If I stop working out for three years, I won’t be in as good of shape when I start up again. Ditto if I stop playing chess, stop writing, or stop making websites. Our skills and abilities deteriorate without use and yet this is almost never modeled by role playing games.
Considering that rather meteoric growth exhibited by player characters (from novice to Master’s degree in the course of a game week is not particularly uncommon), it feels like atrophy would be a good moderating force to keep player characters from getting too far from the universe they inhabit.
Types of Atrophy
In my mind, there are two main types of atrophy to consider:
- Mechanical Atrophy
- Narrative Atrophy
Mechanical atrophy is a form of character degeneration with specific rules for its implementation. Minuscule as they are, the AD&D 3rd ed rules for aging are technically mechanical atrophy rules.
Narrative atrophy occurs in response to story events and usually happens by GM fiat.
Problems With Atrophy
The biggest problem with atrophy rules is player buy-in. Most people are interested in character growth and atrophy feels like just the opposite. This is why so many systems that do include atrophy rules make them optional or easy to avoid.
- Decades of game time need to pass before AD&D aging rules come into play
- Old Age must be chosen as a disadvantage in White Wolf and L5R games
- Forces can only be permanently lost during Celestial Combat in the In Nomine universe
More comprehensive mechanical systems might require a player to track their skill use and take a penalty if they go a certain number of sections without using one of their skills. However, this approach has its own problems.
- Extra bookkeeping
- Disincentive to take flavor skills
- Extra incentive to “grind”
For those unfamiliar with computer role playing games – grinding basically means entering fights or using skills when there is no need in order to maintain or advance a relevant ability. It is almost always a distraction from the main story and usually seen as boring, unnecessary, and repetitive.
Solving the Problem
Don’t Rest Your Head
Don’t Rest Your Head has a particularly innovative approach to mechanical atrophy. Rather than experience points, the game gives out scars. These scars provide a minor in-game bonus whenever the character faces an experience directly relevant to the memory (one line summary) that accompanies the scar. However, they can chose to “cash in” the scar for a major one-time benefit.
Because the player has chosen to exchange the minor, long term advantage for the larger immediate advantage you have your buy-in. Moreover the memory remains, it just ceases to have a mechanical input. In effect, the character is still growing, even if their mechanical capability has been diminished.
I Used to Be Someone
There is also a narrative atrophy approach that can be used in just about any game system.
I have a friend who is very good at running generational games. After a few campaigns, he will have the current player characters retire and move onto the next generation. Most of the old player characters become the political movers and shakers whom the new player characters need to serve and placate. BUT if someone really wants to run their old character, they can provide the GM with an explanation for why their condition has deteriorated rather than improved, and must reduce their character to the same power level as their new peers.
Once again you get character growth and player buy-in even though the character itself has deteriorated as far as the mechanics are concerned.
If you decide to allow this type of atrophy into your game, I would encourage you to allow the diminished character to take more flaws than usual so long as their skills mostly align with what they’d had previously.
What Are Your Thoughts
Atrophy is one of those things that I’d like to see introduced into more games, but I’m still basically in the brainstorming phase. I’ve listed a couple of ways to make it work but if you have any other experiences with atrophy in RPGs (good or bad) I love to hear about them in the comments.