Ability and Item Design and Progression

I love reading about and writing interesting systems. I also love playing games with well-designed systems. Unfortunately, I very frequently find that the systems that I encounter don’t make sense to me as a designer and/or as a writer.

This is true both in fiction (e.g. reading LitRPGs) and in reading or playing game systems.

This isn’t to say that having strong systems is necessary for a book to be a good experience, or even for a video game to be amazing. Simple can be best in cases where the systems side isn’t the focus.

I also acknowledge that people design systems with different goals in mind, and things that don’t make sense to me may work perfectly well for other designers, players, readers, etc.

That being said, I’d like to talk about some things that I *like* seeing as a reader/player, and that I try to take into account with my own writing.

When designing the components of a system, one of the first things I like to think about is how it can be interesting for whoever is interacting with it – that is, the reader (if it’s a book) or the player (if it’s a game). I suppose I can add the audience for things like TV, movies, etc.

When I’m talking about systems components here, I’m referring to things like:

  • Spells/Skills
  • Items
  • Monsters
  • Character Classes
  • Methods of Advancement
  • Etc.

For example, let’s say I’m working on figuring out the abilities of a character that’s meant to be a physical fighter. This can be in the context of a book, a video game, or anything else.

When determining the abilities that I’m going to give to a character, I think about what the core fantasy of the character is supposed to be, and the role that they’re supposed to play in the game – both mechanically and in terms of narrative.

A “fighter” can mean a lot of different things to different people, so I’ll narrow the context a bit to a fighter in a traditional fantasy setting.

What are some things that are core function of a fighter in that context?

I’d lay out some things like:

  • General combat ability
  • Protecting other people
  • Being able to endure a lot of damage

These are some foundation points that can be broken down into sub-categories and handled in a lot of different ways, and each of my main fighter characters has different ways of handling these things.

Let’s compare some of them, for example.

Taelien:

  • Taelien is a talented swordsman, but it’s his use of metal sorcery to augment his fighting that makes him unique. By shifting the weight, composition, or dimensions of his weapon (or other metal he comes in contact with), he can make himself an unpredictable opponent.
  • His primary method of “protecting” other people is by deliberately limiting the use of his full strength to avoid killing his opponents outright and to avoid collateral damage. He also can use his metal sorcery to dull or break enemy weapons to prevent them from doing harm.
  • He has above average physical durability (largely from years of using stone and metal sorcery).

 

Velas:

  • Velas is proficient with a wide variety of weapons, but generally prefers the reach of spears. This has excellent synergy with her use of motion sorcery, which allows her to move rapidly around the battlefield.
  • This same motion sorcery makes her excellent at being able to get in the way of attacks aimed at her allies.
  • She often wears heavy armor, giving her high general physical damage resistance.

Marissa:

  • Marissa has a combination of unarmed and armed combat training, including some unusual techniques that are outside of the scope of her academy education.
  • Her Attunement increases her movement speed, allowing her to put herself in harm’s way. Her martial arts also allow her to grapple and disable opponents.
  • Her Attunement also gives her a powerful shroud, deflecting weak attacks entirely and diminishing the strength of stronger ones.

These three characters all have abilities that are completely different, but still allow them to serve the core functions of their roles. Some are better at certain elements than others; Taelien is more of a damage-dealer, Velas focused on mobility, and Marissa is better suited to defensive combat. But they all represent elements of the “fantasy” of a fighter, and they all have room to grow further, both within and outside of their specializations.

I’m mentioning this because in many games I’ve played and books I’ve read, a fighter character basically swings their sword and doesn’t do anything else. Single classed old school D&D fighters often fell into this category, for example, and characters written in that style often reflect that. This is simple for gameplay and writing, but to me, it’s far less engaging than characters who have abilities that synergize with their story role in interesting ways.

This type of thing is possible for any character type. I mentioned fighters because they tend to be the least interesting fantasy character archetypes when used in literature, at least in my experience. It’s much easier to make a wizard or cleric interesting, since they tend to have more utility (depending on the setting and systems used, of course).

When designing items, I try to think about how those items can have interesting synergy with characters.

In a game, the most entertaining items (in my experience) are the ones that change the way you play the game.

Some great examples of items that change gameplay go all the way back to Super Mario Bros.

  • The Mushroom lets you take two hits instead of one. This is something of a gameplay change, because it means you won’t die if you take a hit, but it’s not something you’re probably going to make too many decisions around – because you don’t want to get hit anyway (in most cases, barring things like exploits, glitches, etc.) This is still a pretty good item, but less interesting than the others.
  • The Star makes you temporarily invincible, and it also makes you deal damage to enemies that you run into (rather than them hurting you). This significantly changes the way you can play, and notably, it also changes your appearance and the music while it’s active. This gives using a star a frenetic style that *feels* great.
  • The Fire Flower lets you throw fireballs by pressing a button you do not ordinarily use. This was always my favorite item, because it gave me something new I could do that I couldn’t do previously. Much like the Star, it’s exciting to get one, but requiring a button press makes it even more engaging.

These types of gameplay changes can appear in modern games, but oftentimes they are (in my opinion) neglected in genres like RPGs in favor of things like raw stat increases. This is not to say that there’s no role for a sword that deals extra damage, but having some variety can make gameplay vastly more interesting.

For a good example of this, I’d recommend taking a look at the weapons in Dungreed or Dead Cells. In these games, each broad category of weapon you use plays completely differently. Using a sword feels different from using an axe or a whip or a bow, and there are whole sub-categories of each (e.g. multiple sword types) that feel distinct as well.

There are still varying quality levels of each that have different raw stats, but you might switch to a lower quality axe instead of a higher quality bow just because you prefer the playstyle – or because the axe has advantages against a specific type of opponent. That, in my opinion, is far more interesting item design than just raw stat increases.

(If you’re wondering what I’m contrasting this to, consider classic D&D weapons that are just “Longsword +1”, “Longsword +2”, “Longsword +3”, etc. Even a lot of the cooler ones, like Vorpal Swords, are more passive – they don’t change the way you play much, they just add a chance that something awesome happens when you choose the same action that you always do.

This type of thing is super common in MMORPG weapons, which often just have higher damage per second and maybe some stat increases, like +Strength and +Stamina or whatever. Sure, that 3% extra damage might make you an inch higher on the damage meters, but it doesn’t offer any meaningful or interesting gameplay change.)

In a novel, an item that opens up new options is similarly more interesting to me than something that simply gives an incremental improvement to the character’s existing capabilities. This is especially important for genres that overlap do have a lot of explicit statistics, like GameLit and LitRPG books often do.

For example, I’ve got a lot of magic swords in my books. I like magic swords.

Each of them has a very distinct function.

 

(Some minor spoilers for people who haven’t read On the Shoulders of Titans yet – you may want to skip this part or stop reading here.)

 

There are three “main” swords in On the Shoulders of Titans so far. Each of them is written to be fundamentally different in function.

  • Selys-Lyann has an ice aura, which can be used for both freezing enemies solid on contact, and for utility functions (e.g. freezing water or protecting the wielder from fire). Once Corin learns to manipulate its aura, he can also use it to attack at range.
  • Ceris absorbs magic. This can be used both defensively (e.g. to prevent an enemy from hurting you) or offensively (to store an attack within to provide extra punch).
  • Bright Reflection can reflect spells. This is, much like Ceris, both defensive and offensive in nature. It’s similar, but has the advantage of knocking the spell back instantly (rather than having to absorb it and redirect it), and the disadvantage of lower flexibility. It also presumably has other abilities; we haven’t seen all the functions yet.

In all cases, these items give the wielder new options in battle, and even options outside of combat situations. They also all have enough going on that they have a learning curve where a character can use them to some degree immediately, but they can potentially have more options if the wielder practices with them and learns to use them more effectively.

I’m not going to claim that these items are perfect (nor will I claim that my character designs for the fighters above are). But they’re examples of the general type of thing that I personally enjoy seeing as a reader.

The core philosophy here also applies to other things, like monster (and other antagonist) design. Not every monster has to have higher raw power than the last ones the heroes faced – they can simply be functionally different.

Sometimes a weaker enemy that is specialized in a way that the protagonists aren’t good at handling can be more effective than a raw powerhouse. (Surprisingly, Dragon Ball Super actually did a good job of this with the introduction of Frost, who was much weaker than the heroes but used tactics that most of them weren’t able to counter.)

Now that I’ve managed to digress into Dragon Ball, I’ll say one thing relevant to that particular series that’s related to this general discussion: character progression doesn’t have to increase every element of a character equally, or all at once.

One of the things I feel like Dragon Ball missed as an opportunity is that during the Cell Saga, they showcased a character utilizing a form that sacrificed speed for raw strength. This was quickly abandoned (and considered a useless form), with most future forms following a linear progression of being just faster, stronger, and better at virtually everything.

I think Dragon Ball would have been a much more interesting series if different characters continued to focus on developing and improving more specialized forms and techniques, rather than just getting better at everything – and the same is true for character progression in books, games, etc.

Sometimes having to choose a specialization can make a character much more interesting, especially in settings with teamwork. I’d like to see more series exploring that style in the future.

This post was just a bit more long-winded than I planned. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you enjoyed the post.

ARCs Sent Out and Cover Reveal

Hey all,

Some status updates!

On the Shoulders of Titans is still with my editor, but I felt comfortable enough with the current condition to go ahead and send out a few ARCs – those are “Advance Review Copies” (sometimes called “Advance Reader Copies”, or other similar terms), or pre-release copies, for people who aren’t familiar with the concept.

Basically, ARCs traditionally go out to book reviewers, other authors, and people who are likely to make a splash if they enjoy the book.

In my case, I’ve only sent it to a handful of people – mostly judges from the self-published blog off who asked me for one after finishing the first book. I don’t expect that to make a big impact on my book sales, since this book is a sequel and most of my readers who are interested are probably going to pick it up regardless of reviews. For me, sending out the ARCs was mostly a “thank you” for the people who have shown a lot of interest in seeing it early.

I thought about sending ARCs to some of the most active people on this blog as well, but I decided I didn’t want to send something unedited to my biggest fans.

Instead, I’d like to post more unique content on the blog to help thank the people who have been checking here regularly.

So, to get that rolling, you can be the first to see the cover!

ws5 small

Notably, the typography isn’t on there yet – but I’m hoping to have that within about another week or two.

I’m extremely pleased with how this one turned out – it’s one of my favorite covers to date. Once again, my artist is Daniel Kamarudin, and he’s getting better all the time!

While I’ve been waiting for the editor’s notes, I’ve been working on Defying Destiny, the third book in the War of Broken Mirrors series. I’d put it at about 1/8 written at this point, although it’s hard to say, because my books have been getting longer and longer.

I also have some pre-writing done for Six Sacred Swords, the Keras spin-off. I’m very excited about that one, and I think my more action-focused readers are going to like that one a lot.

I’ll post again when I have a better idea of when the edits will be done.

Thanks to everyone for supporting me, and for your patience while waiting for the sequel. Believe me, I want nothing more than to just be done and ready to hit publish, but I think it’s important to give the editor the time he needs.

Novel Updates

Hey everyone,

I was planning to do an update tomorrow, but then I realized everyone was just going to think it was an April Fools joke. Which, in fairness, it probably would have been.

But I’m going to restrain myself and give you an actual status update instead.

The edits for the sequel to Sufficiently Advanced Magic have been taking much longer than expected.

This is, in large part, because I had 20 beta readers this time instead of the 10 that I had for Sufficiently Advanced Magic. Moreover, some of these beta readers really went into depth. A couple of them sent me close to a thousand comments each.

I’m extremely grateful to my beta readers for this level of analysis, and I think it’s helping me improve the final product. But it’s taking a while.

The good news is that I’ve finished going through the comments of 17/20 of the beta readers.

The bad news is that some of the remaining ones are some of the most extensive.

Because of this, I’m *probably* going to do a few things I hadn’t planned on.

  • I’m currently planning to send this manuscript to my professional editor before I finish all my beta reader edits, most likely within the next few days. I’m just waiting until I finish all the major content changes (e.g. adding or removing whole sections) before sending it to him.
  • I’m then going to continue working on the last of the beta reader edits while my editor is also looking at the manuscript.
  • When the editor gets their version back to me, I will use their version as the master document, but merge the changes I’ve made in the meantime into it. (Word has a “compare” feature that makes this relatively easy.)

This isn’t the most efficient approach in terms of work for me – that would be for me to finish the beta edits before sending it over, and avoid having to do the merge. It will, however, get the manuscript ready for publication a couple weeks faster.

I may still change my mind on this.

Even with taking that approach, I expect it to be a good month before the book is ready. My book is extremely long by traditional novel standards – it’s about 240,000 words at this point, which is about 10% longer than Sufficiently Advanced Magic, and more than double the length of Forging Divinity.

Thus, I expect it will take some time for my editor to go through it, and then some time for me to go through all of the editor’s changes, approve or reject them, and do the merge.

This is not an ideal process.

For my next novel, I plan to take the advice of one of my beta readers and have my readers collaborate on editing a single file, rather than sending me twenty different documents to read through. I expect this will probably be a massive efficiency improvement, because right now a lot of my time is taken up by dealing with checking comments and edits for errors that ten other people caught.

That process does have disadvantages. Most collaborative editing programs are going to have their own slowdowns, and may not work on all reading devices. This is likely to be inconvenient or impossible for some readers, and I expect to still get some notes that are in different formats. But if I could cut it down to having to read through 5 files instead of 20, that would still be a huge improvement.

I know many of you are eager to see the next book, and I hope you understand that the reason I’m taking extra time is to improve the quality of the product. It’d be easy to just hit publish with what I have, but I’d rather put out quality products over quantity.

Hopefully with those process improvements, I’ll be able to manage both quality and quantity in the future.

For those of you who are wondering about the audio book version, I expect that will take at least a few more months after the Kindle edition is released. It takes time for the narrator to find time in their schedule, record the book, and then send it to the publisher for formatting and such. I’ll provide an clearer estimate as soon as I have a better idea of when it might come out, but for now my best guess is that it will be at least August or September.

I still haven’t settled on a title. I know that’s absurd because it’s this close to publication, but Wish Upon a Scar doesn’t quite feel right, and neither do the many other titles I’ve tinkered with.

Thus far, the closest alternate suggestions have been Risk vs. Reward and On the Shoulders of Giants.

Risk vs. Reward is a commonly used term in MMORPG design (and game design in general), generally in reference to providing sufficient rewards for completing challenges. It is, however, much better known as as a term for financial investments, and as such I don’t think it’s going to invoke the right idea for most readers.

On the Shoulders of Giants is probably my favorite, since this whole series has such a focus on magical research, but it’s also the exact title of one of Steven Hawking’s books. And while I *have* been tempted to use a Steven Hawking quote or title as a reference, I’m not going to use one of his book titles directly. I may still consider using a variant on this one, because I like it a lot, but probably not this exact title.

My titles for the Arcane Ascension series in general are going to continue to be references to famous quotes, most likely all from deceased authors or famous historical figures. (The “deceased” rule is part of why I’m not referencing something like Sanderson’s Laws, for example, which would be otherwise a very obvious route to go.)

I’ll continue to read suggestions, but please don’t be offended if I don’t go with your ideas. I’ve gone through dozens, maybe hundreds, of title options at this point. I’m being very picky.

Thanks to everyone for the support and interest! I’ll plan to post another update when the book is off to the editor, which I hope to be soon.

Sequel Updates

Hey all,

Some quick updates on the status of the sequel.

Most of my beta readers have now finished reading the book, and they’ve sent me a lot of notes. I have about twice as many beta readers as last time, and that’s making responding to their feedback and edits a bit more time consuming than I expected.

On the plus side, no one has absolutely hated the book yet. On the minus side, I think the readers are about a 50/50 split on whether or not they liked it more or less than SAM, and I’d like to do more to improve that ratio.

There are some clear places that need improvement. The intro doesn’t adequately reintroduce some of the elements of the first book (like characters and politics), so people who haven’t read SAM recently are getting a little lost at times.

People also generally find the pacing at the beginning of the book a little slow; this is fairly common in my books in general, but I might see what I can do to smooth it over.

Most people seem to like the middle section of the book the most.

Opinions on the end of the book are mixed, but there are a number of people who found it rushed and want more added to specific scenes. I can do this.

I don’t think it’s possible for a sequel to please everyone, especially considering that SAM is inherently a bit of an odd duck in terms of style. If I put in mostly magical school content, the audience that is reading it for dungeon crawling might be disappointed, and vice versa.

Some people want the book to have a more linear and focused plot, with everything happening to support that plot. Others prefer the style of SAM, where it’s more about Corin learning about how magic works and developing his relationships.

Some people want Corin to have more romance with Jin. Some people want Corin to have more romance with Marissa. Some people are shipping him with Cecily, even though no one has any idea who Cecily is yet. =D

I’d like to try to make sure everyone enjoys the experience of the sequel, and I’m going to be making some changes to the book to improve it. I still think there are always going to be people who won’t get what they wanted out of the book, though. Hopefully if Book 2 doesn’t work for someone, they’ll still enjoy it enough to read on to Book 3.

In terms of my schedule, I’d say I’m probably about a week behind where I wanted to be. Maybe two weeks. This is largely because I have so many more notes to go through than last time, since there are more beta readers. Making the beta reader changes is going to delay me from getting the book to the editor as quickly as I wanted to, and thus it will push back the whole schedule a bit.

At the moment, my best guess is that the book will be pushed back a few weeks from what I’d estimated. That means probably April instead of March.

There are still a couple more readers who haven’t finished, but I don’t anticipate their notes delaying me much further than that.

Thanks for all your patience. I truly hope that my readers end up enjoying the sequel.

 

Sufficiently Advanced Sequel – First Draft Completed

A couple quick updates!

The first draft of the sequel to Sufficiently Advanced Magic is completed.

This draft is 214,500 words, which is just a smidgen shorter than the final version of SAM (which is 218,000). This could get longer or shorter based on beta reader feedback, but I suspect it’ll stay somewhere in the same range.

I’d expected this to be a much shorter book, which is part of why it took a bit longer than I expected. For the future, I’m just going to plan around all my sequels being this same length.

The current working title is Wish Upon a Scar, but I’m still debating if I’ll go with that as the final title or not.

I’m currently doing a little bit of self-editing. After that’s done, I plan to send out copies to beta readers on Sunday. I’ll be giving my beta readers a few weeks to read it and send me notes, then it’ll be off to my professional editor.

I’m still aiming for a release in paperback and Kindle formats in March or April. At this point, I’m guessing it’ll be late March, but it really depends on how many notes I get from beta readers and the editor.

 

For those of you who are curious about my writing pace and process:

The writing on this took me roughly 10 months (from approximately March of last year to now). I did some other writing during that time frame as well – about 20,000 words on Defying Destiny, and a little less than that on a Keras spin-off (tentatively titled Six Sacred Swords) and a LitRPG.

I also wrote a short story for the Art of War anthology, which is out next month. I strongly recommend checking it out – it has some other great writers involved, and the proceeds go to Doctors Without Borders.

All in all, I probably wrote about 280,000 words between March and now, which puts me at just under 1,000 words a day (assuming writing seven days a week). That’s not a terribly fast pace if you look at it in terms of daily word count, but the actual writing output is good enough that it would translate to about three “standard” length novels.

I also have a tendency to accelerate toward the end of a project. Of those roughly 280,000 words, I wrote about 70,000 of them during December. This was partially because I was close to finishing the book, and partially because I shut myself off from all my outside distractions.

I also wrote quite a bit for non-novel projects, which slowed my pace a bit in ways that are harder to quantify.

For example, I’ve written about 30,000 words for a rules set for a War of Broken Mirrors tabletop game, and a greater amount for an Arcane Ascension LARP rules set. The LARP is harder to quantify, because a lot of it is updating rules and lore documents that I’d already written, but I’d ballpark the range at somewhere around 100,000 words of work on it.

So, that’s basically another novel worth of work. Maybe more, if I’m being honest. I consider that time worthwhile, though, and not only because it’s fun. Working on the tabletop and LARP rules helps me flesh out my settings and systems further.

For example, working on the games gave me the chance to flesh out all the foreign attunements, make the runes for each of the levels of each attunement in advance, and write up a formal timeline of events for everything that happens in between the War of Broken Mirrors and Arcane Ascension books.

That’s just a small fraction of it – it’s basically another novel or two that’s entirely world and system building. And I make use of that in the books. Not every game mechanic translates into novel format, of course, but things like schools of magic, major historical events, factions and organizations, and that sort of thing absolutely do.

 

Stabby Award Update:

I won the Stabby Award for Best Self-Published Author. It still feels surreal.

This is my first writing award, and it means a great deal to me.

There were numerous times when I was collecting rejection letters from agents and publishers with my earlier books that I considered quitting. I pushed through that sadness and self-doubt, but it wasn’t easy.

Sufficiently Advanced Magic is the eighth book that I’ve written. The first five were never published. It’s taken a lot of work to get to this point.

But it’s been worth it.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me, either through voting, just reading my books, or giving me words of support over the years. I’m extremely grateful.

I’m hoping to make the next book even better.

How’d I get into writing?

Someone asked me on Goodreads earlier how I got into writing, and I figured I’d copy and paste my answer over here in case anyone was interested.

***

When I was in elementary school, I read the Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I also played a bunch of Dungeons and Dragons. Those inspired me to write my own little stories when I was a child.

I also got started on my earliest attempts at game development in elementary school (through a program called Unlimited Adventures, based on SSI’s Gold Box D&D games).

By middle school, I was running D&D campaigns, and eventually playing in live-action role-playing games.

In college, I responded to an open call for submissions by White Wolf. I submitted a couple monster ideas which made it into one of the Scarred Lands RPG books. That helped me make a connection with White Wolf. After that, I ended up writing for their World of Warcraft tabletop RPG line.

From there, it was a jump over to working directly for Blizzard. While I wasn’t in the writing department, I let them know that I’d done some writing for the setting before, and Micky Neilson tapped me to do a few writing jobs here and there. Micky was a huge inspiration and a great mentor.

I eventually decided I wanted to write full-time, so I left Blizzard and wrote a couple books. I submitted these books to agents and accrued *hundreds* of rejections.

I went back to working in the gaming industry, having failed to publish anything. But I kept writing.

I worked at a couple more companies after that. While I was at Obsidian, I finally decided I was done trying to go through the traditional agent and publisher route. I self-published Forging Divinity, and it was a great success (by first time self-published novel standards). It wasn’t enough to make a living on, though, so I kept working in gaming.

Sufficiently Advanced Magic is my third published novel – but it’s the eighth book I’ve written. It took me eight books to get to the point where I’m finally writing full-time. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s ultimately been very rewarding.

/r/fantasy Reading Resident Authors

Sufficiently Advanced Magic has been chosen for /r/fantasy’s first book for “Reading Resident Authors”. If you want to hear more about it, as well as upcoming books, check it out here:
 
I consider /r/fantasy to be my main social media home on the internet, so I’m honored that they chose me for the first book in this new program. If anyone is interested in participating, feel free to ask me questions on that thread and join in the discussion (which will be later in the month).

Doing An AMA on /r/Books!

For those of you who might not have seen yet, I’m doing an AMA on /r/books with several other awesome authors.

Here’s the full list of us:

Will Wight | /u/Will_Wight | Proof | Xianxia

His teeth are made out of book pieces. He has to painfully knock them out one by one and assemble them into a complete book. And if he wants a sequel, he has to wait and grow a whole new set!


Steve Thomas | /u/SteveThomas | Proof | Comic Fantasy

An engineer who writes fantasy novels, which is the polite way of calling him a total nerd.


Andrew Rowe | /u/Salaris | Proof | Hard Fantasy

Professional game designer. He writes “hard fantasy” novels with an emphasis on detailed magic systems and analytical characters. His books often take inspiration from Japanese light novels, role-playing games, and anime.


Steven Kelliher | /u/StevenKelliher | Proof | Epic Fantasy w/ Eastern Flair

Former professional fighter-turned writer who resides in the Boston area. A former sports and entertainment writer, his work has been featured on ESPN.com, LA Weekly and other outlets. He wishes all disputes were still settled with a friendly game of hand-to-hand combat, is a fan of awesome things, and tries to write books he’d want to read. He hopes you like them.


Darrell Drake | /u/darrelldrake | Proof | Historical Fantasy

Greatest feat: Was once praised for working a Samuel L. Jackson pun into a book about 6th-century Iran. Birdwatching, stargazing, archery, gaming, and a penchant for Sassanian Iran. His latest was inspired by the national epic of Iran, the Shahnameh. You Odyssey to reading it. Sorry, he Ilihad to.


Ashe Armstrong | /u/ashearmstrong | Proof | Sixguns & Sorcery

Writing stories keeps me sane. Mostly.

Feel free to drop by!

Some Quick Thoughts

It’s been an interesting week.

Sufficiently Advanced Magic is easily my most successful book to date in terms of how rapidly it’s selling. I’m very proud of that.

It’s got some great reviews.

It’s also got some bad ones. That’s understandable, but a couple in particular have frustrated me – because they’re attacking the book for having a LGBT character.

I won’t apologize for that. Far from it, in fact. I wish I’d done more with it; I didn’t put in as much content on the subject as I wish I had. I should have explored it in more detail to make it feel more authentic and help the characters be more accessible to LGBT readers who might be interested.

I’ll try to learn from this experience and include more LGBT content in my future books. People of all genders and sexual orientations deserve positive representation.

LARP Design Philosophy: Boss Encounters

This article is mostly applicable to games that have a blend of combat and role-playing elements, ala the various Live Effects games, Rendalir Remembered, Dying Kingdoms, Twin Mask, etc.

I’ve played in (and run) a lot of different styles of LARPs with boss encounters, and I’ve seen a broad variety of ways to handle it. Over the years, I’ve put together an idea of what I tend to prefer to see in a boss fight from both a player perspective and a staff perspective. This is pretty subjective – there’s no right or wrong way to handle encounter design, but I’ve seen traits that I think tend to improve the quality level, in my opinion.

First off, it’s important to recognize that in most of the games I’ve mentioned, characters tend to fall into specific roles even if though the games aren’t strictly class-based. These often resemble traditional pen and paper or PC game roles, such as tanking, damage dealing, crowd control, buffing, debuffing, and info gathering.

The best boss fights, in my opinion, allow characters of all roles to have some way to contribute. This doesn’t mean all styles of characters should be mandatory for the encounter; rather, if they are present, they should not be useless. Below, I’ll break down some of the ways each role can be useful in a boss encounter.

 

Tanks:

Tanks excel at absorbing damage and attracting the attention of opponents. In order for this to be effective in a boss fight, the tank needs to have the tools necessary to play this role, and the boss needs to *not* have abilities that render these tools invalid.

Abilities that make tanking less effective include instant death attacks, any ability that completely bypasses armor, abilities that bypass shields, and immunities to tank-specific mechanics (e.g. taunt, if it exists within the system).

This doesn’t mean that a boss can’t have some abilities that bypass defenses, but they should be used sparingly and with the knowledge that they can invalidate the tank’s kit.

 

Damage Dealers:

Damage dealers are usually some of the most effective characters against bosses, since bosses often have bags of hit points. There are a couple specific mechanics to watch out for, though, and they’re relatively common (in my experience).

Binary defenses (e.g. “Evade” or “Dodge”) that ignore the amount of damage dealt by an attack make it easier to track the # of hits to a boss, but they also reduce the usefulness of the damage dealer specialization. It may be tempting to have all hits to a boss be reduced to 1 for tracking purposes, but I would advise resisting this temptation and allowing damage dealers to retain their specialty. To help with the logistics side, I recommend assigning a combat GM to the boss to count damage, rather than having the person playing the boss attempt to count hits.

Immunity to physical damage is also relatively common. This functions to cut out newbie damage dealers who don’t have the benefit of buff spells, magical items, etc. I sometimes see this used as another logistics tool for preventing the boss from having to count these hits; I advise using the combat GM approach instead.

 

Healers:

Healers don’t usually have trouble finding something to do in a boss fight, but it is important to note that certain mechanics can bypass the normal healing system (e.g. instant death attacks) and therefore deprive healers of their roles (unless those healers also have resurrection spells, which they might not).

On a related note, bosses sometimes have debuffs with unusual or difficult removal methods. This can be interesting, but also extremely confusing from a logistics standpoint. I strongly advise keeping most boss abilities within the scope of the normal rules, or with modifiers that are easy to intuit, to prevent logistics confusion.

 

Buffers:

Buff characters are usually pretty effective in boss fights – I just recommend resisting the urge to give bosses too many abilities that strip buffs off players. This can be okay in moderation, but if overused it can make buffers much less fun to play.

 

Crowd Controllers:

Crowd Controllers often have the hardest time in a boss fight. Sometimes they’re useful against minions, but it’s rare (in my experience) to find bosses where crowd controllers can have a direct effect. This is due to bosses frequently being given a significant number of binary defenses (e.g. evades/dodges) and often outright immunities to control effects.

These binary defenses and immunities are usually put in place to prevent crowd controllers from being too effective and one-shotting the boss, invalidating the fight.

Rather than taking this approach, I advise giving bosses special defenses that reduce the duration or style of control effects. For example, “Paralyze” spells are reduced to only lasting a few seconds, giving players a key window of time to damage the boss or rest. Sleep spells don’t knock the boss out, but they’re reduced to slowing him or her down for a short period of time. Silence effects don’t last a long duration, but they can be used to interrupt the boss in the middle of a spell incantation. Etc.

 

Debuffers:

Debuffing characters largely fall into the same category as crowd controllers – they’re offen negated in usefulness by binary defenses. I recommend the same solution here; let the boss take the effect, but with reduced efficacy or duration.

 

Info Gathering:

This is pretty straightforward – don’t make your bosses immune to info gathering abilities. Info gathering is a pretty obscure niche, and boss fights are one of the rare opportunities for these characters to contribute meaningfully to a combat situation. Communication between PCs is also often difficult. These characters have a challening role to play – give them the tools to play it effectively.

 

Aside from making sure each character role feels valid, I have a few other boss fight suggestions.

 

Telegraphing Abilities:

Some of the most memorable boss abilities – both in LARP and otherwise – are powerful abilities that are telegraphed to allow them to be avoidable or interruptible. The single most iconic boss fight in Shades of Ruin was the Ashbringer and the Deepstrider, where the two bosses periodically met up and performed a collaborative (and interruptible) spell incantation.

Memorable spell incantations are a great way to do this, but physical telegraphing is also an excellent tactic. The Nightmare Dragon always paused, knelt, and extended his wings before using his breath weapon. The breath weapon only hit a cone in front of him. Players picked up on this, and learned to use the window of time where he knelt down to get out of his frontal arc. This was a successful and memorable mechanic.

 

Phases:

Boss fights that change in the middle can help keep things exciting. This could be as simple as starting to use a couple new abilities, but it’s more impressive when there’s something clear to indicate a phase change. For example, the Nightmare Dragon shifted between human and dragon forms, which involved a quick hold and costume change (with staff on stand by with the dragon’s wings and harness). This made the phase change obvious and powerful.

 

Weaknesses:

Giving bosses unique and interesting weaknesses can also contribute to making the fight memorable. Elemental weaknesses are common, but there are plenty of other options, such as specific substances, weak points on the boss’ body, key items that can be stolen from the boss and disabled, etc.

 

Rewards:

Boss fights often involve some form of loot, which is awesome. My recommendation here is pretty simple – try to find ways to reward everyone, not just the player who loots the body first. This can be coin, influence cards (in games where it’s applicable), or some sort of permanent marking of the achievement.

When giving out items, I recommend giving them personality. That doesn’t mean the items have to be intelligent (although those are some of my favorites) – rather, I mean that boss loot can serve as great hooks for players to do cool things in the future. Maybe the boss has a spell book that contains unique spells – and personal notes on another treasure horde. Maybe the boss has a consumable item that has an effect that’s normally impossible for players to use.

 

Conclusions:

The goal here is to give everyone who wants to be involved in a boss fight a meaningful role, as well as a meaningful reward. Not every boss fight has to have equal roles for every play style – some can specialize – but it’s wise, in my opinion, to try to ensure that no one feels useless.