Effects of Game System on Expectations: Part Three

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This is the final piece of the Game System Expectations series, but by no means the last of my discussions of Game Theory. We have talked about a variety of game systems, ranked from Low to High on Magic, Abilities, and Customization. If you want to take a look at those, you may find them here Expectations: Part One and here Expectations: Part Two. Today we dive into Unchained Heroes and explore the accompanying consequences to the game relating to my choices in Magic, Abilities, and Customization. The previous articles touch briefly on how my expectations were shaped, but don’t answer why. Here I would like to shed some light on the “why” behind each statement.

Triple Threat

Unchained Heroes is scores a triple “High” on all three categories of Magic, Abilities, and Customization. Players and GMs have a lot of access to the fantastic and miraculous through Abilities, equipment, and accessibility to wondrous items. There are runes, potions, magical weapons, magical armor at your disposal. On top of the material items, Unchained Heroes has amazing superpowers for each Hero Class. You have 4 to 5 starting Abilities, 4 modifying Abilities called Tactical Advantages, and 16 Abilities as you level, chosen from a pool of 35. These numbers do not include your Techniques and Talents which add even more Abilities. As a rough estimate, you have over 30 Abilities to choose from in your toolbox at Max level. Through this all, you make the choices for what Abilities you have, what runes you will take, what techniques you desire, what Talents you will dabble in, and how your character scores will be arrayed. There is a lot of Magic, many Abilities, and you have a very customizable character in Unchained Heroes. The great thing about having a Game System with “High’s” in everything is that you can always scale it back as desired–the options will be there for you to use when you want them.

High Magic

Unchained Heroes changed even my expectations of what a High Magic campaign can do to a story. Magic is intrinsic to Abilities, items, equipment, and the world around the players. The more Magic, the more commonplace it is and the more likely people are going to find ways to use it, work around it, or abuse it. In such a high magic setting, those with great power seem to be able to overwhelm any obstacle that they may come across, but as is true in life, someone will always find a way to neutralize a threat. In Unchained Heroes, players are able to fly, walk through walls, read the minds of others, speak through another’s body, create a phylactery, shapechange, make their weapons strike insubstantial creatures, and inflict parasites on their foes. On the flip side of the coin, they can cause flying enemies to drop like a stone, line their walls with lead to prevent passage, blanket the thoughts of themselves and others, prevent intrusion by other forces, smash phylacteries under their heel, see through the disguise of a shapechanger, disarm potentially harmful weapons, and removes parasites that would harm them. All these great magical things are part of Abilities and magical items. The options are there for you and the possibilities are great.

High Ability

Unchained Heroes starts a player out with 4 or 5 Starting Class Abilities, 3 of which are active and one of which is a passive ability. It also includes 4 to 5 wonderful modifying actions called Tactical Advantages, so at level 1 you could have 8 Abilities just from choosing your class. Those are just combat Abilities. On top of those you have the role-playing Abilities you get from your choice of Race and your selection of Talents. The total number of first level Abilities can range from 10 to 12. That makes Unchained Heroes a very High Ability level game and it only builds from there. The rest of the game adds to that base by giving you a new ability every few levels, letting you acquire magical items which have Abilities of their own, finding new Talents for your character, and so on. It’s a long list and I like to call it the player’s Toolbox. The Abilities in Unchained Heroes scale as you level, so while you may feel like Batman at level 1, the real Bruce Wayne is hanging out at level 30 and will stomp you if you tried to mess with his turf. The amount and the flavor text of the Abilities are what will make you feel powerful without breaking the game.

When it comes to Talents, some of them can seem pretty game changing in the role-playing world and for good reason; they come less frequently and need to pack a punch. Things like being able to send out direct commands to a person are not to be taken lightly. In one instance Ali Bin Suul, a future recurring character in the Unchained Heroes Rulebooks, used his suggestion of “Drugs are bad” to push a man over the edge into a “born again” fervor. It completely changed the man’s personality.

As a High Ability system players will find there are many options available to them and the same goes for the GMs that design their sessions. Having a varied Toolbox breathes life into the campaign. Sometimes when a person is offered the option to do anything, their final choice comes from a narrow pool of choices in their comfort zone. When you give a person a healthy selection of narrow options, you give them a helping hand to be creative and step out of their comfort zone.

High Customization

Unchained Heroes uses point based systems and open ability concepts to allow for a great degree of customization for each character. Your character may choose to use one of three Attribute generation methods: +1/-1, The Point System, or Dice Rolling Method. Their class gives them a base to start and then they select their Character Skills, first Ability, first Talent, first Technique, and their equipment. As your Hero levels, they make choices along the way: choosing Abilities from a large pool, modify their skills and Abilities through Talents and Techniques, and gaining additional powers through Talents and Techniques.

Any particular class may choose a wide variety of skills, Abilities, and other factors to tweak their character to their optimal configuration. There are multiple build possibilities for each class. Some classes are good at tanking, melee damage dealing, and battlefield support roles, while others excel at healing, range martial damage dealing, and party buffing. By choosing the right combination of Abilities, Talents, and Techniques a player can be an archer or a swashbuckler, a master of cold energy or fire energy, a commander or a frontline fighter. You carry your customization with you through the combat aspects and the non-combat aspects of Unchained Heroes so you can create a consistent feel for your Hero.

Lessons Learned

I never would have guessed the dynamics that resulted from this type of system before I started playing it. What I expected was a highly customizable feel in a deep fantasy style setting, where magic would be extraordinary, but not out of the ordinary. What I didn’t expect was that my players would focus on the Abilities and Hero build choices more than the rest of the game, such as the magical items, quest to amass power, and to build a name for themselves. My system did this to me, I wasn’t aiming for that target. I wanted somewhere in between, but in the end I embraced it. Leveling in other games was always an important part, but in Unchained Heroes there was a unspoken goal to get the next Ability, Technique, or Talent that would make them more powerful. It gave them a strong desire to keep playing and wanting more, becoming a goal beyond the role-playing experience. It was addicting. As a player in Unchained Heroes, I fell to the same mentality. I always wanted the next power and it was always out of reach. A quest to get a holy sword of a Paladyne was well and good, but now the optimal build was satisfying as well. It didn’t ruin the role-playing experience, but it took me awhile to adjust to that mentality. As a GM, I fell into this trap as well and stopped giving out magical items like I should have. It took out some of the Magic in the campaign. That meant we lost some of the fantastic and wondrous things that a GM can use to surprise and engage their players. Now I have learned a better balance between the extremes.

The High Ability game made me realize I also needed to up the stakes on my bad guys. My villains were not villainous enough. Players had so many cool powers to use, and here I was just swinging a sword. I had to make them awe inspiring. I gave them player Abilities and the option to use them frequently. I let them break the rules. I gave them more nasty conditions that they could apply to the players and I didn’t stop there. It’s an ongoing process not to just give a boss better stats, but also to give them contingencies against powerful players. I had to think of it as an “arms race” and find ways to counter what they would come up against. Bad guys at first, did not have enough actions, so I needed up up the frequency of their actions. Then they didn’t hit hard enough, so I boosted that. Currently, I have noticed that my fights are one-dimensional and that I need to add a mixed bag of supernatural, martial, and ranged foes for truly challenging encounters. The Bosses also need to be Boss. “Big Bads” don’t become “Big” without something up their sleeve. They should be able to handle contingencies and threats against their power, so I make it a point to give it to them.

High Customization shouldn’t have caused any headaches for me, until I started realizing that certain Abilities were accessible at level 1 which would change the dynamic of the game. No level 1 character should be able to shapechange beyond their power level or avoid the powers of greater foes. I saw this as an opportunity to add some additional layers to the game through level goals for players. Certain levels became tiers for Abilities, Techniques, and Talents where you could gain access to those powerful aspects. After that was resolved, the customization only served to enhance the gameplay and create more engagement from the players. As they learned the “In’s and Out’s” of Unchained Heroes, they realized what they could do with different Ability combinations. With that knowledge, they either changed up their character or saved it for their next one.

Final Thoughts

Whatever the Game System you play within, there will be expectations that arise. I hope that this series has brought to light some of the expectations that I knowingly and unknowingly encountered. It’s fascinating to see how these expectations grow, evolve, and shape our game experiences based on the rules of each system. A Gamemaster can use and identify them in their game to help understand what where the players are being directed. They can also use them to identify why a player may be unhappy with the current game they are playing, completely separate from the fact that the player may love the story. A Player may identify these aspects to shape their own expectations to better convey their thoughts and buy into the game system. In either case, the Game System will affect the expectations of everyone at the table and knowing that is just the first step into a great gaming experience.

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