Hi, I’m the designer of LEVEL 7 [ESCAPE], Will “Oz” Schoonover. In these developer diaries I’ll be explaining some of the concepts and mechanics of LEVEL 7 [ESCAPE] along with the reasons we included them. In this diary, we’re taking a look at the characters.
We knew from the beginning of the process that each player would have a character sheet to track various things like health, fear, and threat. How else that character sheet would be used evolved a lot over the first few weeks of design, though.
Most of that change was influenced by how the game handles challenge resolution. It was core to the game concept that characters would be exploring a map and would need to overcome obstacles. We knew we wanted each player to have a hand of cards, and we considered making that hand of cards the main tool for resolving challenges. At the same time, we were discussing the player’s hand doing other things like representing the character’s health. The more we connected the hand to health, the more apparent it became that it should not be the primary way players accomplished things. This led to the decision to add dice to the game and build the challenge resolution system around them. Giving each player a minimum number of dice for challenges and allowing his hand to affect those dice rolls in different ways turned the hand into an interesting resource each player had to manage well to be successful. To create the base number of dice a character would have for each challenge, we created the Intelligence and Strength stats.
The next decision we needed to make was who the characters would be. This isn’t a game about heroes stomping around a dungeon killing monsters. It’s about average American citizens frantically attempting to escape from a terrifying situation. During early development we discussed the merits of making the characters specific people with fixed skills versus more generic people with variable skills. We decided to go with generic characters for a few reasons. The first was more about the play experience than game mechanics. We wanted the players to see themselves and their friends in the game. Moving away from named characters to something that allowed the players to fill in the gaps with their own imaginations gave us that. The other reason was added replay ability, which was a major overall design goal.
We created these more generic characters by making every character sheet fundamentally the same and giving each character two random skill cards. These skill cards can modify the character’s stats and give him special abilities. To allow the players to see people they knew in the game, the concepts of the skills were kept very simple and accessible. For example, a character might be a paranoid survivalist or a lucky bookworm. To make sure the same characters won’t be seen from game to game there are eighteen skill cards, and a full four-player game uses only eight. Even during the first playtest it was clear this character treatment did what we were hoping for. As soon as the skill cards were dealt, everyone started naming off fellow employees who they thought fit each of the card combos.
The last aspect of the character sheet to be added was the vitality track. One of the ways the game raises tension is by your loss of health, but avoiding early player elimination was very important to me. Finding a mechanic to “punish” players for losing their health while still keeping them in the game was a challenge. We decided to split health into two categories. Your hand represents a kind of temporary health. It can fluctuate up and down during the game, but as long as you have at least one card you are fine. If you lose your last card you are knocked out. We tried a few different options for what to take away from a player who was knocked out, and we decided hand size worked best, so now your vitality determines your hand size. When you come back from being knocked out, your vitality drops one on the track. You don’t have infinite “lives,” either. The last space on the vitality track is a skull, and if your vitality ever reaches it you are dead.
That’s the basics of the characters and how we got there. Stay tuned for the next developer diary, when I’ll talk about the player’s hand as well as how the fear track on the character sheet works.