Saturday, November 06, 2010

Rules as Teachers

As I work on my game system I am discovering an interesting aspect of rules design that I thought I would briefly discuss today. I've been working on my Skill System, and in particular the question of how many skills characters get as they progress through the game.

I've gone through six different formulas so far. Each one seems suited to a different type of player, but it boils down to this. Some players like to advance quickly and build their character's skills in the beginning. Some players are happy to build their character's skills slowly over time.  In the latter case they get a sense of accomplishment over time by seeing their character advance in skills and power.  In the former case the players feel they are able to do more things in the game quickly and so it is more fun for them. So the rules that govern the advancement in skills tends to favor one style of play over another, as they must, because the two rates of progression are mutually exclusive.

The basic outline of my skills system is such that at each new level the character gets a certain number of Skill Learning Points (SLP) which they can spend on learning new skills, or bolstering ones they already have. Spells and Miracles are each considered a skill, and so Mystics spend their SLP on each Spell or Miracle they want to learn. Skills that have not been learned can be used (except for Spells or Miracles), but at a lower level than if they had been learned (at the moment the Skill Level for an unlearned skill is 1/4 the Character's level). Skills are currently divided into two categories, Primary and Elective. Primary Skills are those which are specific to a Class. For example the skill of picking pockets is specific to the thieving class, and so for Thieves it is a Primary Skill. Swimming on the other hand is an Elective skill, and any class can learn it. For each skill on my list I assign whether or not is is specific to a class (or classes), is Elective for the class, or is prohibited to the class. So a very small sample from my Skills chart looks something like this:

Skill Name, Skill Learning Points (SLP), Thief (T), Fighter (F), SpellChanter (S), Cleric (C)
(Y=Yes, is Primary for this Class, E=Elective for this Class, N=No, Prohibited to this Class) 

Name           SLP T F S C
-------------- --- - - - - 
Light Weapons  1   Y Y E E 
Medium Weapons 1   N Y N E 
Heavy Weapons  2   N Y N N  
Pick Pockets   1   Y N N N  
Stealth        3   Y N N N  
Horse Riding   3   E Y E E 
Swimming       1   E E E E 
Writing        1   E E Y Y
Pottery        1   E E E E

The original formula for giving SLP / Level to Characters that I had was this (where the # of Sub-Classes is defined for mulit-class characters, such as Fighter-Thieves which have 2 Sub-Classes):

SLP = (Character Level * # of Sub-Classes) + 1

Nice and simple.  Notice that Skills cost very few SLP to learn, and so few SLP are doled out.  The numbers are small, and the system is designed for simplicity.  However, my play testers noted that this progression of SLP meant that in most cases the tendency would be for Mystics to spend all of their SLP on Mystic Powers because they want to maximize their effectiveness in the game, and therefore they will neglect to spend any on Elective Skills.  Thus, we'd wind up finding Mystics who can cast hefty Fire Bolts and Polymorph, but can not read and write, ride a horse, or anything else with any proficiency (though they can perform any skill at 1/4 their level, so it would be unfair to say that they can't do those things at all).  Therefore at the suggestion of the players we decided to try a new formula that was recommended which doubles the number of SLP per level, and enforcing a new rule that characters must use half of their SLP for Primary Skills, and the other half for Elective Skills, with the following revised formula:

SLP = (((Character Level *(Character Level +1) / 2) * # of Sub-Classes) + 1)

Clearly this is more complicated.  Most people, not being a math wizards, will require a chart of some sort to understand what the number progress for this formula looks like.  That aside, this seemed for a while to work out fairly well, and the players selected a goodly number of skills for their characters, and everyone was happy.   For a while.   But then a new play tester joined the game and immediately noted that he could not fill out his character's skills at the beginning with a good number of skills that helped to "define" his character at 1st Level.  So, because the play testing is just for this purpose, we began a general discussion of what the best SLP system would be.  We're in the middle of that discussion now, and I'm in a bit of a muddle about it at this point.

And so the new play tester's preference brought us back to the discussion, and we noted, after having play tested the revised formula for several months, that actually, it didn't solve the original problem after all.  While the players did select Elective Skills, they noted two things:  1) they had too many Elective Skills that they never bothered to use in the game, and 2) "it's terribly unfair to spellcasters: they need to spend their precious SLPs to learn spells, fighter types pick a weapon type at 1st level and then they're pretty much good to go."

The reason originally that I created Elective Skills was because I noted that there are many skills in life that can be useful, but should not be exclusive to a particular Guild Class, such as Thief or Fighter.  Skills like writing, swimming, horse riding, or what have you, could be learned by any Guild Class.  That was the original idea.  In addition, some skills might serve as career skills, and provide a monthly income for characters, such as leather working, and also give them some additional in-game options such as being able to repair armor, or weapons, or build a house, or whatever.  So the list has a lot of skills that are Elective for all of the Guild Classes, of which Pottery is one example.  As originally intended, I figured each Character would select one career oriented skill, from which they would get a monthly salary (on the assumption that most characters in my world adventure at various times, but have careers that serve as their day jobs, so to say). 

Another thing to understand about the difference between Primary and Elective skills is that Primary Skills are always used at the Character's current level, whenever they learn them, and go up in level as the Character goes up in level.   Elective Skills also go up in usage level as the character levels, but they are used at 1st level when they are learned.  So for example if Ragnar the Warrior learns Swimming when he turns 3rd level then he will use it as a 1st level skill until he gets to 4th level, at which time he can use his swimming skill at 2nd level.  When he is 5th Level he can use his swimming skill at 3rd Level, and so on.

What is interesting to me is that the SLP system needs to serve the players, but the players have different desires.  So no SLP system can make all players happy, no matter what formula is used.   And so the question came down to this:   What do I the game designer think would make most players happy?  Then I thought about that question and realised that it is only one possible way to approach the issue.  I could also and just as reasonably ask:  What do I the game designer want my World to represent, and through that my players to learn?

All games serve, to some degree, as teaching tools, whether game designers realise this, or admit it, or not.   People learn from games.  In fact I would argue that people learn a great deal from games, and perhaps some of life's most important lessons are learned through the playing of games.   If I make my SLP system answer the question of "What will make most players happy?" then I may wind up with a system that teaches some very fundamentally wrong things that I don't actually agree with or like.   For example, perhaps most players at heart are really just a bunch of munchkins and all they really care about is maxing their power and lording it over others.   Human nature 101?  Could be.  If my rules system rewards munchkinism then in effect my game encourages that behavior tacitly.  Is that what I want from my game?   What if my game became wildly successful, but encouraged people to think like, and behave like, munchkins?  Would I be happy with that?   Me personally?  Not really.

What I'd rather have is a game that teaches, if anything, that success in life requires hard work, careful planning and determination.  Those seem like good lessons to learn from a game, and to my mind if my game teaches those lessons in any way then I'll be happier with it.   Of course, some people will argue that there's no point in that if people don't like the game because it makes them feel like success in life requires things they don't want to do, like plan carefully, work hard, and have dedication, then my game will have few players.   Hmmm... true enough.   But what would I rather have?  A game that is loved by billions of people because it encourages their inner munchkin, or a game played by few that encourages excellence?   I think, for me, I'd rather encourage excellence.  Note: I am of course arguing at the extremes of possibility here, but this is in order to make a general point about game design, and using the extreme case to illustrate that point more clearly.

This line of thinking led me to reevaluate my SLP rules in light of this consideration.   I note that as a game designer (or entertainer) I can easily be pulled around by the desire to please my players as much as possible (and of course it is completely impossible to please them all) by offering them rules that give instant gratification to their desires for power and glory.   However, in catering to these impulses I suspect my game would imply through the rules system's reward system that it's just honky dory A-OK to be a munchkin.   But, in fact, it is my opinion that it is definitely not ok to be a munchkin.  And so I don't want my game to cater to munchkins or surreptitiously encourage munchkinism.  No sirree bob.

And so the lesson is this:  when designing a game, any game, you have an option as the designer as to what kinds of behaviors you are going to encourage through your reward system.  But you should be aware that your game will have an effect on people through the nature of the rules you create, and what kinds of behaviors your game rewards and therefore encourages.  Most people may be munchkins (well, lets hope not!), and most game designers may cater to them, and encourage munchkinism without realising it or admitting it.   But that does not mean you have to.   You have a choice.

For the Elthos, I think I will make the SLP system reflect my contention that success in life requires good planning, hard work, and dedication.  Even at the risk of creating a game that only a few people play (again, lets hope not!).  So how does that reflect in the SLP formula?  Well for one thing, I think it means that the progression of SLP, which is a form of reward for leveling, should increase as one levels.  Therefore you get rewarded for planning adventures, and executing them successfully, over time.  The reward is that your characters get more skills and can do more things, and this reward is doled out slowly by building progress toward competency and then if one plays well, plans well, works hard, and has determination they will achieve glory.  And that, friends, is a rules design decision that is based on what I want the rules system of my game to teach. 

Some people at this point might wonder why I would take a stand of this sort in this day and age, when such ideas may be considered by many people to be a form of snobbery or elitism.  It is because I have the feeling lately that people these days do not very much care to be taught the kinds of lesson that tell us to be strong, decent and hard working people, through games, or by any other means.  We are, sadly, and to our detriment I think, being encouraged by most forms of entertainment, that we should aspire only to have fun, and that life's rewards should be easily obtained, and that we should not have to work hard to achieve anything, and if anything does require hard work and determination we are told that it is either too hard, a waste of time, or an insult to right thinking people, or some other such nonsense.   I don't agree, and since my Elthos game is my art form, I intend to apply my principals and philosophies to it.  Through the game rules.  And hopefully in the end the game will be good, and people will enjoy it, and some people will come away from playing it with the notion that working hard, planning well, and having determination might just be good things after all.

All of that said, after further contemplation I also do think I see the point of my play test who likes to front load his character with skills so he has a sense of the fellow out of the starting gate.  My thought is to give a pretty hefty bonus at level 1.   The formula I think that may fit the bill is the original one, with a +6 SLP bonus at 1st Level.   And so, friends, I think this is what I may do.  It is simple, and that's the overriding design mandate of the Elthos "One Die System", so when in doubt, I head in that direction.   In this case what I will have to do as well, is remove the stricture that says you must spend SLP on Elective Skills.  My thought is to provide a set of Primary Skills that are automatically given to the characters when they level, sort of like Primary-Primary Skills if you will.   Mystics would in this case get certain spells or miracles for "free" and have others that they can spend SLP on.    It's still a bit messy, but I think I'm a little closer, once again, to my goal.   I want as simple a system as possible that still maintains the traditional fantasy RPG rules tropes I enjoyed so much in the original D&D (edition 1) so many many moons ago.
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