Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!

By | August 3, 2013

Hello again,

I’d like to take a moment to thank our playtesters (both internal and at public demonstrations) for all their hard work.  I’d also like to thank the people who take the time to email us or reach out through social media to share their thoughts on these columns.

Player feedback helps us refine our own ideas into something better.  Case in point: most of our playtesters said our character creation system offered too many choices.  They were right.  Our desire to simplify and streamline gameplay was in conflict with the way we asked Players to build their characters.

We also had strong comments that Players love the wide variety of characters they are able to make with the Infinite Earths ruleset.  This led us to the conclusion that how we presented the options to the Players was overwhelming.

Here’s a list of things we wanted a fully-developed Character to have, all of which involved choices on the part of the Player:

  • Character Backstory (to give the Guide hooks for crafting an engaging story)
  • Species (Draconid, Elf, Gnome, Half-Kind, Human, Orc, etc)
  • Attributes (six, conceptually similar to the D&D classic)
  • Fighting Style (Archer, Battlecaster, Dervish, Guardian, Warrior, etc)
  • Vocation (Aristocrat, Clergy, Infiltrator, Soldier, Thief, etc)
  • Persona (Curmudgeon, Fast-Talker, Glory Hound, Orator, Stoic, etc)
  • A ranking of Fighting Style, Vocation and Persona relative to each other to identify what the Character is Best, Good and Fair at
  • Talents (granting various different abilities, akin to “Feats” in other systems)
  • Skill Points (4 to 8 skill points per level to spread across 20 skills)
  • Weapons, Armor and other equipment (partially streamlined by the inclusion of an “Adventurer’s Pack”)
  • Arcana (words of magical power, available to Battlecasters and Wizards)
  • Fellowship Type (Heroes of Fate, Mercenaries, Protectors of the Realm, etc)

At one point, we were asking Players starting the game to make twenty-seven choices before they ever actually sat down to play a Character.  Now, that’s way more streamlined than GURPS, where you can have a hundred or more points to spend at character creation, half a point at a time.  But it’s not nearly as streamlined as D&D and its variants, where you essentially have one choice: pick your class, and everything else you select just makes that class more effective.

We were letting Players have access to too many options too early in the game, so the task for us became deciding how we can offer options without undue complexity.  Some systems do this by eliminating some distinctions (Players choose either a class or a race, but not both); others by limiting the differences between options (all physical attacks deal 1d6).

Another thing that we had to keep in mind is that we wanted all choices in the game to be interesting.  This is something that was fairly heavily discussed by the designers of World of Warcraft over the course of the Cataclysm expansion.  The difference between an interesting choice and an uninteresting choice is how required that choice is.

For example, in d20 a Fighter getting a +1 to Attack and a +2 to Damage is a no-brainer.  It’s required.  Sure, you could skip Weapon Specialization if you wanted, but that would make your character weaker and less effective at his or her chosen role.  A choice between “being good at what you do” and “being less good at what you do” is not a choice, it’s a trap.  And we’ve been actively seeking to avoid such traps.

Instead, to our mind a more interesting choice is something where you get to choose between two different power sets, which may be more or less useful depending on the situation.  For example:  do you select “Crack the Earth,” which lets you potentially knock down up to 4 opponents near you, or do you select “Cleave,” which allows you to attack two opponents adjacent to you simultaneously by targeting the opponent with the higher Defense?  Both of these are different powers, situationally useful, and help craft the way you play your Character in combat.

So, with that in mind, here’s our streamlined character-creation process so far:

  • Fighting Style, Vocation and Persona still need to be selected and slotted as Great, Good and Fair.  However, instead of choosing the special abilities for each role from a list, certain abilities are granted at level one that are locked in place and cannot be changed.  These abilities are generally of the “it would be a no-brainer to take this” variety, eliminating extraneous and uninteresting choice.  The number of abilities granted is determined by which slot a role is placed in, with Great granting 3 abilities and Fair granting only 1.  The core ability that defines a role is always granted, and any abilities that are missed by not slotting a role higher can be taken at later levels as Talents if Players so choose.
  • All Species provide a unique ability, such as Prehensile Tail for Draconid or Scent for Orcs, and provide no other mechanical options.  Species have no bonuses to Attributes or Skills, thus eliminating the need to optimize a Character by selecting “the best race for rogues,” for example.
  • Arms and Armor are provided by a Character’s Fighting Style.  When a Fighting Style is selected, the appropriate equipment is provided by the selection.  Because weapon type (Broadsword, Longsword) is divorced from weapon mechanics (1d8 + Attribute damage), Players are free to describe their weapon as they choose.
  • Other equipment is provided by a Character’s Vocation, with Vocations automatically providing the appropriate equipment to fulfill that role.  Hunters automatically get a trapmaking kit, Thieves automatically get a lockpick kit, etc.
  • Arcana will continue to be picked by Players who choose to play Battlecasters or Wizards.  However, these two roles are more streamlined to be clearly identified as combat magicians rather than universal magicians.  Since spells like Commune and Speak with Dead aren’t really combat-oriented, but are more support-focused, they are shifted out of the options list for combat and into the list of rituals that can be performed by Sages (a Vocation).  Sages don’t have to choose specific rituals that they know, because their magic is based on Skill checks.
  • Attributes have been reduced to only 4 from 6.  Players will select a base distribution (2, 1, 1, 0 placed as desired) that will be supplemented by their Role choices and slotting.  Thus, the core mechanic of “which role you select at which proficiency” remains the predominant choice in the system.
  • Skills are now automatically selected and level up based on Vocation.  Thus, it is no longer possible to have a Thief with no skill in Sleight of Hand.  Slotting Vocation higher will provide additional options for Characters, so that a Thief could have skills like Know Magic or Track (not traditionally in the list for thieves) as the Player chooses.
  • Fellowship Type will continue to be chosen by the entire group of Players as part of Session Zero.  This is necessary because it formalizes how the group will work together and the type of story they want to be a part of.  This extra choice is, we think, worth it because it indicates right off the bat how well the party is going to be able to work together and it helps avoid groups of lone wolves who will pull the story in as many different directions as there are Players.
  • Character Hooks can be picked during Session Zero or during play as these represent things that define how your Character is different from any other Character with the same statistics.  These represent things that make your Character’s story interesting.  Originally these had to be selected before play began, but we’ve come to think that Players should get a chance to play, and feel out their Character, before having to make some big decisions.  The Fate system, for example, allows Players to fill in some Aspects and Stunts after play begins.  The desire to avoid locking Players into choices too early is something we can support.  Even if a Player makes a choice that no longer seems to fit, Infinite Earths has support for Re-specializing to more closely align with the way that Character is played.

As you can see, we’re trying to reduce the sheer number of choices to an amount that more comfortably fits a Player’s vision for that Character.  If a Player’s choice requires certain tools to work, then those choices should provide those tools automatically.  Be they Attributes, equipment, or guidance on what works best.

Forcing new Players to hunt through the rules to find out what will best improve their Characters’ competence is a type of game design that rewards system mastery, but it also places barriers to entry.  Sometimes, you just want to roleplay a competent character without a lot of fuss and bother.  We should not make mastery of an index the measure of a good roleplayer.