Adventurers, not NPCs

By | July 20, 2013


The Infinite Earths roleplaying game divides a character’s “class” into three different roles chosen at character creation: Fighting Style, Persona and Vocation.  In the earliest iterations of the system, we had an expansive array of Vocations, the role that provides a character with non-combat skills such as Knowledge and Stealth.  What we discovered through playtests, though, is that such an expanded array of vocations actually worked against the Players.

How so?

We’ve tested the system with experienced players of other systems, as well as with players who are familiar with our own playstyle and players who are completely new to roleplaying games.  And what we found, in all cases, is that if we created Vocations that were too narrowly-focused, Players of all stripes would expect narrowly-focused Vocations for any odd-job that they could think of, or would want Vocations to be even more narrowly-focused.

For instance, in one case a Player wanted to play a character who owned a bar.  But we did not have a Bar Owner vocation, we had Merchant (which kind of fit) and Jack of All Trades (which also kind of fit).  The same Player wanted to have a friend who was an investigative journalist–again, not the kind of occupation we were expecting to need to support in Medieval-ish Fantasy.  Another player wanted to be a washed-up pit fighter who wanted to be, simply, a day laborer.  He swept.  That was his skill.

Now, both characters in this case could have been very, very interesting, even though these characters would both normally be NPCs that the Players would be working for, rather than actually being.  But they had started to expose the cracks in the Vocation system we had developed: it looked like we were going to need more.  A lot more.

We experimented with having more for a while, narrowing the focus of the Vocations somewhat so that we would have occupations like Laborer and Poisoner and Apothecary, people who focused on physical activity, crafting poisons, and crafting healing items respectively.

But over time that seemed to get less and less interesting.  It reached a point where one later playtester would only take the Scholar vocation (which granted bonuses to Knowledge skill checks), because that was the only thing that seemed broadly useful enough.

We’d gone too far.

And so we started looking at what is is we wanted to accomplish with our skills and skill subsystem.  Did we want to structure it in such a way as to minutely identify every little twitch and tingle that a character could do, more like 3e’s or GURPS’ explosion of skills, or did we want to have a smaller, broader set of skills to allow characters to be more generally competent?

The answer was clear from the skill designs themselves:  we’d already collapsed most of the fidgety skills into single, broader skills.  Hide and Move Silently were now simply Stealth; Climb, Balance and Swim were Athletics.  We were subverting one design with another design.

So we went back to the drawing board, and we asked ourselves: what do we want the Vocations to do, really?  And we kept coming back to the title phrase of this post, “Adventurers, not NPCs.”

We want the Players of Infinite Earths to play adventurers, people who have a reason to step out into their world and to use their skills to have exciting adventures.  These adventures don’t necessarily need to be “run down into the dungeon and kill the bad guy in there,” they can be “help defend the city against pirates” or “subvert the king so the nobles can position themselves for a coup.”  In the end, we didn’t want to design for the character who wants to sit at home and let the world happen around him.

Armed with these new understandings (broad vocations supporting an adventurous lifestyle), we killed a lot of the vocations and smashed several of the vocations into each other to make them more interesting.  The Scholar (who knew things) disappeared, merging with the Ritualist (who performed rituals) to become the Sage (who knows things and can perform rituals).  Merchant disappeared altogether, as we found the majority of the Talents we designed for him were more appropriately placed in the role of Persona.

The crafting subsystem went through a lot of iteration during this time, as well.  We had reached a point in the design where Jewelers crafted jewelry and Poisoners crafted poisons and Fletchers crafted bows and arrows.  All of these were far, far too narrow, so we divided the different crafters up by the type of item they could produce.  Alchemists produce consumables such as potions, poisons and the like; Enchanters produce magical trinkets and enchant equipment produced by other roles; Outfitters produce worn equipment such as armor, jewelry, cloaks and shields; Weaponers produce all types of weapons and ammunition.

The idea behind these changes is not to simulate reality, but to expressly step away from it and into the realm of adventure.  By creating characters who are broadly skilled, those characters are much more likely to be able to express their competence within the game and shape the game and its story to their design.  Players will be less afraid to step up to challenges because they will be more comfortable with their capacity to handle said challenges.

And we would not have arrived at this design were it not for the playtests we’ve run with both old and new players.  The old players approached the system from the perspective of the other games they’d played, and were concerned about wasting “build points.”  The new players approached the system from a slightly different perspective.  Both amounted to the same core statement:  “I want to be as powerful as I can be in the way I want to be, with as little waste as possible.”

The thing is, nobody actually said that.  So when you playtest, you’ve got to listen to both what your playtesters are saying and what they’re not saying, and you’ve got to determine what it is they’re looking for and how that aligns with what it is you want to offer.  Take a spin down dead-ends.  Follow the chain of implications to see if you like where it’s going.

Building the system is just as much adventure as playing it.

In the end, the system is both more narrow and broader, but it more closely supports the adventuring life.  And that’s what stories are, in the end, all about.