Handling Bonuses

By | February 22, 2014

Hello again!

Today let’s talk about the way Proficiencies, Roles and Bonuses work in Forthright Open Roleplay.  Originally, we were looking at a straight d20-style method of character leveling: characters begin with minor or like bonuses, and as they progress through 20 levels they gain vast differences in power.  As playtesting progressed, though, this came to feel increasingly odd.  In Forthright, we ask players to make selections for their character roles (skill, social and combat) at character creation – the higher your Proficiency with any particular Role, the more powerful your character is with that given Role.  So, in essence, players were being asked to make a decision now that didn’t affect them until later.  That didn’t make a lot of sense to us, particularly since we were trying to design out of System Mastery, not into it.

So we decided to reduce the number of levels characters could progress through from 20 to 10 so that each level would be more meaningful, and the benefits more obvious more quickly.  This, as it turned out, still wasn’t quite enough.  So eventually we settled on the structure you can see present in the rules available here:  characters gain the bonuses at first level that differentiate their Proficiencies.  That way, players will feel their Proficiencies right out of the gate.

Why These Bonuses In Particular?

The process of choosing how large the bonuses for each Proficiency would be took quite some time.  We started, of course, with the basic +1, +2, +3, but playtesters stated that they felt like effectively 5% on a die roll was not significant enough for them care overmuch about how they selected Proficiency.  This reinforced the idea that system mastery was required to identify the power of the Roles, since the Roles are getting vastly different numbers of Talents.

We also experimented with +0, +1 and +2 as the major bonuses; this suffered from the same problem as 1/2/3, but we noticed that the Fair Proficiency (and therefore most NPCs) were much easier to build once no Proficiency Bonus needed to be accounted for.  This revelation led to setting +0 as the bonus for the Fair Proficiency.

We then experimented with various bonuses until we had a preponderance of playtesters identify that they could feel the difference between the Roles.  This turned out to be an ~10% boost for each level of Proficiency; or +0, +2, +4.  Not every bonus in Proficiency gets these numbers; some items are still +0, +1 and +2.  One of the things we are looking at during Open Beta is whether that is a positive or a negative in play and character creation.  On one hand, we don’t want to make the bonuses too simplistic but, on the other, we don’t want to inadvertently underpower or overpower certain aspects of play.

Why Have Levels, Then?

One of the consistent questions that has come up during the design phase of Forthright Open Roleplay is whether we should even bother having levels.  We’ve gone back and forth on this matter internally, and we’ve decided to stick with levels (for now).  With levels, we can maintain the three-Proficiency structure as characters advance; a character who focuses on one Proficiency will always be better at that than anything else, and will have more talents to back how much better he or she is at that Role than any other Role.

One alternative to this would be for Proficiencies to provide an initial boost that can then be redesigned over the course of the character’s lifetime, resulting in a Level 10 character that is better at combat even though his Best Proficiency is social.  This structure would defeat the intended purpose of the Proficiencies in the first place, and would (most logically) result in a uniform “best build” for characters.  That “best build” would be to make Persona the Best proficiency at character creation, providing major social interaction bonuses to characters for whom combat is riskier, then gradually shift the character’s abilities toward combat as that character levels and gains more Vitality (“hit points”).

Another alternative would be to abolish levels altogether and go with a character point system for character advancement, wherein characters can fully choose their own benefits once play begins.  One concern about this is “Johnny One-Spell,” that character who focuses all character points on one specific thing, and then has to contort every event to allow him to use his “one spell to rule them all.”  Johnny One-Spell is an edge case, though – a bigger concern is that character-point systems tend to have more complex character creation and a more complicated experience prior to play beginning.  With our preference being to keep things simple-but-not-too-simple, character points would tend to run counter to that goal.

What Benefit are Levels, Then?

The big benefit to having levels is that a character’s Level adds directly to attack, damage, defense, skills and speech.  This allows an experienced character to turn that experience to his advantage.  For example, a 4th-level character with a Fair Fighting Style is about as skillful as a 1st-level character with a Best Fighting Style; they would be nearly evenly matched.

This also means that a character’s damage is always increasing, not in leaps and bounds (or quadratically), but in an even and consistent manner. This bonus furthermore never overshadows the potential benefits of a good die roll for damage, because damage rolls explode.  Characters don’t need to keep buying increasingly-shiny pieces of armor or increasingly-awesome weapons because they have to or they’ll die, but because they may want to.  Or they might want to save their money for a stronghold, or to found an organization.

We wanted gaining experience to matter right now, providing consistent incremental benefits.  Character-point systems tend to suffer from the “Character-point hoarding” effect – players often have a tendency to hold onto what they have earned until they can buy something big.  This leads to characters not changing or improving for long periods of time, making “mid-level” encounters risky or forcing multiple “lower-level” encounters to ensure some degree of balanced interaction.  Level benefits based on Proficiency provide a consistency of character ability, allowing Guides to properly design encounters that will challenge their Players – there is no question whether a character with a Best Role is better at that Role than other Roles.

These game structures are in place to help players’ decisions be more meaningful.  About their abilities, about how they spend their money, about the enemies they face, etc.

Thanks for reading.  We’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below!