What Makes a Game a Home

I want to take a minute and talk about the way mechanics influence the feel of a game.

The way a game plays mechanically affects the way a game feels emotionally. Hopefully that made sense, but if it didn’t, what I’m talking about should become clear pretty fast. Let’s discuss specifics and how you can change the mechanics of your game to make it feel different. To use the grittiest, most granular examples of this possible, I’m going to start talking about the various RPGs from fantasy flight we’ve seen in recent years, specifically Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, and Only War. If you’re familiar with these games or the Warhammer 40,000 universe, you shouldn’t have trouble following along, but stay tuned if you aren’t because this should be pretty easy to swallow

All four of the games I just mentioned run off the same core mechanics. You roll the same dice to shoot people with lasers, you have the same stats and skills, and you exist in the same universe. That said, they are all very different games. Dark Heresy is a game about being the most expendable possible pawn in a shadowy world of intrigue and corruption, as well as the core game of the series. Characters in this game start at the lowest point power wise of any of the games, and have the life expectancy of a cat in a blender. In fact, a lot of people play this game just for the messy and interesting way your characters will go the the great reroll in the sky. Next up we have Rogue Trader, a game about being interplanetary nicknack merchants and privateers in possession of a massive ship and thousands of loyal(?) crew. In Deathwatch, you’re super soldiers wearing armor better suited for starships than people and firing warcrimes at uncountable waves of gibbering alien monstrosities. And Only War treats you as a single cog in a massive warmachine weighted down with bureaucracy while you reach into an increasingly large number of piles of goo that used to be your best buddies faces.

Fluff aside though, how are these different games? Couldn’t you just buy one of them and use it to run all the others? Well, yes, clearly, but that’s not the point. The big difference, oddly enough, is the way NPC’s treat the character and the manner in which equipment is requisitioned. In Dark Heresy, the players are given a monthly wage, and are expected to live off of that and whatever they can beg buy or steal. The characters are often on their own for extended periods, and are expected to be able to survive autonomously, for the most part. This is represented both by the very specific monetary system, where every dollar counts, and in the predilection towards non combat skills and roles presented for character creation.

The opposite of this is Deathwatch. You are given a suite of bionics and implants, a suit of basically invulnerable armor, and the massive weapon of your choice when you create your character. There’s very little in the way of interpersonal skills as the most you’ll ever have to talk to an NPC is a well delivered one liner or a demand that they get the hell out of your way. If you want extra equipment, you ask nicely, and an army of municipal drones fall over themselves to bring it to you. This is a game that is all about murdering enemies. It even has a special suite of rules devoted both to how well your party’s supersoldier are working together and another explaining exactly how to kill hundreds of aliens in one round.

Then we have Rogue Trader. This game is very focused on the acquisition of filthy lucre, but in a nontraditional way, in that you’ll rarely have to fight a dragon for it. During character creation, the party collaborates to create the space ship on which they will be traveling. Note: Never, ever underestimate the positive effects on party cohesion of collaborating in the creation of something. Anyways, this gives the players a joint sense of ownership, a mutual interest in eachother, and access to a vast, VAST fortune and a massive cadre of loyal minions. It’s a big spaceship. You might imagine that having a massive fortune would make most equipment trivially easy to acquire, and you’d be right. The challenge in Rogue trader comes from keeping your ship alive and running in the vastness of space and acquiring even more filthy lucre to add to your vast fortune without getting shoved out an airlock.

And finally, Only War. I’d almost say Only War is a toned down version of Deathwatch, but that isn’t quite true. You start with a predetermined pack of items, to be sure, but instead of giving you everything you can ever need, the municipal drones hate your thieving, equipment losing, paperwork generating, needy, selfish guts and want you to die in whatever manner leaves your equipment intact so it can be put back in the storehouse with a minimal of fuss. Suddenly, interpersonal skills are important for things like convincing the commander you’ve always had this powerfist, or that your squad deserves to be one of the ones with armor instead of one of the ones providing ablative biological cover to the tanks. The focus is on the people, instead of the combat, and your party is even given a passel of NPCs to herd around, in the form of the remainder of their squad, who provide both mechanical benefits tot he party members they are assigned to as well as many intangibles, such as spotting sniper bullets with their faces.

So that was a long and unruly talk, but the point I was trying to make is that it’s important to think about more than just combat mechanics in your game. Where the PC’s gear comes from and how people treat them is just, if not more, important to making a game fun and deep than a well thought out system for shooting faces. A character with a support system, however inept or insular, feels very different to one floundering on their own.

So remember, the way characters interact without murder is just as important as the way they do with it.

Down with classists!

Ok, I talked about the reasons roles exist and how to define them, now I’m going to talk about how to present them to players.

For this to work, first you need to figure out what level of freedom to allow your players. The spectrum runs from games that allow a player to build whatever character they see fit, as exemplified by games like the Elder Scrolls series and GURPS, or force them to progress along a very specific route, showcased nicely in games like pretty much every game ever without those nebulous “rpg elements” in it that still has power progression. If you’re making one of those, that’s awesome, but this isn’t the post for you.

So let’s look at an example of the middle point. Pathfinder (and several editions of D&D, the game it was based on) has a system in which players choose a class that defines the basic nature of their character. A fighter fights, a wizard casts magic, a rogue stabs people in the back and takes their shiny things. But within that structure, there exists a lot of customization options. Some classes allow you to select from a suit of abilities, and all classes receive a number of skill points to be spent on non-combat related skills, like opening locks and professional home decorating, and a number of special abilities, called feats, that they can choose from a largely universal pool. Characters are also free to combine classes, gaining additional benefits at the cost of not increasing their starting class.

The question becomes, as a designer, how much do you trust your players and yourself? A game of complete freedom might make for very interesting character creation and some very interesting characters, but you run a grave danger of players creating characters who are completely unsuited for the game ahead. For an example of this, the latest Deus Ex tried to follow it’s predecessors freeform progression system, but had segments where a character without significant combat capabilities could not progress. This could have been solved by toning down those sections, allowing a way around them using the same methods the character had been using to progress through the rest of the game, or (and this is the game design aspect we are focusing on here) they could have separated the progression of the character in such a way as to not force the players to choose between competence with weapons and the ability to read your boss’s emails.

The more freeform your creation and progression system, the more hand holding you need to do. Shadowrun does an excellent example of this by providing a series of premade characters with descriptions of how to play them and why they are effective, and the player can use these characters straight off the rack, customize them, or just use them as inspiration for their own characters. Alternatively, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (the second edition) forces characters to progress in very very straight lines, and only needs to provide one sample character who is only used as an example to show how to apply the character creation rules.

The opposite of this, of course, is the more constrained your character creation and progression is, the less unique and interesting the characters made in it are. Rules exist, in GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System, to allow players to create magic using dinosaurs who, over the course of the game, learn how to hack computers and craft elegant herbal teas. The level of player freedom can be as great as the player’s imagination, which simply cannot be said about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. But if the focus of your game is supposed to be very tight, that might be fine for you.

So remember, with great freedom comes imagination and occasionally stupidity and with great focus comes reliability and occasionally boredom.

On a Role

I’m going to talk about the division of player roles in games, and how they affect game play.

Let’s start this at the most basic possible level, which everyone is probably familiar. Almost every game that includes either multiple players or players controlling multiple characters generally divides the character into a couple of different roles. Most generally these roles fall under the triad of offense, defense, and support. Most of the time, if you’re playing a game that requires these roles, and you don’t have one, you’re going to be handicapped in one way or another.

Let’s define a role, before we go any further. A role is a specific set of actions a character preforms to benefit the party has a whole. A healer heals, a tank defends, a face talks to people, and so on. A character can have multiple roles, and a NPC is perfectly capable of filling a role, although it’s probably best if they do so off camera. Roles can be almost infinitely specific (i.e. backstabs orcs who look crosswise at the party wizard) and can be combined together up to the point where one character can do everything. A good role has a specific mechanic associated with it, although it doesn’t have to be incredibly different and unique. The rogue can roll the same dice to open a door that the fighter rolls to stab an orc, but the rules have to be there for both of those things.

So, first off, you have to figure out what roles are relevant and important to your game. Let’s use D&D as a test case, because it provides a great deal of diversity in both game structure and player options. The standard D&D dungeoneering group is four players characters, the warrior, thief, mage, and healer. Any party that tries to go into a dungeon without one of thoseĀ  is going to be in a lot of trouble, whether the squishy members get slaughtered because they don’t have a warrior, the group gets overwhelmed without a mage, they get killed by devious traps with no thief, or they have to rest in every room because they don’t have a healer.

But maybe you don’t want any healers, or thieves, or warriors, so you change the game. A D&D game without healers is a game where healing comes from some other source. Maybe the game is set in a city with easy access to clerics, maybe the heal skill can be used to restore actual hp, or maybe the adventurers are tough as nails and recover quickly naturally, so they only need a few minutes of rest before they can fight again, no matter how bad they’re hurt. Without thieves, the game also needs to do away with traps and treachery almost entirely, and focus more on straightforward combat and adventure. It’s important to make sure that your players aren’t punished for playing the game the way they want to.

So remember, make sure you have a game that suits the characters in it. Next, I’m going to talk about getting the players into their roles.