of each session, the group as a whole decide whether or not they achieved their objective. Each player then self-assesses their own success at achieving each of their own objectives. 

The goal of the game is to achieve at least two of your three Objectives. 

What, No Reward?

Yeah, I mean you wanted to play a game, right? I'm telling you that you win the game by achieving the majority of your objectives. We might all win, all lose, or more likely have a bit of a mix. When you win at Carcassonne you don't ask me if you get an extra meeple next time we play.

So strawman arguments aside, I think the self-assessment of objectives only works if they aren't tied to your future success. It's meant to just be a frank, impartial look at how well you achieved your character's goals this game, and if you lose ten weeks running then I'm not going to kick you out of the game or anything. 

The Tricky Part

It's easy for me to pontificate about this system without actually providing any examples of what these Objectives might look like, and that's because their design is really the difficult part of this system. 

You want them broad enough to be relevant across a wide range of scenarios, but specific enough to give character and drive. Difficult enough to be challenging, but not impossible. Providing some conflict between characters without grinding the group's progress down to constant philosophical debate. 

As much as I'd love them to just be a big random table, I feel like they call for a more bespoke design process for each character. 

So I'm going to write an entire post about that next week. Consider yourself teased. 

Anything to get them through the door.


  1. Not only does this provide Character differentiation, but it allows the Party to proactively drive the direction of the Adventure, rather than merely reacting to plot hooks dangled in front of them by the Game Master. If Character design is - at least party - defined by an Aspiration ( long term goal: find the 6 fingered man and avenge my Father ) and Goals ( short term, derived from Aspiration: follow up on a lead and infiltrate the court of Prince Humperdinck ) then personal goals are simple to generate. The aforementioned external plot hooks drive the communal Party goals. As for rewards - don't forget that anything the advances the abilities of the Party in the World is - de facto - Character/Party advancement. Rewards can be completely diegetic - money, Gear, Contacts, Reputation(s), etc. - without needing to be systematic.

  2. This puts me in mind of something Brendan S wrote (I think it was on a Dark Sun inspired post) that character backgrounds and advancement mechanics are two halves of the same idea. In light if this post I'd gloss that as: backgrounds and goals are two ways to give a player a sense of what to do now to make it feel like the character has a life that stretches beyond the brief window that they are "onscreen,"

  3. I was just reading through WFRP 4e and they've got something similar in their short-term and long-term ambitions for the individuals and the party ambitions for the group. Although with that system it's tied directly into advancement as achieving your ambitions provides XP.

  4. So a certain character might have Another Trophy for the Wall, as a goal, while their comrade has What Was yours is Mine or Finally a Worthy Foe, our Battle will be Legendary, as a goal, but they both have the Spread My Game or Repay the Debt as a common goal.

  5. If you're not familiar with the idea of "Keys" (originally from _The Shadow of Yesterday_, most famously implemented in a rather lighter form in the free _Lady Blackbird_), then it's worth checking them out! The design paradigm seems highly relevant to your project here.

  6. I'm working on something similar for a tactics game. Right now I've got some pretty generic goals randomly assigned at character creation that can fit any background (revenge, a cure for a loved one, knowledge about a certain subject, etc.) as well as background-specific goals. These all have varying rewards, but the biggest benefit is that it unlocks a specific character advancement - totally optional, but well worth the time needed to complete.

    All that to say, you can still have a random background table (which is awesome), just one that's generated by the character's role and background

  7. I've been experimenting with something similar to this as well. Though rather than giving a character goals, I instead gave all factions goals and made all characters initially a member of a faction. This way they can choose to stick to these goals, or (if they deem one or more of them to be wrong is some way) actively obstruct them, or just ignore them all together. Yet to play test it, but I at least like the idea of it.

  8. In Macchiato Monsters, characters level up by achieving group goals. I added personal goals as an afterthought, but they proved popular (and fum) in playtest sessions so I kept them. Making sure these goals aren't too easy to reach or too conflicting is always something I have to pay attention to. Looking forward to your next post :)