Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Go Big or Go Home

There are a lot of good games out there with interesting and playable skill systems, and it is rare that I’ll decide against a game based on that alone (though there are exceptions). I find the Advantages and Disadvantages to be much more telling, whether their called that, Merits & Flaws, Edges & Hindrances or Lord knows what else. In many games, a lot of the real meat of things is hidden among these.

It’s a model that makes a lot of sense: if you put your crunchiest rules in your ads/disads section then you reduce the overall crunch of the game in play, since players are effectively selecting which rules they’ll play with, and the ones which aren’t chosen can be set aside. Done consciously, this can be a fantastic model. For example, if all of your advanced firearms rules are actually put into your firearms ads/disads , then your gunbunny can use the advanced rules while everyone else can get along without worrying about them.

Unfortunately, this is rarely done consciously, at least not across the board. There are exceptions – usually in the form of fighting styles – but most often the ads/disads list tends to look pretty similar from game to game, usually with the difference emerging in levels of detail. Sometimes there will be embarrassments, like the advantage everyone must take to be viable in play, but it’s usually not broken. It’s just boring.

The trick comes when you start trying to map these advantages and disadvantages to fiction, which is to say to the kinds of characters that players are thinking of. There’s a pretty profound disconnect between what ads/disads are attempting to model and how they model it. The simple difference is this: If a character in fiction has some sort of advantage that’s worth noting, then whatever it is it’s turned up to 11. If one guy in the group is particularly tough, he’s TOUGH. If one’s a tracker then he can tell you what you ate by looking at your footprints. [1] If you’ve got money, you’re rich enough to build a batcave. If he has visions of the future, that’s a BIG FREAKING DEAL.

In fiction, these things are a 24 ounce porterhouse, but most RPG systems send you to the salad bar with a tiny plate. It just doesn’t work out the way you’d hope.

One of the best tricks I ever saw in a game was in Adventure!, with the inclusion of 6 point merits. Most merits in the system were rated like stats, from 1-5, but if you bought one up to 5, you could buy the 6th point, at which point the merit would transform into what you had always imagined it to be. Wealth became unimaginable wealth. A man of mystery became a true enigma. You flipped a switch and turned on the awesome.

On some level, I’m not sure why to bother with any ads/disads except those 6 pointers, so to speak. I mean, sure, in some games it might be interesting to distinguish between one character having a middle class income and another having an upper middle class income, but I think we’re all smart enough to make that distinction when appropriate.[2] But for high adventure, high octane stuff? The difference between level 1 and level 2 toughness just doesn’t cut it – I want to be tough as nails or not bother.

Now, as interesting as it would be to see a game designed from the ground up with this sort of thinking, that’s simply not practical for most folks out there. We have our existing games, and we want to make them work, and the good news is that this is pretty easy to do with any game that has advantages and disadvantages.

First off, look though the list for character-defining advantages. A lot of systems have these, and they’re easy to spot because they tend to be the most expensive options, and they very clearly define the character in some way, like making him non-human. Look at how much that costs, and set that as your ballpark for about how much an advantage should cost.

Once you’ve done that, start building bundles. To make a bundle, you start with an and you take all the advantages that seem to match that idea and combine them together that totals up to about your goal number of points. [3]

For Example: For a hypothetical game, I’m looking at making an approximately 20 point bundle for “The Tough Guy”. The game has a Toughness advantage (3 points per level), a High Pain Tolerance advantage (5 points) and a Quick healing advantage (4 or 8 Points). I make a bundle out of Level 4 toughness, Level 1 Quick Healing, and High Pain Tolerance. Total cost is 21 points, which is close enough to my ballpark. I now write that up as a 21 point advantage[4] with all the mechanical benefits of the advantages I used to make it.[5]

Depending on how the game handles disadvantages, you could even fold those into your bundles. If you can do this, then it’s fantastic – if a bit more abusable – and it’s a great way to make sure that the “Ninja” advantage is badass, but comes with built in enemies. It means that if the disads are strongly tied to the central concept, then they’re more likely to be remembered, and they’re more likely to matter when they come up.

Once you start on these, they tend to be very easy to pull together quickly if your players express an interest in one concept or another. And once you have enough of them under your belt, you can pretty much remove the entire ads/disads table from player sight, except for purposes of building new bundles.

Now, the last thing to consider here is pricing. Up to this point it’s all been a bit of sleight of hand, changing nothing about the underlying game. But the bundles are going to be pricey, and in some games that could mean really gimping a character on skills or in other areas, which kind of sucks. The simplest way to address this is to offer discount pricing on bundles or to offer more points, but while both of those solutions are simple, they are just treating symptoms of the problem. The bottom line is this: if you’re doing bundles, it’s because you want players to buy them because you like the fact that it puts a strong concept front and center. If that is the case, then just give each player one. Dock them a few points if you feel you need to, but let them otherwise just spend as they see fit. If they buy a second bundle[6], then that’s great, they’ll do so with full awareness of the tradeoffs, but without feeling shoehorned into it.

Anyway, this is something that will add a bit to your prep for your next game, but can be used with anything from Savage Worlds to nWoD to Cortex to make characters whose concepts are worn a little bit more on their sleeve (assuming you think that’s a good thing).

1 – Yeah, there’s some bleed between ads/disads and skills depending on the system. Honestly, the same logic applies to skills, but that is more the domain of competence porn.

2 – The one other exception is when we’re talking about a character’s goal. If it is a character’s goal to become super-rich or incredibly well connected or anything else like that, then it might be appropriate for them to have some stunted version of the full advantage because that is guaranteed to change over the course of play (or at least it should be). In fact, having a goal that has this kind of concrete game-manifestation can work out very well because there’s no confusion or miscommunication regarding what the end-goal looks like.

3 – Fans of Eden’s
Buffy the Vampire Slayer may recognize that this is basically how that game handles a lot of supernatural powers.

4 - Realistically I'd probably round it off to 20 points, but that's just because I like round numbers.

5 – And here we hit the rub. This is not going to be hugely popular with your min-maxers because they will have put a lot of thought into the specific combinations they want to build. It would be easy to dismiss those concerns as mere twinkery, but don’t be too hasty. Use this energy to your advantage, and get the min-maxers help in building bundles. He may look at your “Tough Guy” bundle and point out a way you could make a guy much tougher for those 20 points, and if so, then make the change. After all, the goal is not to penalize players, it’s to make these concepts pop much more strongly.

6 – Yes, you should be considerate if someone buys a bundle that overlaps with another bundle in such a way that some points are wasted. Just redefine one of the bundles to remove the overlap, and carry on. This will save you infinitely more headaches than giving back points. If there's a lot of overlap, consider that a red flag of a muddy concept or a Ninja/Special Forces problem[7].

7 - The Ninja/Special Forces problem is something that comes up in many games with player-created attributes. If you are playing a game like Over the Edge and you have one character with "Ninja, 4d" and another with "Special Forces, 4d" then you are goign to have precious little mechanical differentiation between them. They'll roll the same dice for most of the same sort of activities, so the difference is almost entirely one of color. And in that case, the color becomes INCREDIBLY important to keeping the characters from becoming dull. (and yes, it's a footnote on a footnote. Sue me.)


  1. I literally had the Special Forces problem in OtE once. A player had Special Forces 4d as his Major Trait, and since he (the player) was one of those 101 types (takes History 101, Crime 101, Psychology 101) he declared that if he had Special Forces he should be able to do (laundry list of unbelievable skills). We all got kind of sick of him. I think he was hauled off into a parallel dimension inhabited solely by Special Forces lizard-people.

  2. FWIW, this fits perfectly with the Passages advantage system and packages was something I had planned on doing if I went further with the game. Where I think I missed it was in not making the re-buys worth it, i.e., taking an advantage multiple times doesn't get you very much in the scheme of things. If I spend 4 points to get frickin' wings, why would I spend another 4 points just to get a +3 bonus to rolls with my wings when I can spend it to get frickin' regeneration instead?

  3. @justin I think John Wick was onto something with the inverted price structure in Wilderness of Mirrors. it cost 5 points for the first rank in something, but the second was 4, the third 3 and so on. Great mechanical way to say "Seriously, just buy it up to 5"

    -Rob D.

  4. @cam Oh, Lord, I feel your pain.

    -Rob D.

  5. *smacks head*

    "It’s a model that makes a lot of sense: if you put your crunchiest rules in your ads/disads section then you reduce the overall crunch of the game in play, since players are effectively selecting which rules they’ll play with, and the ones which aren’t chosen can be set aside."

    Of course. Of *course* it is. Y'know, I never thought of them that way. That's incredible.

    -- c.

  6. @chuck If it's any consolation, I had the same headsmack when I realized it. I had been flipping through a few different books trying to figure out why some advantages just _felt_ different than others, and it struck me. I think a lot of games stumble upon this accidentally (Martial Arts in the nWoD is a pretty good example of this) but I'm very serious when I say I'd love to see a game design to it intentionally.

    -Rob D.

    PS - And in retrospect, I think we danced around the edges of this in the skill writeups in SOTC. The fiddly bits for each skill are under each skill explicitly because we assume that if you didn't buy the skill, you don't care as much how it works. But that definitely introduced some organizational issues.

  7. @Cam, he ended up in the Elemental Plane of Chuck Norris.

  8. @Rob, the problem I had when I mashed up NWoD and SotC was precisely the fact that each stack of Merits, Skills, and Stunts had its own family of fiddly bits. I couldn't keep it all straight, even though in my heart of hearts I believe that I CAN make that mashup work!

  9. The thing with the "put crunch in traits" thing is more or less what happened in D&D4E, surely? And in the Charms for Exalted?

    Clark Valentine used to say that he hated games where the only way to do something cool was to buy a feat for it, especially when it was something anybody should be able to try. Swashbuckling Adventures had that, where "swing from chandelier" was something you needed a feat for.

    3.5 D&D got smarter, I think, and said "sure anybody can do X, but this feat means you can do X without penalty." But then, I guess that's the same as a Skill, isn't it?

    I also like the way Wilderness of Mirrors handled things with its point costs. There is a real opportunity in pricing things out to avoid both incompetent and unfun characters while also encouraging niche protection.

  10. @chatty The trick is this only works if you hide the original rulebook, so that rather than the Brawler Advantage giving +1 to unarmed combat and toughness granting +10 hit points, you have a "Bar Brawler" advantage that grants +1 to unarmed combat and +10 hit points. It's totally sleight of hand, and just repackaging existing material, but if you hide it well, only you know that. Tricks never look as impressive to the magician.

    -Rob D.

  11. @cam 4e and Exalted definitely take things in the same direction, but in neither case would I say the bulk of the crunch is offloaded into the fiddly bits. There's a really robust core that the bits add onto rather than representing optional bits. (With 4e it's super-weird because everything works the same way anyway, with keywords and such. I can drop any power in any class's power list, and only disconnects will be color, theme and role, not mechanics or rule confusion.)

    3.x was actually closer, but I think it aimed too low. The biggest problem with feat sin general is that they're small stuff. I know what I want - to be a swashbuckly guy swinging from chandeliers - but feats demand I buy that piecemeal, which introduces nothing but pain.

    That said, that also introduces another interesting issue entirely, of how much "permission" the rules grant. As in your skill example, X gets taken off the table when something explicitly empowers players to do X. The irony is that that is usually the exact opposite of the designers intent - by trying to make the game, say, more swashbuckley, they make it _less_ so.

    I think that broad stroke (by which I mean big bundles) addresses this much better than fiddly bits do. It is not always clear what is communicated by a specific feat, but a bundle should be clear communication, and that makes it much easier to address any potential disconnects.

    -Rob D.

  12. Regarding bits vs. bundles, I think the reason D&D3.x and some other games "aim too low," as @Rob says, is that they're entrenched in the "advance toward competence" paradigm (as opposed to, I guess, the "become super competent" paradigm).

    I'm a latecomer to reading about game development, so I have no idea whether this distinction is something anyone cares about, or even if I'm defining it properly, but most of the "class and level" based games I've played in provide only very gradual, and usually quite sharply-defined, advancement rewards. Even games that are strictly point-buy require a sacrifice of "mundane" competence in order to be able to do anything outstanding (Admittedly, my time as a NWoD player was rather brief, but that was the sense I got).

    As regards D&D3, I think part of the attraction of Prestige Classes and those supplements that clearly didn't get a great deal of playtesting is that gaining levels in them often result in advancement rewards that are more fun or interesting than those provided by the core game (conversely, because Monks have such a grab bag of interesting advancement benefits already, Prestige classes for them seem relatively boring).

    Things also start to break down in point-buy games (and level-based point-buy games like Mutants and Masterminds) when the players and the GM aren't on the same page as to what it means to be competent. The players end up saying stuff like "I feel like my character is really weak" while the GM is thinking, "man, I have no idea how to provide interesting challenges for these characters."

    Hm I am very rambly. perhaps I should try working.

  13. @chatty Yeah, prestige classes ended up being all promise, no payout for me. Yeah, sometimes they had specific mechanical benefits you could pick up for abusive combos, but that was not the same as delivering on the promise of transforming your character into a ninja or swashbuckler or rockthrower or whatever.

  14. ARE there level-based systems that let you grab a bundle of goodness?

  15. @chatty Fascinating question. WHFRP kind of _looks_ like it does, but I think that's kind of sleight of hand.

    MMOs actually are good at this. Not every level delivers, but there are certain gateway levels (like 40 used to be on Warcraft, when you got a mount) that really change your experience. That's a bit ham-fisted though.

  16. An extension of your idea about having the adv/disad section as your on-ramp to the various districts of crunchytown might be something you said last week about players having high traits in things they either want to be good-at to ignore, or be good at to be challenged at. I think if a player is taking advantages and disadvantages associated with a particular field of interest then it's a good bet that she wants to be challenged in that arena and thus is becoming more involved with the crunchy rules there.

  17. An extension of your idea about having the adv/disad section as your on-ramp to the various districts of crunchytown might be something you said last week about players having high traits in things they either want to be good-at to ignore, or be good at to be challenged at. I think if a player is taking advantages and disadvantages associated with a particular field of interest then it's a good bet that she wants to be challenged in that arena and thus is becoming more involved with the crunchy rules there.


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