23 February, 2015

More New Ideas from 20 Years Ago

Since a few people commented on the scans from the old notebook I found, I've decided to take a few more picture of the pages from this tome of forgotten mystery.

These comprise elements of the sci-fantasy heartbreaker that I've only ever explored in fragmentary pieces. i think the reason why I never completely finished this project is because it was getting a bit too "kitchen sink" (and a bit too close to 'Synnibarr').

22 February, 2015

Design by Exception

I've posted about this before, I think it was a few years ago, but the thoughts are still bubbling away in the back of my mind, and they've come back to the fore.

When you look at a core set of rules for a generic game, you get blanket ideas that can typically be applied to any situation. To make things more flavoured and interesting for diffent characters within the setting, there are often a series of exceptions. As examples, D&D 3/3.5 saw the introduction of feats, where different Characters could purchase different specific abilities that would modify the rules in some way that would be advantageous for them, Vampire: the Masquerade offered different disciplines to different character clans, Apocalypse World (and its ilk) provides "moves" that become available to certain characters at certain times as defined by the narrative.

I'm categorising this entire design mentality as "exception based design", you've got the core rules that  "everyone" follows, but everyone has a few specific areas where they are allowed to work outside those rules.

In a core set of rules tightly focused on a specific premise, these exceptions become like chocolate chips or sour jelly pieces in your ice cream. You might get one or two in your spoonful, you might get none...the fun comes in the sporadic nature of their manifestation. They become interesting because they aren't always present.

Then people decide that they want to deviate from the original premise (here's where I get annoyed about lazy the game hacks I see time and time again). D&D 3/3.5 saw a proliferation of expansions and supplements, offering new exceptions to fill the gaps where previously there were none (new feats, new classes which altered the rules in new ways, new tables for new situations), exceptions to the existing exceptions (new ways that other classes could take feats old or new, transferal of the old feats to new attributes under different names)...Vampire saw the same thing, with new sub-clan bloodlines capable of taking other clans disciplines (for example, blood magic began as the domain of a single clan, and by the end of 3rd edition, it seemed that virtually every clan had somee form of mystical ritual that could be unlocked through immortal vitae), level 5 disciplines all absically end up having the same effect even if they do manifest differently from a storytelling perspective (they work as a 'get out of jail free' card in a certain range of situations), merits and flaws designed to make character's interesting by circumventing rules with regard to specific attributes suddenly found analogues for every other attribute, and the interesting twists pretty much became the norm...Apocalypse World's specific moves that ask a narrative to be twisted in a certain direction suddenly become overwhelmed by numerous possible options regardless of where the narrative, no longer do the GM or players have to think before they can activate a move because the writer's of these spin-off hacks and expansions have just decided to throw in new moves that can be used anywhere (or have even suggested that GMs and players can just write their own moves on the fly...

...the exception becomes the norm. The chocolate chips become evenly spread through the ice-cream, and now it's just chocolate ice-cream with every mouthful homogeneous and the same as the last. I'm not going to say that this is better or worse, some people like the endless possibilities that these games reach at this level of "game maturity" (My personal opinion says worse but that's me). If your exceptions are going to become the norm, why not just include them as the norm from the beginning? It will save a lot of writing in the long run if you just write a basic procedure that covers a wide variety of possible exceptions. Or simply allow no exceptions.

In "System 4" I was thinking about the idea of warrior mages and assassins...and various other character types that combine skill sets from two different ability categories (where "warrior mages" combine combat and magic, while "assassins" combine combat and trickery/thievery). if I'm forcing characters to select a specific action stance at the start of a round (determined by their mind-set, and defining which dice to roll), maybe it would make sense to create a special exception where these dual-focused characters can gain the best of both worlds when it comes to their specialties. A warrior mage can stand in "combat stance", and gains no penalty for casting spells, or they can stand in "magic stance" and have no problems fighting...similarly, the assassin can use their successes equally effectively when engaging in fighting or trickery/thievery, regardless of which stance they are currently in. 

As soon as I thought of it for these two character types, I instantly thought of it for theurgists (who might combine magic and prayer), tacticians (who might combine knowledge and combat), even politicians (who might combine diplomacy and thievery/trickery)...and where does it stop. It make more sense in my mind to create a general ability that anyone can purchase, then allow them to combine two ability categories of their choice. Instead of writing up 15 different exceptions, I'm writing a single subrule that beecomes available to everyone.

Instead of writing a specific high level ability for each class of character which has the same basic function to instantly escape a combat that's going bad (offering a magical version that teleports the caster a way, a diplomatic version that forces opponents away through foul words and cursing, a trickery/thievery option of blending into the shadows, etc...), why not just offer a general ability that be omes available once a character reaches a certain point at any one of the ability categories? Let the player define how this particular ability manifests in play for their character, but offer a few suggestions for how it might work specifically in regard to a couple of the categories (because I've found most players have trouble with a completely blank slate).

I know that doesn't sustain the "supplement treadmill" style of publishing, but it allows players to customise their characters quickly and uniformly because there's a common rule in place. A player chooses the exceptions that fit their character, rather than forcing a specific small range of exceptions that might not fit the core character concept.

I'm not advocating that everything be reduced to a single all-purpose set of rules. If there aren't going to be differences between the way combat work and magic works, why bother having two seperate categories at all. You could go ridiculously down that path and have a game where everything comes down to a single number defining the character's overall importance to the story. I still want combat to be different to thievery, magic to be different to prayer, knowledge to be different to diplomacy, everything to have it's own specific way of manipulating story that cannot be replicated by the others. These fundamental differences will be in the core rules, plain and simple, unfettered by the exceptions to come later.

21 February, 2015

Refinement and Inspirations

(I had written up a post here that's been lost to the aether, now I'll try to reconstruct it from memory)

Nothing is created from a void, there is inspiration everywhere. There have been plenty of examples on the internet where game designers have failed to acknowledge the sources inspiring their work. I'd rather look at those inspirations, show people where ideas came from, perhaps to learn from other people's insight, maybe to show other game designers how they can draw similar inspiration, or maybe just because it's polite and the right thing to do.

I can think of four distinct sources of inspiration that have blended together, there are probably a whole heap more, but these are the main ones.

Firstly, I'm thinking of the combat system in Warhammer Fantasy Battle (or more specifically "Mordheim"). In this system, a combatant rolls a number of dice equal to their "attack" score, if fighting an opponent with equal skill ("Weapon Score"), a roll of 4 scores a "hit". Each successful hit sees an aggressor compare their "Strength" to the defender's "Toughness" then roll another die, if the strength and toughness are roughly equal, a roll of 4 will translate that hit into damage. One damage is all it takes to neutralise most characters (and take them out of the game), some more powerful characters and heroes will have extra hit points.

It's a bit convoluted, but it lays the groundwork for where I'm headed with the conflict system...and it certainly uses the "4" as a benchmark for success. This system makes things easier or more difficult by cross referencing numbers for the attacker and defender, thus giving a target number for a d6 to match. I'm looking at changing die sizes, and modifying the number of successes required to achieve tasks, but there are certain elements that remain intact. 

Secondly, the free RPG "Warrior, Rogue and Mage" by Michael Wolf (which can be found at http://www.stargazergames.eu/games/warrior-rogue-mage/). One of the interesting things about this game is that it doesn't give the characters attributes in the traditional sense, instead it allows players to assign levels in the occupations of Warrior, Rogue, or Mage, then the player determines their chances of success in various actions by rolling a die and adding the appropriate occupation level. It strips back so many of the stereotypes in gaming to the essentials, even more than many of the "microlite" games I've read over the years. In WR&M, a single die is rolled, and the occupation level is added, it's a simple pass/fail system...in "System 4" a number of dice will be rolled, each capable of gaining successes (as well as "advantages" and "disadvantages"), thus giving a more dynamic range of outcomes. But there is certainly a link of inspiration between the two systems.

"System 4" won't be reducing things quite to this level, I'm looking at 6 basic actions (rather than WR&M's 3 types)... i'll be working with Combat, Diplomacy, Faith, Knowledge, Magic, and Trickery. Each with it's own specialist occupation, and a variety of occupations that straddle two attributes/categories. 

Thirdly, Cadwallon, the short lived RPG from Rackham (before it imploded). I've talked about Cadwallon before on the blog, because it had a few really interesting ideas in it. One of the ones that really caught my imagination was the idea that a character's frame of mind might change the range of things they are able to do. When a character is angry, they can't think straight and do delicate things. Each frame of mind forms a "stance" (and these stances correspond to the attributes), and each stance/attribute has a certain range of skills that may only be attempted when the character has a relevant frame of mind. 

Since "System 4" uses types of action as the attributes, characters will basically declare their intended turn motivation at the start of the round (rather than Cadwallon's declaration of emotion). For example, a character going for damage will declare that they are using "combat" for the round, while a character trying to decrypt ancient runes would declare "knowledge". The corresponding dice for the attribute are rolled, and any 4s count as successes. Characters would also have abilities that might grant automatic successes or have other effects on the round's outcome. I'm considering allowing characters to perform actions not covered by their declared stance, but this might require the expenditure of extra successes to get lesser things done (if in combat stance, it might cost two successes to do something normally requiring knowledge).

Fourthly, the die mechanism in Star Wars: Edge of Empire, where multiple dice are rolled, and each is able to add successes, failures, advantages and disadvantages to the final resolution. I've gone into a bit of detail on this previously, and it's basically where the whole thing started.

Finally, I remember reading about the origins of hit dice in D&D. Going back to the original "Chainmail" rule set, where a character's hit dice were basically a measure of their power, resilience against negative effects, and even their combat skill...all in one number. In D&D there is still a remnant of this in a cleric's ability to turn undead of different hit die levels, but in most other parts of the game it has faded into insignificance. 

"System 4" is pulling this idea back into prominence, but the various dice come into play for different types of action. Dice in "Diplomacy" count for a characters ability to persuade others, but also show a character's resistance to the diplomatic manoeuvring of others.

Lots of ideas, pulled together into a coherent system (hopefully).

Now I'm just thinking of the specific mechanisms that will make the game work in the ways I've envisioned. More thoughts to come.

20 February, 2015

Adding more depth

It might be time to start shading these, and maybe adding in the characters (but all that will be done digitally). Looking at these photos, they seem to have come out pretty blurred. Luckily I can use the scanner to get crisp images to digitally work with.

At least I can console myself with the fact that these aren't post apocalyptic like almost everything else I seem to be doing lately.

Dungeon Font Part 3

The second expansion (and the third part) of the Dungeon Font has been put up for sale over on DrivethruRPG/RPGNow. 

As a bonus, I've added the font usage guides to each of the available fonts and expansions. 

If you're interested, head over and take a look.

19 February, 2015

New Ideas from 20 Years Ago

Back before their was a revolution in independent gaming...back before "The Forge" told us everything we were doing in gaming was wrong, and launched a new generation of gaming...before FATE was a thing, and well and truly before Apocalypse World... I was writing ideas in notebooks.

I've got a few notebooks dating back to the late 80s, when I was trying to come up with a fun simple system that worked with the game play I usually saw around the table. Others from the early to mid 90's where I tried to identify the rules we actually used, when White Wolf's hot new "Storyteller System" seemed to have gaps, or seemed too complicated and we just made things up on the fly.

Digging through my shelves in the last couple of hours, I found a few of those notebooks.

Here's a couple of scans from pages in one of those books. A setting I was developing, and have loosely used in a couple of campaigns.

...and some notes for a proto-symbolism, that was intended to form the structure for a language.

There's a few other gems in those books that might be worth resurrecting at some point, or might be worth combining with current unfinished ideas to create new/old hybrid ideas to progress with.

18 February, 2015

Adding different components for different jobs

I've changed my mind a bit on a certain subject within the realm of game design.

I've always liked the idea of a single coherent system that can be applied across everything in a game. But in a lot of game designs I've admired for this streamlining, the single system at the core is good, but it isn't necessarily great for everything. Trying to shoehorn the same system into all aspects of a game may work for a lot of the situations encountered, but might be a very bad fot in other parts of the game.

I'm not saying that you need a seperate subsystem for every element of play, and I know many games that have taken this approach... i'm just saying that I've come to the conclusion that two or three complementary systems that cover a wider range of situations effectively might be more user friendly than a single system that once one thing brilliantly and a bunch of other things adequately.

A combat system doesn't need to look like a lock picking mechanism, and neither of these have to resemble a method for social interaction.

If you're telling a specific type of story, where each of these elements of play contribute to the story in the same way, then it might work to use the same mechanisms for everything. But if you want a change of pace, or a varying narrative, then maybe it makes sense to resolve different things in different ways.

Similarly, if a specific element of the game is meant to be the signature point, then it might make sense to use a different system for that element of play. Some games seem to do this inadvertently, perhaps making combat a seperate system to everything else without realising that this produces a disconnect in the experience of the players.

As long as different subsystems are capable of communicating with one another, perhaps providing feedback loops that modify one another, so that they don't stand too independently of each other.

These thoughts have come from trying to integrate a combat resolution system into the same parameters bordering all other elements of a game, juggling the two extremes of a simple narrative system and a clever combat mechanic where hit locations, strategy, and different combat tools play a role.

Again...more to think about.