Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

25 July, 2011

Weekend Design Challenge: Goals
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:32 AM

Last week we did our research, so this week we’ll set some goals for our design. Let’s do some planning for our design, and make a few hard decisions.


So, let’s go back over our basics. We’re taking the d20 system and turning it classless. We’re doing this for a theoretical single-player computer RPG. It may not be a perfect fit, but let’s pretend that the exact choice was outside of our control. (In reality, I just want to use something where the rules are easily available for everyone out there to follow along at home.)

This RPG will have a party of characters that the player can define, let’s say 4-6. So, we don’t want a super-complicated system as that will bog the player down into a lot of choices.

Our research uncovered a few things.

  • There are quite a few systems that do this out there.
  • Most of them award “points” (usually at level up) to buy abilities.
  • The magic system is usually the most adjusted mechanic.
  • Balance is a tremendous issue, as degenerate characters can overwhelm other options.

So, let’s go through some design. Let’s pretend that none of the designs turned up in our research was good enough. (Mostly because saying, “we’ll use that one” would make for a boring series of posts. :)


So, pretending we’re designing an actual project here, what are we trying to accomplish? A few things.

First, I want a system that is implementable. The programmer in me wants something that I can actually sit down and make. While it can be fun to blue-sky and wish we had infinite resources, we’re constrained. I’m going to assume that this is an smaler-scale project and that I would also be doing some of the work to implement the rules.

Second, I want something fun and interesting. One of the better parts of an RPG, in my opinion, is leveling up and gaining new power with your characters. So, we want this to be a fun and exciting thing for the player. Making something too complicated and frustrating works against this. Making too streamlined will take some of the fun out of it. We’ll also want to worry about relative power levels, but we’ll get into balance later.

Finally, it’s important to make something that will fit within the game. We’re mostly focusing on the mechanics here, but the larger design of the game world will be important. I also want something that captures the imagination. It’ll be great if people start thinking of interesting combinations of powers they want to try out, especially if they play a limited demo and are excited to dig into the full game.

A real professional designer will also have other goals. Maybe they’ll have to work with another designer and compromise on some elements, so that becomes part of the design. Maybe they’ll have a boss who has strict limits on how much time can be spent on the design. Or, maybe there are some technical limits that restrict how much detail can go into the design. I’ll conveniently ignore these for right now, as that’s a bit more than I really want to get into. But, as a professional, you’ll have to sweat those types of details.

So, let’s make some decisions about specific design issues, shall we?

Points to consider

So, I think our first goal is that we’re going to use points. While this isn’t entirely original or innovative for innovation’s sake, it is a system that is fairly easy to grasp. Get a level, buy some abilities.

Alternatives would be to have the player plan out the class as they advance, essentially designing a class. This has the problem of a lot more up-front work for the player, when there is already a lot of stuff to consider like assigning stats, buying skills, etc. Adding in 10-20 levels of ability planning seems overwhelming. And, given that the d20 system has a unified experience level for all classes, doing a variable xp cost as I did previously for 2nd edition seems like too much of a hassle and make things feel a bit too different.

Magical decisions

For magic, I think I want to try to keep the system close to the original with few structural changes.. Coming up with an entirely new system seems like a lot more work.

Let’s make sure we got into this with eyes open, though. The old “spell slots” system has a few bits of ugliness. For one, it’s not as familiar as spell points to our potential audience. We will also have to do a lot more implementation work for things like metamagic feats, spontaneous casting, and other quirks to the system introduced in d20. Finally, we need to keep in mind that the spells will be a limiting factor as well. If we don’t implement every spell, then some levels could feel a bit more sparse.

The design of the rest of the system could also impact which spells are important. In the old SSI Gold Box games, spell selection often boiled down to a few spells used repeatedly. The system tended to favor attack spells, as there often wasn’t much warning about when you were going to fight a big battle. Buff spells were tricky to do, because you might cast them too early and then have them wear out; casting them in combat would take up precious time where enemies could beat you down. With enemy spellcasters, in particular, it was important to damage them fast before they damaged you in order to stop them from casting potentially devastating spells; many times the side to get their Fireball spell off first had a tremendous advantage.

So, for the full game we’ll want to make a note to try to let players anticipate big fights so they know when to buff to put emphasis on other spells besides raw combat. Other mechanics, like concentration checks, also let us migitate the “first fireball wins” problem of the older games.

Balanced or not?

So, now comes perhaps our stickiest issue: how much do we want to worry about overall balance? Since this is a single-player game, it’s less of an issue than if this were a multi-player game, let alone a PvP-focused game. But, even a single-player game can get boring if the easy, degenerate strategy works wonders. Some players don’t like self-restraint, and feel obligated to abuse any power given to them. And, the more static nature of single-player games means that the game may not be able to adjust if an unforeseen degenerate strategy emerges. So, where do we want to place balance?

I think I’m going to take a moderate position here, and try to balance the obvious abuses without rigorously eliminating any possibility of abuse. I think it’s still a bit of fun to play around with concepts and find something you like, evne if that tends toward being more powerful than average. But, if it’s easy to build a character that does 500 hit points of damage in a 100′ radius every round, even if that character has no defense to speak of, then the game will lose a lot of appeal.

Next week

So, for next week we’ll start designing a points system. This will probably be multiple parts, but I’m not sure how many right now. I’ll probably start by coming up with an overall system and then figuring out the individual “powers” that a character can buy by dissecting the classes. Give that some thought, and let’s discuss it next week.

So, what do you think? Any goals you think you would have done differently? Any decisions you think are going to lead to more pain down the line?


  1. The goals seem right.

    As to the balance, what I’ve seen a few times is that the overall skill level you can buy is a factor of your character level (or indeed vice versa). That’ll mean that a level N character will never have more than N * f points to any skill. Balance is essentially enforced.

    I’m more of a fan of emerging systems, myself. Assume you use XP for the currency with which to buy skills (could be anything, I’m just using it because “XP” is shorter than “currency with which to buy skills”). Institute the rule that for the first point you buy for a skill at the level your character just gained, the cost is c = XP / x. I’ll discuss x later.

    The next point you buy for the same skill at the same level is 2 * c. The third is 3 * c, etc. Because you only have a limited amount of XP to spend, it’s much more efficient to spread your XP across a number of skills than to put everything into one skill. Choose the multipliers carefully, and you’ll allow very specialized characters while also discouraging them.

    Back to x: I don’t really care what that number is, but see a number of possibilities:
    a) Make it constant. The upshot is that at higher levels you can buy more skill points than at lower levels. In combination with the above, it also means the higher you level, the more points you can easily put into a single skill each level. I don’t think that’s particularly good for balance.
    b) Make it dependent on the character level. Choose the divisor carefully and you can gradually flatten out the curve at which people buy skill points (unless they want to spend extra).
    c) Make it dependent on the previous skill points for that skill. That’ll not only discourage people from buying a high number of points per skill per level, but also effectively put a cap on the total number of points people buy in a skill.

    aaaaanyway… getting a bit ahead of the design challenge here, this is the “goals” section, after all *g* I just had the opportunity to think about this sort of thing before, and I was reminded of it.

    Also, what I call simple (short mathematical formulae) isn’t what everyone calls simple. People often prefer stepwise progression (as evidenced by the existence of character levels). But it’s easy enough for a computer to handle.

    Comment by unwesen — 25 July, 2011 @ 2:55 AM

  2. The biggest balance concern I think is what you inherit from SRD20/3.x – that melee characters become dramatically inferior to casters as you advance in level. While that is a class-based issue, by reducing the game to a point-buy you basically open the door to every character being at least a caster-hybrid with touch spells as there is little incentive to playing full melee (god help you if you blew your points on buying monk abilities). There’s also the issue of the general lackluster nature of melee combat (I hit him with my sword… again).

    As for spellcasting, I am fond of spell point type variations over the Vancian pre-loaded slot mechanic. It allows for more flexibility in casters (oh no, I memorized the wrong spell now we have to sleep in this hall in the dungeon for 8 hours to re-memorize everything – I’ve done that plenty in D&D computer games). There is the problem that non-combat spells basically lose all usefulness in computer games. There’s modifying the spells to have a combat-useful element, providing alternate encounter mechanics to make them useful, or dropping them from the list and acting like magic is just for making pretty explosions. I am also not a fan of Save or Die spell mechanics which is just a step above the SSI Gold Box ‘Who casts Fireball first. Jesus Christ, why do they have half a dozen wizards?’ duel in aggravation.

    Also 3.x is full of really, really terrible Feats that have no right even being on the list (Toughness, skill feats, save feats, etc.).

    For fear of sounding like a shill, I do recommend giving FantasyCraft a look – as while it is fairly divergent from SRD20 in a lot of ways they have a lot of nifty bits in there that are good ideas of how to address some of these issues.

    Comment by Daniel — 27 July, 2011 @ 10:50 AM

  3. Weekend Design Challenge: First steps

    [...] Last week we set goals. This week we will take the first steps toward creating our classless system. Given that I'm getting ready to head to Gen Con this week, this post will be a bit more brief than usual. Hooray, less bloviating! [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 31 July, 2011 @ 9:38 AM

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