Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Hack Factor

A quick side note--I've been slackin' lately! I missed a whole week of updates. I'll try to do better. Enjoy a super-sized blog post this week to make up for it!

Today’s blog post title is slightly disingenuous… I’m actually intending to talk about two main factors of RPG character types, and “Hack Factor” is only half of the equation. A sexy, sexy half. So sexy that the name itself forced me to grant it the singular honor of the post title. Congratulations, id!

Moving on, I want to briefly talk about tabletop RPG characters. Lately, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with various folks, from my D&D Dungeon Master to fellow game designers about what makes a particular type of character compelling. Naturally, any character can have a compelling concept, backstory, or even something as simple as a cool name or a really sweet picture (often found on Deviantart or 4Chan).

Who do I want to be today?

However, for me and many gamers like me, among the most important elements of a character are mechanical in nature. How does the character interact with the game’s mechanics? How well can they weather the storm of combat? Most RPGs have a strong focus on combat because of the nature of RPGs… I would posit that most RPGs feature direct, violent action against the antagonist of the story in a confrontation as the climax of a given session or campaign.

Thus, while my own taste in characters definitely involves the intangibles of his backstory, concept*(see below), name, image, and so forth, I often spend far more time and energy considering the character’s mechanical benefits: his Utility Factor and Hack Factor.

*Caveat: I should take the time here to say that, for me, the concept of the character is the trump card. If I have a really compelling concept, that’s what I’ll want to play, regardless of any other influences.

Utility Factor


If it's good enough for Batman...

My definition of a character’s Utility Factor is a measure of how often he can meaningfully interact with the game on a mechanical level. Another way to put it is an answer to the question, “How often do I get to do something cool—mechanically—outside of combat?”

Often a character’s Utility Factor is a representation of things like the number and variety of skills he possesses (especially social skills), social abilities, the number and variety of spellcasting or psionic or similar powers, movement abilities, and any realm-building or leadership-style abilities.

For example, in Rifts, I really like the Manoan Amazon R.C.C. This character can cast spells, use psionic abilities, and possesses a bunch of interesting nature-related skills as well as some enhanced senses. That’s a lot of utility factor in one character!

Similarly, in the Hero System, I like a character that has a wide variety of skills. My character Technicality can investigate a crime, hack the syndicate’s computers, and even argue a case in a court of law—all valuable and meaningful ways to mechanically interface with a superhero game.

Versatility Trumps Everything Else

One thing that I’ve learned from over 25 years as a tabletop RPG player is that he who has the most options generally “wins” by having something cool to do more often. I’m generalizing with a broad brush here, admittedly—I’ve played in games before with very un-versatile characters and have had a lot of fun. So to get it out of the way early, I should point out that a talented GM can make nearly any game fun, regardless of mechanics.

That having been said, I do find that the more options I have, the better my play experience tends to be, especially in the long run over a number of sessions in the same campaign. In many, many gaming systems, spellcasters happen to be an excellent example of this. Spellcasters are rarely the strongest or toughest or most agile character type you can pick, but they usually have a huge bag of goodies to choose from in any given situation. Zap the bad guy? No problem. Breathe underwater? Got it covered. Invisibly snatch the idol from the primitive altar? You got it.

Versatility usually comes at a price; spells can only be cast once a day, or must be re-memorized before being cast again, or cost a number of “spell points” that must then be replenished.

Having a versatile character means that you have a high Utility Factor, and often, it also means you have a high Hack Factor as well. Why? The Utility Factor part should be self-evident; the more versatile a character, the more opportunities are present to engage with the game. Versatile characters are also generally good at combat as well, especially with being able to engage enemies at range (via a lightning bolt spell, for example) or locking down foes with debuffs, adjustments to their movement (such as a web spell), or altering the conditions of the fight itself (such as summoning a storm). 

A Versatile character may not be able to dish out as much damage as a character who focused entirely on fighting, but such characters can still achieve a high Hack Factor by being able to do more than just inflict damage. In fact, some versatile character types (such as spellcasters in Dungeons and Dragons) can eventually achieve immense amounts of damage or eliminate the opponent outright at higher levels of play—all simply due to the vast amount of options available.

Hack Factor

When in doubt... Hack!

My definition of a character’s Hack Factor is a measure of his raw ability to perform meaningful actions on a mechanical level in combat. Another way to define it is an answer to the question, “How often do I get to do something cool—mechanically—in combat?”

Meaningful combat actions often involve doing lots of damage, hitting enemies on a consistent basis, applying status effects (such as blinding them, grabbing them, etc.), locking down enemies with special abilities (such as spellcasters, psionics, etc.), and being able to drop lots of lower-level enemies or (often, singular) higher-level enemies more efficiently.

In the Feng Shui RPG, I played Keiichi O’Hara, a Karate Cop who focused his abilities on being able to take out Named Characters (the more powerful and rarer type of enemy) more efficiently—this was his role in combat, to seek out the biggest, baddest bad guy and hand him his head.

In West End’s D6 Star Wars RPG, I played Kaldryn, a Trianii Ranger. He was an alien warrior whose abilities were well-suited for causing havoc on the battlefield and taking out lots of lower-level enemies while the other party members handled the bigger threats.

Damage is Not the Key

In most tabletop RPG’s, combat happens a lot. That means inflicting damage is good, and inflicting lots of damage is great! However, if your character’s only option to do serious damage to an opponent depends on your ability to run up to him and whack him with a sword, it’s not as good as it initially appears. Many RPGs feature magic, science, some combination of the two, or other such esoteric abilities that let opponents fly, levitate, create walls or change the nature of the battle’s terrain. Thus, the ability to reach a foe and hit him with a sword is certainly not guaranteed. How fast can the character move? Can he fly?

If you asked me what I consider the most important part of Hack Factor, I would define it thusly: one’s ability to consistently affect the battle. Naturally, “affecting the battle” often involves simply defeating as many enemies as possible, as quickly as possible, but doing direct damage is not absolutely necessary to qualify. Grappling an enemy wizard, using a debuff on the entire enemy force, or shutting down the supervillain’s impervious force-field all fall under this category as well.

Using this metric, a strictly melee warrior has a rather low Hack Factor. He may be able to inflict impressive damage on a directly adjacent foe, but such a warrior struggles whenever he must move to engage a distant enemy and is seriously hampered whenever terrain interferes (i.e., limited access via a bridge, having to move through deep water or mud, etc.) or if his enemy is flying or otherwise out of melee range.

Factors and Systems

Most often, RPG systems with fairly open and flexible character creation systems don’t have too many issues with imbalances of Hack Factor and Utility Factor. In the Hero System, for example, it is relatively simple to change a few points around to acquire more skills to raise your Utility Factor or to buy some additional combat levels or power dice if you want to increase your Hack Factor.

Class-and-level RPG systems, however, seem to have the most trouble balancing these two elements in my experience. For this particular blog entry, I’m going to use the character classes from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition as an example.

Why 3.5 D&D? I should say upfront that I believe all editions of Dungeons & Dragons have their strengths and weaknesses, and my personal favorite edition is 3.5. I’ve done a fair amount of work in the industry for this edition, and it’s fair to say that I’ve studied it’s game design more thoroughly than nearly any other system (with the exceptions of Hero and Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay) in my collection. I’m going to limit myself to discussing the classes from the Core Player’s Handbook for this post, although I will certainly mention other books along the way, simply because the classes from the Player’s Handbook are more well-known and iconic to the genre than any others, and thus are perfect examples for this discussion.

What about 3.0 and Pathfinder? Well, in 3.0 I’d go so far as to say the differences were even more pronounced—Fighters, Bards, and Rangers had it particularly bad in 3.0. Pathfinder goes the opposite direction, helping out nearly every class, but in general I’d apply the same rankings to Pathfinder characters of these same classes.

Tl/dr: 3.0 ratings are the same but worse, Pathfinder ratings are the same, but slightly better.

Check out the 3.5 character classes and their rankings after the jump!



An axe is a Barbarian's weapon...

Utility Factor: D
Hack Factor: D

Barbarians are made for one role; doing lots of damage. They’re tough, possessing large numbers of hit points, but they’re limited to lighter armors and don’t have a high amount of skill points—although they have more skills and a better variety than the Fighter. Unlike the fighter, however, Barbarians are nearly doomed to melee-only, and have a lot of difficulty reaching flying enemies or dealing with threats they can’t simply run up to and hack.

On the flip side, there are a lot of great concepts you can make with a Barbarian, and their Utility Factor would likely be higher in certain campaigns than in others (such as adventures taking place largely in the wilderness or away from civilization).


Bluff, bluff, bluff the stupid Ogre!

Utility Factor: C+
Hack Factor: D

The Bard’s decent Utility Factor is due to his variety of skills, decent number of skill points, a small selection of spells, and abilities that have a lot of value in social situations. The Bard’s Utility Factor takes a hit if the campaign is largely focused on dungeon-crawls or avoids social situations like the plague, however. In battle, the Bard’s Hack Factor is mostly due to his ability to buff or heal his companions—Bards are not great combatants on their own.


Today's sermon begins with an asskicking...

Utility Factor: A
Hack Factor: A

Question: What has good hit points, good saving throws, can kick butt in combat and sling spells almost as good as a Wizard? The Cleric. These characters are one of the first powerhouses on this list—the sheer variety of spells available improves the Cleric’s Utility Factor and his ability to smite infidels is quite potent, explaining the high Hack Factor. A well-designed Cleric character at higher levels can outperform nearly any Fighter in combat and is only barely eclipsed by the Druid and Wizard in dealing with out-of-combat situations.


The wrath of nature is a frightening thing...

Utility Factor: A+
Hack Factor: A+

In my opinion, the unquestioned champion of both Utility Factor and Hack Factor is the Druid. The animal companion is nearly as good as a Fighter in melee combat, and a great spell list plus the Druid’s ability to wild shape into animals (and other creatures with the right feats) enables him to meaningfully interact with almost any challenge you can imagine. Similarly, the Druid (and his mighty animal companion or any summoned critters he chooses to bring along) can kick massive amounts of ass in combat. In a one-on-one faceoff—at any level!—with any other class on this list, the Druid comes out on top with only one notable exception: a properly prepared Wizard.


 The Men-at-Arms just aren't what they used to be...

Utility Factor: F
Hack Factor: C

Alas, poor Fighter. I hardly knew ye. The Fighter suffers a failing grade in Utility Factor due to his abysmal number of skill points, a limited skill selection, and nearly zero abilities that do anything meaningful outside of combat. Even when the Fighter is doing his job (i.e., fighting stuff), he is often outclassed by other characters simply due to a lack of options. Thanks to his high number of feats, a properly built Fighter can be a formidable opponent in the right circumstances, but change the playing field even slightly (i.e., a fly spell) and the Fighter can be next to useless.

For those people (like myself) who enjoy playing Fighter-type characters, I strongly recommend checking into the Tome of Battle (AKA the Book of Nine Swords), as the Warblade class in that book is a great replacement with significant improvements in grade for both Utility and Hack Factors.


You want a piece of me???

Utility Factor: D
Hack Factor: D

The Monk has great saving throws but little else going for him. Monks have better skill options than a Fighter, but require significant investment in a lot of attributes in order to really benefit. Monks are similar to Fighters in that they do their best work up close and personal with the enemy, and they lack any real answers to flying enemies. In addition, Monks have difficulty dealing out significant damage when compared to many of the other classes on this list, limiting their usefulness considerably.


Welcome stranger, to our danger...

Utility Factor: C
Hack Factor: C

A decent set of skills, a small handful of spellcasting abilities, and his animal companion provide the Ranger with a reasonable Utility Factor. However, like the Barbarian, this Utility Factor can suffer greatly if the campaign is largely confined to dungeon-crawling or large cities. Rangers have a decent Hack Factor due to their ability to strike foes at range (archer Rangers rather than dual-wielders) and the benefits of the animal companion and spellcasting. This Hack Factor rating is fairly generous, however (it assumes an archer ranger and a good selection of feats and the animal companion). Many Rangers (particularly the dual wielder style) will struggle to match up.


Stealing hearts and purses in equal measure...

Utility Factor: C+
Hack Factor: C+

Rogues benefit from the best skill selection and number of skill points available, providing a more-than-decent Utility Factor. Rogues can also put their skills to good use in combat, and hit many enemies with a devastating sneak attack strike. Unfortunately, sneak attack does not work against several common monsters (such as undead), and the Rogue’s sneak attack is best used only in melee—and even then, only against a flanked target.


She's got the power, ah-ahhhh....

Utility Factor: B
Hack Factor: B

Although the Sorcerer shares a lot in common with the Wizard, he simply cannot compete on the same level when it comes to Utility Factor and Hack Factor. The Sorcerer’s limited number of spells that he knows does not make up for the freedom from preparation and the increased number of uses per day. The Sorcerer does regain some ground with his high Charisma and decent skill selection, but in the end he is only playing second fiddle to the other full spellcasters on the list.


Can't beat the classics, baby!

Utility Factor: A
Hack Factor: A

The Wizard is one of the kings of both Utility Factor and Hack Factor, thanks to his massively varied spell list (and not hurt at all by having a good number of skills and skill points added into the mix). A properly prepared Wizard can vanquish nearly any foe at high levels, and even at low levels Wizards contribute greatly to the party if given an opportunity to study the appropriate spell for nearly any situation.

Options Vs. Uses—The Inverted Pyramid

Particularly in the Dungeons and Dragons 3.0/3.5 paradigm, using a single ability more times per day is generally less powerful than having more options of what ability to use. This is because that recharging “per day” abilities is often fairly trivial—usually a simple matter of the party deciding to stop and rest after defeating any particularly powerful opponent or after exploring a portion of a dungeon.

Consider the following classes placed in an inverted pyramid—the widest array of options is at the top, with the number of options available narrowing as you step down the pyramid towards the bottom.

Thus, the top portion of the Pyramid is best represented by the Wizard—he has the widest selection of options available to him, and his one of his defining features is the variety of his spell list. The wizard is limited mainly by the fact that he must pre-memorize his spells and cannot change his spells on the fly (albeit there are some advanced feats, abilities, and magic items that go a ways towards mitigating this limitation).

Just below the Wizard are other classes with very broad and comprehensive spell lists, such as the Cleric and the Druid.

In the middle band of the pyramid you’d find classes like the Sorcerer and the Bard, both of whom have more sharp limits on the number of spells they are able to cast, but a higher number of times per day that those spells can be used. Similarly, they do not need to prepare their spells ahead of time.

At the very bottom of the pyramid you’d find classes like the Warlock. Warlocks have unlimited uses of their abilities—essentially able to use their powers “at will”—but have only a relative handful of abilities to choose from.