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.
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