Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rule levers

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.


  1. I'm definitely liking the idea of the focus, technique, and style keywords. Ward doesn't seem like a keyword so much as a condition-analogus to 4th edition's marking mechanic (which is a good mechanic, don't get me wrong but it's one which is not IMHO a keyword-worthy feature).

    The amazing thing about this set up is that it allows you to introduce varying levels of complexity into character design (and allow various character concepts) without dumbing down all classes, intimidating new players, or creating unbalanced combinations.

    I'm particularly intrigued by the idea of Focus, which seems similar to 3.5's rules for psionic focus. It seemed like a very good balancing mechanism for higher-caliber spells and rituals, and I'm suprised that it hasn't been explored in more detail by the WOTC design team. Have you considered how focus is entered into and regained once it's lost? That's probably the most important consideration, and something that will determine the overall utility of magic and similar abilities in your game.

    Another related question, is how you'll handle things analogus to 4th edition utility powers or 3.5's skill tricks? Will you have an open-ended "stunting system"? Formalized trades and feats that allow you to do things along those lines? Or non-combat examples of Styles (and things which demand Focus) that represent a focus on other matters to the exclusion of other concerns?

  2. I actually don't really like the Mark mechanism in 4e because I think it puts an annoying burden on everyone but the marking character. Wards tend to give benefits to the warding player that are independent of the warded creature's actions. The reason I like it as a keyword is that the benefits only last so long as the creature is warded.

    The types of abilities that have the ward descriptor do three things. First, they complicate play and so minimizing the number in play at any given time is a good idea. Second, having wards forces cooperation. A group that acts as a team will get more resource out of ward abilities. Third, they further define combat style. For instance, the ranger gets a ward that triggers when the warded creature dies. This encourages the ranger to go pick off the weak and "hunt" them. The knight (paladin equivalent) shuts down his warded foe by piling on features over time, so he is encouraged to go after a big baddy that'll last a lot of rounds.

    Now, none of this design *requires* the ward keyword. It could have been done differently, but the keyword makes #2 above more clear and helps remind players how things interact. A final benefit is that once something is defined, it is easier to note its absence. You can create powers that dismiss wards or break wards and it is a sort of "dispel magic" for martial powers.

  3. I started embracing Focus after XPH came out. I actually think XPH was the best 3e book that introduced the most innovative and dynamic systems of the entire edition. I modeled my 3e magic system on XPH and only allowed casting to occur while focused. Some more powerful features (like metamagics) still required the expenditure of Focus which meant you had to take some time to re-amp back up after doing something big.

    More importantly, if an attack is able to make you lose your focus, an opponent can sort of shut you down for a while or end your ongoing spells (i.e. sustained). This may seem overly punitive to the caster, but consider that an enemy had to give up their round (and deal no damage) just to stop the ongoing effects of your spells. It creates an interesting dynamic where the wizard can ramp up effects via sustain or similar and be extremely powerful... so long as someone else doesn't commit their turn to shutting it off.

    This is a better result than 3e where the only option was to knock the caster unconscious. The caster got to be extremely powerful until they tipped the scale and the enemy devoted everything to killing them, at which point they spent the rest of the combat sitting quietly.

  4. I have to laugh at the example, because my first intro to power gaming was a whirling, two-weapon fighting, raging beacon of death at 5th level, and we play low level, low magic games where every encounter is just short of evenly matched. When the guy got whirlwind attack I had to stop my favorite tactic, sending armies of mooks at the characters.