Earth Delta Developer Diary 3/25/2010
Fairly short today, at least, I hope it will be… I’ve found once I start writing, sometimes, I don’t stop, at least partially due to the wonders of Adderall… which is not a complaint. The amount of work I’ve done in the past ten months or so, compared to the past several years, is astounding. Go drugs! Anyway, I’ve been working on the Scholar, and some other stuff…
Class design in 4e (that’s the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, for those of you coming in late and for any spiders crawling ’round these parts), is hard. Balance is all-important, and classes are much more "siloed". In third edition, you could trivially make a class more "flexible" by tossing in a few bonus feats every level; in 4e, Feats Don’t Work Like That. Synergies between classes are much more important, as is combat role — you have to work backwards from role to abilities. In other words, instead of starting with "What kind of powers should Druids have?", and then seeing what sort of role evolves from those powers, you start with "Druids are Controllers", then give them powers which enable them to be controllers, while also playing with the "druid" nature, mostly in flavor text. Fourth Edition owes something in concept to Champions, which was one of the first major systems to divorce mechanics from description. So the Druid uses "stinging insects" and the wizard uses "force daggers’ and the rogue "hurls a cloud of shuriken", and it all boils down to "There’s a square full of Damage." You won’t see a special rule that a druid’s insect powers don’t work if it’s too cold for the insects to fly, or even that a fireball won’t work underwater. (It does get a -2 to attack, though).
The upsides and downsides of this have been debated endlessly and I’m not going to repeat them. The relevance is that a class’s powers must enable it to perform its designated role in combat as well as any other class, and that you’re free to give almost any power to any class, regardless of how that class "works" in the game world. The other side of that equation is making a class do what it does in a way which makes it different enough that you can’t just change the flavor text on an existing class or add in a new build option.
The Scavenger in Earth Delta was pretty much mandated — it would be nigh-impossible to just reflavor a wizard or invoker to do the job. The Scholar is less absolutely required for the design goal, but it does fit and fill a niche. For one thing, without Scholars, there’s only one Leader type — Warlord. While "Studious Warlord" might be a viable alternate built, the Warlord comes with a lot of baggage and it’s fundamentally a Strength-based class. Another thing I really wanted to avoid was a lot "ranged healing" in the form of pseudoscientific gobbeldygook, or, even worse, "hypodermic guns". (Some of that inevitably sneaks in, but it’s kept minimal.) The Warlord handles ranged healing via shouting really loudly, and that’s fine. This also helps define the Scholar a little more — he’s the guy who’s usually next to you, binding your wounds, not yelling at you to "Man up and take it!" from halfway across the battlefield.
Mostly, though, the Scholar is supposed to be rendered unique by his Assessments — a constantly building pool of knowledge about a target which buffs his powers if he uses them on that target. The original design (see earlier articles) treated assessments as a pool which could be spent freely, as much or as little as possible. After crunching some numbers and doing some power design, and thinking a bit, I came to the conclusion that this was too much bookkeeping and beancounting for too little payoff. 4e combat already suffers from too much "analysis paralysis", having the Scholar constantly deciding how many assessment points to spend would just make things worse. So now, your pool grows each round, to a maximum of four points, and you apply them all each and every time. The makes the Scholar progressively more dangerous (or more helpful, if he’s assessing an ally) the longer he stays focused. This retains some aspects of tactics — switching targets for assessment can be a complex decision — but reduces constant waffling over "Spend 1 or 2?"
Even as I’m writing this, I’m thinking something might need to be changed. The current design has Scholars gaining 1 Assessment at the beginning of their round. This can be against any target in range. It occurs to me, though, that this is fairly passive. What if, you gained assessments at the END of your round, and only against creatures (allies or enemies) who were targets of a power you used in that round? This helps make the idea that the scholar watches how a creature reacts and then applies that knowledge more mechanically enforced.
Implements are the next issue. The Scholar currently uses Toolkits, which work well for Scavengers and make a lot of sense, but much less so for the Scholar, who relies more on his own knowledge. It’s hard to see what a toolkit *does*. The other option which comes instantly to mind is a notebook — something that allows the Scholar to organize his thoughts, access information, and so on. This is nice and flavorful, and fits with the concept, and can come in a variety of forms, from an actual binder full of scraps and sketches to a high-tech datapad with a holographic heads up display. Unfortunately, it’s hard to figure out how this can be used with damage-dealing powers, of which there must be many. Hm. I think I’ve got it. No comments now, though, until I’ve worked on the details a bit…
So, anyway, that’s today’s long and pointless ramble. Tune in… whenever… to see some more.