Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Guest Post: Information: The Tool Players Need To Use Choice-Driven Character Development Systems

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 15, 2011

Today’s post is part three of three by Colter Cookson. I want to thank Colter and the others who have contributed guest posts the last two weeks while I’ve been in Thailand. It’s helped a lot. Anyway, here’s Colter:

In my last two posts-The Case for Choice in Character Development Systems and Guidelines for Designing Choice-Driven Character Development Systems-I identified several reasons to include tough choices in character development systems, then offered guidelines for designing them. In my final post, I want to discuss the key ingredient players need to make effective choices: Information.

For a game to provide all of the benefits of a character development system, the consequences of different choices need to be clear so players can go after the mechanical bonuses, fantasy, and gameplay style they prefer. The amount of information necessary can range from the formulas behind the game’s mechanics to short descriptions of different classes at the start of the game. For example, a game with both a sorcerer and an alchemist might describe the former as “a natural spellcaster that eradicates foes with fire and lightning” and the latter as “a wandering herbalist who brews potions to give allies the strength and speed they need to overcome the toughest foe.” Despite their brevity, these descriptions convey the classes’ theme and gameplay effect (direct damage versus buffing). Armed with this information, players should be able to tell which character-the powerful destroyer or the scholarly buffer–will appeal to them.

Ideally, players should also be able to access information about the challenges they will encounter in the game. While developers could provide such information in the manual or hint at it in a prologue, I suspect most people would prefer to get it through play. With that in mind, try to vary the first few hours of the game enough for players to see the effects of different choices. Include locked doors and traps for the rogue and monsters that allow tanks, damage dealers, disablers, healers and the ever-present hybrids to shine in turn. Otherwise, players might restart with a party that smashes through the early challenges but struggles as the game advances.

If the game almost requires a specific class, let the player know before they start. For example, if a player tries to create a party without a cleric in a game where endurance matters, warn them with a dialogue box that provides an explanation. If you don’t, they might come up against a roadblock their party can’t overcome and walk away from the game rather than restarting.

Jeff Vogel’s contention that players should make their most important character development decisions after they’ve had a chance to play the game makes sense, but I would add a caution: Don’t delay decisions so long the game becomes tedious. If I have to play for ten hours before I can make interesting character development choices, I’ll either ignore the game completely (as I did with Dragon Quest VII, an entry in a series I otherwise enjoy) or play through it once and never touch it again. I suspect this is true for many players, especially ones with life essentials like families and jobs.

You can make conveying information easier by using systems or conventions many players will recognize. Unless designers have a reason to do otherwise, priests should be able to heal, elves should have an edge when casting spells, and swords should be versatile. By following these long-established conventions, designers let players grasp the effects of different decisions immediately and give themselves the freedom to introduce complexity in other areas.

I have one other suggestion: Don’t ask the player to choose between fun and power. While it’s impossible to design a system where all classes are equally useful at every level, try to avoid creating classes that are fun and powerful at later levels but dull or useless at the beginning. And if you give players a choice between focusing on damage or mana regeneration, give players that focus on the former a quick and reasonably fun way to regain mana, such as drinking potions or resting, so she doesn’t need to wait. The trick is to make sure these methods come with a downside (e.g., spending gold or losing temporary bonuses more quickly) that makes investing in regeneration worthwhile.

At this point, the people who taught me to write five-paragraph essay are demanding that I conclude with a summary that boldly declares, “If you follow my advice–if you provide a character development system that rewards system mastery, inspires thought, sparks discussion, and caters to different fantasies and playstyles–your game will appeal to a broad audience.” I believe that to be the case, but as a fledgling designer who is only beginning to turn his love of tactics games into a concrete idea for a new one, I must confess that I have no monopoly on the truth. I’d love to hear why other people enjoy choice-driven character development systems and what guidelines they have for designing them.

Colter Cookson is a 25-year-old writer who enjoys video, board and card games. He would highly recommend Thunderstone, a card game that combines the deckbuilding mechanics of Magic and the themes of heroic fantasy with the simplicity and affordability of traditional board games.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 3 Comments to Read



  • Picador said,

    You can make conveying information easier by using systems or conventions many players will recognize. Unless designers have a reason to do otherwise, priests should be able to heal, elves should have an edge when casting spells, and swords should be versatile. By following these long-established conventions, designers let players grasp the effects of different decisions immediately and give themselves the freedom to introduce complexity in other areas.

    This is a dangerous piece of advice. Over-adherence to arbitrary conventions like this is one of the biggest problems in modern game design. Yes, you need a shorthand way of communicating archetypes to the player, and some degree of convention is necessary to keep the game from being incomprehensible. But I’d say the pendulum has already swung so far over on the side of convention that it creates more problems (boredom, homogeneity) than it solves (incoherence).

  • The Recursion King said,

    “Don’t ask the player to choose between fun and power. While it’s impossible to design a system where all classes are equally useful at every level, try to avoid creating classes that are fun and powerful at later levels but dull or useless at the beginning.”

    This is also very bad advice. Part of the reason D&D is so successful is that Mages are so difficult to use; by being so weak at the low levels but then amazingly powerful at the high levels, they are the de facto class for experts. Beginners can pick the fighter.

    I say learn from this, give your expert player something special when he replays the game and knows the system well, and he’ll thank you for it.

  • Colter Cookson said,

    Picador, I’d argue that how much you should adhere to conventions depends on the game. If it’s a lengthy game with an emphasis on story, it’s worthwhile to come up with an interesting setting and mechanics that reflect that setting. If it’s a quick game that’s meant to be played over your lunch break, sticking with the conventions makes sense.

    It can also be a reasonable approach for a game with other selling points. While Fantasy Wars might benefit from a more inspiring theme and story, it can appeal to its primary audience–people that want extremely hard tactical combat–without one. In fact, the conventional themees might help the game by giving already-overwhelmed players less to learn.

    Having said that, I suspect you’re right that designers should evaluate conventions carefully. Even for players with a preference for the familliar, it’s nice to see new worlds occasionally.

    The Recursion King, you can create a class that rewards expert players without creating one that starts weak. When I talk about power differences, that’s my primary concern. People play games to have fun. For most players, the fun comes largely from feeling powerful. If the wizard can barely slay a rat when the warrior can wade through a swarm, there’s a problem.

    You could argue that the wizard’s later power justifies their earlier weakness. In a game where one player controls several characters, I might agree with that. After all, many of the games I enjoy have classes that start relatively weak but blossom later. However, they also make sure the classes are fun throughout the game. The gadgeteer in Wizardry 8 starts much weaker than the bard, but it can pull its weight and use its signature tools–the omnigun and a basic but useful gadget–from the first dungeon. When it falters, the other party members can compensate.

    In a single-character game, differences in class strength make less sense. Being a human punching bag for the first five hours of a game isn’t fun. I might put up with it if it means being godlike later, but I won’t enjoy it. Nor will I appreciate seeing the classes that resonate with me at an obvious disadvantage as the game progresses.

    Experts can get a power boost without a class designed specifically for their benefit. They know the system, they know the game world, and they understand their play stlye, so they can make better choices about everything from tactics to character development and resource management.

    I see this in my D&D games. Most of my early characters played poorly because I tried to do everything rather than focusing on one or two roles. Now that I’ve learned to spend my skill points, feats and gold excelling at one or two roles, I’m having much more fun. Have you had a similar experience?

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