Last week I introduced ten attributes that I felt should be present in a system. The first of those was “easy to add” and captured the idea that people should be able to easily house rule and change the system to suit their preferences without having to be professional game designers. This article explores how that can be achieved a bit further.
To be fair, any game is easy to add to, just not necessarily easy to add to it well. Easy to add means something more specific, it means the game has tools that make it easy to hone in on the feel you want with some amount of confidence that you didn’t just break the game. All editions of D&D (and most RPGs) already have a lot of tools that sort of do this. Action costs are a great example—you can only take a single standard action per round. So if a new standard action is added that is, purely arbitrary here, four units of powerful, you did not just add four units of power to the game. You added the incremental value of four units of power less the old standard action. The action cost is a lever, a binary switch that can be flipped once per round, and by controlling when and how that lever can be switched, you can manipulate the feel of the game without disrupting parts of the game that are independent of that lever.
There are a lot of levers in D&D, but they often only pertain to a single class or a narrow band of the game. As a result, they don’t feel like tools that empower game design but rather finicky rules that slow down the game. By introducing fewer, but more ubiquitous levers, they can quickly become familiar and it is clear that they present substantive tradeoffs.
Examples make it clearer. For instance, imagine a simple keyword: Style. Many different features might have the keyword Style, but a character can only use one in any given round. So two-weapon fighting might be a style, rage a style, or whirlwind attack a style. Let’s also say that you want to make each of them simple to adjudicate, relatively easy for low level characters to do, and not absurdly expensive to obtain. After all, we still want our two-weapon fighter to have other interesting features as well. We’ve now opened ourselves to the risk that someone foregoes those “other interesting features” and instead becomes a raging, whirling, two-weapon fighting beacon of doom.
Each edition has handled this problem (in the abstract, obviously) differently. Sometimes the rules didn’t really make it possible, sometimes they penalized it heavily, and sometimes they made it expensive to achieve. They don’t really, though, just cut to the chase and make it so you can’t. In some ways this is for good reason: D&D is the game that you are supposed to be able to do anything. But if it is really problematic enough that you just make it really, really hard or so expensive that it isn’t worth it, what is the difference? Haven’t you either made it impossible or made it a trap that only people bad at gauging rules would fall into? Just saying ‘no’ is quicker, easier, and doesn’t force you to develop convoluted rules that slow everything down for the 99% of the time that their complexity isn’t being used to deter crazy character combos.
The other good part about saying ‘no’ is that eventually you get to say ‘yes.’ So, eventually you get to make rage not a style and all of the sudden dazzling combos emerge. But, you ask, then aren’t we back at the same place? No, not at all. Under this scenario, the combo is possible, just not immediately. You have to invest and we’ve restricted it to a higher level. This also bought you more time to learn the system and gauge its power before the full combo is unleashed. You could introduce new stuff early on as a novice of the rules and expand it along with your mastery.
But there is more…
Each of those iconic styles are accessible to low level characters which is something we want but we haven’t risked their combination. Because the character has invested in a style, they are actually deterred from investing in additional styles, making those “other interesting features” seem more appealing. This is the same logic as discussed above with regards to forcing someone to pick a single standard action. It’s just that we’ve developed more metrics to force the decision across.
We also force further investment for the combo to emerge. In 3e, rage is just something that alters your character; it combines with everything. Surely, then, the cost of its flexibility is built into it. If rage obviated out weapon spec and two-weapon fighting and, say, movement in general, we’d expect to be compensated for those hindrances or else we wouldn’t use rage. So you are already “paying” for the ability to combine rage with other stuff. But what about the character who doesn’t want to combine rage with other stuff? Now he is overpaying and underpowered. By limiting the rules and more harshly siloing them, we can actually make more powerful and more flavorful low level features. Then, by letting characters selectively remove those silos, we can appropriately charge the cost for that flexibility without foisting the cost on everyone.
So what levers exist so far? Only a few because a good lever should be broadly useful and easy to apply. As design continues, I’m sure they’ll change or shift, but here’s the general idea.
- Style. A power that designates a method or manner of fighting. A character may use only a single style each round.
- Technique. A potent method or manner of fighting that targets an opponent. A character may use only a single technique each round.
- Ward. A method or manner of fighting that commands the attention of a target. A creature may only be affected by a single ward at a time. A new ward replaces an old.
- Focus. A preternatural focus of mind, often arcanely influenced. A focus enables a character to achieve extraordinary feats. Sometimes these feats will require the discharge of the focus. A focus is lost if you fall unconscious or are disrupted.