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Josh Sawyer interview on Character systems at Iron Tower

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Josh Sawyer interview on Character systems at Iron Tower

Interview - posted by Elwro on Mon 11 August 2008, 17:24:32

Tags: J.E. Sawyer

The notorious Vault "Vince" Dweller has once again provided some high quality reading material for the inner intellectual in us all. This time it's an interview with Obsidian's J. E. Sawyer about designing character systems.
VD: Let's start with attributes. What are your preferences? DnD-like 3 physical, 3 "mental" stats or something more complex? Should you be able to increase them through levels, trainers, or gadgets or not? Why? How should stats affect gameplay? Which character systems influenced you?

J. E. Sawyer:These days, I tend to err on the side of simpler, more abstracted systems. I try to think from the perspective of player action as the foundation for the system. That is, I think "What should the player be able to do in this environment?" and "What will the player want to be able to do in this environment?" and then try to build a system to support it.

For example, in the Aliens setting, there is a heavy emphasis on a character's ability to deal with stress. So I've thought about that in terms of the differences between learned skill and something innate to a character in the setting. It's arguable that the ability to resist the sort of mental trauma in the Aliens setting is a learned skill (the equivalent of Combat Cool in Cyberpunk 20/20's "Friday Night Fire Fight") and some of it is more inherent to the character, a fundamental part of who they are that isn't likely to change much over the course of the character's time in the game. So I think "Should this be represented in the game?", "How should this be represented in the game?" and "By what mechanics can the player mess with this representation?". You can see a similar sort of approach in games like Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu and even in the 2nd Edition AD&D Ravenloft supplemental rules. But in other settings, those sorts of mechanics and stats aren't really necessary. The specifics depend entirely on the game, though I approach those specifics from the practical perspective of supporting low-level core gameplay instead of satisfying a high-level set of mechanical ideals.
Dear Josh, it's all very nice that you show your knowledge of classic PnP RPG systems, but in fact you managed not to give any information on how dealing with stress will be represented in the Alien RPG... Will there be any sort of "sanity check" every once in a while? Will some events always give you "insanity points"? Will you be able to become resistant to the alien horrors?
In terms of advancement mechanics, I have stronger guiding principles that I do believe carry from game to game. I used to be a big fan of "learn by doing", but in practice I think it really works best in tabletop games where the GM can adjudicate exactly what's going on. Now I favor systems where an abstracted earned currency is used to advance the character's stats -- in other words, typical XP systems, whether level-based or not. However, I am strongly against awarding experience points for "ways and means". I.e. killing monsters, picking locks, scribing scrolls, etc. Not only is it extraordinarily hard to balance for designers and QA staff, but it inevitably leads to nasty metagaming that, in my opinion, runs counter to some of the guiding principles of many RPGs. Unless combat is the sole focus of the game, we need to keep the player's focus on achieving a goal in whatever manner he or she sees fit. The accomplishment of the goal, not the method itself, should net the main reward. The reward for "ways and means" is usually self-contained. E.g. monsters drop monster bits, opening locked rooms gives access to otherwise unavailable equipment, hacking a computer gives some interesting data that can tie in with another game system. And really, the biggest reward has already been granted to the player: you allowed him or her to play the game in the manner he or she wanted. There's an idea I don't subscribe to -- that players need to be given tiny rewards for everything they do. If your gameplay is actually fun, you shouldn't need to bribe them! When gameplay simply becomes drudgery motivated by a desire to gain a bonus that makes the gameplay easier, I feel that we have failed as designers.

Read the interview here. Take your time; it's long and quite detailed.

Thanks, VD!

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