Flowers and Powerz

Flowers of Hell (the player’s guide for Demon: The Descent) should be out any day now. Rich’s last Monday Meeting update indicated it has been approved by CCP and is waiting for one more piece of art before Onyx Path puts it in the hands of DriveThru RPG. I know a lot of people are waiting with bated breath for this book to come out – and no one is more eager for its release than I am.

That may seem ridiculous. It’s not like I don’t know what’s in it, right? I have the proofs (minus a couple pieces of art) sitting on my laptop – to say nothing of every first draft, redline, final draft, developed draft, and post-edited-pre-art draft along the way. I have the email exchanges between the developer and the various freelancers. Not only have I watched the sausage being made. I have a minute-by-minute account of when each ingredient was added.

I’m eager for this book’s release because it’s the first time I’ve written a substantial number of powers for a World of Darkness supplement, and I want to see the reactions to that work.

I’ve written before about my passion for the world-building side of game design. Most of my work for Onyx Path to date has been on the “fluff” end of the equation. I wrote the introduction to the God-Machine Chronicle, the little “why I Fell” stories in Demon: The Descent, and the write ups of the Wyld-touched places in W20 Rage Across the World. I did similar work for the upcoming W20 The Umbra and Dark Eras books. These included some “crunch,” yes, but it was largely incidental to the task of trying to give gaming groups so many cool plot hooks they want to use that they go into ferret shock.

Flowers of Hell had me doing something I haven’t done for an RPG someone outside of my own tabletop group will be playing. I had the opportunity to spend more than 90% of my word count on mechanics. I wrote half the Embeds, Exploits, and demon form powers. I think they’re pretty cool. I really hope fans of this still-new game agree.

Like many long-time tabletop gamers, even though I don’t have many crunch-focused publishing credits I’ve been tinkering with system mechanics for pretty much my whole gaming career (starting with the Energy Wizard character class for red box D&D when I was in 5th grade). I never ran any RPG as-written and right-out-of-the-box until the playtest of Demon: The Descent (wherein the whole point is to run it as-written to make sure it works). Even as a player in my wife’s games I have a reputation for inventing custom systems for my characters, performing statistical analysis, and maintaining spreadsheets to identify, say, which rotes my Mage character should buy (based on the character’s personality/style, the utility of the spell, and the mechanical benefit of using the rote instead of an improvised spell). I’ve been known to wake up in the middle of the night to calculate dice probabilities.

I am not a math person! My degree is in English! XKCD and SMBC frequently leave me scratching my head. I have no business engaging in recreational mathematics. And yet…

And yet I can’t help myself. I derrive tremendous satisfaction from taking “I want my character to be able to do X” and finding a way to express that capability mechanically, from finding ways to balance “cool and useful” against “fair and fitting the flavor of the game.” I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Beth hardly ever vetoes my cool new powers/spells/Charms/Feats anymore, and that’s gotta count for something, right?

If I have a philosophy when it comes to designing new powers, it comes down to this: The best powers are flavorful within the context of the game fiction, provide a measurably useful mechanical benefit, and possess utility in circumstances other than the most obvious. Not every power must be all three equally, but it’s better if they are.

What do I mean by that? I’m going to use Fire Drill from the upcoming Flowers of Hell to illustrate – because it’s one of the Embeds I wrote and because it has been spoiled on the Demon developer blog (which means I’m not violating a NDA by talking about it here).


First and foremost, any power needs to fit the tone of the game. A spell that causes fire to rain from the sky and consume an entire city isn’t really appropriate for a Dresden Files game, for example, even if it’s par for the course in Exalted.

Demon: The Descent draws many of its tropes from the film and fiction of the espionage and caper genres. These stories frequently include scenes in which the heroes set off a fire alarm to distract anyone in the building long enough to make their escape or, more likely, their unauthorized entrance (see Sneakers and Ocean’s Eleven).

Mechanical Benefit

We’ve all seen powers that don’t really do anything as-written. They’re just sort of a colorful description of what they’re supposed to do with no guidance as to how a GM is expected reflect that capability mechanically. This sometimes shows up as a system that offers a broad description of what a power can do (“control minor forces,” for example) but is really reluctant to provide any specifics. I love tinkering with systems, but I don’t want to have to do it every time I cast a spell in a game about people who cast spells (conceptually, I think Mage: The Ascension is an awesome game, but it had some flaws that drove me crazy). And if someone who stays up late creating whole magic systems finds the prospect of adjudicating a game with rules that amount to unhelpfully telling me that “the GM is the final judge of what this power can do,” I feel sorry for those GMs who are intimidated by systems and have one or more system tinkerers in their group. I understand that word counts were probably tight, but seriously – throw us a frickin’ bone!

Even worse are the games that provide an entirely underwhelming mechanical benefit considering the power level they’re supposed to be at. I’m okay with a D&D Cantrip that makes a little puff of smoke, but my 5th level spell better not be a crappier version of my 3rd level Fireball spell. If the game’s flavor text says I’m one of the biggest, baddest, most effective practitioners of whatever I do, I’d better not have a 50/50 shot of failing when using my best skill.

I sometimes see this in games where the designers were really worried about preventing players from abusing the system. In my experience, the best way to prevent rules lawyers from abusing the system is not to play with rules lawyers. Internal balance is more important than some sort of nebulous grand unified theory of game balance.

With Fire Drill, I was a little bit more focused on utility than mechanical benefit (more on that in a moment), but I didn’t leave it at “set off smoke detectors even if your Storyteller tells you there isn’t a nearby fire alarm to pull.” In the context of the genre, what does setting off a fire alarm do? Prompt an evacuation, maybe, sure – but mostly it creates just enough of a distraction that people in the building don’t notice the actions of several unauthorized strangers. That’s simple enough to reflect mechanically – a bonus to rolls that take advantage of that distraction, particularly if the demon and his allies dress the part of people who typically respond to this kind of alarm.

Non-Obvious Utility

Another pet peeve of mine is powers that are too narrowly defined. Sometimes this comes in the form of a cool power with a zillion caveats. “You’re incredibly lucky, but you can’t use your luck for selfish ends or all your luck will go away. Also, it doesn’t work on anything big like winning the lottery or a game of high stakes poker. But you’ll totally rake it in when you play BINGO at the church fish fry! Add +5 to all your rolls because of your incredible good luck. Except the ones that don’t involve luck – like winning at chess or performing research in a library or…”

As with powers that are underwhelming because the benefit is so small, low-flexibility powers are often the consequence of game designers who fear rules abuse. Instead of offering a pathetic benefit, however, they provide a powerful mechanical benefit in an artificially narrow situation.

Another manifestation of this are powers that provide a solid mechanical benefit with a flimsy bit of flavor and expects me to be satisfied with that. “You’re really fast. Add +3 to Quickness.” That might be an awesome bonus, sure, but what else can I do with it? I’ve literally seen games where you shoot fire from your fingers but the rules say you can’t use it to set things on fire; it just causes damage. I’m sorry, but if I can shoot fire from my hands I had better not have trouble starting up my grill. As well, my *cellphone* can function as an improvised flashlight in a pinch, so why can’t Flame Hands kludge himself a torch?

This might sound a bit like “reality lawyering” (using one’s real world knowledge to force game mechanics to function differently than they do – sort of the corollary to rules lawyering), but really it’s a question of being able to find something I can do to solve a problem when I don’t have an obvious right tool for the job. One of the crowning moments of my old AD&D group was when we used two bottles of alchemist’s fire, 20 feet of rope, and a potion of water mammal control to sink a ship even though its siege weapons had a much longer range than ours. Clever, unexpected uses of equipment or powers are to be encouraged by a GM, not shot down by the game designer. I say that as someone who has been playing and GMing tabletop games for a good 25 years, now.

Fire Drill has a clear, obvious use with mechanics designed to reflect the intention behind its creation. When it was revealed some weeks back someone pointed out that the most common response to a car alarm going off is to shrug and ignore it, and that’s certainly true…unless it goes off while you’re driving it in a high-speed car chase. You know what else has a sophisticated sensor that detects when an emergency calls for it to deploy? An airbag. I didn’t describe every dirty trick I can come up with for every power – partially because I had a limited word count but also because I know it’s so much cooler when you come up with this sort of thing in play when the chips are down and you’re holding nothing but a pair of 9s.

At least I hope that’s what people will see when they look at the powers I did for Flowers of Hell. But just as the fans are waiting eagerly to find out what cool stuff the book has, I have to wait until it’s out before I find out whether they’ll enjoy any of the powers I designed for it. Really, it’s quite maddening, but hopefully our wait will end soon.

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