Monday, September 28, 2009

Disadvantages, Part III: General Classifications

As I mentioned in my previous article, I’m going to classify some general types of disadvantages:
1. The negative ability. This sort of disadvantage is something that makes your character statistically worse, the opposite of an advantage or ability which makes your character better. So if having superior eyesight is clearly an ability that would cost points, having inferior eyesight is a negative ability that should give you back points. If being wealthy is a useful ability that costs points, being flat broke is a negative ability. Similarly, having a bad leg is the opposite of being a fast runner, being vulnerable to fire attacks is the opposite of being fire proof, being forgetful is the opposite of having a perfect memory, and so on. Corresponding Champions disadvantages include Physical Limitation, Unluck, and Vulnerability. Getting points back for having very poor statistics is basically also in this category, though in many games (such as Champions) it is not formally considered a disadvantage.

2. Restricted choice. With this type of disadvantage, the character has no limitations on how well he does things, just limitations on what he can choose to do. Normally, the assumption in a role-playing game is that the player can have his or her character perform any action at any time. So if a villain threatens to kill a hostage if the character doesn't surrender, the player can decide whether the character surrenders, or tries a risky gambit to stun the villain before he can carry out his threat, or ignores the threat and attacks the villain, or flies away and becomes an insurance salesman. But if the character has the disadvantage “Protective of innocents”, then the character is more limited in the choice of actions he will consider. This disadvantage does not inhibit the character in carrying out whatever course of action he chooses to pursue. It just means that the character may not be able to perform the action which the player believes is optimum in that situation. Corresponding Champions disadvantages include Enraged and Psychological Limitation.

3. Story disadvantage. This type of disadvantage tells the GM to put specific additional elements into the adventures that cause trouble for the hero. For instance, if the character is wanted for a crime he did not commit, this can control the entire flow of adventures in which he participates. The character really wishes this wasn’t the case, and is constantly inconvenienced by having to stay one step ahead of the law. But the character doesn’t have any penalties to his abilities, and no restrictions on what actions he can choose to take. Corresponding Champions disadvantages include DNPC, Hunted.

4. Situational vulnerability. This means that certain story situations cause severe problems for your character. The classic example is Superman’s susceptibility to kryptonite; whenever the opponents have kryptonite, he is a much less powerful character. This is similar to a negative ability in that it materially reduces the character’s effectiveness, but feels quite different because it is applied more like a Story disadvantage. Corresponding Champions disadvantages include Dependence, Susceptibility, Vulnerability.

These classifications aren’t necessarily exclusive – an individual disadvantage may blur the line between two categories. But these represent what I think are the broad types of effects that disadvantages have. Actually, it is the first three I was really thinking of as describing the fundamental categories of disadvantages. But as I was writing this, I felt that the situational vulnerability was distinctive enough to be described in its own category.

Next article: How the classifications relate to the 2 goals.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Disadvantages, Part II: Design of the Champions disadvantage system

In my previous post, I said that there were 2 different goals for disadvantage systems, encouragement and compensation. Now I will go into some more specific analysis and say that Champions, my reference system, is primarily designed for encouragement. By the way, when I say designed, I don't necessarily mean that it was intentionally designed with this goal in mind, but rather that the game design as it stands is most effective at supporting that goal.

The fact that Champions is designed to encourage disadvantages can be seen with a very high-level analysis, without actually looking at the disadvantages themselves. A fourth edition Champions character is built with 100 base points plus up to 150 points of disadvantages. Almost every character I've ever seen uses the maximum 150 points of disadvantages. This is very telling all by itself, strongly implying that the points that disadvantages give you is a very favorable trade in return for the disadvantages you suffer; in other words, that the points you get from disadvantages is more than they are really worth, so you want to take as many as you can. If the points from disadvantages were balanced to be exactly what they were worth, you would expect that a character built on 100 points with no disadvantages would be about as good as a normal 250 point character. This is not at all the case, 100 points is totally insufficient, such a character would be totally inadequate compared to a 250 point character (unless the 100 point character were built in a much more point efficient manner than the 250 point character, but this wouldn’t be a fair comparison).

This sort of structure, with disadvantages that are very favorable and a cap on the total amount, is very well suited for the goal of encouraging disadvantages, and seems to do an excellent job of achieving that. I can attest that most Champions players I know of spend quite a while sitting around trying to think of disadvantages which aren't part of their initial character conception, just so they can make the 150 points.

If, on the other hand, your goal is to fairly compensate people for disadvantages that are part of their basic character conception, this structure would seem a little weird. The compensation you get for building a character with a major flaw is not that really that you get extra points, since every character ends up with the same 250 points. Rather, the compensation is that you are not required to take as many other disadvantages. In effect, the advantage you get from wanting to play a character with serious disadvantages, is that you are an easier time picking your 150 points of disadvantages and are likely to be happier with the results. This is a workable mechanism, but sort of sub-optimum for this goal; it is odd that character conceptions for which it is easier to think of disadvantages cannot actually end up with more disadvantages then character conceptions which do not naturally lend themselves to a lot of disadvantages. And what happens if the flaws that arise directly from your character conception are more disadvantageous than the 150 points of disadvantages that a normal character takes? Then there is no way to be fairly compensated.

However, at this point this is all a bit too abstract to continue discussing without knowing more about the actual disadvantages themselves. So for the next article on this topic, I will start going into more detail by categorizing the types of disadvantages.

Next topic: Disadvantage classifications

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Disadvantages, Part I: Overall Purpose

A major game mechanic I've often thought about and analyzed is the disadvantage system. This is a complex subject, so I’ll start with some introductory analysis. The classic disadvantage system is that of Champions/Hero system, so I'll use that as my reference system. Role-playing game systems tend to have so many variations between different games that it is difficult to make any statement or use any terminology that is true across all games, so I think it is most practical to take one classic system as a reference model about which comments can be made that are true about many games, then describe the many variations at a later time.

What is a disadvantage system? When making a role-playing character in almost any system, you can make choices that determine how strong your character is in various categories, and you can make choices that grant your character extra advantages or abilities. In a point system like Champions, you pay for these extra abilities. In a system with disadvantages, you can make choices that are disadvantageous for your character, and you can get points back to spend on other things. These disadvantages can take many forms as listed in the individual system; examples include “one-eyed”, “wanted by police”, “won’t kill animals”, “unlucky”, or “afraid of spiders”.

In games without formal systems for disadvantages, some players will usually take some equivalent of disadvantages for their characters. This is particularly true of players who really like role playing. The player may decide that the character is obsessed with avenging her husband's murder, for instance. Or a whimsical player may decide that his dwarf drinks too much and smells bad. After all, the purpose of a role-playing game is to have fun, and making your character more complex and interesting can be a lot of fun. Other players, however, may be more interested in other aspects of the game and less interested in designing personality and back story, or they may have a very specific character design which is not particularly disadvantageous – perhaps a laid-back elven noble with an elaborate series of political connections. But whatever they choose, it has no impact on the formal character design and doesn't involve use of game rules.

An actual disadvantage system formalizes this process and assign some sort of value to each disadvantage. My analysis is that a disadvantage system has two distinct goals.

The first goal of a disadvantage system is to make characters more interesting by encouraging them to take characters with dramatic flaws as well as dramatic strengths, or by simply encouraging them to think a lot more about the personality and background of their character, creating more interesting facets of the character and more things for the game master to hook stories off of. Certainly this is very evident when comparing a bare-bones Champions character (one where the player builds the character according to the rules but doesn't add any optional written description) with a bare-bones D&D character. The D&D character has practically nothing on the sheet that indicates personality, except perhaps for some idea of the combat and noncombat styles and whatever stereotypes you might expect from their race, class, and statistics. With a Champions character, on the other hand, you can usually glean a lot about their major role-playing elements just by looking at the list of disadvantages. Of course, in D&D it is recommended that you write up a detailed back story, but many players don't do so. And even if they do so, the character may not have many really tangible flaws or problems that would make adventures more dramatic. And a disadvantage system not only encourages creating character flaws and hooks, it provides a standard structure for doing so, and a very helpful list of examples.

The second goal of a disadvantage system is to fairly compensate characters who put flaws into their character conception. If characters have to pay points for having positive attributes, it is only fair that they receive points back for having negative attributes. This is particularly true when you consider that, in many cases, not purchasing some sort of advantage that all the other characters have is equivalent to a disadvantage even in systems that don't have formal disadvantages, and you certainly are allowed to spend more points in other areas if you do so. The important point here is that most players, in addition to wanting their characters to be cool, want their characters to be effective, and are reluctant to intentionally weaken their characters in any significant way without getting something back. Receiving fair compensation for disadvantages makes players feel more free to make the character design choices they really want to make.

The second goal (compensation) may seem very similar to the first (encouragement), in the sense that the mechanism for achieving the first purpose is basically the same as for the second purpose - to compensate characters for having disadvantages. But in terms of how you analyze and craft the precise disadvantage mechanics, these are different goals. In particular, they would have different ideal end results. The ideal result of encouragement would be for every character, without exception, to have a large list of interesting disadvantages. Whereas the ideal result of compensation would say nothing about how many disadvantages the characters have - they should feel free to have many, few, or none, according to their conceptions, and know that they will be fairly compensated for the ones they picked.

Next Related Post

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Not so impressive features of 4th edition D&D

Previous related article

Since last article I wrote about some of the great features that really impress me in 4th edition D&D, now I’ll write about the things I didn’t like. But really, it is hard to find too many concepts I didn’t really like. So this is more of a list of things that don’t particularly impress me.

1. Feats. The idea of picking a feat every other level to customize your character sounds like a fine idea. But although I like the feat selection better than in third edition, I still find the execution of the feat concept to be not very exciting. When I look at the feats, especially in the powers books, I see a vast sea of weird, specialized abilities that I'm not really interested in taking, and a bunch of small bonuses that are almost more trouble keeping track of than they are worth. Even with the abilities they really mean something, it tends to be the case that some characters need a bunch of feats in order to complete their character conception, and others don't. So I find it frustrating that there is no way to "give up" anything to get more feats at low level; some character concepts just can't be implemented until the character reaches, say, 6th level. I think that part of the problem is that, for balance reasons, the effects of the feats have to be very small, but I'm not all that interested in having a large number of very small abilities. If I wanted to customize my character, I'd probably rather do something more dramatic, perhaps giving up one strong ability to gain a different strong ability, as is done with the alternate build options in the powers books.

2. Magic Items. The issue I have here is pretty much the same as with feats. For balance reasons, the powers of the magic items need to be pretty small. But having a whole bunch of specialized little powers just seems like a nuisance to keep track of. I'd rather consolidate 4 of my obscure little magic items into one big macho magic item. One problem is the idea of restricting the daily use of magic items. I think this idea is clever, but I'm not so thrilled with the execution. The number of daily uses you have is so limited that it really makes you prefer magic items with non-daily powers. In fact, it is often the case that finding a daily magic item is practically worthless if it's daily power is less good than that of the magic items you already have. Of course, some of the magic items (and feats) are actually quite good, but that appears to be a balancing mistake since the great majority are not so good.

3. Skill Challenges. I really like the idea of skill challenges, of trying to put in a full-featured noncombat skill resolution system like the awesome dramatic skill resolution system of Torg. But the skill challenge system seems to be very much a work in progress, a series of ideas and experiments about how a skill challenge might be made to work well. There doesn't seem to be one concrete finished system for me to analyze. So I await completion of the skill challenge rules so I can see how much I like them.

4. Action Points. This is probably one of my least favorite features. I certainly very much approve of the idea of adding something equivalent to "hero points" to the system. But I'm not very excited by the action point concept. There are a few situations in which being able to perform two big powers in the same round lets you do something cool and useful. But otherwise, the action point is just giving you an additional at-will attack. This just isn't very interesting. It is so uninteresting that many of my players seem to have a difficult time deciding when to use action points, because the effect is so bland that there doesn't seem to be much of a tactical reason to use it in one situation rather than another, or in one fight rather than another. And since you can use an action point in more than half of your fights, but can't use more than one per fight, they don't really have very much ability to let you save up your resources for the big fight. I like the special powers you sometimes get from spending an action point, especially from paragon paths, but tying these powers to taking an extra action just seems like a bit of a nuisance to me.