Monthly Archives: October 2012

Back to Metagame Ideas

This week, I promise not to rant about 5e. In fact, I only plan on mentioning it on the way to other gaming concepts. This post will be pretty meta, so you have been warned.

Last week, I read the Legends and Lore on the survey results, and I came to a realization as I read. I need to take a step back in time a little. A friend of mine has left behind a good deal of stuff, including some of his old game books. In digging into them, I found and started reading parts of Iron Heroes, which was written by Mike Mearls and produced by Malhavoc Games, Monte Cook’s old game company. It’s a 3.5-based system, and I can see some of the way that game works influencing the design of 5e. I don’t necessarily consider that a Bad Thing™, it just is what it is.

Characters in Iron Heroes (who are almost universally martial types, as magic is defaulted to a “dangerous to use,” high-backfire sort of system) get their specialness from a token system. Do what your class is built for, get tokens to do that thing better by activating better superpowers. You also have feat mastery, which is that as you go up in level, depending on your character’s access to feat groups, the feats you’ve chosen improve. For example, berserkers get access to the Power Attack feat, and get good mastery of it (actually, it’s grouped with other feats that operate in a similar fashion), so at high levels, that class gets even more damage out of it. And then he has rage tokens and powers to stack on top of that. It’s a pretty interesting system, and not a bad set of ideas, if you want to run a Low Fantasy, Conan-esque sort of game. The focus of that variant is the resources the players must manage.

Last year, when I started this blog, I was wanting to look at game design, and what a role-playing game really is.

My first article, here, was a discussion of how we, as players, want and need a challenge in our storytelling.

The second article, here, was a discussion of how most rules serve the function of creating challenge by providing a set of resources the players must manage to accomplish their goals.

I’ve been sort of planning on expounding on the resource management idea, but I see no real reason to, other than to say that the rules system and setting can flavor those resources. For example, I’ve mentioned in D&D that I tend to hate the level of resource management that forces players to buy little mundane tools to defeat the DM’s tricks and traps. Champions has experience, STUN, and END. Mage the Ascension has experience, Health, Quintessense, and Paradox. Each resource management system gives the game in question a different feel.

That feel is mostly special effects. Champions and other superhero games (especially point-based games) really embrace this idea, but other game systems have been slow to adapt it. I think this is some of what the designers of 5e are missing, but I could be wrong. But I think Monte Cook might have it.

Yeah, I was critical of Monte Cook’s remarks about the Edition Wars being over (Sorry, I’m not linking to that old post), but I really like what he’s shown us of Numenera so far. One of the focuses of that game is the Arthur C. Clarke quote “Sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.” His idea is that the superscience in mankind’s future will create advances that verge on the magical. The inverse is that “Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science.” In other words, it’s all special effects from the gamer’s point of view. Again, Hero Games does this easily. The same system that creates superheroes can be used as a fantasy game (Fantasy Hero) or spies (used to be called Danger Incorporated) or any of a variety of other scenarios. Other designers have created single systems that try to cover a variety similar scenarios (like Mortal Coil, which attempts to cover a variety of urban fantasy settings), and systems such as FUDGE/FATE, which can be used for a variety of settings.

Ultimately, the lesson here is that if you view the rules set from this meta-view, then designing your system becomes more simply balancing player advancement. I see this in 4e, in which a martial character’s weapon is simply a pre-assigned die for all of his powers, where spellcasters have variable dice. 4e also was big (initially) on the idea of “reskinning” powers and monsters. For those not in the Know, reskinning is a computer game term that references that any object in a computer game consists of two files, the 3D mesh that give the object its shape, and the “skin,” that graphics file that distinguishes a green dragon from a red one. This colors end up being special effects, with a minor mechanic attached (what kind of damage each dragon does versus what defense the character has).

This is something that is becoming a focus in my mind as I develop my next game. It’s something of a Fantasy Star Wars. I’ve heard a criticism of the d20 Star Wars that at higher levels, jedi were far and away more powerful in combat than non-Force using characters, because the rules system is built with the idea in mind that the lightsaber is a superweapon, and that jedi are capable of making that super weapon even more super. The poor scoundrel with his blaster will never compete with the jedi. Balance fails. Now, if the weapon is simply a set die with which to do damage with special abilities, and all of the classes get a set of special abilities to apply to weapons, then everybody at the table has fun. I’m looking for something like this for my “Fantasy Star Wars” campaign I’m building at this point.

But I’ll be honest, I’m not certain I’ll be using 4e for this setting. I have a feeling it will require a good deal of reskinning or class-building if I do, in order to create the knightly orders I want present in the game, or the armored vehicles. I have plenty of time to think about it (I just passed three years in my current D&D 4e game, it looks like most of another year to complete, as well as one of my players taking the reins for a while) so we’ll see what direction things go. Maybe I’ll look at the Iron Kingdoms RPG, or looking again at DragonLance SAGA RPG, which I found easy to manipulate into other settings. I have no idea at present. Time will tell.