17 July, 2011
Continuing the design of a classless d20 setting, this week we’ll look at research. Feel free to add your own in the comments if you found something interesting that I missed.
The purpose of research
So, why do research before doing game design? Many reasons, but the primary reason is to save time. If you want to do something new and someone has already done it before, then you can save yourself some time by not making the same mistakes. Knowing “where the bodies are hidden” can help you make something more interesting in less time. You can also draw inspiration from multiple sources, taking useful bits from different examples for your own purpose and creating something original.
Of course, you also have to make sure you’re not just copying someone else. Sadly, a lot of designers see someone else’s work and prefer to just copy it wholesale. But, doing research can give you context so that it doesn’t feel like you’re just ripping off another person’s work, even if it’s inadvertent. (We could go into a long digression about patents and willful infringement here, but you can do your own research on that; I won’t depress you here and now.)
My first trip was a search engine, of course. I did a search for “d20 classless” to see what I could find. Tabletop RPGs tend to have very strong communities, so I found quite a few message board threads. Of course, a lot of them were older, so some references weren’t fresh.
Here are a list of some of the threads I found:
So, after digging through all that, let’s take a look at some of the systems in brief detail. I recommend going through these references and reading yourself, but I’ll cover the bits I find the most interesting right now.
This was referenced in one of the threads above as a good, simple system. An interesting look at how a very simple classless system can go. Basically, everything is put in terms of feats spent and characters get 4 feats per level in addition to some minimum basic abilities.
On the downside, it’s not terribly true to the original system. Working out a character seems a bit more complex than the simple rules imply. If you’re using feats for basic abilities, then there’s sometimes not as much room to use feats for customizing your character, particularly at the beginning. For example, a Fighter would spend 1 feat for HPs (although 1d4+3 isn’t quite the same as 1d10, although the average is the same), 2 feats for +1 BAB, and 1 feat for armor or a martial weapon proficiency; this leaves them without many weapon proficiencies nor the “bonus” proficiency they are supposed to get at first level. After a while, the feats catch up. This might be better balanced for specific types of games, such as ones that start beyond first level.
This is a web copy of an article that originally appeared in Dragon magazine. It is a simple system with a bit more depth, but takes the further step in removing levels. (An interesting variation I’ll consider in a later post.) The added depth makes the system feel a bit more true to the original while still keeping the system relatively simple. It introduces a lot more pools of points, noticeably the Attribute pool (not to be confused with Ability scores like Strength or Dexterity) that give additional class-related powers. It gives spellcasting a relatively brief treatment, so that might be a source of problems.
The system definitely scores bonus points for a clever acronym. :)
Another system that keeps things relatively simple, allowing for normal character creation and then using “skill points” to buy specific powers associated with gaining levels. It uses buying maximum hit points instead of gaining hit dice per level, although there doesn’t seem to be rules for how constitution affects hit points.
Most special class powers have been converted to feats for characters to choose The system also uses a custom magic system that is quite different from the normal magical system in d20 rules. Looks like it also has the advantage of being used in a live environment.
A more in-depth system similar to the Erden classless system above, but everything is put in terms of feats that are earned as the character gains levels. Some abilities are translated into skills instead of being based entirely on a class level.
This system also has a custom magic system. Interestingly, they made the magical abilities into skills, and you have to take skills for each level of spells you want. There’s also a skill for casting level. It’s quite different from the core system, but allows for more precise control over spellcasting for a character. But, the rules seem a bit arcane at first glance.
A d20 book that is mostly class-based, but it has an “Adventurer” class that allows for a lot of customization. It works like the basic systems first mentioned above, where the character gets basic abilities then gets so many character points to enhance abilities. However, the system specifically says that the Adventurer gets about 6% less points than other classes over 20 levels and the flexibility is intended to make up the difference.
The system also talks about the core fantasy classes and offers suggestions on how to “balance” them, specifically giving more character points to most of the non-spellcasters. This might be more a question of taste in type of gameplay, for example, as in a combat-heavy game the ability to last longer and keep swinging when spell slots run out shouldn’t be underestimated. ;) It is useful for seeing how the abilities break down.
An interesting book in that it is “shareware”, free to download but the authors ask you to chip in a few bucks or buy a print copy if you like it. Nice system.
It’s a really long and detailed system for creating custom characters, even calling itself “the World’s Longest Character Class”. Again, we see custom magic systems and detailed. The system uses character points to buy abilities. I just scanned the contents, but I’ll probably go back and read it in more depth later.
This system is more for creating custom classes with abilities from multiple classes rather than allowing for the advancement of characters outside the stricture of classes, but it seems pretty interesting. A good reverse engineering job showing the relative balance of the different abilities in the core game and how they fit within the class structure.
The system requires some really complex calculations for making spellcasting work right, though. This isn’t quite as clean and nice as other systems, and can be a bit off-putting with the more complicated math. But, if we’re going to do this for a computer-based game, then the computer can handle the math instead of a human. Might be worth considering how to design this in another way to make the tradeoffs easier to understand.
Not exactly a system, but a set of spreadsheets to help work out balance for new classes. Useful for looking at the relative power of different abilities offered by classes.
Manadrive d20 and ClassCalc
I found references to this system, but couldn’t find any examples online. Anyone who knows this system, feel free to share in the comments.
Since I’m cheap, and doing this as an example, I didn’t focus much on commercial books. Here are some I found. If you have specific experiences with these books, feel free to pipe up.
Buy the Numbers, reviewed at http://www.rpglife.com/node/1075 Sounds like a good system, although I’ve read some complaints on other sites that the system has some oddities that make the system fall down at certain points.
Mutants and Masterminds – The Wikipedia article covers some of the major features. The concept of a general “Power Level” that limits the characters sounds like a nice addition to keep things in check, similar to what was described in the Cludge system above. Power escalation from buying specific abilities to insane levels is a common problem when you remove structures like classes or levels from games.
The general strategy is to come up with some form of “currency” to buy abilities. This can be feats or other types of points. The simpler systems used one pool of points, but the ones that tried to mimic the original system more used multiple pools of points.
Magic systems seemed to be where the real difficulty hid. Many systems created their own unique magic systems. The ones that tried to remain true to the original system came up with complex calculations for how magic systems were purchased. The variety of magic is probably because opinions on how powerful magic is vary a lot between different people. But, magic is definitely something to keep in mind as we continue the design.
The other big issue to keep in mind is degenerate strategies that create characters that break the mechanics. Taking too much magical ability when the general power level is assumed to be low, or taking excessive hit points or damage abilities to the point of wiping the floor with all comers needs to be watched. Limiting what one can buy based on level or some power calculation seems to be a popular option, such as the “Power Level” in Mutants and Masterminds.
Next week: Goals
Okay, so we’ve got our research going here. Our next step is to look at what our goals are and plan out the rest of the design now that we have a good idea of the landscape of the design space. So, for next week, take whatever research you’ve found and think of what specific goals you want to accomplish.