Friday, August 31, 2007

Party Design (and language use)

A few weeks of work, classes starting (not an issue for me except that I'm working at a college bookstore), and a major fight with a friend, and I've gotten behind. It should be coming soon though.

A thing I've been pondering much as of lately is what rules to put in place for party design and character creation. I posted on this earlier, saying that I was strongly considering making some kind of mechanism which would support or encourage party specialization. I don't know, I've been questioning lately whether or not that's something I actually want. The main thing that detracts me from that is, well, I worry that it will make the game too complicated. That and I worry about frustrating players ("What? What do you mean I can't have both a healer and a necromancer in the same party?"). I guess what I'm really going for is, as my friend Mike said, "80% of the bang for 20% of the buck."

Originally, each character was very carefully crafted and individualized. The downside: each character took about 1/2 the time it took to make a D&D character, and took a lot of thought and creativity. Multiply this by 5 or 7, and you see the problem. So, for my first playtest, every character had 1 ability in each world, and that was that. It worked great, but was more simple than I wanted it. That and, well, some abilities were better than others. So, next came the class/template* based system I've been using. Each character gains two ability points, and can use it to buy either two 1-point abilities, or one 2-point ability. However, which abilities they have access to is determined by their class/template. In test games, I've only had 3 or 4 classes available in each world, but have said players could have as much of each as they wanted.

So as I've said, I keep pondering if I should just stick with that system, or if there's more out there. I don't want to take on the attitude of "if it's not broke, don't fix it" (I mean, shoot, if everyone did that, I wouldn't be typing this on a laptop, and I guess wouldn't have a blog to begin with). I've debated having different "divisions," such as nature or holy, where a character can only take from their division or allied divisions. I've also considered that multiple divisions are fine, but that they lower the general's leadership (and thus fewer actions per turn). I've also considered that instead of making hard and fast divisions, I should divide the abilities up into groups or types (magic, melee, summoning, etc), and say that each player can take 3 groups for free, but every additional one costs them something (either a general's ability, or leadership).

And again, I'm still debating whether this will make the game more or less fun. My original goal really was to have highly customizable parties. I mean, I remember looking through my local gaming store at the miniatures, and seeing so many cool ones. I felt like if a player wants to have a party made of a drow, a giant, and 3 raptors, she should be allowed to, since really that would look pretty friggin' cool. I really didn't want classes at the beginning, but it feels like if I don't put some kind of limitation in, that everything would just be too big and too complicated, and to some degree intractable. And then I started to worry that if I give total freedom, then everyone will have the same basic party (a typical rpg style one of everything party). There was a book I once read that had a funny line about freedom, and how more options can sometimes mean less freedom, because there gets to be 1 optimal choice that you have to take (while, with fewer options, there is not necessarily an optimal choice). So, I worry about that, but at the same time I worry about frustrating players by telling them what they can and can't do. These are the choices we make, and I guess this is why they pay us the big bucks as game designers.

Oh well, I guess that's all I have to say (except for my * comment about classes, which I think is longer than my original post). Thanks again for listening, and have a good day.


*An interesting thing I've been thinking about, this other gamer on The Forge (by the name of Whitson John Kirk III) sent me a copy of this book he's been working on about the different design patterns and mechanism that popular and successful RPGs have used. An example is, well, say you want your characters to advance as time progresses. What can you do? You could use a class system (a la D&D 2nd edition), a class tree system (a la D&D 3.0), a skill system, a skill tree system, or a template system (I think that's most of what he mentioned, though I might be forgetting something). A rather intriguing thing he talked about at the beginning was the use of language. He basically started the book by standardizing the language he'd been using. As an example, take "Hit Points" (basically, a number that records how much damage you've taken. As long as your hit points are above 0, you're alive, if they are 0 or less, you're dead or otherwise out, usually with no real penalties in between. Most games have "Hit Points," although some games (Warhammer) have "Wounds," some (Heroes Quest) have "Body Points," and I'm sure I've heard other names (body points, toughness points, etc). They all refer to the same abstract concept, but use different terms (kind of like how when you travel overseas, "corn" becomes "maize" and "pants" become "trousers").

The issue gets more confusing when the same term can mean different things. For example, D&D 3.5 has "feats," "skills," and "abilities." My game has "abilities," though to be honest, they are probably more like D&D's "feats" than it's "abilities," and it's what the author might have called "gifts" (if I understood him correctly).

Anyway, to get back to the point I had originally wanted to make, my issue comes in when I describe how I group my abilities. You know, the thing that you select, that doesn't directly affect your character, but just puts a label on her (such as "wizard" or "liche"), and limits what abilities she can take. Originally, I didn't want to feel too much like D&D, so I called them "archetypes." I then got to thinking that, really, the confusion that it causes is not worth the extra drop of originality, and TSR isn't the only game with "classes," so maybe I should just go with that (since everyone knows what a "class" is). However, after reading the book, I now wonder if "template" is the right term. By his definition, "class" should be used when it's "you are a wizard, that means you get the following abilities at the beginning, and every advancement you follow a set path of gaining new abilities, without any way of deviating." This is defiantly not what I'm going for. So I don't know, there are so many terms I could use here: type, archetype, profession, template, class, training. I'm sure there's more, I guess it's just a trade-off between how creative I want to be and how confusing people will be willing to put up with.

It's funny; this makes me think back to discussions in school. It's either all the math or all the philosophy classes I took, but I've grown to dislike having conversations that throw around ill-defined terms. For example, "education" is one, that everyone can agree they want our kid to have more of it, but know one seems to have a real idea of what an "education" is. Is a kid educated if he could tell you when the War of 1812 happened? Is he educated if he can manipulate imaginary numbers and matrices? Is the ability to be a clear writer important? Would a kid be more or less "educated" if she walked out of high school without a fact in her head, but the ability to learn (a concept I didn't fully come to understand until college), or the ability to think critically? Is education about encouraging creativity, or about self-discovery? Is education about passion, and about cultivating a child's desire to learn? With all the talk about standardized testing, it feels like the answer to all but the first two questions is "no." So many other concepts get thrown around the same way, they are like energy, that everyone knows it exists, and thinks they know what they're talking about, but when you ask someone to put it on a plate for you, it doesn't seem to be there. Intelligence, Freedom, Altruism, Democracy, Race, these are just a few terms that I can remember having discussions about recently, where I'm not sure if everyone could really agree on what we were talking about. Language is funny like that. I guess that's the nice thing about math, that everything in math is quite clearly defined, and if it isn't it's usually because there's a controversy about how to define the term.

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