Design Goals

I want to start my process by taking a high-level look at the design goals I’m trying to reach with a custom set of rules.

1. CUSTOMIZABLE: Players should have a lot of options when creating and leveling characters to customize them in various ways.  The difficulty here is making those options play well together and not requiring players to sort through hundreds of differently powered choices in order to build a character that can hold its own in, and out, of combat.  A player should not have to find the right combination of options in order to avoid a crippled character, and players should not get to pick combinations of options that lead to “super-characters.”  I’d like custom content to be easy to generate, whether that’s custom classes, skills, feats, races, spells, divinities, etc.

2. FAST PACED: We don’t have a lot of time to get through content.  My group is able to play approximately twice a month.  Combat should move quickly.  This means efficiency in the resolution system, avoidance of tracking too many resources, there shouldn’t be too many options/powers/decisions that paralysis sets in, or if there are, there should be a mechanic to keep play moving anyway.  Ideally, the system would be able to handle tactical encounters when they are called for, but not require all encounters to be played tactically.

3. ROLE-PLAY FOCUS: I want to create a game that is primarily a role-playing game rather than a story-telling game.  See this post for a good distinction between RPG and Story-Telling games.  I’d like to avoid disassociated mechanics to a large extent, but because of the limited amount of time my group is able to play, I’d like to include some story-telling elements as well.  To focus this design objective a little bit, I’d like the bulk of play to avoid disassociated mechanics but leave very specific areas for story-telling elements to grease the wheels in getting the game going in the direction the players are interested in.

4. MAGIC IS RARE: This is more of a campaign setting flavor, but is often directly impacted by the way the system rules are laid out.  I don’t much like when “magic” loses all wonder and becomes a list of attributes (+1 cold iron magic beast bane defending battle axe).  I don’t want the math of the game to require players to acquire magic items in every magic item “slot.”  Spells (both arcane and divine) should be unique and interesting as well.

5. EQUIPMENT MATTERS: That being said, I still want equipment to matter.  I think I can resolve some of the cognitive dissonance with magic items by simply having item qualities.  One of the major reward centers for people who play RPGs is acquiring loot.  That loot should matter.  In addition, rules for lots of non-combat uses of loot should be available as well.  I think that listing items on an equipment list acts as a suggestion to players.  Put animals on an equipment list, and players will buy them.  Put construction of a fort, or storefront, or castle on that equipment list, and suddenly players start thinking about how to use that wealth to impact the world.

6. EASY TO PREP: When we were students, we had a lot more time to put aside for building out stat blocks or playing with character generators.  Now, I want a system that makes prep elegant and fun.  For example, creating a monster that the players may choose to fight shouldn’t require me to figure out ability scores, feats, skills, etc.  When reviewing a stat block for a monster, the monster should have clear and thematic abilities, and I shouldn’t need to remember what all 11 feats it has can do in the middle of a fight.  See this post from the Thoughtcrime blog about 13th age for the right approach building monsters.

7. DANGEROUS ENOUGH: I want the threat of failure to be real enough that players legitimately worry about success and failure.  At the same time, I don’t want a system that’s so lethal that character’s routinely die. This is going to be a fine line to build around.  I’ll attempt to quantify:  I think the old-school / 1st edition take is too lethal for my tastes, and the 4e take is not dangerous enough.  The more dangerous/lethal combat becomes, the more outside combat actions become important, including selecting the battleground or avoiding a battle altogether.  Related is this discussion of combat as war vs combat as sport.  I’d like to encourage some combat as war in other ways though, not just through lethal combat.

8. THINGS TO DO: This feels like a corollary to principle #1, but I want to give some mechanical powers to everyone, not just spell casters.  It doesn’t have to be completely even across classes (if I ended up using them), and maybe this even becomes a matter of player choice in building their characters.  This is going to be tricky to balance with principle number 2.  Too many player options during combat will slow things down.  I think I may lean a bit more on triggered powers to help avoid some of the decision paralysis from slowing things down.

9. NON-COMBAT RULES: Every version of dungeons and dragons I have played has had a combat focus.  I’m not looking to go away from that.  However, I do want to have clear rules for all the out of combat stuff.  If there are some rules, or even guidelines, for it – it’s more approachable by the players.  This includes rules for exploration, travel, encumbrance, fame, social interactions, etc.  Players should be encouraged through the rules to engage in these other aspects of the game.  For example, awarding experience only for combat encourages combat.  Awarding experience for completing quests, exploring areas, acquiring wealth, or spending wealth can distinctly change the flavor and goals of the game.

10. ENCOURAGE ACTION: There is a fine line between encouraging smart play and planning, and finding that players are unwilling to take heroic risks.  The system should provide rewards for heroic actions while still being lethal enough to encourage non-combat solutions.  The 15-minute adventuring day causes the game to drag for players and GM.  It’s pretty boring, and really stretches belief, and it’s based entirely on resource allocation rules that seem to need some improvement.  On one hand, resource allocation can be fun for a lot of people, and on the other, it can lead to significant portions of an evening being spent mechanically finding ways to refresh resources instead of adventuring.  Additionally, I’m considering other methods of rewarding continued play, pools of resources that recharge after each combat and escalating experience awards or heroic points that can be used as some kind of game currency are examples.

24 thoughts on “Design Goals

  1. Andy

    I’m good with all 10 goals. In RE: to 4/5, I just played Betrayal at Krondor again, and in addition to “weapon qualities” you could also have weapon types have more impact. So for example, instead of picking a bastard sword at the beginning, maybe a certain class has the “sword” proficiency but at 1st level can only use a simple long sword (of any quality). However, maybe a 3rd level (let’s say fighter) can now master a broad sword, which is a better sword mechanically than a long sword. However, they may have a “good” quality long sword and only a “simple” broad sword which could make for interesting decisions if done right mechanically. Maybe at 5th level they can also use a scimitar, etc.

    Perhaps a rogue could never use anything higher than a long sword in the “swords” proficiency, but could go all the way to the top of the “dagger” proficiency. This adds a lot of flavor to item accumulation without making everything magic. Also adds a lot of options which we know is design point #1!

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Weapon types are an interesting subject. On one hand, the simulationist in me wants to give every weapon some kind of special rules. On the other, I don’t want players to go through the equipment lists and realize that “scimitars suck” or need to figure out that one weapon gimps their build while another elevates it. I’m torn on how to approach them. I’m curious, when you play, do you thematically think about the weapon you’re character is using? Do you identify with it in any way? It seems like sometimes it’s hard to keep straight who is using what weapon, or whether the Paladin is using a +2 sword or a dragonbane warhammer.

      1. Andy

        I do absolutely. I completely visualize my 4 foot dwarf using a huge spear and then growing “big” and having this huge massive tree trunk he’s using to stab people.

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  3. Andrew

    Im a big fan of the weapon being thematic to each character. I’d rather Lyonis use a warhammer 100% of the time instead of changing for whatever the best loot is

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Equipment swapping is a hugely popular mechanic in games like Diablo and Borderlands, but I’m with you, I’d like for characters to end up with an iconic weapon. It doesn’t have to be in their hands from the beginning, but I want them to have it for long enough that they identify with it. In Diablo and Borderlands, you spend the whole game finding weapon upgrades and swapping weapons out, and that is a hugely popular mechanic. And who is going to keep using their lucky warhammer when they find that great longsword in the dragon’s hoard? When I get to magic items, I’m going to go into my thought on how to correct this (namely, signature items that improve as you level).

  4. Andy

    I like Andrew’s idea here. Maybe we use gems or materials which can be inserted into or melded into your “high quality” family sword. Then you can swap them out as you find more powerful ones but keep the same signature “sword.”

  5. approximatedfray

    Really like the design goals you set up, think they epitomize the design features that should be covered in order to create the foundation to build a great rp session on.
    The first goal, customizable, is the one I struggle with and the group I usually play with also have a collective issue with.

    The group consist of a number of engineers with a talent for math and they quickly crunch down the options to very optimized concepts and quite a few of us have “challenges” with choosing sub-optimized solution, leading to the party of four 65 year scholars armed with halberds wearing nothing but plate helmets (clothing counted as armor).

    I do like a system with options in order to have the possibility to create a unique character and those systems allowing for full freedom in character creation like GURPS appeals to me. But playing with the group I play with another important factor is that everybody needs their moment to shine, in combat or in roleplaying scenes.

    The simplest and quickest way to accommodate for this is by having classes defining territories for each class in and out of combat.

    In combat some are ranged damage dealers, some are “can openers”, some are controllers, some have area effects etc in order for all to feel that they contribute in a meaningful way. Same goes for out of combat scenes. This area is usually less explored when it comes to detailing the interaction between skills and areas vis-à-vis the different classes and often where a very limited skill set is the ones that all players go for.

    By keeping skill areas like different aspects of social interactions (Soldiers intimidate, Fighters impress, thugs threatens, bards persuades etc) and wilderness and knowledge skills a similar balance can be established allowing all to participate in the non-combat scenes in a meaningful way (the of course a great part of this is in the adventure design as well).

    Currently, with the group I play with and all, I find the solution of keeping defined classes to be the simpler way to balance it. I also try to construct the classes in a way that they support each other (some classes causing conditions to the opponents that other, and only other, classes can exploit in a superior way). Would it be possible I would most likely prefer a more open approach.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      I think that the optimization puzzle is almost impossible to remove because, well – it’s a fun puzzle to solve. I think the only real answer to that for my group, at least in the short-run, is for everyone to trust that we’ll balance things as the game goes along. If you are clearly overpowering challenges and outshining everyone, we’ll scale you back, and my hope is that the players will all want to be scaled back in that circumstance, because it’s disrupting the group’s fun – which is the whole point of meeting up to play.

      I like an open setup, and I’m willing to allow a mish-mash or custom class in order to reflect a more open setup, but providing a good number of classes that very well might meld into a prestige class later on provides everyone a shortcut to get to an effective character that’s themed the way they want to play.

  6. Andy

    I had some time so I went back and read all the articles you linked. I really like where your 10 design principles are heading after reading the articles, even on some portions of the current game (Pathfinder) that I always thought worked fine before. More specifically –
    1) RPG vs. Storytelling Game – I agree with you here.
    2) 13th Age Monsters – Good read. I like where you’re heading here. Do all monsters really need to be as detailed as a PC when most will be lucky to live for 3 rounds? Agree it’s a waste of time with where our current lives are at. To springboard off that, should the system have a two step monster generator? Maybe one generator that is very simple like the 13th age model for “standard monsters” (which could even include very powerful creatures like Giants and Dragons) and a more complex model for “bosses” where these unique enemies have their own special powers? I’ll try and get in the 13th age at Owlcon with you to see how this plays in practice. My guess is that it’ll work fantastic for regular monsters. I’ll be curious to see how it works for the big bad guy at the end of the module.
    3) Dangerous Enough – I like the idea of Combat as War in theory but I’m not sure I like it in practice. If magic was rare and all enemies are deadly I think it makes more sense. If Game of Thrones is our model for this world, I wouldn’t expect for every fight Jamie Lannister has to be against an equal number of Starks, Bears, or White Walkers. Sometimes even Jamie Lannister has to run away from encounters. Having said that, a lot of times “Combat as War” takes a long time as people explore every endless possibility. High magic makes this worse as there are infinite solutions to every problem after a day of rest. I agree that scaling down magic will help Combat as War come out a little more naturally. If the party doesn’t have much magic they may be more inclined to use Alchemists fire, coat their weapons in poison, hide in mud, etc. Also agree that emphasizing these items on the equipment list will add them as options. On that note, maybe with equipment less is more. Andrew never even picked basic equipment because the equipment list is gigantic (and filled with items that are mostly repetitive in purpose). Of course, that conflicts with priority #1.
    4) Encourage Action – I agree with this point 100%. I’d say that most adventurers should be able to figure out a place that is clearly “not safe to rest.” I think we could resolve a lot of this by just making 95% of dungeons “not safe to rest” so you can’t even attempt it. It’s a dangerous world. If you as the DM make a point to describe places that are specifically safe to rest based on the descriptions then that makes for an additional short-term motivation for the adventuring party (and an additional believable in-game reason to open up random doors when your character knows that the bad guy they’re looking for is probably at the door all the way in the back!). This also makes resource preservation much more of a priority and as a by product likely reduces overuse of magic (as people will likely always save some resources instead of blasting the crap out of an almost dead monster because we’re going to rest right after the fight anyways).

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Monsters: I don’t think there’s much difference in generating a boss vs a standard monster from a generation standpoint. The boss is probably going to survive a little bit longer, so it needs at least an extra power to use. Also, it probably needs some way to help it out from being stunned/dazed to death. Finally, it could have a special leadership power or interaction with the other regular enemies that empower them or empower the boss in some way.
      Combat as War: I like this conceptually as well, but you bring up a good point – we could spend the entire session exploring ways of preparing for a combat, causing us to spend the whole session on one thing that probably could have just been handled head-on. I like the inventive problem-solving involved here, but it does NOT encourage action.
      Safe/Not-Safe: I don’t know if I want to “meta” the world by saying “this is a not safe place to rest” and prohibiting it. On the other hand, I think I’d need to make it clear that resting in clearly unsafe areas is a VERY BAD idea. Rope trick is NOT on my current spell list…

      1. Andy

        Safe/Not safe – If we try and rest and get random encounters EVERY time, then I think that accomplishes the same goal as telling the group out of game. I think the players will eventually get the gist that this is a different type of game.

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  9. wylliamjudd

    Interesting design goals. I’ve designed a number of roleplaying systems, before I ditched the genre for a fantasy combat board game (I hope to push this game toward being usable as a roleplaying game eventually).

    A couple of points: I totally agree about magic over-saturation. For me the issue is that it detracts from the role playing elements. It’s interesting what you say about getting new equipment. I personally don’t find getting better gear gratifying – I’m interested in A. the story / roleplaying and B. the challenge – I’m not interested in becoming more powerful. However, I will say that I had a weapon crafting system in my RPG in which you could have a certain number of “features” to your weapon, like bleed, knock down, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember right now. Some were major others were minor, and the quality of your weapon determined how many features it could have – so you could improve your gear without getting anything magical. There were magic items, but they were STRICTLY story based.

    Another point is this – One of the reasons I abandoned designing an RPG and opted to design a fantasy combat board game is that I had this realization that all of the systems for non-combat in RPGs don’t matter. Why would I make a “bluff” roll or an “intimidate” roll instead of just having a conversation between myself (as my character) and my DM (as an NPC). HOWEVER! You make a good point about level advancement through non-combat. I hardly realized how much importance I put on non-combat as a DM except in retrospect. My players typically avoided combat, which I think makes good roleplaying sense most of the time.

    I’m not totally sure how you’re going to resolve the resource allocation issue. “Deeper” die rolls seem fun for monsters, but I would be worried that the players would feel disempowered if abilities are the result of a proc instead of being a choice. I’ll have to see how you resolve this.

    Anyway, long reply, and I’m interested to see where this goes.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Thanks for the feedback!

      You’re right, a non-combat system is very difficult. The reason you would have a bluff or intimidate roll instead of just having a conversation is that fundamentally you’re playing a role-playing-game, and someone who is introverted might be trying to role play a charismatic leader. Just like you don’t have to be a body-builder to play a barbarian character, you shouldn’t have to be a genius to be a wizard, or eloquent to be a bard. The system abstracts your characters strengths for you. In the genre, quick-thinking and extroverted people have had quite an advantage in that they got to abstract their characters physical skills, but the Int and Wis and Chr stats basically came from the player themselves.

      I don’t want to remove role play from the game though. So I struggle with a compromise. I’ve mostly landed that the GM should be assigning a difficulty level to a challenge like that and can give conditional modifiers of +X or -X based on the actual interaction with the player. A player with a brilliant speech might get a +5, for example.

      To be fair, I think it makes sense to give creativity a bonus in combat as well, although it doesn’t come up quite so often because the game’s rules over combat tend to be far more defined.

      Also, I think player “procs” are fun if they don’t represent every power. This will be a topic of an upcoming post, but basically I think there are a few distinct types of powers: Static Bonus, Conditional Bonus, Active Power (unlimited), Active Power (resource constrained), Triggered Power. In 20 levels of play, if I go with 20 levels, a player might end up getting maybe 4 of each type of power. That’s still very much in development though, I’ve really just started trying to flesh out what a class looks like.

      1. wylliamjudd

        I would rather get experience rewards for role-playing my character well (i.e. staying in character) than have role-playing taken out of my hands and put into a dice roll, and then given a “bonus” for how well I role-play a situation. It seems like rolling dice really breaks up the flow of role-playing interactions. Why have them? What is their merit?

        There is a good reason to have a combat system – imagining role-playing combat without a system reminds me of what doesn’t work about playing with action figures. “My guy kills your guy with a bullet” “But my guy is so fast he dodges the bullet and kills your guy with a sword” “But my guy is wearing impenetrable…” you get the idea. You need a system to resolve this stuff. But for the story aspects, your really don’t.

        Another point I want to make is this. Every player will spend some amount of time in combat and some amount of time out of combat. Each character should have something equally important that they can contribute to battles, and to non-combat situations (like investigations for instance). Players should not have to choose between being useful in combat or being useful out of combat.

        I think that it would be interesting to think about what different roles characters can play in non-combat situations, and then find ways to implement those roles without breaking up conversations with die rolls.

  10. JackOfHearts Post author

    I think your second example illustrates why we have dice for the first example. If we don’t get dice involved in a role-play scenario, then everything is the whim of the GM. “I convince him to let me in!” “No you don’t!” – Without the dice, the GM is just telling a story. The dice add that uncertainty that is part of what makes an RPG a game.

    Is the guard going to believe that wild story? Well, we really can’t see how charismatic your con-man is, or how he’s making just the right eye contact, or picking up on body language, etc. That’s why the player who wants to play a con-man invested in Charisma. If you don’t have a die roll there, then what was the point? We don’t make the fighter stand up and swing a sword around, and judge how effectively they managed to do it. For the same reasons, I’m not sure why you should take the randomization away from the party’s face.

    I debate the topic internally on whether or not all characters should be equally balanced in combat. In the end, I think not. I think some characters are going to shine a bit more in combat, and some are going to shine a bit more out of combat. Still, because combat is such a cornerstone of the genre, I don’t want to make classes that are too weak. In a game like Arkham Horror, some characters are much better at exploring and finding clues, and others are much better at combat, and it works for the most part, so I think there is merit to letting some classes shine more out of combat than in combat.

    1. wylliamjudd

      I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the GM doing some story telling, and deciding how each NPC would react to the PCs words and actions. One thing that comes up a lot in the RPGs I play, is investigation. There are certain pieces of information that the characters need to be able to get in order for the story to progress. I wouldn’t want a failed die roll to mess up the players investigation. I also don’t think it’s fair to make a comparison between character dialogue and character combat. Are you asking your characters to roleplay at all? Can they walk up to someone and say “I use my diplomacy skill to get this NPC to change her mind about (x)” or do you make them say what their character would say?

      With all of that being said, you make a very strong case for making die rolls in noncombat situations. Your argument gives me a lot of perspective your view of role playing, primarily in that you see the players and DM as being on very even footing. I like it when my DM has a story to tell, and secrets to be uncovered, and that’s a bit of a mismatch with having players and DMs on even footing.

      I think that Arkham Horror is a very different case from an RPG, in that combat is much simpler, and so not shining at combat is fine. Characters don’t necessarily need to be equally strong in combat in a RPG, and if one character shines a little that’s fine. Each character needs to at least feel that they have a role in combat, and the discrepancy really shouldn’t be too big. Almost more important in my book, is that every character plays some role outside of combat. There are these two large categories of play in RPGs, of combat and noncombat, and you don’t want to have half of the players bored half of the time.

      From a simulation perspective, really some characters should excel (soldiers) while others are miserably incapable of fighting (everyone else). RPGs should be a game first in my opinion, and for combat and noncombat encounters to be fun, I prefer to throw simulation out the window, preserving it only where it makes the game more fun.

      Your comment didn’t show up in my notifications. I just found it because I’ve been trying to figure out what your design goals are. I’ve read most of your 70 blog posts (!!!), and I’m still bewildered at what you’re trying to do. It would be really helpful for me if you talk more about how your design decisions directly support your design goals. Even more helpful would be to talk about how it’s done in D&D (your clear inspiration), why that way of doing things doesn’t support your design goals, and how a new design would better support your design goals.

      You wouldn’t just be indulging a random stranger, I think you would have a clearer understanding of why you made certain design decisions, and then if you test them out and they don’t work, you’ll be in a better position to understand where the design came from and where you can take it.

      I’ve designed a role playing game in the past, and my design goals were much more radical. I eventually scrapped the project, ultimately because my combat system wasn’t fun enough. My latest project is a fantasy combat game that plays like a board game, not an RPG. I’ve been working to convert this primarily PvP combat game into a cooperative game, and I’ve found that to be more challenging than I first thought, and I think that building a game with cooperative play in mind from the beginning might be better trying to do a conversion (I’m still holding out hope that I’ll find something that unifies the two though).

      Between trying to make a cooperative version of my game, and reading your blog, I’m inspired to go back to designing a full roleplaying game. I’m a much better game designer now than I was back then, and I think that working in other genres has given me a lot of perspective about the specific needs of an RPG. I used to wonder, why can’t combat in a roleplaying game be as fun as sitting down to play a game of Magic? In designing a fantasy combat game that plays more like a game of magic, I’ve discovered some of the reasons why roleplaying games play so differently from Magic or other board games. Roleplaying games provide an utterly different experience, placing less importance on strategy and more importance on exploration, discovery, narrative, and fantasy. The strategy of a roleplaying game is also much more focused on the cooperative play, as it should be! It’s a cooperative game.

      I know what my design goals would be, but enough about me, what about you? This blog post makes your design goals far from clear. Do you mean more customizable than D&D? Faster paced? Equipment matters more than D&D? Easier to prep? More dangerous? More things to do? More or better noncombat rules? Encourages action more than D&D? If more than D&D, how does your design accomplish these goals? How will your system be faster paced than D&D? How will you encourage action more? If not more than D&D, why not just cut to the chase, design your setting, and play D&D?

      There is also something that bugs me about your design goal #6 (easy to prep). If you have enough time to design a whole roleplaying system, how can you claim to not have enough time to prep a roleplaying session? Seems like a bizarre assertion.

      Wow, super long reply, sorry. You’ve clearly put a tremendous amount of time and thought into this project, and I hope that you’re able to reach your goals and create something awesome 🙂

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