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.

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