Category Archives: Design Discussion - Page 2

DevLog #24

As progress continues on Cave of the Goblin King and the Sentia Arena Kickstarter fulfillment, I wanted to take a moment to do a design discussion on a potentially game breaking ability: Telepathy.

Telepathy falls under the same category as Teleportation, Flight, Detect Alignment, Zone of Truth, and many other game breaking abilities. I say “game breaking” not because they are statistically too powerful. They are game breaking because they bypass certain parts of the game experience. Note that this isn’t automatically a bad thing.

Flight bypasses land-based units, traps, and many obstacles such as chasms and rivers. A single ability bypasses what would normally prove to be a complex problem for the party. So we have to be careful about our flight abilities. I’m not saying we have struck a perfect balance right now for flight, but we are very conscious about adding new ways for PCs to fly.

But back to Telepathy. Telepathy bypasses the need of subterfuge and the difficulties discussing plans when there are enemies around, or the party is trying to be sneaky. Message was much like this for a while in our system, until we realized it was less a cell phone as much as it was “We can talk OOC about our plans with no repercussions.” Message(a level 0 spell, no less) now requires you to speak aloud, more akin to a cell phone. But Telepathy is different. Players want mind-to-mind two way communication. Much like flight, it is cool.

Flight is partially balanced by the risks involved. If you are stunned or immobilized while in the air non-magically, you can fall. If you are flying magically and are hit with a dispel magic, you fall. There was nothing inherently risky about telepathy.

So we added a risk. We had a Psionics skill that granted short ranged telepathy and dealt with psionics and breath abilities(like ninja who use the same style “use my mental/physical fortitude to do spectacular things”). We simply added the ability to eavesdrop in on telepathy. If you are trained in Psionics and suspect someone nearby is using telepathy, you can reach out with your mind and attempt to pick up the psychic wavelengths they are talking on.

Here is the full Psionics skill listing as of 2/6 (which can be found in the skill document of Version 0.7)

Your study of psionics or ninjutsu are beyond compare. Study of psionics is rare in most countries that do not practice ninjutsu or psionics.

Telepathy: At three ranks, you gain Telepathy out to 5ft. Distance increases by 5ft for every 3 ranks after that.

Overhear Telepathy: If you discover someone around you is using telepathy to communicate, you can make a Psionics check with the DC shown below to be able to overhear their conversation. Succeeding on this check allows you to hear them speak as if they were speaking audibly.

Source Psionics DC
Psionics Skill Opposing Psionics check
Spell Spell DC
Monster Monster Will save

Breath: For every four ranks, you gain +1 Breath if you already have Breath.

Identify Technique: As an immediate interrupt, you can make a Psionics check to know what psionic or breath ability is being cast. An DC(8) tells the element or school of the ability, a DC(13) tells the name of the ability, and a DC(18) tells the details of the ability and allows you to counter a technique with a DC(18) Spellcraft check.

Monsters who are psychically trained can likewise attempt to eavesdrop with a Will save(monsters do not have skills and instead use the appropriate save in place of it). Knowing this risk(along with limiting size or duration) can go a long way to tempering the player’s willingness to rely on telepathy to discuss murdering the king in his presence.

DevLog #22

Today was mostly spent on Apprentice. We have finally went through and polished up Rituals. Basically, when we were going over the 3.5 SRD spell lists, any spell that seemed to lack any combat oriented ability was tossed into a document called Rituals. I set up some primary rules for how they might work, but they basically sat in that document for almost two years virtually untouched.

This week I’ve spent a lot of time weeding out bad rituals, adding new ones, and generally focusing on refining the experience. If you are curious, you can check out the document in our 0.7 folder here(Dropbox link).

A lot of my design around rituals is informed by my over a decade DMing. I’ve limited game breaking things like Scrying, or long-range teleportation.

Many tracking rituals like Scrying now require a “tag-lock.” This is a type of focus that has to be tied to a specific target. It can be hair, blood, truename, or an object held dear to them. You might be able to track down the Lich with his phylactery, but you need one of these valuable pieces first. A knife a murderer used won’t be enough to track down the murderer immediately and ruin the adventure.

Rituals don’t come without a cost. Learning a ritual can cost as much as 75% of an equivalent level item. And actually using the ritual can either require a reusable Focus worth 12.5% of a magic item, or 1-time use components worth 2.5% of that item level’s worth.

Example: A level 1 ritual costs 45g to learn. Below are two level 1 rituals:


Locate Object or Creature


Senses the direction and distance towards an object or creature within 30 miles.

Focus: Tag-lock.

Focus: Silver compass worth 5g.

Magic Mouth Leave a message with a condition to activate. When activated, the message is spoken aloud. Can be triggered multiple times. Lasts 1 week. Component: Small silver horn worth 1g

As you can see, “Locate Object or Creature” uses a compass and tag-lock that can be used over and over again, while Magic Mouth requires multiple silver horns if you plan on casting it a lot.

This is something that I loved in 3.5 spells thematically that worked atrociously mechanically. Fireball required “A tiny ball of bat guano and sulfur.” which was thematically cool…but then you realized that your level 20 wizard had to carry around pounds of guano and smelled constantly, suddenly the material component thing didn’t seem so great.

We got rid of material components. There is no 5g “Spell component pouch” that had infinite quantities of guano in them. You can cast your Fireball as long as you have the spell slots (and free hand if your class uses somatic components).

Rituals seemed like the place to bring these back. The cost associated with components also helps limit rituals from being overused. The costs are not huge(2.5% if it’s your level), but they are there. I’ve also tried to have some overlap when possible (multiple rituals use magic chalk) and keep the items typically small(lots of charms and figurines) to keep a heavy ritual caster from being overburdened with too much stuff.

And if you want to be a lazy ritualist, just make sure to keep some diamond powder handy and spend some time with the Minor Creation ritual:

Minor Creation


Create one object up to 1 cubic feet per level.

Component: Diamond powder worth the cost of the created object.

Design Discussion: Combo Decks

Another major annoyance to many Magic: The Gathering players are combo decks. Combo decks are decks that revolve around a couple of cards that cascade in power to dramatic effect. So they will play and do nothing until you get the correct pieces, then they usually instantly win. Imagine if you were playing against someone playing solitaire. They really didn’t care what you did unless you went over and removed their Ace of Spades from their deck. They’ll just keep playing, and eventually declare “I win.”

This is not an enjoyable gameplay. Combat’s core goals is for easy to pick up gameplay. This doesn’t meant that certain cards can’t combo at all, but they should be intuitive and not be the difference between winning and losing.


One of the best examples of this is Lingering Flame in the Priest deck. The Priest has a great many damage over time effects. Lingering Flame can do a lot of damage if combo’d with their other cards. However, you don’t win the game when you draw your Lingering Flame. It feels great if you have the prefect turn with it, but even a perfect turn only nets you about 6 bonus damage. Most of the time, it’s going to net you 2-3 bonus damage.








It is important to make combos in the decks to give interest and allow skilled players the ability to maximize it’s potential while still being intuitive enough for new players. This was one of the important guiding design goals behind Combat.


Combat’s Kickstarter is up and running. Buy your copy here.

Design Discussion: The Circle of Deck

Last time, we discussed Counterspelling, one of the most annoying features of Magic: The Gathering. Next we’ll talk about another annoying strategy: Milling.

Milling in Magic: The Gathering is when you force your opponent out of a deck to win. In Magic, when you run out of cards, you lose.

Combat, we didn’t want that. We wanted the game to be decided not on technicalities, but on action and skill. So we early on decided that once a deck runs out of cards, you shuffle your discard and use it as a new deck.

Any man, are we glad we did. If we didn’t, the Rogue class simply wouldn’t exist. The rogue draws a lot of cards. A LOT. Their mechanic is that they can usually play two cards per turn as part of their attack. Needless to say, they go through a lot of cards compared to other classes. When other classes are just reaching the end of their deck, the rogue has recycled their deck two or three times. The rogue plays fast, but don’t think they are more powerful by default. Even one of their most powerful attack cards: Reckless Strike deals +3 damage(total of 4) but makes them take 1 more damage for 1 turn. This card in any other deck would be too weak, but when you consider that this is only 1/2 of the attack, you get a better picture of the rogue.

Plus, once you recycle your deck, your opponent loses their ability to figure out your hand. If they’ve seen you use all three of your Teleports, they won’t hesitate to throw big attacks your way. However, once you cycle your deck, they can’t be so sure.


Combat’s Kickstarter is up and running. Buy your copy here.

Design Discussion: Importance of Doing Stuff

One thing that most players coming from Magic: The Gathering bring up when they first play Combat is “Where is Counterspell”?

One of my design goals early on was “Always do something.” We established the resource systems so that there was downtime, of course, but that downtime got you something. You drew cards, you regained your resources, you actually did something. Even if you don’t have an attack card in your hand, you have attack abilities on your specialization that you can make.

So what does this have to do with Counterspell? Counterspell keeps you from doing things. We include defense cards, some of which completely negate all damage. Isn’t this the same?

Absolutely not. It feels great to be able to Teleport out of the way of that huge attack, but I didn’t make that attack fizzle. I didn’t tell them “You wanted to do this, but you didn’t!” It says “You did that, but I responded by defending myself.” Any secondary effects still go through. Even if you Dodge my Bash so it deals no damage, you still cannot attack next turn. (note that you can still heal, gather resources, or play non-damaging actions).

I understand, some people may not be able to see the difference, but I can honestly say it feels so much better. Everyone has defense cards. If I’m going against the Wizard or Warrior, I know there is a chance that they might negate all of my attack. I might be more cautious if they just drew a bunch of cards. If I’m against the Priest or Rogue, I know they can negate part of the attack or even negate small amounts from multiple attacks.

Everyone can defend themselves, but no one can tell you that your card fizzled.

Combat’s Kickstarter is up and running. Buy your copy here.

Design Discussion: Small Changes with Big Impacts

One of the hardest parts of playtesting and making balance changes is where to make changes. Today we’re going to look at a Warrior Card: Sure Strike.

Sure Strike has been in the Warrior deck from the beginning, with no changes. It costs 1 rage and gives “Your next attack ignores all negation.” Pretty straight forward card! It allows the Warrior to spend an extra card and an extra rage to make sure that their big hit goes through. This card worked like this for almost two years. Finally, Robert and I noticed a trend with Sure Strike: People saved them for their biggest hits. Sure Strike wasn’t really a choice.

So we changed it so it lowers the damage of your next attack by 1. Yes, this may seem like a simple nerf(weakening of the card), but it actually opened up a harder choice. Because we lowered the Warrior’s damage by 3 overall(there are three Sure Strikes in the deck), we increased a card that saw very little play by +1 damage.

Bash dealt 1 damage and made your opponent unable to attack for 1 turn for 2 rage. While it’s a good control move, people weren’t willing to spend 2 rage on 1 damage and a weaker-than-a-defense-card ability. By increasing it’s damage by even +1, this card has started seeing more and more play. A 1:1 ratio of rage to damage still isn’t great, but it’s more on par with other cards.

Shifting 1 damage from one common to another may not sound like a big deal, but even this small change made playing the warrior more fun, because all of your choices are more viable.

Combat’s Kickstarter is up and running. Buy your copy here.

Design Discussion: Building a Combat Monster

Since we just recently launched the Kickstarter for Combat, I wanted to explain our design challenges in regards to the Monster Expansion that will be launching with the Combat Box at the end of the month.

Originally, our design concept was heavily influenced by the Resident Evil Deckbuilding game. There was a stack of monsters in this dungeon that you went through and killed for treasure. This way, you could have a co-operative game that was also competitive. Who killed the most? Each player would have one monster attacking them, though players could team up to take down one monster at a time.

There were a few problems with this approach. First of all, the monsters began to get monotonous. The “filler” monsters like goblins and orcs were boring to fight against, while boss style monsters were dramatic and exciting. The original design goal for this was to cause interesting choices as the team decided which monsters were the most dangerous at any certain time. Only the most dangerous foes were taken out, while everyone else basically had a “Take 2 damage per turn” effect on them.

Headspace was really the death of this system though. Like I’ve discussed before, Headspace is the amount of info a player can be expected to remember and keep track of at any given time. Combat is made to be an easy-to-understand game, but even so many classes like the Wizard have to keep track of Mana, Kindle, and Effect durations. This amount of info isn’t too much in itself, but add to that making the player run a monster, keep track of all the other player’s monsters, and of course the player’s treasure they’ve accrued and it can be daunting.

So we went back to the drawing board. The most successful monsters(in terms of enjoyment) were the boss monsters, so we decided to instead focus the Monster Expansion on fighting big monsters. And now instead of static moves that went off every turn like before, we were able to give the Bosses entire decks.

While I don’t usually bring it up, cost does guide design many times. We wanted the Boss decks to be unique, but also knew we couldn’t make/sell 450 card box for each of the 10 Bosses to have their own 45 card deck. So we instead went a tiered approach. There are 20 Standard Monster cards that all Bosses use. Then there are three sets of 10 based on “Type of Monster” which we set as Caster, Brute, and Mastermind. Then lastly, there are 15 cards unique to that monster. So a Troll Warrior deck would have the Standard Cards(20)+Brute(10)+Troll Warrior(15) cards. Doing the decks this way allows us to bring the total cards down to 200 while making sure we didn’t see tons of duplicate “Deal 1 damage to all players” cards.

One major feature of MMOs and other RPGs is the idea of a tank taking most of the hits. The Monster Expansion actually recreates this by having many of the cards deal damage to “the player with the highest HP.” This simple targeting mechanic has multiple benefits. First of all, it means the players most likely to be K.O.’d aren’t being targeted. Secondly, this means that the player with the most defense cards are usually hit, because once they are hit, they aren’t usually the highest HP anymore. And lastly, Specializations who emphasize defenses are usually high HP and receive a ton of play when fighting a Boss.

Scaling was one of the first feedback we got from playtesting. We had the monster’s HP scale based on number of players(30 per player), but the damage wasn’t scaling as well. Our “player with the highest HP” attacks were a set number, while our “all players” naturally scaled with multiple players. So we introduced a “+P” system. Basically, we manually reduced all single target damage by 2(our balancing point previously) and added plus the number of players(+P). So now instead of “Deal 4 damage to the player with the highest HP” we have “Deal 2+P damage to the player with the highest HP.” Now, the “+P” is mostly for our playtesting, and we’d like a more elegant way to show this on the card, so any suggestions would be welcome!

Another issue we had encountered with the “highest HP” mechanic was tied HP. If two players are both at 14 HP, who is hit? Originally, we made it so everyone at that same HP was hit. This created a lot of dramatic tension and made players make tough choices to avoid being at the same HP. The largest problem was the fact that some cards benefited wildly from this double hit. And with four players, there is likely to be multiple players at the same HP. We tried just flipping coins to decide, but it lost a lot of tension and excitement. So we are currently sitting at a middle ground. All the players are hit, but any defense card played effects everyone hit by this tied-hit. So your Wizard friend not only teleports himself out of the way now, he grabs your shirt and teleports you both. This not only worked thematically, but helps balance out the double-hits, since the players are twice as likely to have a defense card.

Another feature of the Boss Monsters is what we call Power. They are individual powers on a Boss that can go off periodically. Many cards in the Monster deck grant +1 Power, and once the monster reaches their Power threshold, it activates. This design works well for things like Troll’s regeneration, Psychic Horror’s mind flaying(discarding cards), or other abilities that you expect the monster to be able to do regularly. Some Power thresholds are small, like the troll’s, so they go off often. While others have high Power thresholds and take a while to go off.

Last major design hurdle we had was actually with player decks. Many of the cards are designed around a human opponent who drew cards, had hands, and played attacks, swifts and defenses. The Boss does none of these things. Each turn, a new card is flipped. So what do we do with these cards? Just make them useless? We came up with the concept of Control on the Boss monsters. Basically, the Troll Warrior has on it’s card “Control: The Troll deals 1 less damage on their next attack.” So if you play a card that wouldn’t normally effect a Boss (like Bash for the Warrior, that makes it so the opponent can’t play attacks) you instead gain the Control benefit, in this case the Boss deals 1 less damage on their next attack. This design isn’t super clean right now, so we’re working on how best to show this, but overall really enjoy how it works.

The Monster Expansion has taken a lot of design work to get to where it is at, and we are still iterating on it. The four main classes have received tons of playtesting over the last two years, so our goal this month is to lock down the Monster Expansion to be able to bring it to you with as much polish as our core game.

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Design Discussion: Designing Scrolls

Today started as a playtest for the Artificer, but ended up with a redesign of Scrolls for the Apprentice System. First of all, I should identify what my design goals were for Scrolls:

1. Scrolls can be expensive(compared to grenades and wands)

2. Scrolls are powerful(very important compared to wands)

3. Scrolls are unpredictable


My old design was 1/4th of an item and caster level equaled your level. This was okay, but it definitely failed Design #2. A level 1 scroll cost 1/9th of a level 1 Wand, but 1/4th of a level 0 Wand. So it wasn’t amazing for Design#1 either. Design #3 was pretty spot on with 50% failure chance to use, which was awful since it failed Design#2.

After a couple of hours of reiteration, I present to you the newly designed Scrolls. Reminder: Skills have dramatically changed(I’ll post on it later). A “level 1 item” costs 40g.



Scrolls are one-time-use magic items. Unlike a spellbook, which is magically inert, scrolls capture and harness the actual spell for the wise to use. Most magic users prefer Wands for their longevity, but scrolls can contain powerful spells and are useful for spells that will not be cast daily.


Caster Level


+1 Scroll

+2 Scroll

+3 Scroll

Level 1 Spell






Level 2 Spell






Level 3 Spell






Level 4 Spell






Level 5 Spell






Each scroll has a set caster level. However, you can make or buy more powerful versions of the same scroll. +1 Scrolls are cast at +2 caster level, +2 Scrolls are +4 caster level, and +3 Scrolls are +6 caster level.

So a “Scroll of Magic Missile” would be cast at level 1, but a “Scroll of Magic Missile +3” would be cast at level 7.

To use a scroll of a spell you do not know requires an Arcane(arcane spell list), Religion(priest or paladin spell list), Perform(bard spell list) or Nature(shaman or druid spell list) easy DC(8) check. If a spell is on multiple spell lists, you may choose which skill to use. Each bonus +1 to the scroll adds +2 to the DC. So a +3 Scroll would add +6 to the DC.

Failure on the skill check results in the spell exploding dealing 1d6 per your level fire damage, but the scroll remains intact.

Spells that require the constant use of a spell slot(like Create Undead) only last 1 hour. Spells that require concentration can only be maintained for 5 rounds.

Design Discussion: Punishment or Blockage?

A friend of mine got me thinking about game design, particularly in closing off options that bypass gameplay Vs just making them undesirable.
The situation in question is flying in World of Warcraft. In every expansion that has been released(except Cataclysm), flying is a max level only affair. It is simply locked in the new areas until you hit max level and pay some sort of fee. The developers have stated this is because flight bypasses core game mechanics such as questing, monster locations, and ground combat. I’m wanting to explore the design choices if instead Blizzard allowed flying, but at some risk or cost right off the bat.

I hate to be pessimistic, but players rarely will take the fun route over the fast route in WoW. There is a culture of perceived peer pressure to get to max level and power up as fast as possible so you won’t “hold your raid back.” In this case, no matter how brutal flying’s drawback was, if it made that ride to “totally decked out” faster, players would still fly and then resent the game for whatever cost is associated with flying.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at Reforging. The concept behind it was “I like going fast so I’ll drop crit for haste!” Which sounded really cool! Very quickly, much like Best in Slot, Enchants, and Gems, Reforging just became another hurdle to overcome in the race to the “finish.” Players cheered as loud as the announcement of the feature as the announcement of its removal from the game. Players were doing complex math(until AskMrRobot and addons did it for you), spending countless gold and time min/maxing.
But I’m just talking about general game design, right? Obviously, Blizzard works on a different level with thousands of websites dedicated to their works. Players crawl through the game’s code to give tools to “average players” to min/max. It can be seen in other games like Pokemon(with easier to understand Effort Values after years of competitive grinding), or Magic the Gathering(with NetDecks and card analysis). If I’m just making casual board or card games, these things won’t apply, right? Well, a game can be casual and still have social pressures to “make the right choice.” Friends don’t let friends play Jigglypuff in Smash Bros, or non-flying Hill Giants in Small World.
So if I’m making a board game where you choose one of four classes. If one of the classes is ignoring a major gameplay element and winning a high % of the time, and the classes mechanic cannot be changed numerically(they walk through walls, we’ll say), I can either make the cost higher(he takes damage when moving through the walls) or remove him(or his ability to walk through walls). Obviously, as a designer, I hate to completely trash ideas. But if he takes extra damage, it has to be harsh(thus being a huge risk, but still gaining a huge advantage). Having risky choices is fun! But if that player is never punished for the risk, it can quickly become “houserules” that the character is over powered. If the player is punished too often, then they class is not played and new players are warned off of the class.
Is it possible to balance an overpowered ability that bypasses core game mechanics? Yes. Is it work the time and effort?
I’ll just say I don’t blame Blizzard from blocking flight early on in the expansions so players cannot bypass the core mechanics of ground-combat, questing and agroo-range.

How much damage is versatility worth?

We’ve gotten back into the groove of playtesting and working on Apprentice. Lately, our question seems to be around: how much damage/healing numbers is okay to give up for versatility?

Specifically we are looking at the Priest class.
Theme: Divine Wizard. Robe wearing, castor.
Kit: Heals, Light, Darkness, God-theme
Original Mechanic Concept: You can choose two domains at level 1. If you want to be a DPS priest, you choose two DPS domains. If you want a Healing priest, you choose two healing domains.

We’ve encountered problems with this design: players want to choose based on character theme, not numbers.
Yes, Death/Fire/Sun/Chaos all increase damage and Nature/Healing/Earth/Protection all increase healing, but Healing/Fire is a strong theme. Also some of them aren’t that compatible. Death gives you Inflict spells, which don’t work well with the Chaos domain’s power and Protection, Nature, and Healing all buff completely different types of healing spells.
The Priest is versatile during character creation, but not day-to-day the way Shaman is, or week-to-week like the Inventor. So maybe we were too harsh on the priest.
I’m considering “baking in” a slight heal/damage buff, but still allow two domains. A few domains might need to get nerfed to compensate, but perhaps giving them a bit more turn-to-turn versatility will make choosing domains based on theme or utility less awful feeling.


So I’ve went with my suggestion at the end. Basically I was splitting the two parts of a “DPS package” of Stat-mod to damage and +1/level to damage into two different domains. Instead, I’ve added the Stat-mod to the base class, and made sure the various domains offer different ways to increase damage, but never more than +1/level. In addition, I’ve given all priests Ray of Light(ranged touch radiant damaging spell) and Cure Minor Wounds for free, but given them both a buff in numbers. This will give the priest more versatility in everyday use, rather than just versatility in their character creation.