Monday, August 7, 2017

Chasing Perfection in Character Advancement

Have you ever played a level 20 character in Dungeons & Dragons? In a real campaign? Advanced all the way from level 1? Games rarely last as long as RPG books would like us to believe, even those that start mid-way up the power ladder. So why do we get so excited to see god-like powers at the end of the line?

D&D 5e's "Archdruid" is a perfect example of an ability that I believe was specifically designed to get players excited about the druid classpath, regardless of what its effects on the game might actually be.

From level 1-19, the Druid can only shapeshift (gaining temporary HP) twice per short rest. At level 20, Archdruids can all of a sudden use their shapeshift ability infinitely.

It doesn't matter if this specific ability is imbalanced in some way, underpowered compared to other level 20 abilities, or overpowered to the point of god-hood. The Archdruid hooks players by promising them seemingly limitless power, and giving them an ultimate goal to achieve.

Once you've achieved ultimate greatness what then does a game become? In some MMORPGs, it's said the game doesn't even start until you are at max level. This allows you to beat the end-game content that is actually the ultimate goal of the game. In other games, such as Borderlands, you can specialize and race towards one of a few ultimate abilities. Once unlocked, you generally proceed to blast through the rest of said game without too much effort (if you didn't, was it really an "ultimate" ability?). For MMORPGs, it can be an unpleasant grind to get up to max level. In Borderlands, as soon as Brick can punch a boss to death, there's really no challenge in continuing.

Let's skip the grind. Hostargo has always been about horizontal advancement; it's about gaining character complexity and game options, rather than simple number increases. I want the game to start with a bang and be a fun ride all the way through... but without any sort of power creep, how can I keep players interested in continuous advancement? At some pointwhich could be from the very beginningthey've already gained the powers that they were interested in. I need to be careful not to have "Brick Syndrome" and just give players all the best toys up front.

I was going to have a grid of options, where different special abilities and different party roles intersected to form a unique way of playing the game. This might still be a good start, but spreading out in the grid isn't enough to drive player interest; they could just as soon make a brand new character to explore those abilities. Instead, I need an advancement tree, or at the very least an array of more complex character abilities that will get players excited.

It's a fine line to walk between interesting advancement and power creep. The game should be satisfying both at the table and away from it, where players enjoy character building. Achievement can be a great thing, so long as it's not the last step that leads to boredom.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Interacting with "The World"

We all strive to change the world around us. Sometimes, we sit down at a table and pretend we have more influence than we really do by interacting with an imaginary environment controlled only loosely by a set of agreeable rules. We want to see how, through our character's actions, we can change that made up world.

We play RPGs to find out what happens. That is why they almost always include some sort of random chance: fate is just another player in the world building sessions we indulge in. Fate is one way to make the world interesting. We use our actions, and those of fate, as an input to discover a world filled with mystery, intrigue, and adventure. The output of those actions, of course, is a world that has changed.

In Hostargo, I've put a heavy focus on how characters interact with the world. Their special abilities, roles, and even motivations are all driven by a need or want for change. This enables players to have a visible impact on the game world, rewarding them simply by the act of playing the game. The Cypher archetype, for example, interacts with the world through hacking cyberspace, enabling them to change the way physical machines work. The Socialite has a knack for manipulating the world's NPCs, instantly making the player feel power over those around them. For those with a more mystical side, the Daemon archetype gives the player power over light and the shadows it creates.

Hostargo stresses the need for interesting environments. Players want to use their abilities to shape the events, characters, and locations that surround them. Good adventure design is the key to a good game, and Hostargo aims to be the perfect toolbox for designing those adventures. Defining archetype abilities gives the GMs of Hostargo the ability to populate their adventures with environmental interaction opportunities. Once the environment is set, the rest is up to the players (including the ever-so-exciting fate)!

Characters interacting with the world around them is ultimately what every RPG is about. There are an infinite variety of flavors and styles of this input->output function, which is why there are so many RPGs. Hostargo is my flavor, and its archetypes are my style.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Giving Players Tools, Not Roles

Sitting down at a table with some of your friends, bullshitting around with a story, and making badass characters thrive is only a shallow perspective on what we actually want out of RPGs. That's a problem, because it's hard to pinpoint what makes the games we all remember so memorable.

The base design of any good game should always answer some core questions: what is this game about? What is it trying to accomplish? What is it trying to get the players to think, feel, and experience? For Hostargo (and RPGs like it), heroics is a possible answer. Awesomeness could be another. But really, playing an actual roleplaying "game", and not just participating in a storytelling experience, requires meaningful, interesting choices to be made by the players.

The key here is that the adventure, not the system, is the most important aspect for creating these interesting player decisions. What that means for system design is that a good system should simply exist to aid in the design of interesting adventures. That means it should facilitate the creation of the characters, plots, environments, and situations that the players will find themselves in.

A system that has things like "classes" and character progression should really aim to be a toolbox, not a means to an end. I've been doing this wrong lately while trying to think of what "roles" characters should play in Hostargo. I might even be so bold as to just scrap the idea of "roles" from "roleplaying" all together, in favor of giving players an interesting toolbox, and having any players in any scenario feel like a "good player" for solving the problems at hand with their customized toolset.

Of course, we want a focus on teamwork, and giving every player an equal opportunity to shine. So, we need to tread carefully with our classes. Give players the generalized tools that make their character both unique and useful, but don't shoe-horn them into such specialized roles that they don't have the freedom to overcome obstacles that aren't in their pre-defined "wheelhouse".

The games that fail in this regard are almost obviously too rigid in their designs. Games that use the combat-triforce of tank/heal/dps clearly shoe-horn their characters. That can be valid for a video game, or even a tactics/war tabletop game, but it doesn't lend itself well to merging story into the action. On the flip side, this idea can also result in an overwhelming sense of "sameness", as we saw in 4th edition D&D. It's technically a great game, and there's a lot of enjoyment to be had, but when everyone starts to feel like they can do everything just as well as everyone else, you loose the sense of "team" that really makes TRPGs a shared experience.

The games that implement this idea the best, in my opinion, are Powered-by-the-Apocalypse. Each character playbook gives players unique tweaks and abilities that make them feel special, but when it comes down to the wire, the system is there to resolve players' decisions, not give them a limited set of useful choices as a predefined "role". This is one of the reasons the "rules get triggered" idea is so brilliant. The players make choices, the rules come forward to resolve those choices, rather than the players making choices based on the rules.