Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Specific Generic Sci-Fi Systems

There was an interesting line in the original Traveller Book 0 that likened the game to a generic game, one that you could play any sci-fi universe with the rules. Similarly, games like GURPS, d20 Modern, Hero system, and others have all presented detailed sci-fi rules that say they are generic, but really have a flavor all their own. All games have a 'feel' to them, especially sci-fi, where you start pulling in the skills and equipment from the base game, or trying to re-interpret the source material in the quirks and original feel of the roleplaying game. Let's take a look at using Star Wars with a couple rules systems, and examine a couple of the choices we would need to make to make things work.

Star Wars as told by Star Frontiers:  Stormtrooper armor is treated as cover, giving a -20% to-hit penalty to attackers. We would have to eliminate energy settings for blasters, and just give them a straight damage, like 2d10 for pistols and 4d10 for rifles. Damage in Star Frontiers is typically light compared to Stamina so characters can take a lot of hits before going down (this may be a problem with Stormtroopers, who typically go down in a hit). Starships would have to be converted to Knight Hawks, which would have problems with the system's physics based movement and hex-grid system. This conversion actually works fairly well, and the original game is close to the 'space adventure' feel of the movies, if not a bit more heroic and simplified.

Star Wars as told by Traveller:  Stormtrooper armor would need to be vectored out against the armors of the game, and the blasters added to the chart. Damages could be along laser pistols and rifles, which would take a character down in one shot. This would work for our Stormtroopers, but not so great for heroes. Starships are even more physics-linked here, and would need special rules apart from the main rules. There is a lot more hard science and "sim" in Traveller, so our Sar Wars conversion would work, but it would lack that Star Wars feel. Well, if Star Wars was written by Issac Asimov, maybe we'd have something.

Star Wars as told by GURPS: This could work, damage in this game is along the heavy side, with hex-based combat with many options from realistic to quick-and-easy. Starships are a bit technical, requiring a pretty robust design system. The problem would be limiting the game to just what's in Star Wars, since GURPS is such an expansive game with time travel, aliens, secret agents, and many other types of sci-fi all in one system. It would sort of feel like Star Wars as created by the SyFy channel, but a bit on the more realistic side.

Every game brings its own feel, and even the various Star Wars roleplaying games over the years had their own feels to them. The original d6 System was fast-and-loose, focusing on the serial adventure feel, while the later d20 games had a more technical character-build feel to them, with a more realistic, gritty take.

Deciding what's important to you is key here. What does Star Wars mean to you? When you design a game, taking into account how the game should feel and play is a personal decision made by the game designer, but also reflected by how others see the source material. Does the designer's views match up to what the market expects? Look and feel is important, it changes with the times, and it is one of those things that needs to 'click' - and have people respond to it positively. In the end it is a merge between mechanics, design, graphic arts, writing style, art, and presentation. A lot comes together to create 'feel', and it is a soft science of feedback merged with math and design.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Character Design as Choices

George and I had a great talk about character design opening up a series of choices during play. In a way, character design lays out the choices the player will make later in the game. Is my character strong? Do I envision my character doing a lot of strong things? Does my character know magic, and if so, what type? Design guides later choice.

Now let's look at less-optimal character design. These are choices you make during development that have no effect on the game later. A good example is buying the Craft (baskets) skill in a sci-fi game where basket weaving plays no part in the game later. Bad choices can be player afflicted, or they can come from the rules by design. Consider a derived character statistic that plays little or no role in the game, maybe it is a saving throw versus a particular class of magic item (rods), or a character statistic that is calculated but has an esoteric or specific use (the original Top Secret had Evasion and Deception statistics that were never described how they were used).

Another thing to watch out for is pigeon-holing a character in design, which would be like making a technician in the Original d20 Star Wars rules. Of course, your character was useful, but many players did not like being the character who was forced to stay behind and fix the starship while everybody else went out to explore the alien world. It's an extreme example, but it highlights a choice made in character design that puts your character in a disadvantageous position when it comes to play-time. This is a tricky subject, since you need to have a feel for the game's theme, how good the referee is at including fringe builds, and what the typical adventure is for the group.

In most pen-and-paper games, you can never go wrong with a combat-oriented class, but that is often the lowest common denominator in RPGs. If you think of more cerebral role-playing, like old-school Star Trek or even horror-based Call of Cthulhu, you can build characters out of the combat-trap. In the end it comes down to player choice and what's easiest for the group to support. If combat is the challenge, you will get more combat-geared characters. If the game and the group feel other non-combat play is valid, you will see build and adventure support for less traditional builds. When you think of 'choice' with character builds, you often have to consider the environment those choices are made in.

A key tactic to preventing pigeon-holing and meaningless choice is to tightly link character design to the world's theme. If you are playing intergalactic space pirates, focus the character designs on roles that would be active participants in the game world. Of course, space pirates have mechanics and cooks, but those classes are not central to the 'space pirate' theme you want for your game. You want classes that are out there, piloting ships, leading boarding actions, stealing cargo, and being a space rogue in the game world. Active roles beat passive roles - especially when playing with a group.

An interesting contrast are games like Pathfinder and D&D, where the referee needs to allow players to create 'adventurers' from any class printed in the books. Many times this turns out to be a challenge, as the referee is trying to figure out what a forest druid, inner-city thief, and paladin of the sanctuary are doing together. The theme of D&D type worlds is dungeons and treasure seeking, so many times these games assume a broad 'adventurer class' exists in the game world, which I have always felt is a little artificial and forced. I prefer my adventurers to be forced into being a hero, it inherently is more heroic and appealing, at least to me.

Think about motivations for creating characters, how things fit together, and the theme of your world. As an exercise, try designing a group of D&D characters who belong together, united by a single theme or purpose. Design should drive choice, and also focus on the fun.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Character Lifecycle

D&D4 is a unique game in that they consider the lifecycle of characters. They lay out the progression of heroes from level 1 to 30, talk about destinies, and lay out retirement options for characters. It is a fun system, of course, not all heroes make it, but it lays out a path for every hero to follow, and gives them many options for ending their heroic career.

I feel this sort of system came from some of the European boardgames that influenced D&D4's development; where the game cares about the endpoint, and sets forth a win condition that may or may never be reached. It puts a 'macro' feel on the game, and gives players a clear goal. Compare this with earlier versions of the game, where the goal was to gain power until 'maxlevel' is reached. IT feels nice to have these goals laid out for you, even if you never use them, or end up doing something totally different.

SBRPG does not have an endgame, due to its sandbox and traditional roots. The character goal in SBRPG is to complete faction goals, and those last as long as the factions and their goals remain relevant in the world's sandbox and theme. If your game's focus is the 1960's space race to the moon, and you end up colonizing the moon, there is not much room to go past that. Well, getting to Mars maybe, but that would be a theme change for the world, and require a bit of a rework for your game. The endgames in SBRPG are up to the gaming group to work out, and like a traditional RPG, up to the gaming group to work out.

Would thinking about endgames help SBRPG? Possibly, but SBRPG is so open, the endgames would be very difficult to mail down to a set group of options. A private eye in the 1920's could not become a god, and a lot of other poor fit scenarios come up when you predefine the paths. A better topic to handle would be faction-endgames, and linking the players to those. If your roleplaying game focused on a good guy secret agent organization was devoted to eliminating the bad guy group trying to conquer the world, then the endgame would revolve around finally destroying that bad guy group. The endgames for characters should begin there, and move onto obvious end points.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


One of the strange things we said in SBRPG is that conversions are expressly forbidden. This is like converting in another game's spell and monster list to SBRPG, and playing from those notes. Another conversion would be to take a long list of equipment and starships from a movie or franchise, and create a large equipment and power lists out of them. There are a couple reasons for this design decision.

Workload: Let me be frank here, but managing a huge database of spells, powers, classes, magic items, and monsters is just too huge of a task for anyone - especially when you consider voluminous works like D&D. Keeping that list up to date, balanced, and usable by players just adds to the work. As a GM, why double or even triple the work required to run a game? For movies, this is an open-ended affair, especially with sequels, and things always change (see, Star Wars).

Gameplay Mechanics: A lot of items in source material are linked to gameplay mechanics, such as D&D's iconic +1 longsword. In other games, the concept of a +1 anything may be an alien concept, they may not even use a system where +1 to-hit and damage makes any sense, or the theme of the world may be setup where a magic sword would be better served by describing what it does, such as a sword of sharpness. In other games, a +5% chance to hit and damage would not be anything special. A game's items should be linked to the theme of the game world, and a bulk conversion takes the opportunity to create unique items away.

Adventure Creation: I prefer to spend my time playing, rather than converting.  Adventures written for one system don't always convert easily to another, and the work done by the author to balance and create the original adventure is thrown away. In a time-to-fun metric, converting an entire adventure over to a new system pays out terribly, and it is much easier to play the module as designed.

Thinking in the System: I find it easier to think in D&D when playing D&D, rather than think in D&D while playing GURPS, SBRPG, or any other generic system used in a conversion project. It is a fun exercise to do the conversion, and even interesting to see a rules system interpreted a different way. In the long term, it wears down, and you are not really playing either system to its full potential. To play a game, it is always better to think in it. You get more enjoyment, and you don't have to put your brain in a game-emulation mode every time you play.

House-Rules are Easier: In all the conversion work I have done, it was always easier to live with the limitations of the source material (and house-rule the original game's short-failings), than it was to do the conversion work. If you can get agreement from the group on the custom rules and everyone is having fun, why convert to a new system?

In SBRPG, we rule out conversions - there are plenty of games better suited for conversion work; and frankly, conversions are a lot of work for a limited amount of fun, or the nostalgia of conversion. I could see a conversion for a long-out-of-print game or subject, maybe, but for everything else, playing the original game is a better proposition. With SBRPG, the focus is on rapid prototyping and creating new ideas and game worlds, totally different than conversion work, and much better suited to SBRPG's storytelling systems.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Design Room: Elminster's Forgotten Realms

I was reading Elminsters-Forgotten-Realms, which is basically a retrospective source-book for the Wizard's Forgotten Realms game. Inside are some very cool designer's notes by Ed Greenwood, along with some of his original manuscript reproductions from his submissions and notes about the world. It is not a campaign guide, but more of a retrospective and overview of the world, along with background on culture, food, society, and various groups throughout the world.

As with any Wizard's hardcover, the production quality is very nice, and the book is full-color throughout, with occasional paintings of nobles, citizens, bad guys, and other sample residents of the world. Not many are named NPCs, which I will get to later. The book delves into a lot of different topics, such as holidays, clothes, religions, locations, and other background data. If you want a traditional review, I am sure there will be plenty of discussion on the Amazon link (above), and you can decide for yourself if this interests you.

What we will do today is do a design room discussion, which is strictly limited to game design, theory, and the intended use of this in a game. D&D has a bit of a split personality right now, with the 4E reinventionalists, the 3.5E traditionalists, and the 5E new-classicalists. From the pre-launch discussion of this book, it seemed like it was going to be a book covering Ed Greenwood's home campaign. From how this reads, it seems more like a background book for any era of Forgotton Realms play - with a few major differences.

Designer's Notes

One of the best parts about the book are the reproductions of Mr. Greenwood's original designer's notes and typewritten submissions. Background data and behind-the-scenes info is given with these sheets, and it is a great addition to the book. As a world designer, these sections are priceless bits of info on the thinking and process behind world design, and very inspiring as well. I love designer's notes, and peeking into the creative process is rare and always appreciated. I wish the book would have went further here, with insight and backgrounds on creating the cast of characters that live in the realms, background on the books, and much more inside info covering the authors and fiction in the world.

Differences from D&D4

4E, and especially the 4E Forgotten Realms Guide, specifically adds Dragonborn, Eladrin, and Tieflings to the FR multiverse, along with concepts such as the Shadowfell and Faewild. From my first read through, I only found one picture of a Tiefling in the book, and hardly any mention of any of the other 4E specific concepts or races as mattering, or being important or present in the world. It seems almost as if the 4E specific stuff was left out, and the book concentrates strictly on the core 3.5E version of the realms.

Similarly, the points-of-light concept has been pushed aside, and the Realms is back to shadowy groups manipulating society, and monsters and the natural danger of the world being secondary concerns (despite the cover, I know). This is an important point, and also a distinction lost in the 4E conversion, the Realms has always been a more political world, with secret groups manipulating things behind the scenes, with powerful NPCs running clandestine plots and causing all sorts of trouble. In a sense, 4E's insistence that 'points of light' was the way to go was a step backwards for the Realms, as it lobotomized the intrigue and backstory to the world. Points of light assumes there is limited conflict among the good guys, and the Realms is not about that. In a way, the Realms is Wizard's "World of Darkness" setting (aka White Wolf), and reducing it to a simpler 'adventurers in Nerrath' feels wrong to me, and robs the setting of its unique charm.

In a sense, all these changes to the official 4E Realms make sense, since this is how Mr. Greenwood sees the world, and it is a 'classic' interpretation of the world and how it works. The break with 4E material is interesting, and it may signal a return to the classic FR setting in 5E, at least this is the way it feels to me. I would not be surprised if a rebooted version of the Realms (not in timeline, but in feel) is the default setting for D&D 5E. To support this theory, Mr. Greenwood also has a fun line in there about there being many false rumors and lies being spread in the world either intentionally by the bad guys, good guys, or by the uninformed masses. While this is a fun world detail for in-game use, it may also be a bit of author-speak to lessen or do-away with the material introduced in 4E.

NPCs & Factions

Wizards 'war on powerful NPCs' continues; as powerful NPCs are missing, a hallmark of the Realms since the first edition of the setting. This trend started in 4E, since the popular belief was that the Realms was unfun since referees and players felt their heroes couldn't exist in the world alongside the legions of powerful NPCs already present in the world. I like powerful NPCs, and I never really felt this was a hindrance to my enjoyment in the setting (nor my players). Having them missing in this book is a huge drawback

I never really made sense of the 'powerful NPCs make the game un-fun' theory either, to me they are color and make the world unique. As for powerful NPCs making the game un-fun; to me it makes as much sense as calling all of America un-fun as a role-playing setting: since the President and US Military will show up anytime there is trouble anywhere in the country. To me, it's always been a huge world, with a lot of room for struggles and epics without the NPCs being involved - or even having one along as a guest star for the adventure. I gave the Realms' NPCs no plot or GM immunity either, they could be changed, hurt, or eliminated just as much as anyone other character.

Factions are present and detailed, though the NPCs in these groups are not. As an overview of a 300 year span this may be practical, but it makes as much sense as discussing World War II and omitting the world leaders. To be fair, there are some charts of NPCs given from the author's design documents, but nothing saying 'X is the current leader of Y' sort of thing. I like powerful NPCs, and I like factions, so it feels like a surface discussion without too much 'boots on the ground' info.

Related to factions, the deities section is pretty good, but with all the changes in the FR pantheon from 1E to 4E, it seems a bit nebulous on the intended time period they were talking about. Mystra goddess of magic (since killed in 4E), is back, which syncs up with the info in the latest novels. This is another sign of a reboot coming with classic underpinnings. A number of other gods and goddesses are back, some vanquished in 2E and back in 3E, and the number and focus of them seems streamlined. It does sort of feel like a book setting up a Realms reboot, and that is interesting.

Overall Design

Elminster's Forgotten Realms is great as an overview book for culture, life, and the day-to-day in the Realms. It does not get into specific locations, people, or factions, and that is a minus to me. For the setting info, it is detailed and specific on a lot of color and culture, which I like and find interesting. If you play in the Realms, it is worth a look, since it gathers together a lot of information in one organized place. Experienced Realms players may know a lot of this stuff already, but for new players, this is a good primer for living and adventuring in this world (reboot hint, again).

Design-wise, the best part of the book are the designer's notes. This feels more like an intro-to-the-Realms book than anything else, minus some of the more important background NPCs. Who knows, maybe these groups and personalities will be introduced in the 5E guide to the Realms, but given the downplaying of powerful NPCs in the D&D product line, I would think not.

I do have mixed feelings about the Realms. A lot of changes have happened, some good, and some bad, and a reboot would make sense. A lot of excitement has moved onto other worlds, such as Pathfinder's Golarion and Midgard, 4E's Nerrath, the OSR DIY movement, and many others. Can the Realms recapture that excitement without the focus on the aspects that made it popular (books, NPCs, factions, and the world's focus on intrigue)? I hope they go back to the basics here, but also give up some of the current design hang-ups that prevent the Realms from being a great and powerful setting.

Overall, great book, great presentation, lots of value if you are a Realms fan, and wonderful designer's notes. Less value if you are looking for specifics and a gazetteer. Out of five stars, three; minus one for no PDF (we live in a new new world now), minus a half-star for a lack of specific NPCs, and minus another half-star for a lack of retrospective on the fiction and how it changed the world.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Delta Breaks Down, and the Rebuild

More play-testing reports today from Project Delta, and we hit the game pretty hard last night. We nicknamed our play-test exploiter group 'The Gank Squad' and they really dug into breaking rules. We had an exploit with a reaction-charge power that allowed one player to activate, and zig-zag zip around the map attacking enemy after enemy. It was perfectly legal, and supremely horrible to watch. We ended up putting triggering conditions on the reaction powers to limit when they could activate, and that helped a lot. Now the power allows a charge on enemy move, and this brought the power back to its intended use, and also eliminated the exploit.

We also had a situation come up with figures subject to fear that gave us a heated argument, and made me have to time-out and walk around the room to thiunk about it. We had a mechanic where feared figures were controlled by the referee during a special phase, and by design, when a figure 'activates' (by the GM) special activation-only resources for the figure reset. I said they should, since the referee is 'activating' the figure during the GM phase to move it under the fear effect, George said it was an exploit since this would essentially reset resources for the figure after fear broke.

We came to a compromise moving the figure activation out of the GM phase, and a side must check for fear break and move their feared figures first, without formally activating them. I got what I wanted was to not break the resource reset on activation rule, the last thing I wanted to have happen is have special cases for activation: where some resources don't reset, and in other cases they do. The
'sanctity of activation' resource resets were kept, and George got his 'feared figures do not gain a benefit' ruling, so it all worked out.

We had another situation where a side could basically shut down the other side's turn with the use of sleep or stun powers, given careful resource management by your team. We are modifying the activation rules to account for this, and there is still some heavy thinking going on here. General challenge is being addressed too, if you are skilled enough, it is easy to blow-out the other side. While masterful and a hoot to watch; it is not fun in the long-term, and we need to have more balanced fights to keep the game exciting and interesting.

Play-testing is hard, and having professional experience as a QA person under your belt helps too. Play-testing should not be fun or pleasant; you are exploiting, breaking, twisting the intent, finding cheats, arguing hard for obvious loopholes, and generally trying your best to be an ass in regards to the rules. You then have to be able to remove your feelings from the process, and then step back, take notes, and be objective despite having just fought tooth-and-mail with each other. The process is hard and sometimes exhausting, but it really produces superior, battle-tested, and well-thought-out rules.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Relative Balance vs. Absolute Balance

Game balance comes in two forms: relative and absolute. Now, we are talking about balance between the player characters and their opponents, the raw combat power vs. combat power with everyone going all out. Games are notoriously hard to balance, but the method of rating opponents matters a whole lot here.

Relative balance assumes the PCs and the 'monsters' are rated on different systems, such as D&D4, Aftermath NPCs (not PCs), basic D&D monsters, and D&D3.5 (monsters only, note this qualifier). The game system rates opponents on a different set of scores than player characters, often because the complexity of rating a monster as a PC would be so high as to be prohibitively complicated. These games tend to never be balanced correctly, since there will always be a difference between what characters can get away with and the limited set of powers monsters have. Balance is achieved through play-testing different combinations of player builds and monster ratings. This usually takes a long time and many patches to close loopholes, fix monsters, and adjust power levels. These games also have a better 'play feel' - since the experience is engineered to be fun and play perfectly.

Absolute balance assumes the PCs and monsters are rated on the same system, if a player finds an exploit or power combo, it is perfectly legal for the monsters to use it too. D&D3.5 PCs, SBRPG, Traveller, most of the TSR boxed games, and any other game that lets the referee spin up monsters using the character generation rules. Balance in these games is easier, since what you are balancing is one system - characters vs. characters. A lot of sandbox style games have this balance, with everyone playing on an even keel, all designed with the same system. These games are typically more difficult to play than relative balanced games, since the monsters are playing with a full set of powers and abilities. Victory goes to the smartest and best planned parties, rather than players being assured a balanced experience.

We recently had an issue with this in George's Project Delta BYOB miniatures system, where the monsters were rated on a relative scale for simplicity, and the characters started to blow them out scenario after scenario. We are moving towards a more absolute system for monsters, and the game is playing better. We play-tested a higher-level scenario, and the problems started to show themselves. We still want some of the relative ease-of-play and balanced feel, but the relative balance bug bit us, and we've had to re-tool the whole monster system to adjust.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

PCs as Actors or Stand-Byes

Some roleplaying games have something for players to do right off the bat, like Basic D&D. Here is a dungeon entrance, now go. The game assumes you are actors, in that the PCs are the ones taking action, causing trouble, and getting out there and doing something. In the case of the dungeon, there's not much choice, you either go down the hall deeper in, or bug out back to town.

Some roleplaying games start the PCs off as stand-byes, where the PCs wait for something to happen. A lot of storytelling games are like this, as are some generic systems. If you create characters and the players are sitting around wondering 'what's next?' you are probably playing a game where players are stand-byes (unless the referee is horribly unprepared). In these games, the referee needs to provide more motivation to the players, or the players need to be incredible self-starters.

A good game to examine is Shadowrun, where players can create a wide variety of character types. If you stick to the premise, where you are all a group hired by a patron to complete a mission - the game is focused, and the PCs are actors. If no one wants to take the mission, or the referee lets the players find their own trouble, the GM needs to provide direction, and the PCs are stand-byes. If the PCs take an active role and motivate themselves, they are actors again.

Different games provide different reasons to play, and some are easier to motivate players than others. In an open Sci-Fi game, such as Traveller, there can be millions of motivations and missions across the galaxy. Putting a group of players that don't self-start well into a game like this will make them stand-byes, and the referee will need to work hard to get them interested and motivated.

A variant of this actor or stand-bye theory comes from fiction, and a third role is added, the ally. Players as allies are doing missions for a group with motivations, such as the Rebels in Star Wars, soldiers in a war-themed RPG, and secret agents working for an spy agency. The motivation is the motivation of the group they work for, and motivating the group is easier (provided the players want to play along).

Understand what motivates your players, and pick games better suited to your group's ability to self-start, get motivated, and become involved with the world.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

If You Love Something, Break It

We were doing a playtest of George's Project Delta BYOB fantasy minis game, and we decided to do a stress test of the rules. The term 'stress test' in Software QA means to purposefully put the system under load, and try to get the system to break. We designed a party of characters with the sole intent to exploit, min-max, and break rules.

The system held up well, except for the high-strength druid shape-shifter, combo'ed with a mana regen build backing it up. This pair output damage four times higher than an average high-DPS character, and it was a hoot to watch. Not so good for game balance, but the combo was cool, and also quite broken. This will be addressed in our latest round of bug-fixes.

The larger issue here is in play-testing pen-and-paper RPGs. You get more value from players trying to break the system, than you do the designers of the game. There is a certain love and reverence the game designer's have for the game, and they tend to shy away from obviously overpowered combos and builds. This hidden respect and love actually hinders testing; and there is a time when you need to cut things loose, invite in the min-maxers and power-gamers, and let them have at it.

A lot of games aren't put through strict play-testing, or they grow so big it becomes impossible to test every combination. Both D&D3.5 and D&D4 hit these issues, and the current build-de-jour on forums and discussion boards became the next target for balance and nerfs, and the process repeated to no end. Granted, once you limit the source content, to say the basic three books, the number of exploits drops substantially; but even then, the basic books still exhibit a couple 'favored builds' and 'maximum damage' combos.

With a few paths to max-damage, the problem becomes this limiting player choice. As veteran MMO players know, if you don't min-max for the best damage, you are looked down upon. The best path becomes the only path. I am putting aside the obvious 'player freedom do what you want' argument here, of course, in a tabletop game, you can always make less-optimal choices and still play. For a miniatures game, balance and supporting many paths to victory is very important. This can be seen in other tabletop mini games like Warhammer, with generations of  'favored combos' being the only way to win, and the rules change, a new combo rises, and the cycle repeats.

If a minis game has a couple 'killer combos' and those become the only way to win, the tactical options are limited, and the game is weaker. Making the game strong is supporting many builds and play styles, making sure the combos work and are fun, and making sure everything works together in a scissors-paper-rock style of tactical experience. If rock always won, the game wouldn't be as much fun.

If you love something, break it, make it better, and then break it some more.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Super Massive Skill Systems

Once upon a time, game companies wrote huge, voluminous games, with skill systems covering hundreds of skills. They hid basic rules for movement, combat, and social interactions in lengthy skill descriptions. Character power was defined by how many skill points you could accumulate, and the largest portion of a character record sheet was the character's skill section. Some skills replicated ability score checks, so if you wanted to lift a boulder, your character used the Heft skill and not the Strength ability score. Character design required you to know how much a particular skill cost to raise a level, which skills you could buy, and calculating the rates at which you could raise them.

Oh wait, they still make these games.

Seriously, there is little reason nowadays to hang on to skill systems that look like phone books, and operate like tax laws. These skill systems promise the holy grail of complete character customization, but too often put such a huge burden on players for knowing how to work them and manage the record-keeping they create.

Take for instance D&D 3.5, with its collection of class skills (which you have to buy with starting skill points), cross-class skills (which are bought at half rate), and different maximum levels for each. Take for instance a bard from this game, here are the class skills, reprinted from the SRD:
Appraise (Int), Balance (Dex), Bluff (Cha), Climb (Str), Concentration (Con), Craft (Int), Decipher Script (Int), Diplomacy (Cha), Disguise (Cha), Escape Artist (Dex), Gather Information (Cha), Hide (Dex), Jump (Str), Knowledge (all skills, taken individually) (Int), Listen (Wis), Move Silently (Dex), Perform (Cha), Profession (Wis), Sense Motive (Wis), Sleight of Hand (Dex), Speak Language (n/a), Spellcraft (Int), Swim (Str), Tumble (Dex), and Use Magic Device (Cha)
Now a typical bard gets (6 + INT mod) x 4 skill points to start, so let's assume a +2 INT mod for 32 skill points to spend on 25+ skills (plus 8 every level); and also on cross-class skills (the rest of the 3.5 skill list). All well and good, but this is an extremely complicated system to teach to new players. Many times around the table, new players would have endless questions on skills and purchasing them, asking if a skill was important, how much a purchase cost, if a skill was in their class or not, and what the maximum level was for a skill given their class. When characters got higher level, the skill lists grew exponentially, with some characters taking an entire column of a book to record their skills.

To be fair, D&D 3.5 is not the most complicated skill system out there, but it is a great example. Also, they greatly simplified the skill system in D&D 4, which helped matters in some ways, and over simplified in others, but it was still a good step towards simplicity. Other good examples of large skill systems are Space Opera, Aftermath, the Star Frontiers reboot Zebulon's Guide, Palladium, and many other systems. Some of these systems don't use a skill point metric, but they do feature long skill lists with a significant record-keeping requirement.

When you design a role-playing game, think about the skill list. What purpose does it serve? Are there too many skills for what you are trying to do? Does it require a lot of record keeping? Is the way you buy skills complicated and require hefty math and reference? Does your game even require a skill system? Can you get the same customization effect through one of the systems already in your game, such as classes, feats, or specializations?

More is not always better, and a game that requires 20 ranks in Knowledge(Role Playing Game Skill Systems) isn't always one you want your players to understand just to be able to have fun and play the game with.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sand Houses and Class Design Documents

There is a trend with certain MMO games to 'change everything' every once and a while in order to shake things up. Specifically, class builds is what I am thinking of here, and in particular, the mage class in the new World of Warcraft expansion. The class does not play as it used to, with most area-of-effect powers gone, crowd control very limited, and a focus on player-versus-player builds and options. It probably makes sense given a renewed push for PvP combat, and the game has seen this sort of massive change to classes with every major patch.

It brings up an interesting point, how much can you keep changing things? Players expect things to work a certain way, and when that is taken away, it is a negative experience. Do this too much, and players lose interest. In many pen-and-paper games, the concept of the core classes and what they did remained the same. It took D&D4 to do any major rethink work on class roles, and this was mainly in response to the MMO world. For the most part, the core roles and abilities are what players expect to see, and you see a return to this in D&D5.

A strong class design lays out goals, and designs powers and abilities to meet those goals. If you were to define two types of mages, say a fire mage and an ice mage, you would do well to create a design document for the two of them, and clearly lay out what they can do, and what they excel at.

In our sample fire mage, let us say fire mages are experts at area-of-effect attacks and damage-over-time spells - fireballs and ignite type effects. A design document for ice mages could emphasize single-target damage abilities, blizzards, and the cold-as-slow effect. You should probably go into great detail about the specific roles of each, and make each class a solid choice in the design document. You need to answer the question, "What can this class do?" You also need to answer, "Is this class a unique and satisfying choice?"

With your design documents, you can design your classes with the rules. Keeping the concept apart from the rules is key here, if your rules change or you need to balance things, you don't have to change the concept. Also, the idea players have of the class in their heads will most likely match the design document, rather than the rules, so you can tweak things without the fear of totally changing everything for players who like the class. The goal in structured class design is to lay out the big ideas first, and then do the fiddly rules implementations later.

MMOs sometimes change things to create controversy, and keep players interested. If the class roles in an MMO were to ever settle down, people could get bored and leave. Some MMOs are more prone to this 'class churn' than others, just because of the people that run them, and their philosophy on how they keep players interested. Some MMOs have kept pretty the same over the years in regards to class roles, and others have changed everything a couple times a year. It is all the study of marketing, keeping customers interested, and making the 'store' seem fresh and exciting. A lot of these theories trickle down into MMOs, and as a result, pen-and-paper games. They don't work all the time, and many times, how pen-and-paper games work is a totally different world than MMOs.

Monday, October 8, 2012

PDF Sales: Wizard as Valve

Honestly, one of the areas Paizo has Wizards beat is PDF sales, hands down. I love my books, but it is super handy to have them as PDFs and carry them around on a tablet or e-reader. Gaming goes portable, and my rules are always at my fingertips. Why wouldn't Wizards want access to rules, modules, and other D&D material to be easier? Kids should be able to pull up a copy of D&D at recess on their phone, on their laptop in the library, or any other electronic device anywhere.

Ideally, Wizards should be like Valve, game makers in their own right, and also as the premier distribution spot for any edition of D&D and TSR game, ever; and also start pulling in their competitor's games. Wizards should go beyond being a game that makes RPGs, and be a company that owns RPG distribution and the community around them. Paizo is close to being that now, and it hurts seeing an incredible back catalog of TSR gems sitting there and unavailable for people to enjoy. Competition is great, and I'd love to see Wizards mount a serious effort to 'own' the world community of roleplaying beyond just D&D.

On the subject, limited print runs of TSR games are incredible, and I hope Wizards branches out and reprints hardcovers of Boot Hill, Gamma World, Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Gangbusters, and other great games. Sell them at a profit, doe a great job, and I will buy. Celebrate our history, support our players, and be a force which gives back to the larger community. Remember the network effect? The more people that play RPGs, the more people will play the new D&D - whichever version that is currently, 4th Ed, 5th Ed, and on and on.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pimp My Character: Feats and Talents

Going over key differences between D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, there is one that stands out: in Pathfinder, you get one feat every two levels; and in 3.5 you get one every three. In SBRPG, you buy semi-similar things called 'special moves' with your level-awarded character points. It is an interesting difference between the two implementations of D&D, and one that is worth exploring in a game-design sense.

Let's get our resources out of the way, and link the Pathfinder Feats and the D&D 3.5 SRD Feats here for reference. I could go over the differences in these to no end, as they are not entirely 100% compatible, and they are built along different deign goals. Also, Pathfinder's list is longer, you may want to go to the Unofficial Pathfinder SRD, and filter by the original rulebook to get a better comparison between the base games.

Pathfinder has about 50% more feats than the 3.5 SRD, and they have been reviewed and balanced a bit finer than D&D 3.5's list. Since you get feats more often, there have to be more, and also, they have to be power-balanced since you are getting more of them. At twentieth level, a Pathfinder character will have ten feats, where a D&D 3.5 character will have six. One result is an increase in complexity for Pathfinder characters, in addition to the per-level powers built into your class, you are tracking nearly twice the feats.

Power-balanced is an intentional term, since Pathfinder needs to work harder at feat-balance than D&D 3.5. It does not mean less powerful, since some Pathfinder feats are more powerful (cleave), and some are weaker (with a standard action use requirement). In general, Pathfinder feats are more specific, and 3.5 feats are more general purpose. It is a design decision possibly reflected by balance, class powers, the number of feats, and a bunch of other factors.

Feats and special moves are like the talent system used in many MMOs, and server the same purpose - to make your character different than others who have the same character class. It is interesting to see some MMOs split these into two or three specializations in the class, along with talent tree (WoW), specializations with their own talent trees (early WoW, Diablo 2), and pick-all systems like 3.5 (EQ, EQ2). Feats in Pathfinder and D&D seem to be more like rules tweaks than MMO character customizations, so it is a comparison with key differences.

Do feats need to be broadened, and allow for greater customization? Possibly so, you could imagine picking less feats (1/4 perhaps), and gaining greater powers inside the feat. Selecting an 'elemental fire warrior' that gives you extra fire damage per attack, fire immunity, and other powers would be cool, and move the feat system towards a higher-level of customization than just rules tweaks like 'improved crit range'.

It depends on your goals 100%, if your game is more focused towards tweaking rules, than feats how they exist are fine. If you see feats as being character customization, you need less of them with more power and 'punch' to them. One thing you don't want to do is lay extra systems on top of feats to accomplish the same thing, such as creating an extra class specialization system on top of your already in-place and working feat system. If the goal is to allow for customization, make one system that does it well, and avoid duplication of sub-systems.

One of the problems with D&D4 was excessive duplication. They had two multi-classing systems, a feat system, synergies within class power trees, and they also made new classes to cover variant builds. It was a nice system in the first three books (the first multi-class system was not the best), but it quickly grew unmanageable one you added expansion volumes. Needing a computer program to generate valid characters was a problem at most of out D&D4 games, many players enjoyed the convenience, but they also did not like the ability to do it themselves, and craft builds in their heads.

What is the lesson to take away? Possibly that character customization systems need to be built into the game from the ground-up, in order to avoid duplication and complexity. Building them in from the start also gives the system a feeling everything works out of the box, that this is the way classes work, and these are the ways you can customize each one. Give people clear paths, and they will be happy and walk them.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Competitive Play: GMs vs. Players

Ouch. I hit a nerve with George the other day with the D&D 3.5 coverage. He was quick to point out he felt D&D 3.0 and 3.5 brought a lot of competitive play to the table, with players interested in creating killer builds to 'beat the game' rather than 'play a role-playing game.' We have seen this at our table, with players bragging about builds they found on forums, and their intent to play them in the game.

My response is typically to not invite those players back to our games. It is harsh, but really, I want to associate with people interested in the world we create together around the table, and respect the rules (broken parts and all). If you want to power-game, there are plenty of MMOs that fill the need better than my game will. It also shows a disrespect of the group you play with, if all you want is to beat the referee, you should question why you are playing.

I will admit there is a line between wanting to do well, and seeking out broken builds and combos to win the game. There is also a problem in all games there are bad choices and good ones, and you shouldn't penalize players for being clever and making good choices. However, exploiting a feat to get unlimited attacks during a round, or a magic item to create your own pocket universe are way over the line, and frankly unfair to everyone.

I feel like my parents when I say, "Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should."

D&D 3.0 and 3.5 also have part of the Magic: The Gathering DNA in their designs, a very highly competitive game. Players there are used to being unfair to each other with combos and rules, and Wizards has had to ban cards that were used in exploits. That competitive 'build the best class like you would a deck' spirit lives on in D&D 3.5 and its descendants, and it drives interest in the game. When it is used to 'beat the GM', it turns dark, and is a negative, at least to me.

I guess this all breaks down to playing with good players, ones experienced enough to know there are ways to break every game; and to as a group, agree to stay away from cheesy exploits and forum builds. It is an issue of maturity and respect for players, and yes, the dark side is supported by rules systems with exploits and un-thought-out parts.

The old saying is, "A referee can make any game fun."

I guess the next saying would be, "A game is only as fun as the players."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

With So Many Options, Why Dungeon?

I had another fun discussion with George this morning. We were talking about the Basic D&D retro-clones, such as Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy. Both are great games, simple, well supported, and very focused on dungeon crawling. If you want the original experience of exploring a spooky old crypt or dungeon, you can't do better than these games. Why?

Focus. There isn't much else in these games but the classic experience. In both games, you can make your hero, buy equipment, select spells, and get going quickly. The rules have little else in them, there are traps, monsters, treasures, and rules for a couple other things related to dungeon crawls. The games do not do much more, and that is a strength.

Now take a more generic system, but still focused on dungeon crawling, such as D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder. There are skills, crafting, travel rules, social interaction, and so much else in them. Dungeon crawling still feels supported, but there is so much more to the world, why limit yourself to dungeons? There are stories to tell, movie-like experiences to have, and worlds to explore and conquer. Since the game has rules for everything, the focus of the game changes (not for the worse, mind you), and a lot more becomes 'adventure material.' The strength of these games are their flexibility, along with retaining a focus on dungeon adventures.

Now take a 100% generic game, such as Gurps, Hero System, SBRPG, or other games. Dungeon crawling is even less supported, and the activity can even feel strange in them. They still have rules, but the focus of these games is so wide, dungeon crawling is only 1% of the things you can do. These games are better for simulating anything, TV, movies, books, or your own creations. You can simulate dungeon crawling, but with so much other stuff, why limit yourself? The strength of these games is in their adaptability to any concept or idea.

Monopoly is focused on deals and real estate trading. Chess is grid-based strategy. The OGL fantasy games are focused on dungeon crawls. Pathfinder and 3.5 have a broader focus, more along the lines of 'adventure fantasy.' RPGs are very flexible; but understanding a game's focus lets you play it in a more focused manner and experience the game fully. In the end, you play what you love; but in analyzing designs, understanding a game's focus is a key concept.