Character Design: Assassin

Designing Stealth

Just like armor, I knew that I wanted to include stealth in this game from the beginning. And just like armor, I knew that I would restrict stealth to one character rather than making it a facet of each character. I’ve always been a huge fan of stealth in games, and I wanted stealth to be powerful and to work the way the player would want it to work. So, stealth works like this: When the Assassin goes into stealth it is removed from the board and avoids all attacks on that turn. When the Assassin attacks from stealth, it is placed anywhere on the board, so long as there’s an enemy within range of the Assassin’s attack. I sometimes get this mind boggled reaction, “so the Assassin can just teleport wherever he wants?” and my answer is, “yeah, it’s crazy!”

Enforcer Enrage-01 Ambush-01

Character Redesign

Initially the Assassin had two sets of abilities, one of which could only be used when attacking from stealth. This greatly limited the number of options the Assassin had access to at any given time. During one of the major rounds of edits to the game, in which movement was costed appropriately, the Assassin was redesigned so that any ability could be used at any time. Using an ability from stealth is still a huge benefit, because your opponent has no chance of escape. This redesign was part of what inspired the current design of Savage Strike which was previously two separate abilities.

Ambush 5.1.12-01 Paralyzing Blow-01 Savage Strike-01

(That icon in the upper left meant the ability could only be played from stealth.)

The Evolution of an Ability

Before I designed any characters I brainstormed abilities I could put into the game. Out of that brainstorm came a pull ability, inspired by Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, Pudge from DotA or Blitzcrank from LoL. I debated whether to give the ability to the Berserker or the Enforcer, and I decided on the Berserker. In order to support this ability for the Berserker, I needed to conceptualize the Berserker wielding knives on the ends of chains like Kratos from God of War.

Playtesting revealed a number of things about this ability. The ability was often not used for its pull, but for its damage. Movement was a more reliable way to close a gap, so the Berserker would typically use high movement abilities instead of this one. On the other hand, there were a couple of cases where this ability would be used primarily for the ranged damage. One was when the Berserker was standing on the other side of a well placed trap, and the other was when the damage was enough to end the game. Changing the ability to a Move 1 Range 3 ability, that dealt less damage helped to resolve all of these issues.

Lash Knife 3.8.12-01 Whip Cord-01

One of the play testers mentioned that it felt more like an Assassin ability than a Berserker ability, so I decided to try it out on the Assassin instead. Once I decided to try it out, I realized right away that this ability interacts interestingly with stealth. The Assassin can use this ability to pull an opponent closer to your allies, just like the Berserker could, but the Assassin could also pull an opponent off of a vulnerable ally by using it from stealth. Ranged abilities also give the Assassin greater flexibility in where to appear from stealth. This ability is now central to a build of the Assassin that serves as the team’s “tank”.

This change also improved the concepts of both characters. A friend who was doing art for the game at the time wanted to draw a cord weapon for the Assassin, but it weirdly stepped on the toes of the Berserker’s chain knives, which were clunky anyway. Now the Berserker can carry whichever weapons the artist feels is most appropriate, and the Assassin can use the same cord for choking people or pulling them.

Assassin Marks

I’m sure you can figure out for yourself how Slice and Dice and Vampiric Strike are a combo.

Slice and Dice-01 Assassin Mark-01 Vampiric Strike-01

Current Design

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In the works

Poison Dart is a problematic ability. It was designed because players were worried that popping out of stealth in the middle of the enemy camp might not be the smartest thing to do on the first turn, but the Assassin had no other options. I also like the idea of letting the Assassin set up their runes while in stealth, to make coming out of stealth a bit flashier. The ability works fine, but it has two problems. One is that the Assassin stays in stealth for too long, making it unlikely that the Assassin will ever get attacked. The other is that between Vanish and Poison Dart, the Assassin winds up with an overabundance of focus, making the most expensive abilities the most relevant. I plan to resolve this problem by combining Poison Dart and Vanish into one ability that doesn’t adjust your focus.

Out:

Vanish-01 Poison Dart-01

In:

Vanish 6.16.13-01 Sure Strike 9.7.12-01

This new ability can be used in a bunch of ways. You can use it when you aren’t next to an opponent to set up your runes and close the gap; you can use it to put a mark on a foe and set up your runes; and you can use it from stealth for a chance to go right back into stealth. My thinking is that, as opposed to Poison Dart, attempting to remain in stealth is a risk, as you may not hit the moon rune you need. I should probably come up with a new name for this new ability as well, that better represents putting an Assassin Mark on your foe. Hopefully this will give the Assassin a number of viable opening moves, and will help resolve some of the other issues with the Assassin. Combining these abilities will also open up room to bring back Sure Strike, an old ability designed to combo with Assassin Marks.

Character Design: Berserker

Before I go into the design of the Berserker, I think it’s important to explain why I included characters in the game’s design in the first place. Once I’ve tackled that topic, I’ll discuss balancing different strategies within a single character’s design, using Berserker abilities as an example. I’ll talk about naming abilities, how I assign runes to abilities, and define some of the keywords used in these cards I’m revealing. I’ll also tell a bit about what’s in the works now.

Why Design Characters?

I could have designed the game without characters. I could have designed ability cards that anyone could use. The abilities could be drafted and you could build your own unique character, much like Magic: The Gathering. Despite this very cool potential scenario, I didn’t design the game this way. Why not?

There are a number of reasons why having characters is a good thing for this game. Having characters enhances the flavor of the runes, the abilities, and the game overall. Characters can be balanced against one another in ways that abilities can’t be. For example: health, always available passive abilities, and other subtler factors such as access to ranged attacks. One more advantage of characters is that they are better for game setup than the draft scenario. Time you’re spending drafting cards is time you’re spending not playing the game (or rather, there are two games to play, the draft and the battle). Allowing players to choose from a set of abilities that no one else has access to gives players the freedom to craft a strategy without having to compete for the elements of that strategy. Drafting abilities that aren’t restricted by character would have a whole different set of advantages, but these are the advantages of designing characters as I see them.

Balancing Strategies

Surprisingly, I’ve rarely needed to adjust the relative power of different characters. Apparently the math I used to design the abilities from the outset was sound. Instead, I’ve been focused on balancing strategies within a class. One round of across the board changes I made was to make abilities with high movement less powerful, because smart players figured out that high movement abilities were much better than abilities with low movement. Playing a low movement ability is a risk, since your opponent could move away from you and nullify your attack. Now, that risk is counterbalanced with a greater reward compared to the lower risk, high movement abilities. These three abilities represent three different strategies for the Berserker. Trying to make sure that there are a variety of appealing strategies within each class is a fair deal of what character design is all about.

Blood Thirst-01 Slaughter-01 Terrifying Blow-01

Subtlety in Character Balance

Characters are defined as much by what they can’t do as by what they can do. The Berserker focuses on damage and mobility to penetrate the back line and deal damage to high value targets. In contrast, the Enforcers skill set is more focused on holding that front line and keeping characters like the Berserker away from your allies through knock downs, stuns, and damage prevention. The Berserker’s defensive ability is Blood Thirst which allows the Berserker to heal based on damage dealt. This is a good example of subtle balance, since combining damage prevention with healing creates a multiplicative effect that requires careful balance. If I designed a character with both, I would restrict the power of each accordingly. I’ve given the Berserker one knock down and one stun, both of which I am invested in keeping because of their fantasy value. My current feeling is that these two abilities still keep the Berserker relatively crowd control light since they are both restrictive to use.

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Naming

I read an interesting article about Magic design and why iconic names, such as “Charge”, should be used sparingly so that you don’t box yourself in for future designs. With that in mind I named the two Enforcer movement abilities “Zealous Charge” and “Dazzling Charge.”

Zealous Charge-01 Dazzling Charge-01

There’s also been a process for naming the Enforcer which was called a Knight first and then a Paladin. I liked Knight because it doesn’t hold a religious connotation and I wasn’t necessarily going for a holy crusader as much as an armored warrior. Unfortunately Knight really means someone riding a horse, and actually so does Paladin. Enforcer is both morality neutral, and doesn’t imply a steed. However, as the world for the game becomes more fleshed out, I’m more keen on the idea of returning to the character name Paladin, with an interesting religion behind it.

The names of all of these abilities aren’t final. I’m looking for a naming convention to tie Conviction and Stamina together. One idea is to borrow from Magic and call them seals (like Seal of Strength and Seal of Fire).

Conviction-01 Stamina-01

Runes

It’s very helpful for runes to have a set of effects that they are associated with. Not only does it create an identity for the runes and make them more evocative, but it also aids with game play if you can look at what runes a card uses and guess at what the card does. One of the things that I still need to do for this game is designate a set of seven starting cards so that new players aren’t forced to choose between options they can’t reasonably evaluate. When I do that, I might need to rearrange which runes go on which abilities. Hopefully, as I unveil the characters’ abilities, the themes of each rune will become apparent, but what each rune represents will also likely shift in the future. I’ve actually been thinking of changing Throwing Axe to trigger off of Vision (representing aim) and Blood Thirst to trigger off of Blood + Moon. My original thinking was that the Vision rune would be a generative/regenerative rune (gain health, focus, marks, special resources, etc) for no better reason than that it’s green. But I’ve since moved away from that concept, and focused the vision rune on deck manipulation and ranged attacks, while giving generative abilities to the blood rune.

What do these abilities do?

These abilities need a little more explanation. Knock Down means your opponent can’t move on the following turn. Stun means your opponent can’t do anything on the following turn. Level Up allows you to gather up all your rune cards and exchange one for a new rune from outside the game, then shuffle. Level Ups are one of the primary ways of planning ahead in the game, like buying gold in Dominion or expanding in Starcraft. Differing strategies differ largely in how many turns a player spends leveling up on the one hand and how many turns the players deal maximum damage instead.

In the works

In the future I’ll be working on adjusting where the runes show up on abilities to make the runes evocative and consistent and to keep a variety of options available for each character. After I’ve gotten the artwork I’ll finalize the ability names, and come up with and solicit flavor text for the abilities. The cards are also in some need of a small design update, that draws the players’ attention to abilities that stay in play. I’ll probably create categories like “preparation” and “object” and display the card type in white text instead of black so that players are better able to distinguish cards that stay in play. I also plan to design character cards that show special abilities like Block and Enrage on them and also show the character’s health and starting focus. Most excitingly, I’ll design one more ability for each character. My hope is to have just two more rounds of play testing, one final round for identifying remaining changes that are needed, and one more that I hope won’t reveal anything that needs to be changed.

Onward

I’d like to continue with these character design entries. These first two have had almost opposite styles. In the entry about the Enforcer, I focused on the history of the Enforcer and how designing the game began. In this entry I didn’t discuss the history of the character at all, instead talking about what I hope is good about the character’s current design. Which style is more interesting to you? Next up, Assassin.

Character Design: Enforcer

The Enforcer was the first character I designed. It’s difficult to fully express the challenge of designing the first character. The game is a blank page. There are no abilities to compare the first ability to. There is no concept of how diverse a range of abilities the game mechanics can support. There is no sense of how the abilities will play. There is no way to test the first abilities. There is no way to know what the game is. There is no game.

If you’ve been reading this journal you probably have a pretty good idea of the challenge I faced. You know about as much as I did about my game at this point (a little bit more if you’ve been paying attention). How do you overcome a blank page? You brainstorm. Designing the first character is easy for the same reason it’s difficult: there are no abilities already populating the game that new abilities need to be different from.

Brainstorm

I did have some context to work with. Here’s what I already had to work with: choosing actions simultaneously, the rune deck, the resource system, health and damage, a goal for the number of turns a game should take, the mechanic I’d designed for armor, and the board. (The board was still a question at this point, but as I came up with more and more abilities that relied on having a board, it was clear that the board was worth having.) I brainstormed iconic melee abilities I knew I wanted in the game, like charge, area melee attacks, and stuns. I brainstormed abilities that worked with the rune deck: how many runes you reveal, putting specific runes on top of your deck to set up the next turn, and modifying the contents of your rune deck. This brainstorm would serve as a starting point for all of the melee characters abilities, and for the first character, I used as many as I needed.

Math

I could also work out some basic math before I designed the first ability. I wanted the game to average ten turns. I wanted +1 focus abilities to deal half as much damage as -1 focus abilities. I knew how likely the Enforcer was to block, so I knew what the ratio of damage needed to be between the Enforcer and the rest of the characters. I gave abilities their lowest possible damage average to accommodate the ratio and the focus, and based health totals on the ten turn goal.

Two Iconic Abilities

(+1) Spin Attack [4]
Move 1 Burst 1
Sun: 4 Damage

(+1) Bash [4]
Move 1 Range 1 Damage 2
Sun: +2 Damage and Knock Down

Spin Attack is the only Enforcer ability that made it all the way from initial design to the current state of the game. I didn’t yet know how to evaluate knock downs, so I just tacked it on the abilities as a sort of flavor bonus at first. Eventually I learned how to evaluate knockdowns and balance them with other abilities.

Enforcer

Synergy with Block

(+1) Defensive Stance [4]
Move 1 Range 1 Damage 2
Moon: [5] to block this turn.

(+1) Punish [4]
Move 1
Lightning: Successful blocks deal 9 damage and stun this turn.

Synergy with blocking was design space that was open to me. Testing revealed that these abilities were very limited in their usefulness, because in group games your opponents are already trying to attack your allies so their attacks don’t get blocked. The situation would come up where your opponents had to attack you, and you could play one of them, but even then they were “win more” cards. At first I combined them so that they would only take up one option, but eventually I scrapped them altogether.

Simultaneous Play

(-1) Intercept [6]
Switch places with an adjacent ally. Redirect all attacks against your ally to you. Deal 6 Damage to each melee foe who attacks you this turn.
Blood: +6 Damage

This was a very powerful ability, though it did require some setup to use well (you had to stand next to an ally). This ability showcases simultaneous play well. The problem with this ability was that it invalidated your other strategies for getting your opponents to attack you, such as knockdowns . Cutting this ability made the rest of the Enforcers tools more appealing.

Now

The Future of the Enforcer

I don’t know what playtesting will reveal in terms of changes that still need to be made to the Enforcer if any. At some point I will need to stop tinkering and call the game ready. I might have room for one more ability per character in my print run, so I can still design one more ability for the Enforcer. More importantly, I need to determine a starting set of seven recommended abilities. Players are able to customize their characters by choosing which seven abilities they will use in the game, but a starting player can’t reasonably make that kind of choice. I need to determine which abilities are most essential to a player’s initial experience of the game.

Next Time

I could continue with this character design series, moving on to the Berserker, the second character I designed. Or I could move on to a broader topic, like designing for strategic options, or other games that inspired me. I’m considering continuing the character design series every other week, and I’m also considering two posts per week. Please leave a comment and let me know what you’re interested in.