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.