A Wilder Return

I don’t know if green tea with mint is my personal miracle elixir for creativity, or if the taste and smell of it is just a memory trigger for certain times in my life, or I am just feeling the euphoric effects of being well-rested after a couple of weeks of being anything, or what, but yesterday afternoon, and then again last night, and then when I woke up this morning, I was having a lot of thoughts about A Wilder World, the roleplaying game system I’ve managed to bring almost to a point of completion multiple times over the years.

I haven’t talked about it in public much lately, but I have had a few private conversations about it, particularly with Shweta Narayan, that helped crystallize what wasn’t gelling in the recent, most close to complete iterations.

As I see it, there are three basic problems with the system I devised.

I: It basically starts with high level play.

The idea of hybrid characters who are “complete” at level 1 instead of having to multiclass/dumpster dive over a series of levels to get the exact combination of abilities you want is important to me. If you want to be a rogue with an animal companion or a wizard who fights with two swords, you shouldn’t have to spend half your adventuring career assembling your schtick and winding up less competent overall than your peers. That’s key. That’s the whole kernel of the idea.

The problem is that my solution gave you characters with something like 12 to 16 distinct special abilities at level one. For a player like me who is experienced with high level play in other systems, this is not a big deal. I’m used to the juggling of multiple resource pools and keeping track of multiple moving parts. I thrive on that. But not all players do, and newer players can be turned away or overwhelmed by that kind of complexity.

Even a lot of the people who were excited by AWW were more excited about it as a character generation system than an actual game to play. Which, you know, I get that. But it should be a game people can actually play.

5th Edition D&D manages to both impress me on a design level and frustrate me as a player with its approach to this, in that most classes at level 1 aren’t much more complicated than a level 1 character in some flavors of OD&D and then grow into customization and complexity over the course of the next two levels, blossoming into a character that falls somewhere between 3rd and 4th edition. I’m particularly impressed with the fact that nearly every character class can have spellcasting abilities by level 3, if they desire that path, without any feats or multiclassing.

In terms of learning curve it really seems well thought out, and is similar to what I had intended in my more D&D-flavored side project Adventure Song. But that kind of solution doesn’t work for A Wilder World, where the idea is that if you’re a magic-using thief or warrior you can have that at level one.

II: Because nearly every ability is “exception based” and abilities come in packages, thing stack weirdly…

…a problem that is compounded by an overly-specific attribute system that allowed you to achieve things like being a skilled warrior or master attribute either by stat points or by picking appropriate archetypes.

So if you wanted a character who was scary, you could put all your points in Coercion, or you could take an archetype like Intimidating or Brute, or you could buy gear that makes you look imposing, or you could put all your points in Coercion and take archetypes like Intimidating and Brute and buy gear that makes you look imposing. All of these things would make your character scary, sometimes in different yet overlapping ways.

Some balance might be retained by dint of there being a point of diminishing returns and the saying about “putting all of one’s eggs in a basket”, but when there are so many different complementary roads going up the same peak it’s hard from a design standpoint to figure out what all the ramifications of combining them are, to say nothing of doing it from a player’s standpoint.

This is part of why I kept running into problems with the math. The result of the system was that edge cases weren’t actually edge cases.

III: The numbers were never quite as transparent or intuitive as I had hoped/thought/intended.

My goal was always to keep A Wilder World fairly light on math so that it would be approachable and fast paced.

Now, math is not my particular forte, by which I mean I’m a lot better with words than numbers. But I’m good enough with words that there’s a pretty wide territory for my number skill to dwell in, and so I’ve learned over the course of my game design hobby that I tend to underestimate how my abilities to do arithmetic quickly in my head stacks up against the average person’s. I’m also better at remembering something I myself wrote than other people are, because I wrote it.

These two facts add up to me routinely failing to realize how complicated the number schemes I was using could get. Even when the rules were clear, the results were less intuitive than I’d believed.

When I was talking with Shweta earlier this year about shifting to a system that is less dependent on math to resolve conflicts and more reliant on the idea that each character has certain areas of expertise/ability, the system I came up with for codifying that grew pretty complicated pretty quickly.

These are all serious problems that become apparent whenever I step back and look at what I amassed in my aborted test draft of A Wilder World, to the point where I don’t think it is viable as anything except an experiment in mash-up character design. And I do think it is a good example of that. But what I want is something that is both playable and as easy to pick up and fast-paced as I intended it to be.

And I’ve hit on a new approach for that. I was going to say that I think I’ve hit on the right approach, but the thing is, I’ve thought that before. And been wrong.

And the other thing is, wrong or not, it was still worthwhile.

I mean, this is one of the big advantages of game design approached as a hobby rather than a multi-million dollar industry. I can spin my wheels and try things out and learn from the experience.

I’ll be blogging about the new approach in more detail, but just as I started my blogging about A Wilder World by laying out the basic principles I was aiming for, I wanted to start this new round by talking about what I need to avoid.