Just read a tiny and cool rule in the HackMaster Basic rule book (page 15): if during chargen it turns out your character has not even one exceptional ability score OR if (s)he has two ability scores that are exceptionally low, you can name him/her and… hand it over to the Game Master to be used later as a shop keeper, a peasant or any other passing NPC. Tiny, cool, influential and certainly to be appreciated by the players — just the way all rules should be.
Inspired by some recent discussions in my IM and in Russian RPG blogosphere, as well as by the question I just got (for the hundredth time) in Evony: “do you want to spend 5000 gold to heal these 1000 soldiers?”, I feel compelled to write something about the issue of micromanagement.
One of the most important rules in any RPG, be it game design as such or the gameplay itself, is to make the players’ choices matter. Everybody knows that. However, there is another rule which is equally important: don’t waste the players’ time and energy on choices that don’t matter. Micromanagement is one of those things: you make the players make too much decisions, and each of those is horribly tiny. If this happens in tabletop chargen, you end up distributing literally thousands points among the attributes/skills/perks of your character, and you do this mostly randomly just due to the sheer width of the decision making choice (the example my colleagues were referring to was Eclipse Phase). Same for Evony: if I have 50000000 gold in my pocket, I don’t want to be greedy about a couple of thousands.
There is another folklore saying about RPGs: the dice know the truth. It’s a joke apparently, but every joke has some truth in it—in this case it is the simple fact that most successful game systems are designed in such a way that the randomness provided by the dice brings more fun to the gaming process. However, if the counter values are so high that the random values subtracted from them are close to meaningless, it is also a form of micromanagement and should be avoided if possible or should have a well-designed workaround otherwise.
I’ve blogged about treating abilities as exceptions already, just want to quickly go back to say that it doesn’t need to be a straightforward contradiction of the ‘you cannot do it’ vs ‘you can do it’ kind. For instance, generic rules can give you some numbers, while specific ones will tell what they mean exactly. Something like when in TSoY, The Pool, Time of the Ancient or any other game that involves stakes, the general rules will say when you succeed and when you fail, and the concrete consequences are determined by your current situation—but on a different level.
Just to illustrate it with something from the fantasy heartbreaker that seems to be my main effort right now (the system is all but finished btw, I just need to describe some setting bits and start playtesting): the general rules state that being on Power Level 2 for a hero means having 2 first-level powers and 4 zero-level powers. Brawler’s powers are battle manœuvers, and the numbers mean how much of them are readied at the start of a new battle—the fighter can still ready them again after use, but it will take some actions to do so. Sage’s powers are mystic abilities, and the numbers mean how many of them the sage possesses. Zealot’s powers are daily allowance of divine invocations, the type of which—aura, presence, wrath, etc—is determined at the time of use, some of invocations grant them the right to use a couple of other classes’ powers. Mage’s powers are spells memorised for this particular encounter. Ace’s powers are skill uses—whatever is not chosen for this encounter, cannot be used (due to lack of instruments or other hindrances).
I have the feeling that I’ve seen that implemented in one of the games I’ve read, but can’t remember exactly where. Maybe it’s just my paranoia…
In D&D3.x there was an unbreakable rule that ‘specific beats generic’ (the only discussions were about what is more specific than the other, but I’m gonna leave it at that). If you generalise that rule, you end up with a mighty fine game rule.
Character abilities are exceptions from the rules.
I’m planning to use this meta-rule for both designing and explaining one of the games I’m working on right now (yes, that fantasy heartbreaker). Seems cool so far.
The bonus conclusion here might be a straightforward implementation of action points, karma pool or whatever you call it. You want to break one of the rules? Spend a point. Universalis meets Gamism, ha-ha!
‘Save or die’ is one of the most well-known anti-patterns in game design. It names the situation when one roll can decide the faith of the character. Save or die can be a system feature, but usually when talked about, it’s a bug: when the player wants to roll a lot of dice in a witty way, rolling once and dying isn’t exactly what you call fun. To get you the feel of it, here Whole Grain Games blog provides a typical yet nice example of how the problem can be addressed.
Is ‘save or die’ an inherently evil ephemera? I don’t think so. One just has to be very careful as to where to use it. That’s one of the reasons I like D&D4’s concept of tiers that clear separate heroes of one power level from the rest. Within such a tier there should be absolutely no save or die effects: if you want to prove your superiority, you have to work on that. However, against creatures from a lower tier, it should be totally possible: wail of the banshee is awesome shit if it kills all minions and insignificant characters to clear the stage, so to say, for the real action. You would’ve killed the poor bastards anyway.
This usage is the same as the much more revered ‘say yes or roll the dice’. When you are sure you can beat the enemy, it’s better to beat’em up in one shot and save the screen time for more exciting stuff. If you’re not sure, start rolling!
Try to spot the insignificant differences. Then open D&D4 PHB that was supposed to have all the cool stuff that was being mentioned in the Design & Development: Magic Item Slots article. I can tell you that both endeavours are in vain.
As much as it pains me to say it, good ideas are cheap nowadays. They are as cheap as they are numerous and ubiquitous. Implementations are scarce, and the idea is always judged by its implementation.
This idea actually will be used by me in the (still) untitled fantasy heartbreaker that I mention from time to time. Thus, if you want to use it for your game, please credit me appropriately.
The idea is straightforward. Let’s talk first about game systems with levels. How do you advance? Usually you get awarded with “experience points” (there are multiple names for them, let me just use XP for brevity) for some actions the character undertakes in the SIS. You can also be punished for something by getting your XP reduced or lose it randomly to a level-draining monster (the latter being not a part of advancement system, but rather another way to scare the player). When your XP reaches a known value, you gain a level – a lot of your abilities take a boost, you learn new spells, have widened memorise facility, acquire feats, etc.
So, I was thinking… why would you go through all such trouble of earning abstract XP to exchange it for something you really need instead of just earning that directly?
I’ve tried this in my ongoing games, and it works nearly perfectly. For instance, if a character will get a new feat on the next level, we introduce a story arc for doing something that corresponds to that feat in the game reality, and the character is slowly working from “I can’t” towards “I can”. When all such things are completed, it’s usually time to get a level anyway – which means just raising some of the numbers here and there.
In the current project, I’m trying to make a system that goes all the way here. That is, you have a list of things a hero must accomplish to gain a level. When you’re done, the level is yours. Here’s a spoiler copy-pasted from the PDF draft about what :
- Boost an ability
- Learn a new skill
- Improve one of the old skills
- Overcome one major obstacle
- Meet one new key NPC
- Research or be taught all new spells
- Invent a signature move
- Remove a ﬂaw of an existing signature move
- Build up authority
- Experience something completely new