On Creating the Gaslight, Part 2: Working out the Mechanics

(This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part, On Creating the Gaslight, Part 1: Confronting Humanity through Games.)

Last month, I talked about a lot of the concepting that went into the design of the gaslight, our new monster for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I want to continue the design talk this month, getting further into the mechanical aspects of the monster design.

I knew right away that I wanted the gaslight to be an undead skull, and I wanted to incorporate the components of the name into the monster itself. Gas was easy enough—gaseous monsters certainly aren’t anything new to roleplaying games—but lighting took a bit to get right. My first thought was that they could use light to misdirect—and the standard gaslight can, which gives the attacker disadvantage. I think there would be several different kinds of gaslights, though. Let’s take a quick look at their description in Monster Mausoleum:

Traveling through swamplands is difficult for the most savvy of explorers, but many of those who venture into the bogs unprepared never venture back out. A body that decomposes in these swampy areas often putrefies faster than one in another setting, and when the body starts to emit gas, the life of the person inside leaks out with it, and they meld into one being. The gaslight takes the form of a gaseous skull. Mostly transparent, it glows a very faint green color as the gas flows around its shape.

So these travelers, by their very nature, will have died under different circumstances. Aside from dying in the swamp, they’ll have died at different ages, in different moods, with different numbers of people—there are so many variables, and all of those variables can affect the kind of gaslight you get. That being the case, I figured that with so much opportunity for different types, maybe they’d each be able to affect lights differently. There’s plenty of room for that, too, and I’ve already got some ideas on what other types of gaslights can do. I’m looking forward to our next monster book release, because you can bet it will have a few more gaslights.

Figuring out stats for a monster often seems like it should be simpler than it turns out to be, but the gaslight was actually fairly straightforward. I knew I wanted it to have some strong abilities, so its overall stats landed a bit lower than a simpler monster’s might have. Those abilities vary from gaslight to gaslight, but they all revolve around confusing the target. Both the gaslight and the greater gaslight can cast a fog as a free action, which disorients and causes the confused condition. They also have spells that follow the same theme, such as dissonant whispers and suggestion.

With stats, abilities, and spells out of the way, we just needed to figure out the gaslight’s basic attack—except the longer I thought about it, the less it made sense for them to have a melee attack. The thing is made of gas. So I handed it over to Dave for him to look at without any attack line at all.

Now, it’s worth noting that I don’t have the 20 or more years of tabletop RPG experience that Dave does. I’ve played video games since I was a kid and got into the video game industry about seven years ago. I played my first tabletop roleplaying game five or six years ago and have been working on them myself for about three years. I’ve played in several by this point (two of my games just ended, in fact), and I’ve written and edited adventures for major publishers. I know what I’m doing, but I’m coming to the process from a different perspective than Dave is, which means sometimes I think about things differently. So when Dave expressed a concern that the gaslight didn’t have an attack line, I asked, “Does it have to have one?”

We talked a bit more about it and then decided that no, it actually didn’t have to have one. In fact, maybe it made more sense that it didn’t try to gas-bonk you in the face. It was a bit of a weird choice from a monster design perspective, but we liked it for this monster, so this tiny-sized gas creature just sticks to psychic damage via spellcasting.

My first draft of this critter did have a couple blatant flaws, though. For one, I was way too fast and loose with the stun effects. I thought they’d turn out to be really cool because I wasn’t thinking through how they would play out at the table. (If you’re not sure why making a player skip their entire combat turn is not ideal, play the game with a seven-year-old and watch what happens when she has to skip a turn. Then realize that’s how the adults feel, too. They just hide it better.)

Having really cool ideas for monsters is one thing, but you always have to keep the table in mind. The way it plays out there is always more important than how it reads on the page. Designing something really complicated for your own campaign is one thing, but you can’t assume that every GM wants to juggle a lot of complicated monsters around, because most really don’t. Designing for publication is hugely different from designing for your own table, and that’s something else that’s vital to keep in mind.

The other big flaw was that I forgot to look at spell durations for that first draft, so the gaslight had a few spells that were all duration: concentration. That’s ridiculous because it can only ever use one at a time, so having more is often just a waste. Most monsters don’t live long enough to use an entire laundry list of spells (coming back around to how it reads vs. how it plays).

A few back-and-forths later, and we had a well-rounded monster that we both really liked and that left us room to grow. Just because the two gaslights that exist now don’t have attacks doesn’t mean that none of them could possibly have attacks. That falls in line with the concept, too, honestly. There’s a lot we can still do with it, and I’m really looking forward to what we might come up with.

Spell and Ability Design in 13th Age

We’re designing some spells and other character abilities for the 13th Age Roleplaying Game, and I’m delighted—and maybe a little surprised—at what fertile ground d20 games continue to be for game designers.

The various branches that form the d20 tree (13th Age, Pathfinder, and oh yeah D&D) have a 15-year history, not counting the design time within WotC prior to 2000. Hundreds of game designers have been making new feats, spells, and other game elements for a decade and a half. Yet we’re still finding new mechanics—new ways to provide some game-structure interest to match the flavor and theme of the spell.

That speaks to how robust the third edition ruleset is. All of us—from indie game designers to the big crew at Paizo—are still happily making stuff up that’s genuinely new, not just retreads of previously explored game-design space. And for indie developers like us, 13th Age is a particularly good environment to explore the d20 tree…for two reasons.

First, there isn’t an overwhelming supply of content out there (as there is with Pathfinder and 3e/4e D&D). To put it in economic terms, the marginal utility of the 12th fireball variant or the 26th Two-Weapon Fighting feat is pretty lousy. 13th Age is still lean enough that you can make up new stuff and not feel like you’re just designing for corner cases.

Second, 13th Age does a good job of managing how often PCs change their game elements—how often they get new spells and feats and whatnot. That’s a hidden virtue of a 10-level game. With a few exceptions (wizard comes to mind), you’re only changing your “abilities loadout” when you milestone or level up. Back in my D&D days, I saw a lot of 3e spellcasters practically buried beneath a dozen different books, trying to figure out which spells to prepare for a given day. The rest of the table impatiently waits (no fun), and the spellcaster essentially plays “lightning-round rules referencing” (no fun). In the abstract, of course everyone says, “I like the flexibility of picking new spells/abilities/whatever each game day.” But in practice, it’s not always fun. And we often forget that what fun there is comes at the expense of bored or impatient friends.

I’m a firm believer in “playtest, then preview,” but soon we’ll have some examples to share.