Tag Archives: Mechanics

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!


Mechanics -Alignment

Even among the team, alignment is a hot issue. You can look forward to at least one Design Corner about it, and Dustin’s written an article too, which should be going live over the next couple days. Without giving away too much of the upcoming design philosophy discussion, here’s a run-down of Mod’s alignment system: Code.

Code came about when we tried to conceptualize one of our old alignment systems. We went from “Imagine every point in Scruples as a line the character won’t cross,” to “Which lines, exactly?” It’s a player-created alignment that emphasizes relative priorities rather than broader categories or virtues. Each item is given a value of 1,2, or 3.

Every character is assumed to have two Codes. “Will Pursue Own Goals” is worth 0.5 — that means, a character will go out of their way for any Code. “Will Protect Own Life” is worth 2.5, meaning any Code valued at 3 is worth more than life itself. A person can choose freely between Codes of the same level, but failing to prioritize a high-value Code can result in it being downgraded or scratched out entirely.

How does it work in gameplay? Certain abilities and spells, like those in the next two classes we’ll show you, work based on specific Code values. Charm effects force a Code into the list, usually “Will aid the caster” but occasionally something more sinister. In basic Mod, Prayer abilities depend on the match between the deity’s Code and the supplicant’s.

Just like magic, in Mod alignment is all about specific, discrete pieces coming together into the right whole for the player.

Mechanics – Making Magic

Now that we’ve given you a basic explanation of the setting, it’s time to get to know the game mechanically. Because “Mod” is short for “Modular”, we’ll start with the game’s magic system, a modular system that lets you assemble your own spells on the fly.

Instead of creating a list of spells for players to choose from, we’ve instead created smaller pieces, Magic Parameters. They’re little things like “Range +1m” or “+1 Damage” or “Push 3m down”, which a player can freely mix and match. The number and value of the parameters dictates how difficult the skill roll is, and magic is a skill like any other. It also dictates the spell’s mana cost, which limits how many spells a person can cast without setting a limit on the spells themselves. On the player’s end, a system like this leaves a lot of room for strategic improvisation, for the exactly-perfect spell for the situation, and also leaves the players free to determine the spell’s flavor elements, like names and visuals, for themselves. On our end, smaller pieces are easier to balance and create, so we don’t have a need to populate a huge list of unique effects and make sure everything balances properly.

Have you ever taken a spell you never wanted to use just to fill out your spell list? Here, there’s no need to even make a spell list – you can create the spells you want as you need them, and you only need to set them in stone if you want a specialty. Any spell you use is the best spell you can use for the job.

Here’s some examples, pulled from the classic Mod elemental system. In City Limits, the Manifestation Control and Daemon skills take the place of the elemental magic, and each has unique mechanics we’ll be learning more about later. For now, though, I’m a classic Water Witch looking to shove someone to the ground and hold them there in a cloud of dark blue with the power of the deep seas.

Crushing Pressure
10 (Base difficulty)
Push Down 1m (+4)
Bind (+3)
Total skill roll required: 17
Mana cost: 7

Or, as I usually put it in my spellbooks (and how it’ll read on the spellsheets we’re putting in the books):

Crushing Pressure (7)
Water 17
Push Down 1m
Add Bind

Now, let’s say I’m fighting someone in an elevator and trying to escape. Pushing down may not work, but pushing away might! In which case, I can freely modify the spell.

Breaker Jet (5)
Water 15
Push Away 1m
Add Bind

Ideally, this will shove them out of the elevator and hold them there while the doors close. Good save, me! Another encounter in which I am the hero. This, incidentally, is how I play Mod; using the system’s flexibility to strategize and control encounters on the fly. Here’s one Dustin might make;

Wind 19
Finesse Weapons +2

And here’s one Kersten might make:

Hammerfall (8)
Lightning 18
+16 Damage

What would you do if you could tailor your spellbook to your play style?

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