Tag Archives: Design Corner

Design Corner – Misaligned

Welcome to Design Corner, where we talk a little bit about game design and the reasons we’ve made some of the choices we did. This time, we’re talking about a pet subject of mine: alignment.
Alignment is how a game codifies your character’s moral standing. In other words, some games need to have a way to translate the concept of morality into their own structure. Once it’s been translated, it can be the basis for clear, objective rules. Without an alignment system, any rules that have to deal with moral standing become subjective and hazy; lots of games, especially rules-light story games, have no problem with this approach because they don’t require hard numbers at every turn.
Why include rules based on morality? Well, for starters, they can be immensely satisfying – rewarding characters for moral actions makes the game feel more like a story, where there are clear lines between good guys and bad guys. Whether or not we want a story where the good guys always triumph, encoding morality in a game lets us bring the game’s story a bit closer to the classic stories we treasure. It lets us play in a world where a person’s moral choices are always meaningful in concrete ways.
Encoding morality also lets us re-create some of the important images of our mythology. Angels and demons are only possible in a world where morality has a concrete presence and power of its own, and the same goes for the holy knights and evil priests in their service. Being able to use, say, Smite Evil, tells the player that the battle between good and evil exists in your game just as it exists in countless timeless stories.
But it’s not a simple proposition. When you make an alignment system, you’re trying to take something without any concrete form and give it solid rules, numbers, and categories. How do you make it objective enough to be part of the rules and still keep some semblance of complexity? If it’s too basic, it will ring hollow, but too many shades of gray will be difficult to navigate. A good alignment system has to be clear, reasonably nuanced, and supported in the gameplay with interesting mechanics. It should give more to the players than it takes away, making up for the loss of freedom with satisfying game moments.
When we started out back in the day, we had “Scruples and Method” – basically, D&D’s good/evil and law/chaos axes, but on a 12-point scale. Like most of our teenage designs, this was out of frustration with the only system we knew at the time. It was nuanced, yes, but it wasn’t exactly clear because it was based on a somewhat unclear system to begin with, and we never made benchmarks. Worst of all, though, we never designed mechanics around it, so we had a system for regulating and quantifying player behavior – and exactly zero payoff. Not exactly a triumph of design.
But, we were lucky enough to have a head playtester who got into so many fights over alignment that he completely hated the entire concept. Tired of GMs telling him what his character would or wouldn’t do, he pushed for us to abandon the alignment system entirely. For all the reasons above, I wanted us to keep one, but because of Shawn’s insistence on being the only one to determine his character’s values, we came up with Code.

So, Design Corner! Assuming we’re still making a universal system (From the Design Corner on classes), do we need an alignment system? It’ll expand the archetypes players can recreate, but it will also provide limits. If we’re building a universal, then it had better work just as well in the far reaches of space as it does in 1928 Chicago. If we do decide on an alignment system, how do we minimize inconsistencies and arguments, and maximize the rewards?
Honestly, if I were to design another game, alignment would probably be the part that killed me.

Remember to check out the City Limits Kickstarter and to check us out on twitter at @TeamCabalGames for more updates!

Design Corner 1 -We Have No Class

Welcome to Design Corner, where we talk about some of the challenging aspects of game design and the conclusions we came to! Every game is different, and answering these questions is what sets one game apart from another.
Take a minute to describe one of the characters you’ve played. In most systems, one of the items you’ll list will be the character’s class – Wizard, for example, in D&D. In the first Design Corner, I want to talk about class and its role in an RPG, and walk you through the decisions that led to Mod’s class system. For the sake of having a working definition, a class is a mandatory character template that determines the character’s abilities and growth.
We feel the mandatory part easily; we lament that we can’t take certain equipment, or use certain abilities, because of the class we’d chosen. We feel limited by the choice we had to make at character creation, even if just for a short while.
But, classes also provide a template. They provide an armature for a player to build on, a basic skeleton that can be fleshed out with stats, goals, and personality. In any game, class is Square One, the first choice a player makes before branching out. Some games incorporate setting information and allegiances into the class system, which lets it double up as a starting point for the GM’s storylines.
We didn’t know it as ambitious teenagers, but a good class system does more good than it does harm. From a sheer numbers perspective, they don’t seem to do much, but when you look at the way a player relates to the game, they provide a sort of pre-packaged version of the premise, a shortcut for people who don’t actually live in the game’s world. Instead of having to understand all the ins and outs of society in Greyhawk, you can choose to be a Wizard and let the game fill a lot of that in for you. Instead of inventing a whole social network, backstory, and place in life for your vampire out of whole cloth, you can say you’re a Ventrue and fine-tune the rest after.

So, let’s say that we’re making a universal system here in Design Corner. What on earth do we do about classes?
On one hand, a true universal can leave players stranded enough as it is; like when you’re looking over an enormous takeout menu, more choices can be harder than few. Without that first step, only people who already have fully realized a character idea will even be able to start. There’s no fun in that. Universal systems, more than any other, need a foothold.
On the other hand, how on earth can you make enough classes to cover all the possible character concepts a universal system can hold? Do you just make every setting you can think of and populate it with classes? That’s going to be a lot of work, and the balancing is going to get more and more difficult the more you add. Do you make general classes and trust that they’ll apply to all your possible settings, knowing that generalized classes won’t have the same spark?
Do you just replace the classes with randomly generated character tables, as many other games do, and use those for the starting point?

There are a lot of different ways to balance the need for freedom with an easy transition into a new world. Mod itself completely lacks character classes, but we often incorporate what I like to call “pseudo-classes” into settings like City Limits. A pseudo-class is a mechanic that is chosen at creation and lends some of the support to a new character that a class does, without actually coming attached to more than a few abilities, leaving the rest up to the player. The MCS Designations and Daemons are built this way. But, we could just have easily have expanded them into proper classes with more detailed ability and skill lists, or we could have just published a plain universal. (It was our original plan until a friend with some experience in the matter talked me out of it!)

So, how would you address this? Think about it on your own, talk about it with your own team, or drop us a line here or on twitter @TeamCabalGames!