Friday, March 23, 2012

Some parting notes (vol. 3)

This is another topic that I touched on back when I was talking about Reed's Law, but I didn't quite drive it home as well as I wanted to. It is the idea that issues of game balance are inextricably linked to access to powers and less by how powerful the powers actually are. If you look at what I did with Runeward's proficiency system, you'll see how this plays out. Hopefully after this parting note you'll understand why it is so important.

Imagine a scenario of a group playing 3.5e D&D when swift actions were part of the game. The group is all 5th level, about to hit 6th, and is made up of a Bard, Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, and Wizard. It is an urban campaign, so almost all of the opponents are classed-NPCs. The GM really enjoys building effective NPCs to challenge the party with. The GM wants to add a new power to the game called Heroic Concentration. It is a feat that lets you spend a swift action to gain +10 attack and defense (AC and all saves) for one round unlimited times per day. He is trying to think about what requirements this feat should have.

Heroic Concentration is obviously insanely powerful. Think about the impact to the game under the following three scenarios:
  1. Heroic Concentration has no requirements. Since everyone is about to hit 6th level, everyone will take it. Likely, every NPC will have it as well, so the feat is really a wash; we just increased all numbers by 10. People are probably going to be mostly annoyed. They wanted to spend their 6th level feat on something neat and now they have to spend it on this dumb power just to keep up with everyone else. If anyone relied on their swift action, they actually lost a little power because they'll always have to spend their swift on Heroic Concentration. The introduction of Heroic Concentration doesn't really imbalance anything, it is mostly annoying.
  2. Heroic Concentration requires 1 level of monk. Now everyone will feel like they need to take monk as their 6th level and spend their feat on Heroic Concentration to keep up. Except the monk, of course. He is happy as can be. The fighter probably doesn't have a big problem with this, but barbarian and bard can't take monk without losing class powers. Wizard also has a tough choice because the potency of the wizard class relies on getting deep into the levels. Having to take a level in monk just delays access to all the spells he was looking forward to. This is a real problem for the game. Sure, everyone can take Heroic Concentration, but the access costs are not equal for all players and since it is so powerful everyone feels like they must take it, this imbalance is a problem.
  3. Heroic Concentration requires 5 levels of monk. The game is broken. Even if everyone starts heading towards Heroic Concentration right now, they have to spend the next 5 levels drastically inferior to the monk and all NPCs they encounter. For the bard and barbarian, they'll spend those 5 levels also without their existing powers. For the wizard, his powers will never scale to keep up. This game is broken and the GM likely just ended his campaign by introducing Heroic Concentration with these requirements.
People might be able to disagree here or there, but the gist of my predictions for each of the three scenarios is probably accurate. Heroic Concentration was identical in all three scenarios, but the impact it had on game balance was entirely correlated to how difficult it was to access. 

Think about that for a second. I mean really think about it. How often have we seen arguments over tweaking some rule because it was too powerful or too weak or too whatever? Absolutely, some things can be too powerful/weak and tweaking them can fix the problem. But more important than any of that is access. We can select different modes of access and that will have a huge impact on our ability to add rules to the game. Since adding rules is pretty important, we should think carefully about what mode of access we select. Now also think about what modes of access 3e and 4e took. Fourth edition took a pretty narrow mode of access with every class being linear and limited multiclassing. Third edition was much broader with more reliance on feats and more flexible multiclassing (albeit still linear within the class). Think which system was more enjoyable to design new stuff for--most people would say 3e and that was because it had a more accessible mode of access.

Runeward sought to address all these issues and smooth out the power curve. Through proficiencies, every class is progressing towards the high level powers of every other class, albeit at a slower pace. If new powers are introduced, they are substantially more accessible to all characters. As a result, the risk of imbalancing the game by introducing a poorly designed power diminishes. That is great design for a living RPG that people are going to fiddle with and it is something that D&D has been moving away from.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some parting notes (vol. 2)

Way back when I was just thinking about the general approach I wanted to take in designing Runeward, I wrote an article about the Economies of D&D. I basically argued that there were three economies:
  1. The way power is introduced into the game. This is sort of what game designers do in the background as they balance classes, powers, and so on.
  2. The way power is expressed in the game. This is what we generally refer to as the action economy or how a player takes the power that was introduced in the first economy and uses it to inform actions during play.
  3. The way power is experienced in the game. This was the new novel idea in the article; the idea that in addition to all the stuff we normally worry about, we should also worry about the actual experience of interacting with the rules. I argued that this third economy seemed to have been forgotten about as of late in D&D and wanted to fix that.
The article was not received well on message boards. I will always remember the gist, albeit not the actual words, of the first response. It was something akin to, "I don't know what you are talking about, but I know I don't like it, and I don't think we need to talk about it."

I, however, think my article had an important insight and I strove to honor it in Runeward. In essence, there are a handful of actions that characters will take from time to time that are really dramatic and I want them to feel dramatic. To some extent I think the approach to miss chances that I discussed in Some parting notes (vol. 1) highlights this. The best representation, though, is probably the role of shields in the game.

Shield Sacrifice (page 14)
If a character takes a big hit they can risk destroying their shield to increase their Damage Threshold against that one hit. The decision to risk the shield is made after all damage is announced, so the player gets to set the drama. Once they risk it, they roll 2d6 for a heavy shield and 1d6 for a light shield. Damage is reduced by the result of the die roll. This is a pretty huge benefit and can turn a Hard Wound into a Soft Wound or a Mortal Wound into a Hard Wound, potentially saving the character's life.

The drama enters based on the result of the die roll. If any die comes up a 3, 2, or 1 the shield breaks. Heavy shields become light shields and light shields are destroyed. So a heavy shield with a result of 6 and 3 would temporarily increase your Damage Threshold by 9 (which is huge) but still destroy the shield (which is dramatic). The system is tweaked so that masterwork shields are only destroyed on a roll of 1 or 2 and magical shields on a roll of 1. There's also a shield magical property that lets you roll d8, meaning you'll increase the Damage Threshold even more and break even less.

I think this epitomizes that third economy. There are a lot of ways that you could allow shields to increase the damage threshold and be about as powerful. You could just make them a static +5 to Damage Threshold and that would likely be more powerful. This way, the player routinely feels vulnerable to big hits but when they arise has the potential to take a dramatic action which introduces tension throughout the resolution of the act. That is vastly superior, with regards to the third economy, than a static +5 but it might be equal or even inferior with regards to the first economy.

I think these are the types of rules that lead to really memorable and fun game experiences. I also think that we are more likely to develop these types of rules if there is language out there to help people communicate about these ideas. I think the third economy is an important and underrepresented economy in RPG design. I think Runeward is better because I actively designed it with the third economy in mind.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Some parting notes (vol. 1)

I've gotten some neat feedback on the alpha draft and realized that there were some things that I never got around to including in the PDF. I figured I'd share them real quick for the sake of completeness.

Throughout Runeward I had a couple of design ethos. One of those ethos was that consistency of mechanics leads to quicker familiarity and mastery of the system. At the same time, though, sometimes it is a good idea to make things feel special. Breaking the mold or having a completely unique mechanic for something that is supposed to be rare helps emphasize that and set it apart. One such mechanic was Runeward's miss chance.

I preferred 3e's miss chance mechanic over 4e's. The flat percentage on top of AC was just a neat little addition that set it apart. It really made you feel like you were firing through fog or that the monster was phasing in and out of existence. It was also fun (probably properly read as frustrating) for people to realize they rolled high enough to hit but still end up missing because of the miss chance. That is a good mechanic, the character was successful (which feels good) but that success was mitigated by some thing in-game (which feels horrible). A flat increase to what you need to roll on a d20 just can't compare.

Percentile miss chances also have a problems. The linearity with which they decrease your likelihood to hit was perhaps too rapid. It also only ever allows for 10 steps of missing (e.g. 10%, 20%, etc) with a lot of those chunks being either too low to matter or so high they are prohibitive. The "fun" miss chances are few and far between. Finally, a miss chance connotes the idea that you don't know what is going to happen. When it is then a straight percentage it doesn't really feel like a 'chance,' it feels like odds.

Miss chance in Runeward sought to address those issues.

You can acquire a miss chance from a range of scenarios (cover, concealment, or creature ability) and they all stack together. So if I am firing through fog (hypothetical 2 miss chance) and through brambles (hypothetical 3 miss chance) at some creature with a stance that increases all miss chances by 1, that would quick add up to 6 miss chances. So far, fairly simple.

The second step was to calculate your miss chance die. For the most part this was a function of the range at which you were interacting. At close or melee range you would default to a d10, at short range a d8, and at long range a d6. For example, a longbow being fired through fog at long range would roll a d6 but if the target was changed to short range (adjacent zone) it would increase to d8 and if you fired on someone in the same zone it would be d10. There is also a Blind Fighting feat that increases your miss chance die one step for all weapons.

The final step is to roll your miss chance die for every miss chance you have. To continue the example, our hypothetical longbow firing through fog and brambles at a shifty creature (6 miss chances) would roll 6d8 if the target was in an adjacent zone. If any of the dice come up a 1, the shot misses. In this way, a larger die is a boon because it is less likely to come up a 1.

Let's see some math!

Miss chance die type


# miss chances
Probability to hit

Our longbow on 6d8 has a 45% to still hit (and then a 55% chance to miss). If he instead tactically shifted to be in the same zone as the target, his die would jump to d10 and he would hit 53% of the time. Finally, if he had Blind Fighting and shifted into the same zone, he would go up to 59%.

The reason I like this model is four-fold.
  1. It puts more power into the hands of the player and makes miss chance more tactical in nature based on placement.
  2. It allows for more sources to add together into a simple miss chance model. Unlike with a flat percentage where you only have 10 steps possible (and most of those aren't in a dramatic zone), almost all of the results with this model have a meaningful measure of tension.
  3. The actual odds are semi-hidden from the player. In fact, the odds feel much worse than they actually are. Telling someone to roll 6d10 and they fail if *any* dice comes up a 1 feels like bleak odds yet you'll probably succeed. That is going to make players feel great.
  4. It adds a lot of tension. You've already figured out you hit and now you are rolling miss chance. If the likelihood of missing is low (e.g. one or two dice) then it is quickly resolved and we don't spend much time. If the likelihood of missing is high (e.g. 6+ dice) then it organically gets drawn out with each successive roll raising the tension until you either succeed or dramatically fail.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Maybe I lied...

I didn't intend to lie when I wrote "I guess we're back," but it turned out to be not the truth. Perhaps same difference. The truth is that I was getting pretty close to wrapping up on an alpha draft that I still think is pretty darn strong. Even if it isn't revolutionary, it has some neat ideas and I'm proud of what I got done. Then I experienced some personal loss and it really took the wind out of my sails with regards to designing anything. I thought game design might be cathartic and so posted the "I guess we're back" to try and pressure myself into working on stuff by publicly promising I would. It didn't work. It wasn't cathartic. I'm okay with that now.

Then 5e was announced. If personal loss took the wind out of my sails, I gotta imagine the announcement of 5e puts any effort to crowd source a totally new game in the doldrums. It's hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of a new edition and I find that even my cynical self has his interest piqued by the mystery of what is to come.

With that, I figured I'd toss online what I got down on paper. There is a lot more in my head and I'm happy to talk about it, so please feel free to question. It is reasonably complete, probably about 85% of an alpha draft with notes on the remaining 15%. The last few pages of the document slide in a fairly amusing progression, from basically finished with some edits --> rough draft --> just notes --> conceptual goals. Regardless, I hope someone gets some use or inspiration out of it. Maybe in a few months I'll find out I dislike 5e and decide to pick it up, dust it off, and see if I can't crowd source some enthusiasm.

Get your Runeward alpha now!