Monday, April 13, 2015

Mechanics Talk: Playstyles and How to Design for Them

We've been wanting to do this post for a long time, and now, with Cameron spoiling powers left and right and the playtest group being an endless font of information and confusion, seems perfect.

While we get to make some design decisions that are just about the game in general - what kind of game is it? what kind of themes do we want it to have, and how do its mechanics reflect them? what kind of audience are we hoping to appeal to? where do we want to go in the future? - writing powers is a much more specific and crowd-focused event than is creating the bones of a system. Powers are the meat and milk of the player's experience in many ways; they're one of the first things players want to know about, and they do things that can't otherwise be done, making them essential tools as well as very neat ways to customize a character. We've never met a player who didn't want, need, and love powers.

But the reasons they love powers, and the kinds of powers they love, don't always match up. In fact, there are not only myriad different ways of using powers, but there are also several different kinds of players, all of them using powers toward different goals and with different ideas of what "good" powers look like and how they're "useful". We have to take into account all these kinds of players and their preferred playstyles, because they're all valid, but they all need different things, and that means powers have to run a wide range of potential and possibility.

Essentially, when we design powers, we're pretending to have a group of one of each of these types of players, and we have to make sure we have enough powers that are good for all of them, and enough that are tailored to each individual, so that the game is fun and full of customization for anyone who comes to it. We basically imagine them as distinct individuals, practically old friends by this point, and I'm going to introduce them to you!

There are five "archetypal players" that we design powers for - and that's players, not their characters. In no particular order:

Pat the Powergamer: "If I intentionally make myself incapable of four of the five basic game functions, and then spend all the extra points to get through the leveling process fast enough to get a specialization for a class well above my party's normal reach, and then buy four powers from four different disciplinary areas and use them all simultaneously, I can do 9873453875744 damage to an enemy in one hit!"

Most of us who have played tabletop (or any game, really) for more than a little while have met Pat in some form or another. Pat is out to get the greatest advantage out of the game that they possibly can; they want to be the absolute best at what they decide to do, no matter what they have to do, what rules they have to finagle, or how they can improbably and impractically stack powers to get there. The phrase "minmaxing", referring to allowing a character to be critically unskilled in so many things that they're almost non-functional in order to put all those points into being ludicrously good at only one thing, was coined specifically to describe something Pat does on the regular.

Pat often has a deeply-ingrained belief that games are for "winning", so even in an RPG, where there is no clear endpoint and the game is mostly about the journey, Pat is often trying to "win". To do this, they often turn to math, doing incomprehensible and improbable percentage calculations and curve projections that others would never dream of doing for fun, the better to figure out whether a power might give them .0000001% greater benefit than another one they could have gotten instead. They also often strive to be master loophopers; they look for any way that the game could technically be convinced to give them out-of-control powers or abilities, even if it obviously wasn't meant to, as long as they can't be said to be actually illegal. Pat views creating and leveling a character, and overcoming obstacles, as a neverending stream of challenges that they must prove they are the best at. Anything less is "intentionally being bad".

Pat is very frequently a combat-heavy character, since slaying your enemies is a very concrete way of proving that you are "winning the game", and because combat powers, since they deal with concrete and crunchable numbers in the form of damage and healing and attacks, are completely understandable and manipulatable. Pat isn't always the axe-wielding barbarian, though; they can also appear as a social mastermind who systematically makes themself impossible to resist, or a magic-user who goes to great lengths to become literally indestructible, and so on and so forth.

So, what do we write for Pat? As you might expect, Pat likes what we call "I Win Buttons"; powers that, once used, pretty much guarantee success, or at least overwhelming advantages. Pat also likes powers that can "stack" on top of each other, allowing multiple powers to boost them to great heights, and anything that they can relate to as giving specific, numeric bonuses to the things they want to do. On the other hand, Pat hates what they think of as "useless powers" - which is pretty much anything that doesn't have a math-bound mechanical effect, and includes powers that have purely role-playing or social consequences, or that affect the game as a whole but don't give them any specific benefit. As far as Pat is concerned, these powers are wasted page space, and people who buy them are at best stupid, and at worst deliberately sabotaging their fellow players by wasting their points on them instead of getting something useful.

Robin the Roleplayer: "Yes, I know some more survivability would be good for me, but I just don't feel like that's my character's focus right now. They'd be more likely to develop meditation powers, since they just spent a month studying with monks in the forest!"

Robin is often considered Pat's polar opposite, although this isn't necessarily so (and trust me, I have seen Pat and Robin coexist in a single player at the same time). Robin loves roleplaying, and is here for the rich, compelling story, the ability to create and drive a character within it, and the satisfaction of interacting with and learning about other characters and situations around them. Robin puts a lot of time and effort into who their character is and what they want, and is dedicated to being able to immerse themself in the story and experience it, vicariously living through and experiencing situations and emotions they wouldn't in real life.

Robin has good intentions, but has a tendency to get snotty sometimes; because they place such a high premium on the importance of the game's story and the inner narratives and motivations of its characters, they sometimes look down on players who aren't "taking things seriously enough", especially if those other players are in some way making it hard for them to really immerse themselves in their own character. Because of this, Robin often looks for powers that specifically let them control, or at least influence, not only NPCs but also their fellow players, the better to make sure everyone is respecting what they think of as the "spirit" of the game. They also want these powers because interacting with the world of the game and the creatures and people in it is what they're here to do, so powers that directly affect those things are their jackpot.

Robin tends to lean toward social characters, which give them the most ability to interact with NPCs and the best shot of convincing their fellow players to do the same, although of course they can and do play all kinds of characters when the mood strikes them. They also often appear as masterminds and specialists in informational fields, since wielding key information usually puts them at the center of events, and they have a habit of trying to find a way to insert themself into anything interesting happening in the game, even if it wouldn't normally be in their wheelhouse, because they don't want to "miss out".

Designing powers for Robin is sort of a journey; it always takes a long time and ends up somewhere we weren't expecting, kind of like Robin's playstyle itself. Robin loves powers that affect the story that the players are telling cooperatively, and wants to be able to spend their time (and points) changing minds, learning secrets, effecting change and seeing grand events unfold. Robin often doesn't really even care if they get any powers that actually help them personally; they're equally as happy with powers that help NPCs that they may never see again, or powers that create widespread change in an area or situation, because the fact that they did create that change and left their mark on events is what's important. Robin doesn't much like crunchy powers, however; they often come off as "boring", with no lasting effects and no purpose as far as the coolness of the story goes, and they can get downright sullen if forced to buy such powers on their way to glory - not even because they wasted their points, but because having that power is counter to their vision for their character.

Gabi the Gambler: "Yeah, this probably isn't the best idea I've ever had... but yolo."

Gabi is simultaneously beloved and completely hated by most groups they play with, because Gabi will make things happen, and sometimes that will be great and shockingly helpful and everyone will be incredibly impressed, and sometimes it results in everyone falling into a volcano and dying. They never know which. Gabi doesn't know, either. All Gabi knows is that something cool will happen, and that's a good enough reason to try anything once (or twice, or whenever the opportunity arises, really). Gabi loves to see big things happen, loves to take chances and rely on the whims of fate, and is pretty much okay with the result regardless of whether it covered them in riches or permanently burned their face off. Both were way cooler than doing nothing.

Since Gabi just wants to see neat things happen and have the fun of causing and/or helping them along, they sometimes have trouble getting along with other players, especially when they completely sabotage something the other players were working on. Gabi usually isn't malicious; they aren't trying to destroy other players' hard work or ambitions, but since the game is, to them, all about looking for awesome things and then enjoying seeing how they shake out, they can easily forget that their fellow players might have spent untold hours crunching the math to be immune to everything except the one enemy they gave innocent directions to, or months of hard diplomatic work setting up these peace talks that they just accidentally released a bunch of bears into. Even when they try, really hard, to be mindful of these things, sometimes they just can't help themselves, because there was the metaphorical equivalent of a giant red button that said DO NOT PUSH ME on it, and as far as they're concerned, no one in the universe could have passed that up.

Gabi can and does play pretty much any type of character, although they often lean toward trickster archetypes, which are traditionally all about unexpected consequences, unforeseen surprises, and hilarious outrage from everyone else. They also like to play characters with a lot of supernatural powers, which have more room for doing things out of the ordinary and possibly explosive when combined with other powers or characters, and characters that are in some way influential or in positions of power, since they have a greater chance to affect things that have more impact on the world.

It's actually pretty easy to design powers for Gabi, because what they want is simple: they want GIANT AWESOME COOL STUFF to happen, and they often don't really care how or why. Gabi's favorite powers are ones that depend more literally than usual on a roll of the dice: powers that could be either beneficial or catastrophic, depending on how they're used or what result they get, or powers that kick in when even they weren't expecting it. Gabi wants to be surprised, so even when they're using the power themself, they get a thrill if it isn't 100% predictable. But Gabi does not much care for powers that are extremely strict in their rulings and restrictions (especially if they get an idea about how could the power would have been without that silly "cannot be combined with other ridiculous powers" or "doesn't apply to creative interpretation" rules), and finds powers that do the same thing forever, especially if that thing is "add/subtract math", completely boring and ignorable.

Spencer the Strategist: "Look, if something's not worth having and using literally 100% of the time, it's probably not worth having at all."

Spencer is what we usually think of as a conservative player; they love the game and are as interested in action and adventure as the next person, but when it comes to what they personally do, they like to know their rules and limitations backward and forward. They often keep notes (the messiness level depends on the player) to make sure they never miss or forget anything, and plan their leveling and advancement paths ahead of time to make sure they're never caught unsure what to do or struggling to improvise. They like to pick a role and dig deeply into it, becoming competent enough to be all around capable but especially focused on their most important role, and to make sure that they can consistently and evenly be successful. Being spectacular is usually not as important to Spencer as being dependable; they want to know that they can always be useful, and that their skills will be appreciated.

Spencer is more often a generalist than many of the other player types; since the most important thing to them is being steady and capable no matter where they land, they tend to avoid leaving too many huge deficiencies in their skillsets, preferring to be well-rounded before they bend their energies toward their specific area of expertise. This often makes Spencer "level" or get really good at things more slowly than other characters, a trade-off that they're willing to make to ensure that they can alwasy contribute and keep going when the going gets tough. They find themself exasperated with the other players more often than some of the other types, though; since they work hard to make sure they're always useful, they can get annoyed when other players are "irresponsible" by their reckoning, which includes being intentionally bad at a skill needed at a critical moment, or refusing to invest in something even though they've been causing the group considerable trouble by remaining unskilled (Spencer generally considers Pat and Robin the worst offenders).

Any kind of character is open to Spencer, but whatever they choose, they tend to make their chosen role a be-all end-all one - Spencer doesn't just heal their party members, Spencer is a healer, and if Spencer decides to be a defender of the weak, you'd better believe that they reliably make sure that no one could mistake them for anything else. They often choose to complement or support other players in the group; after all, since their goal is reliable success for everyone, it can be a smart strategic move to combine forces with another player, rather than trying to go it alone. Spencer likes to be appreciated for being the heroic superstar they are, of course, but they also usually don't mind helping other people succeed, and taking part in that success rather than demanding the full spotlight.

Spencer chooses powers pragmatically and practically; they want things that always work the same way and have no chance of failing or surprising them, and that can be used to either bolster their chosen field of expertise or to make sure they aren't caught flat-footed if they have to do something they aren't normally great at on the fly. Any powers we design that involve random chance, that might only be useful in select niche situations, or that don't seem like they would be deployable in a wide range of emergencies are likely to strike Spencer as less than useful (or at least not worth the risk), so for them we have to work on providing workhorse powers - things that will always be good, solid, and never let them down. They're also big fans of "always-on" powers - things that are automatically and eternally in effect and don't have to be activated, because that's pretty much as dependable as you can get.

Izzy the Improviser: "What is this, high school? Stop trying to assign me homework when I'm just trying to have fun!"

Finally, we come to Izzy, who is a fly-by-night, relaxed, just-having-fun type of player. Izzy isn't necessarily against backstories and justifications and roleplaying, but they also don't feel the need to put a lot of effort into them; and similarly, while they have no problem with doing as much math as the game requires and making decisions about what to do with their character, they also aren't interested in making a big production out of it. Izzy likes to go with the flow, decide what to buy and how to specialize as they progress through the story rather than doing a lot of planning ahead of time, and allow their character to organically develop as they go along. They usually don't know where they're going, but that's perfectly all right with them - they'll cross each bridge as they come to it, and in the end have a character shaped by their adventures rather than the cold, out-of-character hand of pre-destined stat-purchasing.

Izzy's playstyle is often a fusion of various elements from the other players above; they love to be flexible and go with the flow, which means that sometimes they respond to things that have happened in the roleplaying and narrative of the game, sometimes they want to liven things up if they feel that too long has gone by without incident, and they have a healthy enjoyment of badass moves or moments of shining glory, either their own or others'. They can get irritated with other players when they make too many demands of what they "should" be doing, especially if Izzy doesn't agree or feels pulled in a different direction, and become easily bored if they feel like people are spending too long on any one thing or "forcing" a situation that doesn't really need to be happening right now.

Because Izzy likes to buy things in an improvised, reactionary sort of way - for example, maybe this game session they were called upon to pick some locks and had some trouble with it, so they pick up a dot or two of Legerdemain to illustrate what they learned and prevent the same problems from happening in the future - the kind of character they play can change drastically over its lifetime. They might start out a mercenary fighter, morph into a mage after events or stories skew magically, transform into a repentant healer of the sick after a mission goes badly and ends in tragedy, or turn into any other number of things as events warrant. They're usually not against specialization and focus, per se, but it's not so high a priority that they'll sacrifice their freedom to do whatever feels good at the moment. They don't like being told to plan too far ahead or make long-term decisions; for Izzy, that often makes the game start feeling like work instead of fun, and that's not what they came to the table for.

Luckily for us, we actually don't have to design many powers for Izzy; they want different things depending on what's going on and how they feel about the game and their character that day, so there's no fixed style of power that works best for them. Rather, Izzy needs a varied menu of different kinds of powers to be available to them at all times, so that they have the freedom to choose something that really calls to them and their character's current setup or situation. To that end, we focus on making sure that the powers we create for other player types are equally represented, balanced, and available at appropriate intervals so that Izzy never ends up stuck in a rut or feeling like they have nothing appropriate or interesting to try out.

So, as you can see, there is a lot going on when we're designing powers (which, sadly, is one of the reasons that it sometimes feels like the process drags on at a glacially slow pace). It's obviously not possible to create many (or possibly ANY) powers that all of our archetypal players above will like; some will be instant wins for some of them, while others will turn their noses up, and that's a normal part of game design life. We do of course sometimes design powers that we ourselves would love to use, but we're not immune to being part of those player archetypes ourselves, so we have to accept that just because we think something is awesome doesn't mean that everyone else in the world will agree. Some player types just don't get along when it comes to their most-wanted powers - Pat and Robin almost never agree with each other's favorites, and Gabi and Spencer may be even more diametrically opposed, while Izzy just wants everyone to calm down and stop harshing the overall fun.

However, we recognize that all these player types are perfectly normal, and that all these playstyles are perfectly valid. Robin is not "better" than Gabi, any more than Gabi is "better" than Izzy or anybody else - all kinds of people play games, and they all have different approaches, and that's completely okay! We want to encourage people of all kinds of game-playing background to enjoy HJ, not make it some kind of weird Spencer-Only Club or something, so it's our job to come up with powers that everyone can enjoy. Or, more accurately, to come up with powers for everyone to enjoy - not necessarily always the same powers, but a wide enough spread that no matter what area you decide to specialize in or how you prefer to play, there should always be something there for you.

So that's what our job is, in a nutshell: not just writing a lot of powers that are balanced and useful and interesting (which are the base criteria for having a useful game at all!), but writing powers that allow all players of all styles to participate. Luckily for us, almost all players are combination plates; most of us have aspects of more than one player archetype, so it's not quite a daunting mountain of powers specifically and only for each of them. Far more players have, say, elements of both Pat and Gabi in them than are purely one or the other, so they'll enjoy a wider range of power options by default, but we still want to make sure that if we have a player who is nothing but pure Robin, they've got a great selection of powers that will make the game a good time for them.

So, once you see the giant powerset that HJ has to offer, you'll probably see some powers that aren't appealing to you personally, maybe even some that cause you to pause and say, "Who on earth would ever want this piece of junk?" And the answer to that question is someone else - it wasn't written for you specifically, because as much as we want to lavish love on each and every one of you, it isn't possible for every power to be perfect for every player. But for every power you see that seems like a road you don't want to take, there should be at least one, and probably more, that are useful or fun or exciting or interesting. That's our goal: not to make all powers for everyone, but to have powers for everyone in the toolkit so that each of you can create customized powersets that make you excited to play your Hero.

I know this got long, y'all, so thanks for sticking through until the end. We're back off to write powers in their many dimensions and possibilities, and we hope we'll have something good for Cameron to spoil on Friday!


  1. As limited as my experience is, I feel like a Spencer, with shades of Robin. Also, if you guys ever decided to expand your gaming lines, you could always do a role-playing game about role players...the Aspects are all here :)

    BTW, Pat, Robin, Gabi, Spencer and Izzy...who's number six?

    1. Sheesh. Apparently I can't count after long posts. There's no sixth player - I edited!

  2. Hi there

    I'm Pat. I math out skills to get crazy good at certain things.

    I get worried when I hear that skills are being made that suit my playstyle. I know it sounds weird to ask for skills I don't like, but hopefully I can explain why.

    The main reason is this; if there are stacking powers that help me do what I want to do (you're right, usually fighting, and in this example I'm going to be a warrior), I'm 100% going to take them all. Then I'm going to take all the skills that make me tangentially better.

    I might end up being able to do, say, 100 damage per attack (before defense), while also being tough to kill.

    Lets say I'm playing in a party where I'm the only Pat, and the rest of the group is a split of the rest of the player types, but one (or more) of them also want to be warriors. If they only get a handful of the skills that make you exponentially more powerful, they're likely to be doing more like 30ish damage (before defense) per attack.

    Even without factoring in enemy defense -which makes this problem more significant, rather than less- it is pretty clear that all the monsters we're fighting need to be statted around my (Pat's) crazy high damage, otherwise we'll just roll over them all.

    The problem with this situation is twofold:
    1) Everyone but Pat feels useless when trying to perform whatever role Pat is performing
    2) Challenges become set at a level which must be challenging for Pat. This means that when Pat is off being a warrior, things will be a struggle, because otherwise the game isn't fun. But Pat made huge sacrifices to be that strong of a warrior. He is incapable of simple tasks that anyone else in the group can shrug off. When the game is balanced around Pat's crazy stats, it makes that trade off feel like it wasn't worth it. If he was doing 50 damage and had good socials, he'd still be way stronger than the rest of the group, and relative to monster strength he'd be the same. But if he took fewer stacking talents, he'd be a better rounded character capable of more things.

    Anyway, hopefully I've illustrated my concern with building skills that Pat likes. Even as someone who IS Pat, I'd rather see fewer skills that support my playstyle, because it makes the game as a whole better.

    1. I agree with "Pat" on this one. I had a Pat myself in a Scion game of mine who I had to base all of my combat encounters around which left all of my other players (capable warriors but not PAT WARRIORS) feeling useless.

    2. Oh, don't worry, y'all, there is plenty more to power balancing than just making everyone happy. We're fully aware that it's our job to thwart Pat most of the time; Pat likes to try to break the game, after all, and when the game is broken, it's not much fun (even for Pat, eventually). When we design stackable and super-juiced powers for Pat, we balance them so that Pat CAN do those things they really like, but not dominate the game for them; for example, Pat may indeed be able to stack five powers to get 458274529 damage on a single attack, but the expense associated with doing so will most likely prohibit them from doing it more than once or twice during the entire run of their current story.

      We're gatekeepers to keep all kinds of shenanigans under control - in case anyone else was worrying, we are also on point to prevent Gabi from creating such a random-chance environment that no one can function or use their own skills effectively, and to prevent Robin from getting "the NPCs become your slaves forever and you immediately win through roleplaying" powers, and so on and so forth. :)

    3. "If he was doing 50 damage and had good socials, he'd still be way stronger than the rest of the group, and relative to monster strength he'd be the same. But if he took fewer stacking talents, he'd be a better rounded character capable of more things."

      I think, Pat, you just solved your problem. You dont NEED to min max, and should realistically try to build a more balanced character for the sake of your fellow players and GM. It sounds like you're self aware enough to realize this anyway.

      I'm glad there are restricted powers though that will allow Pats to occasionally scratch that itch without unbalancing the rest of the group.

  3. I am literally all of these guys, to varying degrees, so I get ALL OF THE POWERS FOR ME!!! :D

  4. Seriously, Pat can be quiet annoying. Especially if he miscalculates and finds out that hes not as "useful" as he thinks he is. Had that in a group once with me, being something between Robin, Spencer and Izzy, ending up as the powerhorse of the group and our Pat far behind me. I can understand he got annoyed with that, but it turned annoying pretty quick.