Monday, August 29, 2011

Constructing Classes: Some Thoughts from Homebrew Game Building

The Perils of Homebrew

This weekend we did character creation for a short-run campaign I’m planning, based on a Microscope history the group built. I’ve read several favors of FATE recently, and I wondered how well the aspects/tags system would work within the Action Cards homebrew we’ve been playing with for quite some time. So I retooled and reskinned the game again, as I’ve done with each campaign we’ve played so far. So far we’ve used it for Magical Swashbuckling, Modern Occult, Steampunk Fantasy, Changeling the Lost, Heroquesting High Fantasy, Star Wars, HALO, Fallout, Skyship Fantasy, and now this version. My goal in rules building for these has been two-fold- find changes and tweaks that generally make the game better, but more importantly find rules and systems which emulate the genre we’re working with. For that, I have to decide on the question of classes from the start.

A Classy Approach

Classes, Professions, Roles, Archetypes, Paths…however you want to say them- they serve as a useful form and approach for players. They can help someone come up with an effective and interesting character, but by the same token they can cut off options. Beyond that, they can also raise questions about balance. That’s a dirty word for some players- and in general I don’t think given the abstract nature of an rpg you can achieve balance unless everyone has access to all of the same choices throughout (which puts the weight of that balance on player decisions). But I do think what I want is for players to more rarely feel like another player is significantly better than them based on a build. Some classes should shine in some places, but not all cases are equal in game play time and weight. Mastery in combat generally has a good deal more impact, than mastery in courtly affairs.

Kissing the Classless

I’ve dealt with this problem in several ways. In a couple of cases, I’ve left out the concept of classes entirely. The first two forms of AC, Magical Swashbuckling and Modern Occult, offered a generic points/pick system with players mostly buying skills and, if they wished to use magic, spending some of those points on that. I offered little in the way of structure. In the case of the first campaign, that came out of my own uncertainty about how the system would work. In the second case, I wanted the PCs to be normal people, caught up in events. We had no skill lists, so people could come up with their own, and certain patterns developed (Dodge, Perception, Sword, as the typical level for skill descriptors).

When I came to prep the Steampunk Fantasy campaign, I faced another set of challenges. I knew I wanted a level of crunch and detail, so I added Talents (really another way of saying “Qualities” like Strong and Tough) and Combat Styles, which I lightly explained. I also built a generic magic system which had a good base idea, but ended up being a lot more opaque and more powerful than I’d intended. The biggest structural difficulty in making the system was that I knew the campaign would last a long time- I’d intended five years of play. (Of course, we’ve played four and a half years and we’re at a 3/5ths point). I opted to not have classes in the campaign, in part because I didn’t want to have to build evolving structures for them. Also, given that the campaign is about life in a school- I wanted the players to build and evolve their personalities and character sheets together.

That chance to build is important- I like the idea of each session players having the choice of buying something or saving up for a bigger purchase. Players often find themselves fighting their own nature- wanting a short-term benefit versus a bigger benefit or power through saving up those points. I’ve seen players go the other direction as well- only saving up and buying big ticket items, but never investing in the basics- leaving them hanging on some standard tasks. I’ve pretty much always defaulted to a point-based versus an experience & level based system. Even when we played Rolemaster, I handled EXP through development points. I don’t think class systems have to be necessarily linked to a level system in rpgs, but decoupling them does raise a number of problems which I will come to. But I’ll admit a points based system has its own problems. I generally offer everyone in the group the same amount of points from a session, as long as they attend. I’ve rarely offered some bonus points to players- too much of that smacks of favoritism. But handing out points every session creates a set of expectations. When you hand out a lower number of points than usual, players may see that as a punishment even though what you’re trying to say is that less things seem to have moved forward in a session. I think the paradox of reward comes into play here. But the other problem is that there always has to be things to spend those points on- not just stuff but a wide range of stuff. If there’s a limited pool, then all characters can end up with the same or equivalent sets of skills. If players buy too much stuff then it all ends up be a mass of words and notes on a character sheet. Something I’ve realized as I’ve gone along is that a GM doing these kinds of homebrews or even calculating points for an existing system, can benefit from a strong sense of how many sessions a campaign’s going to last.

A Heroquesting Digression

As a side note, Robin Laws has a couple of interesting approaches to this problem in HeroQuest 2. First, Hero Points function as development points- with players able to spend them between sessions to improve their characters. But Hero Points can also be used in play to grant players bonuses on rolls (effectively a form of drama points from other games). That creates some tough decisions in game- do I spend this point now- or is it worth saving to improve my character. It changes experience into a different kind of resource. Secondly, Laws suggests some parsimony with experience and buying up- or rather that buying things up shouldn’t have that great an effect. The bad guys should scale as the PCs do. Since nearly everything contests skill vs. skill, this effectively creates a treadmill. Players should stand relatively the same chance against opponents throughout the game. At first I flinched from that idea, stated so boldly, but on the other hand, mechanics like challenge ratings serve the same purpose- though in systems with much more crunch and changing variables. Laws suggests that GMs can turn to existing stories as models for this- that most characters don’t show significant improvement over the course of stories (Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, etc). I think that’s true for iconic characters, but I think others do. Anime, martial arts, school-based- for example these genres have a focus on character progress in skills- not just emotional progress.

Figuring Changeling

In the variants I talked about earlier, the only major subsystem I added involved creating a flexible magic system. Players could choose to invest their points in that as they wished. On the other hand, when it came to adapting Changeling the Lost, I had to deal with a building a larger and more defined system. Changeling required a “class lite” system- with the players choosing an archetype to start in the form of their faerie seeming and kith. Those choices give them a general personality template, a flaw, and two abilities. The bigger part of the system lies in the various Contract sets- magical powers built around a theme, with five levels of progressively higher cost. The choice of seeming affects these indirectly- no contract set is exclusive, but some cost less for certain types. In addition to the contract sets I added a dozen or so purchasable advantages based on the original system. Outside of the Contracts and related abilities, the characters remain fairly normal- buying general skills and talents. Most unusual powers come from those. Accordingly, they’re pricey. That system required a good deal of work- but made easier in that I was adapting existing material. The seemings and kiths give players a good entry point into the setting, but don’t restrict later choices. Instead they incentivize some choices over others. That’s a good carrot to keep in mind. Kenny’s HALO campaign took a similar approach- players bought skills and talents and then chose a role. Each role had a progressive set of abilities and you begin with the first couple from the list. Once the game began, players could buy from any list- but there was a significant advantage to working deeper into a list, with the better abilities coming up later.

Part Two Here

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