Aspect Dev Diary #1: Design Goals

The culmination of 24 years of pen and paper design. A balanced classless system designed from the ground up.

Aspect has an easy to learn combat system that uses the same basic mechanics for physical, mental, and social combat - allowing you to play as a diplomat, sage, warrior, or anything you can dream of, and still contribute to the adventure in exciting ways.

Moderator: Heather Gunn

Aspect Dev Diary #1: Design Goals

Postby Heather Gunn » Sun Jun 12, 2011 9:50 pm

When I started working on Aspect, there were certain criteria it had to meet to replace our old homebrew rules. Honestly we were enjoying the existing system, but could see several areas that could use improving.

Rule #1: Nothing is sacred
We threw out everything, a bit at a time, then rebuilt the game from the remaining pieces.

Why is it based on 1d20? We tried diceless, and that is fun for certain kinds of play, but not the cinematic action fantasy we like. The dice offer a certain level of uncertainty and suspense. We tried other die systems, d6, d10, multiple dice, but d20 ended up working best for the game. It strikes a very good balance of being nicely granular while still having the convenience and speed of rolling a single die. A d30 might give a broader range, but is not nearly so common nor convenient (they're huge and don't stop rolling very quickly).

Why did we get rid of daily spells? At one point, our homebrew system had dozens of spellcaster types: spell points per day, spell points per round, spell lists per day, spell points that regenerate over time, spell points replenished by XP gain, spell points from damage dealt or taken, spells that damaged or fatigued the caster, at will spell lists, skill-based spell casters, spells that can only be cast once (with a system to create new unique spells), and much more. Daily magic became the very least favorite type of spellcaster, despite being the best with burst magic. The most popular ones ended up being the ones that never really ran out of juice, even when the 'juice' was far less powerful than what a warrior could manage with his bare hands. Our spellcasters get flashy and powerful stuff now like streaking across the battlefield as a bolt of lightning and reappearing at the far end, scorching all the foes in between. The flashier stuff became timed actions (powers that use multiple actions but can be sped up with action points) and the longer spells are now either rituals or just part of the crafting system.

We threw away the usual health model in exchange for a two-tiered system similar to what you see in video games such as Halo. This gives the players and GM more options. You can have a fight to first blood between two equally-matched characters. Players can more easily see how the fight is going based on how many allies or foes are wounded. Fights are much easier for the GM to balance.

We tossed out level mods. What are level mods, you might ask? Level mods are the constantly increasing numbers added to a character as it levels up. Level mods are what make it so that a level 20 character can laugh off attacks from level 1 goblins. Level mods got tossed for several reasons, the main two are as follows.

One: level mods mostly exist to make you buy more monster books. In most game systems, at any given level only a small fraction of the monsters in most game systems are viable threats for the players, the rest would either obliterate the party or instantly become a stain on the ground. You usually can level adjust the monsters to be suitable threats, but once you throw out level mods that becomes unnecessary. In Aspect, we have several monster grades: 6 main grades (Fodder, Minion, Basic, Hero, Elite, Solo), 2 epic grades, and several sub-grades in-between, as well as the ability to easily level up monsters for more versatility.

Two: level mods make it impossible to do classic adventuring parties with disparate power levels such as the one seen in Lord of the Rings. Characters do gain experience and power in Aspect, but it is a horizontal gain in power: more options and sharper refinement. This means a few level 1 characters can join a level 10 party and still be useful. It also means you don't have to erase all your attack and skill modifiers and recalculate them every time you level.

We left in alternate rules for level mods for a story that requires that kind of progression, and it can take characters from weakling or child all the way to nigh-godhood. They are simple to use, but they do require additional math when leveling.

We tried several skill models, one of which had well over 50 unique skills as well as tons of skill-specific talents. The current model has 18, distributed unevenly across the 9 ability scores (the Agility row has one extra and the Physical column has one less). This simplified things immensely while still allowing the player to choose skills that make the character feel unique. Also, fewer skills means that the skills a character has invested in become useful far more often than with many skills. The way skills tie into your powers, talents, rituals and even defenses makes my inner game designer very happy.

Rule #2: Intuitive to play
If I am in a barroom brawl and I have no weapon available to me other than a wooden chair, broken bottle, or table leg, I should be able to smash a patron over the head with any one of them. This is why we created the five universal powers. If your character wants to do something in an encounter to wear down a foe, you just use one of your universal powers: Basic Melee, Basic Ranged, Basic Grapple, Social Pressure, and Mental Assault. Magic also can be used with universal powers, so a fire mage that finds himself in melee can still be somewhat useful.

If I am playing a character who can control fire to the extent that I can accurately set a foe aflame that is actively avoiding me, I should be able to light a candle with my magic. We do this with keywords. Powers that have the fire keyword can be used to light lanterns and bonfires, powers with the cold keyword can be used to create bridges of ice across rivers, powers with the stone keyword can be used to sculpt terrain. Powers with the chaos keyword cannot be used in any reliable manner (except a destructive one).

We also wanted non-physical challenges to have meaning, but did not want to burden the system with a bunch of new mechanics to memorize. So we created social and mental combat. They use the exact same mechanics as physical combat, just with different results. So the next time a player insults a guard, you actually have mechanics behind it you can use to start a social brawl (which might quickly turn to a physical one if the guard realizes he is outmatched).

As much as possible, we wanted you to not need to look stuff up. The Free RPG Day adventure sums up the rules in about 4 pages. There are few charts, you don't have to look up what your stats really mean, the stat itself is what you add to your rolls, not a bonus derived from it. The majority of what you need to play is right in front of you on your character sheet. This speeds up the game immensely, especially with new players.

Rule #3: Infinite possibilities
We wanted anything the player expects the character to be able to do in a cinematic fantasy experience to be possible. That is a LOT of possibilities. Let us know if we missed anything.

Summoning spirits from the netherworld? Check. Flinging fire and stone and ice? Triple check. Kung-fu? Golem making? Plant control? Time manipulation? We got it. Considering our homebrew rules had well over 40 custom classes at its peak, we had a lot of material to try and divvy up into Aspect's 40 power sets.

We had lots of classes. We found ourselves with far too many classes. Eventually it became obvious that classes were made up of perks and abilities, many of which were getting duplicated between classes (cleric and paladin healing, martial weapon styles, that sort of thing). We broke down every class into these perks and abilities and called them talents and powers. And now you can take all the little pieces and build whatever combination you like. Mixing Arcane and Martial? Go for it. That said, powers and talents are grouped into Power Sets which make it easy to find several powers of the same theme that will work well together.

Rule #4: Balance
Aspect aims to be as balanced as reasonable while offering extreme flexibility. We don't want any one combination to overshadow all other possible characters, but we do want to allow the players a good deal of flexibility in creating their characters. We also wanted 'badly' made characters to still be functional, even though they are not optimal.

There are several reasons to want balance in a game. The main one is so the Game Master can actually plan the adventure. Aspect's balance doesn't make every encounter a foregone conclusion, but it does a good job of letting the GM gauge the power level of the player characters and adjust his encounters accordingly.

A perfectly balanced game is like Tic-Tac-Toe, however. Two players of decent skill level will fight to a standstill and it is highly un-fun. If a game is pushed too close to this end of the scale, the flavor of the game suffers. All the bits of the game start to look exactly the same, and characters and enemies look identical and play identically.

Aspect veers towards flavor without leaving gaping holes in the balance for players to scry and then teleport through. All the power sets have several powers that are especially tailored to the flavor of that set and making that set feel unique and special.

The first thing we did was close up all possible infinite loops. Everything has a cost. You can only take a free action once per turn. You are similarly restricted on reaction attacks. We use stances to make the more powerful buffs in the game non-cumulative.

The second was to build a spreadsheet of the ideal builds for each combat role and pit them against one another, making sure they are balanced within ten percent. The complex math is worthy of an entire post, I won't detail it here. Having no level mods helps immensely here.

The third was to institute hard caps based on those builds. There is no type of bonus that will infinitely stack, you only get the best of all that type of bonus. For instance, with defense you might have an armor bonus, a shield bonus, a concealment bonus and an unnamed bonus. These all stack because they have different names, but additional bonuses of these types (armor, shield, concealment, unnamed) will not.

The fourth was the most time consuming. We calculated out the value of every power in the game and tweaked it until we got acceptable values. You can't see them, but at the bottom of every power entry in the game is a formula (in invisible white text in the final version, but in gray in the internal versions). Sounds like a lot of effort? We did it not just once, but three times as we refined our values for things like damage and status effects. Here are a few examples, just for fun:

=0.9*MAX(1.75*(3.75+2);2*(3.1+2);2.5*(2+ 2);1.75*(3.5+2);2.25*(2.2+2);1.25*(6+2))*2-2

Thankfully you'll never have to deal with any of that math. The game has nearly 1000 powers to choose from and all the math has been done for you.

The fifth is just the ongoing challenge of playtesting. This is where you come in. We've been playing this game in a sort of dark beta for years. We think it is pretty sweet, I am extremely proud of what we've accomplished. I wouldn't presume to say it is perfectly balanced, but we are working on it. Try it and let us know what you think.

Heather Gunn
Lead Designer and Founder
Stone Tablet Games
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Heather Gunn
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