Thoughtbites: point-buy multiclassing.

I was playing Total War Warhammer the other day (as Wood Elves, of course), And one of my lords apparently had some unspent skill points. It’d been a while since I had played this game, so I set about perusing the various skill trees and abilities of said Lord. It occurred to me I might want to wait before attributing certain skill points, but I got familiar and often did so anyways. This got me thinking; one of the early episodes of digressions and Dragon included a brief spiel on multiclassing. Unlike the usual drivel about “I can’t see why your character would multiclass”, Scott managed to make an interesting objection. Earlier editions of D&D apparently had minimum age requirements for your character based on class. The assumption was you had to spend a certain number of years studying your craft in order to get to first level. This causes serious narrative conflict across the course of the game, even though little scrutiny will likely be placed on it.

It’s also the first time I’ve heard “the character suddenly gains a level in something else” have any sort of legitimacy. You see, adventurers within the game can always attempt things like casting spells they are not prepared for, attacking more times in a round than they would normally be able to do, etc. D&D simply has no mechanics that outline this process of stretching beyond your usual limits. Fifth level for fighter is simply the first time he can attack twice within around without reliably failing. A very “sudden” transition that we don’t place scrutiny on, because there’s no fun to ruin for someone else without being disregarded and mocked relentlessly down that road. I outlined this process in greater length in an old video of mine, which probably needs to be updated.

Multiclassing in the game, by this standard, is still “sudden” compared to the supposedly years of requisite training. Fair enough. This was all followed by a discussion on Multiclassing’s design writ large; to Scott, it’s an afterthought. Nobody thought about how to explain characters needing multiple years of training to go into one class, could then go into another class across a few weeks of practice (possibly done in an unrelated discipline). Now this concerned me for number of reasons, not least of which is the fact he is absolutely correct. I’m not going to go into an in-game explanation for why this is possible (though I have one), that’s just not the point.

I myself am designing an RPG, which I have effectively begun preproduction on. I am also a pretty flagrant multiclasser. So, whereas I was originally focused on ensuring the dip into various classes would be satisfying and balanced, am now questioning the entire “level dip” method to begin with. I won’t be taking the dual-classing approach Angry mentioned for a number of reasons, because that’s not why we’re here. Remember when we started this post, somewhere in a prior epoch?

Skill points! You could gain skill points based on your total character level, as well as other achievements in game (such as building a stronghold, accomplishing certain feats of strength or wit, etc.). I’m now falling under the rather miserable realization that somebody has almost certainly done this already. I have not looked at any classless systems yet; I probably should. Back to the subject at hand. So imagine D&D, but each and every ability has a set of points that it costs underneath it. They have a level prerequisite, and perhaps a prerequisite ability that must be purchased before hand. Now imagine this is a fantasy RPG that is not D&D, not medieval, etc. We’re talking mine. It’s important for a reason, we’ll get to it.

Let’s say it’s not just “class” abilities (and there are defined classes) that can be purchased this way. Maybe ability score improvements are chosen this way. Maybe feats are chosen this way. Maybe there are ability rewards with pre-requisites most commonly attached to mixed-class themes (even if they don’t occur via multiclassing). You could play a single class in this system, this would just be an optional rule the system was designed with (just very front-and center). “I take all of the abilities listed in this class, because I have just enough points to do so along with some ASI’s or feats.” So everyone who isn’t really invested in character customization (or just micromanaging things) just gets to make a character they want, and let the game guide them.

Now let’s take my encounter manual (includes environmental hazards, traps, along with monsters), and the section on designing monsters from scratch has a list of abilities, passives, resistances, the whole mess.

Those can be built with points. Those points can be directly comparable to the total points player characters have, can be on the same power curve.

Wouldn’t that make designing challenging encounters a breeze? Compare the points from this monster to those of your players? You wouldn’t even need to use the multiclassing rule. You’re just taking all of the background math and “bounded accuracy”, and dropping them into single digit totals to compare against your players. Man, this really got away from multiclassing.

If you build your game (meaning, if I build my game, which you fine folks will then purchase and enjoy for the rest of your lives) on this point system, and take notes from D&D by roping these points into single or double digit totals to match roughly 5% increments in the chance of any given ability succeeding by and large, you have access to an easily understood, easily modified game through which all things can be hand massaged in seconds. Your players can build their own class progressions (if you let them). People online can build your players class progressions, and since everyone has access to the same understanding of the math (without said math being outrageously complicated), collaboration between Historians (GMs of my game) will be a breeze.

This was more of a thought-chomp, now that I think on it.

The "Draw 4" Solution (little victories)

In game design there’s something called a “death spiral”. You’ve probably heard of it. If you haven’t ( or even if you have), The description typically goes something like this: player one begins to win. Player two begins to lose. Then, the rate at which player one begins Wenning seems to accelerate. For whatever reason, his edge or lead over his opponent is steadily growing. Player two on the other hand is obviously losing, but the key here is this; there are little to no options for player two to reverse the situation.

This is a particularly common experience in RTS games. If you’re playing against the AI, you’ve probably at some point thought “I’ve won, the computer just doesn’t know it yet. Time to go through the motions, there’s literally no way for the computer to turn this around.” You’ve unlocked all of the in game research and abilities, your fleet or troops or at max capacity, and you have to sit through another hour of gameplay wishing that there was a 32x speed because the AI isn’t smart enough to concede (or maybe it is, and it decided to filibuster your victory out of spite). On the other hand, you’ve doubtless quit a game or even deleted a save file because you determined there was no coming back from whatever defeat you had already suffered, even if they were early in the game’s progress. Maybe especially if they were early in the game’s progress.

Personally, I don’t view it as a gratifying experience.

Now I don’t have a solution for RTS games as far as this problem is concerned. But I know that other games have solved this issue, and I find the solution relevant to some of the irons I have in the fire. The drive to write this was stoked if you will by a conversation I recently listened to about Hearthstone (though the conversation did not recently take place). Card games are apparently relatively easy to create, needing little more than two or three programmers to handle UI and the actual player interaction, a ton of art from whoever you can get it, and the role of Yours truly, a designer to handle the mechanics. Consider this a public invitation to DM me if you have interest in such a project.

Ah, but there was a complaint about Hearthstone in this discussion. About a death spiral, no less! There was no cleverness to winning; the game was dependent on how strong the cards were, and whether the other player had encountered them before. There were no interrupts; things for you to do when it wasn’t your turn. This kept the game fast paced (good) but without any other cards to fill this role on the player’s turn, there was nothing to use as a “counter” (bad).

Now, obviously a “counter” isn’t limited to things that interrupt the player on their turn. A counter is simply something that hinders the opponents in their objective. Ever play Uno?
Yeah, you know where I’m going with this. The Draw 4 card! Your goal is to ditch all of your cards in the pile, you’re down to your last 2 cards and your opponent has 8, suddenly BOOM, you have to draw 4 cards. There’s been a reversal in the trend, victory suddenly becomes less certain. Even if you do end up winning the game, there’s an element of satisfaction for the other player.. The game was a war they lost, but they got the joy of winning a battle; they had a little victory.

You can craft a “little victory” condition simply by introducing (in this case a card) an asset the player can deploy to hinder the opponent. Real strategy enters when these assets have 2 or 3 layers of counters that can be deployed.

This essay’s been in the backlog for a few weeks, it got pushed off with the lead-up to the kickstarter.