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

9Aug/14Off

The 11th Skeleton

With the release of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit and Player's Handbook, I have decided to convert my long languishing adventure "The Coming Dark" to 5E. But, unlike other publishers who will remain nameless, I am not going to rush it out there, and no one's going to see a thing about it until (1) the licensing options are given, and (2) the Dungeon Master's Guide is released.

That being said, I have started to try and figure out how 5th Edition works in terms of creating adventures. In 4E, creating balanced encounters was rather simple because everything was equally balanced - given an equal level, five monsters were an even match to five PCs - but that's not exactly the case any more. Now it's more like 3.5E and earlier versions, where a monster's difficulty is reflected in an obscure "Challenge Level" which is extremely hard to calculate. I mean, after you stat up a monster how do you know what CR Challenge Level to give it?

That led me to wonder about balance in general, specifically how balance is determined. 5th Edition had an unprecedented amount of playtesters, so they had access to a variety of groups that could test and retest things in the hopes that they could determine what is balanced and what is unbalanced. But there's an inherent problem with that: not every group is the same, and not every player is the same. If an exploit exists, it will take a small handful of "high end" players to find it... so if something is taken advantage of by so few, is it really a balance issue? Can the game be unbalanced by something you're not even aware of?

So I thought about how some things could be experimented with... and the programmer in me realized that this is no different than load testing an application. When you do that, you don't run it a few times and see what happens. You run it a LOT of times and get the average results.

So I decided to create a simulator.

Combat Simulator

Objective

In the first scene of "The Coming Dark", the players are set upon by a large group of skeletons. But how many is enough? At what point does the encounter go from being a cake walk to a crushing defeat?

So I wrote a program to simulate 50,000 combats between two groups: the five pre-generated characters that are included in the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit versus an indeterminate amount of skeletons. How many skeletons does it take before the players are likely to be on the losing end of the battle?

The small little program I wrote takes a few considerations:

  • All the attacks are basic attacks. Every class uses its preferred melee attack except the rogue (which uses his shortbow) and the wizard (which uses the cantrip ray of frost).
  • The noble fighter and cleric are the "preferred" enemies of the attacking skeletons. These are the front line defenders, and likely the ones that stand between the skeleton and the wizards. Only when they both fall is the rest of the party at risk.
  • No high end magic of any kind. Needless to say this would quickly sway the encounter in the player's favor.
  • No healing. No action surge, no cleric healing, no potions, etc... again, this is something the players have that the skeleton's don't. This also means that the players will not use any limited resources during the combat.
  • No one gets advantage or disadvantage on any roll. For that reason, the rogue never deals additional sneak attack damage.
  • A natural 20 deals double the normal damage. I know this isn't precise, but it's easier to code.
  • All the damage is rolled; no averages are used.
  • The skeletons have an AC of 12 and 6 hit points each. They have a shortsword as a weapon, which gives them a +3 to the attack roll and deals 1d6+1 damage on a hit.
  • The PCs are the five defined in the starter kit: Noble Fighter (greatsword), Folk Hero Fighter (bow), Cleric (morningstar), Rogue (shortbow), and Wizard (ray of frost).
  • Since he deals bludgeoning damage and the skeletons are vulnerable to it, the cleric deals an additional die of damage on a hit. Again, not precise... but easier to code.

Results

I ran 50,000 iterations of each combat, adjusting the number of skeletons from 6 to 12. The simulations yielded the following.

# of Skeletons PC Wins PC Losses
6 49258 742
7 47238 2762
8 42606 7394
9 35178 14822
10  26024  23976
11  17060 32940
12  9388 40612

So, in a nutshell, the 11th skeleton is quite the badass. Players could more or less handle ten of them, but when that 11th one steps in things go to crap pretty quickly.

So what did we learn from this exercise?

  • It's very possible for PCs to trash a modest amount of low end minions without having to fire their big guns.
  • The above doesn't use healing at all, which means that even if the PCs get dinged about a bit they are still able to recover. PCs can win an encounter with 8 skeletons over 80% of the time and immediately go into the next encounter.
  • Dailies, spells, healing potions and other consumables - things that the monsters generally don't have - tip the scales considerably in favor of the PCs.
  • If you walk into a room with 6 skeletons in it, you can probably dispatch them fairly easily. As glorious as it might be, you don't have to nuke the whole room.

Until more concrete guidelines for monster creation and encounter balancing come about, I'll keep using this simulator and try to get a feel for how things should be. Over time, I might improve the simulator more and more so that it's more representative of each PCs actions in an encounter. Who knows? Maybe this will end up being a full on AI framework?

I can't help but wonder if WotC does this sort of analysis. Like I said above, sure they have tens of thousands of playtesters but it's such a diverse group with so many different situations that it may be hard to quantify. Not to mention that, if you present a specific combat situation to two separate groups, 99% of the time you'll get two different approaches and two different outcomes.

Can't wait to try this out on goblins and kobolds...

*EDIT*

If you're curious, you can view the C# source code for the simulator HERE.

4Jun/14Off

A Developer’s Hell

Gosh, it's been a while... To say my life has been hectic, or difficult, is somewhat of an understatement. So much so that I have had to effectively cancel my trip to GenCon this year because I see no way whatsoever that it can be logistically or financially possible. So, to those of you that are going, I will have no choice but to experience it vicariously through you.

Meanwhile, my little pet project - the Atomic Age RPG - has been languishing in something I can only describe as "development hell". Or maybe "launch a Kickstarter hell", if such a thing exists.

Here are my concerns with the project:

1) I have no art

Right now, at this very moment, I can probably launch a Kickstarter, distribute or sell the product... but I can't bring myself to do that. You see, right now at it stands it's nothing more than a text dump, an almost identical copy of the Archmage Engine SRD with some words and numbers changed. That does not make for a successful RPG by any means, and I feel that if I were to do that the product wouldn't last a day before disappearing into obscurity.

If I'm going to do this I'm going to do this right, which means that I need some sort of art. And there are many levels that need to be covered by art...

  • I don't even have a LOGO yet
  • The Kickstarter listing alone needs some sort of art
  • The core book needs art. A LOT of art, quite frankly
  • Everything else (stretch goals, backer rewards, etc...) needs art

Now I know a handful of artists I want to approach with this project, and I have even had business-like discussions with them, but with all of them there is a cost to get this off the ground. Maybe some will do it free, I don't know... I didn't ask and I don't want to ask. Like I said, I want to do this right: I do not want contributions or charity. I'm going to treat this like a business, which means I will pay my artists what the market bears.

That being said, although the cost of prettying up the core book and supplementals will be covered by the Kickstarter itself, the logo and Kickstart art will not and has to be paid first. The financial turmoils I've already mentioned make that rather difficult to do, and I can't bring myself to take the next steps without knowing - without a doubt - that I can afford my artists.

2) It hasn't been officially announced

I've mentioned the project in passing, and have even posted images of some of the content I've been working on, but it hasn't really been officially announced. There's a website, and a Facebook page, and a Twitter account... but few people know about it.

Why not? I don't have a logo, and for personal pride reasons I feel I can't start officially directing people to the social media venues without having a product identity.

So, until I can do that, they stay clouded in obscurity and amidst the whispers of a select few.

3) It hasn't been playtested

Because it hasn't been launched, few people know about it. Even fewer have actually seen it. Actually, I can only think of two people that have, and even those two have probably only glanced over it, figuring I wasn't quite serious about this whole thing because I haven't done everything I mention above.

For that reason, I have no idea if what I'm doing is "right" or "broken". I don't know if I properly grasp the concepts and game style people expect or look forward to, or if I've created any single element that needs radical changing before it gets abused all to hell.

Granted, the playtesting could theoretically happen during or after the Kickstarter, but as a long time game designer it's a serious concern for me. I've had issues before with games that weren't properly tested... Sure, this isn't a video game, but I feel it needs an equal level of analysis and testing before getting anywhere near production.

4) It hasn't been edited

I'll be honest: I'm a lousy writer. And if you're a writer reading this, I bet you can admit (to yourself, at least) that in the early stages of your writing career you were a lousy writer too. Heck, there are probably several dozen grammatical errors and misspellings in this post alone (yes, I know they're there... No, don't point them out).

If I want to do this right, the game has to be the best that it can be, and for that an editor is absolutely necessary. Yes, I know that the editor can do his job pretty much at any time before the product reaches the final stages, but that would mean that the early "alpha" or playtest releases might end up looking like they were written by a child who can't speak English. Once again, personal pride steps in... You can be the creator of the best RPG the world has ever seen, but if you give it to the world using text that looks like it was written by a monkey with a typewriter it doesn't matter how good the game is.

5) It's not done

In the video game industry, there was a time when if you asked pretty much any video game developer when they were going to release their product they would answer without hesitation "when it's done" (I guess we can thank 3D Realms for that one). But the thing is, if it were entirely up to me and my creative flow, what exactly defines "done"? Honestly, I could keep writing content until the core manual is 3,000 pages. Who decides "OK, you can stop now and publish this"?

Furthermore, as many authors will probably attest to, it's hard to be satisfied with what you've written. When you think you're done, you look at it and think "you know, I didn't like [X]... let me fix that"... And six months and 400 pages of rewrites later you keep thinking the same thing. It's very hard for a writer to stop themselves because, in their eyes, it's never done... it's never perfect... and there's always room to do something better.

Let's look at the classic example of someone taking forever to write something: George R. R. Martin. Do you honestly think he sits down and starts writing page one, then as soon as he writes the last word of page 1,200 sends it off to the publisher and never thinks about it again? Heck no. Let's be realistic here, there probably is at least one version of The Winds of Winter that is already written cover to cover... He's knows it's terrible,  he's probably been writing and rewriting and rewording and fixing it for the last four years, and will probably keep doing that for another four years because that's the way he works. If he had someone that made him publish the books when they were ready, we'd have fifteen books in the series by now. They may not be as awesome as the five books we've seen (they'd probably suck, to be honest), but they'd be out there.

So unless you're George R. R. Freakin' Martin, eventually you have to put your foot down and say "OK, I might have spent five years rewriting this thing eighteen times, and I know it's probably the worst thing I've ever written, but I can't keep doing this until the end of time", send it to your publisher and hope that you're the only one that thinks it sucks.

I know a lot of things in my product are deficient, or "broken", or nothing more than a "// TODO" tag. It's personal pride again, preventing me from having anyone besides myself see how bad or lacking this product is. Every day I write something, even if it's a sentence or a paragraph or changing monster #135's Mental Defense stat... But I know that at some point I'm going to have to force myself to stop and let other people look at this mess.

Anyway, besides the personal issues I will not elaborate on here, I have a lot of things to do and a lot of battles with my own pride to overcome. This product will get done, sooner than later, and I just have to get my crap together to do it.

Until the Kickstarter launches, "ever forward..."

27Nov/13Off

On The Road (Part 3)

Hopefully this will be the last of my series talking about the theory behind vehicle mechanics. If you're not up to speed, here is part one and part two.

Hardpoints

In the post-apocalyptic age, sometimes just having an average car isn't enough. You need to... how should we say... accessorize it.

Depending on the vehicle size, it will have one or more hardpoints, which are positions in the vehicle's frame where you can install something more. This may be as simple as an extra fuel tank or something more entertaining like an anti-tank cannon.

In the example we've been using, the Mad Max Interceptor Pursuit Special, Max had installed supplemental gas tanks that take up most of the rear of the vehicle. He instead could have installed some additional weaponry like a gun or RPG. These weapons do not necessarily take up the same space on the vehicle as the gas tanks do; the hardpoints not only reflect physical space but also reflect physical weight added to the vehicle. You try to drop a howitzer on to the back of the average car and you'd be lucky to drive it away from the shop.

With that in mind, we look at our three size categories:

  • Small (motorcycle, moped, etc.): No hardpoints
  • Medium (average car): One hardpoint
  • Large (18-wheeler): One hardpoint on the cab, three hardpoints on the trailer.

Now what can we install?

  • Extended Fuel Tank (1 hardpoint): We'll talk about fuel in a little bit
  • Armor Plating (1 to 2 hardpoints, depending on vehicle size): Increases Physical Defense dramatically
  • Booster (1 hardpoint): Anything from an advanced nitrous injection system to a full on rocket engine sticking out of the back. Something to make the car go faster.
  • Basic Weapon (1 hardpoint): Machine gun, RPG, etc...
  • Anti-Aircraft Gun (2 hardpoints): Designed specifically to aim upwards at aircraft
  • Heavy Weapon (2 hardpoints): An anti-tank gun, railgun, missile battery, etc...
  • Power Generator (1 hardpoint): Something that provides power to the vehicle, replacing the vehicles need for fossil fuels, such as a Mr. Fusion sticking out of the car's back.
  • Wedge (1 or more hardpoints): Something to get other things out of your way or ram other cars with

So on and so forth.

Abstract the Rest

Besides weapon damages (which are separate from the core vehicle and mechanics needed to drive it), there isn't much else that needs to be explained in vivid detail. Everything else, as far as I can tell, is up to GM and player interpretation

Fuel

In a post-apocalyptic world, fuel is somewhat scarce. Although some of the oil fields and refineries that dotted the midwest are still in operation, they are all under control of either The Warlord or The Desert Prince (both icons).

The question arises of how to keep track of fuel. I don't feel it appropriate to nitpick this, detailing a vehicle's MPG and exactly how long it has until it runs empty. I much rather prefer that GMs realize that a vehicle needs some sort of fuel and what the average expected range of a full gas tank will be, but I don't want them to be tracking it down to the gallon like some people use to track encumbrance.

That being said, the only thing that i may mention in a vehicle entry is what type of fuel it uses. Some vehicles may use good ol' gasoline, while others might have a Mr. Fusion installed on a hard point. Managing when a vehicle could, or should, run out of gas is up to the GM.

Another option is to simply have fuel become an issue when the plot demands it. In other words, the only time you'll run out of fuel is when it's a good time in the story to do so. If you're in a close race, battling dozens of marauders as they try to run you off the road, running out of fuel now is a death sentence and may bring the story to an end right quick. Instead, simply wait until the immediate danger is other and the party got away before making the car gradually glide to a stop and sputter out.

I intend to take a similar approach with guns... In a future installment, we'll talk about what I like to call "dynamic ammo".

Speed, Movement and Position

Just like movement is abstracted in a normal encounter, movement in a car should be allowed to be as equally abstract. We all know how fast cars can go and how quickly they can get up to speed; I don't see the need to overburden the rules with acceleration rates and maximum speeds.

Unless you're dealing with faster cars that have supercharged engines or dealing with slower cars that have taken damage, every car should be expected to be moving at about the same rate. As far as firing arcs, it should not get more complex than "behind", "in front", "left" and "right".

Combat and Damage

Like anything else in the world, cars can be damaged. How that is interpreted is up to the GM.

The thing about cars is that it's very easy to disable them; a single shot to a tire can cripple even the best of cars, but that's not exactly a thrilling conclusion and worthy of our heroes.So if a vehicle is taken down to 0 hit points you have to make a judgment call as to what exactly that means... if you think it's OK that the car stalls out go for it, and if you think that it's best that the car instantly explode in a glorious movie-like explosion don't let me stop you. But the former is the sort of situation that happens to our heroes, while the latter is something that happens to the bad guys constantly.

Vehicular Mooks

To put this all in to perspective let's go back to our shining example: Max is driving hard in his Interceptor and being chased by two dozen marauders. Now, if you gave each one of those marauders and their vehicles the same statistics that Max and his Interceptor had, Max would surely get creamed. So let's treat each one of these marauding vehicles as either a mook or as a monster with really low hit points.

Thinking about it, vehicles as mooks works fantastically. It allows you to have that dramatic situation where dozens of inexperienced drivers in weak cars band together and chase down our beloved heroes. I mean, you can just imagine these foolish mooks bouncing off the side of our hero's transport, slamming into a ditch, exploding in to flames upon the slightest bullet hit, etc... Let's say that Max points his gun out the window and fires at a nearby marauder, getting a critical hit and causing more than enough damage to take out two or three of them. Story wise, that's as simple as describing how the target lost control of the vehicle and skid into the path of another marauder, taking them both out. Whenever any marauder gets taken out, they should go out in a glorious display of carnage and vehicular mayhem, just because they can!

Now let's say that Max isn't exactly lucky in the die rolling department and the marauders end up causing enough damage to drop his Interceptor to 0 hit points. Even though the Interceptor is 50% gas tank, how anti-climactic would it be to have the car burst into a column of flame and kill Max instantly? If every marauder hit the Interceptor with a critical hit, would you still allow Max to die in such an anti-heroic fashion? Heroes don't go out that way, at least not usually, so Max will continue to fight until the only thing left of his trusty Interceptor are the floor mats.

In a nutshell, our heroes should always be able to walk away from an accident one way or another, even if the mechanics and the die rolls don't exactly reflect that. If a PC takes physical damage that would cause them to go unconscious or die, sure, but if their vehicle takes more beating than it could handle it shouldn't outright kill a PC unless the plot allows it.

Enemies, however, are not so lucky. When their car hits 0 hit points, it will take them out in the most gloriously dramatic way possible.

Conclusion

So the section on vehicles looks like it'll be shaping up like this:

  • A very basic section on the required aspects of a vehicle, as discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this article series.
  • Options for installing things in vehicle hardpoints.
  • A brief section on maintenance and repair of vehicles, which will cover both the Wheelman profession and engineers with vehicular proficiency (that's an optional class talent).
  • A great deal of descriptive text trying to explain how to manage the mechanics of a high speed chase without detailing every single thing in terms of a fixed ruleset. Some things may require concise rules, but I'll try to avoid that.
  • An example combat sequence: basicaly, describing a sequence similar to Mad Max fleeing from The Humungus and his crew.

Should be fun...

Anyway, that's it for vehicles for now. Soon I'll be talking about something else that will hopefully be just as entertaining.

16Nov/13Off

Class Acts

Who knew that designing an RPG was HARD?!?

In the past few days I've stepped away from documenting mutations, augments and other weird stuff and tried to decide exactly what classes were going to be in this thing.

This is, this is not a magical world, or at least not in the way you're familiar with. But I would like some sort of arcane-like option, so I've come up with a class I called a "channeler" which - through technology or innate power unlocked by mutation - can manipulate elemental forces. Apparently bright minds think alike because, without me knowing, that name is used in several other post-apocalyptic RPGs... So the name might change just so I don't look like I copied it. Who knows?

I also wanted something similar to a psion, who gains his power from technology's ability to increase the power of the mind. This power is mostly manifested in psychic attacks but can also affect the environment in such ways. This could open up the possibilities of things like telekinesis, clairvoyance, domination and fun things like that. For now he's called a "controller" but that will most definitely change.

That being said, these are the classes I'm currently planning:

  • Berserker: The stereotypical wasteland marauder, like all those guys in Mad Max. Right now it's functionally identical to the 13th Age barbarian.
  • Channeler: Able to manipulate elemental energy and bend the laws of physics around him. As close to a mage as you can get (probably closer to the 13th Age sorcerer than wizard).
  • Controller: Able to attack and control the minds of others, and also has some other options such as telekinesis. Basically a psion, although I have no intention of implementing power points or any complex stuff like that. My only problem with this class is that it becomes effectively useless against things without a brain, like robots. Logically that makes sense but mechanically it's no fun to be in an encounter and not able to participate in any way, so I need to come up with something they can do when they're fighting robots.
  • Engineer: The "tech savvy" class. I'm modeling this around a ranger but giving them a few tech options. For example, instead of an animal companion they can get either an autonomous robotic companion or a drone (which is the equivalent of a wizard's familiar). They aren't so hot in hand-to-hand combat, but they have a lot of tech support to back them up in a fight.
  • Scout: Like the veteran (see below), but much lighter and not so much a weapons expert. This would be somewhat of a hybrid between ranger and rogue.
  • Veteran: The "warrior" of the game, a mix of the paladin (without the religious aspects) and fighter. You've been around, and you've seen it all. A true weapon and combat expert.

I'm also debating a rogue-like "scoundrel" class, but that's still up in the air.

Professions

My intention with these classes is to make them basic and, especially in the case of the veteran, fairly generic. If you want to specialize your character, you can choose a Profession (which takes up a feat slot); for example, here are some of the Professions I have in mind:

  • Gladiator: The kind of guy you'd see in Thunderdome. Proficiency with melee weapons.
  • Soldier: Proficiency with guns (except sniper rifles)
  • Sniper: Proficiency with sniper rifles
  • Hacker: Able to infiltrate computer systems and robotics using a handheld "deck". This is the rogue of the tech world.
  • Wheelman: Expert driver. You even get your own car!
  • Field Medic: The closest thing to being a cleric. Basically the party healer.

These professions can be used in conjunction with any class. So, since there is no class that is the equivalent of a cleric, any character can take the Field Medic profession and become one. And if you want a channeler that can use a gun, you can choose the Weapons Expert profession and there you go.

More Than Rewording

Right now my primary issue is that things feel far too similar to 13th Age, but I'm not exactly sure if that's a good or a bad thing. For example, my implementation of the berserker is almost identical to the 13th Age barbarian. And the spells my channeler has are very similar to wizard or sorcerer spells, with some names changed... and some not (how many ways can you describe "fireball" anyway?).

Part of the benefit of using what's already given and re-fluffing it is that what's already in 13th Age has been tested for balance and playability. I don't have to reinvent the wheel and hold it's load bearing.

My hope is that the basics of the game remain the same, using the same mechanic that everyone is already familiar with, and adding more diversity through Professions and Mutations.Because of how many options there are going to be I'm debating increasing the number of feats you get at 1st level by one, but I'm not exactly sure what that's going to do to balance.

I also intend to have races have more of an impact than they do in 13th Age.

Lepus Sapiens

In the end, anyone can be anything they want. You pick the class and profession that's functionally what you want to be, then layer on mutations (small ones or big, feat-using ones) to make you appear like what you want to be.

For example, you want to be a giant rabbit with a gun?

  • Race: Humanoid. Get one extra feat and the Ready for Action ability (roll two d20s for initiative).
  • Class: Veteran. I haven't decided on the Class Talents yet, but you get three of them.
  • Profession (Feat): Soldier, which gives you the weapon of your choice that is considered your "signature weapon". You choose an assault rifle, like an M4. You get a +1 to attack rolls with your signature weapon and you also get the Quick Reload feat (reload as a quick action instead of a move action) for free.
  • Feat (2nd feat granted by race):  Nervous System I augment, which grants +2 to Dex skill checks and +1 to initiative. After all, you're supposed to be quick... You are a rabbit!

The fact that you're a rabbit is flavor text; it has no mechanical impact. Now, if you want to have a complex mutation just for being a rabbit, like being able to jump really far, you would replace the augment with it and come to a mutual understanding with your GM as to how and when that can be used. It doesn't have to be a highly detailed mechanic... If you're in combat and say "I want to jump", let the GM decide how to handle it right then and there.

Anyway, all this still requires a crapton of work and still may change drastically by the time I'm done. And I haven't even started to think about the 800 pound gorilla in the room: creating a crapton of monsters that won't get me sued.

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?