Welcome to the inaugural post of The Stuff of Legend! Every Monday in this column, I will be discussing elements of Legend’s design, development and creative processes, giving you the behind-the-scenes look at decisionmaking and the work that goes into constantly improving the game.
Today’s column kicks off by looking at the rationale underpinning what I’d call the very heart of Legend, the singular innovation that characterizes the game and gives it life:
The track system.
Tracks are without a doubt the major highlight of Legend. The ability to assemble any character you like and not worry about a gameplay cost for doing so inspires some really great game and character concepts, many of which can be seen on the Rule of Cool forums. Tracks are consistently our most popular content, a factor that’s weighing on the forthcoming Legend Monster Guide and, beyond that, the Magic Book. In the Homebrew section of the forums, tracks are miles beyond any other form of Legend content being generated.
In brief, for those readers who are unfamiliar with the game and its signature innovation: the track system allows you to select three tracks, combinations of abilities staggered across level gaps, and arrange them in progressions to create your character. By setting your tracks into fast, medium and slow progressions, you determine how abilities of a similar tier are allocated to you, and you never have a dead level. The abilities of tracks are not specifically linked to level, but rather progress in circles, which are linked to character level according to the progression the track is on, rather than the track itself.
So why tracks? Why break things up into packages that are arguably a third of a character? Why not go more granular still and split circles out into freeform selections?
Let’s look at what tracks offer, first. While the Monk and Tactician classes have three tracks each, all other classes have some open-endedness when it comes to their preset track arrangement. Barbarians can choose between raging might and razor speed. Rogues can be swashbuckling ninjas or acrobatic demolitionists. Paladins can be fonts of healing virtue or bringers of the wrathful smite of Samuel L. Jackson himself. Through tracks, character concepts can be validated on a top-level basis. Trying to build an Airbender out of a Monk doesn’t require you to make subpar choices or accept the shoehorning of unfitting baggage abilities from a class – if Discipline of the Dragon doesn’t make sense for your character, you can swap it out for Air Elemental and be done.
This detached structure also means you don’t need to calculate swaps against one another for power to the same extent. Legend is built on a foundation of tracks and track-swapping, and tracks all strive to the same level of balance. What you trade out to make your character should be equivalent in almost all cases to what you trade in. You won’t be behind for doing what you want to do with your character.
The smaller package that a track represents is not only easier to build and play with; it’s easier to analyze, balance and test. There are basic standards of comparison that can tell us and the fanbase if a track is on par or if it’s off the curve. Track design lets us take an individual concept and realize it to a thorough extent without beating it into the ground. Most any idea for a character component can be covered in seven circles – we don’t need to push it to 20 levels and worry about trivial, filler and unfitting abilities. Tracks also ensure no dead levels – space is at a premium in a track, so at each circle you will gain something from having it.
In my role with Rule of Cool Games, I’ve been asked on many occasions why we’ve remained with tracks in Legend instead of moving to a more progressive system of individually-selectable circles. The concept of freeform ability selection has obvious appeal, but the pitfalls it presents are persuasive enough to keep us with tracks.
Firstly, free selection carries with it the concern of trap options. This is a problem that even Legend experiences on one level; casual track selection will never leave you useless or weak, but unplanned action conflicts between tracks could result in less choices for you in a given [Round] than for your allies. With free selection, that problem becomes immensely more difficult, because there’s no flow or prepared compatibility between abilities. Players who excel at system mastery will stand head and shoulders above those who are enjoying the supposed promise of free selection.
The second issue is balance. Balancing tracks against one another is comparatively easy. Not every 1st circle is equal, but each track promises eventual equality with each other track, and for most it comes sooner rather than later. We can balance circles within a track by looking at what the package offers. Freeform circles would need both horizontal and vertical balance – equality across all options in the same tier, and proportionality to all options in all upper tiers. Tracks reduce this to a one-dimensional problem.
The third concern is synergy. Within a track, we can construct self-referential and complementary abilities to give players progressive defined synergy. In a free selection pool, each ability is expected to stand alone. Forced synergy can be introduced to the pool, but feels like what it is: artificial and counter to the design goal. Legend lets you make a choice, with its track system, on a package deal. That we have the design space to arrange such packages and work with internal synergy as our default enriches the game and provides deeper and better options to players. Each track remains self-contained and covers only one part of your character concept, all upfront and with full disclosure. You don’t have to worry about making choices now that conflict with upcoming decisions – they simply don’t draw from the same resources in Legend.
With that, I conclude my long-winded introductory ramble on Legend’s signature innovation. I hope to see you all next Monday, and I look forward to comments, critique and follow-ups on the forums.