Rejiggering

By | June 8, 2013

Hello once again!

Today I’m going to go ahead and put some thoughts down on how development is going on the Infinite Earths roleplaying game.  Now that the three founders live in the same town, we’re able to iterate through designs much more quickly and much more completely.  And what we’ve discovered is that a lot of our original designs for the game didn’t do what we wanted them to, and players haven’t reacted to them necessarily in quite the way we’ve wanted to.

Now, it’s been no secret that Infinite Earths was originally conceived as a modification of the d20 ruleset with some tweaks.  I’ve mentioned before that as we’ve developed it, the game has stepped further and further away from that system and started being its own thing.  Because we kept finding little places here and there where the core assumptions of that base and the core assumptions that we wanted to use were so different we couldn’t quite make them jibe.

In addition, as we were preparing our beta documents, we began testing them very intensely to ensure the rules were doing what we wanted them to do.  And, as it turns out, they weren’t.  The social system as it stood was pleasingly accurate and simulationist. . .and as development continued, I became increasingly disturbed by them.  By tying rapport so closely to different behaviors, and generating different numbers based on the impact and duration of the behavior, among some other factors, I began to wonder if rather than developing a fun and engaging system, we were instead developing a sociopath trainer.

Because by systemizing social interaction more completely than roleplaying games generally do, we run into situations like this:  “Dexter generates a low level of goodwill by bringing donuts into the office.  He can later exchange the goodwill he has generated for favors, such as overlooking a parking ticket or dismissing suspicion about why he is so close to a crime scene so quickly.  And if he has done it long enough without calling in any favors, the favor won’t even negatively impact the relationship.”  On one hand, I love being able to model that.  On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of developing a system where social interaction is broken down into “I do X to build up enough Y to make you do Z.”

The good news is, every time we take a wrong turn in development, we learn more about what we want to do and how we want to do it.  Every iteration makes the game better (and my goodness, even the sociopath-simulator was better than the version where you just beat NPCs up with words until they said what you wanted).  But every failed iteration also makes us realize we’re maybe not quite as far along in development as we thought.

This was reinforced recently when we looked at the leveling mechanic (ironically, in the midst of Ray’s columns about how XP works in Infinite Earths, and as a result of those columns) and began asking ourselves, “do we really want levels, or do we want to use some kind of character points system?  And if we have levels, do we really want 20 of them?”

Examining the character points idea, we identified very quickly that it would run counter to most of our design philosophy.  Most of what we’ve been designing around is that characters develop along three axes–combat, social, skills–and finding a balance between those three axes.  We briefly considered replacing those with character points (or even constrained character points) allowing characters to spend their XP not on levels but directly on Talents or Strike/Speech/Save bonuses.  But that subtly encourages players to become Johnny One-Spells for maximum benefit, and that’s the opposite of our intentions.  So XP and Levels stayed, because Levels allow us to constrain behavior in a way that fits our intention for the game (by forcing players to spend “build points” on multiple aspects of their characters).

But we didn’t feel we needed to have a full 20 of them for any reason other than tradition.  So we reduced the total number of available levels to 10.  This allowed us to reduce the “additive math” so that it is less important.  This gives the actual dice rolls more importance, because characters never actually reach a point where the additions to their dice rolls are greater than half a d20.  It struck us as somewhat odd to develop a dice-based system where the dice eventually become irrelevant (except to see if you crit or fumble), and by reducing the number of levels we found we could handily also reduce the “number inflation” that went hand-in-hand with having so many levels.

So with that examination also came a re-examination of the core mathematics of the system.  I’m pleased to say that that didn’t get torn completely apart.  The background of the system’s structure is a series of equivalencies.  What is equal to a talent, mathematically, and what is not?  We had to make some adjustments, but about a week of breaking out the spreadshseets got that resolved rather neatly.

So now we’re in a state of rolling back and cleaning up what we’ve got, streamlining everything and making sure it works the way we want to before we get overeager and start presenting a system that doesn’t do what we want it to be doing.  And one benefit of stepping away from being purely d20 is that we can really focus on what makes Infinite Earths different, and we can potentially look into publishing under a Creative Commons license instead of the Open Gaming License.

So, while we’re doing this, the chapters we’ve previously put up on our front page have been taken down.  In a lot of ways they no longer fit.  There are a lot of things that will still be carried forward, but overall: we were overeager to share.

Escape from Monthos Vil is still on track to be released as a preview of the system this month.  One thing that I would highly recommend for any game designer is to build a set of quick-start rules for your system during initial system creation.  That has taught us so much.  Specifically, if you can’t distill a game idea down into a few easy sentences, it’s probably not a good game idea.

We’ll have more information in the coming weeks about what we’re up to and how our rejiggering is working out.  See you soon!

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