Monday, October 24, 2011

Dominium Campaign: Combat System Changes

I’m an art guy, with enough technical savvy that I’ve dabbled in IT for small, creative boutique design shops and advertising agencies. I like systems and taking things apart to see how they work. Sometimes when I put things back together, I don’t get all the parts in the right places. Case in point, my home-brew game rules.

I ran my two groups of monthly players through sessions on Friday night and Sunday morning this past weekend. This is their second session with the latest installment of the rules and there were a lot of questions, and a few misunderstandings. I got some good input from several players as well. It’s hard for me to take input sometimes. Despite the critical rigors of working in the design and advertising industry, I have a tendency to interpret input as criticism, and criticism is then internalized as me being stupid.

But I’m not here to complain. We’re taking about RPGs. I’m using this as an opportunity to learn healthier habits for taking input, and making better games (or whatever I happen to be producing at the time.)

One of the subsystems of my rules replaces the at-will, encounter, and daily powers of 4e D&D with point cards in various denominations. Players may then spend the points to turn their attacks into the equivalent of a fancy at-will, daily or encounter power by “purchasing” effects and/or damage. It sounds like it would take more time than 4e powers in combat, but it seems to go faster because players are able to apply their choice of conditions (usually ones that are tactically appropriate based on the immediate situation), or just heap on the damage when they want to speed up the game. The cards model fatigue and heroic effort in a way I find more fun and flexible than 4e powers.

As characters level up, they add new cards, either larger denominations, or multiples of existing denominations. When I first implemented this system, I allowed players to “make change” from cards already spent. Then I imposed a limit on playing with cards in hand only, and added a maximum-per-attack limit. One of my players noted that, for various reasons, the denominations were adding complexity without providing tangible game benefits. Not a good thing considering my desire to make a system that had perks for power gamers, yet remained easy to play for casual gamers.

He proposed that players be limited to playing one card per attack. Thus, if a player had one 4-point card, two 3-point cards, three 2-point cards, and four 1-point cards, they would be able to choose (upon rolling a successful hit) to make a big 4-point attack out of it (equivalent to a daily), or a more mundane 1-point attack. Or, something in-between. Once the player had used that big attack, they’d effectively be fatigued and unable to do that again until they had rested. (I’ll talk about recovery of the points in another post.)

This seemed like a good compromise. Most of my players were spending their maximum attack points with each attack whenever they were confronted with non-minion (low hit point) opponents. This was fine, but there was effectively no reason for the multiple denominations of cards. My original intention was to duplicate the intent of at-will, daily, and encounter attacks without the rigidity of having the effects of such attacks limited to singular occurrences.  For example, if a rogue was good at blinding foes with a barrage of thrown weapons, why wouldn’t they be able to do that repeatedly (as long as they had enough ammunition)?

As an added wrinkle, the combat options I’ve adopted from my friend’s Lords of Chaos rules include full and partial attacks. A full attack is a carefully planned and executed blow. It takes more time to analyze defenses, set up the attack, and deliver it. The benefit is that the damage includes all available modifiers (e.g., ability, magic, etc.) A partial attack is executed in haste. It is an attempt to strike as quickly as possible to keep a foe off balance, or to deal with multiple smaller threats. It gains no modifiers to damage, using only the base die determined by the type of weapon.

The system is timing based. A full attack takes longer to deliver than a partial. In my initial design, players could spend card points up to their per-attack maximum for effects and damage. On a partial attack, they were limited to just a few points. This turned out to make the partial attack relatively better than the full attack, and in testing, many players didn’t bother waiting for a full attack. In response to that, we’re updating the rules to specify that points for additional dice of damage and/or effects can only be spent on full attacks.

In practice, I think the system is proving to be fun and versatile. Combat is quicker as players tend to do more damage. To balance that, I’ve been using high damage-model creatures from the more recent WotC collections to keep combat feeling dangerous to players. When a 7th-level rogue dropped after three hits on Sunday, everyone agreed that the system was edgy enough to make it exciting (he survived thanks to a promptly-applied healing potion.)

There are other portions of my home rules that will be evolving over the next few months. Both groups of players include members who are systems experts, engineering types with a penchant for analyzing how things work and getting the most out of the systems they use. It’s daunting to design for them, and (as I said at the outset) challenging to hear that things need fixing. In the end though, the system will improve and be more fun for all involved. A big shout out to my players. The game wouldn’t be a game without you!

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