In this first post, I want to talk about tools and toys, two of the basic elements of RPG design. Understanding tools and toys allows us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of many games. I will be assuming that we are talking about games in which the player has a clearly defined goal which she will reach or fail to reach depending at least partly on her own strategic and tactical decisions.
Definitions of tool and toy
First, my definition of a tool:
A tool is an element of the game that the player can acquire (and/or lose), and that, when correctly used, increases the chance of success that the player has when following certain strategies.A tool is something that you can get, and that will make your character better. In most RPGs, a new weapon will be a tool, because it makes you more effective when you hit something. Hit points would also be a tool: if you acquire more hit points, you'll be more effective in combat.
Second, my definition of a toy:
A toy is an element of the game that the player can acquire (and/or lose), that opens up new possibilities for play.Whereas a tool makes you better at something, a toy allows you to do something that you couldn't do before. Common examples are magic spells, potions, scrolls, and so on; but also new abilities that are unlocked as you become better.
Using these two definitions, we can say that there are four types of acquirables: pure tools (which make you better but don't give you new options), pure toys (which give you new options, but options that do not help you win the game), tool-toys (which give you useful new options) and junk (which gives you no new options and isn't useful).
Why good design makes use of tool-toys
What makes this interesting from a game design perspective is that in general, you will want to design tool-toys. Neither pure toys nor pure tools are very interesting for the player. Pure toys are in a sense not part of the game; they may be fun to fool around with, but will ultimately feel empty. Pure tools, on the other hand, either don't change the game or they trivialise it. Either the challenges will progress in difficulty with the tools you find, in which case nothing changes; or the challenges remain the same, and thus become easier and easier as you get better and better tools, leading to play that becomes boring.
Hybrid tool-toys, on the other hand, are fun. They enlarge your tactical arsenal, allowing you to overcome old challenges in new ways, or to face new challenges that require new ways of thinking.
The problem with pure tools I: Dragon age versus Baldur's Gate
This seems obvious, but many games have sinned against this insight. Having too many pure toys is rare. Fable is the worst offender that comes to my mind -- all those gestures, houses, wives, and so on that have no impact on the core gameplay -- but it is easy to ignore all that and get on with the real game. Much more annoying and much more frequent are games that 'reward' the player with pure tools.
Let's talk about Dragon Age: Origins. Why did the loot in Dragon Age feel so underwhelming and just plain boring? Because most of it consisted of pure tools. Somehow the developers thought that it was a good idea to take every kind of weapon and armour in the game, and supply it in a number of levels: a level 1 sword, a level 2 sword, and so on, all the way up to level 9. So you would be spending the game first slowly finding all the level 2 items you need for your entire party; then finding all the level 3 items you need; then... and none of this had any discernible impact on the game, because all the enemies also become more difficult. This is awful design; it makes sifting through treasured feel like a chore rather than a reward.
There are some items with special properties in Dragon Age, but they are still just tools. You might for instance find a battleaxe with the following special properties: "+1 damage, +5% melee critical chance, -1 dexterity". Which just means that you'll be slightly better at hitting things, and slightly worse at sneaking around. Getting such an item does not open up any new possibilities, and this means that it is not much fun, not something to get excited about.
If we think back to an earlier big RPG, Baldur's Gate 2, we'll immediately see the difference. Remember that katana that would stun opponents, and could call down lightning from the sky once per day? Of course you remember it. It was cool. What made it cool was that it allowed your fighter character to do things he couldn't do before: stun people and call down lightning on them. Or you get into an incredibly difficult fight and then be rewarded with the Staff of the Magi: " +1 THACO (strikes as +5 weapon), +2 AC, +2 saves, Invisibility, Immunity to Charm, Prot. from Evil, area fire/elec. damage 3x/day, Spell Trap 1x/day". That's right it makes you invisble, makes you immune to charm, protects you from evil, and allows you to cast four special spells every day. That is something you'll want to find. And the game if full of this kind of stuff.
The problem with pure tools II: fighters versus wizards
Pure tools are boring. There's nothing wrong with a few pure tools in your game, but you really need tool-toys to spice things up and keep the player interested.
Why is it much more fun to play a wizard than a fighter in all D&D-like game? Precisely because fighters generally get more pure tools as they level up, while wizards get more tool-toys. What excited you more in Baldur's Gate, the fact that one of your fighter characters was ready to level up, or the fact that one of your mages was ready to level up? Exactly, the latter. Because a fighter just got more hit points and a higher attack bonus -- sure, it made him better, but it didn't open up any new possibilities. While a wizard (or a priest) got new spells, and new spells meant new avenues of play, new decisions, new tactics.
I haven't played much Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, so I don't know how good it is; but one thing I was happy to see is that the designers finally realised that this discrepancy between fighting characters and spell casting characters was bad design. In the new rules, every class gets new toys (special moves, special attacks, and so on) as they level up.
Another way of solving this problem, once you have saddled yourself with it by adopting a classic fighter/wizard paradigm, is by adding so many toys to the game that the fighter won't lack in options. This is the way that Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is designed: you'll have so many scrolls and potions and godly powers and whatnot that you won't miss the magic spells too much. Still, playing a wizard remains more interesting than playing a warrior, because the wizard has ten or twenty spells to choose from every turn, while the warrior will generally use only one or two weapons.
It seems to me that merely keeping the idea that tool-toys are often the most interesting parts of the game in mind, helps us design better games. For instance, every dungeon in Kerkerkruip will contain a small amount of "epic" items, which are supposed to be very good. It is tempting to just take a type of item you already have, and make it better -- e.g., we have a weapon, and now we make an epic version, which is just a better weapons: it is more accurate and does more damage. But that would be the boring decision, the "pure tool" decision.
So I've made sure to require of myself as a designer that every epic item should change the way the player will play in some meaningful way -- that is, it should not just be a very powerful tool, but also a highly interesting toy. And so as an epic weapon, we have the "glass cannon", which is highly accurate and deals a lot of damage, and is a ranged weapon to boot; but also permanently halves the player's maximum health whenever it is equipped, makes it easier for the player to be hit, and cannot be used to parry attacks (it is made of glass, so it will shatter). Equipping the glass cannon allows and requires the player to develop a new strategy: one that utilises the fact that you can deal a lot of damage very quickly, but at least at first will lean heavily on using escape options (scrolls of protection, scrolls of teleportation, portals) to not die. Having this weapon makes the game feel different.
This is example should also clarify that a toy doesn't necessarily give the player completely new actions to perform; it can also change the tactical situation in such a way that old actions can be combined into new tactics. An excellent example of this would be a ring of stealth in Brogue: you can always try to walk away from approaching monsters, avoid them, try to remain undetected -- but only once you have a nice ring of stealth does this become a full-fledged strategy, a general way of dealing with the dungeon rather than something you might desperately try to do when you're almost dead. So it opens up new options in the sense that old patterns of behaviour (walking away, and so on) take on a new tactical meaning.
Let me end with some caveats. There can certainly be situations or systems in which pure tools can be interesting -- an obvious example would be having to choose between different tools. There can also be interesting acquirables that are hard to fit into the tool/toy scheme. Items which have both good and bad effects might be a good example, like rings in Nethack: they give some benefit, but they also increase your food consumption. They're not toys, but they are not as boring as my description of a pure tool would have you believe. And then there are unidentified items -- they can be tactically interesting even though they are pure tools or downright harmful, simply because of the fact that the player doesn't know what they'll do when used. Under what circumstances could it be worth it try this item?
So the tool/toy distinction and the claim that hybrids are the most interesting elements of a game is not presented here as something written in stone and without exceptions. But I do believe it is a useful idea, that can help us design better games.