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.

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Puttin’ yer time in.

This week we’re talking about story based advancement systems and possibly the astonishing revelation that I am lazy.

The polar opposite of the challenge based experience system is one where advancement is keyed into certain advancements in plot or story and progresses regardless of the players actual accomplishments. Games that reward the player with experience for time spent playing, such as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or with a set amount of power after every mission regardless of what took place during the mission, such as Jedi Knight Jedi Academy, are premier examples of this system.

As a rule, storytelling based games work well with systems such as these, ditto games with a vast array of play styles. It is far easier to determine how many points it’s worth for the player to rescue the princess and then let them decide if they want to mow down every guard with their vast array of deadly weapons or sneak through the sewer systems and spirit her out the window without ever alerting a soul. For the more time based systems, such as the aforementioned Warhammer, it allows both players and Game Masters to focus wholly on the telling of a good story and stop them viewing any portion of the game world in the context of it being worth experience.

On the flip side, a strictly time based system can fail to account for behavior in a player that should, perhaps, be rewarded. If the player faces insurmountable odds and elects to defeat them all using some unexpected tactic, they would be rewarded in a challenge based system, but not in a strictly storytelling or chronological system. Mass Effect 2, for instance, has a set amount of experience earned for the completion of every quest, no matter whether it was solved with the utmost care and diplomatic tact or by shooting aliens in their heads until they all fell down. Solutions to this can be found in a more hybridized system, but I’ll get into that later. As a rule, storytelling advancement provides for a very rich setting and roleplaying experiences, but can occasionally stifle interesting play by making the risks not worth it.

This was a short one, but remember, if you don’t want everything dead, try a storytelling advancement system.

Kill it! It’s how we learn!

This week we’re covering the benefits and drawbacks of a challenge based advancement system.

Challenge based experience systems are a staple of most any game with “RPG Elements” and many table top RPGs. This is mainly because they are remarkably easy to use. If every monster, trap, angry mob, and belligerent mechanical chicken are worth a set amount of experience for defeating, then the Game Master doesn’t actually need to do a whole lot of work determining the rewards the player gets from them. Dungeons and Dragons is a terrific example of this, where every monster and trap has a “Challenge Rating” that determines it’s worth in experience points and a convenient table detailing the amount of treasure it ought to be carrying at time of death. This sort of system is very good at forestalling arguments among the players and the game master over rewards, as it’s very clear what rewards a player should gain after every challenge is surmounted. All in all, it is a very clean way to handle advancement. Shoot X number of monster Y until they fall down, receive Z experience and A fancy new hat.

There are, however, a number of drawbacks to that system. The main problem with a challenge based experience system is that it has a tendency to encourage bloodthirstiness among it’s players. When players have spent their entire gaming career becoming more powerful by slaughtering droves of enemies and laughing at their widows (role-playing is always good), they often develop a Pavlovian response to challenges. Many an interesting and pace changing social encounter has been ground beneath the boot of a kick in the door party because they had no idea the concept of dialogue with foes existed. Worse than that are the games and game masters who penalize their players for attempting a creative solution to a problem. As the Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 books state, the player should get the same experience for sneaking past a sleeping minotaur that they should for fighting it, as either way the challenge of the minotaur is defeated. One can make a decent argument for the players only really learning through combat, but only a fool treads this path. As soon as you do this, the players can simply hire local adventurers to duke it out with them until they level up. It becomes even harder to compensate for this sort of thing on the video game front. In games such as Fallout, one often has the option of negotiating with an enemy or attacking them. This is a trick, however! The most experience, and therefore the most power, can always be had by negotiating with an enemy and THEN killing all of them! The flip side is that every creature not brutally murdered becomes a chunk of experience they will never see again. The same can apply back to tabletop games in the more extreme cases, where not brutally murdering the kobolds and their children becomes the difference between being able to throw fireballs and being able to turn air itself into fire.And no one wants to have to look into the teary eyes of a baby kobold and make that choice.

So that’s killing stuff for advancement, next week we’ll do telling a good story for advancement. And then I’ll talk about a good mix.

Learning all the time

This week we’re talking about methods of advancing your players.

I’m planning on being relatively quick this week and returning to this idea in depth later. Anyways, I’m going to start by explaining the two main forms of experience point distribution, story based and challenge based.

Challenge based experience is dolled out, fittingly enough, after every challenge. Every pie eating contest you win, every minotaur you kill, and every princess you save all give you some amount of experience. This is the traditional method used in Dungeons and Dragons, most MMORPGs, and notably (for the purposes of this article) the first Mass Effect. This is an effective method as it allows players to feel like there is a direct correlation between their actions and their rewards.In Mass Effect, every time you shot someone in the face, you were one step closer to being more effective at shooting people in the face. The problems this sort of system can run into is that story can take a back seat to experience acquisition. If not handled properly, it is very easy to find your players slaughtering their way through everything in their path because it is the optimum route to power. A game where the solution to not being able to beat a challenge of wits is to go shoot giant scorpions for an hour is not a game whose narrative is completely entwined with game-play (I’m looking at you, Fallout). By a similar token, if the criteria for defeating a challenge is loose enough, the players will simply find an easy challenge, such as sneaking past someone, and farm it until they have all the experience they can possibly want (now I’m looking at the Elder Scrolls games).

The opposite of this is setting progress based rewards. Whether time or story based, these are experience points (which I’m using as a catchall term for advancement, if that hadn’t been noticed) given to the player when they reach a certain point in the story. Perhaps after the quest to rescue the princess has been successfully completed, or the player is now pie eating champion of the local bar, but they have finished a leg of their quest and have thus gained experience. This system allows you to tailor more effectively the levels of advancement your party can reach, as well as timing them more accurately. The downside of a progress based rewards system is that your players can end up feeling unfulfilled. Maybe they were supposed to escape from the castle overrun by ghouls and instead they killed all of them, and yet they got the same measly rewards. Players like to believe they are getting better because they have been working at it, not because it was time for them to get better. Good examples of this type of experience system can be found in most White Wolf games, Mass Effect 2 (compare the two to see the differences), and most games where you get an unlock able at the end of every level.

That’s it for this week, I’ll be tying it together next week.