Monday, February 15, 2010

Three Obscure Ideas Worth Stealing

If you are not stealing ideas in your game design, I might suggest you are doing it wrong. There are a lot of games out there that have hit upon really good ideas, even if the games themselves have met with a variety of fates.

Margin of Success Tricks

There was a game once called Secrets of Zir'an. It was a clever, interesting game, but it suffered the kind of printing problems that make it a cautionary tale rather than any kind of real success. It's a shame, since it had some clever ideas, and one in particular really caught my eye.

SoZ had a system where you could learn various tricks to use with a skill, things like combat tricks for extra damage, extra spell effects, and so on. There were a lot of these, and they allowed for a lot of differentiation between skills. The trick was that each one had a particular cost, and that cost was paid out of the margin of success of an attack.

To illustrate, imagine a fairly D&D type-attack, where I roll d20, add a number, and hit you to do, say, 2d6 points of damage. I only needed to roll a 19 to hit you, and I rolled 24: that's a margin of Success of 5. I have a few tricks: for 1 point, I can increase damage by 1. For 3 points, I can knock you down. For 5 points, I can perform a disarm. So using those 5 points, I could do +5 damage, +2 damage and knock my enemy down, or do a disarm.

There's a downside to this in that it's a little math-ey, but it's got a big upside (beyond just cool fiddliness), since it clearly calls for description after resolution, so you get to incorporate your awesomeness.[1]

Inverted Pricing
Wilderness of Mirrors is an innovative game in a a number of ways, but one of my favorite elements to it is often overshadowed by the other novel elements, and that is role pricing. WoM doesn't have skills, rather there are 5 roles you buy not representing the roles on the spy team. The danger with such systems historically is that the benefit of having a broad skill at all is usually much greater than the benefit of incrementally improving it, so there's a strong incentive to buy many things at low levels rather than specialize. This is especially true if prices get progressively higher.

WoM turns that on its head by making the first rank cost the most, and each subsequent rank cost lest (so the price is 4:3:2:1, not 1:2:3:4), and I dig the behavior that encourages. It leans naturally towards niche protection and excellence within your niche.

"Wild Card" Skill
Eden's "Buffy" system was a lot of fun, and it's a shame it's vanished down the licensing hole, but I want to see if we can hang onto one particular idea.

Buffy had what I would describe as a medium sized skill list. Long enough that I couldn't rattle it off by memory, but shorter than 15-20. It's a good size, since it allows for skills that are neither too broad nor too narrow, but it's a bit of a crapshoot. See, at that size list, you have the greatest chance of having overlooked something important to one of your players.[2] Buffy's skill list included one blank slot where a player could insert any skill he needed, so if it was really important that his character is an excellent accountant, he could put that in the Wild Card Slot.

There's an obvious benefit to this - it introduces a bit of flexibility into the skill list without demanding that players come up with the skills on their own. But there's also a subtle benefit: whatever skill the player put in that slot is a flag - he is more or less calling out the GM the thing he thinks makes his character stands out, and is inviting plot hooks to be attached to it.

There are, of course, lots and lots of other ideas worth stealing, but you can't steal them all at once. I figure three at a time is probably digestible.

1 - Something similar was done in another brilliant-but-gone game called Fireborn[3]. The difference between them us subtle, but potent. In Fireborn, you effectively paid for actions in the difficulty. So if I want to do extra damage, I increase the difficulty to hit by some amount. There's a compelling logic to this, but it has the downside of making cool behavior (stunting and the like) less likely to succeed - players are punished for doing something risky. It's more 'realistic' (harder tasks are harder), but not necessarily more fun.

2 - With fewer skills, odds are good it falls under the penumbra of one of them. If there are lots of skills, then adding another is pretty trivial.

3 - Going from memory here though, so apologies if I'm misstating.


  1. The Zir'An thing is very similar to Dragon Age's stunt die thing, although obviously it's a little different in that the trigger is rolling doubles, not beating the target number by X. Still, I like this sort of thing a lot, too.

  2. @cam Yeah, the Dragon Age solution definitely fills the same sort of space.

  3. The idea of special effects on high rolls is much older than Fireborn or Secrets of Zir'An. I remember it from two 1996 games: Deadlands and Legend of 5 Rings. In Deadlands you could use Raises (points above required difficulty level) for any special effect after the roll, a bit similar as in Secrets of Zir'An. And in L5R you also could get extra effects - but you had to declare it before roll raising difficulty (similar to Fireborn in your example).

  4. I had forgotten about raises in L5R, which are definitely a precursor to this sort of approach.

  5. I also immediatly thought of Raises in Deadlands.

    And I was intending to steal the idea anyway, but now I think, "Why just have 'either or'?"

    It should be easy enough to implement both. You can, at the onset of your attack, choose a higher difficulty to disarm a opponant; but you could also get a raise on a regular attack, and acoplish the same thing.

  6. Sorry to be pedantic, but isn't there a surplus not wondering around in the purchasing roles description for Wilderness of Mirrors? I mean, if I was playing a spy game I'd really like to buy roles that might be appropriate to espionage.

    Although the image of a team based on roles such as "pastry chef" ["Hah! That is the seventh person this month to die from a poisoned profiterole!"] does have its attractions. Especially when it gets to the climactic pie fight at the end...

    [You know I'm just going to have to use WoM to do this now, don't you?]

  7. In 7th Sea (by L5R author John Wick) both approaches were combined. You could declare special effects before roll (requiring +5 to difficulty) or after the roll - but at double price (each effect for 10 points above basic difficulty).

  8. I kind of like the Wild Card skill idea, too. I think a lot of games have skill sets that are just too large, really, and having a Wild Card slot can help reduce the designer's urge to try to cover too much ground.

    Building too large a skill system can make it almost impossible to build a normal person, or have that person do normal things (like climbing a ladder... gah!). We've all at least once seen a player suddenly realize that his or her character is missing something crucial, like Reading, because it was missed in character creation. That's just silly.

  9. The Margin of Success can be seen in a lot of the games Wick has been involved with. Because its a great idea!

    In Houses of the Blooded, wagers act as the the margin of success and have became more narrative and less hardcoded into the mechanic. Its one of the mechanics I am using my current game design as well. (Which is fundamentally a die pool version of FATE/HotB + some sprinkles of other stuff)


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