Evolution, Devolution and Game Design
When I design a game system or subsystem, I usually work from a kernel of an idea and then expand and expand until I have the whole idea fleshed out. Then I run playtests. From these I can see what works, what doesn’t, and what almost works. Sometimes I come up with new ideas while working on these improvements. So it’s no surprise that my latest system, Adventure Trove, expanded to the size it did as quickly as it did, and that after fully fleshing out each magic subsystems I went back for seconds in development on a few of them.
However, I often run into situations where the game just isn’t fun for some reason. I then try to simplify to get back to that kernel. As a case in point, the game started as a set of 10 aspects which were each part of a pair which contributed to an attribute. However, there was not a lot of use for attributes for heroes. They served as great shorthand averages for npcs, but for PCs they were nothing more than part of negative reinforcement to encourage balanced character creation. So that mechanic was the first to go.
Next, I eliminated some of these statistics through the combination of several aspects into one. These statistics, now known as attributes, bring the total count down by 3 to 7: Strength, Agility, Perception, Reason, Wits, Charisma, Resolve.
Quickness and Dexterity weren’t different enough to demand separate attributes for every character. Likewise, Intuition was too special for every character to have it, and Condition was fairly unnecessary as a separate statistics from Strength. I can think of several characters which are extremely nimble, or quick, or dexterous with their hands, hardy, or have incredible intuition. I can’t think of a single strong character who is sickly however, nor a character with good intuition who is hopelessly inattentive, nor a character with good balance and speed who is truly clumsy with their hands.
After a while I did the same with skills. I was proud that my fantasy game didn’t ignore the fact that people besides warriors were adventurers. There are merchants, mountebanks, craftsmen, minstrels, various priestly types and so forth. Contrary to many fantasy games, these characters do not shine in combat just because they are main characters, and my original skill list gave these character archetypes a sense of legitimacy. However, this came at the expense of usefulness and they also served as storytelling game point sinks. That is, you could become a master composer and performer with the skills to craft the finest instruments known to man, for an obscene amount of points. You’d have bragging rights but you wouldn’t really be that capable in most aspects of the game.
One of the things I pride myself on in this game is a combat system that makes every choice important, essentially creating a wheel of opportunities for players to exploit, and every action has the potential to put them further along the wheel and close off other opportunities. So what good is it if my skill list makes those opportunities vanish because there are too many points in skills that have no bearing on anything but a tiny segment of the game? So I removed a handful of skills that could be handled by multiple skill rolls elsewhere. I also combined every skill I could think of to decrease the skill list.
Now, I didn’t take away any player agency. If you want to make a character with multiple art skills and the highest build/repair in the world related to wooden instruments, you can, however, this encourages you to make the focus more generalized. Choose woodworking, not musical instruments. Also by increasing Persuasion to include public performance and speaking, it removes a limited skill and tightens the game even more.
The difference in this example is telling. You have a craftsman skill which is more applicable, and your interaction skill works in multiple environments and social situations, not just to influence groups. I also got rid of Intimidation for the same reasons. Now the composer is a force of personality, and may even be able to avoid or end a fight entirely through interaction. Likewise, he can help construct shelter in the woods, because he understands woodworking. That’s a useful skill set because it has multiple facets.
I’ve made several changes to the way unimportant npcs work as well, and decided on an iconographic stat block for full write ups to make game play even easier for the game master. I’ve also streamlined what appears in-line in text.
I’m not done refining, as I still don’t like the initial setup for the initiative clock, but I’ll be happy with a game where almost every character is useful in most situations, and nobody spent points in areas which rarely let them shine, on or off the battlefield. If everybody has to take an extra beat before combat begins to otherwise get the silky smooth, tactical progression, I’ll take it. For now.