Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Constructing Classes: Approaches from Homebrew Game Building

Previously, I talked about how classes generally fit into the thinking of GM's building homebrew games. This ties into broader issues and questions about player development and power as a campaign continues. Here are some other approaches I've tried.
Simple Archetypes
Borrowed some of the structural ideas I'd used for the Changeling homebrew when I went to prepare the short Star Wars campaign I ran. The characters were fairly basic- with a set of skills, plus picks from a list of talents I’d put together (I think three dozen). Each pick was limited- meaning only one person could take it. These represented roles (like Medic, Thief) or types (like Droid, Crazy Alien) that offered them new abilities to bonuses. Jedi’s got to pick starting powers from two different Force Power lists (eight in total). One can picture this as a “Build-a-Class” approach given the scarcity of those advantages. Players chose what areas they wanted to be better or the best in. Dave’s version of Fallout did much the same thing, with a slightly wider range. In that case, we picked Archetypes that gave us starting skills to choose from, as well as a benefit and a flaw. Later on those archetypes rarely came into play. More importantly, he presented a set of “Perks”- special abilities and advantages. Any particular Perk could only be chosen by two players over the course of a campaign. Everyone tailored their characters in related, but slightly different directions.
Those last three “skins” on the concept of class worked in part because all three campaigns (Star Wars, Fallout, HALO) were intended to be short-run games, with Fallout being the longest running at sixteen sessions, and the other two being seven or eight apiece. In this case, the GM could build a reasonably closed set of advantages and extra stuff. If, for example, I were to run another chapter in the Star Wars campaign, I’d probably try to come up with some more standard advantages for the players to buy. The Jedi wouldn’t need more as they hadn’t bought that far into any particular force power list, but I might consider offering some Jedi-unique talents beyond those. On the other hand, the Changeling game has managed to stand up and feel tight for player choices because of the escalating cost of those Contracts. Those have five ranks, with the first one costing 5 points, and the rest costing 5*your current rank. Some players have hit the top on those, but that’s a pretty hefty investment. On the other hand, a year from now, I may look at that and see players with too many powerful contracts, especially if they exist other spending options.
Profession Tracks
In some more recent versions of the system I have tried to have some more defined and restrictive profession tracks. In particular for the high fantasy campaign, I tried to borrow some of the ideas from one of my favorite JRPGs, Final Fantasy Tactics. The idea is to have a set of base professions (Squire, Apprentice, Student, etc) which offer a set of tiered abilities players could buy. Players can buy into several different profession tracks- with the restriction that characters of one kind of magic (arcane, divine, mentalism) could not buy into the others. I built a separate magic and combat style system- and purchases from the profession tracks allowed greater access to those abilities (raising limits on number of magic schools known, for example). After play began, I created another set of Professions, some based on the characters having completed all of one “base profession” and some based on players having invested in two specific professions. It was a huge amount of work. You can see a lengthy presentation of that here.
For one thing, I had in mind a fairly strong point system. I wanted the Profession tracks to reflect the costs of other purchases- so if players decided to buy “ala carte” they would be able to achieve the same thing. Most players, however, focused on the Profession tracks, as they provided an easy to grasp set of character abilities. In crafting what became an exploding number of professions, I tried to make sure nothing would be redundant. Ideally you wouldn’t buy something in one profession track and then have it pop up later unless it stacked. I also wanted to make sure we had smooth power progression. Several things worked against this- most importantly being my original vision of the length of the campaign got knocked on its ass. I’d pictured a one-year game, with 26 sessions. I priced and handed out experience accordingly. However, problems and changes ended up affecting that, including a change of players partway through. I didn’t want to short change the new player, so I shifted my vision out- throwing away some of my plans. However, that campaign's stretched out twice as long as I’d planned- with problems arising from the shortness of the sessions. At this point, I have a whole set of third tier hybrid professions I have only lightly sketched out. I dread working on those and trying to balance them with the large number already in play. Plus I don’t want to invest that time if the campaign will wrap up relatively soon. The unfortunate problem here is that players have begun to run out of choices- moving into other player's areas and territories. The lack of restrictions, intended to offer freedom, does mean at late game stage we begin to get players stepping on each other’s toes and a creeping “sameness” to the characters’ powers.
Build Your Own Class
One solution suggested by this might be to create a set of tools- a set of generic elements which could be constructed together for players (or the GM) to develop their own profession tracks. How would that differ from players simply buying things freely? One the one hand, the GM might impose scarcity on certain things. If players have taken a certain kind of pick (say an enhancement to a skill) for their profession track, no other player could take that. Special powers might also be unique to each profession track. The problem would be calculating the value of those powers. As a GM I’ve done it roughly when pricing out those tracks. I don’t like the idea of having to price and veto potentially player suggestions. The idea of in play construction of those professions by the players has merit- but would require some significant structures to keep balance (again that dreaded word…).
GM Constructing in Play
I’ve tried an approach a little like this for our “Last Fleet” campaign, the skyships fantasy one (details on that structure here). In this case, I don’t put all of the power in the hands of the players, but instead take their input and use that to construct class-type abilities. Initially the players built their characters will skills (broad skills which function like aspects, standard skills, and specialties which allow stunts). Then I had them describe what kinds of things they wanted to do. From there I built their initial set of talents, of which they could pick a few. Then every other session, I ask them to suggest some additional things they’d like to be able to do. I take those suggestions and come up with two new ones for the following session.
This offers several advantages. From the player’s side, they can make those choices based on what they like to do with their character. They can also see what the campaigns focus, and shift themselves accordingly. They can also find their role within the group. From my perspective as a GM, it allows me to offer cool novelty with player buy-in every couple of sessions. I can pick and choose from the player suggestions- especially if I know that certain things might be more useful later in the campaign. Most importantly, I can create some structural balance. I know what kind of damage various people can dish out in various situations, how much damage they can take and so on. I can maintain parity. As important, I can make sure that the players don’t overlap too much in terms of what they’re able to do. If one player’s able to entangle a foe, that’s a fairly cool and unique ability- and one I don’t want another PC to have. The same thing with stuff like rapid shooting, strong ranged damage or the ability to throw oxen. Players gain several kinds of ownership of their abilities.
The lure of those talents creates some tough choices for the players. I only allow the PCs to purchase one of those per session, and only if they’ve had a “learning experience”- a failure somewhere along the way. A couple of times so far, players have wanted to buy things, but haven’t had those at hand. That mechanic means the GM needs to make sure every player has at least a couple of chances to win or fail each session. Finally this system works because I know exactly how many sessions we’re going to be playing: 26. That’s it- no more than that. So the work involved in doing this ends up seeming pretty small. In this particular approach I saved myself a great deal of hassle by leaving out any kind of large-scale magic system. Most of the other fantasy games have flexible, on-the-fly spell creation systems I built. There players can learn how to do some things, but not all. On the other hand, for this system, I made spells into talents. So each has a good deal of power, and fits with the character’s conception of their character’s sorcery. It means I can keep the power level of those abilities balanced with the others. For a look at what I’ve done so far with this, you can check posts here and here.
Of course, this isn’t a classic class system. Players can’t build as well based on a pre-existing set of steps. That means the players have to have a decent level of trust for you as a GM and for the system as a whole. I’d say that’s easier when you’ve built the thing from whole cloth. The approach does focus the players, but doesn’t limit or restrict as more detailed systems might (through HP point disparities, weapon restrictions, armor limits, etc). I’m not sure the kinds of approaches I’m talking about would work for those kinds of games.
Minimal Class Structures Pre-Built
The closest I’ve come to a standard class system is for the newest campaign. From the start I knew that we would only be playing for eight sessions. So I decided to develop a set of class based powers, based on classic professions. I gave the players a list of classes with six “Pure Magic Users,” six “Guys Who Use Some Magic or Magic-like Effects,” and six “Guys Who Don't Use Magic.” Based on their choices I built a set of six profession talent tracks (Rogue, Barbarian, Ninja, Warlock, Wizard, Druid). I adapted part of Greg Christopher’s excellent Novarium terminology over to create a flexible no-list casting system. Then I created a list of sixty generic talents (borrowed from the Feat, Advantage, and Stunt lists of other games) which I priced from one to three. I built armor restrictions for mages into the magic system, but otherwise offered no other class restrictions. To create some tension, I allowed only two players to purchase any particular talent. The class talents end up pretty puffy- and that’s deliberate. I imagine that most players will buy all six of their abilities by the end of the campaign. To make that choice more difficult, if players buy those class talents, the following session, the cost for the next one goes up by one. If they wait another session, it drops back to normal. We’ll see how that goes. The players seem to like what was offered- and they know that they will be the only ones who can do those things. I think that’s especially necessary for a group with three pure spell-slingers, especially a game with decent freedom to the spell casting.
Last Thought
There's obviously a lot to think about when building your own homebrew system. I think one of the things GMs have to consider is how they want to approach play: as an ongoing or as a playtest? The latter allows you to retool, but perhaps reduces player investment. The former means the players feel like they're in a real campaign, but you have a harder time making drastic changes to the mechanics of the game. Class structures in this case can be a double edge sword. On the one hand they offer a quick archetype for the players- with the presence or absence of certain types being a great way to signal what the game's going to be like. On the other hand, if you picture a continuing set of "class" powers you have to consider what the late game looks like. Even if you don't want those kinds of structures, you must consider what people might be buying in late game- and will players still be able to have distinct characters as play progresses?
Last part- examples of built class structures here