Category Archives: Writing Basics

Writing Basics: Change Logs

Here’s another little professional tip about the game industry that I picked up the hard way, rather than having anyone teach it to me in a formal or tutorial setting.

You are going to occasionally be called upon to change and revise manuscripts. It’s useful to keep a list of those changes.

This can be a big annoyance and time sink… but it can also save you a great deal of time and grief if you need to pass information about those changes on to someone, or revert to previous versions, or try to figure out why a thing that used to make sense now doesn’t.

Obviously one way to make a “Change Log” is to create a separate entry for each change you make. You can note what, where, why, when, and who. “Bonus for the Baking Defensively ability in the Halfling War baker class changed from +3 to +6, in response to playtest feedback about its effectiveness — Owen, 2/05/2021.”

That gives you a easily-referenced list with lots of information you could potentially want later. It can also take longer to document than making the change itself.

Since most word process programs have a way to track and show all changes, another option is just to make sure those options are in use before you make any change, and save a copy with the changes still shown into your archive. When a project is done, you can accept all the changes and get rid of such notes in your final draft, but still keep old versions in case you need to hunt down a change. This is much less time-consuming, but doesn’t give you nearly as much extra info (should you need it three years later when hired to revise the old book, for example).

I personally try to split the difference. If I’m doing revisions, I try to keep copies of old versions with changes tracked. If I do multiple major revisions, each one has changes from previous versions accepted, and then new changes tracked. And whenever something seems *important* for me or a developer or publisher to know, I create a comment within the document explaining it.

It’s a little extra work all the time, but a HUGE help on the rare occasions when it becomes important.

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Benefits (and Drawbacks) of Compatible Math Between RPG Subsystems, Pt. 1

Most ttRPGs have subsystems to handle different tasks a character might attempt, or threats they might need to overcome. For example, a game might have a rule for seeing if an attack hits a foe, a different rule for seeing how much damage it does, and a different rule for efforts to heal the wound over time. Often these rules have some sort of mathematical underpinning tied to a random number generator (dice cards, and so on) that determines success. Sometimes the systems have compatible math… and sometimes they don’t. In this series of essays we’re going to look at the pros and cons of having subsystems be mathematically compatible, and what kind of design pressure may lead to each system.

Now, to be sure, these trends of mathematical subsystems that interact with some randomizer to generate values of success and failure are not universal. Some games have only a single system and it applies to the success or failure of everything. Others manage to model success without randomizers, or even math in general. As a result the observations in this essay don’t apply directly to all ttRPGs, but only to a (broad) subset of them. For example, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow is a diceless system that uses math differently than, say Fantasy AGE. Similarly, Dread does away with random success chances in favor of a tension-building minor physical challenge, and while it’s not quite accurate to say it’s math-free (as having to do something once, vs having to do it twice, is a mathematical concept) it certainly isn’t using math the way most ttRPGs do.

However, even if these game systems don’t interact with math and randomizers in the same way as the items I’ll be discussing in more depth, that doesn’t mean some of the same pros and cons may not apply. Especially for people interested in modifying existing systems (or wanting to try their hands at designing a system from scratch), thinking about how different kinds of tasks are resolved, and whether those resolution mechanisms should be based on the same underlying rules, is useful regardless of what the game mechanics in question are.

I’ll also note that I find examining lots of different game systems useful to gain a greater toolkit of ideas and mechanics I can use for my own designs. While some mix-and-matching might feel weird (I wouldn’t recommend adding a Jenga Tower resolution mechanic to a card-based ttRPG game… at least not in MOST cases…), often being aware of a wider range of designs can help inspire new solutions to old problems (or, at least, help see potential problems and unintended consequences in advance).

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$200 of Game Publisher Advice in 60 Seconds

Game publishers sometimes pay me to consult on ideas, issues, problems, or plans they have. Unsurprisingly, often the people most interested in advice are ones who aren’t sure what their questions really are. Often the trick is to get to the core issue someone really needs help with, and once they know what they don’t know, the client can make great strides on their own.

On more than one occasion, it’s taken $200 worth of time to sift out that what the client really needs is to ask themselves these questions. The people who have paid me to get here all seem happy, and have come back to pay me for more consultation, so despite how simple this seems once it is laid out they appear to have gotten value for the time and money spent getting to this point.

But, while I don’t want to talk myself out of future gigs, I DO want anyone struggling with game publishing, who ALSO falls into the category of folks who can benefit from asking themselves these questions, to have a chance to do so much more easily and cheaply than paying me to consult and not having any idea what their core problem is.

So, here’s among my most common end result on consulting:

For your company, and each game line, and each game product, ask yourself:

What is your target market?
What market do you think you are currently reaching?
Where do you think is a better place to reach the market you want?
Are there other markets that might be interest you haven’t thought about?
What else could you afford to do, in terms of time and resources, to reach those markets?
When you do get the attention of customers in a market, can they quickly and easily find out why they might be interested in your product? Can they then quickly and easily be at a point where they can give you money for the product?

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Writing Through Grief

Whether you write as your whole career, just do some freelancing, or write only for your own satisfaction but are driven to do that, it’s going to come up. At some point, you are going to find yourself needing to write while experiencing grief.

I wish this essay told you how to do that. It doesn’t. It can’t. I don’t know how. Every time I find myself having to do it, it becomes a new problem, because every moment of grieving is different. The problems grief causes change. Sometimes I lack motivation. Sometimes I find myself getting angry. Sometimes I can’t see the screen through the nonstop tears.

Whenever I talk about writing while grieving, a slew of well-meaning people come out and tell me to just give it time. I know they think I am just being too hard on myself, but I come from more than 20 years of writing professionally. This is my job. I’m a full-time freelancer again. I don’t get sick days, or bereavement. If I don’t write, I don’t get paid.

And yes, most people in the industry will cut you slack when you are dealing with something hard, but there are limits. Printers wont change their print dates for you. Conventions won’t shift when they are happening so you can have a big release bump a month alter than planned. People who make money by selling the work you are writing can’t hold off on payroll until you can get yourself together. Some projects have lots of slack built in, others have used it all. It’s worth talking to the people you owe work to, but trust me friends and fans, sometimes I have to write.

Other commentators want me to build everything around their favorite grief roadmap, such as the 7 stages of grief. If someone is totally unaware of some of thinking on how grief works, mentioning the existence of various roadmaps can be useful. But, again, I’ve been here. I know the maps are out there, and I also know the map is not the map is not the territory. Some grief follows different paths. It may jumble the order, or hop back and forth, or find brand new trails of misery, especially through my already-compromised brain.

So, advice from the outside tens not to do me much good. Support can help, like a blanket against the cold–it doesn’t make the cold any less, but it helps you to weather the storm. Of course some support helps more than others, and beyond noting that support that does not give pointless advice or make demands on me in return for the support has a much better track record than those that do, I can’t really tell you which will help more for any given grief.

Because every grief is different, and I can’t analyze it until i am at least mostly past it.

But the grief itself is not really the problem when writing. It’s the symptoms it causes, and those I can try to work through. Sometimes I’ll be successful. Sometimes I won’t. But I’ll get more writing work done by trying than by giving up on it.

So, what have I found works best?

*Accept that it’s not going to be as fast as if you weren’t grieving. Yes, maybe you need it to be for career purposes, but reality often doesn’t play nice with career goals. Take steps accordingly. Reach out to people you owe work to see which projects can spare some slipped deadlines. Cut back on expenses. Consider scaling back optional projects. Whatever you can do to reduce the impact of your reduced capacity.

*Prioritize. Don’t spend a lot of mental time and energy on it if that’s hard for you, but take a moment to decide what is most important. There’s very little as annoying as realizing you’ve been grinding through something you could have skipped, and not touched the crucial thing that needs all your time and attention.

*Write down every step you take. I, at least, suffer serious memory issues when grieving. Having a single place where I keep track of any deadlines, extended deadlines, changed project scopes, and so on, lets me go back and see where I am on things.

*Consider timing things. Need a break? Decide how long you need, set a timer. Having trouble focusing on work? Decide to hammer on a project for 20 minutes, then walk away. Need to do some online research? Set a timer so it’ll pull you back if you go down a rabbit-hole. Much as I have trouble remembering and tracking things when i am grieving, I often lose track of time. A nudge that I’ve been checking Facebook for 10 minutes when I meant to look up a single thing keeps me from wasting what time I have.

*Forgive yourself. If you can. If not, see if you can get therapy to help you forgive yourself. Some things are going to go wrong. I can’t say anyone else will forgive you, and you may make life hard for others or end up damaging your career. But you know why, and there’s no point in adding guilt or anger with yourself to the heavy emptions you are already carrying.

*Make self-care checklists. I often wallow in my grief, and if I am not sleeping, eating, taking my prescriptions, or socializing at all, my writing is going to suffer. Yes, sometimes I need to put off socializing to make more time for writing, or pull an all-nighter because the drop-dead deadline is 8am, but for the long haul, you can’t be an effective writing machine without fuel, downtime, and maintenance.

I wish I had more advice. But the one thing I can add is that writing through grief is possible, but will always take more effort and produce less results. Try to be kind to yourself and others when you have no choice but to give it a try.

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Starting With Ideas: Really Wild West “Oddities” (for Starfinder)

Fairly often, I get asked how I START a big project. Like, if I know I want a chapter of magic items for the Really Wild West, where would I begin organizing my thoughts and planning that out?

Assuming the pagination and wordcounts was already done by someone else, I’d start with ideas.

Especially for a series of elements using the same basic rules subsystem (such as the features of one character class, a series of magic items for one campaign, feats, spells, new superpowers, whatever), I like to start the conceptual work by spitballing ideas to myself. This isn’t an effort to create completed rules elements yet, just to begin filling out what kinds of ideas I want those rules elements to cover.

There are numerous advantages to this for me. First, I can begin to hash out a tone and flavor for the section. Second, I find it easier to figure out how to use rules to model concepts if I have several of those concepts already in a hopper. Third, often coming up with interesting ideas is the important part of a project for me.  I can’t do it all in one sitting. By making a list early on, I give myself time to iterate, modify, and even reconsider if I need to.

After I have a fair percentage of the ideas I think I need, I’ll go back and begin turning the ones I like best into full rules elements. this lets me see how much wordcount those take up, which lets me know how many ideas I’ll need to fit the space.*

*(Unless the project is based on a specific number of items– like a list of 100 NPC catchphrases or 2 things to do in a dungeon when you’re dead, in which case I still like this process but the thing I learn at this stage is if I need to modify how much info I am putting in each entry to the pre-determined number of items will fill up the pre-determined wordcount. IN this case the feedback loop may be more likely to tell me if my concepts need to change to be more of less detailed.)

I often do ideas in three big waves–when I first start a project, when I run out of those ideas I started with, and when I have a good idea how many ideas I’ll need to finish it. Sometimes one or more of those waves isn’t needed–occasionally I find my first brainstorm gave me everything that will fit, for example. I also jot down ideas as they come to me when I am working on other parts of the work, or even other projects.

So, what do I mean by spitballing ideas?

I just want some sense of what the item is going to be. Maybe a name, maybe a description. If I have some idea of how the rules for the idea should work, I jot that down.

Here’s an example of those spitball ideas (cleaned up to a standard format for presentation on its own, rather than as notes only I will see). These are concepts for “Oddities,” magic items that occur as a result of weird events and energies, rather than being created intentionally, for my Really Wild West setting. Each of these gives enough info to see how it might work in game, but doesn’t yet worry about things like item level, cost, and any special rules Oddities may have as opposed to typical magic items.

RWW Glass Eye

(Art by i-pciture. Of the Eye by the Witch Hazel Pentafaust)

01. Weathered copy of a leather-bound book titled “Diplomacy Through Other Means.” It has hardness 20, 20 hp, and can be used as a light simple melee weapon dealing 1d4 damage (+1d4 per 4 ranks of Culture you have). You can’t add Strength (or any other any ability score modifiers) to damage dealt, but do add you ranks in Culture.

02. Pearl-Handled corkscrew. When screwed into people (normally a full round action that requires they be restrained and which deals 1-2 hp) it forces them to reveal their name, even if they don’t know it themselves.

03. Small hourglass filled with dark blue sand. If flipped and allowed to run normally without being moved, when it goes off it casts a random summon creature (or a random spell level) which no one has any control over. It lasts 1 hour if not otherwise damaged or dispelled.

04. Single old scarf about a yard long, with a smoke stain near top. Does not conduct heat (but can burn), thus can be used as perfect oven mitt or grant fire resist 20 for a thing you touch with it.

05. Zippo lighter with the kanji for “stork” on the side. If used to illuminate a written word medium (scroll, book, so on), the text within it slowly scrolls by in the shadow created by the flame.

06. Wire-frame glasses. If kept tucked in a pocket, halves falling damage for possessor.

07. Stained paper map of Fort Harrison, Indiana, from 1823. If mis-folded and then opened, it creates a fog cloud (as the spell). The map itself is always torn free by a gust of wind that brings in the fog, and normally takes (4d4 – 1d4) x 10 minutes to find.

08. An 1888 John J. Loud ball point pen with green ink. Rapidly (and loudly) clicking the pen gives a +5 bonus to Perception checks, but only against people using Stealth.

09. Small box of “Court Orlock” brand safety matches. If thrown at someone within 15 feet they must make a Will save (DC equal to the touch attack roll to hit them) or spend 1 round picking up the matches. Has 1d4 uses per day.

10. Wicker Picnic Basket, with its own plates, cutlery, and stacking cups as service for 6. If loaded with food and taken out of any settlement and then used for an hourlong or longer picnic, the ort remaining can be interpreted as a diving device. It may act as augurydivination, or commune, as randomly determined by the GM. One of the picnic participants will then have an encounter within 1 week of a high enough CR that average treasure for that encounter would pay for a spell gem of the divination spell gained. The basket don’t work again until the creature using them has had this encounter, which doesn’t have any actual treasure associated with it.

11. Tortoiseshell make-up compact. Anyone who has the powder from the compact (requiring an successful EAC attack against an adjacent creature) blown on them is slowed (as the spell) for 1 minute, and the person who used it is slowed for 10 minutes. Only a creature not slowed can use it.

12. Dried pea. If placed up your nose, it grants a +4 bonus to saving throws against poison, and a successful save always ends the poison. Someone who knows you have it up there can get you to shoot it out with a successful dirty trick maneuver (replacing the normal options for dirty trick).

13. Cork table coaster. Anything placed on it doesn’t experience any passage of time as long nothing else is touching it but air. This DOES keep drinks cold (or hot) much longer, but it also prevents fruit from spoiling, dynamite from exploding, radioactive isotopes from decaying, and so on.

14. Wooden, obviously-toy pistol. When pointed at an animal and the trigger pulled, causes the animal to talk randomly in French for 1 round. There is a 10% chance the first time it  is used each day the animal says something useful and relevant to the user holder.

15. Worn leather coin purse. As long as nothing but coins are stuffed into it there does not seem to be a limit how many fit in, but they can only be added or removed at a rate of 4 credits per round.

16. Tablecloth-sized parchment with complex diagram for an unidentified steam engine. If placed on a stationary, prone creature the piping diagram changes to represent the organs (and injuries) or that creature, granting a +5 bonus to Medicine checks with that creature.

17. Old-style iron key. Fits in any lock. Can’t unlock a lock, but can lock it. If it was already locked, the next person to touch it takes 1 point of electricity damage.

18. Small pot of glossy black lipstick. Never runs out. The first time each day someone wearing the lipstick is damaged by an attacker the wearer has not ever damaged, the wearer may kiss a weapon. That weapon delivers critical hit effects (but not critical hit damage) against that attacker the first time it successfully hits and damages the attacker.

19. A granite die with 20 sides, numbered 7-26. Anyone with this on their person is lucky (gain one reroll each day, rerolling after you see the result of a roll and taking the better of the two results) except in games of chance (always roll twice and take the worst result for all games of chance).

20. Carved whalebone whistle. If blown directly in someone’s ear is heals them for 1d8+1 damage, and they are deafened for 1 hour per hp healed. If the deafness is removed early, the healing is also removed. It cannot heal someone temporarily deaf from this effect. The healing appears to be the revelation the wound wasn’t that bad to begin with — there’s never any actual sign of improved health. A person cannot benefit from this again until after they next expend 1 RP to regain SP after a 10-minute rest.

21. The Sinister Glass Eye of the Witch Hazel Pentafaust. This cracked, yellow glass eye spins and looks about of its own accord. When held in a closed fist, it causes you to be shaken (despite any immunities you might have) and automatically be able to identify any spell you see being cast.

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On Creatives During A Pandemic

Hey, creative person.

Yes, you.

I get it. You have deadlines, and responsibilities, and bills, and people counting on you. People tell you to be kind to yourself, to take a break, to ease up… and you can’t.

I understand. I promise.

Only you can know what can be back-burnered, and what can’t. I won’t pretend to be able to give you advice on that front.

I also want to assure you, the trouble you are having now focusing on things? The lack of spoons, or inspiration, or concentration?

That’s the new normal. I can’t say we are ALL dealing with it. Maybe there are some folks who aren’t having trouble right now. But I haven’t talked to any creative that isn’t.

There’s an additional cognitive load on all of us. Worry, planning, concern, frustration, fear… those things take a toll. that toll comes directly from your brain.

The brain you use to be creative.

So, while I can’t tell you to take a break, or take it easy (because I don’t know if you are in a place where you CAN do that), I do want to encourage you to remember things are not normal.

Whatever you would do if you had something dragging down — illness, technical problems, jury duty, whatever?

Global pandemic qualifies for the same measures.

And everyone gets that.

d20 Design Diary (Part 6)

This is the sixth in my series of class-focused d20 Design Diaries. I suspect I only have a couple more posts to go on this topic, but we’ll see how the topics actually shake out (and what kind of feedback I get).

If you followed class design steps in the order I have written about them, we’ve settled on an appropriate and interesting class concept, set up the right class progression tools, made sure we are following (or at least only breaking by intent rather than by accident) the game’s style and etiquette, looked at how many options you want for each level of your class and how that impacts complexity, and discussed spell access and progression.

But we still need to talk about spell lists. Specifically, do you give your new class access to one (or more) existing spell lists, or make a brand-new spell list? And, it turns out, that.s a pretty complex question that depends very much on the game system you are using.

So, you know, let’s start by saying studying what that system does and how it handles those questions.

Also, it’s very important to know if you are building expansions classes that are in addition to a *core* set of pre-existing classes or are building a whole set of classes from scratch. Most of the advice here is directed at the former case. If you are in the latter situation, there may not even be pre-existing spell lists for you to borrow from. In that case you’ll need to make decisions about how many class lists to build from scratch, and the following advice may still be applicable to that decision.

Certainly the more you want a spell list to have a very strong theme tied to the class’s concept, the more you should consider a unique class spell list. The more you want the spell list to interact and grow well with other publisher’s content, the more you should consider using an existing class list.

In Pathfinder 1st edition, classes have access to a hodgepodge of class-specific lists, sharing class lists, and mixing class lists. The bard has its own spell list for example (though the skald later gains access to it as well), while the warpriest just has access to the cleric list (though it gets most spell levels later in its own level progression, when they are less powerful compared to the challenges being faced). Both sorcerers and wizards use the sorcerer/wizard spell list, though it has specific spells only one of the classes can take. Hunters get both druid and ranger spells (and gain access to ranger spells much earlier than rangers do, potentially making them more powerful compared to the challenges faced when you first access them), but inquisitors have a unique spell list.

Counting only official classes, no alternate classes, and only actual spell lists (as opposed to formula lists for alchemists and investigators), by the end of its run Pathfinder 1st d had 16 separate spell classes. On top of that, all of the class spell lists are defined as being arcane, divine, or occult.

In that environment, it seems insane to create a brand new unique class list. First, there are tons of lists with different themes already. Second, each of those lists has been expanded by so many supplements (official and otherwise) that any new lists is either going to fill a small book on its own, or have many fewer options than the 16 existing lists. Further, if someone is adding content from other publishers, those 3pp spells won’t even know to suggest what new spells should be on your unique class spell list.

By the same token, by the time a game has 16 unique spell lists, it’s hard to claim a 17th will be the bridge too far for design weight.

Pathfinder 2nd edition, as a counterexample, has only 4 spell lists. Absolutely every class has access to the arcane, divine, occult, or primal spell list. Some classes can pick what spell list they access based on other class features (such as the sorcerer), and many classes have access to a very small number of “focus spells” unique to their class. This includes both classes with access to a traditional spell list (such as the bards and their occult spells), and classes with no other spell access (such as champions). While it would be possible to build a whole 5th spell list (akashic magic, perhaps, or runic magic), this would likely only make sense if designing multiple classes that accessed it, or perhaps writing class variants of existing classes that accessed your new magic type. However, adding a small number of focus spells to any new spellcasting class, but otherwise tying them to one or more of the 4 existing lists, seems an excellent way to both benefit from that class having unique and flavorful spells of its own (new focus spells) and benefiting from ties to a growing standard spell list that other books and companies can expand. Pathfinfer 2nd ed also has things such as spell rarity which could be used to create “new” spell list options (such as creating a magister class that has access to common spells for multiple lists, but can never gain uncommon or rare spells).

By contrast Starfinder goes the opposite route, and give every spellcaster their own unique spell list.

Starfinder only has 3 official spellcasting classes so far of course, and each also has the same level of spell access and spells/day. That certainly sets an expectation for players that a class focused on spellcasting would likely follow the same path. There are many potential reasons to not go that route (if creating a mechanic/technomancer hybrid class, the Dronemancer, that only had access up to 3rd level spells, it might well make sense for it to have the technomancer spell list), but again the key point is to know what tools are at your disposal, and study how the core game (or similar games, if you are starting from scratch) use them.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th ed also gives each class its own spell list (at least in the Player’s handbook), including the sorcerer and wizard, who shared a spell list when the sorcerer was first introduced in 3rd edition. There is greater variety in both spell access (paladins and rangers only get up to 5th level spells), and how the class uses spells (warlocks and wizards have very different game mechanics dictation how they interact with and use their spells). The larger number of lists makes it more likely that you can match a specific class’s theme with an existing class list or combination of lists, but it also drives home player expectation in much the same way Starfinder does.

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that whether a game has dozens of class spell lists or just three, d20 games almost always have some basic spells that appear on multiple (or even all) spell lists. the most flavorless and utilitarian spells are often there, from detect magic to light. By the same token, most such games have at least a few types of spells that are kept off specific spell lists, in the tradition of “clerics don’t cast magic missile, wizards don’t heal.”

But honestly, that’s another whole blog post worth of commentary.

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Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 2)

Last week we began a line of Design Diary entries discussing how to create a character class from scratch for a d20 class/level based game. We tackled a number of questions about the concept for you class then, and now it’s time to look at taking that concept and turning it into playable game mechanics.

And that starts with the tools d20 games give you to define the base competencies of your class, and how quickly they progress.

Class Progression Tools

The heart of a good character class is its special abilities, but you don’t have to start with those. In fact, beyond a general idea of what you want its special abilities to be able to do, as part of settling on a class concept, I prefer not to focus on special abilities until I have more of the class’s framework in place. That framework is made up of various progressions — health, skill points, class skills, beginning proficiency, base attack bonus, base saving throws, and spell progression.

In most d20 games, there are only a few progressions available for these, and they are often interconnected in non-obvious ways. For example, in 1st edition Pathfinder, a class that gets a “full” base attack bonus progression (+1 to bab per level gained) always has at least a d10 Hit Points per level (the sole non d10 full-bab class is the Barbarian, who gets the slightly-larger d12), and no one gets a d10 or higher Hit Die unless they have a full bab progression.

In general, you want to have a balance of good, moderate, and bad progressions. In some cases those progressions already come in those quality levels–in most d20 games your base attack bonus progression can be good (+1/class level, like the barbarian, cavalier, fighter, soldier, and so on, also known as a “full” bab progression), moderate (+2/3 levels, like the bard, cleric, envoy, mechanic, and so on), or poor (+1/2 class levels, such as the sorcerer, witch, and wizard–interestingly Starfinder has no classes with this progression). In these systems it’s easy to see that if you give a class a good attack progression the focus of that class is combat, if you give moderate bab progression it is going to have numerous combat options but will either need abilities to make it more effective, or must accept that combat is a secondary function, and if you give it a poor progression it’s never going to be good at combat without special abilities.

There are some built in potential problems with those progressions that show up over 20 levels of play (the gap between a fighter’s chance to hit and a wizards goes from as little as 5% at 1st level to 50% or more at 20th), which several newer d20 games have tried to solve by having very different ways of rating who is combat. pathfinder 2nd edition has a flat progression of everything from level (+1 to attacks per level for all classes), and uses five ranks of proficiency (untrained, trained, expert, master, and legendary, or U/T/E/M/L) and class features to differentiate which classes are combat-focused. Most classes are at-best trained in various weapon categories, while the fighter begins play  expert in some attack options. Similarly 5e has a flat “proficiency bonus) (ranging from +2 to +6) which classes can add to various attacks, defenses, skills, and ability score checks, and class features (the barbarian’s rage, the fighter’s fighting style) determine who is good at the raw math of combat.

The best way to begin a character class is to see how many good, moderate, and poor progressions (or whatever similar mechanics the game in question uses) a typical class gets and which classes have which progressions. Normally a class that is strong in combat has weaker skill options but more HP, and characters with strong spell abilities have weaker saving throws. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but you want to make sure every class both has strengths and weaknesses, and that it’s bonuses and game mechanics support what the description and flavor tell players the class is good at.

That last element can be tricky, of course. If you have a Combatant class (not a great name, but fine for example purposes) which you describe as the best class at combat, and a Big Boxer class which you describe as the best at unarmed combat, it’s going to be frustrating for Big Boxer players of the Combatant is better even at unarmed combat than Big Boxers are. On the other hand, you don’t want all the flavor and mechanics of a class to just be a difference on where they get their bonuses. You could have an Archer class and a Smasher class and have their only different be the Archer gets big bonuses to ranged weapons and the Smasher gets them to hammer attacks, but that gets boring and tightly locks those classes into narrow character concepts.

Spellcasting deserves a special note here, because not every class gets it, and it has a huge impact on character effectiveness. The most obvious variable in levels of spellcasting is what level spell a character gains access to–in early d20 games it’s often a question of 4-level spellcasting (such as the paladin and ranger), 6-level (such as the bard and all official Starfinder spellcasting classes), and 9-level (such as clerics, druids, and wizards). But even within that there are important distinctions such as how effective a spell list is at specific things (the wizard spell list has more and better offensive options than the cleric, for example).

Again, not every d20 game keeps this set of progressions (5e has 5-level and 9-level casting, PF2 has 10-level casting and access to specific focus spells), but each game generally has a few standards you can borrow when building the superstructure of your character class. If you don’t feel like you know what the progressions and proficiencies of the core classes of the game you are designing for are, you need to do some study and analysis before you try to write a character class for that game.

You don’t have to get all this right in your first pass–if a class initially feels like it’s going to be strong at skills and spellcasting and weak on everything else, and then analysis or playtesting reveals that limits its options too much, you can go back and beef up some other progression to give it more core competency. But handling your initial idea of progressions, proficiencies, skills, and spells up front also helps define where things like special abilities should go. If a class doesn’t gain any spellcasting (or mutations, psionics, superpowers, miracles, or whatever) in a game where such powers exist, it’s worth thinking about how that class is going to deal with things that DO have supernatural powers when writing the class’s special abilities.

Because special abilities are the heart and soul of most classes. And we’ll look at them, especially fixed abilities versus customizable abilities, next week!

PATREON

These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.

Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 1)

I have designed a lot of character classes for d20 games.

Many were based on specific exiting intellectual properties, such as the classes I did for the tabletop EverQuest RPG, Star Wars Saga Edition, Wheel of Time, and Black Company. Some were inspired by such an intellectual property, but not designed to emulate it exactly such as the Dragonrider, Godling, Solarian, and Time Thief. Others were just inspired by some niche I saw that looked like a good place for an entire character concept to live, but not inspired by any specific existing work, such as the Armiger, Magister, and Templar.

I have developed a lot of character classes designed by other game writers. Many of them fall into the same kinds of broad categories, though there are also those that simply had to exist in order for a game to have a broad range of playable options, such as Starfinder’s Envoy, Operative and Soldier, and others were specifically trying to stretch a game into new design spaces and experiences, including the Character Operation Manual’s Biohacker, Vanguard, and Witchwarper.

(And, it’s worth noting, in most d20 games the name of a character class is not capitalized. I’m bucking that trend here, because it makes it clearer to me when i am talking about a fighter, as a generic term for one who fights, and a Fighter, a specific d20 character class. That said, when you do your writing, match the style your publisher uses if writing for someone else, and know what conventions you are choosing to buck if you do it differently when writing for yourself.)

Designing a character class from scratch can be a great deal more challenging than designing some smaller element that existing in an already well-defined niche. If you create a new spell for example, you can compare it to other spells available to the same classes at the same spell level, as well as comparing it to spells of higher and lower level, to get a good grasp of how impactful the spell should be. Additionally, the spell only impacts the game if it is cast in a given encounter. If it turns out to be unbalanced, you can generally exclude it from the game environment with little fallout.

A new class, on the other hand, interacts with the entire game system, is the primary way players impact every encounter, and if a player takes one every aspect of its design is constantly being tested and explored and removing it from the game is much more difficult. If it’s a class that fills a specific conceptual niche, removing it from a game can skew the entire feel of the play experience.

That said, despite its increased complexity, import, interaction, and potential complications, designing a character class is at its core still a matter of using the tools available in a game and assembling them in a way that creates a new option. I find it is also generally both extremely fulfilling as a d20 designer, and a great way to learn how the intricacies of interconnected rules work in a specific d20 game.

But it can be extremely intimidating, and it’s useful to break it down into a few discrete steps, at least until you are far enough along in the design you have a framework to hold other ideas on.

So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be doing weekly Design Diaries takign a look at the needs, tips, tricks, and pitfalls of d20 Class Design. And we’re going to start where I think all class design should — The Concept.

The Concept

I strongly believe that the first step of every class design should be to have a concept for what the class is supposed to do. This is a mix of how it should interact with the encounters you expect to be a major part of the game, what you expect it to do to help a team of adventurers overcome such encounters, what a player will expect a member of the class to be able to do, and what the class is going to look like.

Some of the “what does it do” questions are pretty obvious. Most d20 games have a heavy focus on combat, so you want to make sure the class has interesting and effective choices in combat. It doesn’t have to be the most effective combat class (in fact if the game already has classes in it, you likely don’t want to create one that’s better at combat than all of them or you’ll steal spotlight time from an older, better-established class). Most games also have at least a few noncombat challenges, which are often broken into social encounters, investigations, and physical challenges. Some games add specific other forms of encounter, such as starship combat in Starfinder.

You want to make sure you new class has something to contribute in all of these types of encounters. It can be less-good at one or more, both as a weakness to make up for being strong in other areas and as a way to help focus the class’s concept, but you never want encounters of a specific type to be no fun at all for a player. A great deal of classic d20 game class design is pretty weak in this area — most versions of the Fighter are pretty bad at social encounters, which can be more than half the game in some campaigns.

And you can’t fix a gap like that by giving a class an option to sacrifice its core function to pick up secondary competence. This is both because players are unlikely to make such a trade-off (and thus still aren’t having fun in encounters where their character class has no meaningful contribution), and because if they make the choice in too many ways to weaken their core competence, they may not be able to do what the game (and GM and other players) expect them to be able to. A Fighter who i a master negotiator and investigator and starship engineer, but who can’t *fight*, is likely to leave their party in a lurch in combat encounters.

On the other hand, you don’t want your concept to be that the character is good at everything all the time. First, that makes it difficult to have more than one class, since if all classes are good at all things they all feel the same. Second, it’s boring. Players want to have effective options in most encounters, but they also want to be challenged. Also, some players WANT to skip some encounters, or at least minimize their interaction with them, because they don;t like that kind of roleplaying. Some people choose the Fighter exactly because they want to avoid being pressed to be the voice of the party.

If your concept seems too one-note, it can be useful to look at how fictional characters of a similar trope act in various encounters. The surly warrior in fantasy shows and movies may seem not to do anything during social encounters, but if its a major character they actually normally are more impactful than you might think at first glance. That impact might be limited to telling the charismatic talker who the surly warrior does not trust, or glaring down opposing surly warriors, but those actions can easily be gamified as things a player can have their character be doing while the talking goes on, Perhaps the Fighter class should have an Aura of Confidence, which makes it more difficult for their allies to be intimidated or bluffed, but only if the Fighter has “sized up” specific NPCs. The sizing up and granting of confidence is largely invisible to an outside observer, but are still, game actions that allow the player to contribute.

Many concepts can be boiled down to being the Fighter, the Rogue, or the Spellcaster, so it’s a good idea to make your class concept broader than that (unless, like Fantasy AGE, you only want three classes in your game). Some other elements that can inform a concept are focus on a specific kind of magic or fighting (necromancers, summoners, archers, assassins, and so on), knowledge and wisdom (a form of skill expert different from the rogue), religious and spiritual elements, social skills, and unique power sources. You can flesh these out more as your design evolves, but it’s useful early on to decide your Priest has divine abilities gained from worship of a god, your Sorcerer has innate powers like a comicbook superhero, your Warlock has dark powers gained from a contract with some fel entity, and your Wizard is a learned sage who has picked up spells and incantations through pure study and dedication.

It’s also important for your concept to be one that is deserving of it’s own *class*, rather than being an option of a build within a broader class. For example, the Soldier in Starfinder has fighting styles, ranging from Arcane Assailant to Sharpshoot. The broad concept of professional fighter has lots more room to vary that way than if we had made Sniper its own class. A good test for a class concept is if you think any existing d20 class (even ones from other games) can easily have your concept as a sub-options. If yes, your concept may not be broad enough.

Also ask yourself if you can think of differing build options within your class concept which are different from build options appropriate to other classes within the same game. For example, if you wanted a Starfinder class that just controlled gravity, that feels a lot like a sub-build of Solarian, and most gravity-controlling sub-concepts are going to feel like they could be Solarian specialties. If you broaden the class concept out to be a telekinetic and telepath, that gives you much more scope to define a class and make it different and distinct from the Solarian, even if your Psychokinetic has gravity control as one of its specialties.

Once you have a rough concept, you should write it down. You can keep it flexible–it may evolve as the design progresses–but it’s worth looking at your original concept as a guiding principle if you want to course-correct later on.

Then you can begin looking at the tools the game give you to define your class and convey information about what it is supposed to do to the players and GM. But we’ll talk about that next week!

PATREON

These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.

Writing Basics: Revisions

So, you have a finished draft of a game project. You’ve checked that it meets your wordcount requirements (neither too much nor too little off the mark – I try to hit within 5% of the exact wordcount total, and I consider being off by 10%–whether over or under—to be a failure to hit wordcount), the formatting is what your publisher has asked for (so if you used ANY table function of your program, you have replaced it with what the publisher’s style guide calls for), and you’ve hit all the required topics.

Now what? Now, you get ready for revision.

Revisions can have a number of steps for game writing, depending on the project, time, and circumstance, but here are some common types. A project may have all of these, just a few, or none… though try to avoid not even having time for a reread.

The Re-Read

The best way to get a good revision on your own is to put your writing down for a couple of weeks, work on other projects and then, when it’s no longer fresh in your mind, reread it from the beginning. You are likely to catch a few places where the wording got muddled, or you didn’t type exactly what you were thinking. But you may also find some more systemic problems, such as discussing concepts in length before introducing them in brief, or contradicting yourself because ideas evolved as you wrote them (or you wrote two parts of the same section days apart, and misremembered what you said the first time).

This is also a good time to play developer with your own material. Do you see a simpler way to express the same idea? Is a rule system too complex for the value it gives the game? Is an option obviously overpowered, or under-powered, and you can see a way to fix it? Does something you thought was awesome now seem dull? This is a good chance to fix all those issues.

And if you aren’t sure about something? Just flag it for your developer/editor/producer. Leave a comment explaining your thought process and concern, and that you weren’t sure one way or another. Having comments and thoughts from the author can be a huge help when a developer is first tackling a project, and it shows you’re cognizant of potential issues in your work, but trust the people you are working with. While you are at it, put notes in about anything else that might be useful for your developer. A list of resources that need to be mentioned in a OGL section 15. Which bits of continuity are canon (and where you found them), and which are new elements you made up yourself. Anything that’s an Easter Egg (or even clearly inspired by existing IP—homage CAN be fine, but let your publisher know what you are riffing off of, so they can make that decision for themselves).

Playtest

If at all possible get at least SOME playtest in of any gameable elements. An adventure can be easy to do a quick playtest of—grab some friends (with your publisher’s permission to have people you are sharing the unpublished material with, if under NDA or similar restriction) and run through it once. Single stand-alone elements such as spells or feats can be trickier, but having people other than you use them in character builds can show if they are unexpected synergies, or are valued much more or less highly than similar options. Larger elements, such as entire character classes, can take months to properly playtest, but at minimum it can be useful to run a Rules Rumble playtest – have one set of players make characters without access to the new rules, and a second group make characters required to use the new rules, and pit them against each other.

If you find any glaring issues, fix them. If you find potential issues, leave comments for your developer/editor/producer.

Beta Readers

It can be useful to have people you trust take a look at your work to highlight any potential problems they see. Again, if you are under NDA or similar constraint, get your publisher’s permission for this. Sometimes projects with multiple freelancers working on it provide a way for those freelancers to go over each other’s work as it is created, which can be a great resource (but be sure you give back – if someone gives you useful feedback in that kind of environment, read through their stuff too). You don’t have to take a Beta Reader’s opinion over your own of course, but do consider their point of view. If a Beta Reader says something is unclear, for example, then no matter how obvious it is to you, you know it’s unclear to at least SOME other people.

Publisher Feedback

Publisher feedback is extremely important on any project they have the time and energy to give it to you, which is my experience isn’t that often. Ultimately if you don’t work with your publisher on their feedback, you may not get published. But the degree of how important this is varies from ‘crucial” to only “very important.”

Most freelance work written for the tabletop game industry is done Work for Hire, which means once you are paid you have no further rights to the work. You aren’t even considered the creator, for copyright purposes. When I am working on that kind of project, if the publisher gives me feedback, I consider it part of my job to incorporate that feedback, even if I disagree with it.

I ALSO consider it part of my job to point out why I think bad feedback is bad, but in the end if this is something for which I am providing content using someone else’s sandbox, and I have been hired to fill a certain amount of it with the kind of sand they want, I consider my job to be to give the publisher what they want. I often call this kind of work “content provider” rather than “author,” to remind myself of what my end goal is.

Things are slightly different if a publisher is partnering with you to publish something you retain the copyright to. It’s still crucial to consider the publisher’s feedback—one presumes you picked this publisher to be the venue for your work for a reason, but if it’s ultimately your project any feedback should ultimately be your call. (Though, you know, check your contract. Preferably before signing it.)

In Summation

The point of a First Draft is to get it done. The point of a Revision is to get it right. This can vary from tweaking a few things to realizing you have to tear out the heart of what you have written and start over (which can feel a lot like tearing out your own heart). In tabletop RPG design you often don’t have time for more than one revisions (though a developer may be coming along behind you to make another, out of your sight), so try to get as much feedback as you can, then apply what you have learned, make notes…

And move on to the next project. Never finishing revisions is a form of never finishing, and it’s often said “Game designs are never finished, they just escape their designers.”

Don’t be afraid to change things in revision, but also don’t be afraid to leave them alone if you think they’re good.

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