Heart [of the Game System] Surgery

'Oh, man - how many times have I told you? Measure twice, cut once.'

I took some time after my last post to stew on what to do with the Pick 2 game engine for Playthings. While the game play worked great, the initial concepts proved to be an initial stumbling block. The method of deriving stats, while simple in theory, proved to be too convoluted for players to grok quickly and I decided that before I could proceed any further I had to address changes that needed to be made to the very heart of the system. Heart surgery, if you will.

It hasn’t been easy to come up with a solution. Frankly, I was disheartened to discover that the one thing I saw as a selling point of the system – its simplicity – turned out not to be simple for players. It negated the whole point of the system and I wasn’t sure it could survive this sort of fundamental change. I struggled for a while trying to think up a way to fix the problem, but couldn’t come up with anything. Then I toyed with the idea of scrapping the system altogether and using an existing system, but I just didn’t like the idea of being beholden to someone else’s system.

Finally, with the deadline of Gen Con game registration looming, I came back to the idea of trying to fix the system. Apparently enough time had passed for a solution to present itself, although it did require a sacrifice. The Pick 2 system was based on the (I thought) simple concept of “Body, Brains, Balance: pick 2”. The idea was that each area started with 1 point, but you moved one of those points to a neighbor giving you two, one, and zero. So far so good. Players understood that. Then from these points the ability scores were extrapolated. This is where problems began.

For starters, people had trouble with the concept that any action required two skills, even if it was two of the same skill. So you would have, for example, Body/Brains, Body/Balance, and Body/Body (or Double Body). In my mind this seemed really easy, but this was consistently confusing to players. I believe the problem is a matter of labels. The ability names confused players.

This, however, was not the biggest problem. The biggest problem was the zero. Since you had two, one, and zero to work with for ability scores that meant that one of your abilities, even when doubled, would be zero. In nearly every game I’ve run there was at least one time where a person needed a particular skill (say Double Body) but they had a zero for that ability, meaning that unless they had some sort of bonus in their Features, they had no chance of succeeding. Definitely not cool. I knew that I had to fix this.

The hard decision to make was that I had to give up the “pick 2” concept. It simply didn’t work and had to be abandoned. However, the actual mechanics of the system beyond that were fine.  So basically I needed a simple way for players to come up with their ability scores and I needed those abilities to have unique names.

The names were the easy part. In essence, what you have is Power, Constitution, Willpower, Concentration, Intelligence, and  Cleverness. But since the game needs to be kid-friendly I went for simpler terms: Strength, Grit, Will, Focus, IQ, and Wits. Done. So now instead of asking for a Body/Balance roll I ask for a Wits roll, and instead of asking for a Double Body roll I ask for a Strength roll. Simple. Quick. Specific. Problem solved.

As for how to come up with ability scores, I decided the easiest way was to give players a point pool and let them fill the ability buckets as they wanted. But of course if you allow them to do that then you’ll always have that one guy who puts everything into a single ability, making them useless in almost everything, but damn near unstoppable in that one ability. Plus, the whole problem was having a zero ability score, so clearly some boundaries had to be set.

So first, how many points should they get? That was pretty straightforward. The scores previously broke down to four, three, two, two, one, and zero. Total that up and you have 12. However, that divided a little too easily; they could just have two in every ability. I want players to have to choose at least one ability that is better than the rest. I want them to have to make that decision because it forces them to think about their character and in what area they excel. The answer: add one more. Make it 13. That way it doesn’t divide evenly. That way, the players can have almost all twos, but one ability has to be at least three.

This was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t solve the zero problem. To fix that I decided to set some limits. All scores have to have at least one, but can be no more than four. This gives the players flexibility, prevents power stacking, and eliminates zeros. We’ll see how this all plays out, of course, but I feel like this new approach addresses the most glaring problems with the system.

Now there’s just one last problem to solve. Since you’re no longer picking two, the name Pick 2 Engine no longer works. So what to call it… Hmmm…

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting