Fuzzy Alchemyby Mendel Schmiedekamp
Fuzzy Alchemyby Mendel Schmiedekamp
In the first age was the mountain and the leaf. Together they grew. The mountain drawing from the earth to reach into the skies. The leaf drawing from the skies to reach into the earth. Between them was peace. Their children, the trees, stand as mute testament to that ancient pact.
But in the first age there were other beings. The rot-fire took the stuff of life and returned it's power to the skies, consuming the dead into light, heat, and air. The worm took the stuff of life and returned it to the earth, consuming the dead into dirt and wetness.
And in the first age, there was balance.
Until in the second age was the flower. With it came the families of creatures we know today, the alliances and wars of the wild places.
But in the midst of conflict came the three sovereigns: beetle, fish, and lizard. They ruled each: the air, the sea, the land. Through them the domains of the world were laid down, each creature to dwell in their land.
And in the second age, there was peace.
Until in the third age the domains were broken. The power of the three sovereigns waned in face of the four seekers: wolf, bird, cat, horse. Each surveyed the ancient lands and conquered them. But they did not become the new sovereigns, for they bored easily, moving to the next land.
But in the midst of chaos came growth. All the beasts of before began to seek new ways to live, and the many forms of beasts we see today is due to this searching. It was a chaos of growth as well as destruction.
And in the third age, there was plenty.
Until in the fourth age came human.
Often game design starts with a setting, or more the idea of a setting. A handful of clever ideas, that patch together to make a seed for a game. Once the seed is there you can start designing the game around it.
Here is an example of such a seed:
Picturing the Mechanics
In the simplest approach to holistic game design you follow every setting development with a system development, and vice versa. Since the very first step was to define some basic principles for the setting, our next step is to determine how that affects our choice of mechanics.
Very simply, what is important in a setting built off these ideas? Several major things stand out.
First the most essential aspect of the characters is the extent to which they combine the different beasts. A wolfish human, might be well suited to the outdoors, and hunting. A humanish wolf, might become much like a domesticated dog. A character becomes defined most directly by the combination of beast within them.
Second if humans are the first beasts of the fourth age, who are the other three beasts? The answer to that question seems to be a potential driving force to the game. Who are the co-inheritors of the world in this new age? Are they competitors or allies? And what happens when humans and their co-inheritors combine?
The idea of alchemy, which is inherent to the classical elements, deals with change. The most appealing type of character to play, is one who can change the extent of bestial elements in themselves, whether purifying or transforming. On the other hand, such changes should also be slow and require much effort.
Doing the d20 Thing
The development of bestial elements within a character strongly resembles the mechanics of character classes. In both cases a character faces the decision to further refine a given element or class, or to add another one, perhaps even taking a drastically different route. These similarities are so strong, it seems that a class based character design is the best option. Especially since the break down of classes is so definite, as each beast is a class.
Since this is going to be a class based game, it's valid to consider if the d20 system is right for it. D20 has it's detractors and it's supporters, but in this case there are only two questions about it. Can it be used in this game? And how would it change or diminish the setting?
For the first question, the basic answer is yes. But there are conditions. All d20 games must have classes, ability scores, and challenge rating based XP. Classes are not a problem, this game already has them. Ability scores are a more questionable issue, we can include them, but that might hurt the game. Lastly provided the setting focuses on the "experience" gained from overcoming "challenges", the way levels are gained can be made to fit the setting, if only by choosing the right kind of challenges.
The second question significantly hinges on the ramifications of randomly chosen ability scores. Initially this seems to run counter to the idea of beast classes. After all your strength is primarily determined by what kind of creature you are, rather than a random roll at character creation. Fortunately there's no reason that ability scores will have a predominant effect on comparisons between different creatures. Rather the beast classes can define a coarse grade of raw ability, while the ability scores work within those grades, making a very weak grizzly bear still stronger than a very strong shrew. Using this approach we can accept ability scores as a valid way to distinguish between characters with the same beast levels.
Now that we have at least the basics of a system, we need to look at the ramifications for the setting. First, since the fundamental element of a character is their bestial elements, characters do not need to be by races or species, rather just by a small number of initial beast levels. This means that a character start with simply a set number of beast levels, determining the base species.
Since the physical form of such a character can vary so much, it becomes important to describe the changes in the physical body of the character, in terms of levels in a given class. These qualities form a natural expression of the course grades we need to set apart different beasts. For example, the Flight quality could be gained from levels in either beetle or bird, while the Burrowing quality could be gained from levels of worm. Likewise, levels in mountain could increase the Size quality.
As beast classes are gained, the most prevalent class will tend to define the physical form of the creature, while the less prevalent classes can be noticed as behavioral and physical quirks. Clearly some qualities need to work poorly with each other, Flight and Size seem good examples.
Feats of Nature
Another concern is what to do with other common staples of the d20 system, such as skills, feats, attack bonuses, saving throws, and hit points. In each case it's important to evaluate how these ideas fit in with beast alchemy.
Skills initially seem counter to the idea of beasts, but it's important to note that d20 skills include both studious knowledge and instinctive activities, like tumbling and stealth. While the skill list may require some care, so that it doesn't become too human heavy, the idea of skills as learned proficiency in an area is consistent with the game, so we can keep them, largely unchanged.
Feats on the other hand, have some significant problems. Most standard feats in d20 are related to the use of technology. Other than that they typically consist of skill bonuses, or social effects. Of these three categories, only skill bonuses are applicable to all beasts, and then seem fairly redundant. Feats tend to fill a niche, helping to define what characters are best at. However this niche is largely handled by the presence of qualities from beast classes.
Likewise the use of feats as ways to increase qualities seems interesting, but is a bit risky, as it ignores the strong connection between beast classes and qualities. Such things as birds and beetles being the only flying beasts. So it seems that if we want to use feats, we need to find another niche for them.
An alternative is to have feats act as limited actions which are available to characters. In this vein, a feat is literally a feat that the character can perform. Feats now become abilities, with a certain number of uses, over some time span. In some cases, the feats could be used every combat, such as a Power Strike. In other cases the feats may be one use only, such as a cat's Extra Life. This permits a significant amount of balancing between the different options. Since additional purchases of a feat simply give more uses, there's no need to worry about them stacking up.
By describing feats as a collection of options, rather than as new capabilities, a wide variety can be added to accommodate different beast classes. For technology, like shields and weapons, special feats can be used to permit the exploitation of those item's abilities.
The other elements of d20, including saving throws and hit points, can easily be subsumed under feats. The avoidance of death or damage is certainly a feat. In fact the idea of wounds can be introduced, not by the attacker, but by the defender, as a lesser of two evils. Characters could have the feat Broken Limb which can stop all but the deadliest attacks, but has obvious disadvantages. If the alternative to stopping those attacks is death, the player has good reason to permit their character a broken arm. Saving throws work similarly, as feats which avoid, or at least reduce harmful effects.
Given the need to balance offensive and defensive feats, there seems little need to have a special attack bonus. It seems this would work better as a collection of combat skills. This way a grizzly bear can be very skilled with her claws, but even if she developed opposable thumbs, she'd still be a poor fencer.
Simplicty and Complications
The basic structure of this game is two tiered. On the top level are the beast classes, which are built on the lower level of skills, qualities, and feats as presented above. It uses qualities to define the general nature of the beast classes, while skills and feats provide room to customize the particular character.
Actions in the game are of two sorts, skill uses, and feats. The later are always meant to be dramatic, the former are what gets the majority of things done. This balance helps to define what should be made a feat, and what should be made a skill.
This also means that the setting focuses more on dramatics, than it does on the mundane. There is a sense of risk whenever something is done, especially in combat, since there is an expenditure of a resource. This is heightened if there is some doubt as the what the opposition could do in response. This builds the suspense of creature combat, where each exchange could bring death, or victory.
One option to accentuate this gamble, is to make the uncertainty more explicit. By having a small number of feats hidden from view, as cards in a hand, it is possible to make every combat new and uniquely dangerous.
Looking BackIn the attempt to make d20 fit a particular setting a great many things have changed. The core staple, the central mechanic of a d20 plus modifiers, has remained the same. On the other hand, the different approach to feats, combat, and even classes, provides a very different game. While technically compatible, the result is certainly not convertible to other d20 games. Rather we have taken a generic game, and turned it into a game that fits a setting closely. But as a result the generic quality has been lost. This is a risk with generic systems. The greater risk, is that the fit is left too poor to be of service, in the interests of compatibility.