Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thinking Way Too Hard About: Interesting RPG Abilities

Everyone who plays fantasy RPGs, whether on the computer, console, or as pen-and-paper games, knows the standard RPG abilities: fighter stabs, crushes, and takes damage; wizard blows things up; thief sneaks, backstabs, and disarms traps; and cleric heals, buffs, and drives off unholy things.

Playing the PC game Planescape: Torment made me realize that there's more to RPG abilities than that. In Planescape, the player character always rises from the dead, regardless of what killed him, so long as he can be more or less put back together in the same shape (one of the items you get in the game is your own intestines). The player character can pick up other abilities, too. One of them is to resurrect your party members. My favorite is the ability to have conversations with bodies you come across.

The party members all have interesting abilities, too. Morte is a foul-mouthed flying skull who can use profanity to incite enemies to concentrate their attacks on him. Whenever you get an NPC to swear at you in interesting new ways, Morte adds the new profanities to his repertoire and improves his ability. Dak'kon has a sword that is tied to his mental state. When Dak'kon is focused, his sword is razor-sharp, but when he's distracted or emotional, his sword becomes blunt. Fall-from-Grace is a succubus who, in addition to her clerical spells, can kiss enemies to drain health from enemies and give them to Grace.

When I first got into Dungeons and Dragons, I didn't care a bit about game balance. I wanted characters who could shoot fire from their hands and stab dragons with big, pointy swords. In some ways, the original D&D rules supported this approach: there was a character class (Paladin) with requirements so high that the chances of a player rolling well enough to even get to play as one were laughably small, whose abilities were correspondingly overpowered. Even in later editions, fighters were much more powerful than other classes at low levels, and wizards became unstoppable at high levels.

Now, thanks in part to video games and their focus on balanced classes, character classes are painstakingly mapped out in the rulebooks. Players can--and do--plot out exactly how they want their characters to advance, choosing which powers they will have at later levels right from the start. In some ways, the rules require it. If I want to have a character with a certain ability at Level 8, I don't want to get there only to find that I can't take the ability because it requires another ability I was supposed to take at Level 4, or worse, I don't have enough points in a certain stat.

In some ways, I understand where the need for this comes from. RPG designers want every player to feel like he or she is contributing to the party, so the characters each have their roles to fill, with abilities that allow them to do so. These roles are designed to complement each other and be equally useful, so a party cannot get far without at least one person who can take damage, disarm traps, deal damage, and heal damage.

Though I understand what makes game designers balance their games and limit the characters' roles like this, I think it's an unfortunate trend. Having characters with unique, unusual abilities is one of the best things about roleplaying games. The abilities are often best when they're not solely tied to combat bonuses, or when they say something about the character.

One of the things a pen-and-paper game can do that a video game can't is have things that are entirely unique. Game Masters can come up with monsters, locations, items, and characters that appear only in their campaign. They can also come up with unique abilities that are suited to the characters their players have designed.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind. If you give one player's character a unique ability, the other players are going to want one for their characters, too. The abilities should then be as balanced as possible. Finally, the abilities shouldn't give the characters so much power that it breaks the game and makes every challenge a cakewalk. I think these three considerations are enough to deter most Game Masters from trying to come up with their own abilities, and that's a terrible shame.

I've been working on some ideas for abilities like this. If that sounds interesting to you, let me know and I might post a couple on this blog. Also, if you've ever been in a campaign where the GM gave the players unusual abilities, I'd love to hear what they were and how well they ended up working in the story!

1 comment:

bluefish said...

I was hoping this blog would be about just those abilities you tease us with at the end! Give us some ideas, Lord Admira! :D I suggest the ability to break it on down, which would reduce the enemy's available actions if they fail their save against funkitude.