The Effect of Effects in Game Design

Once upon a time, there was a game where every single power was defined. Heck, they weren’t even called powers, they were called spells, and it was good. Everyone had a common conversation about fireballs and magic missiles and prismatic sprays. We all shared this one game and, for want of anything else, we enjoyed every round we spent discussing it. (Because even then, if I recall correctly, talking was a free action.)

Games diversified and matured. Soon, there was a pantheon of elder games. Some were kind and merciful; some were well balanced; others made us scream with madness; some demanded we have higher level maths to sort out all the detail, but gave us an inkling of a future trend in game development. Even in its embryonic state, we felt a resonance; we saw something in the powers which begged to be released. It took some time, but it was, and it changed gaming forever. Queue dramatic lead in music.

The thing of which I speak? Effects. (Though they have gone by several names, such as Powers, the less-than-sexy name is, regardless of how it’s prettied up, is Effects.)

Effects are the straight-up mechanics of how a particular spell, power, gizmo, gadget, what-have-you, works in play. It’s your mutant ability. It’s the X in your factor, so to speak. I don’t care if you’re Gandalf or Wolverine or Superman or She-Ra, your powers are all effects-driven. They are the engine hidden under the chrome, driving the whole thing home.

Some folks find this a good thing, while others despair at the loss of flavor, the disappearance of a certain je ne sais quoi, and want a return back to the old days.

Today, we’re going to examine the pros and cons of this evolution in tabletop RPGs.

The Pro Side of Effect Based Powers is they create an easy reference point for gamers of both camps (the camps being player and GM). They are easily stored away in your mind-hole and you know how they are going to function across the board. This is especially true in such games as Savage Worlds where a bolt is a bolt is a bolt. Equality reigns whether the wist slams an angry horde of demon-bats in your face (bolt) or a priest of Thor flings his hammer at your thorax (bolt). As the GM, you’ve already got enough to keep up with, and if the end result (DAMAGE) is the same, it doesn’t really matter what the delivery system. The mechanics are in your head, and its plenty easy to work with. You can also let your creativity go–let’s look at another excellent example–Mutants & Masterminds, in its two current incarnations (and its alpha-preview DC Adventures), uses effects based systems to really deliver the goods. Having all these components distilled down to the molecular level enables you to craft the exact character you want with the powers you want without (much, if any) compromise. This is thanks to Effect Based Powers. It would be impossible to present an equal amount of flexibility within the system without a lot more pages if one went specific powers. Let’s compare something as simple as a bolt in a few separate systems.

Savage Worlds has the bolt power. It clearly delineates how this is gonna work for everyone within the game system.

AD&D has numerous iterations of bolt, all slightly different. You have Magic Missile and Fireball to name two types well known to the gamer community writ large.

Mutants & Masterminds (1st Edition, which I grabbed because it’s close by at the moment) has Energy Blast. It also has Flaws and Extras enabling you to craft the specific type of Energy Blast you want. If you add in Explosion to it, you have an Exploding Fireball or Cyclops’ wide beam or whatever. (This is my example: if you feel strongly outraged by my depiction of Cyclops, please know I’m using the version of Scott from the Ultimate Quick Example Mega-Infinite Universe, so he may vary from the one you know and love).

So, in conclusion, the big things going for effect-based powers are: unifying mechanics, easily customizable, and ease of reference. I’ll go so far as to add to this trinity, economy of scale, by which I mean they avoid redundancy within the work which leads to less rules-bloat and, thus, less chance of error. Brevity trumps verbosity in my book every day of the week.

While it may sound like I’m a big fan of the Effect Based Power (and I am), I will be the first to admit there are sacrifices made at the altar of imagination, and I came to my epiphany through much kicking and screaming. Let’s look at the other side of the equation now.

The Con Side of Effect Based Powers is an apparent lack of imagination. When I first pick up a new edition of D&D, I flip to Magic Missile. I imagine this is something many of us have done, because we love the name, we love the power, and we want to see how they’ve slaughtered our sacred cow this time. People take their Magic Missile very seriously. You do not see the same heartfelt emotions towards Energy Blast in M&M or Bolt in SW. In fact, you may seem some detractors, because people want to emulate their favorite spell in other games (whether they admit it to themselves or not). Nor will either of these other systems be likely to have things lovingly thought of like Prismatic Spray or Delayed Blast Fireball or Bigby’s Crushing Hand. These spells are as lovingly regarded as such iconic creatures as Displacer Beasts and Beholders. The powers, by being thusly specified, have garnered fans and detractors, and are characters in their own right. Some can say this is because “the game” is the Elder One and the other systems have some catching up to do, but you’d be mistaken. One could reasonably argue the spells had every bit as much to do with the success of the line as any of a host of other factors. In short, naming conventions of spells serve to round out and amplify the game in ways more generic systems can only dream of. If you’re taking such a specific route with Power Design, you also have the latitude to craft some very specific spells which work precisely as you want them to in your world without compromise. You can have the Flying Fist of the Forest Elves do triple damage against dwarves, bypass armor, and disintegrate goblins on contact (in other words, you don’t want to muck about with the Elf Druids of Lanolyr). In Savage Worlds, this would be most easily be represented by, you guessed it, Bolt. In the unlikely event you’re running the Elf Reach campaign in M&M, this would be Energy Blast (possibly with a few modifiers).

What’s a designer to do? Like with everything else, you choose which system to design for or, if you’re rolling your own, which methodology best suits you and your projected base. The Dresden Files RPG goes the effects route in copious detail. As you’re making spells on the fly, this could be a drawback. Legends of Anglerre, another Fate based game, goes effects based in broader strokes. Both are running off the same engine, in fact, the former game, for those unfamiliar with it, is written by the same crew who created FATE. The two companies had different goals. TDFRPG sought to emulate every possible power you could use in modern urban fantasy and they’ve accomplished that–but by the same token, it requires an investment of time from the would-be wizard to get it down. I’ve read through it, but cannot speak to it in play. Legends of Anglerre sought to emulate more traditional fantasy RPG, and I’ve played an Elven wizard in it, and I find it robust and satisfying, but it has a different focus. Remember, even when selecting a base system, do not leave your creativity at the door. With clearly defined goals in mind, you can accomplish what you want. In curious contrast to these two FATE games, I’ll through Diaspora in the ring. It’s a sci-fi game, certainly, and is heavily influenced by Traveller, but those cats really managed to streamline FATE down to its essence in a way which resonates with the designer in me. If you’re even remotely interested in FATE or wish to learn something about good design, you owe it to yourself to grab this book. I almost didn’t, and would’ve been kicking myself. Treat yourself and grab the other two books (or PDFs) as well and study them. It’s well worth the time invested.

Some of the things we’ve done, using Savage Worlds and one of my own properties as an example, is to give existing powers character. Agents of Oblivion (free beta available) is a horror-espionage setting. As with any good spy setting, there are ample gadgets you can requisition before going on your mission, but it is counter-intuitive to craft unique powers for each and everyone, so I describe them in loving detail, but they still run on the existing power/edge set of SW. In essence, I’ve taken a really rocking 8-cylinder engine and gave it some shiny, glossy, eye-bleedin’ chrome. And it works. In the parallel development department, the AoO Beta came out shortly before Pinnacle’s Fantasy Companion which took the same approach to the creation of magic items. I know and love the PEG guys, but neither of us knew what the other was doing. Great minds and all that?

Here’s the take away: effect based powers are here to stay and you should do the best to make the most of them. Should your setting demand some additional flavor, chrome the engine. Consider the necessity of creating an entirely novel way of handle spells and other powers in your game, and ask yourself if it’s the best use of your time or would it be better spent making a setting we want to play?

And with those word from this corner of the mad lab, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

1 Note on “The Effect of Effects in Game Design”

  1. Inspiration is what makes you started. Habit is what keeps you going

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