There's been a bit of a furor lately, and it ended up being the catalyst to get me to write something I've been meaning to for a while. The question to ask is simple; the answer is complicated, and the post is long.
What is Good RPG Design? How do we know when choices and pathways and tradeoffs are good decisions, or bad decisions? How do we make a great game? In order to start answering this, I think it would be good to identify specific metrics. There may be more involved, but this is a good start for now.
- Feeling of Awesomeness
- Character Depth
- Character Breadth
- Character Distinctiveness/Definition
- Choice transparency
- Defining Overpowered/Underpowered
- Inter-character balance
- Intra-character balance
Feeling of Awesomeness
This is, in my opinion, the most general design principle to be adhered to, which is why it's first on the list. When playing a game, the player should always feel like their character is really cool and awesome, and they should have fun playing. Note that this is not
the same thing as being powerful. Low-level characters aren't powerful, but they should still be awesome. When you ask a player what character they're playing, they shouldn't respond meekly. They should feel proud of the choice of character to play. Pride in one's character is a good example of the feeling of awesomeness, but not the only one.
So far, Wizards has done pretty well on this. You don't play some guy with a sword, you play a Fighter. Fighters do cool things, and they do them well. There are some notable exceptions, though. Strength cleric and the ossassin come to mind, though there are others. Note this is distinct from the question of "can be CharOp'd to greatness." What you don't want to have happen is a player choose a character that sounds fun and cool, but has mechanics that get in the way. In the cleric's case, it's being severely MAD, lacking good power support and good paragon path support. For the ossassin, Shrouds are the best example. They just don't work the same way as all other combat in the system, and the result is poor performance that interferes with what otherwise would be an awesome class.
There will always be players who enjoy suboptimal characters, which is why this concept is distinct from optimization. A character can still be awesome despite being weak 'by the numbers.' I'd actually use the Vampire as a good example of this. The damage numbers are low as strikers go, but the class doesn't have any major mechanical impediments that cause that; they just lack appropriate support and are generally underpowered. Their mechanics are in fact pretty cool and innovative, especially on the healing surge side. Whether they struck the right balance between durability and damage output is a much more subtle question than "is the vampire awesome and fun to play."
Here's a big one. Critical to any game design are the choices the player makes. Games are an interactive medium, and choices form the backbone of that interactivity. There's a large range of choiceyness in games, from the ultra-customizable to the choiceless. The degree to which choice is present and plays a role in the game is one of the most fundamental early decisions made. A game like Tetris is a good example of a game based on choicelessness. You have zero control over what pieces you get, and that forced order is where the bulk of the game's depth and strategy comes into play. You have to mitigate bad results while holding out for what you really want. If you could choose which pieces you got, the game would be trivial. On the other end of the spectrum, I would argue, is D&D and other person-led (DM) gaming. Rather than competing against a computer, or random cards in a deck, or even an adversary playing under the same set of rules (sports), the game in D&D is generated exclusively by one member of the group. Nothing is proscribed, everything is mutable. Everything the players encounter is specifically chosen by the DM. Even if the DM uses random generation, the choice to use random generation is made. Given how fundamental choice is in such a "the world is your sandbox" game, I rank it very highly in how I evaluate what is good and what is not.
Choices fall into two general categories: trivial choices and meaningful choices. Trivial choices are those that are made, but don't really impact gameplay. Another set of trivial choices are things that impact gameplay, but are so automatic that they aren't really a choice at all. These things typically get called "feat taxes" as one example. I don't really want to get into whether they're really mandatory and that whole debate, but the point is that the value of a choice matters in terms of how things play out. The value of a choice isn't constant, however. It can change as the character progresses, as is the case of Thief's Tricks. As a set list, you pick the two 'best' choices for your goals at level 1, and then continue to take more tricks. Each time, though, you're picking something that wasn't as compelling as the thing you took before. That's a drop in the value of the choice as you progress from 1-30. Maximizing the total value of choices is the goal, both through the number of choices and the value of each individual choice.Character Depth
Character Depth is the amount of meaningful choices a character can make while focusing on one aspect of gameplay. As an example of what I mean, take the Ranger. As a striker, its primary role is that of single-target damage dealer. Even within a build, though, there are meaningful choices and different styles of play, and that is depth. A melee Ranger has the same structure, generally, but the sheer volume of builds that LDB alone has come up with is emblematic of a high degree of character depth.Character Breadth
Character Breadth is teh amount of meaningful choices that a character can make while distributing resources to a number of different focus areas. Wizards are perhaps the best class demonstrating breadth. You have a wide variety of very potent options that can lead to hugely different styles of play. Blaster wizards, debuff wizards, summoner wizards, etc. They generally fit the role of "controller" still, but how they go about doing that is vastly different. This is different from the ranger example above in that the rangers exhibit different ways of doing single-target melee damage, whereas the wizards I mentioned use completely different tactics and build goals.Character Area
The combination of breadth and depth is area, the parameter space of a class. Under a perfect choice system, overall power level would be constant across this parameter space and the distinctions would come in the form of different character concepts that are all equally effective. That's not realistic, but it is still a worthwhile goal to pursue as having a wide area makes the classes dynamic and fresh for a long period of time.Overload
Unfortunately, there is a tradeoff when the volume of choices starts to get in the way of making the choices meaningful. If the amount of options grows too large, the player cannot be reasonbly expected to evaluate them appropriately and large chunks of choices get eliminated without much thought or reason. The biggest example of this in the current game is the feat list. It's easy to add feats, as content goes, but they're impossible to remove. The result is a few thousand feats that in some cases are outright redundant. This is not a good situation to be in, especially as a player with low system mastery, as it can result in "trap" choices. The goal for a choice is clearly stated, but the choice made isn't the best one. As an example, the choice should be "I want to do more damage with implement spells" not "should I take burning blizzard or implement focus."
The solution to overload is sometimes to simply eliminate choices, but I don't think that that is a good way of going about things. Guidance toward simpler solutions is always preferable to eliminating the other solutions. Character Distinctiveness/Definition
One of the most important results of meaningful choice is that your character becomes personal and unique. It isn't a good thing if every (Charcter X) looks, feels, and fights the same as every other (Character X). A lack of distinctiveness comes from a lack of breadth, depth, or both. The essentials martial builds are examples that have nearly no breadth and minor depth. Most slayers, as an example, will look pretty similar. You pick a big two-hander, get your charging stance and your non-charging stance, and at that point the only variation is which weapon group you chose. The character distinctiveness primarily comes in how one roleplays the character, but such aspects are uncorrelated with the underlying game mechanics, which I will examine in more detail later.
The hierarchy of choices from highest potential distinctiveness to lowest is as follows: class, feature, power, feat, items. You can make two fighters that are possibly the same, but possibly different if they take different features. Same for two fighters with one-handed weapon talent if you take different powers. And so on. This hierarchy is a good thing, as it provides structure and an easy method of figuring out which choices make the most large-scale impact and which are the subtle differentiators. The farther you make the large-scale impact areas choiceless (features and powers) the more you make the characters still 'mostly' the same. If you hold constant class/feature/power/feat choice, and just adjust items, you'll end up with mechanically nearly identical characters. The item choice doesn't end up being particularly meaningful, as it doesn't impact how you play the character in a strong way.
A related topic arises when you want to add new choices via new content. The new content has to be distinctive, and different from the previous content in a meaningful way. The simplest, trivial example would be adding a new class that has different power names but the power content is identical to those in an existing class. Clearly that doesn't happen, but it does happen that content isn't sufficiently distinctive from what was there before. This happens most often in feats and items, sometimes in powers and rarely in features.Choice transparency
Meaningful choices should be transparent all of the time. By transparent, I mean that it should be easy to evaluate what the effects of a choice are. You have a goal, you say "Which choice most helps me meet my goal?" and you should know at a glance which ones help that goal. Twin Strike is a great example of this breaking down, especially for new players creating first level characters. At first glance, Twin Strike doesn't look very great. You take a big damage penalty (no ability mod) in exchange for two attacks. What's not immediately obvious is how absurdly well Twin Strike scales in comparison to the other rogue at-will powers. Unless you know that multiattack powers multiply the numerous sources of static damage modifiers, and you know that those sources are in fact numerous, you won't know just how incredibly awesome Twin Strike is. This is a lack of choice transparency.
Ahh, balance. The crown jewel of the 4e system as compared to other games. 4e likes to pride itself on its focus on balance as a primary design goal, and that pride is warranted. There are specific things to look at, though, in determining balance and whether a choice is a good or a bad addition.Overpowered/Underpowered
The concept of OP/UP in a game like D&D is very distinct from that in other game genres, such as videogames. In D&D, all power is relative. Because every interaction is at least filtered through a DM, it doesn't matter so much about the absolute power level of any given character/feature/power/item because the adversary can be adjusted around it. Now, that flexibility shouldn't have to be called upon every game, which means it's important to have a baseline and have the absolute power level be in the general range of a specific target, but we aren't in the position of trying to make all possible ranger builds having the same DPR. Compare this case with, say, a MMO, where if your particular build results in lower performance against the same, unchanging adversary, you run the risk of not being allowed to play. The tolerancing
on balance is therefore significantly looser in D&D than in other gaming environments. Personally, I think that's a good thing, as it expands the parameter space that is viable (and not in the "tiptop #1 build" version of 'viable' that sometimes gets used).Inter-character balance
This is what people tend to go for when they start asking questions about balance. "Is a fighter a better defender than a warden?" "Is a sword+shield fighter better than a battlerager?" Two distinct, different characters, compared directly in (hopefully) environment-neutral fashion. Unfortunately this is generally the least productive and most flamewar-inciting aspect of balance to discuss in a system as complex as 4e. That is not
to say that it doesn't matter. It again comes back to meaningful choice. Strong inter-character imbalance results in a lack of meaningful choice, as if for example a fighter is always the best defender in all circumstances, then it becomes much harder for people to pick anything else. Sure, you can
still play a swordmage, but if you're always going to be worse it's probably going to make you feel bad about that choice. Yes, you can suck it up and deal with it, but you shouldn't have to. It's also much more likely that you won't feel awesome while playing the clearly weak character. Inter-character balance isn't itself a fundamental problem, as the overall encounter difficulty can be adjusteed - it is more in what inter-character imbalance causes problems in other metrics.Intra-character balance
This aspect of balance is much more subtle. These are aspects within a character concept that are presented as equivalent choices, but may not always be so. As an example, take Scorching Burst vs Freezing Burst. The only
reason one might choose Scorching Burst is if you are specifically taking it because it is a fire power - otherwise, Freezing Burst is strictly superior. Another example would be Twin Strike. It's so far ahead of the other ranger at-wills that it becomes the very foundation upon which nearly all of the builds are made. It informs encounter/daily power choice, feat choice, item choice, and its enormous power restricts the parameter space of the ranger class. It's easy to say "Well, that's not really a problem, because all rangers can choose Twin Strike." But the problem with this is that there could
be interesting, fun, awesome ranger builds that don't use twin strike that would be more likely to be used if the intra-character balance were better.
These sorts of comparsions are the bread and butter of the class handbooks. The red-through-gold rating system for powers, feats, paragon paths, etc. are all examples of evaluating the intra-character balance of the available options. This is one of the most valuable contributions to the community, as it provides a huge resource for reducing overload and helping guide choices once a player has a goal in mind for a character.
This definitely gets its own heading, as it's definitely related to game design, though not perhaps for the reasons some people might assume. Certainly, fluff should be disjoint from mechanical effectiveness. Your character shouldn't suck just because of the fluff in a choiceless fashion. You can always choose a weak character, but your character shouldn't be weak just because of its power source, as an example. Note that this is not
saying that one should be able to ignore mechanics (such as primary ability scores) and expect to have a functional character. If you can ignore the mechanics in the name of fluff, then the mechanics aren't providing a function.
The question then becomes what does the fluff actually do, and how does it inform the mechanics? Primarily, fluff can be used to enhance character distinctiveness. What's the difference, mechanically, between a barbarian and an avenger? On the whole, not a whole lot. The avenger trades harder hits for more accuracy, and they both have encounter-long buffs after using daily attack powers. They both use two-handed weapons and have approximately the same AC. What's the difference between a barbarian and avenger, on the whole? The fluff. And that fluff is important to include in the design of any new content as well as adjustments to existing content. You can make things that perform the same role, in nearly the same way, but structure them so that they feel different, and awesome.
Now that these are defined and explained, I'd like to add my opinion on some of the more recent developments, mostly those that I haven't been happy with. First off, let me start that I enjoy and think is good design the vast bulk of 4e material. It's ahead by a good margin of the other RPG systems I've played, and has strong design factors that I can identify through non-tabletop-RPG gaming that have significant advantages. I will warn you in advance that most of my gripes have to do with things published after Aug 2010 - call those products what you will.The Vampire
I was really, really disappointed by this class. I wanted so badly to love it. It's got awesome fluff, a huge distinctiveness relative to existing classes, and innovative mechanics in regards to its hitpoints and healing surges. But why, why oh why
did it have to be so low on the inter-character balance scale? This is a case of a simple error in the allocation of the power budget, in my opinion. The vampire has strong durability, but lowish damage. There's supposed to be a concept of a trade there. But when you have things even from the same book, like the Blackguard, that have both strong durability and
good damage, it makes me go
. But this isn't even my biggest complaint.
Why are there no choices? Two levels of utility powers, and your paragon path
?! The distinctiveness that was generated relative to the other classes vanishes completely when comparing your vampire to any other vampire anyone else could make. This fails miserably, and I don't understand why. The allegedly-good design goal of making "simpler" classes I think hit the vampire pretty severely, to the point where it calls into question the value of the "simpler" approach. There was so much more that could have been done by the vampire, but now I can't do that because the rules present no mechanism for me to make a vampire mine, my own, my...precious.Themes
As someone who got his question answered in Rule of Three about why themes haven't been implemented everywhere, in which I called them "the most innovative new mechanic in 4e since its launch," I have a more personal attachment to themes than most. I was very, very disappointed in what was presented. Instead of continuing the Dark Sun model, which added a unique vector for pseudo-multiclassing and a huge, thorough degree of customization via power swaps, the recently-released themes are exercises in how to lock in choiceless features. Not only are some of them mechanically clunky (Animal Master - should have used Familiar rules) or imbalanced (Order Adept), they are locked-in progressions of features without any variation whatsoever beyond the ability to pick a substitute utility power.
Themes in Dark Sun did vastly more than give a slight power bump to a harsh setting. They added an entirely new layer to the character-distinctiveness hierarchy, one on par with class and
powers simultaneously. Sure, many people may not have chosen to do the power swaps...but the presence was there. And choosing whether or not to use a power swap is a much, much more solid result than a flat bonus to something you may or may not actually care about. Every level, the theme was important
because it gave a decision point for your character. With the new ones, you only get the choice on utilities, and not even at all utility levels. How on earth were these seen as even on par with the design of the DS themes?The Cleric Nerfs
A lot's been said on this in the last day or so, but I'd like to put my thoughts in the context of the balance discussion above. These nerfs do one thing: reduce character breadth, and in doing so throwing off both intra-character and inter-character balance. This not only makes the cleric mechanically weaker, it makes the cleric feel
less awesome. What's more significant than merely the reduction in power is the idea that the reduction resulted in stomping on what used to be fun choices. In order to mess with the feeling of awesomeness, you'd better have a damn good reason. And that reason, as far as I am concerned, is completely absent.Essentials Books
I haven't bought any of the Heroes books, and here is why. If I want to make a Fighter who does nothing but swing a big stick really hard, I don't need a book to tell me how to do it. I can make a Fighter, I can give him a striker damage bonus and take away his mark, and move forward. Even if I weren't willing to do the work of figuring that out, the Slayer would have fit better in a Dragon article on strikerifying the Fighter. If it's really a subclass, an extra option, and a simple one at that, then it didn't deserve the same rating of Good/Bad Design that a full class gets. If it's really a class, then it should be able to stand on its own using the same metrics with which we evaluate all the rest. And the Essentials Martial classes, in particular, don't measure up. All of the presented goals - "easy for new players to grasp and start playing" "simpler design"- could have been put in Dragon articles and been left at that. Instead they took up development time and publishing time instead of what could have been done...Lack of More Supplements
It's easy to argue that D&D is reaching a point where they're starting to run into the second half of the distinctiveness problem, that of new things being too close to existing concepts. The treatment of the Strength Cleric is a particularly good example. First comes the Runepriest, which has nearly the same fluff, almost the same mechanics, but can't capitalize on the existing cleric support. Then comes the Warpriest, which has literally identical fluff and mechanics, but overwrites the existing material rather than supplementing it. I think this is without question a poor idea. If the Warpriest had consisted of a bunch of powers that could be selected completely freely by any cleric along with some alternate class features (like how you can trade Lay on Hands for Ardent Vow), then the exact same material presented could have enhanced the existing class, rather than overwriting it.
This is mostly to say that D&D isn't stale. The existing classes aren't in a state where they can't be added to, can't be enhanced, can't be made better. We should be careful of introducing new things, still, to make sure we don't destroy distinctiveness by having too many things the same. But things like Arcane/Primal/Psionic Power 2 don't yet run into problems, in fact there are several aspects of the game that could benefit greatly from them. I think the case is pretty clear that, with care, more can be added to the game still and in a way that enhances all
of the current product, not just particular preferences of it.