Publisher’s Choice Quality Stock Art © Rich Hershey / Fat Goblin Games
If you like what you’re reading, check out, Burn Bryte, an original science fantasy TTRPG I helped create for Roll20!
This post originally appeared on my Patreon a little over a year ago.
While working together on Burn Bryte, my fellow designers and I would talk about how we wanted players to engage with the game. We had an obvious, but often overlooked design philosophy: Reward the players for playing the game a particular way rather than forcing them into it. If you’ve been following World Builder Blog, you about Burn Bryte, a new science fantasy RPG I created with Jim McClure, Kat Kuhl, and Darcy Ross for exclusive use on the Roll20 platform. The game’s core mechanics and character advancement through Story Paths revolve around the idea of designers enticing players to engage with the RPG how you want, instead of forcing the players to play the game a certain way through restrictive rules. I’ll be referring to those posts as examples in this article.
Some Restrictions Are Good
First let me say that I’m not talking about having no restrictions in a game. Most games need parameters, and those restrictions come in the form of rules that describe what the characters’ limitations are. Typically the restrictions you have shouldn’t limit how a character uses their abilities, but rather places a limitation on the power of those abilities. In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, a barbarian has a certain number of rages per day, but the rules do not state specific rage-only circumstances for the barbarian. The barbarian can rage in combat, while locked in manacles to get advantage on a Strength check to break free, or while running down a trapped hall to resist damage. The restricted number of rages the barbarian has creates an interesting tension as the player must decide when to use a rage. Many players save these rages for combat encounters, where the feature has the most benefits, thus barbarians are rewarded for using their rage during combat instead of forced to use it only during combat by having a rule that states rages can only be used in combat encounters. It feels good to have a smart choice rewarded instead of being forced into only being able to rage in combat. It’s a subtle but important difference. You can see in this example how restriction and reward work together to create fun in the game.
The Big Idea
In general the fewer restrictions you can put into your game, the better. The expectation with most roleplaying games is that characters can attempt whatever actions their players like. Too much restriction means player characters start to feel locked into a specific mode of play, and the game feels more like a video game (which must have restrictions because of technology) instead of a tabletop game. For instance, some people didn’t enjoy playing fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons because you had player characters with fantastic powers that could only be used as attacks. Take the sword mage class from that edition. It could teleport all over the battlefield, but outside of combat, teleporting was rarely an option. Shouldn’t the guy who acts like Nightcrawler in combat also act like him outside of combat? It broke the immersion for many players and felt too restrictive. The better solution is to reward players for playing the game you want to play and place limits on their features, but not how they use them. For instance, if sword mages could only teleport a certain number of times per day and got a bonus to attack or damage rolls on the same turn they teleport instead of being restricted to only teleporting in combat, you’d likely see many people choosing to save their teleportation uses for combat. Payers would have more freedom and could choose to teleport outside of combat, but the optimal thing to do is wait to use that feature until combat. There’s a big difference between being rewarded for playing a game a certain way and being forced into it.
Burn Bryte is a science fantasy game, and in the tradition of beloved science fantasy stories (and over-the-top roleplaying game moments) we wanted to encourage characters to take big risks, attempt plans just crazy enough to work, and have unbelievable successes and spectacular failures. You can read more about how we did that in my post about the game’s core mechanics, but I want to specifically address Nova points. Nova points are a resource characters spend to activate their most powerful abilities and are gained when by a player character when they use one skill of each die size (succeed or not). They came about when we asked the question, “How do we prevent player characters from simply using their best skills over and over again?” Jim presented this idea as a way to reward characters for using their less-optimized skills. In playtesting it has worked like a dream.
Roleplaying and Rewards
Many games, like D&D, increase character power through combat and gathering of treasure. In D&D’s rules as written you gain experience by killing monsters, and your stuff gets better when you loot their corpses. There are certainly other ways to play the game, but there’s a reason murder hobos exist. (There’s nothing wrong with wanting to kill dragons and take their treasure. That’s good fun!) If you want your game to play differently, you need to change the way player characters advance. When we were designing Burn Bryte, Kat Kuhl and Darcy Ross pushed for a system that had nonviolent character progression. That’s not to say there isn’t combat in many Burn Bryte games, but there doesn’t need to be in order for your characters to get stronger. They pitched the idea of Story Paths, which take your character through a series of events that could be related to combat, investigation, social interaction, etc. Many of the forty paths that are included in the core rules have options for nonviolent progression. This doesn’t mean their can’t be combat along those paths, but characters who choose the paths are rewarded for actions they take outside of or in addition to combat. Tying character progression to story also changes the game for power gamers. I am at least part power gamer and enjoy my characters’ advancement. Burn Bryte rewards me for engaging with the story, appealing to the power gamer in me AND the storyteller. Our idea is to encourage the power gamers, storytellers, explorers, slayers, and all other kinds of gamers to sit down together and have a great time playing Burn Bryte and engaging with the story. Story Paths reward that.
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