31 January, 2013

Skills as Switches

Two options: On or Off.

Do you have the skill? Yes, then you gain a bonus in situation X (maybe you get a bonus to your die roll, or maybe it opens up a new sub mechanism or game option)...No, then you just roll your flat attribute (or maybe you just can't perform this type of task at all).

I've played with this idea a few times in my game designs.

FUBAR basically does this...if you have a trait that's relevant to the task at hand, you add an extra die to your pool (conversely if you possess a trait that's detrimental, you either take a die away, or add a negative die if you're all out of positives).

Ghost City Raiders does this. The basic mechanisms simply get you to draw a card versus your attributes in a series of basic situations. New skills allow you to gain bonuses across a range of situations, or allow you to open up new situations.

Tooth and Claw does this, by simply allowing an extra die to be rolled if you've a skill appropriate to the task at hand.

There is an opposing school of thought when it comes to skills. The one which uses gradually developing skill mastery, or levels of ability within a skill. The problem I've had with that paradigm comes down to things like "literacy" as a skill...either you can read, or you can't. When you've got five (or ten...or more) skill level increments in "Reading: English", what is the real significance in increasing from one level to the next? Does your vocabulary simply increase? Would this simply be better modelled by an increase of intelligence?

This is another one of those things where the designers intention for the game is really made manifest through the rules they present to their players.

For the last few years I've liked games where the rules blend into the background. They facilitate play, make sense and move out of the way, rather than standing as overbearing guards at the gateway to narrative.

Just because I've liked that style of game doesn't mean I've been successful at writing it. The first game I published, "Platinum Storm" back in the early 1990's was meant to be a "lite-rules" game, and the whole thing fit into 30 pages (with character generation, a variety of character types, dozens of weapons and scores of equipment types, a basic magic system, and write ups for a dozen pseudo-Japanese provinces). Now it looks messy. It was a smooth system in play, but setting up characters to get to that smooth game play was a nightmare. That game used scaling attributes and skills based on percentile dice, the opposite end of the spectrum to where I now commonly sit.

My next published game "The Eight Sea" from 2008, was a collection of simple logical systems. Each one elegant, but when combined into a gestalt, they became very unwieldy. The actual play sessions I've run for the Eighth Sea have ignored most of the rules altogether, simply focusing on the card drawing mechanisms and the deck of the ship (which drives difficulties for the story). In that game I used two levels for every skill, "basic" and "advanced". It worked pretty well but got a bit confusing at times. It was after writing this that I started thinking of the "skills as switches" concept...what if two skills applied to the situation (could you add bonuses from both)...what about three?

It makes things easier to just say "Yes" or "No", rather than take the other path of applying synergies between skills and cross referencing one effect to see how it apples to another. I don't know if you could argue whether it's more or less realistic, but keeping things simple certain makes the story flow more easily (and thus aids in any suspension of disbelief throughout the adventure).

For Voidstone Chronicles, I think it makes sense to follow the skills as switches option. It fits the 8-bit gameplay style....either you've got access to "Weapon-type A" or you don't...either you can read magical incantations or you can't...either you gain a bonus with the local merchant or his prices are terrible.

The next things I'm looking at to really bring out the style of gameplay that I'm after are "feat trees". The simple combination of feat trees that open character possibilities and skills that simply give a yes/no benefit should allow for some great complexity of character while staying easy to manage.  

30 January, 2013

How many attributes are enough?

Classic D&D has six attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.

Classic World of Darkness has nine attributes (don't get me started on nWoD), three each in three categories: Physical (Strength, Stamina, Dexterity), Social (Charisma, Manipulation, Appearance), Mental (Intelligence, Perception, Wits).

Palladium's System has eight: Intelligence Quotient, Mental Affinity, Mental Endurance, Physical Strength, Physical Endurance, Physical Prowess, Physical Beauty, Speed.

I vaguely remember Rolemaster having ten attributes, but I don't have a copy any more and it's been years since I played, so don't ask me to name them.

Monsterhearts has four: Hot, Cold, Volatile, Dark
(and most *-World games seem to also have 4, but the specific four are based on the tone of the game).

Big Eyes Small Mouth as three: Body, Mind, Spirit (where everything social is handled by character advantages and disadvantages)

And among my own published games...

FUBAR doesn't have attributes at all, instead basing all actions off traits.

Ghost City Raiders has six attributes: Smarts, Strength (split into left and right arms), Stamina, Survival, Speed.

Typically in character generation, the attributes are a player's gateway into the system. If there are a lot of attributes, you can be pretty certain that the game is going to be high crunch. If the majority of attributes relate to physical characteristics, then you are probably safe to assume that politics and thinking aren't going to be addressed too heavily in the rules (the specific scenarios in the game might address political intrigue or tests of mental acuity, but these would tend to be left to the roleplaying ability of the players involved).

Which is better? That's a really subjective question.

The important thing to consider is what you want the attributes to do. Classic D&D and Palladium don't really do anything with the attributes, but they leave it open for specific player groups to come up with their own ideas. Maybe you roll a die against a specific attribute when none of the skills seem to cover the situation. Maybe you reference some tables using the attributes to determine other characteristics about the hero. Maybe you just ignore the attributes completely.

Many games use a specific Attribute + Skill mechanism to determine overall character ability in a specific field. Others (like "Savage Worlds" and the new "Star Wars: Edge of Empire") use attributes to limit the skills related to them.

There are lots of subtle interplays between mechanisms and you need to consider all of these factors when determining the number of attributes to use in a game. With less attributes, they each need to cover a wider range of possibilities (or you need to focus your game around the specific possibilities covered by those attributes), with more attributes you can be more specific with the numbers (or wider with your game focus).

I specifically used lots of physical attributes in Ghost City raiders because it's all about stunts, exploration and combat...the roleplaying is tactical and often occurs between the designated scenarios.

The reason I'm thinking about this is for the Voidstone Chronicles game.

How many attributes would reflect that old school style of console play?

29 January, 2013

Alternate combat system

Every once in a while we hear about a game with a "revolutionary" new combat system. I've heard it said about dozens of games that might simply use a d8 instead of a d6, or maybe an armour system that absorbs damage rather than increase the chance of a damage saving throw. People often think mundane things are revolutionary if they haven't encountered anything beyond the vanilla systems of rolling a d20, then rolling damage.

When I developed Ghost City Raiders, I really wanted something different from the game. I wanted something fast...so I created a set of hit locations and a series of combat stances that could be adopted by characters as they faced off against one another. This idea made the basics of combat quick and intuitive...Do you pick a defensive stance or offensive? Do you aim for the high parts of your opponent or do you strike low? Simple, you just pick your character's stance from the to and bottom edges of the character booklet and present it to your opponent. Your opponent does the same, and when the two combat stances are lined up against one another you can instantly see which areas of you opponent have been targeted and blocked, and which areas of your target have been targeted and not adequately blocked (they get the same details about their combat techniques against you). It doesn't require dice rolls or table references, you just pick a stance and your opponent does the same.

It's worked pretty well.

But I'm interested in pushing things further.

There are a few games that have actually done interesting things with the conflict resolution systems, and I'm thinking of incorporating them into an RPG based on old school PC and console games. A game to capture the essence of Legend of Zelda, side-scrolling adventure games like Golden Axe, or even strategic hex-combat games like Heroes of Might and Magic. These are the types of games I grew up with, the kinds of things that claimed to be computer roleplaying games but really offered no interactive story and no chance to get into a role at all. It doesn't mean I didn't have fun with them, but there always seemed to be something more that these games could have been.

The essence of combat systems in these games are quick, intuitive, they build up as the player opens new powers for their character.

I'd love to do his with an RPG combat system. I think the GCR model is probably a good basis, especially when combined with the combat cycle used in Exalted.

I might spend a couple of posts gradually building up the ideas in this combat system. This is the game that the Voidstone Chronicles logo was created for.

While I'm spitballing these ideas, any input is welcome.

28 January, 2013

Game Mechanism of the Week [Neo Redux] 4: Saving Throws

I've been playing Mordheim with Leah over the past two days.

The games have been just the way I remember them. You get the fiddly start up where you try to generate an optimal team without the full resources that you need to do it (so you end up making a team that generally fits what you're aiming for, but you hope that a few games will generate the funds needed to truly create the team you want). Then you get the actual game play where strategy, team synergies, and quirky skills can give you an advantage, but a string of good (or bad) rolls can easily overcome player skill or strategy.

We've both decided to play four teams on a semi-random play selection roster.

Each players uses a team, and once the game is over each player lines up the leaders of their three remaining teams then rolls a d6 to determine which team to play next. 1-2: Team A, 3-4: Team B, 5-6: Team C. It means you don't get the one team played constantly, there's always a change-up. Eventually one team might get played more than the others, but that's just random; and even in the worst case scenario where one team gets played every second game, it still doesn't get too far ahead. Mordheim has some built in rules to accommodate some disparity in teams (such as heroic "dramatis personae" who might join a lower ranking team with a better chance of joining if there is a larger gap in relative power level).

But the notion of semi-random die team selection and self-regulating game mechanisms aren't really the focus of this post. What has really stood out in these games, and the factor that has been a make-or-break element in many of the scenarios has been the existence of saving throws. In many cases a character has two or more levels of saving throws (roll to dodge an incoming blow entirely, roll to parry a successful strike, roll to absorb the incoming damage with your armour, roll with a magical amulet or spell to avoid the worst, etc.)

(I looked at Saving Throws in the original Game Mechani(sm) series back in 2009, I don't think my opinion has changed all that much.)

I've always seen saving throws as the hallmark of old-school gaming. They definitely seem to be epitome of competitive play and the antithesis  of "modern" narrative game forms.

Different games handle the mechanism in different ways, but have the same basic pair (or trio) of outcomes. A saving throw is a character's last chance to resist the effects of injury or story. A successful use of the mechanism may cancel (or minimise) the effects currently being resolved, while an unsuccessful use of the mechanism allows the effect to continue unimpeded.

You can often tell the type of player based on their reaction to saving throws. Those who favour their characters as "Mary Sues" often maximise their saving throws to prevent the chance of storylines happening to them (they prefer to be pretty princesses insulated from their world). On the other hand, those who want to immerse themselves in the world often don't care what the saving throw figures may be, such players may even ignore the fact they are able to call saving throws into play.

Saving throws add a level of stability. Without a saving throw, a single bad roll could cause a player to lose their character in a situation. Narrative styles of play may provide the player with some kind of option to perform a dramatic "last deed", or perhaps end up severely injured but able to return in a later story. Games focusing on the mechanisms (such as D&D) don't have as much of an input from the story into the mechanisms, instead the mechanisms completely drive the story, so a bad die roll simply means the end of things for that particular character unless saving throws are permitted.

In a competitive game like Mordheim, saving throws might slow down combat, but they turn the sequence of events into a back-and-forth scuffle, where two characters might become so focused on breaking a deadlock that they ignore the actual objective of the scenario (which might be to capture a building). The saving throw element built into the combat makes the conflict feel more important, while stabilising it's outcome compared to the true strategies elsewhere that might win or lose the game. Die rolling is apart of the paradigm for miniature battlegames, you expect it, and you expect the back and forth. This is especially true with d6 based games where the chunky granularity of results often needs something nuanced like saving throws to provide finer differentiation between opposing forces.

Saving throws are a way of preventing story from happening in a number of ways. Firstly, they cause actions to take longer to resolve. An action that can be resolved with a single die roll or card draw allows the story to flow more easily...an action that requires a mechanism for possible success, a further mechanisms to see if the possible success is countered, then a final process to determine the output of those mechanisms into\the story...that second option clearly doesn't allow good story flow.

Secondly, if you want things to happen in a game, saving throws are purely designed to prevent that happening.

I can see the reasons why some gamers embrace the notion of saving throws. They are a way to determine how tough a character is in the face of adversity or potential injury.

But the flip side is just as easy to see. I especially saw this in an ongoing LARP campaign, where players were able to create effects that basically caused saving throws against storylines that we were trying to use to keep new players interested. This reinforce stability in the game, which was great for these long term players who were trying to show that they had established a solid power base, but didn't make for much fun among those players who wanted a bit of action.

Just something to keep in mind when you consider adding saving throws to your games.

27 January, 2013

Mordheim Lessons

Last night, my wife Leah said..."I'm bored, let's play Mordheim tomorrow".

So today we did. We dug up the old rulebook, the town criers, the annual (can you really call it an annual if there was only ever one of them?), and our assorted print outs that have sat in untouched folders ever since we moved house over two years ago. We've played other miniature games in the meantime, not many, but a few. But Mordheim was the game that hooked Leah into the hobby of lead figures (she still hates plastics with a passion, I dislike them too and we've been put off several games that use plastic figures).

Mordheim is a fun game and its design concepts have played a major influence in several of my designs, but it has it's problems.

The mechanisms of the game are heavily derived from Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Combat consists of many interconnected rolls...first a roll to hit, then a roll to injure, then a possible roll to save versus that injury, and then a roll to see what that injury actually does. It's a slow process, it speeds up a bit with some experience but it's still fiddly.

The fun I rediscovered today comes from the strategies of building and developing the warband. It's these elements of the game that I've tried to replicate in the character development aspects of Ghost City Raiders, but there is something interesting about developing a group of individuals. It's got me thinking.

Perhaps there is room for adding followers into the existing mechanisms of Ghost City Raiders. At high levels of traditional RPGs like D&D, there is the chance for a character to develop an entourage, even during dungeonbashing there is a general series of roleplaying tropes about "hirelings".

When you really delve into the side mechanisms within Mordheim, there are some great storytelling elements. These include the various outposts around the shattered city of Mordheim, each with their own flavours, variable availability of uncommon items, rules for developing encampments of your own. These could easily fit the Ghost City Raiders game as it currently stands. It could be a fun way to expand the game.

There are a few other mechanisms from Mordheim that I really like, and some of these might creep in as optional rules as well.

Since Games Workshop don't seem to care much about the product, someone might as well extrapolate and evolve the mechanisms involved.

26 January, 2013

A Game Logo

What sort of game play do you expect from an RPG with this logo?

23 January, 2013

Character Images

For those interested...here are the range of Ghost City Raiders character images so far. 

Many more to come.

Taking things further in the Post Apocalypse

I've been doing some work on Walkabout again, as well as the spin-off game Ghost City Raiders (which has ironically been released first).

I'm really not sure if the game prelude I wrote earlier is a good fit for the direction I want the game to take. It's one of those many starts that could be a false start or it could be something that I use later, perhaps as the prelude text for a player's guide or GM guide.

This still leaves me in a dilemma about the voice for the text. I want it to be easy and fun to read, but also informative and definitive.

Maybe I'm just overanalysing things.

In news for Ghost City Raiders, I'll be releasing a series of interconnected trios over the next couple of months. 3 characters sharing a theme or a faction, combined with a three act storyline specifically designed with these characters in minds.

The first ideas I have in mind here are a trio of specifically female characters, a trio sharing the "Rust" trait (as mentioned in the "Shadows of Rust" storyline), a trio of nomads, and a trio of magic users.

I should b able to write these up over the next couple of weeks, then stagger their release over a few months. Where the game goes after this, I'm not sure...attention will generally shift back to Walkabout.

22 January, 2013

Game Mechanism of the Week [Neo-Redux] 3: Bell Curves and Straight Lines

We could blame Apocalypse World for the resurgence of games that use "2d6+Modifier" as a core mechanism...But that's probably a bit harsh. The notion of rolling a pair of dice (or a trio) ad adding up the results before applying a modifier has been around for decades. I toyed around with it when I was in high school because it seemed to "work better" but I didn't know why.

With a bit more perspective, I can start to see why it seems to work better than a "flat die+modifier", or at least better in certain situations.

It's all about statistics. I'm not going to get too heavily into it, there are plenty of bloggers who've analysed this notion in deep complexity over the years.

While I've called this weekly game mechanism Bell Curves and Straight Lines, I'm mostly focusing o the pros and cons of the bell curve (not the straight lines).

When a die is rolled, there is theoretically an even chance of getting any result offered by that die. A d6 has six options that each have a 1-in-6 chance of arising, a d12 has twelve options that each have a 1-in-12 chance of arising. When we simply add the total result of two dice together, the results vary their distribution.

On 2d6...

...there is a better chance of getting a total result of a 7 (6 chances in 36), and only a small chance of rolling a 2 or a 12 (1 chance each in 36). It's not a true bell curve,

On 3d6...
...there is still a better chance of rolling those middle values, but now there is an even lower chance of rolling the outliers of the curve (the 3 and the 18).

It's really interesting that at the fundamental level, D&D uses 3d6 to generate attributes for characters in an attempt to get a statistically "realistic" overview (most people tend toward the middle but there are chances you might be really good in one area, or really bad)....but then it uses a flat die result when testing these values (in some versions it might be to roll a d20 and compare it to your attribute, in other versions those attributes might apply a modifier to a d20 roll). In most games it's typical for a naturally high result to be an automatic success, and a naturally low result to be an automatic failure.

First consider the 2d6 (rolling 2 six-sided dice and adding the total...a vague bell curve) as a roll versus 1d12 (a straight line) as a roll. A bonus of +1 in each is a small benefit, a bonus of +3 is moderate and a bonus of +5 is quite substantial (possibly a reason while the "Apocalypse World"-derived games seem to stop at +4 as a maximum benefit). 

If an action has a target number of 7 which must be met for a degree of success...
1d12 = 6 in 12 (50%) chance of success
1d12+1 = 7 in 12 (58%) chance of success
1d12+3 = 9 in 12 (75%) chance of success
1d12+5 = 11 in 12 (92%) chance of success

2d6 = 21 in 36 (58%) chance of success
2d6+1 = 26 in 36 (72%) chance of success
2d6+3 = 33 in 36 (92%) chance of success
2d6+5 = Only fail due to a naturally low roll of snake eyes: 35 in 36 (97%) chance of success.

If a harder action has a target number of 10 which must be met for a degree of success...
1d12 = 3 in 12 (25%) chance of success
1d12+1 = 4 in 12 (33%) chance of success
1d12+3 = 6 in 12 (50%) chance of success
1d12+5 = 8 in 12 (67%) chance of success

2d6 = 6 in 36 (16%) chance of success
2d6+1 = 10 in 36 (28%) chance of success
2d6+3 = 21 in 36 (58%) chance of success
2d6+5 = 30 in 36 (83%) chance of success

The range of possible die results is very similar but the modifiers make a more dramatic difference in the 2d6 version.

This becomes even more extreme when looking at a 3d6 version of the die rolls compared to a flat d20 result.

A good bell curve gives consistency in a story, but allows for the off chance that something incredible might happen (for the good or bad). It provides the benefits of keeping numbers manageable, which is something that percentile games often have trouble with, a 1% bonus often doesn't mean a lot in a percentile game, but a bonus of +1 in a 3d6 bell curve has more significance. Conversely, a natural high in a percentile game is a 1-in-100 result, while it is a 1-in-216 result on a 3d6 bell curve.

The other immediate advantage of using multiple dice to generate a bell curve effect merely comes as a side effect of having a dice pool. Now you can apply multiple ways of reading the results...for example; rolled doubles and triples might manifest special effects, dice can be allocated to different effect results (total result determines chance of success, high die determines any unexpected benefits, low die determines any unexpected complications). I could write more about dice pools, but that's an entirely different mechanism for another week.

I think that one of the biggest cons with the bell curve is that fact that a lot of interesting story happens among the statistical outliers. By it's very nature, the bell curve you more results at the centre and less results among the outliers.

Another con might be the fact that it takes a bit more time to add up the results of multiple dice, but in the scheme of things this is pretty negligible. Besides, "Fudge dice" are a common way to produce bell curve results at the moment, and they don't use numbers at all.

As another point, I don't know if this is really a pro or a con, I guess it all depends on the style of game you are going for. If you want modifiers to play a more important role in your game, then a bell curve will magnify their effect without the need to actually modify the numbers, thus it could be considered a pro. If you want randomness to play a bigger role in the mechanisms behind the story, then this counts as a con.

Walkabout: A New Prologue

In the days before the darkness, it is said that the people in their cities were fed their entertainment by vast communication networks of metal wires, glass fibres and broadcasts of radio waves. They would sit in their houses passively watching screens displaying the mundane lives of people who were famous simply for being famous, they would be pacified by humorous half-hour programs, they would believe the news feeds distributed to them as they ate their meals in front of their view screens at night. Some engaged in more active entertainments, using controllers to move the images on their screens, or even interacting directly through the movements of their eyes or the fluctuating energy patterns echoing through their minds. These were times of great scientific advances, yet they were also times of great ignorance.

In these times we do not have the luxuries of that golden age before the dark days.  

The networks of wires and glass fibres have been torn up or have long ago rusted into obsolescence, and the radio broadcasts are dangerously risky, sometimes echoing voices that should never be heard, sometimes whispering lies and blasphemies, or even drawing dangers from the realms of dreaming and nightmares.

Yet for all the horrors of this age, these times are not as dangerous as the dark days or the years that came afterward. No longer is there a need for eternal vigilance against the monsters of the unknown. Strongholds of civilisation have built themselves up at bastions of hope for the future.

Once again, the survivors of the world are able to spend some of their lives indulging in light entertainment. Some listen to the words of raconteurs, others watch the performances of travelling actors and musicians, and some engage in a form of interactive storytelling. In homage to the great heroes who saved our world, these circles of survivors weave together tales of the great heroes from the last generation, the wayfarers who re-opened the trade routes and who explored a new world transformed by the rebirth of the spirits.

None can ever know the exact tasks undertaken by these heroes, or the true motivations informing them. Every circle who share the telling of the heroic Wayfarer stories will weave their tales differently. In one set of tales the heroes might be selfless warriors, in another they might be mercenaries charged with duties beyond their control. It is the act of remembering these heroes that is important. These pages will help a group to honour their memories and relate their hidden tales.

The Wayfarers are Dead, Long Live the Wayfarers.

21 January, 2013

The Voice of the Text

I haven't seen my copy of "Castle Falkenstein" in over a decade (I think it was actually lost in a rather hasty house move at the start of 2002) years.

One of the things I do remember about it was the was the first half of the book was written an a travel journal. It was literally written from the perspective of someone writing their diary in a strange reflection of our own world, pulled there by magic and now interacting with the people and places  of the pseudo-Europe with their summoner as a guide.

I've seen this sort of things in children's books, James Gurney's "Dinotopia" comes to mind, so do those "Dragonology", "Pirateology", and other "-ology" childrens books that describe a secretive world in easily digestible terms...in truth, this sort of conceit is a literary tradition that has gone back to at least the Victorian era. It's just uncommon to see this presentation in a game book.

Jeremy Keller's "Chronica Feudalis" pulled off the same technique really well a few years back. I've got a PDF of it floating around and occasionally look back to it.

When it's done well, the author's voice can add a sense of perspective to a work. It provides an insight into the game world through the mechanisms of play, rather than keep the two separate. But it's a delicate style to write, and as a reading style, you have to be in the mood otherwise it can be a bit grating. Still it's an intriguing idea.

I've already made the decision to split Walkabout into a generally system agnostic travelogue/setting guide, and a fairly setting agnostic system. The fusion of these two parts forming the whole game (with a possibility to add new setting expansions in the for of new travelogues, or in-setting artefact textbooks).

But it struck me that it could be an interesting idea to develop the rulebook as an in-setting artefact as well. Perhaps with the fall of wireless communications, new entertainments have developed in the post apocalyptic world. Perhaps dice as a mass produced commodity are not as available in the shattered future as they are now (that's convenient because Walkabout uses tokens drawn from a bag rather than dice).  

It's just an idea that I'm toying with.

19 January, 2013

Reworking old ideas

I'm hoping that one of my themes for this year will be to complete unfinished works...I've certainly got enough of them.

Walkabout is definitely on the agenda, and I've got a deadline in place for that one.

Hell on Eight Wheels should be available in prototype form very shortly.

Ghost City Raiders is complete, but will be an ongoing process as new supplemental characters and scenarios are released over the course of the year. Tooth and Claw will be getting more love as well.

Two of the other projects I've been meaning to get back to are...

First Quincunx, the game of supernatural hunters on a reality TV show, each sponsored by shadowy corporate conspiracies. This has seen evolution between RPG, board game, card game and numerous other forms. It seems the nature of that project is flux...it seems like trying to nail down jelly ("jello" to those Americans who might be reading). Once something seems right, I try to swing the hammer to nail it in place and the concept explodes. There are so many ideas here, and it will end up being a prequel game to Walkabout, I'm just not sure in what capacity.

Next Faeries and FUBAR, the medieval fantasy version of my free FUBAR game system. FUBAR has now seen over 4000 downloads on various websites, I've played it dozens of times at home and at conventions, and it's has some great feedback from other playing groups around the world. I had originally intended Faeries and FUBAR to be a "mega-supplement" for FUBAR, something that requires the basic rules to play...but now I'm tending toward a standalone book with completely reworked examples. I'd also like to get anther product into print rather than just selling PDFs, so a totally reworked Faeries and FUBAR might be a suitable way to achieve this goal.

I did like the way Faeries and FUBAR was heading when I was last working on it. The system had a dynamic and free flowing magic system that integrated fully into the system of traits and skills that already infuses the narrative driven mechanisms of the game, it had an easy way to bring cultural and occupational elements into play. The few things it didn't really handle very well have been explored and refined through the other FUBAR supplements, such as the system of relationships developed through Dead and FUBAR'd and the journeying mechanisms in FUBAR 66. Tying these together for a full coherent game system shouldn't be too hard. The whole thing would probably fit into sixty pages, or just under a hundred if I used elaborate formatting like the other products in the FUBAR range.

I think this might be a worthwhile candidate for the first Vulpinoid Studios book to utilise the OneBookShelf printing program.

Social Class

I got into a stoush the other day on G+, I could have escalated things to a full on conflict but I just wasn't in the mood. It related to the social order of the corporate world.

The general idea was simple.

Original Poster: Good CEO's are worth every cent we pay them.
My Response: Then why do we pay the bad ones the same amount?
Original Poster: Hmmm??? We don't, do we?
Third Party: Any CEO job is hard work. If you don't believe me, just become a CEO.
My Reponse: Just become a CEO?? WTF? Are also you the kind of guy who kicks homeless people and tells them to get off their arses and get a job?? Most of the CEO's I know got into the position because they knew people already in power, so they just walked into the job.
Original Poster: You liberal, occupy supporter...I hate it how everyone thinks those people in high corporate positions just got into the job through toadying and nepotism...some of them worked really hard to get there.

I didn't want to continue the argument, it felt like butting my head against a brick wall.

But it did make me think about social class in RPGs. In Warhammer, it's theoretically possible to start as a street urchin, follow a series of career progressions and end up as a noble or a knight of the realm. In D&D it's pretty much inevitable that a character starts off lowly and then ascends to the realms of nobility or even godhood. We see it all the time.

But how realistic is that?

Vampire the Masquerade had a rigid social order. Either you were bitten by a low generation (more powerful) vampire and instantly ascended to the ruling elite of society, or you were bitten by a high generation (less powerful) vampire and were stuck in the dregs of supernatural society for eternity. The only way to improve your generation was to eat the souls of more powerful vampires (and naturally this was considered he most heinous of crimes by the ruling elite). This was more like the real world, either you're born into privilege, you get ignored among the masses, or you become a pariah and challenge the rulers. Naturally, a lot of people I know absolutely hated it for this reason...who wants escapism that's just the same as their everyday lowly lives?

In reality we can look to the various social orders that have held society in stasis.

Feudalism is a key example where if you are born into nobility you have certain rights and responsibilities (but history is filled with examples of nobles who didn't fill their "obligations" to their subjects), if you aren't born into nobility you generally die in obscurity. The only way that the masses are given hope is through the religious blackmail of "an afterlife in heaven if you do good deeds and don't cause a stir". Occasionally, a noble might grant a petty title to a peasant, in order to keep the citizens dreaming of possible titles of their own.

Exchange feudalism for capitalism. Those with money make contacts with money (like attracts like), and grant their wealth and their social circles to their children. Occasionally a wealthy patron might grant some of their money to one of the masses as venture capital, and this keeps the dreams of the masses alive (all the better to keep them in check).

I've been told by many a company director or manager that if I work hard, I'll get a pay rise and maybe even get promoted to their ranks. Almost all of these company directors and managers got their positions over me by knowing someone in the company, or (in at least two cases) because the company was owned by their parents. They just use carrot and stick...the carrot is the promise of more money and promotions (that never come), and the stick has been a firing or retrenchment (an especially harsh stick in a high-unemployment recession). Yet any time these individuals have been questioned about their motives, they point to nebulous and vague times when they "worked their arses off" to get where they are.

It's a modern caste system.

It's fair enough, the overseers of our capitalist world want to maintain their positions of power. They fear rebellion, but can't be allowed to show that fear. Like priests to "the almighty dollar", they keep their underlings working to feed a economical god. If they lose their cults, then other cults take over and they lose their power.

It's a cynical way to look at things, and I'll accept anyone's response who can prove me wrong...but it's the pattern I've seen time and again.

Maybe I've just developed this attitude to money and religion because I never bothered to learn the games of toadying and nepotism when I was younger. Perhaps it's because my parents could have provided me with some of the money and contacts to get a leg up into the middle or even upper classes (heaven knows, I've got cousins who flitter around with the social butterflies)...but instead I got parents with the typical babyboomer attitude of "Let's give our kids character by making them work for everything" (strangely this attitude died away with my younger sister and brother, conveniently as my parents started "living comfortably"). Perhaps the attitudes between money and religion are linked because my dad worked for the Anglican church for many years and I saw the same corporate nonsense happening there.

Either way, it probably explains why I keep designing post apocalyptic games, why one of my favourite movies is Fight Club, and why one of my favourite songs is Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution will not be Televised".

Enough rant, back to you regularly scheduled programming.

(PS: Did I mention I'm about to go into university study to become a teacher?...to infect a new generation with my thoughts?)

17 January, 2013

Some figures

I've been in the mood to paint some more figures lately.

Like so many other gamers, I have one of the Reaper Bones sets coming my way in March, and I've tried to get on board the Malifaux kickstarter (but that's an ongoing set of new issues). While waiting for these, I've got dozens (if not hundreds) of figures waiting at home, hoping for a coat of paint on them. But I'm always interested to see some good new figures from companies I might not have heard about.

Scale75 seems to be a Spanish company that I've just found out about. They might be getting a bit of my money shortly. (Especially if I keep having trouble with this Malifaux project...)

What's happening to Kickstarter?

So, I pledged to the Malifaux RPG kickstarter last week...only to find that my pledge has been cancelled because of a payment issue. When I go into Amazon payments it says that the pledge is still active...but as an Australian, I find it odd that my address is now considered somewhere in the USA, and there is no place to change my country back to Australia. 

I've previously pledged and paid for projects through Kickstarter and Amazon payments, so this hasn't been an issue before. I'm wondering if anyone else from outside the USA is facing this kind of issue? Or is Amazon payments (and therefore Kickstarter) becoming a thing for the USA, by the USA, and excluding the rest of the world completely??

16 January, 2013

Game Mechanism of the Week [Neo-Redux] 2: Star Wars Obligations

Since it's week 2 of 2013, let's follow up that last post with another game mechanism.

This one is also from the new FFG version of Star Wars. I don't know if I should be posting about these mechanisms from a game that still sits in beta testing, but I didn't sign a non-disclosure agreement, and I'm not going to post the name of the player in our group who purchased the product.

Unlike the custom dice of the last post, today's mechanism is more easily portable to other game systems and campaigns. It is a framework for developing obligations as a narrative tool and game resource.

This mechanism has a complexity that could easily be split up into a half dozen subsystems, but for the moment I'll look at the whole thing and how it integrates into the storytelling experience.

Each character has links to the world around them, this might come in the form of tasks that people want them to complete, links to their family or a specific location, or something else that has expectation of them. Consider Han Solo when he is introduced in "A New Hope"; right from the beginning he has an obligation to Jabba the Hutt, and his ongoing story is influenced heavily by this.

The same idea applies.

Each character can typically start with 5 to 15 points worth of obligations (depending on the number of players). They increase their obligations if they get further into debt or might voluntarily increase their obligation by owing new favours to people (in order to get out of trouble). They decrease their obligations by paying off favours or resolving the story-lines associated with the obligations.

Generally obligations work as a percentile system. If you have an obligation score of 14, there's a 14% chance that your obligations will come into play during this story. If you have two obligations, one at 4% and one at 8%, you've got a 12% chance that one of your obligations will come into play this story, with twice as much chance of one appearing as the other. The GM rolls the dice at the start of play.

One of the other key things about obligations is that they are shared across the party. The GM creates a table at the start of the session...let's say that Andy's character has 7 obligation, Bruce's character has 12 obligation, Cheryl's character has 15 obligation and Dan's character has 9 obligation...the GM makes up a chart as follows.

01-07: Andy
08-19: Bruce
20-34: Cheryl
35-43: Dan
44-00: No Obligations come into play this session.

If a character is rolled, their obligation becomes one of the focal points during this story; if no character is rolled, the characters can follow their own interests.

As a combination effect, the more obligations a group has in total, the less likely it is that honest people will deal with them. A low group obligation total means that officials will see the characters as upstanding citizens, while a high obligation total means that most people will see the characters as shady individuals with ulterior motives (or citizens in someone's pocket)...which is basically true.

When a group reaches a total obligation of 100 or more, they are simply unable to pursue their own agendas, they are always chasing their tails, fulfilling the requests of those to whom they are obligated. There are two other side effects to a party with a total obligation of 100 or more, one set of narrative implications within the story and one set of mechanical implications within the game rules. From a narrative perspective, the characters become legendary in underworld circles, but are arrested immediately by the legitimate authorities. From a mechanical perspective, a character can't improve their attributes while the group obligation is over 100. It's a bit of a carrot and stick thing, apparently characters need to have the ability to pursue their own interests in order to improve in the ways they desire...I'm not too sure about that as a concept.

The most immediate benefit to this system of obligations is that it could easily be applied to virtually any game. Characters should always be making decisions about what is important to them, who they need to accept favours from in order to get ahead, who they need to pay off in order to get a bit more freedom, what they need to do in order to achieve fulfilment within their lives. A cyberpunk game could use obligations to gangs, corporate sponsors, family...a samurai game would be perfectly suited to the application of obligation.

If you play a game that predominantly uses d20s, you could create an obligation system with 5% increments. Players might have obligations at levels 1, 2, 3 or 4, then the GM could quickly construct a d20 based table. A game using cards might apply ranks to obligations.

The percentage idea is pretty good though and people's minds work well with fractions of 100. It also has the advantage of a nice level of granulation for these purposes.

The integration of this obligation system with the rest of the FFG Star Wars game is inelegant. When the rest of the system uses symbolic dice, a percentile system really feels like an ad hoc addition to the game. Throwing together disparate systems is one of my pet hates, but at this stage I've tried to think of something that might work better with the remainder of the game...I can't think of anything, yet.

Another con of the system as it currently stand is that it only really allows one character to be in the spotlight at a time. When the percentile die is rolled at the beginning of the game, only a single obligation of a single character has the chance of coming up. There is no opportunity for a character to be faced with a dilemma between two obligations, nor is there a chance for two characters to come into conflict due to their obligations. Perhaps this could be improved by rolling twice at the start of play, and if the same obligation comes up twice then this could be a really pivotal moment in the characters story with regard to this trait.

I can't think of a game that wouldn't be improved by the simple application of something like this. It's not a perfect system, but it does link characters into their world and it makes sure that the repercussions of a character's actions impact the ongoing story.

It's close to what I was aiming for when I was developing Quincunx a few years ago, where the supernatural hunting characters would gain advantages from corporate sponsors (but would have to do things for those sponsors in turn). It certainly a more simple and refined way of dealing with things like this than any of the concepts I had developed at the time.

It has also given some food for thought regard the relationships that I've been working with for Walkabout. I don't know how these obligation ideas will feed into my design process at this stage, but they have certainly become another part of the puzzle rattling around in my brain.

Game Mechanism of the Week [Neo-Redux] 1: Custom Symbol Dice

I've just finished playing our second session of the new beta test Fantasy Flight version of Star Wars.

In our first session (last week) we played the standard characters from the beta test play kit. This session some of us made some differences to our characters (the Wookie and the Human pilot changed a bit).

The game mechanisms are actually pretty good, they drive the story in clever ways with an innovative use of symbolism on dice rather than numbers. That's led me to consider a game mechanisms of the week series again for this year. Perhaps a bit more formal than the way I've done it in years past.

The Custom Symbol Dice used in the new Star Wars game are divided into two general categories. Good Dice and Bad Dice, each have a range of symbols on them. Good dice generally have successes and advantages on them, while bad dice have failures and complications (these aren't the specific terms used in the rulebook, but they give the right general meaning). If you roll successes, you get what you want, if you roll advantages you don't necessarily get what you want but it pushes things in the right direction. If you roll failures, you opponent gets what they want (or your successes are cancelled out). If you roll complications, the situation shifts against you (or your advantages are cancelled out). Every roll uses a combination of these dice and every situation has a chance where anything could happen. In this system it's very rare for nothing to happen as a result of a die roll.

The basic system has character rolling a number of basic positive 8-sided dice equal to an attribute they are using in the task. If they have skills appropriate to the task, the may upgrade these basic dice to advanced 12-sided dice with better chances of producing successes, and even critical degrees of success.

These are opposed by a number of basic 8-sided dice equal to a difficulty factor (or an opponent's attribute), certain situations (or an opponent's skill) upgrade these dice to advanced 12-sided negative dice with better chances of producing failures and possibly critical degrees of failure.

You add successes and cancel out with any failures...any that are left determine your outcome in the situation. You add advantages and cancel out with any complications...any that are left modify the situation to provide bonuses or penalties to the die rolls of those around you.

It takes a few rolls to get used to, but the system is really clever. You can quickly learn to play symbiotic games with your allies. This becomes especially clear at the end of the starter scenario where one character pilots the ship, and their actions often apply modifiers to the characters who are acting as gunners. One play might not seem to do much, but their advantages reflect as bonus dice to their allies, and their complications reflect as penalty dice.

The interplay of dice almost reminded me of the climactic scene of the recent "Avengers" movie where the action did not focus on one character for too long and everyone's actions seemed to impact on the success of the characters around them. Having the in-game effects of the Advantages and complication narrated by the players makes them feel a part of the action even if their characters didn't specifically succeed or fail with their action.

The thing I really like about the system is that it takes a lot of the numbers away from the mechanisms, instead of comparing figures and tables, it provides a direct means of relating to the story.

The biggest con I see with this system is the fact that you need to specialised custom dice provided by Fantasy Forge. Apparently the new Warhammer Fantasy RPG uses a very similar dice mechanism, and I've heard that it hasn't seen the uptake expected (which is a bit of a shame). It's also annoying that for some starting characters, the starter kit doesn't provide enough dice to roll the whole lot in one go. With three basic dice of each type, characters who an have attributes up to level 5, and difficulties with up to 5 dice, we found a few times when players had to roll sets of dice multiple times and keep track of accumulated successes, failures, advantages and complications before results could be determined.

There is a table in the rulebook showing how to convert standard dice to match the system, but this is a bit unwieldy. (You could always buy stickers to convert regular dice, but this really restricts the ends to which these dice could be used).

A dice app was a nice addition to the website in an attempt to combat this.

This mechanism has given me a lot of food for thought with regards to Walkabout. It draws from the story, with scenic elements adding and modifying dice, and die results instantly feeding back into the story. I'd consider using a system just like this if it were a bit more easily accessible to new players, the starting investment is a bit prohibitive for most indie game developers.

15 January, 2013

The Eyes Have It

My sister-in-law is making monster roller derby dolls.

She asked me to paint a pair of eyes on her latest doll. I figured it might be a good opportunity to archive the way I normally paint eyes on figures. (Note that this is at a much larger scale than the figures I'd normally be painting, but the process is much the same.)

Step 1: Generate an assortment of eyes. She decided that the bottom right ones would be good.

 Close up of the head.

Step 2: Blacken in the outlines of the eyes.

Step 3: Eyes the colour of a dead television screen (or at least we used to have dead screens like that, now the screen's just black or blue so we don't have to see the ugly static). The shading of the eyes is darker at the top and lighter at the bottom to show the natural reflections within the eye.

 Step 4: The pupils are added in. In this case slits like a cat's eye. Adding in a bit of shading to the lips as well.

 Step 5: Some highlighting is added to provide reflections that give the eye a more liquid look.

Side view of dolls head, that's a hell of an undercut.

Step 6: A bit more shading and detailing, and she's pretty much good to go. The client is happy.

Interlinked Scenario Stories

I've got the rules and a decent range of figures for "Freebooter's Fate", but haven't had the chance to play a lot of it, on the other hand I have played quite a bit of Rackham's 2nd and 3rd editions of Confrontation.

Both of these games are story driven wargames (I'd have included Malifaux among these, but didn't for reasons that I'll make clear soon). In each game there are stories that can be told by feeding the results from one scenario directly into the next...did you get the captive? if so she'll join your team in the next game...did you capture the castle? if so, your team will be the one defending it in the next scenario.

I don't know of many games that specifically take victory elements from one scenario than feed them into the next to tell a consistent story. Malifaux provides specific victory elements for specific factions and characters, but so far it hasn't made an effort to link specific scenarios into longer campaign forms.

It something that has interested me through my investigations along the border between wargames and rolplaying. In large scale old school wargames, I've seen battlegame clubs replay large chunks of major wars, with early battles contributing personel losses and strategic elements into later games. In roleplaying we see this all the time when a character injured in one scene often has to carry their injuries into later scenes, and when the treasures gained early in an adventure provide an edge against the main villain at the end.

So naturally it was something I wanted to experiment with in Ghost City Raiders.

I've posted up the first interlinked tale on RPGNow, it's called Shadows of Rust (which was actually my working title for Ghost City Raiders). It's just a simple thing at this stage, you find location 1 (the first scenario), clues lead you to location 2 (the second scenario), and pieces picked up from both these locations provide an advantage in the climax (the third scenario). Nothing revolutionary, just your standard RPG story framework.

I'll be creating up a few more stories like these, and I'd love to hear more ideas from people who might be interested in the ongoing development of the game.  

14 January, 2013

Apocalypse Diaries

Another of my White Whales...it's a single player game.

During the first phase of the game, the character’s life is good. They start with a sizeable pool of resources at their disposal but minimal character depth. During the course of the first phase, it is easy for a character to convert their resources to character depth; but for every degree of depth the character gains, the fewer the resources they have at their disposal and the harder it will be for them to continue to operate in the shallow and superficial world of socialites and glamour.  

At any time, the apocalypse will strike.

When this occurs, the second phase begins. Many of the renewable resources of the first phase become single use entities, others disappear completely. Now the character must rely on their depth to get them through the worst of the events that the Apocalypse might throw against them.

The game is played out with a single player writing out a diary of their character’s life in the world. Every day the player deals out a hand of cards that describes a significant scene in their character’s life. They write a few sentences describing the place where the scene happens, the people involved and the ways things looked to be unfolding at the start of the scene. They make some choices about this scene, and then resolve this scene through a combination of their choices, the previous events written on earlier pages and the draw of a few extra cards.

Once the scene has been resolved, the player writes the rest of the scene, detailing how they ended up as a result of it, what may have changed in their life and how the world around them was affected. In the first phase of the game, the outside world will tend to be fairly static (sometimes increasing and sometimes decreasing), while the character’s life will gradually improve (even though they might suffer an occasional set-back). In the second phase of the game, the outside world will degenerate (this could occur quickly or gradually), and the character’s life is a struggle to maintain a stable level as the troubles around them worsen.

In most cases, the character will die a horrible death. This could be at the hands of enemies slighted in the past, angry mobs, nightmarish monstrosities, disease, poisoning (due to toxic or degraded foods), hypothermia, suicide, or something else. Characters who survive long enough during the second phase of the game might have a chance of being “rescued” or might help to form a community of survivors, but this is highly unlikely. The joy of this game is in watching the obnoxious socialite suffering terribly at the miseries around them, their beautiful life in the social circles means nothing when those social circles no longer exist. 

It's nice to get a pair of good reviews

One of the products I developed a while back hasn't seen a lot of love.

It's called the Hold 'Em Scene generator, it uses the game Texas Hold 'Em to develop random story seed ideas that could be inserted into a regular tale, or strung together to form complete stories.

I thought it was clever when I first developed it and I've been meaning to do more with it. But it generally got ignored, with only a few downloads, so I moved on to other things.

Yesterday I saw that the product had a positive review on it.

Opening it up, I found two positive reviews.

That's always nice.

Maybe I need to develop a few more genre lists for this idea to increase it's versatility. Perhaps it was a good idea after all.

13 January, 2013

Converting something simple to something else

Tooth and Claw works.

I'm happy with it, and I can see was that the basic core mechanism can be used to reflect a variety of genres.

One of the things that seems to work well is the way that ferret emotions can influence how well they are able to perform different types of actions. If a ferret is confrontational, they gain a bonus to fighting, but might suffer a penalty to being sneaky (they're too busy wanting to bite the person they're supposed to be hiding from). Emotional stances are marked on a grid with two axes, on one hand you have the confrontational/empathetic axis, while on the other you have the considered/instinctive axis.

This idea could easily work for robots. On one axis you could get precision versus power, while on the other you might have an offensive/defensive axis, or maybe a sensor/servo axis.

Looking at specific types of actions with the first grid set-up...

Precision and offence might increase the chance of critical strikes
Power and offence might increase the damage
Defence is an issue in this axis setup, and I'm not quite sure on the best way to handle things outside of combat.

Perhaps with the second grid set-up...

Precision and Senses might still increase the chance of critical strike, but now it also reflects well on using sensor arrays to pick up specific details at close range.
Power and Senses now reflects the ability to perceive things at long range.
Precision and Servo allows for fine detail work, possibly things like repairs and
Power and Servo allows for massive output of power into movement effects like athletics or possibly even flight.

The conversion process still needs a bit of refinement, but  don't see why it wouldn't work.

I'm also thinking of an alternate way to create characters using eight cards.

Two cards create the chassis of the robot; one for the power generation system and one for the frame.

Six extra cards create the shell of the robot. 2 for the arms, 2 for the legs, 1 for the torso, and 1 for the head.

The two chassis cards give a basic range of attributes, the assorted shell cards modify those attributes in some way. The only way to improve your attributes are to acquire better components with which to build your robot, and any new skills are programs installed into the robots memory banks.

When you take damage, you might damage or even lose components that construct the robot. Energy pulses might temporarily (or permanently) disrupt data integrity, thus removing skills.

The basic system still fits in a pocketmod, but now the character sheet is made up of a variety of cards (each of which might have special modifications to the rules).

It's quite a different style of game. and there are a lot of ideas here...now I just need to integrate them.

Is it good to deconstruct stereotypes?

Here's the basic idea...

I'm thinking of a Ghost City Raiders expansion called "Scoundrels". The characters in this expansion tend to have personal agendas which earn them victory points for stealing things from other characters, or generally causing trouble.

A couple of the character ideas I have in mind are liars; one in particular is a master of bluffing.

This is the character that I think has some great story potential within the game; but I'm wondering how they will be taken.

The character-type is specifically of Asian descent, and reflects a few Asian people I've known (one of whom was ethnic Chinese, one Vietnamese and another Korean). This character exploits the stereotypes around them. Many people assume that since the character is "Asian", they "must know martial arts". The character does nothing to dispell that myth, and actually plays up on it.

In Ghost City Raiders, they get "bluff" and a range of other skills that represent their deception, but they also get a special ability that allows them to specifically get out of a combat situation because people are in fear of their "awesome ninja moves". When it actually comes to combat, the character is pretty much rubbish.

This kind of idea could be applied to all sorts of settings and certainly to other character types within this game.

12 January, 2013

The Good, The Bad and the Furry

I've almost finished work on a simple expansion to Tooth and Claw.

It's a general players guide with a few ideas on how to get the most out of playing a ferret, and a few optional new rules that might make the game a bit more interesting. Leah and I have also statted up our rag-tag business of furry heroes, these will be released in two formats as a quick-play starter-set (ferret generation in the game is pretty quick already, but this would allow players to get directly into the action, or show people how a group of ferrets links together).

Just like the core rules, I'll probably be selling each of these for a dollar and I'll be directing half of the profits from these directly to the NSW Ferret Welfare Society. The society will be getting a fairly sizeable cheque (or cash donation) at this stage.

I'll also be writing up a GM's guide to Tooth and Claw some time in the near future, and maybe drawing up some sample maps of houses from a ferret's perspective.

Once these are all completed I'll provide a bundle that links all the components together for a reduced price. I haven't quite worked out the logistics of that yet.

11 January, 2013

Through the Breach

I guess it's too late to advertise it now, but I've been bust over the last couple of days.

I'm happy that the Wyrd Miniatures Kickstarter project "Through the Breach" has done so well. The miniatures game is great, it's been a part of the inspiration for a few of my recent projects. I hope the roleplaying game is just as good, and certainly hope it's worth all the money that everyone has pumped into it.

I've got pretty good faith that it will be a good game based on the other work put out by Wyrd, I've just got my nagging doubts based on the forays of other miniature companies into the world of RPGs.

They've now got until September to produce something awesome.