Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The broadest strokes

My plan is to roll stuff out piecemeal so I can explain it as I go along. My theory is that the bulk of explanatory text and examples are really only useful the first time you read something, so I'd rather not bulk up the document and spend a ton of time formatting that stuff. This way the examples can be more thorough since there are no space constraints. To that end, most of what appears below is just a more complete rendition of what appears in the link. The thought is that you'll be better able to triangulate the intention with more data.

What we're doing here is setting up the overarching framework of how power is introduced to the game. At first level you get a bit extra, but in general the framework should be similar: you have a level, a race, and a class. 

Character Level
Your level provides ability points to increase abilities, feats every even level, and a "level bonus" (equal to 1/2 total level) that is added to a handful of level dependent stuff. The level dependent stuff is a major way in how characters improve with respect to other characters and monsters. Most stuff in the game really doesn't scale that much (i.e. if you're +4 to attack and first level, you might be +6 or something at level ten). So while your chance of hitting doesn't change that much, what happens when you hit does change. You'll do more damage (level dependent), use stronger attacks (because you have more powers), and can use your most potent stuff more often (more action points). The result of this approach is that creatures of differing levels can more easily interact. A low level guy fighting a high level guy will actually hit fairly regularly, it is just that the high level guy will shrug it off. 

At first level, you gain more ability points (or you can roll) and a feat despite it being an odd level.

Your race is just a bundle of middling powerful powers. There are no ability bonuses or other powers important enough that race-class combinations are practically determined for you. This isn't to say that certain races won't be better at certain classes, but never so much better that the guy who wants to play class X feels they have to play race Y. 

To be honest, I'm sort of ambivalent about races in general. I think races are a really useful vehicle to get powers to a character and make them more interesting. The problem is that racial powers have lately been so tied up with combat that picking your race has become the first step in the power-creep arms race. I think races would add the most to the game if, instead of pushing a character further down their narrow focus, they broadened the character out. That is, if you had fighters that could cast Light instead of fighters that could Second Wind as a minor action. That isn't to say the powers can't be useful in combat, I just don't like how transparent race-class combinations have become and then having to deal with the narrative awkwardness of a player not wanting to portray any of the cultural/RP aspects of the race they picked.

Your race also adds a set of racial talents to the pool of talents you can choose from. The idea of "pools" that you can choose from crops up a lot but it isn't a new idea. It could be rephrased as, "there are a bunch of talents with Requirement: Dwarf. If you are a dwarf, you meet the requirement." 

At first level, you gain a talent. You can spend it on a racial talent or a regular talent.

Your class provides the bulk of  your power through masteries. Masteries provide actions called strikes (typically standard actions; they're your attack actions) and maneuvers (typically move actions; they're your literal moves and buffs). Both of these will get a lot more detail in the days to come and they'll crop up constantly. You can also gain strikes and maneuvers from other things like magic items, the terrain, your allies, and so on.

Your class also provides proficiency bonuses. Most of the neat stuff in the game (strikes, maneuvers, feats, talents, and more) all have proficiency requirements. Proficiencies serve as the backbone of the system that allows multiclassing to easily occur. If we think about 3e, the belief was that a level-is-a-level-is-a-level. But in truth a Fighter 8 jumping into Sorcerer 1 probably lost power compared to Fighter 9. In this system, the Fighter 8 would have an Arcane proficiency of +4 (all of it from level bonus) so when he jumped into Mage 1 he'd have Arcane proficiency of +5 (+4 level bonus and +1 from Mage). He can skip the weakest mage powers and jump into something more useful to his level. He can't access the stuff that a pure mage could access, but he isn't relegated to stuff too weak to justify the switch.

You can also see that certain multiclassing wouldn't hurt him at all. If our Fighter 8 jumped into Knight 1, his Martial proficiency would continue to increase so that when he went back to Fighter he wouldn't have lost much at all. If we continue the example, a Fighter 8/Knight 8 would have the same Martial proficiency as a Fighter 16 and so could take the same Martial fighter powers as a pure fighter. He would have a much lower Nimble score, though, and so could not meet the requirements for those fighter powers. In this way, you can blend your proficiencies to really create a profile of the character you want to play, taking different elements from different classes to build whatever you want.

Classes gain a talent every even level. This is a minor tax to discourage multiclassing in that if you take a single level of a bunch of classes, you'll miss out on some talents. 

At first level, you pick three or more affinities which are the equivalent of skills in other games. We'll talk more on these in the days to come. You also get the classes starting feats, typically four. These are things like armor proficiency, additional affinities, spell casting stuff, and so on. You only get the starting feats of the class you take at first level, but, importantly, they are feats. So if your first level is Mage you won't have any armor proficiencies, but you can take them with regular feats later if you want to be the platemail clad mageknight. 

Power categories
Runeward is designed to be accommodating to adding new rules and new content. One of my complaints with D&D is that there are actually few vehicles to introduce new stuff into the game without disrupting it. If I decide that my world needs a robust system for literacy and languages, I don't have many options. I could make it a skill but now I've disrupted the skill-point economy. I could make it a feat but now I'm asking players to trade off combat effectiveness for literacy. I could create an entirely new system, but those often feel tacked on because they are so clearly tacked on. Instead, I tried to develop clear categories of power so that when stuff was added, it could compete in the appropriate sub-economy.
  • Talents. Talents are the weakest category of power. If you think about taking all of the 3e classes and making every class power a feat, talents are the class power feats that no one would take. They are supposed to be the stuff that makes a character interesting as opposed to more effective. If you decide that your campaign will give literacy some RP-game time, then it would be a talent.
  • Feats. Feats are the gatekeeper--you can wear armor, you can't; you are proficient with that weapon, you aren't--and are usually just recorded on the character sheet. You usually don't have to remember you have a feat during gameplay. Two important exceptions to this exist, but they'll get their own discussing in the days ahead.
  • Masteries. Masteries are the flashy actions that you actually take. You will need to remember that you have a mastery because you'll say, "I use X strike" or "I use Y maneuver." 
There are actually a few more categories that we'll cover in time but this serves as an efficient overview. 

Legends and Lore

The Legends and Lore articles started becoming a regular feature a month or so into my little project. There's definitely a logical progression to what they're doing, so I often read the article and reacted with glee that they were discussing the same things I just realized I needed to resolve. This made me feel good at first, like I must be on the right track. Now not so much.

Most annoying is the incredibly generous usage of the concept of "dials." What isn't a dial these days? The most recent article uses the idea of a thermometer to hone in on your preferred balance of concrete rules to just letting the DM adjudicate a rule on the fly. But this dial is utterly impossible to provide. If someone wants to turn the dial up on concrete rules, that means those rules had to have been created. They had to have been written, edited, and printed. If someone wants to turn the dial back, they can't get away from having to flip past those rules, they paid for those rules, they carried those rules to the table, and everyone knows they are there hanging over ever decision the DM adjudicates. Once the option to turn the dial up exists, you cannot truly turn it back.

Moreover, I think we have too generous an ascription of the idea of a dial. It is not like we can click the dial one notch and carve off 5-10 concrete rules, they're going to be lumped into maybe two or three settings for the sheer necessity of organization. A "dial" with two or three settings is probably best described as something other than a dial. We're implying a level of precision that we're incapable of delivering on.

Regardless, I actually think the underlying topic of today's L&L is one of the most important they've touched on so far. The basic trade off between what should we rely on the DM to resolve and what should we develop rules to cover. When I pondered through it I saw it more as a scale with every conceivable event that could arise having to be placed on one side or the other. Each side brings along its own burdens and you have to figure out your preferred balance of rule-ambiguity and rule-precision.

For me, I view the costs of rule-precision to be greater than the costs of rule-ambiguity. If you want a precise rule, you carry that rule with you through all parts of the game. Not only the stuff I talked about above (paying for writing, editing, printing, physically carrying, etc), but it also hangs over ever other rule. If I wanted to push a statue onto a monster in 2e I probably just made an attack roll with strength. It makes sense, I mean, ultimately the statue is just going to do a bunch of damage, so an attack is proximate enough. You could move really far in 2e so we didn't worry about getting over there and climbing up to a point where I had leverage. We just rolled and saw what happens. Then it was someone else's turn.

As the game got more concrete, the existence of rules suggested limitations. We should probably see if I had enough movement to get over there and climb (half speed) up the statue. Since I'm climbing, I should probably make a quick check with a bonus since it is near a wall (chimney). If I didn't have enough move, then I don't have enough actions. I should probably make some sort of a Strength check and maybe a Dex-based melee touch since if the statue hits it'll do the damage I want. In 4e maybe instead it'd be an attack vs. Reflex and we'd consult the table for the limited damage expression. The more concrete editions certainly provide a more tools to resolve the action, but there were now so many little chances to fail that it was no longer worth trying. Attacking normally was easier and, often, more powerful.

[It's a joke]

This isn't rose colored glasses, 2e is objectively my least favorite edition, but that isn't to say that it didn't do certain things better than later editions. In the case of balancing adjudication and rule-precision, 2e gave a handful of broad tools. Each tool had a pretty distinct role so it wasn't hard to figure out when it was the right tool for the job. The result was that the game always gave you a starting place for adjudication that was fair-ish and you just trusted the DM to tweak it a little bit for the unique exigency of whatever it was you were doing. To round back on the hypothetical of the scale, I see 2e as a handful of large, concrete rules on the rule-precision side and a big amorphous blob of whatever unique situations arise on the DM adjudication side. That's a good balance, in my opinion, and I think there's obviously potential to develop much better tools than 2e provided.

Monday, December 5, 2011

I guess we're back

Being "done" is sort of frightening. Fortunately, I'm not done. There is a point where the diminishing marginal return of number crunching and theorizing is so diminished that it really doesn't make much sense to continue. I probably hit that point about a month ago and just walked away to see if when I came back I felt any different. I didn't and the gripes I have with the game are probably best measured and rectified after getting feedback from some fresh eyes. I have some formatting and what not to wrap up, but I think a lot of the shortcomings of the document can be smoothed out by just throwing a rambling post up to explain in many words whatever it was I couldn't explain in few.

I hadn't looked at my list of elements in a while, so I decided to round back and see how I did.

  • Easy to add. Probably better than I originally imagined. This element was first for a rather important reason--that if you want to crowd source content, it is an absolute must--but it sort of became the focus of the game. I think it will be really, really easy for people to add and customize stuff.
  • Tools and guides. They aren't done, but I think they'll be easy enough to produce and very informative. I really think the learning curve is short and the mastery-curve is long. That's a good thing.
  • Quicker combats. The potential is definitely there but I really have no idea. I think this is where fresh-eyes and play testing will be important. The details can be easily tweaked to have quick combat, but it might not be there just yet.
  • Less grid-reliant. Absolutely. Zones make a grid largely irrelevant but miniatures are still useful for showing relationships. I think it is the best of all worlds; you get the fun of minis and physical objects but not the drag of counting squares.
  • Less to remember. Like quicker combats, it definitely *should* work out that way but I guess we'll have to see. Marking didn't jump out at me as a horrible mechanism at first either.
  • Less to memorize. I think this will be a success as well. The game is designed to put smaller decisions to the player more often instead of a few huge decisions. As a result, a lot of the information can be withheld until the moment of the decision, which just means you need to keep less in your head. I think that will be a win for experienced and new players.
  • Strong core system. The system is certainly "strong and clearly communicated" but I'm not as sure anymore what this means. If I meant "clearly defined and delineated math" then I guess no. If I meant a robust system that performs consistently across many dimensions, then I guess yes.
  • Character building. Absolutely. The idea I kept going back to is that I wanted to "build" a character instead of "pick" a character. I think that'll happen.
  • More room for adjudication. Yeap. The system trades a few useful tools for the bulk of rules that go with a lot of games. Those tools work really well with just a little adjudication. The trick, though, was to put some thought into the range of those tools to push the adjudication to be fair. I imagine this point will take some selling and will meet with initial resistance. I think I can sell it, though.
  • Favorable system assumptions. Not really. Instead the system is just flexible enough in the content that it really isn't an issue.
When I looked back at the list of elements I was surprised, in truth, at how well I did. It is probably still a pipe dream to think that enough content will ever be crowd sourced to make a full game, but I can always plug away and have fun. I concluded the first list by saying that if the game "achieves these goals, it will at least be worth giving a look." I think that, at a minimum, has been achieved and I'm excited to be ready to share stuff about it again.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Unexpected revelation

I'm actually getting fairly far into my design and so wanted to transition back into posting some discussions about abstract topics. We'll get to the more concrete stuff eventually....

Some incredibly brief background
  1. I enjoy most of 4e but I really miss 3e style multiclassing. I had a good idea on how I could overlay multiclassing onto 4e and keep most of it intact, but a few hiccups and general ambition pushed the redesign a bit farther.
  2. Eventually, it went far enough that it wouldn't overlay 4e very well and I realized a lot of new content (i.e. powers) would have to be produced. If that was the case, might as well slaughter a few sacred cows....
  3. The changes I made were pretty cosmetic in the grand scheme of things (it was still very much a D&D-esque system) and it was serving my basic design goals.
  4. Then the unexpected revelation hit. It bummed me out. It led me to a redesign. 
The unexpected revelation
One of my design goals was to have a really robust mathematical underpinning to the game so that the foundation would be stable enough to handle just about anything people wanted to introduce. Make it stable, and they can shake it as much as they want! It was great in principle, but it turned out boring in practice. The decisions and tradeoffs ended up feeling artificial. They were really well balanced, could be easily interchanged, and were infinitely versatile, but they were also basically all the same.

I eventually realized that this was the same issue I have with 4e, just expressed differently. In 4e, if you assign your 20 to dexterity you make sure to attack with dex and are +5 attack and +5 damage and increase your AC by 5. If you assign it to strength, you are +5 attack and +5 damage and wear Chainmail. You sort of end up the same with only cosmetic differences. Even worse, 4e probably did it better than me.

Now, I don't want to be too critical. To some extent, you need all characters to have around the same attack bonus and the same defense bonuses or else the dice don't cooperate and the game breaks down. But when you build a system on outrageously robust math (like 4e and like I was trying to do), it is really easy to see through the cosmetics and becomes bored.

The new path
On my redesign, I sort of just let the game go wherever looked like interesting ground. I think it is still very much in the spirit of D&D, but it is no longer strictly a D&D clone. I really have no idea if people will like it or if it would even be fun to play since I'm not there yet.

One of the things that I think is really neat, though, is that I made the math even simpler and the decisions you make even cleaner, but clouded some of the outcome certainty. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense out of context but it should become clearer over time. So far it has been pretty enjoyable to work on and it feels like it will be quick and punchy in play. Regardless, it certainly doesn't feel boring.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A modest (stat) proposal

I got into a debate over abilities in 4e and my continued opposition to the drive of 4e to consolidate in one (or a few) abilities. The output of the debate was to try a carrot approach instead of a stick and see where that gets us.

The following would probably find its home under the "1. Ability Scores" section of Leveling Up in the PHB.

Ability scores
There are two types of ability increases: heroic and paragon. A heroic ability increase can increase an ability score to a maximum of 18 and a paragon ability score can increase an ability score to any value. Two heroic ability increases can be combined to gain a single paragon increase and a single paragon increase can be traded for two heroic.

At 4th and 8th level, gain two heroic ability increases.
At 14th and 18th, gain a heroic and a paragon ability increase.
At 24th and 28th, gain two paragon ability increases.
At 11th and 21st level, increase all ability scores by 1 regardless of score.

The results
Depending on your game or your goals, you could adjust the limit of the heroic ability increase to taste. The impact would be that a player who wanted to focus on a single ability would be able to without interruption but would be rewarded if they were willing to split paragon increases up and focus on lower abilities. This would make the character more versatile overall (one of my goals) without mandating or foreclosing the "all in one stat" approach.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Why the delay?

So where did I go?

Here's the deal. When I first started posting everything was in the very abstract. Abstract conversations are neat and easy because everyone can twist the abstract to find values aligning with their own ideas. Their contributions then spur other ideas and it is genuinely helpful. Pretty much most of what I like about my current ideas were spurred from contributions from commenters on this blog.

Then I got specific and things changed.

It isn't that comments weren't helpful, it is that what I liked about my ideas was no longer abstract, but they were presented in broad strokes. A general idea ("Combat should be faster!") needs context to be presented as a rule. People then respond to that context, which is legit, but the core idea is lost in the discussion.

What I discovered is that I can iterate my ideas down easier, whittling away the ancillary context, without feedback. Critical feedback makes me want to defend the core idea when the criticism was focused on the ancillary context. This isn't really productive because I should just be figuring out ways to get rid of the ancillary stuff. Here's a visual.

The light blue is all the context and the dark blue is the core idea. Spending a while with the idea lets you cut away the context and just retain the good idea, adding it to other good ideas until something special actually exists. Of course, because language is imprecise, it is hard to communicate just that core idea. So we got a pickle.

I've been working on a lot and the game keeps taking new (and interesting) directions. I hope to share it and maybe even see people play it. Since it is my first ever real attempt at creating a game, I'm just letting it take me wherever it goes. Evidently, it took me somewhere fairly far from core D&D. When I began, I wanted to just create a set of house rules that could overlay over 4e... we're now pretty darn far away from that. So far, in fact, that I'm not even sure where I am.

Hopefully that is somewhere cool and fun.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Resting and healing in D&D

Healing should not be linked to resting. There's the argument, now I'll try and prove why.

Resting in D&D serves a narrative purpose ("We make camp for the night") and a mechanical purpose ("I regain hit points, healing surges, daily powers, etc"). Players, being non-idiots, often attempt to maximize the mechanical purpose which results in the 15-minute workday. This has some mechanical issues, but it is primarily a problem for the narrative. The description just feels weird when these heroes keep making camp after every battle despite the fact that adventure, treasure, and glory await them.

There are two main elements that build to this problem:
  1. Because the mechanical benefits of resting follow on the narrative decision of resting, players have complete control of when resting (and all its attending benefits) happens. The GM's only recourse is to put a clock on the adventure, and that quickly damages the narrative as well.
  2. Players will always seek out optimal strategies. A well designed game would reward this, not break because of it.
The simplest solution is to break the relationship between resting and healing. Allow characters to rest as often as they like, but don't guarantee mechanical advantage for doing so. In other words:

At first blush this seems like an odious recommendation. At second blush, though, this is no different from any other narrative/mechanical relationship in the game. Characters often jump without actually making a check, a character could bandage a burn without expectation that hit points suddenly return, or eat a meal after days of travel without feeling a mechanical renewed sense of vigor. Most things have a distinct narrative and distinct mechanical role in the game; resting seems to be the exception, and the permanency of that linkage results in problems.

So if we broke the relationship, what would it look like and is it worth the cost?
Here's a first hypothetical breakdown of how one might decide hit points, healing surges, and daily powers return when not linked to healing:
  • Hit points don't automatically return during an adventure, but abilities (such as healing surges) can be spent freely whenever danger has fully subsided. If a party defeats a fire elemental but finds themselves in a burning building, the danger has not yet subsided. However, pushing back the hobgoblin horde and collapsing the tunnel does end the danger even though you are still buried in the hobgoblin tunnels.
  • Daily powers return after a challenge is completed. A challenge is defined as one stretch of an adventure sharing a general theme. A single challenge could contain multiple encounters, but they'd all be of a similar variety pushing towards a single, discrete goal. Sometimes a challenge might be as brief as "defeat the necromancer" but it also could be "fight to the top of the lighthouse, defeat the necromancer, and disable the Light of Darkness before it is ignited by the lunar eclipse." A challenge could also span multiple days; "Pass over the Misty Mountains might be a single challenge."
  • Healing surges return after an adventure arc. An adventure arc is a significant portion of an adventure culminating with a substantial goal. An adventure arc could be as long as "successfully navigate the Marsh of Mazes" which takes many successful checks, each day having a chance for random encounters, a negotiation at the Mud Hermit's Hut, and successfully fording the mudfalls (a waterfall of mud). It could also be as short as defeating the BBEG which ends the adventure.
  • Between adventures, everything returns.
There are a few clear benefits. First, it allows the mechanism to support the narrative instead of fighting against it. If the drama is supposed to build around navigating the Marsh of Mazes, each failed check means one more encounter to stretch already strained resources. If you get to heal everything each night, the Marsh of Mazes is just annoying (or the GM has to put all the random encounters in a single day, which, again, undermines the narrative that this is a big complex marsh).

Second, the different elements don't have to be triggered simultaneously. You can decide that a Challenge is completed without allowing the danger to have subsided. Putting this structure in place makes it easier to return things like daily powers in the middle of a combat after, say, bloodying the Dragon King.

Third, and my favorite, by having resources refresh upon the completion of challenges instead of just narrative declaration, you make those challenges more important. The skill checks to successfully navigate the Marsh of Mazes were important because they helped you complete the adventure arc and get your healing surges back. This elevates the importance of skills without relying on skill challenges. If a challenge is ended once you've gotten into the castle, whether you sneaked past the guards or killed them, the challenge is a success. It's easy to put those types of incentives into the game when the mechanism supports the narrative and incredibly hard when the mechanism fights the narrative.

So what's the downside?
The big downside is that while this helps a skilled GM make exciting adventures that motivate the players, an unskilled GM might expect too much. Fortunately, this is easy to fix. First, while learning the ropes a GM could set challenge and adventure arcs to mimic the existing system. To begin he risks nothing, and as he learns he can slowly push the adventurers to the limit. Second, the definitions are actually more flexible than the current resting rules, which means they can be changed on the fly to adapt to any situation. If the party is pushed too far (because of the GM's mistake), they can wrap up a challenge earlier than initially planned and actually avoid the dangers inherent in novice GM judgment calls.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Unlocking powers during combat

A neat solution to three issues in the game. The first two issues:
  1. People like new stuff. Whatever the edition, people like the shiny new toy. This is problematic because enough shiny new toys begin to clutter the character sheet, bloat the game, and introduce power creep. Fourth edition tried to solve this by allowing characters to replace existing powers with higher level ones, but a lot of people like new stuff more often than every few levels.
  2. People like powerful powers. The shiniest new toys are the most fun, and powerful stuff is the shiniest of all. The problem here is that as soon as you put it on the character sheet you are responsible for its balance on the game. The classic example is the old dilemma of how you get a broken magic item away from a character without disrupting the game. 
For both of theses issues, the problems are exacerbated by the fact that as soon as the player has control over the usage, it becomes routine. Daily and encounter powers were new and flashy, but pretty quickly they just became the standard opening volley of every major combat and they lost some flash. The excitement grew stale.

The solution might be to take a handful of powers off the character sheet and put them into the encounter. I call these "unlocked powers." So instead of the fighter having Cleave (i.e. make an additional attack after knocking a target unconscious), maybe Cleave is a power that goblins provide and this gives goblins a distinct feel. For example, "Cleave: If goblin is reduced from full hit points to unconscious in a single attack, attacker may make an additional attack against an adjacent target." All of the sudden being a big damage dealer allows you to wade through hordes of goblins. It is exciting, fun, and isn't going to become an insane build that a player can use in every combat for an entire campaign.

This brings us to the third issue:
     3.  Monster knowledge skills are often under utilized.

If we set up the unlocked powers to be better or worse for different character types, monster knowledge skills become really valuable. The wizard knows not to hit the mob of goblins for 2 damage each because that forecloses Cleave on any of them. If a magma demon explodes upon dying unless someone adjacent passes a DC 20 Arcana check, then we know the wizard better standby. All of the sudden combat is riddled with mini-games; some to get access to awesome powers and others to avoid bad things, and the fact that you can piggy back flavor ("Griffon eggs are worth 1500 gp") on those monster knowledge checks is pretty nice too.

Finally, because access to these powers is limited, there really can never be any balance issues. Worst case scenario is it makes one combat too easy and too memorable. There also is no limit to what they can do or what you can introduce. So far all of my examples have been on monster death, but you could trigger the power on other conditions, too. Maybe upon shedding first blood (i.e. when first bloodied), you can tear the horn from the dark unicorn and use it as a wand implement. Maybe this limits what powers the unicorn can use thereafter or sends it into a fury or kills it outright.

Unlocked powers are a really broad design space that doesn't disrupt game balance, makes combats more memorable, adds value to existing skills, facilitates the introduction of monster ecology, and help give individual monsters distinct feels. They could be easily added to 3e or 4e and all you'd have to do is determine the appropriate cost. Maybe that cost is free and is just the reward for being in the right place at the right time, maybe it costs an AoO or an OA, maybe it costs a surge, or maybe different unlocked powers have different costs. Regardless, it is a simple idea with a lot of potential.

Why I dislike skill challenges

Earlier editions of D&D were so basic that you *needed* to make up rules, often on the fly, to handle fringe issues that arose during the game. Because there were not tools in place, it fell heavily on creativity to fill in the gaps and a lot of this creativity was satisfied through the meager skills a character had. As the game grew more robust, more tools were put in place to resolve more issues. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and so when the need for creativity diminished, it felt, to many people, that the role of creativity in the game also diminished.

Skill challenges were an effort to restore skills back to a challenge solving mechanism in D&D. Once again, challenges can be circumvented or defeated through the use of skills and coming up with creative usages. Despite this, I think they miss the point and fail in two crucial regards. 
  1. Skill challenges don’t allow creativity back into the game but rather insist it return. There is a significant difference between being receptive to creative input and demanding it on the spot. 
  2. The quality of the creativity is dependent on the quality of the skill challenge. Those moments of player genius where the GM never saw it coming aren’t a *part* of skill challenges. Sure, those moments could arise, but not because of the skill challenge system, almost despite the skill challenge system.
I want to spend a moment more on that second point. 

Consider combat. A lazy GM could pick a handful of monsters at random, toss them into a featureless space, and call for initiative. There is enough balance in the game and enough neat options that the players would still probably have a good time. The same approach to a skill challenge would be an unmitigated disaster. With skill challenges, you only get out what you put in. When we reconsider the role of skills in earlier editions of D&D, I frequently pitted the party against things I thought were interesting with no idea how they’d be resolved. They tried stuff, they rolled dice, and we saw what happened. The lazy moments, as often as the planned moments, lead to those great scenarios were creativity won the day. I like to call this ‘Failing in the right direction.’ Skill challenges do not set you up so that when you fail, you fail in the right direction.

I don’t mean to say that the skill challenge framework couldn’t be useful; any structure helps people understand things better. But the concept of “skill challenges” has been around for as long as someone decided it should take more than one check to complete something… this system is just dressing. Even so, it is bad dressing because it forces too many people to spend too many actions doing too many things they aren’t excited to do (i.e. aid another).

I’ve thought a lot about skill challenge-type systems these last few days and I really don’t see any redeeming feature of the 4e skill challenge system. The phrase, “some skill checks are not resolved in a single check, and may take multiple checks (possibly even from multiple skills!) to fully resolve” is basically as robust as the system. The reason being that all of the neat consequences are external to the system itself and follow from GM creativity (i.e. if you fail you anger the Baron and he pits additional resources against you) that would/could exist independent of the system.

The only neat idea is that failure might cost a healing surge to simulate arduous actions, and this is only neat because it makes the consequence of skills equal to that of combat and ubiquitious in its presence in the game. In other words, it actually matters. A skill challenge to sneak past a series of sentries and break into a prison unnoticed might be fun, but failure just means you have to fight some guys. You aren’t any *worse* off (other than having to fight) than you otherwise would have been because skills don’t use the same resources as combat. 
In sum, the skill challenge system, like 4e skills themselves, are neat designs that ended up being bad rules. They feel tacked on, don't feel organic during the game, don’t foster the type of creativity that was lost, and don’t even do what they were designed to do well. I think it would be better to take a different approach than try and re-design or retro-fit skill challenges, particularly when the concept is so simple that it really doesn’t need much of a “system” to be in the game.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Two updates

I took another mini-vacation and in my distance from the project I got some clarity on two issues.

First, the game I was creating did everything I wanted it to do, but it didn't highlight the key things I wanted it to highlight. Those key things are:
  1. A game that makes house ruling simple such that it could realistically be populated by community generated content. As I got deeper into the game, I personally found it easy to develop rules, but I began to notice a distinct learning curve.
  2. A game that presents basic tradeoffs at all levels of play. The simple tradeoffs presented at low levels of game play for most games are intuitive, fun, and lend a 'feel' to the play experience. I have always felt that is lost as you progress higher in levels and I don't think it has to be that way.
  3. A game that truly lets you build your character (as opposed to pick your character). A game built on Reed's Law is more balanced, more robust, and more fair than a game built on a bunch of linear paths.
Second, when the articles I was posting dealt with abstract theory, the discussion that followed was really useful. The comments I got planted seeds in my head that pointed me to new directions of game design that I probably never would have stumbled upon without them. We didn't always agree and we often recognized the same issue but wanted to solve it in different directions, but the principles of our recognition were what was of value.

When I started publishing drafts of "product," the dynamic changed. The comments were more about disliking a word or pointing out a typo. Those comments are useful in their time and place (that is, during editing), but during design they are more a distraction. I guess I'm not really sure what I expected because of course people are going to comment on what they notice and I still appreciate any participation I got.

So what does it all mean?
I made some changes to the game. So far, it feels like the changes are strongly for the better. You learn so much as you design anything that you cannot help but improve on the second pass. In this case, it is more like the fifth pass, but whatever. I'm excited and the game feels like it has half the rules with all the same game play.

I still plan to publish little articles, but I'm going to try and go back to theory. There was more value (for me and, I think, for others) in those discussions than there ever was in any of the more specific articles. The specific stuff I'll save until it is done, not just posting it 10 minutes after I finish a draft. That way people can see how I chose to bring the theory we discussed into the game and judge the strengths and weaknesses together as whole instead of seeing discrete parts which may independently be impossible to appropriately judge.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Animal companions

To round out the ranger class, here is a draft on animal companions. The draft contains only five types of animal companions, but hopefully you can see how easy it would be to introduce more.

The approach treats animal companions as a style for two reasons:
  1. Companions are powerful. Companions can deal as much damage as a character and have about the same chance to hit. They aren't weak and since extra attacks (particularly extra attacks without penalties) are hard to come by, that makes them powerful. 
  2. The role of styles is to silo powerful and complex powers to ensure the game doesn't get too muddy. Animal companions are an awesome part of RPGs that I want in the game, but they also add another figure to keep track of, another set of statistics, and another attack. We don't want to that piggybacking with too many other complex game rules.

The ranger

Another class, the ranger. The animal companion sidebar is forthcoming, but you can get an idea of the class even without it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Circling back on Reed's Law

I plan to continue publishing drafts (emphasis on drafts, there) of game elements to get deeper into the game, but I think there is also enough content to start circling back through my earlier articles and show how I put those simple principles into action. I want to begin this process by talking about the way classes work in general.

What follows is a simple but powerful argument. Because I'm borrowing ideas from other fields of study, the parallels are not 100% but with almost any measure of comity you should see how they align.

In 4e, you pick a class and have limited opportunities to diverge from that class. For the sake of the hypothetical, lets say you pick fighter. When a new fighter option is added, it creates many new potential fighter builds. If the new option was a fighter 4 power, every build of fighter 4 and beyond now has the option to use that power.

In 3e, you pick a class but can easily multiclass into other classes. If a similar "fighter 4" option is added, it creates many new potential builds for any build that has four levels of fighter. There are substantially more 3e builds with fighter 4 than there are 4e builds with fighter 4. An analogy would be to say that when you add an option to 4e, the additional option expands the game linearly. When you add an option to 3e, the additional option expands the game exponentially.

In other words:
  • 4e. Number of builds = (number of options)
  • 3e. Number of builds = (number of options)^2
Now, because this is a game we also care to some measure about balance. Either because we personally feel balance is important or because we want to ensure that each player can feel they provide meaningfully to each challenge. We can achieve balance primarily through two ways:
  1. Ensure all builds are balanced
  2. Lower transaction costs to move between builds
The first route is a fools errand because it requires you to presuppose how each GM will run his or her game. That isn't to say we shouldn't try, but it is to say it cannot rely on that route alone. Implicitly, 4e did try to rely on that route alone by placing such high transaction costs to shift between builds. They did a remarkable job, but the result is that each new option added has to be weighed against every build ineligible for said option. If that new Fighter 4 power is "Gain +10 attack" then every build that cannot take that power is now woefully obsolete and rightfully angry.

Third edition relied more heavily on the second route to balance by making multiclassing easy. At first it strikes against intuition but grows obvious the more you think about it--the lower the transaction cost to acquire any power, the less important balance becomes. If a 3e class were created with a level 1 power of "Gain +10 attack," everyone would take it and the game would remain in balance. Sure, it would be stupid and distract players from more interesting powers, but it wouldn't actually break the balance because everyone could get it.

The problem with 3e, though, was that each class progressed linearly. The deeper you go into a linear path, the higher the transaction cost to get there. If we change the hypothetical to a class with a level 4 power of "Gain +10 attack," now the balance is broken. In a party of 8th level PCs, the first player to restart will mop the floor with his companions and soon everyone will want to die to get those critical 4 levels. You'll see that it would be even more dire if it were an 8th level power that granted "Gain +10 attack."

Now consider that the exponentially increasing builds of 3e relied on linearly increasing high level powers. An added Fighter 4 power must be weighed against all builds that do not have Fighter 4, which is many. A Fighter 12 power must be weighed against all builds that do not have Fighter 12, which is the vast majority. The same issue that plagues 4e plagues 3e, just later in the game.

This system (which I'm tentatively now referring to as Runeward) takes the lessons from the above and goes a step further. By arranging powers not linearly, but by class score (a composite of character level and class level), you expand the number of builds to which a power is available. In fact, to an 8th level character, no power (save a capstone power) is more than two levels removed from any build. What this means is that the transaction costs between builds are extremely low and there are a great many builds.

In other words:
  • Runeward. Number of builds = 2^(Number of options)
A guy named Reed named this Reed's Law. It shows that the value of a network differs based on how the network is set up, and that allowing the maximum number of couplings leads to the most valuable network. In RPG terms, a valuable network means that with a minimal number of rules memorized, you can have a network of builds that allows more customization and specification than any previous edition. It leads to a simpler game that is at the same time still more robust.

The bard

Behold! The bard in all its multiclassing potential glory. I've always seen the bard less as a minstrel and more as a batman (the British officer's assistant, but I guess the comic book version would be pretty cool too) to the party.

The bard

Monday, July 18, 2011

Stunt successes

This post follows up on the re-re-introduction to stunts and affinities and also builds off my argument for why I dislike 4e skills. The goal of this post is to communicate an understanding of how the stunt and affinities system plays out.

The following table shows the likelihood of succeeding at a level appropriate stunt with either a 'related' affinity or a 'spot on' affinity. The first pink section shows the likelihood of success if no affinity is used (this holds true across all levels). The table presumes an average ability modifier of +2. The large table-breaks correlate to how many action points are spent to re-roll results. As a reminder, no re-rolls are allowed if there is not at least a related affinity and you may re-roll one additional time per tier (level 1-4, 5-9, and 10+). This is why the Tier 1 line is blank for the 2 AP section, and similarly for Tier 1 and 2 in the 3 AP section.

This table also introduces an idea not yet presented. Affinities provide a +1 bonus per tier (+1 at 1-4, +2 at 5-9, and +3 at 10+) to the 'spot on' results or ANY re-roll after spending an action point. The math really didn't need it, but I think people might psychologically need it. If we find out later that people don't need it, it will be extremely easy to remove and won't substantively change the math.

Let's focus on the top section of the table in the '0 AP' zone. Throughout play the most common stunts faced will be basic and heroic. What we see is that even untrained heroes have a decent chance to succeed at level appropriate stunts; they can almost always be included and will face reasonable challenges. Trained heroes (spot on) have a much higher rate of success, passing 91% of the time. This 91% is more exciting, in my mind, than a similar mechanic on a straight d20. The equivalent on a straight d20 is a 3+. This is an 8+ on either of 2d20. That tends to feel more satisfying during play.

We also see that a hero with a related affinity can spend an action point to be almost as competent as the spot on hero. Maybe he'll get lucky and not have to spend the AP, but if he is willing to spend it he can be almost as likely to succeed. Because related affinities are construed relatively broadly, a player willing to put in creative effort can regularly achieve this.

One could argue that construing affinities broadly is similar to adding many different skills to a skill challenge such that everyone has something to do. There are two differences. First, that puts all the burden on the GM and we've already established that GMs regularly fall into apathy. They have a lot on their plates, so shifting some of that burden onto the players is a great idea while also empowering the players. Second, when a GM sets something up so the players can succeed it is seen as gimmicky or deus ex machina or some similarly overused term. When a system is set up so players can facilitate the narrative or input creativity, it is seen as a strength of role playing games.

Next, onto the concept of group success rate that I discussed with the 4e skill system.
This table makes two assumptions. First, that a mix of basic and heroic stunts are faced. Second, that the group is mixed of spot-on and not-spot-on characters. The results of this table are the product of averaging the success rate of basic and heroic stunts and multiplying the related affinity result by the spot on result. In other words, if we look at the top line of the table at the top of this post, it is:

[Average (65% + 40%)] x [Average (91% + 70%)] = 42%

What this reveals is that as the party increases in level and as the party is willing to commit more resources to a task, the likelihood that the party succeeds at said task increases. Compare this, again, to what happens to 4e skills as you increase. This system grows more inclusive while 4e grew more exclusive. Moreover, although the higher success rates require the expenditure of more resources, you have more resources available to spend. At the same time, those resources could go to powering more diverse and more potent powers, so the tradeoff remains poignant across levels.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Affinities and stunts

It has been a while since I talked about skills or affinities but I settled on an approach that leads to greater balance across levels and smooths out some of the oddities of DCs by approaching them differently.

First, some vocabulary. The term “skills” is poor because it references too many things. It refers to the character’s ability to achieve an act and it refers to the act itself.  This leads to a lack of precision in general that is compounded because “skill” is also used in the mechanics. “I’m good at Climb so I’ll climb the wall. [rolls d20] Seventeen with my +10 climb is 27 against the climb DC 20.” That is dumb.

In a game focusing on words, some of this will be unavoidable, but we can do better. I plan to stick with the term affinities to reference the ability of the character. I call the actions themselves stunts. The term is intended to be broad and can refer to anything from jumping a pit to training a horse to pulling some piece of knowledge from the recesses of your mind. Any action where after you succeed some grizzled veteran NPC typically short on praise might turn and say, “Nice little stunt you pulled back there” could be a stunt.

All stunts are an ability check. The same guidelines (as presented in 4.0.1) apply in determining which ability best governs the stunt. Characters may describe how they attempt the stunt with an affinity if they so choose. Players select a single affinity and the GM adjudicates its applicability. The affinity cannot be changed after the GM adjudicates, so players are encouraged to select the most appropriate affinity in their arsenal.

As per before, characters receive three affinities at character creation, chosen from a list provided by their first character class. Some classes provide bonus affinities chosen from the same list. If you later multiclass and select a bonus affinity as your starting feat, you can choose from any list in which you have classes. There may be other ways to add additional affinities to your list such as race or talents.

An affinity does not provide a numeric benefit. If an affinity is ‘spot on’ it allows the player to roll 2d20 and take the higher result. If an affinity is ‘related’ it allows the player to spend an action point to reroll a d20. A ‘spot on’ affinity may also spend an action point to reroll one of the d20s. At level 1-4, a single action point can be spent per check; at 5-9, two may be spent; and at 10+, up to three action points may be spent to reroll any given check.

The guidelines for determining ‘spot on’ and ‘related’ are essentially the same as last time with minor changes. Namely, ‘spot on’ is more narrowly construed and ‘related’ is more broadly construed. In this manner, the breadth of ‘spot on’ should be in line with current D&D skills and the ability to spend a resource (the action point) for related affinities encourages taking on risk and creativity.

Determining DCs
There are three DCs in the game: basic, heroic, and legendary. These DCs are then modified by a few simple concepts.
  • Basic stunts are DC 10 and are standard stunts that are challenging but achievable by any character.
  • Heroic stunts are DC 15 and are more challenging stunts that most common folk could not reasonably achieve. A trained hero (i.e. ‘spot on’) or a dedicated hero (i.e. spend an action point on a related affinity) will find these eminently doable.  
  • Legendary stunts are DC 20 and are the most challenging stunts. Common folk could never hope to achieve these stunts and they remain challenging for all but the most competent heroes. Importantly, legendary stunts always have legendary consequences. Running across a thin steel wire may be legendary, but it is not legendary if it is strung three feet above a stack of cushions.
The type of stunt does not change as the characters progress in level. A 50-foot leap over a chasm is legendary whether the characters are 1st or 15th level and regardless of their abilities, powers, or magic. While these three categories are typically sufficient, sometimes you may decide that more nuance is desired. It is perfectly acceptable to increase or decrease the DC by two. This lets you have an “easy heroic” or a “challenging basic” stunt. This level of nuance is not required for the system to function.

Once the base DC is set, determine the level of the stunt. Increase the DC by one-half the stunt’s level, just as you would for characters. Many stunts are level one and never increase. For instance, training a standard horse under standard conditions is a level one basic stunt regardless of level.

A stunt may be of a higher level for many different reasons. Quickly climbing out of a steep pit may be by all accounts a heroic stunt, but when the walls of the pit are lined with the souls of the damned who tear at your flesh in the futile hope of salvation it all of the sudden becomes a higher level. Training the aforementioned horse might be a basic stunt, but breaking it within moments of leaping onto its back while racing away from worgs brings it up a bit. How much it brings it up varies by the particular circumstances of the stunt.

Throughout play, characters will often (but by no means always) find themselves completing basic, heroic, and legendary stunts of their level. At first this may seem contrived, but what it actually entails is ensuring that characters are routinely properly challenged. The distinction between this approach and pulling a DC off of a table is that this parses out the elements of the DC such that you are forced to acknowledge the “level” of the characters. When you are pulling a DC off a table it is easy to just declare the DC without a rationale; scaling the walls of the castle is DC 19 because that is what would be an appropriate challenge for this level. This approach forces you to acknowledge that the stone blocks of the castle are a heroic stunt (DC 15), but because you want the DC to be 19, you need to make up that +4. So you come up with a reason to make it more challenging, and the reason tends to make it more cinematic. Instead of climbing the wall, now the wind whips against them and ice has filled the cracks. The characters, completing the same task, now seem more heroic by virtue of the GM being forced to justify the +4. This is the difference between a DC 19 and a level 8 heroic stunt.

Next I’ll try and compare this approach against my criticism of 4e skills and show there why and how it makes for a better play experience.

Edit--A commenter felt the DCs might be complex to calculate during play so I provided a table. Blogger, of course, hates retaining formats.