Consoles and Controllers: Designing with Charge
Consoles and Controllers has been out a couple days now and I’ve already given it its first update to give the interior a little more polish and text.
Normally I like to give updates as I’m working on games, but as Consoles and Controllers was being submitted to a game jam on Monday (though the deadline got pushed to Tuesday), I had to focus on the game itself, and a good chunk of the game is in its setting.
However, I made some subtle changes to Charge’s underlying dynamics, and it might be helpful to understand why.
The Charge SRD lends itself to creating what I call “lite” games. It’s important that I classify this really quick, since I think it’s an idiosyncracy of mine.
Lite games focus on fast play and storytelling. The mechanics are always secondary to storytelling, and the goal is to have just enough stuff to make conflict and challenges possible without bogging down play.
Monolithic games have a centralized core rule that gets applied to everything, but it’s heavier. There are usually sub-systems such as combat, but these rely on their core rule. They balance storytelling and gameplay.
Particularized games focus on having rules to handle every event. While they may have a core mechanic, they rarely focus on it, and each player will likely have significantly different rules. The goal is usually to mix in simulation with storytelling.
Sometimes a game blends these. For instance, in some editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the core game is monolithic, while spell-casting classes may have a particularized feel because of their various spells.
I don’t enjoy particularized games, because I think they’re too prone to bloat and design issues. They can be good, but they’re not my cup of tea. As much as I love Shadowrun, it has particularization issues with magicians and hackers, with hacking in cyberpunk games more broadly being a meme for slowing down play.
Sometimes a particularized game still inserts its core mechanic into the odd cases, but it does so in a way where it’s not intuitively reverse-compatible. The distinction is more about whether one needs to learn new rules.
The vast majority of games are lite or monolithic, especially since that’s a modern trend. The AD&D rogues with their percentile skills are gone, and the universal skill list has taken their place.
Charge in Context
Charge pairs well with lite game design principles. It’s got a framework you could use for a monolithic game, if you wanted to add systems on top, but it has a built in tiered-success and consequence system that makes it less important to add in all the extra rules for stuff like that.
It also works really well with Consoles and Controllers. Charge uses clocks to track game state, and that pairs well with more narrative/non-crunchy video games. It’s maybe a further cry from an action RPG, CRPG, or JRPG, but for a racing game or a platformer-inspired game it feels right.
It also is well-suited to a P/PG family-oriented feel, where the goal isn’t to kill bad guys but overcome them, since you’re not tracking enemies with HP but looking at a clock you need to fill to bypass them. There are subtle psychological underpinnings to that function.
Because the video game character logic means that things like stress can be abstract. You get sent back to a checkpoint when you mess up enough, for instance, and that could represent both going off-script or taking a physical injury.
I removed the penalty from stress because the reductions in actions means that a lot of characters are going to be rolling with zero dots in actions (which is handled as 2d6, keeping the lowest result), and this lends itself to the saccharine “Mario fell in lava and jumped back up to the platform” style Mario 64 “violence” versus gritty realistic PG-13/R rated violence.
The setting lends itself to a hyper-streamlined ruleset, and my first steps in adapting the SRD were to streamline a couple places.
I reduced the number of social actions. Charge is G/PG, aimed at a family audience, and having complex social interactions just doesn’t work when dealing with younger children (so the various options all condensed down to just “talk.”
We also don’t have any of the overarching attribute stuff that some Charge games inherit from Forged in the Dark, so it is less necessary to balance out categories. The system Forged in the Dark would use is linking certain types of skills under an attribute category, and you use the number of skills you have dots in to determine the attribute rating (I think, I’m a little rusty).
Freeing ourselves from that also opens the door to special actions.
A defining trait of many games is excluding certain options to certain character types, and since each talent tree in Charge represents something like a class or a playbook in other games, I wanted to represent magicians or sci-fi characters without having to come up with long, discrete sub-rulesets.
Because actions are narrative (“Can I take a move action to climb the wall?”) there’s little extra work involved in adding in something like a cast action to represent magic, and these special actions define characters based on the games they’re from.
Momentum in Consoles and Controllers doubles as an injury penalty, since a character who gets sent back to a checkpoint by running out of stress loses all their momentum (and may no longer be in the scene).
I want to give it more of a role (not that it’s insubstantial in Charge by default), so it’s the lever power-ups interact with, though they can also function without it in certain contexts (as a reward for character upgrades).
Consoles and Controllers is more generous with momentum by devaluing it. I want a character who returns from a checkpoint and gets a partial success to ready their power-ups again, and the primary mechanical function of power-ups is to replace standard momentum use (which costs 2 momentum instead of a power-up’s 1 to grant a +1d6 bonus to a roll).
The Charge SRD features a “talent tree” that’s really more of a linear progression, and it has more options than Consoles and Controllers winds up giving each of its characters. Further, because it’s generic, it doesn’t have pre-built elements.
Also, unlike in the SRD, Consoles and Controllers starts characters off with a talent point. Some of this is to adjust for our action tweaks (which reduce the overall number of dots a character gets) and some of it is to give more definition right off the bat.
Consoles and Controllers uses an ARPG-inspired tier system, where you have to choose a low-tier talent before you can pick the next tier’s talent. This has two effects:
- More choice for the players at different points, letting them “skip” certain talent options.
- A new configuration for customization can balance the effects of special attributes.
Each character only has between one and three defining talents that alter how they play in the world. This is partly a space consideration, but I think it’s helpful because it gives a generalized foundation.
The addition of special actions gives characters more creation-to-endgame definition in how they function, and though there are a coupleof talent trees without special actions they make up for it with talents (like the rogue’s powerful “Yoink!” that lets them use other characters’ power-ups) and other special features (and the fact that distributing action dots across fewer things as a specialization strategy has value in and of itself).
One reason for this is that the power-up system in Consoles and Controllers gives characters more room to define themselves than you would have from normal talent trees, and characters get two at the start of the game, typically get another from their talent tree, and then can upgrade them by making them “boosted” or “enduring.”
Another distinction is that talents in Consoles and Controllers are generally more powerful than Charge suggests, though there are often balancing acts (the Scion, for instance, has to take a specialization that boosts them but consumes their character creation talent pick).
Power-ups were an addition I made to Charge for three simple reasons:
- It adds to the classic video game feel I’m going for.
- It gives an immediate and simple way to develop a character.
- It provides an additional option for talent tree rewards that don’t require specialized content.
I’m also a fan of spotlighting mechanics, and power-ups do that. You can temporarily function as if you were one action dot better, which can be a mechanically significant difference. There’s also a hidden counterpart to this, in that since activating a power-up on an action keeps you from gaining momentum on success, characters using power-ups both feel more powerful but also contribute to working themselves out of the spotlight, since they have fewer opportunities to earn momentum by luck alone.
The upgrade potential of power-ups needs to be mentioned here as well.
A “boosted” power-up operates once for free. If combined with enduring, it still only grants one free use, but can continue to be used for 1 momentum.
An “enduring” power-up can be used as many times as a character wants, for 1 momentum each time.
Consoles and Controllers is pretty faithful to the basic Charge ruleset. Most of the changes I’ve made are a mix of streamlining for a younger audience (not that Charge is particularly difficult) and setting adaptations. Most of the others are based on giving more character development options during the character creation process, since that’s what I prefer.