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RPG Design Choices #4a: Stats and Character Balance

By the time you’ve worked out things like genre, character, mood, and game mechanics, you’ll have a lot of inspiration for stats… but you still have a LOT of work ahead of you.  This is where the vast majority of the time was spent for Legendary RPG.

Sometimes, working out the stats inspired us to refine or rethink the previous stages (like switching from a ‘roll below’ mechanic to a ‘roll above’ mechanic).  However, revisions with the concept are quick.  Unless you are designing a system with only a few stats per character, dreaming up the different stats, balancing and rebalancing them, over and over will be one of the most time consuming portions of development. And most of play testing will focus on balance.  The reason for this is simple: the roleplaying games about the freedom characters have to interact with the world… and that’s a lot of freedom.  Whether there are many rules or few rules, they will have to be well calibrated to give players both freedom and structure and to ensure the right level of challenge.

Since the specific types of stats you choose will depend on genre / character choices, and will be heavily influenced game mechanics, it would be extremely difficult to be both comprehensive and detailed.  Instead, I’ll outline a few types of a stats that you may want to address, and give a few examples of balancing specific stats from Legendary RPG.

Some types of stats to think about:

  • Innate and/or broad abilities that a character has… like strength or charisma.
  • Learned and/or specific abilities like skill with a particular tool, or a knowledge discipline.
  • Special abilities or powers not typically available to the average person: magic, high-tech, divine gifts, psychic powers, etc.
  • Bonuses or advantages related to context or history, rather than ability (social rank, allies & enemies, wealth, etc).
  • Bonuses or special game rules for using items & equipment

Of course, since that’s how Varza Games groups character stats, those ended up being the basic groups of stats for Legendary RPG.

  • Initially we had 6 rather stock/mundane attributes (strength, agility, intelligence, wits, charisma, tact), and 2 attributes dealing with powers (focus and discipline).  These were broad abilities that would apply to many circumstances.  All the attributes ranged from 1-10 and the mundane ones defaulted 5 (“average”).  Focus and discipline defaulted to 0 for mundane characters, or 1 for legendary characters.
  • We developed a list of 36 skills that align with the mundane attributes.  These also ranged from 1-10, and defaulted to 0 (untrained).
  • Powers are the focus of the game, so there were actually 3 kinds of stats in the ‘powers’ group.  First were ‘Gifts,’ or powers themselves. Second were ‘mods’, ways to customize the more general ‘gifts’, and third were ‘Tox’ stats, ones dealing with the negative consequences of using powers.
  • Advantages and disadvantages were kept fairly simple, with a few that could be themed to create quite a variety of social, monetary, or NPC-related modifiers.
  • Items were modeled largely giving a simple equipment bonus to  a roll (a few extra rules for combat, which tends to be a little more complex).  Rather than having players worry a lot about money, we let character’s ranks in the ‘Wealth’ advantage (or lack thereof) determine in broad strokes what they could buy.  No calculator required.

Looking around at various systems, we noticed three common ways to determine how high a character’s stats are, or what that character is good at:

  1. Random.  Roll dice, and see what the character gets.  Some versions of this increase the amount of choice, such as rolling multiple times, picking the top results, and assigning them to whichever stat you choose.
  2. All characters get X starting points per stat group.  For example, 10 Attribute points, 20 Skill points, 15 Gift points, etc.
  3. Characters have a single pool of points for all stat groups, from which they buy any kind of stat they want.  Each type of attribute has its own cost and some may be more expensive than others.  For example, Attributes points in Legendary originally started at 6 points, where as skills started at 1 point.  Characters sometimes can lower default stats or take additional disadvantages to gain more points.  You’ll notice in this system that characters don’t have to be well-rounded.  A specialist might spend all their points on skills, while a generalist might focus on attributes.  Some characters might have all mundane abilities, while others might spend almost all their points on super powers.

Off the bat, we didn’t like like the first approach, because it seems like you could pay a pretty heavy penalty for one bad roll.  Options 2 and 3 seemed much more equitable.  The advantage of Option 2 is that it’s fairly simple, and requires little balancing compared to Option 3.  It doesn’t matter so much if attributes are much more powerful than skills, because all characters start with the same number of attribute and skill points, so at least it’s fair.  Option 3 allows for much more freedom in the types of characters you can create, but then you have to play test a lot to determine if characters heavily weighted towards one stat set are so powerful or weak that it disrupts the game.  If one stat group is a lot more useful or powerful than another, its cost should be high enough to reflect that difference.  We wanted to maximize player freedom, so we went with Option 3.

To figure out how much each stat should cost, we decided to find the stat that offered the smallest advantage, and make that our baseline.  We figured that 1 rank in a skill was probably the smallest advantage, as it was the most specific, i.e., applied to the fewest circumstances and rolls.  So 1 rank in a skill was one point.  An attribute like strength would give a bonus in a lot more situations… for example there are 6 six skills that would get a bonus from strength.  So strength (and other attributes) should be 6x as expensive as skills.  1 rank of attributes cost 6 points.  Powers were much harder to balance, essentially, we’d create one character with Attributes + Skills and another with Gifts, and pit them against each other to see if both stood a decent chance at winning.

Throughout all this, sometimes its helpful to take inspiration from videogame RPG design as as well as other table top games.  Just remember that unless you have a computer component to your roleplaying game, a human will have to be in charge of the rules and calculations, so one key goal of balancing stat rules is making them easily intelligible to humans.

XP & Increasing Stats

For many players, a crucial part of the excitement of roleplaying is leveling up.  A character usually becomes more powerful by gaining experience points or XP.  Experience gives a sense of progress to the stories and leads the characters to bigger and bigger challenges.  Rewarding an activity with experience is also a strong incentive, for better or for worse.  If you reward characters with experience for killing monsters, your players will tend to kill everything in sight!  Be sure it incentivize the kind of play that your system is designed for.  Here are some things to consider when trying to configure experience for an RPG:

  • What gives a character experience?
  • How much experience does one get at time?  When does it trigger leveling up?
  • Can individual experience points be used little by little or only in large chunks, as in leveling up? Will characters be able to walk away from a game session with a new skill, or wait a few sessions and power up several different abilities?

You can evaluate your balance by how well the game encourages certain types of behavior, whether players feel both a sense of making progress and a sense of challenging in obtaining their desired abilities.  Here’s a fun thread on Reddit about people’s favorite XP systems.

Rinse, Lather, Repeat

Of course, after our first play testing session with new, first-time roleplayers, the feedback was that having some stats out of 10 (stats and skills), and some out of 5 (gift power levels) and some out of 3 (advantage/disadvantage ranks), all with different defaults was confusing.  Also, we realized that in a cross-genre game, the static list of 36 skills we had created wouldn’t last long at all.  We’d either have to create hundreds for all sorts of genres or change how we thought of skills.

All of the above represents Legendary’s first cycle of balance.  Up next: iterations and how play testing Legendary has triggered new rules and rebalancing.

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