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Skip Navigation LinksHero System>Relevance and Reliability
The Fine Art of Character Assessment
Many GM's (and to a lesser extent some Players) are often concerned about how to gauge the capabilities of characters; to predict how they will perform and contribute to a campaign. Most people end up considering things like how much damage a character can inflict, how many "Active Points" they have in abilities, their general combat effectives as gauged by their ability to hit, to absorb damage, and how many actions they can take.
Some GM's are more concerned with how many skills talents and perks a character has, how well the character's abilities fulfill the promise of their background; how many story hooks project from the character to ensnare them fully into plotlines, and how many opportunities the character has to participate in roleplaying scenes.
The occasional GM tries to identify what "archetypes" a character falls into which can be a useful way of using past characters to inform an assessment about a character with similar elements. Speedsters tend to function in certain ways and place different demands upon a game than a Mentalist for instance, and a GM able to recognize the various archetypical traits of characters can shortcut their development process by tapping into their past experiences.
And of course some GM's use many such techniques.
I use some of the techniques mentioned above, and have used others in the past, but over the years I've found that in the end character assessment can be distilled down to two very broad considerations.
The first consideration is Relevance; a measure of how pertinent a character is to the style of the campaign at hand.
What is important to a particular campaign are often subtle and frequently difficult to summarize intangibles that a GM knows are essential to what they want to evoke and accomplish, even if they can't always express them clearly. Characters that fit in with some or all of the considerations important to the GM's vision can simply be said to be Relevant to the campaign.
Since different campaigns vary in what they are about, the same character can be very relevant to some campaigns and irrelevant (which is to say out of place) in others. This is why some characters are fantastic in some games but come up short in different campaigns that seem similar on the surface. This is obviously true across genres and power levels, but it is also true across campaigns in the same genre and power level.
This is often seen even in campaigns that have multiple GM's; under one GM a character shines and under another GM they falter, which sometimes leads to assumptions of GM bias but which can often be traced to the hidden dynamic of Relevance at work. Though technically the continuity of the campaign is not disrupted, variations in focus and vision between GM's in a revolving or shared GM scenario have an often underestimated or unrecognized influence on how well some characters are able to contribute and conform.
To determine a character's Relevance a GM must first know what their campaign is going to be about. In most campaigns this boils down to Roleplaying and Combat, but this can be shaded in many different striations. And of course specialized campaigns usually have equivalently specialized considerations of Relevance.
For instance the needs of a noir crime / hardboiled detective campaign are very different from a high camp space opera campaign. The most detailed and perfect Bogartian gumshoe would be god-like in one such game (high Relevance and Reliability), and completely out of his depth in the other. Some would look at that example and cry "foul", assuming that the detective campaign must be set in the Pulp era and the space opera must be something futuristic, but HERO Gamers worth the name know that they could just be two different takes on the same exact setting and material.
The second consideration is Reliability; a measure of how dependable the character is, their ability to make their actions matter.
Reliability is a little harder to figure, but it's basically just a numbers game. However, to determine a character's Reliability a GM must first define what it is the character is supposed to be good at. For some characters this is bleedingly obvious, but other characters require a more discerning eye.
The goal is to define the character's metier, their raison d'etre, their shtick. In some ways this is just archetyping by another name, but it is typically a more discerning approach. At any rate it can all be boiled down to the process of answering the question "is the character good at what they do?".
For ease of use, I typically use a handful of descriptors describing each character's Relevance and Reliability in order of most to least:
  • Extremely
  • Very
  • Somewhat
  • Barely
For the more numerically inclined, these can also be assigned number values as follows:
  • Extremely (3 points)
  • Very (2 points)
  • Somewhat (1 point)
  • Barely (0 point)
In general characters that have less than 4 points combined between their Relevance and Reliability are going to be underperformers and / or experience difficulties contributing to the campaign.
Characters that have particularly low scores are not only ineffective, they are usually disruptive to the game as well.
Once a GM knows what their campaign is about, employing this form of character assessment is a snap. For each character simply decide if they are Extremely, Very, Somewhat, or Barely Relevant to the campaign.
Once that has been done, the GM then just decides how dependably the character can succeed at doing their "thing" when the opportunity arises; in other words are they Extremely, Very, Somewhat, or Barely Reliable, when considered as a whole.
Aside from serving as a useful assessment tool, this method can also be employed to improve an existing campaign. From time to time in roleplaying games in general one or more PC's just don't seem to gel with the themes of the campaign, or fail to be effective when the time comes to take actions or handle task resolutions.
Sometimes a GM can quickly put their finger on the pulse of the problem and contrive to correct for it, but more often such a character meets an untimely end, is abandoned by the player, or enters into a cycle of revision and alteration in search of fitting in more successfully. Unfortunately most such revision is usually done haphazardly and frequently the changes don't make a noticeable improvement, or require multiple distracting iterations to take effect.
That's where this method comes in handy. What is lacking in the character is almost always evident by carefully considering the character's Relevance and Reliability. Assuming the "problem character" in question is decently designed in an objective sense, and the player of the character is competent, the crux of the disconnect is either that the character isn't very Relevant to the campaign, or that when the abilities they have do prove to be Relevant they cannot be Relied upon, or both.
Usually simply improving the character's Relevance to the campaign and / or stabilizing their ability to succeed at what they are supposed to be good at...i.e. improve their Reliability... is all it takes to make the character fit in better and contribute to the health of the campaign in a productive fashion.
Millennial Men
The Millennial Men campaign is a superheroic "Champions Universe" campaign with about a 60/40 split between Combat and Roleplaying and a "Bronze Age" feel. The following list is my assessment of the Relevance and Reliability of several Player Characters in that campaign.
Name Score   Relevance Reliability
Rook 5 Very Extremely
Turbofist 4 Very Very
War Man 5 Extremely Very
Alliage 3 Very Somewhat
Wrath 4 Extremely Somewhat
Legend 5 Extremely Very
Blackjack 4 Somewhat Extremely
Gravitic 4 Very Very
Hype 5 Very Extremely
Chitin 3 Very Somewhat
Major Savage 5 Extremely Very
Interestingly, the characters that were most successful in the campaign were the ones that scored highest on average, while the characters that had a lower overall average between the two considerations were less successful overall.
Though all of the Mill Men were quite "powerful" on paper, the lower scoring heroes struggled to find their place in the campaign or needed to be carried by their teammates on various occasions or otherwise failed to be considered as impactful as the more Relevant and Reliable characters.
The MillMen campaign was played out over a long period of time, and as is normal in campaigns that endure more than a few sessions, a definite pecking order of character value developed with some characters rising to the fore as the most useful and capable of the group. Most just accept this hierarchy at face value and assume that some of the characters are simply "better" than the others.
While it is true that some degree of distinction can stem from superior character design, or from individual players "making" their character "work" via player skill, there are bigger forces at play than merely who shaved a point finer than the next player or interjected their character into a scene with more vigor than the other player.
As a for instance, if in the Millennial Men example I as the GM were to alter the focus of the game subtly, the Relevance of the characters would imperceptibly fluctuate. Similarly if I were to switch up the sort of obstacles that the characters must overcome, or favored a particular sort of resolution, the Reliability of various characters would go up or down in response. Over time the pecking order of which characters were more highly regarded would change to favor the currently more Relevant and Reliable characters even if I never assigned another experience point and the characters themselves did not change their configuration.
Many GM's do this sort of refocusing or rebalancing, consciously or not, when they deliberately "put things in" to a session with the intent of giving specific characters a hook or something to shine at. By adding a scene or a plot element, or favoring a particular antagonist or theme over other options to cater to a particular character or subset of characters in the campaign, the Relevance of those characters is being enhanced while the Relevance of the other characters in the campaign are being reduced.
If this sort of things is done as a one off the overall impact is low, but if done as a trend the focused characters will rise in the perception of the group if they are able to Reliably take advantage of the offered opportunities to shine and will drop in the perception of the group if they tend to fumble...which is to say the tend to be Unreliable when given the opportunity to benefit from the proferred spotlight time.
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