Earth Delta Design Diary, 3/23
It occurred to me that if almost all of my "game design" time is being taken up with writing Earth Delta, and that means "updates" to this site come only in the form of a new PDF every 2-3 weeks or so, that this site is in danger of being as contentless as 99% of the other sites on the net, which updated twice in 2001 and once in 2004 with a promise to "update more often". I’ve also come to understand that design blogs are somewhat popular, as apparently fans of sausage like to see it made.
For those tuning in late, Lizard is working on a game called Earth Delta, which is a "mutants and mayhem" roleplaying game using the rules of Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. It is very clearly inspired by Gamma World, and by the things that inspired Gamma World, but I am hoping that, over time, it will not be seen as a… what’s the reverse of a retro clone? A "future clone"? and more a thing of its own.
Read on for Great And Glorious Insights into the mind of the Designer at work! (That was sarcasm, not egotism. In case you were wondering.)
Insight The Firste: Wretched Puns
So I was working on new mutant monsters. Sometimes, I begin with a niche I know has to be filled — for example, "town guard". Sometimes, I begin with a name — Bloodger. Sometimes, I begin with just a mental image. In this particular case, the image was of a roughly circular creature, made of wood, that walked on four stubby trunklike legs and whacked people with four long, branching, arms. It was simply an odd and weird creature, and the first name that came to mind was "Woodwombler", which frankly sucks. As I was struggling through that "What kind of interesting powers can I give this, to make it less of a walking sack of hit points and damage?" phase, my mind drifted to the four arms, which made me think of the ancient gag that "Forewarned is half an octopus", and then it hit me — OAKTOPUS! (Not in the current alpha draft, but coming soon!)
Insight The Seconde: Class Design
While I can make up monsters and tech items till the six-legged, ice-ray-breathing, telekinetic cows come home, I have to focus on the hard parts of the design, and in 4, the hardest thing is class design. I’d promised the Scholar class, and I really wanted more than one new class, because just reskinning rangers and rogues really isn’t enough. The Scholar is a great archetype for post-apocalypse gaming. 4e imposes some design constraints — a purely non-combat character full of skill bonuses and the like just isn’t permitted. My first pass at the Scholar (Class features, first level of powers), was, frankly, a mess. When you have to put in very clunky rules patches to cover up design weaknesses… the design is broken. Power wise, it was barely more than a reskinned warlord. Changing flavor text only goes so far; some new mechanics are needed. It finally occurred to me that limiting myself only to "tried and true" mechanics in the PHB was too limiting; after three+ years of development, most of the good ideas, and most of the bad ideas, have already been done.
I had a slight epiphany last night, though. While not breaking the 4e paradigm, I could at least push it a bit. The Scholar’s new shtick, still in development, is assessment. Over the course of battle, he watches allies and enemies, and can "spend" this knowledge to grant bonuses and penalties as needed. (Yes, this is a bit like assassin shrouds… but, it’s also a bit like the "rage point" mechanic in early Pathfinder drafts and a bunch of other things.) This gave me an interesting hook that is flavorful, and lend itself to lots of decision making in combat — to expend assessments or hold on to them, and who to assess?
Will it work? Who knows? I’m just starting this new design, but the concept is giving me lots of Cool Ideas, whereas the previous go-round left me constantly asking "What makes this class worth playing over the Warlord or Cleric?" The design team for 4e is correct in their desire to not just fill niches with barely-distinguishable classes; minor changes in fighting style or a single Cool New Power is usually best handled as an alternate build. The Scholar couldn’t exist just because I wanted some classes to make Earth Delta feel more like a "real game", it had to be a viable class on its own, and stand alongside existing classes as an equal. We’ll see how that works out.