A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

12Nov/13Off

One Unique Mutant

So in light of my last post regarding mutations, I've been doing some thinking.

A Step Back

Before I proceed with the full on development of this project, I had to stop and think of what exactly my goals are. I have a general vision, and I have the game mechanics to do it, but what exactly is the expectation? This whole idea popped in to my head because I was denied creating content for the-system-that-shall-remain-nameless... but is that really what I want? Is that really what everyone wants?

The thing with all the other systems is that they are significantly more complex mechanically than 13th Age was designed to be. Like I mentioned in the past post, I don't want to create a game based on the Archmage Engine that includes a new "feature" that consists of several dozen rather large tables, because that defeats the purpose and turns the system in to something it was never meant to be.

But I want what the-system-that-shall-remain-nameless brought to the table: diversity. You can be anything you wanted to be, and you can either play it serious or be as off-the-wall zany as you want to be. Want to play the hardened veteran driving his Interceptor, dog at his hide, down a barren road to nowhere? Yes, you can absolutely do that. Want to be a mutated chicken with an Uzi and a jetpack? A sentient gorilla that throws explosive coconuts and can call lightning? A giant tulip with a broadsword that can breathe fire? Maybe we can do that too.

So my goal is simple: I want to create a system that provides all these options, but doesn't overburden the game with thousands of new rules and tables in order to do so.

Balance

In doing my research of other post-apocalyptic systems, and reading through the lists of 100+ mutations some of them provide, I came to realize something: they are imbalanced as hell. While some mutations might be mundane or mechanically insignificant, others have paragraphs of mechanics and could end up being far too powerful. Skewing the balance too far in either direction makes it really difficult for the DM, mainly because every encounter and event is more or less balanced and based on the fact that each and every PC is more or less the same.

Let's take an example from D&D 4th Edition: horns. Tieflings and minotaurs both have horns, but while the tiefling's horns are just cosmetic the minotaur's horns are significantly beefier. Therefore, they have mechanics defined for them: all minotaurs have a gore attack as a racial power. But in order to be able to use those horns for a mechanic effect they have to give something up, so the gore attack is all they get at the race level. Tieflings have a different, not-horn-based racial power they can use, but giving a minotaur a gore attack and something else will suddenly unbalance the system.

Levels of Mutation

So before we decide what cost a powerful mutation will have, we have to define what they are.

For further discussion, let's use an example...

Example: Tom, a player, decides his PC is going to have a mutation that gives him wings because he wants to everyone to think he's some sort of demon and he wants to be an all around badass.

The way I see it, there are three possibilities:

Cosmetic

A cosmetic mutation has zero mechanical effect. It has no impact on the game mechanic at all. Players and PCs alike may choose to use it like they would a background or a "unique thing", but it should be under very specific circumstances and not all that often.

Example: Tom's PC has thin, frail wings that are incapable of flight. He uses them only to make everyone think he's a demon, but he's not very good at it. While having social interactions with NPCs he may try to use them to appear intimidating, but the wings are frail enough that he's not all that convincing.

For things of this nature, there really isn't a need to take anything away. As far as I care, so long as you don't abuse them functionally you can have as many cosmetic mutations as you like (within the limits of how many mutations you can physically have; we'll get to that some other time). So if you want to be a six foot tall rabbit with wings, a forked tongue, a unicorn horn and a tail... so long as none of those has a mechanical impact and are "for presentation purposes only", by all means knock yourself out.

Low Impact

The mutation has a modest mechanical effect, but it is only applicable in very specific circumstances and even then is not all that dramatic.

Example: Tom's PC has wings that he still can't use to fly, but they are beefy enough that he can use them to appear intimidating and be convincing. He can also use them to make a controlled landing when he falls from high altitude, similar to a wizard's feather fall spell, but doing so can be somewhat painful as it puts a lot of stress on his wings.

This category is the hardest to manage, at least in terms of a DM. It crosses a fairly thin line between "insignificant" and "major", and would be up to both PC and DM to decide how the mechanics are going to play out. This type of mutation should only have one, maybe two, special cases in which it can be used; any more and it stops being "low impact" and graduates to being "high impact."

I don't think this merits taking anything away from the PC besides limiting how often they can use the ability. For example, the ability for the wings to arrest a fall should be limited to once a day because of the stress it places on the wings. As a DM, I'd be very careful that something initially defined as "low impact" starts getting abused. Worst case, it gets promoted to "high impact" and has an associated cost.

High Impact

The mutation has a major impact on everything the player does, and pretty much has to be taken in to consideration regardless of what they may be doing.

Example: Tom's PC has wings that would make dragons jealous. He wants to be able to fly at altitude, use them to block incoming attacks, use them to make attacks and be an overall demonic badass that makes everyone cower in fear.

I sometimes hate players like this, but that's a separate topic.

Being able to fly, especially at altitude, is what many will call a "game changer". It significantly alters the tactics of any fight, and could be abused more than you can imagine. D&D 4th Edition restricts flight significantly for that very reason; pixies, human-shaped insects that should be able to fly wherever the hell they want, are denied high altitude flight for that reason. Letting them continually get out of range and fly circles around their opponents grossly tilts the balance scale in their favor.

This is the sort of thing that either has to be documented fairly rigidly or agreed upon in full by the DM and players, and a mutual agreement has to be made to ensure that the rules are not only worth the cost (we'll get to that later) but don't break everything the DM has planned.

For example, some of the possibilities on how wings of this nature can be used and how they may translate to mechanics:

  • Tom's PC can look intimidating as all hell when he spreads his massive wings. This can provide a bonus to skill checks in social interactions, similar to backgrounds.
  • Tom's PC can wrap the wings around his body forming a shield. This would require a standard action and would grant him a +1 bonus to AC and PD until the start of his next turn.
  • Tom's PC can fly, but he will get fatigued easily. If he takes off and ends his turn at altitude, he is weakened (save ends). If he is at high altitude or been aloft for long, it becomes a hard save (16+). If he fails a save, he falls.
  • Tom's PC can use his wings to perform a wing beat attack (Target: all engaged opponents, Attack: Highest attribute + level vs AC, Hit: Level x d6 + Strength mod damage, Miss: Level damage). He can only do this once per battle.

Needless to say, these are some serious mechanical advantages. But, after mutual discussion, they actually sound cool when you think about it! And I'm always an advocate of doing cool stuff at the table, so it wouldn't take much to convince me to use these rules... but there has to be a cost. So to get all of that, or maybe part of it, it'll cost you a feat. And the advanced abilities of the wings (such as flight or wing beat) may cost you a second feat at Champion Tier.

Conclusion

Given all that, here's what I'm thinking.

  • You can have as many cosmetic mutations as your body will bear, without any cost besides physical and biological stress (we'll cover that another time). I will probably document some examples, but I don't know if I will document 100+ possible mutations. Maybe in a supplement...
  • Several "high impact" mutations, at least the most common ones that I can think of (wings, cybernetic limbs, tough skin, etc...) will be documented. Some of those mutations will also have secondary and tertiary feats associated with them, all with a mechanical effect. A PC can take one of these mutations in place of a feat, and the mutation will have a mechanical effect more or less parallel to what a feat of the same tier would.
  • Provide guidelines on how PCs and DMs can work together to flesh some of these ideas out, specifically the "low impact" options that tread the middle ground. I might provide some basic examples of "low impact" options as well, but won't spend too much time on them.

So do you have any ideas?

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