Masked Problems

Okay, so the idea behind this class is someone who uses masks in order to assume different identies to achieve their objectives, matching the identity to the objective. Fantastic, I love it as an idea. However it presents some serious problems, someone in this class could (in theory) fill the role of any other class. That’s no bad thing in itself (see: bard) however there’s a need to make sure a member of this class doesn’t outshine a character specialised in the appropriate action.

To make things a little more complicated, we need to make things useful to a character who has no pre-existing skill, while not overpowering the ability for someone who does have it. For instance a thief mask that provides “+4 to hide and move silently” is bad for two reasons. Firstly it’s useless to anyone who didn’t already have those skills, +4 to a baseline skill will be almost worthless. Secondly it’s overpowered for someone who did have them, a rouge who’d maxed the skill before taking the class now has a skill three points better than someone who’d gone rogue all of the way and tried to specialise in stealth. The new class needs a better way to handle skills.

Lots of the masks offered abilities that can be used so many times per day. With so many masks being available it’s almost inconcievable that somone could run out of powers. There needs to be some way of linking the masks so that if someone uses their 4 times per day fire breath in the dragon mask, that they can’t just switch to the 4 tims per day acid breath from the demon mask. Somehow using limited abilities in one mask should use abilities from the other masks.

The spells granted by the masks as written are simply unfair. Spell lists are seperate for a reason, getting a more inclusive spell list is murderous in a core game. You either need to be a bard or a mystic theurge, either of which will mean your highest level spell is lower than it would be if you’re a single class caster. There needs to be some way to balance the idea of getting extra spells, rather than casually throwing out spells up to fifth level for the sake of it.

If the class offers an extra level of your casting class every level it’s extra abilities need to be marginal (As with the wizard gaining an extra feat every five levels and powering up it’s familiar) or there needs to be some drawback to the class. This class is just asking for an interesting drawback, the idea of using different personas lends itself to all sorts of interseting problems that could create both system and roleplaying problems. Roleplaying problems are fun and make the game better, system problems are needed to keep things in balance. Here is a class that needs some sort of drawback.

Masks for classes need to allow the character to function as a cut down member of that class. They should never outshine an actual member of the class, but nor should they be weak enough to be worthless at the classes primary function. This means that the abilities the masks grant needs to take into account the other weaknesses of the class, for instance in designing a fighter mask the classes low BAB and hitpoints need to be taken into account.

Last, but not least, the class shouldn’t offer abilities before they’d normally become available. Masks that offer a way of gaining the benefits of a 4th level spell before 7th level need to be avoided.

These problems are all surmountable, next week I’ll present my solution to the problem, I’d appriciate any feedback on how well you think it would work. Thanks for reading.

(I’ve started writing these and it turns out the class will be across a few posts. One for the class itself and then another one or two for the masks)

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Master of Masks

Lets talk dungeons and dragons three point five for a minute. Specifically prestige classes. Every GM looks at prestige classes with a mixture of fear and apprehension. Players get enthusiastic about playing them and don’t like to be told no, but they do a fantastic job of ruining games. When you’re designing adventures you need to take the parties capabilities into account, there’s nothing worse than designing an elaborate murder mystery to have a player blow it out of the water in the first five minutes with “detect thoughts”. If you’ve got a bit of experience you come to rely on some things, parties below fifth level don’t fly, below seventh they don’t teleport or scry and so on. At the very least you tend to rely on “Players don’t take out things more than five levels above them” (Though the EL system deserves it’s own rant).

Prestige classes tend to blow this out of the water. The problem is the divide between what they should be and what they so often are. Ideally a prestige class is something that allows deeper roleplay and interesting specialisation. They’re a way for a character to tailor some element of their class to be individual and cool and to let them express their characters personality and interests. They also let you introduce ideas that you might like in the game, but are too specialised to deserve a full class all to themselves.

However the authors of prestige classes tend to be publishers who want to sell more books to players or players. The problem with this is that more players than not are looking for a class to make them better. More powerful, more hitpoints, more spells, more abilities – the urge to be better than anyone else and to hog the spotlight is powerful in many players and present to some extent even in players who’re more focused on other aspects of the game. This leads to classes that grant players ludicrous abilities early on or that are just plain better than any other alternative. The guidelines for designing these things in the DMG state that if you design a class that you’d take every time that you’ve got it wrong, but that advice is so rarely taken by authors.

Recently one of my players expressed an interest in playing a “Master of Masks”. It’s a great idea for a class, you put on different masks to assume different personalities and skills. It lets you be a little bit of everything and adds some interesting roleplaying opportunities with the shifting personalities and ideas that might come with them. People using the site it’s printed on have rated it and rated it well, 5/5 for formatting and wording show a well written class. More important 5/5 for flavour shows how many people recognise it as interesting and a credit to the campaign world it’s in. 3/5 for power “sizeable balance issues”. Frankly I think that’s generous.

Look at the class a moment, suppose you threw away all of the masks it let you get except one (You get three at first level going up to thirteen) and you threw away all of the bonuses to do with masks (Equipping multiple masks, making them invisible etc.) and you threw away all of the bonus spells the mask you used gave you…the class is still murderously powerful. Equipping the archmage mask (or healer if you came into it from a divine class) gives you +2 caster levels. The class itself is letting your casting continue at full progression. A class that just said “Gain all of the powers of a regular sorcerer and plus two caster levels” would be blown out of the water, but this allows for so much more.

If you took away the caster levels the class would still be horrendous. Full spell progression means that you’re almost as good as a single classed caster. Loads of the masks offer abilities that are limited uses per day, which is an irrelevant drawback when you can have so many masks and just switch in a new one when one runs out (as a move action once you’ve got a few levels of it). Some of them look like they’d let you outshine specialist characters in their area of speciality. Balance wise, this class is a mess.

I love the idea though. So here’s what I’m going to do. Take all of the flavour and the ideas behind it and put them into a much more balanced class. Next week I’ll talk about how to overcome the balance problems of this class, the week after the new, improved class will be revealed. I don’t know if the player in my game will want it (I’m pretty sure he was interested in the idea rather than the overpowered class. I’m not sure he even noticed how badly overpowered it was), but I’m going to write it anyway, as an exercise in game design.

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LARP Aside

Time for another random aside, because I know that what people love most about blogs is getting interested in a topic and not seeing it come up again for a few months. It makes every week exciting.

This one is about the creative process for making a LARP work.

Some of the folks at my uni have got into LARPing recently and wanted to be able to play on campus. So they started to write a system. This system had six authors who rarely met up and talked to each other, didn’t deliver what they said they would on time and were poor at properly thinking things through and playtesting it. I know because I was one of them, I was largely responsible for the mess of a skill system it ended up with.

A year later we scrapped that and I wrote one on my own in a couple of afternoons. It held together a lot better and we’ve been playing for a few weeks now and had some good fun with it. One of the most important things about designing and running games is getting feedback and being willing to learn about things that have gone wrong.

Elements of the system I was happy with haven’t worked out. Giving a downed player 10 seconds to get healing before they bled out sounded exciting, medics would need to get to them in combat while avoiding the enemies. In practice if the fights hard enough that someone went down the group needs every sword hand it has to stand a chance. A lot of characters have died.

I was also happy to come up with a semi-sandbox plot in an open world to allow several groups of adventurers to simultaneously be doing different things. This let us switch up the characters each week so everyone got a chance to play (I needed a lot of the group to be monsters each week). It seemed like a fair idea, since everyone did get a chance of play and often there’s more competition for the monster slots than the character slots. The problem is that the game has no sense of flow, with 90% of the party changing each week it’s hard to string a narrative together and it feels a bit disjointed and rubbish. It might’ve been better to keep the same players each week even at the cost of making some players feel a little cheated.

So I find myself thinking about writing another one. Something in which everyone can play their characters every week, in which characters aren’t dyeing too frequently, that doesn’t require too many monster-players…challenging. I also don’t have lots of time to spend on plotting week to week, so an elaborate downtime system to generate group conflicts isn’t really going to be the solution here.

What’d be great is if the players could all be some sort of characters that spend a bit of time plotting and planning, then do something that’d traditionally be a downtime action, such as starting a pitched battle, which we could play out with whoever was around. Then we’d go back to the plotters and resume with them talking about the effects of this seasons campaigns and politicking with each other around that.

Originally I had an idea to do something inspired by a game of thrones. With players as generals and leaders of great houses. Possibly split into camps in the plotting bit, only being able to move between them by taking some sort of diplomacy option. Or possibly by being captured.

The thing is that it might be crap if not enough people from your house turned up. I was also worried that the plot execution bits might lead to people just stabbing each other up as the generals making a large part of the game redundant. I knew I was onto something, but this idea wasn’t the right setting. What I need is a bunch of people who are semi-hostile to each other, influence large goings on in the world and politic among themselves about doing it, but who are unable or unwilling to do fatal violence to each other. I was sure I’d seen something like this before.

Then it struck me that I had.

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Characters beyond the numbers.

This is going to be a bit out of left field, but it’s a problem I’ve come across a few times in the last few weeks and it’s relevant to pontificating on game design, which is what I spend most of my time doing anyway.

It’s about creating a roleplaying character, in a system heavy game, for use by someone who not only doesn’t understand the system, but doesn’t want to understand the system. Not because they couldn’t understand the system, but because for them, that’s not where the fun of the game is. Perhaps another player wants to introduce someone who’s never played the system before and doesn’t have time to learn. Or it might simply be someone who doesn’t enjoy the part of the game that resembles a skirmish wargame more than a roleplaying game. Maybe you’ve even been lucky enough to have the chance to introduce someone to the hobby for the first time in their lives and you sold it on being “The creation of an interactive story” and forgot to mention “There’s going to be a lot of arithmetic”

One of the biggest problems in the roleplaying hobby is recruiting new members, especially those outside of the narrow groups who typically play the game. I consider chances like this very important as a DM and I think that any DM lucky enough to get chances like this owes it to themselves and to the hobby as a whole to not fuck up. Ideally you’d run a system light game for such players first time, but sometimes there’s not time, or other players don’t want to play that, or they’ve heard people talking about your game and fancy trying it out. So here are my top five tips for making characters for this sort of player:

(1) Listen to what they want

Most players make their own characters, you’re only making this one because they don’t know the system and can’t make their own character. Ask the player what they want and make sure you deliver on as much as is possible. If they don’t have many ideas then be prepared to offer them some easily understandable options.

(2) Focus on the roleplaying stuff first

Link the characters background to other characters (with those players permission of course) to give some pre-existing relationships that they can bounce off. Give the character a way to have or acquire some information that the others don’t have, to make sure that other players have a reason to pay attention when they speak (especially don’t let any power gamer in the group shut them down with talk of bonuses and poor roleplaying). When crafting the characters backgrounds and personality, link it to stuff that you know will happen in the game – it’s your game after all. If you know that there’s going to be a big conflict between two groups give the character good reason to really support both of them. Work NPCs or recurring villain into their story. Make it so that if the player is most interested in “telling a story” that their character feels interesting and connected to the story, rather than a set of tools for other players to occasionally call for the use of.

(3) Keep it simple, but interesting

No sane GM would make someone else’s first character be something ludicrously complicated. Any AD&D GM who gives a person a wizard with 200 possible spells as their first character needs to be taken out and shot. Don’t even get me started on giving a new player a VPP in the hero system. Give the player something easy to use, but critically, make it fun to use. Try to come up with a way that this character can do their core action (fighting, sneaking, whatever) in a dramatic and interesting way. New players will love or hate the game based on how it tickles their imagination. If you can choose between effective and cinematic, choose cinematic. It is better to have a character who has +8 to hit and a memorable fighting style (leaping huge distances, teleporting from shadow to shadow, turning into a bear) than one who gets +10 to hit but is very conventional.

(4) Link the mechanics stuff to the roleplay stuff

It can be really immersion breaking to go from a dramatic confrontation, starting with a witty exchange of words leading into a shocking revelation and ending in betrayal into a combat in system heavy rulesets. All of the tension can go from the scene in a flurry of initiative checks, bonus calculations and tactical floor plans. One way to keep it together for players who are more interested in the story than the dice is to make sure that the mechanics are at least related to the story. If you occasionally throw out bonuses for striking at someone you truly have reason to hate, instead of focusing on who has the high ground it goes a long way. In terms of character gen it means relating the characters roleplay information to their mechanics information. Suppose you have someone who jumps wildly into combat, throwing enemies about all around them. Why are they like that? Perhaps they drink a lot. Perhaps there’s a reason in their past for things to be that way. Or perhaps they fight recklessly because they don’t care about their own life. Perhaps they once failed someone and they have felt they deserved to die for it. Perhaps that someone isn’t really dead and can show up later in the story. You get the idea. Cinematic fighting styles are good. Linking them to the characters personality and backstory and using that to drive new plot is better.

(5) For the love of god summarise

Do you have any idea how intimidating this is to a new player? A little block of six lines or so clipped onto the front of the character sheet, which explains things in plain English, makes things so much more accessible.
“If you attack someone roll a twenty sided dice and add six, I’ll tell you if you hit. If you do roll two six sided dice and add three, that’s how much damage you did.”
“You have some numbers that indicate your defences. I might ask you for these if something is about to happen to your character. They are armour class 18 (Your resistance to being hit with sticks) fort save +2 (Your resistance to poisons and the like) reflex save +4 (How easily you dodge out of the way of things) and will save +0 (How easily you resist mental commands)”
“Your character is pretty tough in a fight, in general you can go first and know you won’t have much trouble. Liz also has a tough character and has played this sort of game a lot, if she’s reluctant to fight something it can probably kill you, that doesn’t mean don’t do it. If you think it suits your character or the story go for it, but be aware that it might not end well for your character.”

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Race against time!

It’s 11:59, 60 seconds and the update is late!

Dealing damage! Hell yeah! Everyone likes breaking things.

I figure that there will be two main ways to deal damage. One will be collisions, since we’re talking about big vehicles at high speeds they ought to be able to break each other (and themselves) by ramming at high speeds. The second will be skills, you know the drill, you click on a skill it has some sort of effect that deals some damage.

Collisions would be based largely on a vehicles parameters. The size of the thing, the speed it’s going at, components added specifically to change collisions, they could all factor into dealing damage with a collision. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be collision related skills too (e.g. click on this, for the next 10s you deal double damage in collisions)

Attack skills are easy too, you choose a target, click on them, it uses up some resource (Lets call it blue. Red is always health and blue is always whatever limited resource you use to power things) and then they deal damage. Or create something that deals damage. Or increase the damage you deal with the next thing. This stuff is all old hat. We’ve been here before.

Defensively you’ll have some parameters making things resistant (perhaps the designs could make a specific component more resistant than others, allowing players to fortify defences on things that are particularly important to them). Also skills that let you reduce incoming damage for various amounts of time. Again, it’s all old hat. We’ve seen it before.

So what’s going to make interesting?

Context.

The aim in designing skills will be to make the context in which they’re used dramatically more important. To do this we need vehicles to have a bit of contextual information. Remember blue? Fuck blue! We’re going to have several bars that can fill to different degrees. How fast are you going? How much hot is the vehicle? How much radiation are the components chucking out? Skills can key off all of these things to have an effect.

For example it might be that most attack skills generate heat and get less effective the hotter your robot is. There might be a vent skill that lets you lose heat quickly, at the cost of having lower armour for a moment. Which might be countered by a skill that deals massive damage against lightly armoured targets but none at all to moderately armoured ones. Perhaps some skills will be based on your enemies levels, skills that don’t hit often if your opponent is moving fast, skills that deal bonus damage to highly irradiated opponents, you get the idea.

The bulk of the design here is going to be in detailing all of the skills, but to do that we need some basic rule about how damage is dealt and applied. The general case is really simple, it’s the changing values in different situations that make it interesting. Are you ready for this:

Damage dealt = skilldamage – locationarmour

Wow! Revolutionary!

Next time we’ll start talking about skills and these different sorts of blue. By next time, of course, I mean in a few months since it’s high time to look at another project for a bit! Have fun!

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In Which Things Are Broken

Now we’ve got an idea of how movement works it’s time to look at other things. I’m aware that the movement system is a long way from being fully designed, but since a lot of mechanics will interlock with each other it’s necassary to have the basic idea for each part before working on the details of any one of them.

Lets talk about taking damage (we’ll get to dealing it later). I want there to be some level of fighting in the game and I doubt anyone would forgive me for designing a game in which you build giant robots and not let them fight something, so it’s pretty important to have a mechanic for this.

The important thing to focus on here are forcing the player to make interesting decisions. I don’t want to design a game in which all of the complexities of the game are about maximising a single “how much damage can you do per second” factor. That’s already been done and done well. I want a lot of things to be situational, so players are making tough choices on the fly in an emergent situation.

One way to deal with this is if we change the way people take damage. In a lot of games you have a hitpoint total, when it runs out you’re dead, until that moment you’re fine and can fight at full capacity. Here, instead damage will break the machines, which will in turn change it’s paremeters (e.g. movement speed) and limit (e.g. longer recharge times) or disable your skills. Instantly combat is more dynamic, you can no longer have an optimal build and fixed script for how you’ll fight, since you’ll need to adapt it depending on what powers and options you lose. It also makes dealing damage more interesting, since attacks can be made that try to target certain types of power, which allows you to react to the nature of your opponent, seeking a weak point. Finally the job of the healer gets a lot more interesting, I never did like watching little bars and clicking on the “more bar please” button whenever they get low. If, instead, you need to take into account what sort of robot you’re healing and what sort of opponent you’re fighting then the job gets a lot more interesting. It gets more challanging too, but that’s not so much of an issue as players will often self-balance in MMORPGs by wondering into whatever areas they feel they can handle.

It’s probably useful to have some way of telling if the machine as a whole is broken or not as well. It would be hard for the enemies if they kept attacking an effectively defeated opponent and not much fun for a player to limp back to base at quarter speed with no skills enabled. A heuristic like “If more than half of your skills are disabled you are destroyed” would be pretty good and easy to keep track of. Interface wise I can imagine each robot having a line of squares above it, one for each skill, which changes colour to indicate its state (fine, limited, disabled) without things being too bad.

So the last part of taking damage is to deal with how enemies take damage. My inclination is to say the same way, but it could get tiresome quickly having to hit an enemy dozens of times in different places to get rid of them if it’s just some low level critter. I think that approach I’d take to this is to divide enemies into weak and strong categories (critters and bosses) and have critters go down easily to a few hits of any sort while using the full damage system for the bosses.

So that’s taking damage, though we only really covered the effects of taking it. How (for example) one might avoid it, or mitigate it with armour or the equations driving the damage dealing haven’t been covered yet. Next time we’ll talk about methods of dealing damage and the actual mechanics of it will all come together when it’s time to discuss skills.

Thanks for reading:)

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The science of movement

Right you devils, away with you, the time has come for more MaD ScIEnCE!

Last time I talked about the various core mechanics that would have to be defined. Lets start looking at those in order.

The first of these is movement. Designs for mad machines ought to be able to do any sort of movement and possibly switch between them. If I was playing a mad science game I’d want to be able to build walkers, submarines, tanks, jets, helicopters. Possibly even combinations of them, such as a car that turns into a submarine if it drives into the ocean.

Also sometimes the game will involve combat and exploration and it’s good for players to be able to move at their own pace relatively easily during these things, but I also talked about having races and sideshows like that, so there needs to be an option for players to differentiate themselves in terms of skill during these events.

So here’s the idea:

(1) When players design their creations they can define a basic type of movement for them: Walker, Tank, Aircraft, Aquatic. Using different components might affect the parameters of their movement, speed, turning circles, etc.

(2) Players can take skills to allow them to shift from one form to another and define a different visual for the different forms of travel.

(3) Players can take skills to allow them to move more quickly, but to be interesting these will need to be situational or have trade-offs involved.

The details on how skills work is something to look at later (because movement and combat skills will work in similar ways). The pros and cons of the different types of movement deserve a quick look, since it’s important for there to be game balance between them – flying especially could easily become the best thing.

Walkers: An easy one, walkers move like people, they can walk, run jump and generally interact with their environment in the manner of a traditional 3rd person humanoid character.

Tank: Also ground based, but can’t jump. To compensate it can reach a higher maximum speed and can roll straight over some types of terrain and enemies. On the downside at higher speeds it turns much more slowly, walkers can turn on a dime, these things have a turning circle.

Aquatic: Pros and cons here are straightforward On the downside it only works underwater. On the upside it only works underwater. Otherwise it can follow the rules for tanks with the addition that it can have a different speed for diving or rising.

Aircraft: These can work in the manner of aquatic vehicles, however something extra is needed to balance them against walkers and tanks. They could easily dominate the game with their increased manoeuvrability if not. A simple option is to do this in the level design, by making some areas underground and thus difficult to reach from the air. Alternatively areas covered in trees might be hard to approach. A single step is needed to make these options work: The aircraft needs the potential to crash, if it hits terrain rather than coming to a stop (like a walker) or going through it (like a tank) it’ll take some serious damage.

That gives us the basics for movement, though there’s still so much more to do!

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