Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Option vs Progression (General Mechanics Part 1/3)

Option vs Progression

In design there is a fundamental choice one has to make when looking at statistics: Option vs Progression. This will be the first part of a 3 part discussion on fundamental mechanics. (The other two will be High/Low vs Constant and the third will be “Risk/Reward”.)

Since this is a pen & paper blog- I will look at it as a principle for the creation of character classes. In reality this is just a general design/statics concepts.

So, what is “option vs progression”?

Option vs progression is the manner in which you allocate value as a character advances. Does he make the possibility of applying that value more diverse or does he make it stronger? In simple gaming terms: As you level up do you hit thing differently or harder? When looking at the creation of character classes, it's never a black and white situation. Characters generally grow stronger in SOME fashion and generally can do different things as they level up.

The most common example of this can be seen in the fighter/wizard dynamic. Generally the fighter is better at simply attacking an enemy while a wizard has a thousand little tricks that he can do. We refer to wizards as “Option Wizards”* when their spells are diverse and present generally non-damaging (well... directly damaging...) alternatives in combat. (Spells like hold monster, create pit, baleful polymorph, ect) Fighters on the other hand have abilities generally strengthen the primary role in: close quarter combat**. They can take lots of feats that generally augment their offensive or defective melee value on the battlefield.

Why should you care about option vs progression? It's a great design mechanics and both sides of the coin offer something.

-Progression is simple. It's great for casual players or new players. Players playing a progression class don't have to get into a messy rules discussion with their GM. The rules for “my character hits that thing with this sword... hard” are a lot simpler than saying “I cast my empowered spell defensibly to avoid provoking an attack of opportunity from the goblin. I have a bonus spell at my highest level open, so I decide to cast...”

-Players playing a progression class do one thing and they do it well. They get a constant but mild degree of positive reinforcement. However... they can be thwarted rather easy. (“What do you mean it only takes fire damage?!?!”)

-Option characters have a lot of diversity. It's great for players who are maybe more experienced or want to get neck-deep in the rules. This allows them to employ more creativity and intelligence in their planning.

-It allows them to be the “star” in sticky situations. They receive large, but infrequent bursts of positive reinforcement when they pull something big off. While progression characters are praised for their general contributions, option characters are praised for their wit.

-Option characters are often seen as “weaker” because they don't get to demonstrate “big numbers” very often.

From a basic mechanics perspective option vs progression looks like this:

Character A (Progression) gains a level. He gains 1 unit of value for each level he gains. He is level 6. He has 6 units of value when it comes to fighting in melee.

Character B (Option) gains a level. He gains 1 unit of value he gains. He is level 6. He has 2 unit of value when it comes to fighting in melee. He has 2 units of value when it comes to dealing with large groups. He has 2 unit of value when it comes to dealing with flying enemies. He has 2 unit of value while underwater.

We can see that character A has a total value of 6. Character b has a value of 8, however none of his value in any one situation exceeded a value of 2. (This is further augmented by the “situational” mechanical principle I will discuss in the “Risk/Reward” post I will be making sometime next week. Basically this means the value of 2 will be multiplied on a situational basis... but it won't reach a value of 6)

Other classes can show this (not just damage ones). Some classes that provide bonuses (like a Bard for example) can provide a wide verity of small bonuses- perfect for any situation. Other classes that provide a bonus are really good at providing ONE KIND of bonus. The same goes for methods of healing (bust healing or conditional healing?)

We can see this outside of gaming as well. Do you invest in a large number of stocks a little and hope it pays off over all? (Option) Are you the kind of person who puts their eggs in one basket? (Progression) If confronted with the Gordian Knot, would you attempt to solve it (option) or simply cut it like Alexander the Great? (Progression)

Happy gaming everyone :D

-Scott Gladstein

*Pew-Pew Laser Wizards do exist. They are more focused on progression.

**I know there are options for fighters that allow them to become more diverse. I am talking about the staple of gaming here, not unique builds.