Saturday, June 30, 2012

Infinite Earths Overview: On Buffing and Debuffing

So last week, we gave you a kind of short post.  Let's make up for it this week, by talking about buffs and debuffs in the Infinite Earths roleplaying game system.

There are a lot of different ways to buff yourself in a lot of different systems.  Some systems use magic, providing a complex series of buffs with different modifiers to stats, some of which overlap and some of which don't, in a dizzying array designed to reward the most dedicated of players, the ones who can work their way through the dense language and find combinations so obscure it almost seems as if the designers couldn't possibly have intended them to work.

Other systems make it relatively easy to buff yourself, either by eliminating buffs wholesale or making buffs some kind of specific card or token that you get at the beginning of an encounter and maintain throughout combat.  Alternatively, some systems allow only a single buff on a character at a time.

Our goal was to find a method that would allow characters to buff and debuff simply, without a lot of arcane hoops to jump through, while still providing engaging gameplay and tactical use of buffing and debuffing.  We didn't want a system where characters buff up and then kill the bad guy--that's what World of Warcraft is for, and it's great at that.  Nor did we want a system where buffs were determined solely by a GM or were static throughout a combat.  We were not, however, opposed to limiting characters to a single active buff or debuff at a time.  The trick was, how do we create that limit (to reduce complexity) while still making buffing tactical and fun?

The solution was presented by Ray way back in January or February.  He proposed that rather than having a limited number of "buff slots," we could instead provide each class with a "Bolster."  The Bolster for each class would provide a different effect, and "buffing" would boil down to Bolstering the other characters in your party (or yourself).  This would ensure that buffs were always useful to your character.  Sarah then proposed a counter-mechanic, called a "Hinder," that could remove a Bolster from a character or, if the character was not Bolstered, would apply a negative condition to that character specifically tailored to that class.  And, for a while, we were set.

But there were problems with this mechanic.  Foremost, it was still a "buff at the beginning of combat and keep it on" mechanic, and second it would turn very quickly into a battle of vetoes.  I Bolster, my enemy Hinders me, we're back at square one with the buffs/debuffs having ultimately proven meaningless.  There had to be another way.

We then experimented, starting back in April, with the Bolster providing one reroll per encounter.  We didn't even think about having Bolsters or Hinders providing bonuses or penalties to rolls; we don't like that much math.  We very quickly changed the mechanic from "reroll, taking the second roll" to "roll twice and take the higher die," because we felt that the reroll didn't feel awesome and fun enough.

You might recognize that mechanic.  We did, too, when the playtest materials were released.  We were pleased to see it was a sound enough mechanic that the granddaddy of all roleplaying games was also flirting with it.  A little frustrated, admittedly, because it steals a little of our thunder, but that's all right.  We have more thunder.

The problem we kept coming up with, though, was the constant vetoing.  So then it hit us:  Bolsters and Hinders should be conditional, based on specific talented mechanics, to represent skills and abilities the characters have developed especially well compared to other people.

What this means is that characters are able to Bolster themselves through talents they take, and the Bolster is consumed by the action that benefits from it.  Here's an example:

Weapon Master (Bolster Talent)
You slash across your opponent.  He flinches behind his shield but, after a few heartbeats, he realizes that he still lives and grins at you.  "Is that all you've guh. . ." His self-satisfied smirk disappears behind a gush of blood as the new smile you gave him opens.
Roles: Combat Only
Mechanic: Select a single type of weapon (hammer, axe, sword).  When wielding a weapon of that type, you may Bolster an attack roll with that weapon once per encounter.  You gain additional Bolsters with this weapon type at levels 5, 10, 15 and 20.

Bolsters can be activated with a Swift Action, and are consumed as part of a Major or Minor Action.  You can apply Bolsters to yourself by purchasing conditional talents such as the one above.  Additionally, the Social Role can Bolster the entire group.  Bolsters provided by other characters are non-conditional--that is to say, they can be used on any d20 roll, including attacks, saves and skills.  The player always decides when to use any Bolster he has.

This allows players to take more control over their buffs, and allows them to use those buffs tactically, in the midst of combat, in a way where they are not buffed all the time and they are not debuffed all the time, but still have viable ability-boosters.

Hinders work much the same way, but they provide a "roll twice and take the lower die" mechanic.  Additionally, the player does not decide when to use any Hinder he has--the character that applied the Hinder decides when the Hinder is used.  That allows players to control, again tactically and in the midst of combat, how to debuff their enemies.  Hinders are non-conditional--they can be used on any d20 roll that is performed by the Hindered character during the combat encounter.

"Ho-hum, that sounds boring," you might be thinking to yourself.  We thought that to ourselves, too, that it might become boring.  So we came up with another way to make things exciting.  Have a taste:

Overcomplicate Matters (Hinder Talent)
You act quickly once you see the telltale signs of the spellcaster twitching his hands.  You can tell this is going to be a big spell, something really nasty.  You reach out your hands and start twitching them wildly, hoping to catch the spellcaster's attention--and you do!  You see him watching your hands, trying to figure out what you're doing, and you can tell he doesn't even realize he's mimicking your motions in the midst of his spell.  You grin as he tries to launch the spell and instead collapses into an exhausted heap. 
Roles: Combat Only
Mechanic:  Hinders that you apply to spellcasters may be invoked to cause a spellcaster's spell to require twice the mana it normally would.  This cost is paid immediately by the spellcaster.  If the spellcaster does not have enough mana to cast the spell at its new price, the mana is lost and the spell fizzles.  If the spellcaster is also a blood caster, the spellcaster must exchange morale for mana at the standard rate in order to attempt to cast the spell.

As you can see, you're not limited to just double-rolls, if you don't want to be so limited.  You can talent yourself into a horrifying debuff machine if you like.  Or you can largely ignore the mechanic entirely, your choice.

I hope this big post makes up for last week's skimpy one!  Have a great Fourth of July holiday, and make sure to stay safe and out of the heat!

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