Thursday, May 2, 2013

Talents in Runebearer

One of the changes to Runebearer that I am happiest about is the addition of talents. Talents are akin to D&D's feats in that, under the correct conditions, they permit you to break the rules in a certain way. This could mean rerolling a failed skill check, or taking a move when it is not your character's turn, or ignoring incoming damage, or a host of other things.

Talents are a relatively late addition to Runebearer and they came about primarily as a way to make the experience system more interesting. See, a long-standing campaign was coming to a close and looking back, I realized that at some point, my players were stuck when leveling their characters. Runebearer is a skill-based game and as characters gained experience, the most effective thing to do was to pump that experience into increasing their skills.

And so skill levels that started around 12, slowly crept up into the upper teens and then the 20s. Increasing skills is a "roll-over" system and so as skill levels increase, it costs more and more experience to increase it more. You spend an ever increasing amount of experience to get an ever decreasing statistical benefit.

It wasn't fun. And more importantly, most characters really didn't change much mechanically over the course of the campaign. Everyone got better at what they did, but very few characters saw their abilities broaden as they gained experience. We were all that AD&D fighter ... "Woo hoo another +1 to hit stuff!!!"

Another issue was one common to many game systems, as the characters advance, the difference between the "haves" and "have-nots" in combat becomes more and more pronounced. So, as the fighters were gaining level 20 in their weapon skills, the magey types, who had other skills to spend points in, were still floundering in their low teens. Combatants that challenged the fighters would gut the mages if they even glanced at them.

So the search was on to find a way to make the experience system more interesting, while evening out the leveling curve a bit, and also making characters more mechanically interesting as they gained experience. I would love to tell you that Lucy Lawless showed up at my house, stabbed a few leather-clad dudes, threw a D&D book on my table and screamed "FEATS, you fool!!"

Indeed that did happen, but that didn't lead to Runebearer talents. What did lead to talents was I had run a short, abortive variant Runebearer game where characters had classes and "leveled up" based on their skill gains. As they leveled, they could pick additional powers, or combat maneuvers, or tweak the way one of their skills worked. The rules for leveling up were cumbersome. The campaign was forgettable. But the powers? Everyone loved the cool new powers.

At that point, it was a matter of finding a way of melding these new powers into the standard Runebearer experience system. As you gain experience, you have the option of putting your checks into increasing your skills, or purchasing a talent. To purchase a talent, you must have the requisite skills at the proper levels (usually 15 or so) and you must roll-under your current skill level (instead of over).

This works in many ways. First, it gives players something to put their points into instead of just raising their skill levels over and over. In fact, at a skill level of 16 or higher (out of 30), it becomes more efficient to spend your points on talents than to buy increased skill levels. Because of this, it naturally tends to even out characters who specialize in a skill with those who do not. A novice fighter might have a skill level of 10. A veteran might have a 16, but have half a dozen talents that give him more options in combat, but don't skew the statistics of the dice mechanics.

Finally, and most importantly, it opened up a whole new dimension to the character leveling mechanics. Players started talking about builds, cool talent combinations, ways to build light, dodge-based fighters, heavy armored tanks, whether to level rune knowledge or meditate first to get access to which awesome talents.