Saturday, November 11, 2017

Playing with mechanics

I'm currently in the midst of collecting ideas for a third edition of my personal RPG heartbreaker, Empress.  I don't know if there's much point talking about editions or versions, because homebrew rulesets like these are always in constant motion.  However, it's still a good idea to formalize these into something like "releases," if only for the sanity of the players at my table.  "How does initiative work, this week?" can be a rather pointed question.

This mechanic is all good

Anyway, the ongoing process as well as the process of formalization has me thinking about mechanics.  So here are a few of those thoughts!

Lifestyle effects

One thing I'd like to do with this new edition is have some simple mechanics for the effects of quality of life.  Not only does this give players an incentive to spend money for their PCs on their off-time, but it could make minor lifestyle details more interesting for players.  For instance, if you describe how they are being sponsored to stay at an inn with koi ponds and whispering silk-robed servants, the mechanical effects of this mean that the accommodations are a kind of minor treasure.

Very rejuvenating

The obvious impact of lifestyle quality would be in healing rates.  But that's not going to make it relevant when characters are not wounded.  My current idea is that a PC will receive a modifier to their maximum Luck based on their accommodations on the previous day.

I'm hoping this will also incentivize players to pay a little more attention to elements of their characters' lifestyle beyond mere expense.  Something that could lead them to keep certain items of plunder for themselves.  Luxuries kept on-hand would be added to a character's effective daily outlay, though probably not at 1:1.  This could lead PCs to wear jewelry and fine clothes.

Overall, I'd avoid penalizing PCs unless they are basically homeless.  These mechanics are meant to be much more of a carrot than a stick.

Magic for all!

I think I've come up with a system that, for me, balances the advantages of being a magician with the opportunity for any PC to learn spells.  Bear with me before I get to how the whole novice-magician thing works, because I'm going to have to lay some groundwork.

In Empress 3ed, as with 2ed, there are five spell levels.  Each spell has two Prices, which can be anything from long casting times to draining the stamina of the caster.  These effects scale by spell level, though not linearly, since the effects of the spell increase exponentially by level.  So the costs also increase exponentially.

A character can learn a skill for a spell like any other adventuring skill, but spell skills range from level zero to five, defaulting to zero.  

Quick aside: adventuring skills default to level one, and max out at level six.  They are generally rolled on D6 (equal or under) for task resolution.  Skill levels can be raised as a character gains experience levels.  Explorers improve skills faster than other classes, by far, at the rate of six skill levels per experience level on average.

It's very possible to learn a spell without developing the skill.  However, if a character has a skill level in the spell less than the spell's level, then the costs are increased as though the spell was two levels higher!

Leave Create Universe to the pros

Thus, if a character has a skill level of zero in a second level spell, then the exact costs he must pay to cast it are as though the spell was fourth level.  However, if the PC reaches second level in the skill for that spell, then costs are normal as per a second level spell.

This means that spells are a very costly proposition without skill, and developing skill for a high-level spell or many spells takes significant time.

If you're planning to learn more than a spell or two, however, the magician is the better choice.  The advantage of this class is that the character has a bonus to every spell skill level equal to his experience level.  Thus, a third level magician has the equivalent of every spell skill at level three.

This is probably a good time to mention...

Experience levels

A significant change in 3ed is that I'm capping experience level at six.  The reason is simple: PCs aren't superheroes.  Giants and dragons will always be extremely dangerous.  I've heard a lot of anecdotal evidence that high-level D&D play is boring and pointless.  And I've already discussed my interest in human-scale gaming.

This is always an appropriate reaction

That being said, sixth level in 3ed Empress is quite a bit tougher than sixth level in 2ed.  Hit Points per level are slightly increased: 2d6 for a warrior, 2d4 for an explorer and 2d3 for a magician.  So are the bonuses to things like saving throws and hit rolls.  And it takes a long time to reach sixth level...400 hours of play!


I'm pretty much adopting the ideas outlined in this post; there are now seven abilities: Toughness, Athletics, Dexterity, Mind, Spirit, Charm and Luck.  Armor Class is modified by Toughness, not Dexterity, because it's harder to hurt a tough guy.  Hit Points are modified by Athletics, not Constitution, because agility and stamina are central to what Hit Points really represent (i.e. ability to stave off mortal injury).

These guys are full of Hit Points

In both 3ed and 2ed at my table, I've been playing with the effects of initiative.  Right now, if a character with a higher initiative total attacks one with a lower total, they get +2 to hit.  This is supposed to simulate the effects of speed and tempo, so it takes effect even if the higher initiative character holds its action.

I've gone back and forth over whether the right bonus should be +1 or +2.  +2 seems reasonable, until you consider what happens when a player rolls low against a mob.  For 3ed, I'll probably go with +1, since characters already get a huge defensive contribution from a high Athletics.


These are some of the biggest changes for 3ed; there are many other smaller changes, of course.  I really like where magic is going and the kind of role it can play in the game.  One of my bigger gripes with traditional D&D is that the power curve for magic-users is unsustainable for long-term play.  They start pretty weak, but after a little while they become far more powerful than their fellows.

I've handled this in three ways.  First, the low level limit means that the curve never gets too long.  Second, the fact that any PC can potentially learn any spell means that magicians can't completely pull away from other PCs.  Finally, the fact that the exponential power of high-level spells is countered by exponential costs drastically limits the usage of high-level magic.

The general cap on power level is something I'm also fond of.  I believe that OD&D play was originally capped at 4th level, though that quickly changed.  I think sixth level is a nice place to cap it, because even if the party is overmatched, their higher HP totals given them a chance to learn that without dying.

Of course, it will take real-world tabletop experience to iron out the wrinkles.  I'll wait till the rules are solid before trying to get my players in on the act.  Once I get to that point, I'll be posting the amended rules on this very blog!  I know, so exciting...

Until then, my friends!

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