Welcome back to another weekly blog post. So if you missed last week, to summarize, I talked a bit about dice mechanics and why I enjoy the CoreStep system over close-ended dice systems. While there’s a lot more specific nuances I can get into with the dice from a pure mathematics standpoint (and probably will eventually in these talks), I want to shift focus a bit for this one and look more at how the dice, and the system as a whole, deal with investment and reward.
I’m going to start this out by telling a story from before I actually started working for FASA and was just running my first extended Earthdawn campaign (for reference, this was Earthdawn Classic). My friend Matt was one of my players, and he decided to make an Elven Nethermancer for his character. When looking over the available spell list, for reasons that still elude me to this day, he latched on to Command Nightflier being an option. After finding this and learning how the magic system with regards to Names and Patterns worked, he decided, again for reasons I still don’t understand, that his character would be obsessed with owls. He got the idea in his head that if he used the spell to bring any owls he found to him, he could give each of them a True Name, and thus a True Pattern, and that if enough owls in the world had a True Pattern… something would happen. I still don’t think even he knows what his end goal was, but whatever the result was going to be, he was bound and determined to make it happen.
Being a good GM (and also morbidly curious), I let him play it out.
Every night in game, his last action for the day would be to go out and search for owls. When I say every night, I mean every night. Even when he was injured with multiple Wounds and recovering, he made the required Toughness rolls (and by the gods of gaming were the dice in favor of his goal) to get up, walk to the woods, and look for owls. He kept copious notes on how many owls he could find each night, gave every single one of them a unique name, wrote it down, and asked for a feather from each one before he let them carry on (the feathers I will note he later made into a cloak, which eventually became a Pattern Item for him). When I say he wrote it down, I mean he literally wrote it down. I still have his character journal in my old files; he has the names of every single owl recorded in it. He kept this going for about a year in-game time, also following up on any side quests that got generated by this (when you’re an adventurer, everything you do has the potential to spawn a side quest).
I had decided a little while before then what I was going to do with his efforts, and hung on to the idea until he started asking about getting a familiar. Once he started asking, he began to pick up rumors of owls from far up in the mountains, at the point where snow begins to fall, of an owl of pure white that had been seen. This starts him (and the rest of the group) off on a quest hiring an airship capable of taking them to that height to track down the rumors and go find this owl. Naturally, it wasn’t just a standard owl that he eventually ended up finding; I had taken the stats in the book for the Sentinel Hawk, which for those unaware were intelligent and had a specific disdain against Horrors, and applied it to make a Sentinel Owl.
Now, stats-wise, this was a particularly high powered creature to make into a familiar (and was proven on a few occasions, one in particular where the owl managed an incredibly lucky roll-up and did enough damage to one-shot a Named Horror). I allowed my player to have this resource because of the serious effort put in to achieve it. Not just the effort out of character in writing about it, but also effort in-character to increase the ranks in his skills so that the necessary die rolls to gain his familiar were within greater likelihood for him. I tell this story because I feel it is a good allegory for how effort and small changes over time can and should build up into a larger reward within a game.
From a mechanics standpoint, particularly with the dice, the CoreStep system has this sort of progression built right in. As you increase your Step, the probability of getting higher and higher results on your dice keep going up. As you raise your Step high enough to gain additional dice, each one presents another opportunity for a roll up, not to mention another chance to pick up the slack in case one of them down ends.
The progression to increase that Step, however, takes serious effort. What’s more, it takes more effort the further you go. This is because the cost to increase Ranks on abilities follows the Fibonacci Sequence, which is where the curve I talked about previously comes in.
So, why is this better than a linear system, where you are given so many points each time you improve and can just keep adding them on to your modifiers? At least for this article, the main reason is the amount of effort put in versus the reward received in return. It takes a ton more effort with the Step system to make an increase at the higher levels, but by contrast, every time you do increase, you’re getting back a much greater reward than just another static +1 that a linear system would give.
To be fair, as long as your difficulty stays in scale with the power progression, you could use a system that advances on a linear basis and get similar playability results to something on a curve like CoreStep. What you lose, however, is in the build up and story that comes as a result. If we had been playing on system with a linear, point-based system, Matt’s owl obsession would have been far less interesting than the hours of effort (both in-game and out of game) he put in to gradually increase his tracking abilities to find more of them each night, and eventually have a Step high enough that he could reasonably beat the difficulties he had to face when tracking down his eventual familiar.
It’s something we all know, but generally don’t like to admit: the harder you have to work for something, the more rewarding it is once you get it, especially when the reward for that work is greater than the easy route. So if you’re worried that your Initiate character is weak, stick with it and invest in that character’s future; you will eventually get an even greater return for the work you put in.