Design Rule: Same or Different

As you can probably tell from the list of archived posts, I fell out of the habit of regular blogging in March of 2020. The short explanation is that I got really busy on a big writing project, so I let the essays slide while working on other stuff. Anyway, I think it’s about time to get back in the saddle again, so here goes. Until I settle on a theme for my posts I’m just going to go with “things that interest me,” which might be games, writing, interesting history, politics, or whatever.

Scroll down if you want to get to this week’s topic: a handy rule for game design.

What Have I Been Doing Lately?

I’m still with ZeniMax Online Studios, working as a writer on the Elder Scrolls Online game. I started that gig back in March of 2020 and was sent off to work from home two weeks later; I’ve been here ever since. I worked on big parts of the main story in the Markarth DLC (released last fall), the Blackwood Chapter (released in spring), and the Deadlands DLC (just released a couple of weeks ago). It’s a great team there, and most days I’m having fun.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you might recall that I moved across the country to take the job at ZOS. I can now report that my move from Seattle to the East Coast is complete. My wife and I sold our house in the Seattle area last year. After renting in Baltimore for a bit, we bought a house just across the Mason-Dixon line in southern Pennsylvania (a 25-minute drive to work for me, assuming light traffic). This is the first time we’ve been in a small town since we lived in Wisconsin back in the ‘90s, and we’re really enjoying the change of scenery.

Fiction Update

I’ve finished my first draft of Reality Storm, book 3 of the Axis Mundi trilogy I’ve been working on for Ulisses N.A., publishers of the TORG Eternity RPG. Publishing plans for the trilogy are beginning to take shape—as soon as I can tell you more about where and when you’ll see these books in print, I will. (One of the downsides of being a writer is that you sometimes don’t get to see the results of your hard work for years, but things do get to the audience eventually.)

Game Design: Two Things Should Be the Same or Different

Over the course of my career, I’ve come across some good “rules of the road” in game design. Here’s one I picked up from Jonathan Tweet when we were working on 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons: Two things should be the same or different.

That may seem tautological, so let me explain. Jonathan was referring to mechanical concepts in the game, such as feats, spells, magic items, and so on. His point was that any two of those things that are a lot alike but not quite the same should either be turned into one thing, or made more different so that each occupied its own design space. You don’t want players to spend a lot of time and effort working out minute advantages to one or the other—each mechanical artifact should have its own purpose that no other mechanical artifact infringes upon.

For example, say you’re designing a 1st-level wizard spell called ice armor, and it gives you a long-lasting +3 armor bonus to AC, plus 5 points of fire resistance. That’s a spell that steps all over the already-existing mage armor spell, which gives you a long-lasting +4 armor bonus to AC. Either you should drop your ice armor idea (making them the same, since there’s just mage armor now), or you should make ice armor more different. You might:

  • Make ice armor not long-lasting (but now you’ve made it strictly worse);
  • Reduce ice armor’s AC bonus and boost its cold resistance (but now you’re stepping on resist energy);
  • Make ice armor’s AC bonus higher but short in duration (which might step on shield);
  • Provide ice armor a different defense mechanism altogether, such as making it ablative armor. If ice armor gave you, say, DR 5/magic until you took 10 points of damage, it would definitely look and feel different from mage armor. And the game might have a place for a sort of minor stoneskin spell.

Of course, if you take a big step back, ultimately both our revised ice armor and the original mage armor are doing pretty similar work. They’re improving your defense by making a couple of enemy swings do no damage. Ice armor stops two typical low-level hits. Mage armor “affects” 20% of the attack rolls against you, by changing a hit against your AC into a miss against your boosted AC. If enemies swing at you 10 times while the spell’s running, that’s two hits you made into misses. (But mage armor scales up better for higher level characters, because high-level monsters dealing lots of damage on a hit will always care about the hit chance but might blow right through a measly 5 damage reduction.)

If I recall correctly, the “same or different” rule came up mostly in looking at spells that offered slightly different bonus types to similar actions: say, a +1 sacred bonus to attack rolls vs. a +1 morale bonus to attack rolls. In a very technical sense they’re different because bonus-stacking is important in 3e, but is that really what you want players weighing when they select spells? Better to give them one way to do that, and spend your complexity elsewhere.

I’ve used this one quite a lot in board game and miniatures game design, too. It’s a great yardstick for deciding if two action cards are stepping on each other, if two models are fighting for the same space in an army list, or if two special abilities are just different enough to be annoying and make you look them up.

So there you go: Two things should be the same or different, hat tip to Jonathan Tweet.

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