Multiplying your possibilities
Hey all, It's whatever Wedensday, and you know what that means! It means whatever I want it to mean. And this week I want to share a story about game design with you, one that leads to a very important tip. I've been hard at work putting together some content for an upcoming play test and I wanted to go through the whole process with my players. I wanted them to be able to create characters and pick and choose using a bunch of different abilities for the content I'm making. It was a fairly low level game and I have about 80 pages. each page had three or so abilities on it. I had about 240 abilities, which was a pretty good selection. I had a few hours left to work on things before people arrived. Each of these abilities had a cost to use, A cost to learn, a time required to use it, an element, a range and prerequisites. What I could have done was make probably three or four new abilities, maybe even five if I hurried. But I had a much better way to expand the number of options.
I instead wrote four abilities that could be taken to modify other abilities. You could now change the cost of learning a technique by taking on a weakness, you could make it take longer to use in exchange for reducing the cost to use the power, you could make a technique faster to use by raising the cost, and you could ignore some of the normal requirements in exchange for increasing the cost to learn it. Because these modifiers could apply to nearly every single technique, each one created a vast number of options. Now instead of 240 abilities, there were effectively 1,200. Now of course, there naturally would be many combinations that weren't as likely to be chosen, but they still existed. So by the time the players arrived to test, I had a massive plethora of customization, just from adding a few modifications.
Almost anyone is familiar with this sort of ability creation. DnD 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder all use metamagic's extensively to create millions of theoretical spells. (If you count, Silent Magic missile as different from magic missile). And some systems like Gurps and Mutants and Masterminds are built so completely on these abilities that they present infinite options.
As a game designer, these concepts are so incredibly useful for rapidly expanding possibilities that they should not be overlooked. But there is a danger to these sorts of things as well. If every player had, for example, 12 abilities, it would have taken 20 sessions to test all 240 abilities I had before. But by adding those four modifiers, it would now take a thousand sessions to playtest each combination once. And that's not even counting abilities that can be modified by more than one thing. If your system is carefully designed, and these modifiers are made with a lot of consideration, you can estimate that most of these new abilities will be benign. But if you want to test everything you need to be careful of how much theoretical content you're creating without actually writing. Look for and think about special outliers that might be unbalanced if combined with the right modifiers, and never stop looking at your own content in new ways.
Hopefully this has been helpful for all you up and coming home brewers and game designers.