Wednesday, September 27, 2023

On Game Design, I Suppose: Big and Little Distinctions and How Much Space a TTRPG Has for Them

I'm not dead, I'm not, fuck you, I'm not. I'm not dead.

Before I start, I should probably explain what I mean by 'size' here.

I mean, like, conceptual size. How much of the book does it take up, how much does it impact the gameplay, and how much is it supported by mechanics to make up an interesting and meaningful choice for the player, a way to differentiate characters from one another.

And now I want to talk about Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e for a bit. 

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e (or '.5e for short) is the biggest dungeons and dragons, and also the best officially published one. It has a lot of very big systems. It's got races, some of which are huge; it's got skills which are pretty big, huge if you include skill tricks; it's got feats which are practically huge enough to be their own game; and of course it has both classes and prestige classes which interact with everything else and let you dip in and out of them to build you own thing.

This is obviously way the fuck too much. '5e also birthed the d20 system, which I think resulted in a massive waste of potential because nobody understood that it was too much.

'5e had to have all of those things, of course, because it was the generic. The point was never to play with all of them at once, it was that you'd prune the bits you don't need away and keep the one or two that you did. 

It is my strongly held opinion that d20 system games would be excellent if they had held to this design principle instead of building their own additional scaffolding over the teetering ruin of the entirety of '.5e.

Unfortunately this was never explained anywhere and probably isn't true. 

Ah, well, nevertheless,

I think a TTRPG generally has, on average, enough space in it for one big distinction, one little distinction, and stats.

Look at most GLOGs for an easy example: Race or species is your little distinction, you can be a beetleling or an elffolk or something and it probably gives you a perk and a drawback and maybe a little bit of culture. Class is obviously your big distinction, the main thing that makes your character different from the other characters. If a species gets big enough, it probably gets made into a class. And then you also have stats. This is nice and tidy, it works well, it's about as many things as a pl*yer can hold in their tiny brain at a time.

This is also backed up by my personal experience: I used to run a post-apocalyptic d20 system game. It started out with the d20 modern rules, for the first campaign. No species, everyone was human, but still a very big system: Classes, feats, skills, and stats. Still way the fuck too much, which rapidly became evident as I was trying to teach it to a bunch of people who had never played a TTRPG before. By the end of the third campaign, it had feats as a big distinction, skills as a small one, and stats. Then it ran smoothly.

Similarly, I am or have been in a handful of G20 games. These are notable because they don't even really have 'species' in the same way a lot of fantasy games do; you've got a race, which is actually a race, and that gives you a little bump to one derived stat and maybe a special ability if your Xharisma is high enough (in classic GLOG style). You've got a skill but it doesn't even have a lightweight system attached to it; it takes up no space at all. And you've got your stats. And you've got your class, which is most of what makes this PC different from that PC. And that's enough. It is probably the smoothest-running game I've had the pleasure of playing.

This interacts with other design elements that take up space, too, of course.

I have a GLOGhack. It started off much too big. I can say this quite confidently after playtesting it. But it has relatively small species, a lightweight skill system, big classes, stats...

Well, that's already two small distinctions (species and skills) when it should really have one, but both of those are pretty small and could probably fit in together. I think they're forgivable. GROG/the Mountain wosn't too big because of species and skills, not specifically.

But those aren't the only things taking up 'space' in it. It had a cool, innovative, novel dice mechanic, and weapon tags. The realization here is that those take up space too, I guess, in a less easily categorizable way.

I dunno where I'm going with this and it's been sitting in my drafts for over two years and it's probably fairly self-evident to you if you're the type of person who would read this and it's rambly as all hell, so I'm just gonna post it now.

1 comment:

  1. Clearly, *clearly*, what will fix this is to assign each Big and Small distinction, as well as all other cool/innovative/novel stuff you've got that is taking up player attention, a roughly accurate point value.

    And then: point-buy game design! The logical conclusion of all we have worked towards. You're welcome.

    Having pretty pictures that attracts the attentions of the player gives you +1 point of attention to spend. Likewise, taking away phones, threatening with knife etc. etc.