Monday 28 September 2015

Game Design #54: Special Rules Best Practice - Infinity vs Savage Worlds

The special rules issue is one I've visited before, but emerged again due to two things - trying to make a generic special rules list for my homebrew Middlehiem/Pulp rules, and trying to relearn (and review) Infinity the Game V3.

A quick recap:

What do special rules and abilities do?
They give factions and units flavour.  They cover exceptions to rules - they do things that normal rules (and stats) cannot describe otherwise.  By their very nature, they also complicate the game due to the fact they are deviating from the norm.

When should something be a stat, and when should it be a special rule?
Stats give granuality and describe traits possessed by all (or nearly all) units.    They are a rule shared by everyone.  Whereas special abilities are not the norm. They describe and detail unique rule exceptions in a way stats cannot.  That's why they are "special."

Whack it again, the horse is still moving
Lately there has been a push to remove/reduce stats and replace them with special rules in the quest for simplicity. Adding extra rules is not simplicity. When you add in more rules, it is complication

Let's take the near universal 6" move.  Once upon a time there was a Movement stat.  It had a number next to it which showed how many inches you could move.  This wasn't a complicated rule.  No one I am aware of, ever, had trouble understanding that Move 5" mean to Move 5", or that Move 6" meant Move 6".  In fact, the stat itself was pretty self-explanatory - even to people with zero background in wargames or gaming in general.

However this was deemed to complex. It was replaced with a everyone moves 6" rule.  Now some enlightened souls realised not every man, beast or alien moves exactly the same.  So they added in Special Rules (also known as extra rules or extra complication) to deal with this newly created problem.  So we have Fleet Footed guys who can add 1d6" to their movement, and a Mounted special rule allowing horses (and every other cavalry beast) to move 12".  Then we have Slow & Steady troops who cannot ever do a double-move Sprint.   We've added 3-4 extra rules and yet still have less granularity and differentiation than our single Move stat.  We've gone backwards.

Okay, that's out of the way.  On to the examples.  First a pop quiz. Subject: Infinity the Game.

Q: How much of this page is about Infinity's Camo Rules?
(a) a paragraph or one of those text boxes
(b) one column (half the page)
(c) all of it
(d) keep reading, champ, this is page 1 of 4!

 If you answered (d) you can expect what is coming.....

Infinity the Game = BAD
They frequently have 3 or more versions of the same rule; i.e  you have Camo: Mimetism, Camo, and Thermoptic Camo.  Not only that, the rules interact with each other in complex ways.
Those 3 levels of camo? Well exactly what they do depends on if your enemy has Multispectral Visor in level 1, level 2, or level 3. (I'm not joking).  But is it actually Camo,  or simply an Optical Disruption Device?

Most special abilities and equipment have multiple levels.  If you want to Impersonate an enemy, is it Level 1, Level 2... or Impersonation+, a hybrid of both? Are you a Markman Level 1, 2 or X class?  Airborne Deployment (aka Deepstriking for 40K reference) comes in no less than 5(!) different versions.  Actually, six. Oops. I forgot Level X: Tactical Jump. 

If you don't think this is at least faintly ridiculous, please leave the room now.

What does Level 4 in Martial Arts do?  Well, it kinda depends on the Level in Martial Arts your opponent has....

Special Rules are Special
They exist to give armies, units and factions flavour. If everyone has it, it becomes flavourless.  They aren't special anymore.  If everything had curry in it, eating Indian wouldn't be interesting - it'd be the norm.

If you cannot resist giving half the units in every single faction Camo, then it's a little wonder you need to make 3 different versions of it to make it "special" for a faction.  Show some restraint!

This, for me shows a RPG-centric game dev; to have a very specific object or creation in mind, reproduce it faithfully in game world, regardless of complication to gameplay.  It puts the game universe ahead of good gameplay. (Actually, for years I reckon Infinity devs fell into this category - they've confirmed it by Kickstarting an Infinity RPG - though I wonder what the point is... though heck, it'd have be simpler to play than the skirmish game, right?)

After that sweeping generalization, it is ironic that my "good" example is, in fact, a RPG

Savage Worlds = GOOD
This game classifies powers by their in-game effect.  I.e., do the powers act the same way in the end?  The actual working of the power are dismissed as "trappings" that add fluff but are largely irrelevant to gameplay.  In short, they can easily condense their special rules to manageable levels.

A blast of fire/ice/lightning has the same effect - i.e. roll to damage those inside a spray template, identical bar some perhaps some minor optional trappings.  Heck, the flame blast can come from a flamethrower or a battlemage.  Those on the receiving end have the same roll to save etc.  Sweet, we can use the same rule - we've cut down on the extra rules!  A WW2 medic, a Alien automedkit, and a healer mage all "heal" targets by performing a roll vs the target's toughness. Same rule! A model can "regenerate" and recover from being downed - a Terminator, a vampire and Marvels' Wolverine can all share the same rule - they have very different "trappings" and methods how they resurrect, but the end result is the same.

Instead of having 3 versions of the same rule; they have one rule that can be used for 3 different situations.

Furthermore, unlike Infinity the interaction between rules is minimal.  If anything, interacting/conflicting abilities tend to simply cancel each other out rather than adding complicated extra effects.   Special rules can (and should) be described in a paragraph, not a page.  

Savage Worlds keeps a relatively short, restrained yet comprehensive list of magic skills and abilities that nonetheless works for a wide range of genres (fantasy, pulp, sci fi) - so well that I have been unimpressed with the supplements who have struggled to add significantly to the base game.

Let's take it a step further.  Disguise and Invisibility. They seem rather different, but are they - really? Disguise stops enemies from attacking you - perhaps until they pass a Will roll or you perform a hostile action.  Invisibility stops enemies from attacking you - perhaps until they pass a Will roll or you perform a hostile action. In effect, the rules can share the exact same mechanics.  The trappings are different - in one you might be a Predator-like shimmering outline, and the other you might disguise yourself as an enemy soldier.  But they have the same effect and thus can share the same rule.

Equipment and innate abilities can share rules.  If a solider has Night Vision Goggles and a Werewolf has Night Vision - great, it's the same thing.  They can share the same rule.  Advanced Senses (hearing/smell/etc) vs Advanced Robotic Sensors? Ditto.   Vampires might possess a natural form of Thermal Imaging.

A Summary:  Do's and Don'ts
Special Rules are special. Keep them that way.  Use them too often and they are the norm.
If it's the norm, it probably should be a stat.
Don't have 3+ versions of the same special rule.
Keep the interactions between rules to a minimum. Unique interactions multiplies the rules exceptions.
Classify and condense special rules by game effect, not by "trappings" aka game universe fluff.
Can you describe the special rule in a paragraph? Better yet, a sentence.
Equipment and innate abilities can share rules (animal night vision = night vision goggles)


  1. Unfortunately many, many gamers seem to dislike this distinction between in-game effect and fluff, especially where it leads to minimalist but comprehensive rules that require no further expansion. Maybe because of the misguided simulationism you brought up above, or maybe they miss the excitement of regular new or updated official supplements?

    1. Not sure. But it brings up another interesting topic:
      What should be abstracted, and what shouldn't - can you be too abstract and when does that point occur?

    2. This is the eternal balancing act that all war-games attempt, and gaming at different scales requires different abstractions. You 3-4 guys skirmish game can afford more granularity than a 12 -15 fig one vs Platoon Gaming etc etc up to 6mm Corps level battles.

      What is more interesting is the choice of what to abstract and what to emphasise. High level games are generally about Command and Control as the player is effectively a General, SF games broadly tend to emphasis technology. So how you want a game to play is going to determine what you abstract.

    3. @evilleMonkeigh: I'd say it depends on what your game is all about and what is less important and can therefore be simplified. If you feel psychology & leadership are what matters, then perhaps you could abstract the nitty gritty details of equipment. If you're a gun nut you might want to make firing one a very detailed process with many steps or modifiers and indeed lots of very different weapons to fire while troop psychology can be dealt with cursorily. My impression is that quite a few fantasy/SF gamers expect detailed & differentiated game elements for everything in order to bring the fluff to life on the tabletop. Nice miniatures & scenery apparently not being enough. A Greater Daemon is only great if he has special powers listing exactly how he is powerful on the battlefield in rule terms, and of course those of the Greater Daemon of Oomph cannot be the same as those of a Greater Daemon of Thumpf and neither should have to share too many abilities with the Mighty Necro Queen of Undeath.

      Perhaps I'm too quick to equate abstraction & simplification though.

    4. Abstraction does mean aspects of the rules are not dealt with in a concrete manner. So I think it can be equated with simplification in that it tends to involve less rules.

      Though it does not have to mean a game is less tactical or less deep.

      The one that annoys me is when people assume realism = complexity, and gluggy, confusing rules.

    5. A perfect comparison in a modern naval gaming is Harpoon vs Shipwreck. I have played both extensively

      The first one has myriads of tables and die rolls to simulate various technical factors, sensor perforce, detections, reactions etc etc etc The latter does all that with one combined d10 roll. The result is that Missile X still hits 70% of the time - its just that the first system takes 2-3 mins and the second one you roll one dice. The player doesn't get bogged down into the minutiae and can focus on fighting his ships and making command level tactical decisions.

      They are both 'realistic' outcomes, but one is more fun than the other for me. Another guy might prefer the 1s and Zeros though so player preferences are still a major factor.

    6. Yes. I often talk about "decision points vs resolution (time/effort to resolve those decisions)". If there is just as many decisions, and the effect of those decisions is the same, the the more abstract one gets the vote.

      For example, hitpoints is a particular bugbear. I don't think they add anything to Frostgrave, and I think say SoBH's damage system (with 0 recording) is more interesting, cinematic, and has as many decisions.

    7. I'm inclined to agree on Frostgrave, but I guess the designer kept hitpoints in (as well as some other redundant things such as the overly detailed soldiers or some near duplicate spells that differ more in flavour than basic effect) to meet the expectations of potential gamers.

    8. .....the designer kept hitpoints in.... meet the expectations of potential gamers.....

      I disagree. Hitpoints in wargaming is UNusual. In spaceship games and naval games, yes, but otherwise it is the exception rather than the rule.

      Perhaps I am a cynic, but when I see unusual design choices I tend to attribute it to Hanlon's Razor rather than a deeply-thought-out plan.

      I suspect the designer played RPGs back in the day and this influenced his design choice.

    9. I completely missed that! :-)

    10. I totally agree that Frostgrave does not need HP. The damage system is problematic. From reading the designer's blog and a few other places he has shared his thoughts, RPGs did influence the design choices as I believe the intent was to emulate "old school" RPG experiences. In that respect, it would meet the expectations of players after that kind of experience, or a Mordheim-type experience (where characters also have wounds),

    11. In Mordhiem, I think most characters didn't even have wounds, bar a few of the main leaders - and they usually had 2-3 - easily marked with a coloured counter. You had knocked down etc - but that's easily done by tipping the model on its side.

      I'm very opposed to hitboxes - if I have to record lots of stuff, I'll play an accounting simulator - or rather, play the videogame version instead.

      I.e. I like Battletech's universe and big stompy bots, but do not play it in tabletop version for that very reason.

  2. Have not player Infinity, but all the special rules was the reason I stopped playing Malifaux - it really kills the game. Savage Worlds is my go-to RPG and I have used it successfully for almost kinds of settings.

    1. Infinity is a brilliant game, deep in tactical choices. Which has slowly become snowed under by special rules. I think the creators are enthuasiastic about their world, but aren't "thinking through" things from a gameplay standpoint. If you grew with the game from V1 and slowly learnt new concepts, fine. But to jump in and learn 150+ special rules with complex interactions is a big ask...

      I recommend everyone try their Quick Start rules (all the rules are free) as essential reading for anyone interested in game design: but the full rules' learning curve is almost vertical.

  3. I agree with everything you've written. The line that nails it is: Unique interactions multiplies the rules exceptions.

    Ivan at Nordic Weasel understands this and discourages tweaks that affect the game engine too much. But, as an example of how even Weasel can fall foul due to the multiplier effect, consider this. Ivan recently suggested that Clash on the Fringe should have a "Run" option that is 1.5 times your speed stat. However, Heroes and individuals get a bonus to speed. When we introduced the rule in our last game, my opponent looks at me and asks, "Do I add the bonus before or after multiplying for Run?"

    My response: "Um....."

    It can happen that quickly.

    1. A very literal example of how it can "multiply" the rules!

      But if, like Infinity, you need 4 pages to not only explain the special rule, give multiple example because it is so unintuitive, AND explain how it relates to other special rules... I think you have a problem!

    2. Well, you've talked me out of Infinity.

    3. Actually, I strongly recommend you go here

      ...and download the quickstart rules. It shows off the beauty of the very clever activation/reaction mechanics, MINUS all the special rules.

      But yes, unless you have someone to talk you through it/teach you, learning the "full" game on your lonesome would be a very tough ask.

  4. One thing keeps bugging me, and perhaps its the exception that proves the rule, and that is Blood Bowl

    All the players have stats AND there are a whole swag of skills, many of which interact or nullify one another. Additionally, the initial stats can change as player develops. In this way unique combinations make for ultimate customisation an team capabilities.

    That is a LOT of special rules (not quite 150 but there are lots) - so why does that work so well?

    1. I think it's because collecting special rules (through campaigns) is kinda the whole point of Bloodbowl.

      It'd be like one of those CCGs like Magic having only a dozen cards to choose from.

      For example, in Frostgrave no one complains about 50 spells, because magic spells (and learning them) is the centrepiece of the game.

      Whereas the strength of Infinity is its reaction and activation system, and the lethality of combat making those choices really matter. It is a great game MINUS all the special rules. (In fact, I highly recommend the quickstart rules, sans all the sci fi stuff, for modern gaming etc - or simply to try for the experience of the mechanics)

      It doesn't NEED special rules to be good. It already IS good - the special rules detract from its strengths which lie elsewhere.

    2. Well that makes sense to me - its the cumulative nature through development, so you introduce them piecemeal, not all at once, and they directly add to the flavour of the game.

      Always good to look at exceptions and consider why they work!

  5. A better comparison might be Epic 40,000 and Epic: Armageddon. Virtually the same game, but given different 'skins' of nigh-everything under the same set of universal rules in different combinations in Epic 40,000 and plenty of special rules in E:A.

    1. That comparison would have worked well, but not for all the points I wanted to make.

    2. A point to be mooted some other time then. I'm of the opinion that there should be hybrid special rules, so like in 40k where you can have something like Feel No Pain followed by the value obtained from that rule, so like FNP (4+) or FNP (5+) so that you don't have to build a different rule for every variation. In other words, I don't think there's a necessary dichotomy between universal rules (differences in degree) and special rules (difference in kind).

    3. Your FNP +4 or +5 is a much better way, than creating completely new ways the rule works (Camo, ODD, Surprise Shot, Mimetism, TO).

      It simply builds degrees into a single rule, rather than creating unique versions of the rule which act in different ways (like Infinity). It doesn't really require more knowledge.

      That's why I like stats. They are a rule familiar to everyone, and simply have a number attached showing the degree.

      That said, I've been using slightly different definitions to you:

      A universal rule = is shared by everyone.
      Usually found in the relevant section of the book. I.e. 12" deployment from the table edge is a universal rule, used by everyone, and is found in the deployment stage. There isn't necessarily a difference in degree.

      A special rule = is used to differentiate between units, and is in the units profile or in a "abilities" or "equipment" section. It is not common to all units, and (should) be rare to make possessing it "special."
      I.e. Troops with the "Infiltrate" special ability can deploy 18" from the table edge.

  6. Special rules should definitely be short and to the point. I think infinitys special rules section also fails with the naming of the rules. Mimetism, as a name is anything but self-explanatory or user-friendly. Too short rule texts can also be awkward. This mtg card for example:

  7. Quite an accurate assessment of Infinity, and you even managed to avoid any vitriol ; )
    As a former Infinity player (tourneys and all) I frankly gave up some time after v2.0. I -should- have given up once I released that I couldn't make an army without resorting to software!!!
    That is partly why I wrote High Space (Savage Worlds) as an alternative to trying to shoe-horn Infinity into an RPG. I really hope that the Infinity RPG is good. The fluff is awesome!
    However, I have also seen the other extreme end of the spectrum - I really wanted to get into Song of Blades & Heroes, but ultimately each army was so 'samey' that I think it had the reverse attempt to what was expected, by turning the game into an exercise in min-maxing (may as well, since I can deploy any rule, within any army type.)
    Games need settings to give them context. Special rules need to be special within that context.

    1. "Quite an accurate assessment of Infinity, and you even managed to avoid any vitriol ; )"

      I really like Infinity. There's a amazing game under there, which has been gradually buried by special rules. Initially, the handicap was terrain requirements and a poorly translated (albeit beautiful) rulebook.

      Trying to get into it at v3 has been a shock - after being away from it for years, it was stunning at just how many rules has crept in. And they are complicated rules, at that.

      SoBH is initially fun, but ultimately shallow. Their problem is they never significantly evolved their rules, but simply copy+pasted them for different eras etc, slavishly sticking with d6s and the very limited stat line.

      I have also been searching for an alternative - currently having fun with my own homebrew Middlehiem rules, which have drifted from a Bolt Action-Warmachine-LOTR-Infinity mashup to more strongly link with Infinity and SoBH - the stats and reactions of Infinity, and the activation of SoBH, married to d10s.

      That said, I have become a bit of a Savage Worlds fan (I used to like Deadlands) of late, and have tried a few modern pulp/superhero games (necrons vs superheroes, etc).