Please use anyone

December 25, 2008
Please Use Anyone

Please Use Anyone

Recently I’m becoming more obsessed with indie game design, and that creeps into my daily life, making me see things in a weird perspective.

For example, take this picture I’ve stumbled upon on Isn’t it tempting to use it as an illustration to character generation guide? I cannot unsee it.

The whole website is just full of laughs and inspiration.


Abilities as exceptions

December 22, 2008

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.

You can’t disarm magic traps (unless you’re a rogue). You can’t attack more than one enemy at a time (unless you have Cleave). You subtract damage dealt from your total hp (unless you soak it with a shield). You can’t be a wizard and use a greatsword (unless you spend a feat slot). Your weapon cannot harm constructs/dragons/uncorporeals (unless its magic allows it). You can’t be a paladin (unless you are a human with high stats). I’m intentionally throwing examples from different systems here so that you get the idea better.

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

December 18, 2008

‘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!

Ore wa katsu!

December 15, 2008

Revisiting the topic of hero advancement, this time for game of shounen genre.

The biggest distinction is that in shounen you just don’t level up until you really need to. Yes, that’s right, you don’t level up until you need to. You can go through a lot, withstand horrible training conditions, overcome hordes of (smaller) enemies, punch the sandbag a million of times, but you don’t automatically gain new abilities or at least you’re not confident enough to show them in public, until you meet an opponent far above your current level, and then you decide: Ok, now I do need to grow. I won’t even give examples here: basically every main hero in every goddamn show has this knack, he grows inconsistently, intuitively, reactively, on-the-fly, on-demand.

Apparently, you should be careful about two limits: the minimum should be possible to boost when you really need to get your friends to go all ‘wow, he’s on a different level now!’; the maximum should be limited to avoid unnecessary godmoding and keep power level elevation on a leash. Let’s just pretend we’re designing a game with this element, so we use the classic pattern of awarding the hero with some growth points for training, for new inventory and for anything else suitable. When the decisive fight starts, the player can decide when to use those growth points to actually grow.

The most important outcome is that the choice of opponents has now story impact. The path that you take, counted in defeated enemies, fully determines the set of abilities you wind up with. In fantasy you grow within an archetype (i.e., an archer or a wizard) and whether you were shooting orcs of giant bees, doesn’t matter. Here it doesn’t matter what your ideal is: the events you participate in and the decisions you take during them — that’s what makes you what you are.

Battletorn RPG

December 11, 2008

A scar on the back is a shame for a warrior,
but my back is full of scars
—Kaze no Jigoro

This is one of the ideas that I’ve had for a long, long time (more than a decade). It’s good enough to become a decent book or a manga, but since I am more into making games, I’m hoping one day to gm such a game and maybe even to write one.

Just think about it — most games fit into one of the two categories: either the damage dealt to a hero is nothing more than a metagame concept, a counter that does not have any significant in-game meaning and/or influence (e.g., D&D); or the damage means incapacitation of some sort, like hands being cut off on a critical hit (e.g., WHFRP). In the former, healing solves everything, in the latter, it solves nothing.

What I’m thinking of lies exactly in the middle: the enemy can cut your arm off, all right, but you can re-attach it afterwards. However, the scar will stay and will bear some meaning until the day you die. And give bonuses, penalties and abilities, of course.

Think of a samurai story. You travel the country minding your own business and cutting bastards stupid enough to stand in your way. One day, you meet a man of great talent, you fight him, you end up cut yourself. However, you don’t just die with a smile of satisfaction — instead, someone stitches you up and you’re free to go. Now you may seek the man who cut your head off, or you can just tell stories about the memorable day, or you can try to forget about it by wearing bandages. The choice is yours, and so is the scar.

Think of a strictly story-arc-based plots — in fantasy Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. series is a good example, any mission-driven shounen will do as well — where each story arc literally leaves a scar on the hero, both in his mind and soul. Doesn’t need to be a physical scar, though — for instance, if a hero’s leg is broken in one of the little stories, he’s a bit of a criple in the following ones. Gives you some global integrity, dontcha think?

Think of a career of a gunfighter. When your enemy manages to shoot you full of holes, you’ll recover, but you won’t forget. You can choose to hide them to hide the fact that you’ve lost once, you can flash them each time you get a chance like Kenshiro from Hokuto no Ken (with his fingers and speed he can be considered a gunfighter), it’s up to you. You keep the scars, you keep bad health implications, you keep the changes in your body that will remind you of that accident every day of your life.

Is it me and my yet undiscovered fetish for bodymod or is it really as cool as I believe it to be?

RPG Design Hivemind

December 8, 2008

Compare this:
with this:

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.

Wondrous items are boring

November 17, 2008

I’m constantly having troubles with visualisation of how various wondrous items work. Ring of invisibility? Ok, I totally understand the oldschool version (you put it on – you vanish from sight), and I can beat the command-word version without too much struggle. Sword+1? Plain boring. Amulet of Health +2? Same shit. Belt of Giant Strength? I’m stuck. Seriously, how does a person with a Belt of Giant Strength on look like? More buff, you say? Why? How? Hello, I’m playing the game of imagination here, so I have to imagine things to play it. “You put it on, nothing changes, but you’re stronger now” doesn’t cut it for me – I want wondrous items to be truly wondrous, exciting, impressing, stunning, awesome! Carpet of Flying is cool. Crystal Ball is cool. Bottled Whirlwind is cool. The hell, Holy Avenger is cool. Club+5 and Pale Blue Ioun Stone are not cool. They are plain, bold and boring.

One of the ideas besides banning stupid combinations I came up with to fix this problem in my next game is to make the groups of magic items accessible on each tier. For example, on valiant tier (that’s my substitute for D&D4’s heroic tier – I use it because I want to reserve the word “hero” as a synonym for “character”) you can have magic weapons with various battle qualities and magic armour – so, Bracers of Archery is still acceptable, while Boots of Levitation ain’t. On paragon tier, weapons start to have magic sheathes (remember Excalibur – it was not only a vorpal blade, its sheath granted regeneration!), worn items start to have exceptional qualities, priests can have special holy symbols, mages have rings with constant effect. On epic tier, all weapons are intelligent, all armours are artefact and made from special materials, mages have staves (real ones, from AD&D, with various thematically compiled spell-like abilities in one item), priests’ holy symbols can be unique, and worn items have unique forms too (crown instead of a helmet, flying board instead of a pair of boots, blindfold instead of a pair of goggles). Plain bonuses will be reserved to amulets only (I’m willing to give in to the good old “it’s magic” here), and plain multi-charge repetitive effects for wands.