Thursday, February 21, 2013

In Which The Warlock Advocates Awesome-Sauce...

One of the biggest issues leveled at D&;D 3.x was the concept of "rules bloat". After only a few years, the game was stuffed to the gills with sourcebooks, splatbooks, accessories, and "Complete" guides that were anything but. Each of these books tried to lure in players with promises of new prestige classes, new skill uses, and new feats.

Ugh. The feats.

How many Feats does
a Hero really need?
Feats, in concept, are a glorious idea. An independent sub-system allowing you to customize your skills and combat options? Sounds great! The problem lay in the fact that most feats simply weren't worth taking. They were either too convoluted or too situational to justify regular use or the bonuses they provided were simply bland. Countless feats providing a ubiquitous +2 bonus to two skills took up page after page of text, nearly all of which went unused.

Other games aren't immune to this trend. Savage Worlds has Edges, Ubiquity has Talents, HERO System has Advantages, and nearly every other saga me out there has some kind of feat-resembling mechanic. And that's fine, but rarely do these feats do more than provide basic mechanical bonuses. The "Ace" Edge, for instance, provides a +2 to Driving, Piloting, and Boating rolls in Savage Worlds. Yes, it's a great bonus, considering the default target number is 4, but it doesn't really fill your head with visions of hairpin turns, ramp jumps, or barrel rolls.

When I sat down to write Cold Steel Wardens, I wanted to ensure that an unpowered vigilante could hold their own against a powered metahuman, using their skills, gadgets, and wits. A good portion of that feel came in creating a skill-driven system.  The majority of any character's points in CSW will be sunk into various skills, not the least of which are the three combat skills:  Unarmed, Armed Ranged, and Armed Melee.

Masteries, however, I wanted to be different.  Rather than simple skill bonuses or the like, I wanted Masteries to represent new and alternate uses for skills, opening new combinations and avenues that could provide entirely new methods of crimefighting.

Unfortunately, I fell into that same trap as so many other games.  The overwhelming feedback I'd received about Masteries is that they were simply too situational and not worth the points.  Why take a +4 bonus to picking locks, when you could spend those 3 points to increase your Fine Manipulation skill and reap a +3 on all uses of that skill, not merely lockpicking?  In revising the CSW beta draft, Masteries had to become more than that.

Batman, leaping into the middle of trouble!
Take, for example, The Batman.  I wanted to have a mechanic that represented Batman's ability to leap down into a crowd of thugs, intimidate them all, and start taking them out without dying under a hail of gunfire.  Batman in CSW might have taken the Brute Strength Mastery, which allows him to get a free Intimidation test at +2 dice, any time he succeeds at an Athletics test in front of a foe.  Pairing with that, The Dark Knight could take the Untouchable Mastery, which penalizes those hapless mooks on any attempt to hit our paragon vigilante.  With only two Masteries and two actions, the Dark Knight can leap down from the rafters, scare the crap out of a group of goons, and even start laying into them with his various combat skills.

If I accomplish one thing through Cold Steel Wardens, I hope to make a game that allows players to walk that line between awesome comic-book invulnerability and the emotional weight of their actions' repercussions.  It's been a long time coming, but this book is going to be amazing!


  1. Savage Worlds had some great advice against feat bloat:

    "Finally, don’t feel you need a ton of new Edges & Hindrances. What you’re looking for is those few bits that make the world stand out, or enable a particular character archetype to function more effectively than he could if the new rules weren’t there. It’s not a good idea to go scouring every other book we’ve done and import all the Combat Edges into your world— it’s overwhelming to the players, unnecessary, and moves the game away from what it’s supposed to be: streamlined fun."

    The whole point for Savage Worlds was to make everything useful for some character concept in the setting. Granted, Savage Worlds is certainly not perfect and there are some that are definitely better than others (e.g. Marksman), but I definitely think it has one of the best systems. And it's the only system I know where when some third party setting advertises "50 new Edges!", the fans groan. The worst offender by far was Savage Worlds Earthdawn with 188 new Edges. The core book has only 108. Needless to say, it was poorly received for that reason and more.

  2. One thing you might consider is creating Masteries that provide a character-defining schtick. You already mentioned having a mastery or two that allow Batman to drop into the middle of a group of mooks and take them out. Run with that.

    For instance, consider a "Monster Hunter" character like Blade. He's all about exploiting weaknesses for monsters, so give a Monster Hunter mastery that lets him do it. For instance, maybe it reduces Called Shot penalties to supernatural creatures (e.g. driving a wooden stake into a vampire's heart).

    I think that Masteries should be things that define a character; a "power" in and of itself. +2 Intimidation is not a power, but causing an auto-fear check when you remove your mask or drop in or whatever is.


  3. Good comment, brother. I like the "Monster Hunter" idea--I might drop that in as is. Right now, I don't have a lot of Masteries that require the Esoteric knowledge skill.

    And, you're dead on with Masteries "defining" a character. To me, that's the degree of 'awesome' that will take them from being just another mechanical bonus to something much more.