RPG Design Choices #4a: Stats and Character Balance

A surfer precariously perched on a wave.

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.

RPG Design Choices #3: Game Mechanics

Girl holding golden dice.

If you understand your genre, characters, and moods, you should have an idea of what kind of game play will be best for your game. Is it gritty and realistic, requiring lots of intricate rules to simulate physics?  Is it an epic game where superhuman powers matter more than mundane skills? How easy or difficult will it be for characters to die?

An important piece of game play in RPGs is chance and uncertainty.  It’s not the only part of game play—there’s also player collaboration, setting, plot, dialogue, etc.  However, chance is the unique piece that makes roleplaying games, well, games.  Without the element of chance, RPGs become a sort of improv reader’s theatre.  Chance creates the game by requiring players to strategize.  The chance of failure encourages characters to think through which actions will be most effective in a certain context.  Higher and lower chances of success at particular tasks differentiates characters, giving players unique abilities to contribute and the need to cooperate.  Characters chance failures can force players to re-evaluate their strategies and try something new.  Even the failures of non-player characters can force the game master to improvise in ways that create memorable victories for players and make the game more exciting.

The RPG design question at this point is how do manage chance in your game? How will chance make the game challenging and exciting for the players, and will that chance lead to the kind of outcomes you’d expect for your RPGs genre? You’ll want to be very careful how you calibrate chance.  Too much chance of failure, and the game ends early in frustration and/or character death.  Too little chance of failure, and the game is less challenging and less exciting.

The classic way to introduce chance is to roll dice, and there are many variants of how to use dice in an RPG.  Here are a few common approaches to using dice:

  • The ‘roll above’ model, where players attempt to roll above a target number (higher means more difficult).  In a simple case, you may have a six-sided die and players have to roll a 5 or 6 to succeed on a difficult task.  In these cases, character stats typically add to the die roll, increasing your chances of meeting or exceeding your target.  Perhaps a character has a +1 in an ability, they would then only have to roll 4 or higher to succeed.
  • The ‘roll below’ model, where players attempt to roll below a certain target number, usually defined by the character’s stats.  For example, in a system based on a single 6-sided die, a character might have a stat of Strength 3.  For strength-related tasks, the character would have to roll under their strength.  If they increase their stat, they increase their chances of success.  Bonuses would be added to the target to make it easier to roll under, penalties would be subtracted.
  • The dice pool model: the characters roll one or more dice, with a fixed target.  For example, perhaps 5 and 6 are always a success.  However, if a character is more skilled at a task, they get to roll more dice, increase their chances that at least one 5 or 6 will appear.  Difficult tasks may require the character to get more than on successful die roll.

Really, any of the above (and many models not discussed) can be calibrated to challenge players and create characters that are good at some things a less good at others.  Some good resources for using dice to create chance in an RPG: an in depth discussion of dice mechanics and an online dice probability calculator.

Of course, dice aren’t the only way to make roleplaying games chancy or challenging.  Here are some other common ways to introduce chance in a game:

  • Use a counter or token.  Sometimes players have control over when counters are spent, sometimes they don’t (hit points).  Even when players have control over when and how to spend their counters, this serves to limit a character in a slightly different way than a high chance of failure.  At a certain point, the character runs out of counters and either they are limited in their actions or something else bad occurs.
  • Use cards like a board game, although board games don’t typically bias results towards a character’s strengths or weaknesses. If you want to support characters with different skill levels getting different out comes, you may have to get creative.
  • ‘Can I?’ Players simply ask the GM, who serves as arbiter of what’s reasonable.  This doesn’t really introduce chance (certainly not for the GM), but it serves as a mechanism that limits characters so that players aren’t free to choose any course of action and be successful.  Sometimes this is a better way to resolve trivial or easy tasks without slowing the game down with dice rolling; however, over use can lead to bickering, accusations of bias, and also takes the element of chance out of the picture for players controlled by the GM.

There are even more creative methods.  Dice poker.  Games of physical skill.  But here are a few questions that might help you tune your use of chance:

  • Are characters clearly differentiated by what they are good at and not good at?
  • Do players have a way to enhance their chance of success or recover from a drastic failure?
  • Is it possible for player characters to die?  How easily?
  • What degrees of success or failure does your game support? Is it pass/fail? Do you include ‘critical’ failures or successes?  Many levels of success or failure based on die results?
  • How much is success determined by chance, and how much by character stats?
  • What types of outcomes should not be left to chance?
  • Is chance treated different for different types of actions? For example: independent actions (picking a lock), cooperative actions (two characters ramming a door to break it down), and resisted actions (one character ramming a door, another trying to bolster the door from the inside).

While you experimenting with different types of chance, you can judge them by

  1. How does this affect pacing? Does it slow down game play?
  2. Do the random outcomes seem appropriate for the genres and stories that the RPG is focused on?
  3. Is there any aspect of chance that makes gameplay in the RPG unique?

In Legendary RPG, here are just a few of the game mechanics decisions we made:

  • The decision to go with the very straight forward additive dice model
  • We play-tested both with one 20-sided die, and with adding 2 ten-sided dice together.  Players commented that the 20-sided die seemed to result in a lot of critical successes and failures, so we use the two tens—extremely high and low rolls were much less likely.
  • Right now, we’re experiment with not using the familiar ‘counter’ of hit points.  Instead, we count damage on the character, and the character rolls to stay conscious after taken certain amounts of damage.
  • Legends don’t die very easily, so we have rules for incapacitation, but actual death is not up to chance.  It’s a choice the player and the game master can make for a character.

If you’re curious about Legendary’s game mechanics, sign up for our email list to have chances to play test it yourself!

RPG Design Choices #2: Fleshing out character and moods

Two people walking on train tracks. Comedy or Tragedy?

After you’ve chosen your genre (or genres),  there’s more to flesh out in terms of the types of characters and moods your game will support. Unless you went very specific with your genre, chances are that your genre can support many types of characters and moods.  Are you going to support all of the possible combinations, or focus your game further on a specific type of character or mood?

From genre, you’ve gotten an idea of what kinds of rules might be required what aspects of the genre might require more detailed rules than others… but when you decide specifically what kind of protagonists, antagonists, and other non-player characters are in the game world, you’ll have a much better idea of which of your ideas to follow up on and nail down.

BeetlePopOutIf you chose to build a comic book superhero type game, for example, the stories typically include super heroes, anti-heroes, sidekicks, villains, politicians, police/army spies, love interests, and other civilians.  It’s usually assumed in the genre that the protagonists are heroes (or anti-heroes). However, you might make your game stand out by focusing on a different segment, which will take your RPG in very different directions.  Consider the following:

  • Players take on the role of a national defense team of mundane people trained to take down super villains.  All of a sudden, super powers might take a back seat (because characters won’t have them), while high-tech equipment will become crucial in subdoing superhuman foes.
  • Players take on the roles of civilians trying to avoid becoming collateral damage as superheroes and supervillains duke it out.  All of a sudden, both super powers AND high-tech are now the realm of NPCs, and so probably won’t receive as much attention as the rules of luck, courage, or panic that influence a mortals chances of surviving.
  • Players take on the roles of villains.  Villains are likely to be more balanced between powers and high tech than heroes or military figures.  Also, you’ve just opened the possibility of characters almost never seen in the superhero genre.  For example, who recruits a supervillains goons, or finds remote lairs? All of a sudden, you may realize that your game needs rules for a black market of mutagens and death rays that would be unnecessary for the other character types.

You could choose to support any and all of these combinations. However, if you decide to support a very broad selection of characters, you may want to decide which ones you’ll focus on in your core rules and which you’ll leave for later extensions.

When you have an idea of what characters you’re working with, you’ll also what to decide what kinds of stories and moods you want the RPG to support.  Game masters can tell any story they want, but the character types and game rules will influence the mood of games.  For example, I tend toward humor in games that I run, but when I’m playing World of Darkness, it’s sinister setting, creepy antagonists, and rules for losing humanity turn my stories to dark comedies.

You’ll get some inspiration for mood based on the types of characters you support.  In the example above, if you superheroes are your protagonists, it leaves the mood of the story wide open for epic, suspenseful, tragic, and comedic stories.  However, if you choose to have supervillains as your primary protagonist, the stories will likely be either tragic or comedic.

The moods you choose to support will have an influence on the types stats, skills, and advantages that characters can have.  In a supervillain spoof, ‘Monologuing’ might be a common disadvantage, while in an epic superhero saga there might be some concept of destiny.

In a cross-genre game, you can still make many of the same decision to focus your game.  In fact, if you haven’t made some choices to narrow your focus on genre, character, or mood by this point, you will have a difficult time differentiating your game from the popular generic RPGs already in the market.  Since Varza Games wanted Legendary to be flexible in terms of genre and mood, we decided to make a narrowing decision on the type of protagonist the game would feature.  I found in a lot of genres a set of related ideas about powers being both a blessing and curse, or super-heroic protagonists being their own worst enemies and tested the idea out with with Meg and our friends, and we decided the game would be about characters with superhuman but flawed powers.  Powers with side effects.  That decision makes it much easier to distinguish Legendary RPG from GURPS or Fate, and would lead to the development of a unique game mechanic.

However, for all the narrowing decisions we didn’t make, we would later have to test the rules and character stats against many different genres.  Supporting multiple genres and moods made game development a lot more complex.  Even though Varza games would like Legendary RPG to be adaptable to many types of games, we simplified a little bit by selecting a few broad the genres and moods we were going to focus on during game.  By testing our character stats and rules in fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and comicbook hero genres, we figured that we had most of our bases covered.  Supplements or future editions could address niche subgenres with specific needs.

Also, we tested our rules and stats against where they would would work in dramatic or comedic types of games.  The goal was to have stats that could work in both settings, although we allow some stats to lean in one direction or another.  For example, the side effects of using your powers include madness (which works in both comedy fantasy and a Cthulhuesque thriller), taking damage (typically functions best in dramatic campaigns), and bad luck (excellent for comedic stories).

Once you’ve fleshed out genre, characters, and moods for your story, you’re ready to think about game play and game mechanics.

RPG Design Choices #1: Genre-Specific vs Generic RPGS

Multiple Genre Images: Fantasy, Horror, Sci-fi

One of the first decisions to make when designing a roleplaying game is how broad or focused the RPG should be. Answering this question is both a design and a business decision.

When you choose a specific genre, the genre supplies common ideas, plot devices, and tropes that can help form rules.  Here’s a few questions (in no particular order) that you might ask of a genre to get an idea of what an RPG for a particular genre might look like:

  • What types of qualities are valued or common in the genre? They might become stats.
  • What types of actions do characters undertake? Those actions are a pretty good indicator of crucial skills.
  • What powers or abilities exist in the genre—and are they accessible to protagonists, or only antagonists?
  • What’s the balance of interpersonal interaction, puzzle solving, and fighting in the genre? This will suggest where the bulk of your focus and game mechanics should be.

For example, if you were to design an RPG system for the supernatural teen monster drama (yeah, that’s a thing now), you might find some common stats like strength, smarts, social skills… but you would also find a heavy emphasize on courage, humor (specifically irony or sarcasm), and angst.  Perhaps these stats will set your system apart from others.  Characters tend to solve their problems via physical fighting (most often hand-to-hand or improvised weapons, rarely guns or knives); by manipulating others (appealing to loyalties, lying, blackmailing); by researching new monsters; and by tricking, trapping, or ambushing their opponents.  All the above require some kind of skill or ability check.

The list of powers is potentially wide, but they usually focus on physical abilities with magic users or witches as a distinct subclass… and almost no high-tech / sci-fi abilities.  Depending on the series, there may be a balance of interpersonal interaction or fighting, or the focus may be heavily on interpersonal, so you’ll probably want to support both.  For interpersonal interactions, the love triangle is a ridiculously common trope… you could leave that plot device to game masters, or bake in game mechanics for it.  Perhaps love triangles can affect your loyalty stat and hence how easily your character is manipulated by others!  As for fighting, combat often ends in a draw: do the mechanics support that? For example, actually killing other (non-human) characters outright might be incredibly difficult, leaving you to do as much damage as you can and then retreat as a common tactic.

I also mentioned above how deciding a genre (or lack of genre) for the RPG is a business decision as well as a design decision.  When you pick a genre, you determine who your competitors will be. You better make sure that your game has something unique to offer over existing games, and you can take one of two approaches.  One, find pairings of genre tropes/game mechanics that are overlooked by other games and make them prominent in your system.  If there are plenty of RPGs for teen monsters, but they don’t really include much about the common love triangle issue, make it a core part of your game.  Two, find a sub-genre without many competitors.  Maybe all the teen monster RGPs are focused on werewolves, vampires, or witches… maybe try focusing on less common monsters, like ghosts and make a specifically ghosty teen monster game.  If you want to see just how specific an RPG can be, check out My Life with Master. It focuses on the henchman of 19th century horror villains.

However, what if you decide to create a generic RPG instead of a cross-genre one? Figuring out what rules you need for the game and how to stand out from your competitors becomes a lot more difficult. The answers to questions like “What qualities are important across genres?” and “What powers are available across genres?” become so broad as to not be very helpful.  You could fill an encyclopedia with them, but unless you’re GURPS, you probably don’t want to try.  Instead a more helpful question is “How will gameplay in your system be unique?” With a genre-specific game, you can always distinguish yourself by picking a genre (or subgenre) not currently represented, but with a generic system you have to focus on game play.

Legendary RPG was designed to be cross genre from the beginning, and Varza Games had to try out a few different a few different game play styles until finding one that resonated with players.  The initial inspiration was to create a game in which the character’s personality determined the types of experience you would get, rather than arbitrary rules set by the RPG (like being heroic… what if your protagonist is just not very brave or self-sacrificing?).  However, this was either uninteresting, or in some cases discouraged teamwork, so we decided that Legendary was better off focusing on something else as it’s central, unique draw for gamers.

We landed on the idea in many genres that the more power you acquire, the greater your weaknesses.  This concept isn’t in every single genre, but in most stories with superhuman protagonists: myths, horror, superheroes, and sci-fi.  When we landed on this concept, we realized that other RPGs had both disadvantages and advantages (GURPS) or even traits that could be both advantages and disadvantages (Fate).  But what was missing was a system where the more you used your powers, the greater the negative consequences you faced.  Also, while other games either specified the types of disadvantages linked to super powers (running out of mana, burning hit points, insanity), there weren’t many games that offered the player the ability to choose what side-effects their powers had.  By offering a choice of different side effects we found a nice middle ground that we didn’t see in other games.  In GURPs, you could probably figure out a game mechanic eventually with elaborate modding of advantages and disadvantages, and in Fate traits are both advantages and disadvantages, but there’s really only one game mechanic: fate points.  In Legendary RPG, you select one of 7 or so “Tox Effects” and quickly give your character a unique side-effect to their mighty abilities.

P.S.  If you’re interested in trying a game, sign up for our email list and get access to prototype character creators and early play testing sessions.