Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Character Design

United Kingdom
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Original Post

One of the main recent changes to the game is moving towards developing my own characters. Having a character can make a big difference to the game, it keys into people's emotional buy in to the game and can be a good source of asymmetric gameplay. Characters also allow people to customise their gameplay experience, for instance a player who just likes killing stuff could customise their experience by picking a character that gets some sort of bonus for killing. A player who delights in finding ways to use botched spells to positive effect could pick a character focused on that.

Early on in playtesting it was good to use established characters. Players responded favourably to an image or someone or something that they recognised and it helped them key into who they were, how they might behave and why their special ability does what it does. However, I need to move away from other people's IP and develop my own for the characters for the game. This is more challenging as it's much harder to present an image that conjures up a body of information that keys into a specific character. Instead I need to piggyback onto player's general understanding of things.

In some cases this is easy enough. Trees have been a part of our collective mythology for a very long time. Whether drawing on biblical references or watching a lord of the rings film, something about the notions of trees as sturdy just sits right. Having the ability to defend against a disaster fits the character well, gives the player a role and offers a hook for the player to understand the world.

At this point I think that it would be good to discuss exactly what I have to work with and what I want to achieve with each character. In order to get the character across I have the following resources to draw upon:

Their name.
Their school of magic.
Their picture.
Their description.
Their quote.
Their special ability.

With those things I want to achieve the following:

Offer varied gameplay.
Make the character carry some emotional weight.
Provide avenues for the players to engage with the game.
Explain why the character doesn't know what any of the spells do.

All of these things also need a degree of consistency. It's no good having an ability that offers excellent gameplay if its fit with the character is jarring. I have a few basic checks that I use for each character, but I'm willing to deviate from them where I see the opportunity.

Varied gameplay almost always comes through the character's ability. I aim to write abilities that provide an answer to the question "If you were playing with this character, how would you play differently?" Bramblethorn's ability is only effective if he has runes left after casting, so he inclines the player more to stockpile runes before experimenting. He can also cancel the botches of other players in his room so there's an advantage for sticking together in a game that usually encourages splitting up. Finally there are some rooms in which experienced players simply do not cast spells, such as the library and lost room, as disabling those rooms with a botch can be crippling. Bramblethron can overcome that restriction so long as he has the runes to cancel his bothches.

Emotional weight comes from piggybacking onto existing world knowledge. Bramblethron hooks into a player's concept of 'tree' which is a concept so basic that for a lot of people it's rooted quite deeply.

Offering unique gameplay already offers a player a route into engaging with the game, but it's good to go beyond this. During the playtests some people have enjoyed playing 'in character', so anything that can enable those players without upsetting others aids accessibility. For this reason I'm trying to make sure that the quotes always involve some sort of speaking quirk that a player who wanted to could emulate.

Explaining why the character is in the wizard academy despite not knowing any of the magic is probably the least necessary step, but for some players the consistency of the world makes a difference. Making the descriptions or quotes imply reasons for this will improve the game for some people without being an obstacle to those who don't care.

I'm sure you can see how I've taken a similar approach to these things in designing this character. I bring him up to talk about his ability, I love the notion of abilities that dramatically change the way that people play the game. Generally it is bad for everything to be on fire, but Klicks turns this idea onto its head by gaining bonuses for being aflame. The notion was to create a character who personally benefits from starting fires, but of course the mana crystal is still harmed by them which could lead to a loss. This was intended to force interesting choices and to make the cooperative nature of the game more engaging as the character establishing their favoured environment hedges other players out.

Sadly this does not work so well in practice. Abilities that give the equivalent of extra actions every turn are extremely powerful; gaining a rune would normally require at least a room action. It's also fairly easy to isolate areas to start the fire; normally walling areas off is not beneficial as this causes them to be no longer connected to the mana crystal, which in turn means that runes cannot be collected there. Klicks is able to obtain runes despite this and enables a game breaking strategy.

I think there's a good core idea here though, I'm still going to find a way to include a character that benefits from everything being on fire. I just won't be this one.
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