So the question follows: what mechanics could we employ in a pen & paper game that would preserve Nintendo’s sense of wonder.
One option is to make the powers operate like Power-ups in Super Mario, where the player is awarded powers from magical items. AD&D already does this with its magic items system, which are handed out by the DM at logical points where they could be found.
Magic items can become cheesy, building into combos with other powers, players, and enemies who are partially immune to the powers effects. Super Mario keeps these effects in check by making the powers temporary, expendable. In SMB3 and New SMB Wii, you can even stockpile items, but only use them one at a time.
What does this mean for DMs controlling, guiding, or unfortunately railroading players through stories? It changes very little. If the DM provides the tools, and leaves it up to the players to determine when to use them, then chaotic interactions are kept down, and the PCs always have a means to control their fate.
Inventory, conversely, becomes a far better system to subject to rules. PCs shouldn’t have infinite ability to gather and store items, but they probably should have the ability to find and collect unusual items. Giving them this ability guarantees that they can surprise the DM from time to time, and usually come up with very entertaining stories of how they overcame opponents well above their normal, expected ability.
Similarly, I am much less certain about the spell “Identify,” as it warns of consequences, usually flawlessly. I believe that it should be in the game, but under far more stringent conditions than a first level spell. After, what are appraise and bardic knowledge for anyway?
A competing idea to the Super Mario power ups would be to make the powers permanent and build the levels around them, like any Zelda or Metroid. The area can be littered with useful power-ups that just happen to do whatever the player needs to do at this time.
While I like Zelda and Metroid just fine, this concept lends itself to railroading charges much more readily. Consider the humble locked door. The locked door is clearly there to make the players explore, searching for a key. Why can’t I bend bars? Why can’t I pick the lock? The excuse that all locked doors are magical gets old fast, and doesn’t account for spells like Dispel Magic that will draw PCs to them like a magnet.
Hmm… so far I am happy, but I sense a problem: if all power comes from the DM, then the PCs will complain that there is no sense of progression. Games, mainly RPGs, have spoiled us into thinking that playing the game for a while should make us invulnerable to the monsters that threatened us when we were new. The game design at least needs a care for how the players will see the illusion that the game is rewarding them for their hard work, rather than simply trying to kill them.
A crucially important tool computer RPGs can use, that I don’t think I can rely on, is a strong narrative. It is very hard to do without risk of railroading charges, and DMs come with all levels of abilities. For a game that should really be billing itself on being fun, fast, and approachable, just like Nintendo games, we need a little more.
What types of progression can we witness in games to serve as a model? Leveling in Paper Mario is simplified to a choice at the time of Leveling of +5 hit points, +5 flower points, or +3 badge points. You can increase armor and damage by means of specialty badges, but those come in competition with special moves for your limited badge points. When I started this project last time a few months ago, I originally liked this idea, as it already comes in point form and should be easy enough to rebuild in a point-build system like Mutants and Masterminds.
Other options, such as leveling in Pokémon, is presented as a random sample of stat growths, but is actually an intentionally cryptic system of EV stat boosts, all derived from your battle history with a Pokémon. This is a weird idea, as it tries to hide the complexity so that the player knows more is going on than he can see, so he spends hours online arguing with friends over how that is done. While Pokémon’s EVs have long ago been decoded, I sure don’t know enough about how it works to argue with everyone. Open and transparent is easier to approach, and that seems to have more synergy with Nintendo and D20 anyway.
A third option comes from the Mario and Luigi series (by Alphadream, founded by several former Square employees) builds characters by giving automatic stat boosts and allowing the Player to choose one stat or another to manually increase by a random increment. Characters get minor stat boosts to keep them competitive and contributing. This seems to be pretty standard, used in Fire Emblem, and most RPGs generally, seem to give only the slow stat growths; some PCs may want more agency or choice in how they level their character. Alphadream then offers the player their manual boost. Even if the player wasted this boost, her stats are still slowly going up, if only less optimized than other players.
That seems like a good basis for progression. Magic (the D20 open game system) gets replaced by powers, which are point bought. As players accomplish missions or win battles, they are awarded experience. When a player has sufficient experience to advance, he gets some randomly determined stat buffs, together with a buff to one stat of his/her choice. He could also choose, at this moment, to gain or buff a power. Advancement happens in ranks. The DM chooses opposition set to the same level as the combined total of the players. Any number of opponents can oppose the players, but the enemy Challenge rating has to add up to either the combined total of all players, or else one or two levels beyond the total, depending on how much challenge the DM believes the players can handle (that’s all text book D20). Finally, Power-Ups work by default with all PCs, but with very few monsters. They represent a general advantage players have over most monsters, with a few notable exceptions.
And note to self: I need to design monsters that battle without power-ups. Goombas are among the rare exceptions that use power-ups to equal the difference in powers. We could possibly include Koopas there too (in the person of the Hammer Bros)!
That looks like a good place to call it today!