07 August, 2008

Game Mechanics 1.2

I'm taking a slight detour in my blogs about game mechanics, I had intended to be detailing aspects of what I think make a good combat system (and how I followed those ideas to generate the system used in Tales).

...instead I'll look a bit deeper at aspects of character generation.

I've already mentioned a strong favour toward perceived mid-points. Two of the scales I've heavily considered are...

Systems with lots of random value generation versus systems that place the focus of thought back into the hands of the players.

and

Systems where the the characters are incredibly detailed with skills, combat abilities and special powers defined to the nth degree versus systems that are almost freeform with arbitrary principles based on vague notions of common sense.

I've always felt that a good game can be judged by it's character generation system, and for an instinctive gut reaction, the generation system can be seen through the character sheet and the sheer size of it in a book. If you're playing a heavy game with lots of detail, you'd be best to avoid a system where the character generation can be defined in less than a half dozen pages. If you want something light then this would be more appropriate. This extends through the whole system. The more a player invests into character generation, the more protective they are going to be when it comes to their character.

In a throw-away game where players can easily risk losing a character or two each session, those player's really don't want to be spending an hour generating each new game-world persona. In a complex game of political intrigue, where subtleties in a character's past can have dramatic effects on the course of the narrative, then an hour may not be enough time to generate a viable persona.

Where you draw the line between these two extremes really depends on the style of play that is the objective of the playing group. This can be one of the critical things that makes or breaks a session of game play.

For Tales, I worked with what I considered to be a reasonable mid-point, but have allowed scope to push the character generation toward a more rapid deployment system, or a more complex version depending on the needs of the story to be told.

The whole thing uses a point assignment system using simple numbers of 10,20,30. People like round numbers, they're easy to remember.

Attributes (10)

How many attributes are enough? How many are too many?

I remember in the late 1980's there were roleplaying games that assigned anything up to a dozen attributes to their characters. I also remember games from the 1990's that rebelled against this concept and reduced the number of attributes to 2 or 3. The godfather of all games, D&D uses 6 attributes, and this seems to be a common number across many systems.

Having played many games, it seems that the sweet-spot for atytribute variety is 5 to 6. But I've been playing with a number of card based systems over the years and 4 suits have stuck with 4 types of task in my mind.

Physical, Social, Mental, Spiritual.
(A lot of games don't touch on the Spiritual aspect, but this is important to me for a number of reasons...instead they may divide the three others into two-or-three different attribute types. Physical could become Strength and Endurance, Mental could become Intelligence and Wisdom, etc.)

4 also works fairly well when a player has 10 points to allocate between them. A player could choose to allocate in the distribution of 4,3,2,1. Giving them a clear area of advantage and a clear area of weakness. It also means that a plauyer can't start with a purely even starting character, the most level method to distribute their attributes will be 3,3,2,2.

When we assume that the average attribute value is +3, we can simply say that players begin slightly less powerful than others who have been performing similar roles for a while. This gives characters something to aspire toward, and that type of motivation is something that helps push the game forward.

Skills (20)

How many skills are enough?

The various areas of knowledge are far more diverse than the basic innate potentials of a person. I've seen games with no skill lists, where a player simply chooses a role to explain the types of skills they'd be likely to have. Conversely there are games with hundreds of finely tuned skills that cover dozens of specific areas.

I like the concept that anyone should be able to attempt anything (within reason). You don't need a skill in computers to turn one on (but it certainly helps). You don't need to be an athlete to jump across a pit (but again it really helps if you have practiced such things).

For starting characters I've decided to allow up to three points to be spent in a skill (this works with the 3 points as a typical high point for an attribute). 1 point shows a passing interest, 2 points shows that this is a regular hobby, 3 points shows that they spend a decent amount of the spare time honing this skill. Yes, skills can go above 3, but more about this will be detailed shortly.

(I had toyed with the notion of making each skill linked to a specific attribute and capping the skills at a level equivalent to the attribute, but even though it seemed an elegant solution this proved to confusing to a number of test groups).

I've divided each attribute into 10 key areas that seem appropriate to the genre, but have allowed room for players to introduce their own skill ideas if they specifically want to develop their characters in ways that aren't defined by the existing rules. 10 skills each across 4 attributes = 40 total skills, meaning that even if a starting character spreads themselves incredibly thin across the range of potential abilities, then they'll have a passing knowledge in half of the skills available.

This is another aspect that I consider pretty important, because I believe that no-one can understand everything, and it is these differences in knowledge that help to define our individuality.

Background Details (30)

Here's where characters really become unique.

I've decided that all characters have access to a range of templates, along with merits and flaws that make them individuals.

Templates cost 5, 10 or 15 points. They may be bought as occupations or as cultures.

Occupational templates reflect how the character earns a living, cultural templates reflect how they fit into their society.

A 5 point occupational template is a hobby, a 10 point occupational template is a part time job, a 15 point occupationaal template is a full time job.

A 5 point cultural template is a connection to a group, a 10 point occupational template is a membership in a group, a 15 point occupational template is a leading role within that group.

A character with a full time job and a role of leadership within a group simply doesn't have time to develop in other ways. Sacrifices have to be made somewhere.

Occupation templates provide bonuses to skills, as well as a few advantages and disadvantages typically associated with this type of job (any skill bonus allow starting characters to begin with skills modifiers above +3). They basically provide benefits to a character in exchange for that character meeting certain responsibilities within society. Occupations have a time commitment associated with them to show that the character's freedom is restricted by the things they are expected to do in exchange for gaining the benefits of that job.

Cultural templates provide backgrounds and give the character a grounding within a specific society or sub-culture. These templates reflect the type of people the character regularly associates with, either in their public daily life or in secret shadowy meetings. Cultural templates often provide specific groups of allies and enemies, and belonging more strongly to a certain culture will have the effect of impacting the character's very beliefs and ideals.

I've allowed a player to purchase as many templates as they like for their character, of any types they might wish. This concept also allows players to pick up a pair of part time jobs, or to mix and match aspects of jobs to create unique employment opportunities...2 parts warrior, 1 part diplomat...2 parts mystic, 2 parts scholar. In this way a dozen defined occupations (each with hobby, part-time and full-time levels) can be combined to give hundreds of viable character options.

If the characters have any points left over after template purchase, these may be used to purchase additional skills, attributes or other advantages.

There's another thing that I've tried to incorporate into the design of the game at this level. This is the belief that walking the established path is easier than forging a new path. This is reflected by bonus points provided through the templates. A player can purchase the same things in a template as they can purchase with their left-0ver points, but there are tutors and mentors who are willing to teach the templates as a package. The advantage provided here isn't big, but it should be enough to make players seriously consider the difference between designing a truly unique character and designing someone who simply fits into the world around them.

A 5 point template basically provides 6 points worth of benefits. A 10 point template provides 12 points of benefits. And to follow the logical progression, a 15 point template provides 18 points worth of benefits. But on the down side, each template has a standard group of disadvantages associated with it, so a player knows that if they are facing up against a standard rank-and-file template enemy there will be certain tactics that can be used against them.

A player can choose to spend all of their background points on templates to generate a character fairly quickly, or they can be far more picky with their character choices and really develop a unique character.

Beyond templates, I like the concept of Advantages and Disadvantages. Little effects that give characters bonuses or penalties in specific situations. It here that I think roleplaying really comes to the fore in most mechanical systems. I've also seen through play that most players will play up their advantages and play down or avoid their disadvantages. So to counter this I've made the disadvantages more severe than advantages of the same value. A 1 point advantage may give +1 to a die roll in a certain situation, while the corresponding 1 point disadvantage gives -2 to a die roll.

There's a few aspects of the whole system that I've had to seriously reconsider over the past few months (through the development of the Eighth Sea), but I'll get to them in later parts of this mechanics discussion.

...hopefully the detour is now concluded, I'll aim back toward combat mechanics for my next post.
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