Monday, April 23, 2012

Adding Depth to Fighters

Several weeks ago, a Conscientious Reader commented that I have a long history of giving a lot of design consideration to spellcasters of every type, at the apparent expense of fighter and rogue characters. My Swordplay series of posts aside, I'm comfortable calling this an accurate observation of a blind spot in my general tendencies. I'd like to talk a bit about why this is, while also trying to mend my ways.

The fighter class prior to 4e filled a design space that the 5e designers have been talking about a lot; ENWorld has collected tidbits of commentary on this topic here. (Do go ahead and read that, as much of my commentary is in that context.) In 2e and prior editions, the fighter was by far and away the simplest class in the game, mechanically speaking. Creating a fighter PC takes fewer decisions than any other class, and the player makes very few decisions during combat beyond which enemy to attack this round and (if using a grid and minis) where to stand. If there's a usable stunt system, maybe the fighter comes up with a stunt. Over the course of several levels, fighters gain toughness, better chance to hit, maybe weapon specialization (you'd have to be nuts not to buy this in 2e - it's a primary class benefit) and extra attacks per round. If there's a skill system in place, that might improve, but fighters are really always going to be bad at noncombat things, simply because the class was explicitly designed to have more fun in combat than anyone else. Admittedly, 2e's kit system added considerable complexity - but not all that many of the Fighter kits had broad appeal for my players in those days. Oh, and they published a whole book intended to add more variety to combat for fighters.

There's nothing explicitly wrong with a low-complexity class, even in a game where other classes are more complex. D&D as a whole is complex and forbidding enough that a class that is easy for new players but still rewarding for experienced players is excellent. But then, the whole motivation behind this post is addressing the latter clause, so let's come back to that.

3.x fighters saw an increase in complexity, matching and in fact caused by the increase in complexity from 2e to 3e. Unless the player has a spare very high ability score to throw into Intelligence, single-class fighters aren't going to see all that much of the skill system, but no class gets anywhere near as many feats as single-class fighters. I regard the tiny number of skill points and narrow range of class skills as a significant problem with keeping the players of fighter PCs engaged once the combat stops. I realize that this commentary isn't exactly a revelation to anyone. Still, I feel that while "dumb thug" is one species of fighter, it shouldn't be encouraged, much less the default, because it's hard to keep dumb thugs engaged in what's going on in the game as a whole.

I have extensive anecdotes (almost extensive enough that I would think of them as "data") from LARPing and tabletop gaming alike that point to fighter archetypes being especially vulnerable to getting shut out of engaging intellectually with encounters because they either don't have applicable skills or don't have applicable knowledge to cue them in to how they could apply their skills. It doesn't have to be this way; particularly in LARPs, a "dumb thug" played over enough years does eventually get hooked into enough other plot threads (with some nudges from Plot, perhaps) that they can engage in more conversations. To put that another way, dumb thugs tend to get boring after a year or two, so the characters wise up.

The obvious part of why this happens is that the players start out by saying, "I don't want to have to think too much." I understand this perspective, and I've been there myself. None of my commentary here is intended as criticism of players who start with that baseline for their characters; tabula rasa and the Everyman are perfectly good ways to play. They don't hold up well for long-term play, though - all plotlines of even halfway decent writing yield dividends directly based on how much a player invests in them. (Any cases where this is not true are rare enough to be irrelevant over a long enough timeline.)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Content Presentation: the Mystical Vignette

Following a considerable gap in posting caused by a Dust to Dust event, I want to talk a bit about a common thread between DtD and several of my favorite games, culminating in thoughts on applying the concept. Nobilis may be the first game I saw that communicated a huge amount of its flavor and factual setting detail through vignettes in the margins; you could just read the main body of the text, but doing so leaves out most of what's compelling and otherworldly in the setting. I talk about Echo Bazaar a lot in this blog, and in this case it's pretty much the perfect example, as the entirety of the game is presented in brief, evocative chunks of text. I understand that there's also a lot of game content exclusive to Twitter, so that pretty much explains itself.

A short, evocative paragraph or three on a topic is a case of shaping game content into digestible chunks for players who have been well-trained in the letters "tl" and "dr." The first problem is actually making the text compelling to the reader, and the rules here are quite different from the rules in other areas of writing. When you're trying to keep it short and sweet in a game, telling rather than showing is fine, because you don't have many words to play with in the first place. Mostly it is best to avoid dialogue, though it has its place. Every single fact that you can imply rather than state outright is a good one.

Arkham Horror is one of the best examples of this that I could name, as every time you take an action in a location, in either Arkham or the Outer Planes, you draw a card with a tiny bit of narration - as little as "A gate opens and a monster appears!" or as much as two or so paragraphs and instructions to resolve a few die rolls. The game uses a ton of different decks of cards, so each area has game content customized to it. Differences in flavor and decision-making aside, it is about as much like Echo Bazaar as it could possibly be in its approach to content.

Now, I wasn't thinking about vignettes or other bite-sized content when we decided that every ritual formula and every production formula in Dust to Dust would include some text other than the rules text. I was thinking instead of Wildlands South, where there was interesting text on each spell or production formula - not that I, as a late-to-the-party staffer, ever really had a chance to read any of them. I loved the idea, though, and I also knew that with ritualism working the way it does, the wizards were going to have spellbooks, which meant I might have some extra space on the page or pages of the spell. If there's going to be text, then, it should relate to the setting somehow, and we handled that by dropping names and adjectives like crazy, as well as writing a lot of "segments of a longer work" and the like.

Based on player feedback after three events, I feel that I can safely say that this approach has been very popular with the players that have gotten involved with it. For starters, text props are always popular. There's not a scholar PC yet born who doesn't want every last scrap of text-colored paper she can get her hands on. The text also often has the names of other rituals or production formulas (mostly, but not always, within the same skill) that exist, or once existed in the game's fictional history, and we've found that players especially look for these kinds of cues to give them ideas of what to ask for in their spell research.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Effect Counters by Spell School

This idea emerged right at the end of a previous post as I was writing it, and I've had some time since then to turn it over in my head. I liked where the ideas about effect counters even better when applied to the eight spell schools - it was just a small step to go from Death Effect counters to Necromancy counters. If we're going to identify these eight schools of magic as fundamental to spellcasting (you know, in editions other than non-Essentials 4e), maybe we can treat them as flavors of mystical energy that the caster manipulates in a mechanically evident way.

This may involve more playing around with glass beads and keeping them in the correct place on your character sheet than some groups would enjoy, but given that I've just recently played another session of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition, it all seems pretty reasonable to me. The core of the idea is that both being affected by and casting certain spells can cause a person to gain or lose counters of various kinds. A Necromancy spell, for example, both grants Necromancy counters to a target and deals extra damage if the target has Necromancy counters. Some healing spells might have their amount healed reduced by an value based on the number of counters. I also like the idea of Necromancy buffs (false life) granting the caster a Necromancy token because it's using the caster's soul to mitigate physical damage to the target.

Perhaps more unusual are Evocation counters, which I admit are conceptually lifted from Bright Wizards in Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. Casting the most impressive Evocation spells of any given level grants Evocation counters to both caster and target, and almost all Evocation damaging spells deal added damage based on the amount of Evocation energy already coursing through your body. Evokers, then, deal more damage with a given spell as a battle goes along, and also develop Evocation defenses just to survive an extended engagement with an enemy Evoker.

Transmutation and Abjuration work differently, as they are so heavily based on beneficial effects. The idea that multiple Abjurations in an area interfere with each other is well-supported in some editions of D&D, and I like the parallel idea that Transmutations targeting a person either encourage further change (penalty to saves against Transmutation attack spells like flesh to stone and baleful polymorph) or cause the person to resist further change (making it difficult to set up too large of a stack of Transmutation buffs) - I'm not yet sure which of those two models I like more.

Enchantment counters wind up working a lot like tangents from 2e's psionics system - I'd either make a certain number of Enchantment counters a hard requirement for the more absolute-control spells to work, or inflict a penalty to saves based on your number of Enchantment counters. All told, it's still a lot like Necromancy counters, aside from using Will instead of Fortitude, so I'm hoping another idea for Enchantment counters will come to me.

Illusion counters are a fun one, as they can track the character's growing evidence that what he's seeing is Illusion. Perhaps each attack roll that a character makes against an illusion grants that character an Illusion token, and he makes a disbelief roll every round. Once a game is using that idea, you could also have Enchantment spells that mess with the target's mind by removing a number of Illusion tokens.