Monthly Archives: August 2021
d20 Design Diary: How Many Class Options is Enough (Starfinder Inquisitor example)
In the long run, this all comes back to the Starfinder Inquisitor I designed a draft version of. And, as a reminder, if you are a supporter of my Patreon in the timespan from today through tomorrow, you’ll get a slight-revised-and-expanded version of the class as a free pdf!
One common format of d20 game class design is to have selectable options as class features. These may be specializations — things you pick once that then give you fixed abilities as you gain levels (cleric domains, and sorcerer bloodlines are good fantasy examples of this, while mystic connections and operative specializations are the same idea in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game) — or may be a long set of talents that are abilities (some with prerequisites) you get to pick from every few levels (with the ur example being rogue talents, and everything from operative exploits, to mechanic tricks, and soldier gear boosts being iconic Starfinder examples).
These are things like will get endlessly expanded in expansions, campaign settings, houserules, and the blog posts of former-design-leads, so in the long run “enough” is “when the game stops being played.” But when the class is first introduced, you need to decide how many of these choices are presented to begin with. How much is “enough” to feel like there are a range of options with different focuses, themes, and effects. Obviously space constraints are always a downward pressure on these questions, but from a design point of view, you want there to be enough options at launch for players and GMs to have a feel for what kind of things you plan for those options to include, and for characters of the same class to feel different.
So, how much is enough? Well… it depends.
First, if you include bonus feats as choices (or the class feature is nothing but bonus feats, as with the fighter/soldier), you can count that as much more than one entry (depending on how many feats can be selected with the class feature). After that, it’s a question of how many different concepts you want to highlight, and how many such options a single character can take.
In this context, a character can only get a single specialization, so you don’t need as many of them. Talents, otoh, you usually get 5-to-10 of over the course of a single character’s career, so you need more to make sure that no member of the class is forced to pick the same talent as a different character with a different concept.
So, let’s look at the number of such class features that appeared in the Starfinder Core Rulebook, when the classes were first introduced. (I counted these by hand, so I might be off by 1 or 2 on one of these entries — which is fine, since I am looking for an idea of the range of options rather than an exacting tally.)
Improvisations – 28
Expertise talents – 19
Artificial Intelligence – 2 (One being the drone, which has ANOTHER set of selectable options)
Mechanic tricks – 30
Connections – 7
(The mystic also has spells, but that’s a bit different from selectable class features)
Specializations – 7
Exploits – 38
Stellar Mode – 2
Stellar Revelation – 31
Gear Boost – 12
Fighting style – 7
(These are in addition to gaining bonus combat feats at regular intervals, making the soldier highly customizable even with reduced number of gear boosts and fighting styles.)
magic hacks – 31
(The technomaner also has spells, but that’s a bit different from selectable class features)
It’s remarkable how similar some of those numbers are. It’s clear if you have an option that runs most of a class’s 20-level career, such as mystic connections, operative specializations, or soldier fighting styles, you want 7 of them to start. If you are doing talent-like choices, you want 20-40 of them (depending on how much the class depends on them, and how many other custom class features it gets).
So, what do we do with this knowledge?
Let’s apply it to our Starfinder Inquisitor., which is schedule to appear in a “full” version in the book Starfarer’s Companion II.
That class has inquisitions, which are very much in the “specialization” category for the kinds of class features we are discussing here. I only have one of those written up for the draft –the Battle Inquisition. I’m not going to have more than at-most one more for the free pdf version going to Patreon supporters, but when I release a “final” version of the class I’ll want 7 of those total. Offhand, I’d likely choose Battle, Madness, Occult, Solar, Technology, Tyrant, and Void for these first 7 slots, to give a wide range of options tied to both common Starfinder tropes, and inquisitor tropes from other science-fantasy fiction.
The class also has inquisitor tactics, which fill our “talent” design space. One of those — Team Tactics — is going to grant option to a range of teamwork feats designed for the class, so we can likely skew toward the lower end of the 20-40 talent number, especially since the class also picks either advanced melee weapon or longarm weapon proficiency at 1st, AND has spells. There are only 10 in the draft, so that number will need to be roughly double in the final version.
Want to see what I add in the slightly-expanded-and-revised pdf for my Patrons?! Back my Patreon now to find out!
Creating With Mental illness: Prioritizing And Impossibilities
I’ve made no secret of the fact I have multiple mental health challenges, including civilian PTSD and depression. This has been true for my entire nearly-25-year career, and I’ve faced a lot of difficulties as a result. As a ttRPG writer and developer, I deal with deadlines a great deal. As someone who can suffer executive disfunction, the core tasks needed to hit deadlines are sometimes impossible for me. There are days I am literally unable to multitask, plan, organize, and, yeah, prioritize.
If I were smarter, I’d have gotten out of the deadline business. But I am stubborn and strongly, weirdly, dedicated to creating (and trying to promote and improve) tabletop roleplaying games.
Which means over a quarter-century, I have developed some coping mechanisms. None work all the time. Many make only a marginal difference. But deadlines, budgets, projects, and deadlines are often won or lost in the margins. If something lets you average 2,050 words per day rather than 2,000, over 52 five-day workweeks, that’s an extra 13,000-word project done every year.
One of the things I have to deal with is the conflict between prioritizing, and the things at the top of the priority list being impossible. I can’t fix that conflict, even though it happens over and over, but I can work to mitigate its impact. In no particular order (see #2), here are some coping mechanisms
1. Don’t Wait To the Last Moment
Your deadline is 4 weeks away and you think you need 2 weeks to do it? See if you can be done in the first 2 weeks. If yes, then you can get a jump on the next thing, and no mental health issues in that last two weeks can make you late. If not, you at least have a feel for what the project is really going to take, and two more weeks to try to get it done. If you wait until the time needed is the time left, a mental health issue sidelining (or even just slowing) you means you will be late.
It’s also helpful if some issue means you are radically wrong when you estimate how much time you need.
2. Don’t Get Sucked Into Doing Work You Don’t Need To
Making a list of coping mechanisms on your blog? You may be tempted to prioritize them to present them in the best possible order. But if that is taking more thought cycles that just tying them out in any order does, maybe you are making work for yourself when you don’t need to.
I have found myself making outlines longer than the final product is supposed to be, spending days researching something that is going to be relevant for just one line of text, and writing the same thing four different ways to see which one is better. If you have the time for that and are ahead on everything else and have no the projects you’d like to start, that’s fine. But in the real world, there are better ways to spend to your time.
3. Attack Any Task You Can From Any Angle You Can Whenever You Can
Sometimes my brain works best by carefully planning ahead, making lists, figuring out what I need to do when and for how long… and sometimes the only thing it can focus on is writing about halfling battle cheese. That’s fine if halfling battle cheese projects are my priority, but even when they aren’t, that may be the only thing I can work on. If I have multiple projects, and I simply cannot make my brain do any of the work three of them need, then I need to prioritize among those things I CAN do.
This is crucial, at least for me. Spending time psychically flagellating myself for not working on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd most important thing is NOT more useful than actually getting work done on the 4th, 5th, or 6th most important thing. Depending on how disastrously close to failure those 1st three projects are, I may ramp up the internal pressure to try to force myself to get them done — but if I can’t, then I can’t. Acknowledging what is impossible, and then still prioritizing among what isn’t impossible, is the best route forward for me.
Of course, this means I also must regularly re-assess what’s impossible for me. Just because I began work on a lower-priority task doesn’t mean I need to finish it before moving on to something else. Indeed, sometimes there mere act of accomplishing something gives me the strength and focus I need to tackle something harder and more important. My contribution to more than one award-winning game came not in one smooth run, but in jerks and jolts as I tackled some crucial part of it, then had to go away to work on less-important things until I could do the next difficult bit of writing.
4. Be Honest With Yourself
You can’t fix every shortcoming you acknowledge to yourself, but you can’t even try to fix any lie to yourself about. It hurts to say “I am going to miss this deadline, because my cPTSD won’t let me work on it, again, for the fifth day in a row.” But that’s still better than trying to believe you can write 15,000 words of quality work in 24 hours, with enough caffeine and snack food to keep you going the whole time.
And if you USED to be able to do that, in your 20s, 30s, and 4s, and now that you are in your 50s you can’t anymore? You need to be honest about that too.
5. Be Honest With People You Are Working With
This is super-hard some days, but it is the ethical, practical, empathetic option. You can’t build a sustainable, long-lasting career on just not communicating when things go bad (it’s often called “going turtle” in the ttRPG industry, and it’s a well-known bad sign), or constantly claiming the dog ate your hard drive.
Things DO happen sometimes. If you got driven out of your home by a hurricane a day before a turnover was due, by all means tell the people you are working with what happened while you can. But honesty is always the best policy.
6. Track The Impact Different Kinds Of Projects have On Your Mental Health
For many creators, not all creative work is created equal. I, for example, can more easily write about my process and mental health and industry insights than I can write descriptions of fictional worlds and their societies. I can much, MUCH, more easily write crunchy player option game rules within an existing ruleset than I can write an encounter for a GM to run as part of a published adventure. And writing some things is more likely to leave me depressed, fatigued, or dysfunctional.
You often won’t know about these differences until you have done several different kinds of writing. But as you go through the career of a creator with mental health issues, keep track. Was the War Clans of the Half-Pint Bakery a nightmare because you were having a bad month and other factors in life impacted you? Or does any project focusing on warfare set off mental blocks you don’t get on other assignments?
7. Forgive Yourself
All the best intentions, your strongest efforts, and the smartest coping mechanisms may fail you from time to time. If you beat yourself up over that, it’s just more fuel for the next round of executive disfunction. There are plenty of other people ready to castigate you for every delay, dip in quality, shuffled schedule, and dropped ball. They don’t need your help to point out your flaws. Keep an eye on #4 and #5… but then forgive yourself.
This writing is work, and it takes time from my other paying projects. If you got any use out of this article, or have enjoyed any of my content, please consider supporting my Patreon to cover the cost of my doing it. You can join for the cost of a cup of coffee a month.
Being The Cruise Ship Singer of ttRPG Design
Years ago, I was watching a singing competition reality show tryout, when one of the judges told a singer they weren’t good enough for the show. They had no chance of being a pop star, or become famous. they were, the judge said, good enough to make a living being an act singer on cruise ships.
The contestant and other judges reacted as though this was a significant insult. The judge was annoyed by this reaction. “I just told them they were good enough to make a living as a singer. That’s not true for everyone. I’m not doing them any favors by suggesting they can be more successful than their talent allows!”
While that obviously simplifies a lot of factors–the ability to improve, a god producer or agent, luck, determination, changing public standards and genre preferences–I suspect there’s a grain of truth in that critique. Pre-pandemic, there were more than 300 cruise ships operating worldwide, each with one or more theaters offering various acts nearly daily. That’s a lot of stages to fill with singers, and while it doesn’t pay as well as being a hit singer, there is a paycheck involved along with travel, room, and board.
And a lot, a LOT of work. Some singers go on for hours every night, 6-days-a-week, with a few 15-minute breaks. Very few cruise singers do the job for their whole career and then retire. Most run contract-to-contract for a few years, and then move on to some other career, possibly coming back for short contracts between other gigs.
In this, I see a lot of similarities to ttRPG design.
Robin D. Laws famously said there are more professional astronauts in the U.S.A. than full-time ttRPG game designers. That’s especially true if you define full-time as making all the money needed to pay all your bills, and cover health insurance, and put away money for retirement. And of those full-timers, many are the equivalent of cruise-ship singers. Going from gig to gig, making ends meet by working hard, long hours and taking work better-known (better paid) designers don’t want. Most of them will put in a few years, often while younger, then go to part-time-at-most, or move on to other fields entirely.
But a few will stay with it for decades. Even fewer will manage the career alchemy to move into more sustainable positions. Some combination of getting better, changing preferences, good connections, and luck will propel them into full-time jobs with benefits.
That’s not a guarantee they’ll stay in those positions of course. My wife and I have moved cross-country for stable, full-benefit ttRPG industry jobs three times. Twice, that ended in a company layoff in less than a year. Once, the cost of living where the job was simply grew faster than the job’s salary. Even getting that rare unicorn of a full-time ttRPG job isn’t a sure thing, just another shot at maybe finding pop stardom… or at least paid insurance. Reaching the peak of the industry can end up being a visit, that raises your visibility, gives you a chance to improve, gets you more contacts… and then ends. So you need to look around for other ways to make it, just now with a better-looking resume.
And the more tourists might recognize your name, the easier it is to get a gig singing on a cruise ship.
Support My Patreon
If I am a singer on a cruise ship, consider this the big tip jar on the piano! The more support I get, the more time I can spend on writing.
If you enjoy any of my articles, please sign up, for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month! Patrons get access to asking me questions, periodic exclusive content, and good gaming karma!