I last left off talking about working on abilities. And really, this is quite a sticking point for me. I for some reason shut down when I get to them. So, tonight I feel inspired to sit down for a short deconstruction of abilities.
I guess the first step is to analyze what an ability is when compared to other player capabilities. In my previous considerations, it seems to me there are actually three kinds of capabilities. I'll refer to them based on combat terminology, but there are variants that extend outside that as well. I'll call them Maneuvers, Skills and Abilities.
Maneuvers are things every character can do, and for the most part, with the same level of capability. Bob can walk a unit of movement, he can speak a few words, he can bleed, eat and draw a weapon. These generally speaking would be maneuvers. Their distinction and definition isn't to significant without the other two being defined however.
Skills are actions any character can do, but with training and specialization certain characters will do it better than others. These might be jumping, swinging a sword, performing a speech or making a hammer. It's very important to recognize that for the most part these actions ANYONE can do. A wizard can pick up a sword and wave it around, with luck he will hit someone. The village idiot can wrack his mind for the closest water source, and has a chance to locate it. A warrior and a survivalist might do better than those first examples, but the first examples have a chance to succeed.
Abilities are different from the prior two in that not anyone can do them. A wizard may cast a spell, but a warrior cannot. A shadowdancer may hide in plain sight, but a regular thief may not. These are abilities.
With these examples, there are some grey areas that arise, and mostly with the medium being the deciding factor. My favorite example is aiming.
In a MMORPG, more likely than not aim will be an ability. You do not specifically call out that you are aiming unless you are the type of character that does that. You may not see NPCs doing it, you may require a specific class or gear item (when you have limited slots) and so on.
In a FPS video game, likely it is a skill, those taking recoil and sway reducers being better, those with scopes being even better.
However, commonly in pen and paper RPGs, specific mentions of aiming are listed as maneuvers. I think likely this has to do with another important factor, cost.
Player actions generally have some form of cost. All actions do. What is very important is considering what those costs are. This is something you'll see is a common theme throughout sports, video games, board games and pen and paper games. Some of the costs I consider prevalent are the following; specialization, actions, time, energy and wealth.
Specialization is probably the most obscure. Specialization deals with class choice, advancement allocation and ability choice.
Class choice is generally the most defining cost. The value of this choice, is completely determined by the creator of the game. You can find games with little or no cost upon choice (usually single player games with full respec processes) or some that can completely close you off from any other actions. This cost is mainly determined by the amount of abilities to skills to maneuvers.
At first one may say that MMOs might be the best examples of a high cost choice, but if you look at the underlying systems you may discover that each class has similar abilities with similar cost to result ratios.
Advancement allocation generally is a less costly choice to make. Generally speaking advancement allocation is small increases that can be chosen later if you prioritize something else. They make the character slightly more accurate, increase their speed or durability slightly or even upgrade particular abilities a little. Many games even offer the ability to undo some of these choices and switch paths.
Ability choice is a less often offered option. Many times this is covered with class and specialization choice. However, some games offer this as an option. For instance spellcasters in some games must choose an ability and keep it for the rest of the game, never to be undone. These are choices over a specific ability and not an increase like advancement allocation and class choice.
Specialization costs are generally opportunity costs to be viewed at a 'party scale'. Not all games operate at a party level, but if you receive NPC assistance later (or right away) and are not set on one choice ahead of time, it is generally considered best to set these choices based on your companions for optimum efficiency. If a party has someone who will distract the enemy, you can lean further away from defense and optimize things like healing or damage. If everyone focuses on distracting, nothing may ever get done. If nobody knows how to pick a lock, the group may never get past the door and so on. Pen and paper RPGs have a strength here in that they can be GMed by a dynamic entity that can adapt to the players, meaning should the players be lacking in an area, they can present less challenge there, or artificially augment the players ability in that field.
Actions are another cost involved in abilities, maneuvers and skills. Actions are commonly used to offset the power of a desired effect. I have distinguished this from time for a very important reason. Actions can be simultaneous, they can exist away from chronological time, and can take place within a single turn. Actions limit other initiations of abilities, maneuvers and skills within the period the character is given to create more effects. This ability or that ability, but not both. Actions are a cost that occur before or simultaneous with an ability, maneuver or skill.
Different types of action currency can be used. In recent DnD this is literally actions, standard, move, minor and free. A greater action can be sacrificed for a lesser, but a lesser or series of lessers generally can not be substituted for a greater. The player must choose whether they shall move twice, move and attack or just attack multiple times. In White Wolf systems these are ticks. In board games and card games these may be plays, rolls, purchases, bids and what have you. The important thing is, that a choice must be made whether to use one or the other but not both (or two but not the third and so on.)
Time is a cost that extends after actions. Commonly this is used as a way to offer a choice between lesser gains now and greater gains later. These are generally buffs, debuffs and effects that occur over time.
An ability that consumes an action, but offers no immediate benefit, only granting their benefits on later actions or even other actors turns is an action with a time cost.
For instance, a bless spell does no damage, it will never kill an opponent or increase ones own health, however it will make ones companions and ones self more capable of harming an opponent later. In many cases a +1 bonus granting a 5% boost in efficiency to the receiving targets. If there are twenty characters with equal damage capacity gaining this benefit for one action including the caster then the benefit has tied. However, if this effect is drawn out over 40 actions (about twenty turns) it need only be applied to one person to gain full effect.
One of the important drawbacks to consider for the time cost however is premature conclusion. Should an encounter conclude 5 turns in and the effect was applied for a 5% benefit to two people of equivalent capability, the turn was wasted. It was only a net benefit of 50% that could have been spent creating greater short term effect. That is the essence of time cost, and one of the reasons why a time cost ability usually has greater total effect than an ability with no time cost (all other costs equal.) Also these particular costs do not restrict later actions, they should not require concentration or other sacrifice of actions.
Energy costs are costs that should the player's character only rest, and neither succeed, nor fail, nor instigate effect in the world, will be recovered. In many games this would be mana, spell uses, health, ability uses and in some cases cash. It is very important to remember, that energy costs are temporary costs, they WILL be returned and the player can and should expect that such should happen. Should the player fail a quest, these will be returned so that the player can still attempt another venture and have an opportunity to recover their losses. These could be once a day abilities, mana using spells, taking a hit from a sword and tapping a land unit.
The difference between actions and energy is that actions cannot be saved. Inaction does not preserve an action for an unlimited time, a player cannot do nothing for five rounds of combat then perform five rounds of actions simultaneously. A player can however preserve their mana while performing actions such as basic attacks. Energy costs can be sneaky, for instance, in games where thrown weapons can always be recovered, they are energy costs and not wealth costs as the player can expect to recover those that cost at a later time.
Finally wealth costs. Wealth costs are costs the player cannot expect to ever recover. This is gold pieces spent on a nice room, purchasing a sword. They are used to receive a bonus or avoid a penalty in either the short or long term. These could be single use potions or scrolls, or cards that are removed from play after use. Wealth rewards are commonly rewards granted via the player's success, and commonly used to increase the odds of greater success. All games do not necessarily use currency as a wealth cost. For instance, some games grant the character a consistent wage. These games would allow the character to accumulate currency for no action whatsoever.
Costs however are not the only important part about abilities, maneuvers and skills. The part most people see, and what I touched on a few times are effects. They are easily the most visible and followed part, while to those who truly wish to optimize, build or tactically choose pay attention to the costs as well. Generally effects fulfill four categories; Currency reduction, Currency increasing, Buffs and Debuffs.
Currency reduction is one of the most widely used effect. Ideally against opponents. Currency reduction could be picking a pocket, stabbing someone with a sword or causing an opponent to lose an action. Currency is very closely tied to costs, as costs are the willing reduction of currency, currency reduction is an unwilling effect.
Ideally Currency reduction reduces the opponent's currencies greater than the cost to create the effect. A basic sword strike generally sacrifices an action to reduce an opponent's health. Generally speaking this is sacrificing something gained in 6 seconds what may take a day or more to recover normally. It is also used to hurry an opponent to the point at which they cannot reduce ones own currencies. This could be killing, incapacitating or forcing an opponent to flee.
Examples of this are, stuns to attack actions, dispelling of buffs or debuffs to attack time, damage to attack energy costs, stealing to attack wealth costs and rarely level drains to attack specialization costs. Specialization costs are generally considered a very harsh target for a currency drain and are generally recommended to be avoided.
When choosing which currency reduction to pursue not only are the normal costs good to be considered, but also the value of the currency targeted. For instance, against opponents you will be fighting only once, specialization currencies may not be as ideal as energy currencies. For long battles attacking time currencies might be viable. For recurring villains, wealth and specialization currencies are prime targets.
Currency increasing is an effect that is less focused on, but also very straightforwards. Usually these effects are less numerous, but are generally effective. These could be healing spells, abilities that renew time cost effects and perhaps even abilities that recover specialization or actions lost to negative effects. Generally these are used to recover from currency reduction up to a maximum deemed 'normal'. The most ubiquitous is the healing spell, a boost to health to recover from damage done by an opponent. There are also stun breaks commonly used in MMOs and debuff removers.
The important thing to remember is that these only recover currencies lost by currency decreases. They should be measured according to both the character's capacity to reduce the opponent's currency and to the opponent's ability to reduce the character's capacity. Frequently this measurement is performed on a party level. One character focusing on currency increasing at great skill so the others may decrease currency at great skill.
Buffs are the increasing of effectiveness of abilities and skills. For the most part maneuvers by definition to not receive buffs. Maneuvers however CAN grant buffs. Aim is a classic example of a buff, the player sacrifices an action or series of actions to receive a bonus to accuracy. All costs can be sacrificed for buffs. For instance, some buffs may last 30 minutes in most MMOs but offer a small bonus, while actions and a 30s span may offer a much greater bonus that may or may not stack with the 30 minute bonus. Wealth is commonly used to offer buffs, a bonus for a night in a nice inn, or a specialization or class choice granting a permanent bonus. Generally buffs used within combat have an action and or energy cost associated.
Buff costs need to be carefully measured. It can be very easy to grant ones self a 20% bonus to a single action one could perform twice instead. However, such buffs could also prohibit an opponent from creating an effect by incapacitating them before they could act. It may also overcome a resistance buff on an opponent or a debuff placed on the one using the buff. It is also important to consider who in a party may receive the greatest benefit to a buff. A classic example is the haste spell in DnD. It grants extra attacks, but is cast by a wizard, one who does not specialize in melee, however if cast on a warrior it can be used to devastating effect.
Debuffs are effects that reduce an opponent's effectiveness per ability, maneuver or skill. Maneuvers generally are not exempt from this as they are from buffs, and are commonly targeted. These could be speed reductions, accuracy reductions or even effect reductions. Usually for effect reductions debuffs target currency reducers and increasers rather than debuffs or buffs.
As with buffs, debuffs need to be carefully measured. And generally they are harder to do so with as the capacity of the opponent is not commonly known. Generally one must guess whether the cost will be worth the result. However, if used properly, debuffs can be devastating. Reducing some opponents to complete ineffectiveness or reducing an opponent's currency reducers to a degree that ones currency increasers overcome the deficit.
Finally there's one last topic I wish to cover, but am not entirely certain where it should be placed.
Choices. Choices are a currency that cannot be forgotten. It is usually a sum of many other currencies and effects and is always in flux. Ideally you wish to reduce and eliminate your opponent's choices and increase ones own. But reducing them is done by both debuffs and currency reducers. Furthermore it is also reduced and increased by their own spending AND availability of currency. I feel like it might be well suited to the costs section, but it just doesn't seem to fit well there.
An expert in manipulating choices will use all available effects to make some choices less desirable than others, in effect reducing that currency and guiding the opponent to their own ideal conclusion. However commonly not all choices are known or controllable. So their own goal is to just reduce it to the least possible number.
A WORKING EXAMPLE
One of the most commonly seen working example in games is that of the party. Commonly this is one or two tanks, a healer or two and the rest damage dealers, usually at least twice as many as tanks and healers combined. Some games also allow for another role, the controller, there may be about as many of these as tanks or healers if such occurs, but commonly this is a role each character has the ability to touch on.
Each role is specialized in implementing their own particular manipulation of effects, variations within each role usually defined by the costs associated with their abilities or the long term buffs to skills. The tank specializes in buffing their ability to reduce damage, and reducing the opponent's choices to attacking the tank, usually through threat of currency reduction or debuffs. The healer specializes in buffs and currency increases and has buffs to increase their currency increases. The damage usually has buffs to increase their currency reductions that lead towards the opponent's incapacitation, they also have debuffs to help weaken the opponent against such currency reductions. The controller usually focuses on reducing the opponent's choices and actions through debuffs and currency decreases, and has long term buffs that increase those debuffs and currency decreases.
Working together well, the opponent is forced to target the tank to little effect. This effect is eliminated by the healer, while the damage dealers clean up the enemy, usually by focusing on one at a time so that they opponent gets as few actions and opportunity to create effects as possible.
In case you read it all
That came out longer than I expected, and I guess its not really just ability deconstruction, but a deconstruction of Maneuvers, Skills AND Abilities and their common systems on a generic level. I don't know if I taught you anything, but I'm glad I got all that out of my head. Maybe I'll get some inspiration. I don't know. But, this is the kind of thing that goes in circles in my head.