Magic and Game Design

#1
Magic and Game Design
It's the age-old question for table-top RPGs: аhow do we balance magic? аIn nearly every system, that's where developers struggle most on character power. аUsually, it's imbalanced in favor of the spellcasters, and I'd say that Shattered, like many other systems, currently suffers from the same fate.

Swords and Sorcery
The first reason for this is the dichotomy of magic versus martial. аNot to dumb it down, but this is basically beings of infinite cosmic power against people who hit things with big sticks. аMagic users have huge amounts of utility both in and out of combat. аThey can bend the forces of nature and the fabric of reality to suit their needs. аWith a single spell, a caster can blast an enemy with ice for damage, or freeze a path across a lake. аNeed to power a generator? аGive it an electrical kick-start. аA warrior can't do any of that with his base class. аHe can hit things with a stick and hope something happens, but that's about it.

Yes, they can maybe fix the generator with some mechanical know-how. аAnd they can probably swim across the lake. аBut these actions represent a larger exp investment (or other resource investment, in other systems) than the caster, who only needs his fundamental class features to solve this situation (classless system, yes, but characters still will generally follow a paradigm). аA caster's flexibility in and out of combat is near limitless; a warrior's combat strength may be on par in terms of damage, but when it comes to battlefield control, he suffers (or expends more exp, and loses out elsewhere) and when it comes to out of combat utility, he's often even further behind.

That's not something that can really be fixed. аMartial classes are, by definition, people who use physical means to accomplish things. аThey might be reallyаgood at that, but no matter how fast you can run or how hard you can punch, there are simply limitations to your effectiveness.

Since D&D is the most popular RPG out there, I'll pull examples from 3.5 to explain. аSome of the optimizers at brilliantgameologists hosted a prettyаthorough tier listаfor explaining which classes were more "powerful" than others. аA synopsis is as follows:

Tier 1: аAble to do absolutely anything, all of the time.

Tier 2: аAble to do almost anything any time or able to prepare to do absolutely anything some of the time.

Tier 3: аAble to do one thing REALLY well, and decent at other things.

Tier 4: аAble to do one thing REALLY well, but can't really do anything else.

Tier 5: аAble to do one thing, but overshadowed by others at doing that thing.

Tier 6: аCW Samurai.

In general, I'd say this is a good conceptual way of looking at balancing characters in RPGs.

Given the magic system in Shattered, there really aren't any tier 1 classes. аTheurges can't do illusions or necromancy (without additional exp investment), for example. аAnd they can't cast spells like "wish" or "fly" (maybe some really creative use of air magic, but I digress). аBut I'd say that Theurges are certainly tier 2. аThey can deal effective damage, they can do battlefield control, and they bring a lot of utility and flexibility to any situation simply by having control over elemental effects. аIllusionists are either tier 2 or tier 3 (I haven't seen how much rope most GMs will give them to hang themselves with yet), and Necromancers appear to be solidly in tier 3. аClasses that focus on physical combat sit at tier 4. аThey can do damage on par (we'll stick with that assumption until later) with the casters, but outside of hitting things with large sticks, their usefulness drops considerably. аThey might have a secondary ability, like being a medic, but across a wide range of situations, they'll be less impactful. аAgain, this is simply due to the fact that martial classes are bound by the physical limitations of a body, where as magic can do nearly anything it wants.

Shattered gives players some pseudo-magical effects they can dabble in, and the ability to dip a toe into branches of magic for some minor effects while still retaining the feeling of a martial class, but to get that utility, it's more exp investment. аMartials are a cool concept, and the martial arts certainly give some options, but most of it is combat focused, simply compounding the binary ability of fighters.

There really hasn't been a solid answer to this question given by any system I can think of. аIt's just hard given the nature of the classes. аThe only real way to do it is to decrease the power and flexibility of spellcasters, but creative players will always find a way, and if you handicap the class too much, your players will lose the feeling of being a spellcaster and instead feel useless or frustrated when their spell effects fail.

Encroaching on the Warrior's Territory
Warriors, as I've said, do one thing really well: аthey hit stuff hard in combat. аThe problem is that magic can hit just as hard (or harder) than a similarly skilled fighter can. аAgain, this is something that can't be changed that much because of player happiness: аif one player is doing far more damage than the others, it's easy for the "supporting cast" to feel just like that--that they're the sidekicks in someone else's adventure. аMitigating caster DPS is great for game design (and might still be a good idea, if done to some extent), but can easily edge less creative players out of the spotlight.

A warrior hits stuff with their weapon. аDuring the playtest, I think the most powerful regular weapon we used was a 3d8 mace. аAverage damage on 3d8 is 13.5 damage per 2 actions. аLet's give them a 3 strength for 16.5. аAgain, this was the BEST weapon I remember our characters having.

It's not unreasonable for a theurge to be able to cast 4 point spells with regularity. аSpecialized well, they can pretty reliably pop off 3 or 4 point blasts of 3d6 or 4d6 a round. аAt 4d6, I believe that's as much damage as our mounted ship cannon dealt. а4d6 is 14 average damage, from a range. аNo movement necessary to get into position. аWe're already on par with the warrior in terms of damage per round, and we're more action efficient (more on this later). аA more average weapon for our characters was dealing around 2d6 per attack, which is half damage of a more dangerous blast to cast (8 is still a DC that can be failed reasonably easily), but still decidedly weaker than the 3d6 shots of raw damage. аAdd in the 3 strength and the classes are doing about even damage.

Weapons carry a reasonable cap on their damage benefits. аCasting can scale pretty hard (and fast, due to the ability to add to two different stats). аAt max ranks, a caster can throw out 5d10 worth of spell points per 2 actions. аWith an average of about 27 and a standard deviation of 9, a theurge can be blasting at a very reliable 8d6 (28) per attack. аThat mace? аStill dealing 3d8+strength (at 10 strength, which is a far greater exp investment than the arkana side, 23.5). аIt's a bloated example, yes, but it illustrates the point: аthe theurge can out-strip the fighter at the one thing the fighter is supposed to be dominant at.

Another issue is area attacks. аLet's look at a quick example:

Warrior with a pair of 2d6 swords spends 5 actions to hit a mook 3 times. а6d6 single target, not bad. аIf there are 2 adjacent foes, 6d6 spread. аIf there are 2 foes far away, that's 4d6--still, not bad.

Caster shoots his blast. а2 AP, 3 SP each he's hitting for 6d6. аWarrior with their strength bonus 3x is out-damaging him right now. аAgainst 2 adjacent foes, he can swing for 2d6 on 2 targets--twice. аThat's 8d6 split. аSame thing for 2 foes further than melee distance away.

If there are 9 targets clustered together, a warrior can hit for 6d6 (ignore traits). аIf there are 9 targets clustered together, a theurge can, using 2 3 SP spells, hit for 18d6.

One quick fix to this would be to reduce the damage dice for the theurge to d4's. аPlayers are still rolling lots of dice (which usually constitutes player happiness) and can still blast fairly effectively, but will be reduced to a more reasonable level when compared to melees (8d4 = 20). аThere are a variety of other options available as well, my favorite of which has to deal with...

Action Economy
This is where games are broken. аAction economy is, in short, a character's ability to do things per round. аIn D&D, it's a standard, a move, a minor (a quick, infinite free, etc). аIn Shattered, it's five action points. аLet me start by saying that I like that. аIt gives more options per player turn, lets people deal damage basically every round (even if they have to move twice to reach an opponent!) and lets the characters feel more "epic" early on (how long do you wait to get iterative attacks in 3.5?). аThat being said, this is another area where casters are dominant, and it has to do with conditions.

A condition is something that takes 2 AP to remove. аFrozen and blind are my two favorite here, so let's talk about those briefly. аFor 1 SP, a theurge can apply a condition. аSo for 1 SP, he can light a target on fire. аOr, for 2 SP, he can literally remove one character from combat every turn, twice a turn.

Allow me to explain.

Action efficiency is the number of effective actions you gain on an opponent per action taken. аA trip attempt has an efficiency of 1 (2 AP to remove prone/2 AP for your trip attempt). аCasting a spell that causes blind is also an efficiency of 1 (2 AP to remove blind/2 AP to cast the spell). аBut casting a spell that causes blind AND frozen is an efficiency of 2 (2 AP to remove blind + 2 AP to remove frozen/2 AP to cast the 2 SP spell). а4 AP is also sufficient AP to prevent a character from dealing damage the next round. аA theurge can do this twice per round, removing 2 characters from combat permanently.

Our other examples were using 3 SP, so let's expand this a little more. аLet's give the caster another SP-a second target on each spell. аNow there are 4 foes that can't take any actions, efficiency 4а(4*4/2*2AP spell). аThis basically means that a theurge using this approach is as effective as FOUR martial classes. аUsing the blast example, for 2 3 SP spells, we can get an optimal efficiency of 9 martial classes. аThis scales up with casting ability.

Illusionists can do a similar action with area blind effects, and are less effective at it because of only being able to apply one condition, but they gain a lot more out-of-combat utility and with more creative play, can destroy encounters either with fear effects (we had one round where the illusionist and the warrior took out 6 healthy foes permanently without dealing a point of damage) or change battlefield conditions in order to grant benefits to players (areas of darkness, false cover, invisibility for sneak attacks, dragons).

Since the system is so unique, I think this is where spellcasting can be balanced the best. аInstead of making any spell cost 2 AP, make a spell cost AP equal to the number of SP used (or correlated with the number of SP used), with a minimum of 2 SP per spell. аAnd/or, consider changing the cost of applying a condition to 2 SP. аThis means that a caster can still do a huge powerful spell every turn--just not TWO huge powerful spells per turn, dealing as much damage as the warrior can and also inhibiting every opponent at the same time. аThis also helps out with the martial vs magic damage gap: аhitting for 8d6 is fine and dandy, but the warrior is hitting for 3d8 + strength two (or three) times a round: аthe caster feels like they're doing a lot of damage, but the fighter is still being more effective.

To keep casters feeling competitive in the late game (and avoid the cap of 5 SP/spell), consider adding HIGH exp cost traits that reduce the number of AP per SP (or come up with a clever sliding scale that isn't 1:1).

There are also a lot of fixes to these problems built-in to the system. аSpellcaster utility is marginalized by the lack of "preset" spells. аIn D&D, there are a lot of spells that are designed to grant utility. аThere are spells with huge secondary effects. аLess of that here, and more focused on player creativity to get those type of things. аTechnology level also helps. аYes, the mage can cast fly. аThe fighter can get in an airship for 50 credits. аThe mage can crumble a wall of rock onto their enemies. аThe fighter has dynamite.

Damage and powerful spells are controlled by the overcast system. аSpell failure is a huge deal and does a great job of limiting casting power, especially with the die system. аA lack of flat bonuses means that all but the most simple spells have a good chance of failure, adding risk to playing a spellcaster. аReach too many times and risk burning yourself out. аIt does a good job of making the caster think twice about trying to pace themselves with the warriors on damage (who risk nothing but their own flesh). аAnd the safety of range that mage usually enjoy? аGuns.

Shattered on its own does a fantastic job of managing a lot of these complex problems that plague other roleplaying systems, and for that I'm super excited about testing the system further (that and I love the aesthetic). аIt has some weaknesses and some places that it can be broken, but I think that with a little retooling (or just relying on the fact that not every roleplayer looks at a system and instantly thinks "how can I break this in the most disgusting manner possible?") the system can be closer to the effectiveness the devs imagined without changing the primal aesthetic of magic or the intent built into the system mechanics.
 

bear

Grunt
Shattered Core Backer
#2
malloc said
Since the system is so unique, I think this is where spellcasting can be balanced the best. аInstead of making any spell cost 2 AP, make a spell cost AP equal to the number of SP used (or correlated with the number of SP used), with a minimum of 2 SP per spell. аAnd/or, consider changing the cost of applying a condition to 2 SP. аThis means that a caster can still do a huge powerful spell every turn--just not TWO huge powerful spells per turn, dealing as much damage as the warrior can and also inhibiting every opponent at the same time. аThis also helps out with the martial vs magic damage gap: аhitting for 8d6 is fine and dandy, but the warrior is hitting for 3d8 + strength two (or three) times a round: аthe caster feels like they're doing a lot of damage, but the fighter is still being more effective.

To keep casters feeling competitive in the late game (and avoid the cap of 5 SP/spell), consider adding HIGH exp cost traits that reduce the number of AP per SP (or come up with a clever sliding scale that isn't 1:1).
I really, really like this idea.

It means that raw damage output is still sizable, but it would also be pretty good with an aesthetic reason behind the heightened SP cost. More complex spells require more hoodoo and finger wiggling to cast. It was without a doubt that Primalthurge use in the game tests were by far the most unbalanced power in the game. Heavy damage, excellent utility and although there is a lot of risk, it was not enough to warrant such power.

Good write up sir, thought I think the damage math needs to be checked over a bit.
 
#3
Well the calculations were all napkin math so I'd welcome any feedback as to where I went wrong there. а

I think the theurge was very powerful but I haven't seen enough of the illusions or the necromancy to talk as much on those; I did mention one generic illusionist trick, and there's a lot of other ways to impact a battlefield with images and such. аIt's my opinion that the theurge dominated so hard because it was the "simplest" of the casting classes. аStraightforward damage and conditions. аThat being said, the free-form, build it yourself primal type of magic allows for some great player creativity, and I think that the theurge did work it pretty well in that regard. аExcited to see where dedicated necromancers and illusionists (with opportunities in and out of combat) end up getting to, and how that stacks up against the elementalist.
 

Pul

Administrator
Staff member
INDE Staff
#4
Whoops!
Meant to reply here but slipped my mind going over some maths on another system.(Now at ~ 70 pages of literally just numbers, yay!)

First off, thanks a ton for such a detailed example! The tier system is actually a gem that I've been referencing since seeing it here.
Being said, yes. Primal's are considerably powerful. I'd agree with the tier 2 given the very, very, loose rules we have governing Primal's utility applications.
Ideally we are shooting for each Archetype to hover on the tier 3/4 area. Where high specalization will result in you dominating in your field, however leaving you rather vulnerable to a number of things.

As a note, since seeing firsthand the uses of Primal (And some creative Illusions) we've gone and given much more structure to reign back Primal. However it still seats them firmly in a tier 3. Any further restrictions (I personally fear) would result in stripping it down to a 5. Getting magic into a tier 3.5 is an interesting balancing act, however a solution we'd love to see is to bring Martial (Melee / ranged) up to par, being more utility capable.

Now the classless system is great, however it has a slightly downfall on the development side of attempting to ensure there isn't some god-combo resulting in a tier 1, while the party is tier 3's. If you just focus melee, you can really suffer in the utility department, but picking up some Arkana (with talents yes) thus opens many doors of combo's between the two.а

Additionally, Martial characters were at a disadvantage due to crafting not being functional at the time. Melee's damage increases are primarily from better equipment, while their utility is primarily from utility talents. For Arkana, damage is scaled to Xp and was included. As a result, any game past Char-gen does lower the Martial based character's power as the game continues.

TL;DR,
Arkana - specifically primal - has been given additional structure and slight re-balancing.
Martial characters are currently at a disadvantage, and we're now turning our development focus to fix crafting.а

And as a ending hope/dream/duct-taped together prayer, we'll be able to give out at least a bare-bones system so that Martial Characters are capable of damage scaling in progressing games, to allow for more in-depth and accurate testing past chargen.

Again, thanks a ton for the response. My bad for the delay in response.
 
#5
One way to increase relative utility is by increasing the exp cost for spellcasting investment. аIt means that casters can't put as much exp into out of combat abilities, and thus caps their utility not by managing magic, but by managing other aspects (D&D does this with skill points). аBut that's punitive towards less creative players, and really limiting in terms of making character creation choices based on roleplaying preferences. аIt's also sort of a band-aid, but it is a solution.

Excited to see the changes and the crafting system. аAre they live or yet-to-be-released?
 

Tex

Lore Master
Staff member
INDE Staff
#6
Yet to be released. We're still chugging away. I'd say we have a decent framework, but we're not close to revealing any concrete details.
 
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