Contracts: designing a superpower

From the start of development, the primary design goal of Defenders of the New Century has been to maximise player freedom. This bleeds through all of the design, but the epitome of this is in the game’s ‘Contract’ system, a core mechanic which allows players to devise their own completely unique superpowers for their characters. Much of these take obvious inspiration from other sources of fiction, but a lot of them come from the player’s mind, and it would be impossible to create a list that contained all the possibilities that players would come up with.

These powers aren’t made equal, and more powerful Contracts require more experience points to actually realise, but otherwise the only limits are the player’s imagination, and ensuring that each Contract is balanced for the amount of power that’s put into it.

Game balance is important in games, especially ones that encourage creativity. When a game is balanced, it feels like players can make two qualitatively different decisions which both have a positive impact on a game. If a game is unbalanced, then one decision may turn out to be objectively better than the other, muddying the way that players can express themselves.

This game balance is especially difficult if a GM is unfamiliar with the game system, and doesn’t know how much 1 damage or moving 1 metre really is, let alone how they would compare to one another. Consequently, the brunt of the work has been done over the years of development to break down these Contracts into their core components, and leaving as much guidance as possible for the most common cases to occur.

For any given Contract, or superpower in general, they can largely be split into 2 major quantities:

1. How potent is the Contract’s ability? This can be how hot is the laser, how fast can the person fly, how potent is the mind control etc. This is the hardest to quantify, and is consequently the one that’s most important to spend time designing for.

2. How often can a power be invoked per unit time? Is it limited by a number of uses per day, is a ritual required, or is there an entirely arbitrary limit? Is the Contract endless to use/a passive ability, something that requires some concentration over a few seconds, a lot of concentration?

Potency

Potency is something that will change depending on the ability. The key step is taking the qualitative ability, and translating it into quantitative mechanics. In the case of a laser, flying, or mind control, this would be damage dealt, movement in metres, and the number of successes required to resist a particular mind control.

Some of these ‘most common’ mechanics are a lot easier than others, healing someone is just a direct number, whereas summoning a minion is quite an involved sub-system. In the latter cases, this is where a lot of the work is done over playtesting to ensure that the ‘default’ rules represent the most satisfying experience for what the players could suggest. By then going across the most common abilities, a reference document can be built up that covers the majority of potential components to Contracts that could crop up.

From there, a conversion ratio of experience points to damage, healing, successes, minion stats etc. can be built up. In the case of some of the more common abilities which share a theme with one another, or ones that exist well as a package with other smaller components, these can instead be turned into Spells, and funnelled into the magic system.

Things like range, area-of-effect, targeted enemies can also be encoded here, but that’s fairly easy compared to everything else.

Invocation limitation

Much of the current work on devising the potency of a Contract has come with playtesting and iterating on design, but what has remained largely unchanged is the way a player is limited in invoking their Contracts. The greatest limitation is that all Contracts are limited in the time that they can be active. This doesn’t mean they are reversible, but that a character can only, say, fly for a limited amount of time. This helps make the Contracts easier to balance, but the primary reason for this is to have players make decisions, i.e. when to invoke their powers.

Trying to then build on that last point of having interesting decisions related to when to invoke a power, this means that some kind of limitation for the number of times a power can be used should be introduced. This is something that can have points invested into it, but only has relevance when compared to an action or time limit, i.e. ‘5 invocations per… day/action/ritual’ per X experience points invested.

Choosing what this ‘price’ should be is entirely arbitrary, but the fact that we want the players to use their custom-made powers often means that it should be inconvenient, but otherwise something that means the player can’t endlessly use their Contract. In the end, this price is also something deliberately arbitrary, a pseudo-random task which matches the broad range of Contracts, and something that can be come up with as a group activity at character creation.

This also introduces another smaller limitation which is related to the turn-based nature of the system, how many actions is required when invoking a Contract, but that’s fairly small and easy to calculate when compared to everything else.

Simplicity

Though this is a fairly simple way of breaking things down, the system does need to be as hands-off as is feasible. Attempting to anticipate every custom superpower is a fool’s errand, and adding too much guidance also runs the risk of stifling creativity of the players. The job behind this system is attempting to reduce the burden of designing and balancing on the GM to manageable levels, and then to leave the rest of the Contract to be negotiated to ensure as much custom-made fun as possible.

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