Today we’re going to play armchair game designers. What I’m going to do is pitch a game concept with genre, tone, themes, etc. and then I want you to make some design decisions on what sort of mechanics you think would best fit this concept. Specifically talk about: character creation, advancement, initiative, health and combat.
Example Concept: Genre: Cyberpunk vampires. Tone: Over-the-top action meets excessive gore. Themes: Neon trench coats and katanas are cool, vampire-thrall relationship as analogy for unequal distribution of power in society.
Example Answer: I’m going to assume the aim here it to play as the vampires, if not I have to revise my answer. First, this game obviously needs to support over-the-top blood combat. I don’t want a combat system with a lot of tactical trade-off here. What I want is a way to incentivize ridiculous action movie moments like running up a wall, drop-kicking a guy in the head and cutting the next one open with a sword. The combat should probably be about piling on bonuses from different sources to do something cool. It should probably be mostly theater of the mind. For initiative, a basic sort of back and forth between sides is probably good enough. I don’t want to over-complicate it. For the health system I want it to by default be ridiculously explosively bloody. Vampires should all have innate vampire powers that can keep them up and kicking despite this. That will also help keep the PCs alive. Imagine a character’s head is split in two with a katana one round, only to knit itself together the next, while the character continues to fire uzis. Character creation should probably be a basic point buy, with some limits to minimize min-maxing. I might consider tying points in advancement to achieving certain things in the game world—maybe vampire things or things tied to the cyberpunk theme. This mostly just a personal preference rather than a genre consideration. I like to see advancement as part of the simulation or a part of the narrative, rather than as a purely game artifact. Maybe advancement comes from obtaining new thralls to suck energy from? That would tie in with the vampire-thrall relationship theme.
Okay, here are two concepts to answer about. Pick one. Talk about how you’d implement it.
Genre: Alternate history, late Victorian era. Tone: Gonzo high adventure meets history buff’s enthusiasm. Imagine Zulus with laser guns on the backs of dinosaurs counter-invading England after the tide turns in the Second Anglo-Zulu War. Themes: Truth is stranger than fiction, poking fun at colonialism.
Genre: Sorta-Low Fantasy. Tone: Imagine a world that was once your typical high-fantasy world, but the times are changing, the age of heroes is more-or-less over; the once dangerous monster-ridden wilds are being tilled up for farming and once-feared dungeons are being cleared out. Themes: Social change, culture clashes, “adventurers” as either washed-up has-beens or incurable sociopaths that are no longer needed by society.
Edited beholdsa (May 11, 2015 11:23:44)
Genre: Sorta-Low Fantasy.
I think such a setting requires magic to be in decline (like the period between Earthdawn and Shadowrun or the difference between high-mana and low mana in Infinite Worlds), so stability is possible. A random antagonist can't just summon an army of zombies, or a cleric just pray away a plague. Any magic and power mechanics are toned down considerably, possibly to be more basic utility than flashy. Combat isn't as much the focus, but it does exist. It is gritty and painful and with legal consequences. With a lot less magical healing, wounds linger, and npcs notice them and react.
Stable social structures are possible and actually required. This means Social mechanics and social connections and contacts are a must. Reputation scores might make sense. Relationships between political, social, and religious groups are tracked. Flaws and quirks based on poor adaptation to this setting are important. Legal and poltiical systems also make sense.
Unlike many high-fantasy worlds, skills and professions aren't an afterthought. If the characters can't just beat up a kobold to pay for their dinner, they may have to have actual day jobs. Such work systems actually need to make sense. Crafting systems will focus more on mundane items and include base material costs, skill(s) required, selling price range, completion times, and so on.
Character creation is in two parts - what the character was (standard adventurer class) and what the character is now (current profession). Advancement could more a shifting between was and is than just adding more stuff. Forgetting a sword stance to be a better town mayor.
Starting gear is less than useful adventurer gear that may need to be reworked or pawned to help the character survive.
Genre: Alternate history, late Victorian era.
Use of the word “gonzo” indicates to me that the character creation system should be very flexible - probably not based on set paths of advancement like careers or classes, but rather a system like GURPS or Fate (two opposite ends of the spectrum in most respects, but similar in that they allow you to build a character out of component features that may have little to no relationship to one another). Players can be a human for zero points and spend their character creation points on skills, gear, social advantages, and magic subsystems like Hermetic Magic and Eastern Mysticism. Or, they can spend more points to be a talking gorilla, a steam automaton, or similar, by buying super strength and damage resistance. Every character should have a High Concept or similar, and be barred from buying advantages that don't match that concept (e.g., if your concept is “Ferocious Talking Gorilla Spear-fighter,” you can't buy the “Gentleman of Polite Society” advantage).
Advancement is tricky - some characters are going to want to advance primarily through wealth, others through scientific or magical breakthroughs, others through social rewards like being granted titles, and others just through getting better at fighting. So, experience should be awarded in the same generic build points that were used to make the characters, and can be used to improve skills or buy advantages the same way. Unique gear should probably only be purchasable as an advantage - anyone can have a gun or sword, but Captain Darkwater's Cursed Life-stealing Cutlass grants a specific new attack advantage, and if you don't pay for it you haven't “attuned” to the item's magic or figured out its science yet, even if you kill Captain Darkwater and take the sword.
Initiative and health could be ranked, along with other attributes like Strength and skills like Swordsmanship. Qualitative terms fit the feel of the world better: Abysmal, Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Superb, Outrageous, etc. So, initiative is determined by your rating in Initiative (perhaps a skill?) and people could have advantages that move them up or down in certain circumstances (e.g., Danger Sense moves you up +2 for Initiative on the first round of combat and also steps all your defensive skills up +1 or something). I feel like play in this system should be fast and decisive. When two characters get into a conflict, the one with the higher relevant category wins, period. If there's a tie, maybe go to core stats - so, a Very Good Swordsman beats a Good Swordsman when fencing, but if they're both Very Good the one with the higher Dexterity wins. If it's still a tie, things are dramatically equal (lots of clanging steel but no clear victor this round) until something changes or maybe go to dice rolls. There could be a lot of opportunity for granting people advantage and disadvantage (a la D&D 5e) to move them up or down a category for a single challenge, thus helping break ties. Maybe one Swordsman's NPC protege comes to distract the other Swordsman, giving their ally the edge for one round. Damage from attacks could be based on differences between stats, so if I'm Excellent with Firearms and I shoot someone with Abysmal Dodge, I deal 5 health levels of damage. If they're not in Superb health already, they're in trouble.