Bye-bye, Splodey Dice

By | May 24, 2014

Hello once again!

This week the first batch of 1.02 Beta materials is being released.  We’ve revamped the Introduction, Your Game, Your Fellowship, Your Character and Your Backstory chapters, with Your Fellowship and Your Character seeing the most significant changes.  You can download copies of these new chapters here.

We’re hammering our final design home now, and these chapters have been modified to support this design.  We’re now in a state of reductive design: we’re removing some of the nuts and bolts of the game system in order to make it easier to learn (and teach), more streamlined, and more in line with what players can expect to do while at the same time heightening the tactics and tension of games.  And this means killing some aspects of the game that have been around for a long, long time.  I’ll be talking today about what we’ve removed and why, and how this impacts the design as a whole.

  • Boosts:  These were our replacement for Attributes, and were applied as characters levelled up.  But we didn’t like how they added to gameplay; they added complexity without offering much in return.  We needed to account for them in order to keep play from becoming too easy, but this meant that we had to tie enemy progression to distributing Boosts “properly.”  Eventually they became a system mastery trap, because a cleverly-crafted character would be able to double or even triple the benefits of a single Boost while other characters could not get those benefits.  Boosts countered our design intentions, and now they are gone.
  • Exploding Dice: Healing and damage dice have been exploding from the very beginning.  We liked how this meant that combat was deadly.  Unfortunately, as time wore on it also meant that players would not consider tactics – when every hit can kill, there’s no point to targeting one enemy over another.  Combat was resolved quickly, but characters were dropping, getting Rallied and popping back up in an ultimately ridiculous fashion.  Exploding dice feel great and are fun until they happen to you.  And then they create terror.  Additionally, the explodes would either wear opponents down just a little bit or they would drop opponents and keep going, essentially wasting dice rolls.  This would be fantastic in a system where characters have to be dropped to a certain amount of negative hit points in order to permanently stay down, but that’s not what we do.  Exploding dice, which we kept in because players really seemed to like them, had to go because they were not only not providing value, they were actually removing it in other, subtler ways.
  • Rally and Rallying Cry:  Rally was the Fellowship-healing ability, which characters could use once a combat for free without detracting from their own turns.  This worked out well for a long time, until the Rallies themselves became the currency by which characters had to measure behavior.  The final straw for me was when, in a playtest, one player stated “don’t bother healing him, he’s already used his Rally.”  That’s an alarm bell right there.  So Rally and Rallying Cry have been redesigned.  They are simpler now, but the only way they get invoked is as a Minor Action (instead of a Reaction) and via the Crisis Chart.  Additionally, there’s only one Rallying Cry available to heal the whole team; any Fellow can invoke it, so players don’t have to keep track of who’s used what.  This is a simpler design which should help preserve (and not distort) play.
  • Fellowship Archetypes and Levels:  These were originally designed with the intent to help identify for everyone at the table what kind of “genre” the adventure or campaign would take on.  As we examined the Fellowships, though, it became clear that our “guidance” was actually “restriction.”  Friend of Room 209 and Playtester Jonn Perry indicated that he uses a variation of the Fellowship design for his own games by allowing the party as a whole to select a single thematic ability.  The more we thought on it, the more we liked the elegant simplicity of the idea.  It allows the Fellowship’s abilities to feel special immediately at 1st level and it avoids the problem of the Fellowship that got an increasingly complex array of abilities as it levelled up, requiring players to reference multiple sheets to perform some basic functions.  This and Rally together prompted a complete redesign of the Fellowship chapter and the Fellowship Sheet.
  • Ever-Increasing Numbers with Level:  One of the things that level-based games have classically included are numbers which increase as characters level.  We sat down and really examined what that was providing in our game and came to the conclusion that, ultimately, it was providing nothing.  Because all numbers increased with level, characters played largely at level 10 the same way they played at level 1, if they were fighting level 10 enemies.  Now, the idea is that the majority of their enemies wouldn’t be level 10, but that wasn’t enough.  It was a lot of work for not a lot of reward, so we took a knife to the idea.  Now, character numbers are set by choosing a character’s proficiencies. . .and there they’ll stay.  What characters get from levelling up is more Talents and slightly more Resolve to allow them to stay in a fight for longer.  “More tools in the toolbag,” as it were.  And why are we sticking with levels, then?  In order to ensure the distinction between choosing Best, Good and Fair Proficiencies remains meaningful.
  • Mana:  Mana has been the power behind our spells from the very beginning, our way of stepping away from classic Vancian Magic and providing a more unique flavor.  The problem with it has been, it’s not all that unique and it wasn’t quite doing what we wanted it to do. In addition, it was the lingering remnant of a resource-management game.  The base design doesn’t care how many arrows you have, but it cared about how many magic points you had.  We chalked this up for a long while to “spellcasters are supposed to be more complex,” but that was flawed logic.  Then we tried some new things that didn’t quite work out the way we planned, accidentally reintroducing the Quadratic Wizard before killing him with fire.  The magic system has gone through almost as many redesigns as the social system.  But now we feel like we’ve nailed it.  If you have an Arcana, you can use the Arcana.  You can’t pump more mana in to get a bigger boom, it functions the way it functions and you use different Arcana in order to get different side-effects from your spells.  For example, Fire sets targets ablaze while Lightning causes targets to be disarmed and Ice knocks targets down.  Mana has been replaced with what we have been striving for: simple elegance.
  • Skills and Skill Points:  A remnant of our original d20-style design, we had (effectively) Skill Points running our 20 or so skills.  We’ve reduced the Skill List to 12, and we’ve redesigned the skill bonus so that everyone has the same number of skills, they just get to pick what they’re good at and what they’re not so good at.  This goes hand-in-hand with a huge reduction in the difficulty numbers for achievement with skills.
  • Complex Number Relationships:  We’ve also nailed down the numbers and their relationships so that there aren’t so many situations where like numbers exist on the character sheet.  Furthermore, we’ve reduced the overall difficulty numbers system-wide, so that nearly every action that is performed has a difficulty between 1 and 20.  This helps guarantee that number-inflation isn’t necessary and that the dice are a big part of play, rather than being reduced in value through giant bonuses.

Not all of these changes are reflected in the currently-available chapters; they will be much more readily apparent in the Role, Skill and Magic chapters, which will be available soon.  But this gives you an idea of where we’re going with Forthright Open Roleplay.  We’re getting closer and closer to having a final game design and, the great thing is, that final design is getting increasingly shorter and easier to read.

One of my own criteria for writing the rulebook is, “If it’s hard for me to explain, it’s going to be hard for players to understand.”  The changes we’ve made to the system as a result of our 1.01 playtests have made the system easier than ever to explain.  It’s my hope that my truism is actually true.  Please download the new rules and let us know what you think in the comments below.  Thanks for reading!