Thursday, July 22, 2010

Balancing Between Exalted and Wushu

I mentioned in a comment the other day that I was now doing some drudge work in writing Heroes of Industry; namely, writing of the powers descriptions.  That reminded me of what a delicate balancing act I'm doing on this project.  Truth & Justice proudly describes itself as designed with a "Do It Yourself" aesthetic.  In opposition to the HERO and Mutants & Masterminds design of page after page of detailed power or effect descriptions, T&J gives some general advice on powers, a rather idiosyncratic list of  power only a few pages in length, and a brilliant little system for stunting.  Which is great.  Well, I think the powers list is a little too idiosyncratic - no telekinesis, but two different attack powers distinguished by "Beam of (Something)" and "Bolt of (Something)" - but, still, all in all great. 

I think about a game like Exalted whose central appeal is "being awesome".  But what is weird to me about Exalted is that the mechanics are mostly centered around telling the players how they may be cool i.e. Charms lists.  Exalted is designed around the assumption that a player wants someone else to tell them how to be awesome. 

Exalted: Here's a Charm that lets you flip over and catch arrows between your toes!

Player: Awesome!  Oh, hey, can my prehensile digits grab onto tree-branches, too? 

Exalted: Well, no, you don't have that Charm; I've told you how to be awesome, don't try thinking up new stuff.

Absolutely opposed to that is the brilliant little game Wushu, which is designed entirely around the requirement for the player to tell everyone else in what way he is awesome.  I was once involved in an interesting debate at with an Exalted savant - a guy whose gaming reports and thoughts were indeed truly awesome; so much so that he almost made me want to play that game.  But what was fascinating was that he was stunned when I suggested that it would be much more fun to play a game in the Exalted setting using the rules of Wushu i.e. a game wherein the player would create all the awesome things that he could do.  He just didn't get that.

Now, I'm not going to pontificate and say that one style of play is inherently superior to the other.  On the other hand, it would be disingenuous to say that I don't believe that one style is superior; I just recognize that my bias isn't normative.  But what really interested me in that virtual-debate was that I could not simply dismiss the other fellow as not imaginative enough to play my kind of game.  Because he was and is a really imaginative guy who I suspect would be great fun to game with.

And that's where I get back to my game.  As much as I like the absolute freedom given by a game such as Wushu, I don't think that every game must go that far.  And, let's be fair, some days, you don't feel as imaginative as others.  So I set myself this design goal: to write a gaming book that makes T&J as available to Exalted players as to Wushu players.  And that, my hypothetical readers, is a bit tricky.  It means that I can't just say, "Like make up some powers, man, you know, like cool".  If nothing else, that doesn't work when you have a Random Powers method of creation.  But at the same time, I can't (and don't want to) spell out every little nuance of every single power.  I can't even pretend that I have thought of every single power.  That way leads to madness and a two-volume HERO System.

So how do I do this?  Well, that's the work I was speaking of at the beginning of this post.  I've adopted a multi-faceted approach by having several different ways to view Powers.  A game such as Villains & Vigilantes describes powers by their cause: Power Blast is an entirely different power than a blast of flame, which is a different power from a bolt of electricity and so on.  They roll different dice for damage, have different chances to hit, and different odds when used for  defense.   Conversely, Champions pioneered the now virtually ubiquitous effects-based description whereby all of those things are the same power - Energy Blast - simply distinguished by flavour text (and Limitations and Advantages, but let's not confuse the issue).  In HoI, I describe both a power's Category (cause) and its Effect (uh...effect). 

But more importantly, I have tried to describe each power in such a way as to explain it's basic use and suggest further applications (through suggested Stunts), without pretending to be comprehensive.  Each power is listed this way:
Name (Breadth, Category, Effect) – Description.
Sometimes (frequently) the Breadth is noted as “Focused/Meta” meaning that differing versions of this power are common and a specific one should be decided upon or rolled during character creation. In that case, the Effect is listed as “*” since it can vary.

Here's a pretty simple example:

Resistance  (Focused, Body Power, Defense) – The possessor is, in some fashion, highly resistant to injury. This might be supernaturally tough skin, a suit of armour, or a personal force field. Resistance adds it’s MOD to defense rolls against straight-forward physical attacks. It also absorbs TN ranks of Grief inflicted by normal-scale attacks.

And here's a much more involved example:

Air Powers (Focused/Meta, Energy Power, *) – The possessor can control the ambient air. This is usually understood to be the air around us on the earth’s surface (the troposphere), but the GM and player may want to consider whether or not this power affects other layers of the atmosphere (can it control the stratosphere?) and the atmosphere of other planets.

If using the Random Roll Method of character generation, the player must roll on Table 9, Power Breadth to determine whether the power is Focused or a Meta-Power. If using the Modeling Method, then the player is free to choose.

The Focused version of this power allows Air Push i.e. moving objects with gusts of wind as telekinesis. Common Spin-Off Stunts include:

• Air Blast – Generate a punishing blast of wind to attack.
• Air Shield – Create a bubble of energy that functions as a force field.
• Airy Flight – Whip up a vortex of air to allow for flight.

The Meta-Power version of this power would likely include the above as sub-powers. It might also include the ability to transform the hero’s body into a Gaseous Form.

Less common stunts or sub-powers that may or may not be appropriate to any particular game would involve doing something with the dissolved oxygen in water to allow humans to breathe comfortably, removing the air from someone’s lungs to knock them out, or even playing with the exact composition of the air so as to increase the amount of oxygen (an area with excess oxygen would be highly inflammable and also does funny things to people’s thinking).

A common Power Limitation would be that powers don’t function in a vacuum.  If the power is mystical in orientation, the possessor might have a Vulnerability to attacks from an opposing element (perhaps Earth) or a Limitation against affecting that element.

I hope this strategy is worthwhile.  Not least because of how much time it's taking.  In nay case, this is why posts of startlingly brilliant game design are likely to be in short supply for some while.  I've pretty much done all rules stuff, but the powers are going to take me a while.

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