Sunday, March 25, 2018

Toss those books

Sometimes you have to give up on your dreams.  This is especially true when the dreams involve lots of bookkeeping for little gain.

For the past few weeks I have been obsessing over a detail of mechanics in Heroes By Trade.  The way the game used to work is each character had a Vigour score that described how powerful their abilities would be.  If you tried to use an ability of higher rank than your Vigour, you would take damage equal to the difference.  If you have a Vigour of 5 and use an ability of Rank 7, you take 2 damage.

This system is balanced.  It even feels right - characters can desperately strive to do something challenging but it hurts to push beyond your limits.

The trouble is that it ends up being a lot of bookkeeping.  People were constantly using abilities and forgetting to take 1 or 2 damage when doing so.  When they used a really high rank ability they tended to remember, but it was a regular problem.  Not only was it an issue that combats weren't going the way they should, but also players hated it.  Some people just didn't like the idea of taking damage at all, but everyone hated the constant recording of tiny amounts of damage to do normal things.

It needed to change.  This system would be fine in a computer game where the bookkeeping was taken care of automatically but in a tabletop game it is important to keep things moving.

My new design is to have Vigour be a hard cap on what abilities you can use.  If your Vigour is 5 then you can only use abilities of Rank 5 or less.  Simple.  However, I really liked the idea of people being able to occasionally do something spectacular so I added something else in to replace the old system called Surges.

The mechanic behind this is simple:  Once an encounter you can Surge, which adds your Constitution to your Vigour.  Generally this means that on the turn you choose to do this you can do something spectacular, either using an advanced version of an ability you normally use, or using an ability you generally cannot access. 

This still means you have to remember if you have used your Surge or not.  It reduces bookkeeping a little, but does not eliminate it entirely.  However, I think that it is far less likely to be forgotten, which is a plus, and it also feels better.  Instead of constantly recording the 1 or 2 damage you take you just have to remember that you used your Surge, or didn't.

It is funny how many knock on effects this sort of change creates.  It makes Constitution slightly more powerful, which is actually something I think is good.  Constitution was extremely weak in combat up to this point, so a buff is a positive.  It also means that character power is reduced because of lesser flexibility, and this sort of power reduction is quite challenging to quantify.  The other tricky thing is that ability ranks started at 5 and went up to 13, but starting character Vigour could be as low as 2.  I don't want people to have no abilities they can use at all, so I am going to need to lower the ranks of all abilities by 2 to make sure that nearly everyone has some cool stuff to do, but doing that inflates character power overall....

It is a tricky thing, sorting out all these changes and figuring out what tweaking one thing will do to a huge system.  I think though that my current change package is a real positive as it should keep character choices just as varied but reduce the complexity of implementing those choices.  That is a big thing for me - make sure you have to think a lot about what is best, but once you choose it should be easy to resolve.  Kind of the opposite of how I feel when playing DnD a lot of the time, where I spend too much time keeping track of all my shit but when I have to make a choice the answer is always Fireball.

I mean, it isn't *always* Fireball.  Sometimes our characters talk to people too, rather than just murdering them.

But when murder is afoot, Fireball is always the choice, and then we spend a long time rolling dice and adding up damage, and that is not the system I want.


  1. Could you make physical surge tokens that people throw someplace when they use them to reduce mental bookkeeping about if they've been used or not? The Battlestar Galactica board game took that route in one of their expansions with their 'use once per game abilities' and it ended up opening design space by letting them add in abilities and effects that interacted with those tokens.

    A berserker could do more and take more damage if they don't have a surge token, for example. A high level bard ability could give their surge token to another player.

    1. Yeah, those are pretty cool ideas. I had thought of adding in mechanics that interact with surges in unique ways and either of those could do just fine. I haven't built physical objects to keep track of stuff like this as the game is a RPG, but doing so could really help make it easy to keep track of stuff like that. Better than writing and erasing things all the time for sure.

      I do have a combat card thing that I use where people build combat cards just to display all the stats on their abilities: They are just small printouts put into Magic card sleeves. This works for tracking once per encounter abilities too, as you can just flip over any card you have used so far and that way it is easy to note that it isn't available.

    2. The physical token was my thought exactly. You have a surge card in front of you, you toss it into the middle of the table. At the end of combat you take it back. This is a good way to remember whether you've used I and a good reminder to use it.

  2. The guy with the math degree finds that it takes a long time to roll 8d6 and add them up?

    Fortunately, I'm nearly always nearby, and I'm really fast at the adding stuff.

    1. Those of us with math degrees have evolved beyond mere numbers.

    2. If you asked me to prove that a solution exists for 8 randomly generated numbers between 1 and 6 inclusive or perhaps describe the appearance of the graph of the results, that would be fine. Adding though? That is hard.