27 July, 2018

Bring Your Own Miniatures - Character Development

Kill Team from Games Workshop seems to be getting a bit of traction, which is great.  I'm really hoping to get a closer look at it in the next week, but for the moment, this Bring Your Own Miniatures project is focused on individual characters, and a few offsiders, rather than being focused on a team. So, I'll take a look at what they're doing, but concentrate my own efforts on something that's more like the old GW Inquisitor game.

I know I've discussed the idea before, but there are various schools of thought about character development. I really thought about this long and hard when developing The Law, but in that game I ended up going with an open ended development system where a character could feasibly start physically weak, and end up as a muscle-bound powerhouse. For that game setting it makes sense; characters can be loaded up with cybernetics, genetically engineered, or become augmented in all different ways. For this game setting, I'm not so sure.

In games of the D20/D&D/OSR ilk, attributes don't really change much at all after character generation, with average scores of 10-12 a single attribute might increase by a single point every couple of levels, and in most games you only increase levels every couple of sessions. Things like increased hit points, new spells, and improved attacks are more regular, but things like improved equipment are more regular advancement options.

The other extreme is having no advancement system at all, relying purely on improved weaponry, armour, and other equipment. I don't think that's the best option for a game about heroes in the making.

Mordheim' s advancement rules are enticing. Roll dice, and see what upgrade they give you. Once you hit a cap, then either roll again or you choose the alternate option given by the random result.

I'm actually liking the Kill Team advancement elements I've seen so far. It reminds me of what I originally did with Voidstone Chronicles (now on sale), and what I did with the Can of Beans LARP system. Characters have a basic class that grants some kind of ability, this branches to two intermediate classes whoch specialise that basic class in some way, and each of those branches to two advanced classes (for a total of 4 advanced classes per cluster).

I'm thinking that characters in this game should be able to increase their elemental scores, but not freely increase them. Instead I'm thinking that elements can increase by 2 points above their starting scores. This maintains the flavour of the character, and gives 12 possible advancements. If I apply an archetype system to the advancement process, then this could add a bit more versatility to the way characters improve.

I just need to think of a good way to implement that.

23 July, 2018

Bring Your Own Miniatures - Fleshing Things Out


There are a lot of fiddly rules if I want to cover all the contingencies that might arise in a game like this. It's easy to see how rulebooks for wargames can run into hundreds of pages, especially when there are rule lawyers who look for loopholes in the rules to exploit to their advantage. Everything needs to be worded incredibly carefully if a design is going to follow this methodology. I don't know that I really want this game to completely go in that direction, but it's already started creeping beyond the minimalist aesthetic. The working document is currently over 13000 words, and I haven't even started detailing the background of the world intended to serve as the backdrop for the game, or the various schools of magic and their available spells.

More to go. I just hope I don't lose too much motivation on this project before I finish... or suddenly find another twist in my life that totally disrupts the project. I feel like one of those is one the horizon. 
 

   

Bring Your Own Miniatures - My Minis

I don't claim to be a brilliant painter of miniatures. I've won a couple of contests here and there, but I certainly haven't had the available time or resources over the years to dedicate myself to that craft. As I'm putting together the illustrations for this project, I'm choosing an assortment of my figures from lesser known manufacturers, and figures for whom I can't even remember who the manufacturers are.

After all, that's one of the main points of the game.








I wish I still had that multi-thousand dollar camera for taking these shots.

Voidstone Magic



After reworking the rules, it's easier to work through the pixellated layouts. There's still a bit more work to do on these, and when they are compiled into their book, there will be a lot more detail around these pixel images, and a range of supporting play examples. It's actually starting to feel like this project is getting somewhere.

21 July, 2018

Refining the Layout

Drawing up the rules for this new miniatures game in the form of pixel art is a delicate process, and it really requires knowing how the rules work in advance before the layout can be developed. It's not like writing things up in a word processor where it's easy to delete a letter or even a word, because the pixelisation causes minor changes to instantly cascade, and the programs I'm using don't do things automatically for me.

At the moment, I'm looking at producing two or three pixel images for each section of the rules. That means two for character and team generation, two to describe the majority of elements in the play sequence, two for the down-time sequence between games, etc.

Over the past week, I've really refined the rules for creating characters and teams to use in the game, and with this solidly in my mind it has meant that I've been able to spend an afternoon and evening redrawing the pixel art.

 

20 July, 2018

Now that's got my interest...

Just when I thought Games Workshop was irredeemable, the last few years have shown some really interesting products released by them. Female figures for various factions, new rumours of plastic Sisters of Battle, Age of Sigmar skirmish rules, a revised Necromunda, and now Warhammer 40k Kill Team.

It's almost like they want to get new people into the hobby, and get people who left them to return. A lot of these ideas seem designed around the idea that not all players want massive armies with 100 figures a side playing battles that take hours to resolve. It goes against the ethos that they've been pushing for years, where the aim has been to push players to buy as many figures, codexs and terrain pieces as possible... an ethos that has driven away most of the players I know who have been struggling to justify expenses on hobby goods when rental and utility prices have been increasing far faster than their wages, and surviving is more important than play diversions. This idea of keeping players interested in the hobby for a lower investment feels like it might be another good move for Games Workshop.


...all when I've got enough time on my hands to see these things, and not enough money to purchase any of it because I'm waiting on pseudo-government bureaucracy to approve my status as a teacher.

17 July, 2018

A Constant in a Sea of Flux

Something I've often found in the games that I've run is a need to balance rigidity and flexibility. Order and chaos. If I'm going to run a game in a clearly defined and highly detailed world, I'll prefer to give the players free rein in that world, letting them set their own goals and agendas while exploring and revealing the unknown. If I'm going to run a game with distinct scenes and elements that follow a specific narrative to their conclusion, I'll tend to give the players more room to describe the setting and the world leading up to that conclusion.

A defined world with a defined narrative feels too "railroady", unless the players have some other outlet to express their creativity. Perhaps the setting and the over-riding narrative arc are just a framework for play, while the dramatic tension and creative outlet come from the interactions and relationships between characters. Such statically framed relationship games have been a fertile ground for indie game design over the last two decades.

An undefined world, with undefined characters, and undefined goals, leads to players unsure that their goals will be relevant. The stories need something to latch onto in order to give them gravitas.

A miniatures game typically doesn't have this issue because it doesn't usually try to tell a story. It just reveals a snapshot of time in the setting, In many games, the skirmish's outcome has no real effect on the overall setting, and if it has too much of a negative impact on a specific character in the events played out, it often doesn't matter because during the next game everyone just resets to baseline stats. There are no real stakes in traditional miniatures games... especially in tournament play. But in more recent games, story elements have been added, and that means providing players with an opportunity to add their own meaning and stakes as specific scenes are interconnected into a longer narrative form. 

Too much order... resetting characters to their baseline... not applying changes to the world or feeding the output of one session as an input to the next...reduces significance of the games just as much as too much chaos. I understand that there are people who don't want their games to be full of meaning, or interconnected as a part of a complex wider narrative, but I want there to be the potential for that meaning to be connected into the game for groups of players who do want it. A bit like the way Legend of the Five Rings card game allowed for casual play, but if you participated in tournaments your actions were aggregated globally with others and fed back into the next expansion set. I'm certainly not aiming for something that grand, but the idea is there.

 
I resisted it at first, but I'm going to tie this 'Bring Your Own Miniatures' system into the Voidstone Chronicles project that I was working on a few years ago. This way our wide array of potential characters can be pulled into a solid narrative, and can explore a specific (but changing) world. This world gives characters a chance to find goals and groups with agendas that they can link in with, it also gives them ways to improve their character through the objects they find and the potential allies, companions, and adversaries they meet.

Still a work in progress... and it's taking far longer to get it right in my head than I'd hoped... but it's getting somewhere.

16 July, 2018

Objectives

A game needs objectives. Players need something to aim towards. Sometimes those objectives are clear and straightforward, sometimes they are convoluted and require a number of steps to be performed along the way. Sometimes the steps (or even the end goal itself) isn't even known at the start of play.

The 'Bring Your Own Miniatures' project isn't just a combat game, it's going to be an ongoing set of interconnected scenarios. But at the moment it's a combat system without a scenario framework, so that's the next thing I'll be working on. 

11 July, 2018

What the hell is "Game Balance"?

...and why do we care?
...and how do we get it?
...and what difference does it make?
(You could probably add a dozen follow up questions of your own)

I've discussed the notion numerous times over the years (such as here, here, here, here, and here). My thoughts generally haven't changed. It's possible to have asymmetric characters and still have fun in a game, but if you're going to do this you need to make sure the unbalanced elements of the game are offset in some way, or maybe make the game about something that isn't impacted by those unbalanced elements. Have a game with an awesome warrior, a street urchin, and a wizard... then make the game about their relationships with the community where they live.


Of the posts linked above, the most relevant for my current thoughts is the third one (about "point-buy" systems). Once you know what the game is about, and once you've decided that players may be competing against one another, you should strive to make avatars within the game world that actually let players compete. This may be through balancing power levels, or by allowing underpowered avatars the option of gaining larger rewards, or lower levelled victory conditions.

Four variants on this can be found in four of the inspirations for the "Bring Your Own Miniatures" project.


  • Dofus/Wakfu Arena - This is one of the more unusual balancing mechanisms. The characters are differentiated at a far coarser level of granularity than most games, because it's designed for a younger audience. Low level characters are worth one point, better characters might be worth 2 or 3, and the experienced veterans are 4 or 5... there may be characters worth more, I didn't get a whole heap of figures before they were discontinued. As you'd expect, there's a pretty big difference between a level 1 and a 2... but there's plenty of variation between level 1s too. A certain level 1 might vary in it's power level depending on keyword synergies throughout the rest of their team. The interesting thing about this game is that there is no real issue competing a 10 point team against a 15 or 20 point team. You just need to earn a number of victory points equal to your team points to win. These points can be gained by eliminating the opposing team's points, or by completing mission objectives. The varied win condition level has made even the most uneven games competitive. I've yet to try a 1pt-vs-10pt game, but even in this case a win by either side is feasible. A sneaky single victory point could be acquired by the lone 1-pt figure before they get obliterated by their opponents. 
  • Confrontation: Dogs of War - Engaging in battles and missions in Dogs of War earns a company renown points. These points may be used to recruit new team members. Under this system, the rewards are varied depending on the imbalance between the two companies. Beating a lower renown company will earn renown, but beating a higher renown company will earn more renown. The greater the difference in renown, the greater the difference in the final awarded renown. Specific characters are balanced in this game according to miniature values, which could range from 9-10pts for low level grunts, th rough to 20-25 for seasoned combatants, 30-50 for powerful humans or monstrous figures, and anywhere up to 300+ points for true legends. 
  • Mordheim - There isn't much to balance teams in Mordheim, but the lower warband generally has the opportunity to choose the scenario, or choose whether they act as attacker or defender. In some cases, named NPC characters may join a lower ranked warband, with a better chance of joining if the difference between teams is higher. So, instead of changing the goalposts, or heightening the reward, it potentially narrows the margin by adding an extra character. Characters in Mordheim gain experience and this both contributes to the warbands rating and improves them when they reach milestones.
  • Malifaux - Malifaux assumes even battles, but this isn't particularly true. Players get an equal number of Soulstones to build their team, and if they hold any stones in reserve, it gives their leader more magical energy to play with. Individual figures might cost anywhere from 1 to 10 Soulstones (or more for truly significant figures), but it is assumed that the baseline level of the team Masters keep everything more even... but those masters aren't balanced, and have wildly different techniques for effective play. 


Each is valid, and brings something interesting to the table.

But what about balance in this "Bring Your Own Miniatures" system.

I've been worried about the Water element giving skills. Not only does it feel like I need to balance the skills against each other, but the way skills are gained means I also feel like an extra skill needs to balance against an extra point in an attribute. A lot of the skills I've been writing up over the last couple of days have been getting overpowered... which basically means that a player will optimise their figure by allocating their 8 points into Water then buying 8 skills which each have overpowered effects. This is definitely where prerequisites come into play...a couple of skills requiring 7s or 8s in an element become virtually mutually exclusive. Similarly, high powered skills might have underpowered skills as prerequisites, effectively forcing players to pay extra for those heightened abilities.

Now it's going to come down to playtesting. 

09 July, 2018

Modular Dungeon Maps

Part two of the "Bring Your Own Miniatures" concept is a series of modular maps. I may not have the capacity to produce miniatures, but I can make my own maps, so these will be included as a part of the final game.

I've been working on these maps for a while, drawing up the various layers, creating textures, and generally getting the comonents in order so that they can be scanned at A3, then reduced in size to A4/Letter size, giving squares of roughly 25-30mm which is the standard base size for many miniature battlegames. Finally, I've managed to scan a couple of these images and digitally manipulate them into something that approaches the desired end product.




More work to go, we're still not done yet.

07 July, 2018

Again?


No, this post isn't an attack on Olivia Hill. This is just typical of the crap that has bugged me over the years that I've been trying to design games.

This particular tweet has come at me from a few different angles over the last couple of days, with numerous people from different gaming circles claiming how awesome and innovative it is.

My problem with it...?

This is the way I've been writing games for years. I don't claim to be a massive innovator in this field, especially since this has been the essence of storygames for years.

If someone with little face value in the community does something, they don't get noticed. If someone who won the population lottery, or someone with social privilege in the community, does the same thing... they're lauded as an innovator and voice of the future, even if dozens of people have been doing the same thing before them.

I don't know if it's just the ongoing struggle against depression manifesting again, if people will just say "get over it" (though the typical person who says that is one of those very designers who won the popularity lottery and has people fawning over their every word), if I'm saying a truth that everyone already knows but doesn't often state, or something else. It makes it a struggle to keep trying to do new things, or rearrange old things into new combinations.

Anyway, back to the miniatures, the familiars, the agents of the law, and those other projects on my plate.

06 July, 2018

[Insert expletive here]

I've just spent today writing abilities for "Bring Your Own Miniatures" and I've realised something. I think I've been writing the game in the exact way that I've said I hate.


I think I've been designing by exception, creating a series of little rules to cover specific situations rather than my usual game design paradigm of creating a limited set of large sweeping rules that add complexity where they overlap. But the thing is, when I look at most miniatures rule systems, this is exactly how most of them do it.

On the positive side, after discussing the game with some other Aussie designers, I think I've reconciled some of my problems with race and culture for this game.


I've looked up the formal dictionary definitions, and something that manifests as a result of genetic input is referred to as simply a "trait", so that's what I'll be using in the game as a name for abilities derived from a character's genetic heritage. Miniatures in the game may be assigned these based on the physical appearance of tne figure, and will include such things as size classes, multiple limbs, wings, etc. Such traits won't be based on the Water attribute at all, but will be purely based on the miniature. As a balancing mechanism, all heroes have 50 gold to fit out their team, and that number will be adjusted based on the traits possessed. This means that figures with obvious disadvantages will be offset by a higher pool of gold, while those with more natural advantages will have less gold to play with.

Since this is a game system where miniatures are brought in from other games, I'm not going to specifically design every possible race and so brave from every setting. The important thing is whether there are mechanical advantages or disadvantages, and how they manifest in play. Regardless of what colour they are, or where they are from (unless it's a high or low gravity environment, or somewhere that has caused genetic diversity), a human is a human. If they've got genetic traits to a degree that they influence game mechanisms, then the game no longer considers them human. It's not perfect, but for the moment it works.

Most differences between humans will be cultural and occupational. These cultures and occupations will be defined by a series of skills that can be chosen by a character. Here I'm thinking that each culture and occupation should have about four of these skills, giving a character a range of 8 skills that they can gain easy access to. Since a character gains as many skills as their Water element score, I'm now working on the idea that a character will need to choose at least half of their skills from this selection, while the remainder may be selected from a general list of skills available to everyone.

Part of the reason for this is to prevent option paralysis. Another part of the reason is because I had started noticing a few skills that seem fine on their own, but could be confusing or overpowered in combination with other skills. Dividing up the skills by suitably thematic concepts, linked to the type of environment where the culture is found, the types of things they value, the technologies and mystic effects they are known for, and similar.

I'm still seeing a problem here with players having too many skills and traits on their characters, and I've often seen people in wargames forgetting to use special rules or advantages their miniatures, so easier to remember is better.

When I look at the miniatures games I've enjoyed over the years (Confrontation, Malifaux, Dofus Arena, Freebooter's Fate), I feel like I'm just underestimating the players out there, but I also want this game to be approachable by newcomers, and casual gamers (or at least that category of people who often collect figures because they enjoy painting them, but often don't play because they get put off by the rules).

04 July, 2018

Context and Social Theory

I think it was a great step when D&D took the shift from making non-human races their own separate classes and allowed different races to be like humans and choose what kinds of vocational paths they followed. At the time that AD&D 2nd edition was around, I was playing games like MERP and Rolemaster, where characters with a bit more versatility and uniqueness to their design was encouraged.

The newest incarnation of D&D (5th Ed) has races, classes, and backgrounds, which links into ideas I've been using for years in my games where "race" provides physical and biological factors, "culture" provides social context and abilities based on the community in which a character grew up, and "occupation/class/job" provides the specific training that a character has chosen to pursue. This is one of the reasons I feel like both Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Apocalypse World are regressive steps in the hobby.

In the latest LARP system that I wrote, I got pretty specific with this. Character creation in this system followed the character's path through life until they became an adventurer, following them through "childhood", "adolescence" and "adulthood" (I assume about 12 years for each, although this has developed as a result of studying Indigenous Australian communities, where there are a number of nations who traditionally divided a lifespan into 12 years segments matching a seasonal pattern that varied over a 12 year cycle. If I was to develop a similar concept for a traditional Japanese setting, I might drop that down to 10 years because of traditional ideas that a persons first 20 years were formative, their next 20 years were more productive to society, while the third 20 years were more reflective in nature, and most people who lived beyond 60 lived out their days in monasteries or as family elders and advisors). Everything in this LARP system basically provides the same types of effects, so everyone starts pretty well balanced against one another. The key here is that racial traits can only be purchased during the childhood phase, they are from that point onward locked into a character's biology. Cultural traits can be purchased during childhood or adolescence, they may later be learned by adults, but the formative years have seen these social and cultural elements forged into their psyche far more easily. Occupational traits may not be purchased during childhood, because a child-like mind requires a degree of structure before it can make sense of the abstract concepts involved in many vocational fields. Occupational paths provide occupatonal traits, and anyone can follow an occupational path as long as they meet certain prerequisties. For this system I allow six points to be spent at each.

This basically gives us...

Childhood (6pts worth of race or culture) - You can buy mixed race but you'll have to divide the character's 6 points between them. A "pureblood" will spend all six of their points on a single race and claim an exclusive ability that only the purest of their lineage can possess, but this comes at the expense of not focusing on the benefits of a wider community. You can also get by without any racial traits at all, and for he purposes of the LARP, anyone without racial traits basically defaults to the baseline group of "Mixed-Blood" which is analogous to "Human".
Adolescence (6pts worth of culture or basic occupation) - Characters who maxed out their race during childhood may now expand their connection to the community around them, or may gain knowledge and influence with a second community. Other characters may take this opportunity to start following a specific occupation (which will be one of the basic ones because the adolescent mind doesn't have enough context for one of the advanced occupations).
Adulthood (6pts worth of occupation) - Those who focused on races and cultures earlier now have the opportunity to develop a specific vocational path, while those who started a vocational path earlier may now ascend to a more advanced path (as long as they meet prerequisites).

The system reflects a characters journey before they come into the game, but it's a slow process. It's been something that has seen a few hiccups when I've tried to digitise the process to allow players to create characters through an online website.

It's also very similar to the direction I'm planning to head with Walkabout, where richly developed characters linked to their communities are an important element of play. It feels like a journey has already begun, we are meeting character who have a bit of prescriptive depth, and a drive in a specific direction before we meet them. While the characters may have a tendency to act in certain ways, and might have specific tools at their disposal that incline them to manipulate the story according to specific patterns of input and output, they are free to go in numerous (if not countless) directions. Tendencies pull at them, and the story is as much about reacting to these tendencies as it is about balancing the unbalanced post-apocalyptic world. The issue here is that the characters in Walkabout are predominantly human, perhaps a few mutants, possibly some descendants of cryptids and flesh-borne spirit beings who now exist in the setting. Cultures will generally play a much larger role than races in this game.

Then we come to the urban magic of the "Familiar" project, with familiars drawn more commonly to people who want to see change in the world, while they tend to ignore those who are already in positions of power who are ambivalent about social issues as long as they keep a stable world where the hierarchy is maintained. This would be a game filled with women, people of colour, people of indeterminate/flexible/non-mainstream gender and sexuality, people of minority cultures and religions, people of low socioeconomic background, and everyone else ignored by the mainstream. Again, like Walkabout, race isn't or shouldn't really be an issue here, but there are certainly biological traits that might be hardwired from birth, traits that might be acquired from family and close community members while growing up, and then the traits that are self-chosen during adulthood based on everything that has come before. It is my thought in this project that humans with power might seek the attention of familiars and darker spirits to gain magic of their own, to do this they need to break taboos of the dominant culture behind closed doors (hence drawing on concepts of necromancy, secret societies, heresy, and similar tropes), but this is only ever a conscious choice on the part of the adult... deeper magic is available to those born different, and this is reflected in many indigenous traditions around the world. This whole concept feels intertwined with Walkabout in many ways.

In this new "Bring Your Own Miniature" project, the whole childhood/adolescence/adulthood trilogy of backstory elements just doesn't feel right at all. I want the game to be fast to pick up, and easy to get into. I don't want players spending hours developing backstory for a figure that may only last a few minutes before a new character needs to be generated. Character differentiation basically comes down to the placement of 6 elemental scores, the selection of a range of basic skills that modify the abilities of the character in some way, and the purchase of some equipment and allies. In previous game projects like this I've just had a two-part template, often a cultural background and a reputation, both of which add a range of default elements to the character, allowing for a mix-and-match quick play solution.

One of my earliest incarnations of this game used that very system, and it echoes into the Voidstone Chronicles variant I made. Basically a range of scores is given to attributes by the character's culture, a range of scores is given by the class. They are simply added together... each half also gives a range of skills to choose from, where a character had to choose one cultural skill, one class skill, and a few skills that could be chosen from either. Even the first version of this latest incarnation had a similar system with three template fragments contributing to the overall character, where the six elements were each given a value from 1 to 3 as a result of the race (humans got 2s in everything, elves got a higher Air and Wood offset by a lower Earth and Metal, etc.), plus 1 to 3 as a result of the culture (those from the central lands got 2s everywhere, while different other lands got one element higher and one lower), then a final 1 to 3 as a result of chosen character occupation/class. Each fragment of the template offered an automatic ability, and a couple of abilities that could be chosen, where an ability might be cheaper to purchase if it appeared on multiple template fragments. It kind of worked, but with multiple contributing factors and a narrow margin of deviation in each of their contributions I seemed to keep generating fairly vanilla characters with elemental attributes of 5 to 7 across the board. Great for normal distribution and bell curves, but not for diversity of play...everything generally felt like variations of the same thing, and that really wasn't what I was going for at all.

Delve by Levi Kornelsen, blew apart certain ideas in this regard. A beautiful little game, based on d6s rather than the d10s I'd been using, with 4 attributes of character definition rather than the 6 elements I'd been playing with, but so similar to my intentions in so many ways. That game simply allowed the distribution of 2,3,4,5 across the four categories of Move, Fight, Shoot, and Focus...such an elegant solution.  So with 6 elements and the use of a d10, I just transformed the idea to the allocation of a 3,4,5,6,7,8 to the six different elemental values. But Levi's game doesn't really do races. It doesn't need to. Mine doesn't need to either, but I still felt like there would be some kind of benefit to adding them into the mechanisms in some way.

Initially I did the roleplaying typical solution of adding +1 to one element, and -1 to another (humans getting neither a bonus nor a penalty), also giving every race a biological advantage that was inherent in their genetics. This felt like a massive cop out, so I gave humans a +1 to fire because as a species we end to be aggressive to one another for no apparent reason, then justify our aggression through religion, or some other made up abstraction at a later time. I allowed the player of a human character to reduce any element by 1. But again, this didn't feel right. It was feeling like the idea of designing by exception, rather than developing a coherent easy to understand overall system that just made logical sense. I'm not even touching the further complications with cultural ideas compounding the problems.

Then I considered dividing the attributes into 3,4,5 and 6,7,8. Where a player might have to apply one of the higher scores to a particular element to reflect that race's genetic predisposition (or they might have to apply a specific lower score to an element). Under this system elves might be known for their beauty and speed (must allocate one of the higher scores to Air), but also for their tenuous relationship with death and the forces of technology (must allocate one of their lower scores to Metal). Humans would have any such limitations (or might still apply a high value to fire due to their aggressiveness)...again, it didn't feel right, and it was actually veering back toward the idea that racial differences are far more significant...



..which in turn led me to wondering whether anthropocentrism was a good thing or a bad thing in games. In LARP, everyone is basically human, so it's makes sense for this to be the baseline, but in miniatures there are so many options. Despite this, I want to have the concept of the Gue'vesa that Warhammer 40k had a few years ago, humans but they don't fight with the human empire, instead they have a more optimistic (some might say naive) outlook inspired by a connection to the Tau empire. The race plays a role, and the culture plays another role. This kind of system causes complications when a race might want one set of statistics and the culture wants another.

Either way, it was adding a level of complexity into things and that added level of complexity wan't necessarily moving the game in a way that I wanted. I want characters to feel different in the way they play, with different types of character having a tendency to play well in certain styles of scenario, or against certain types of opponent, but for choice to be in the player's hands rather than inherent restrictions built into the rules...

...time to go back to the source material.


Going back to the Confrontation rules (notably the Dogs of War expansion), there is a system in the back of the book for making custom characters capable of using magic. That basically uses a pair of templates that are modified by the culture, where Wolfen figures are big so they automatically get the large trait, Mid-Nor Dwarves are a specific group of demonically possessed Dwarves so they all get possessed... all the different groups get modifiers to the template too.

It aims back to some of my first solutions, so maybe I'm overthinking the whole thing.

There are certain things that will need to be accounted for in the rules, such as a mandatory variation in the rules relating to the size of the miniature (where smaller targets should be harder to hit, and larger targets easier), then there shuld be optional rules based on what the miniature clearly depicts (where muscle bound or naturally armoured miniatures have the option of buying natural armour as an ability, multi-limbed miniatures have the option of special multi-weapon attacks, and miniatures with claws/fangs/other-natural-weapons have the option of buying these as abilities). These are the inherent genetic traits associated with the figure. No modification to elemental stats, but if I give certain races and cultures access to abilities that get better based on their association with specific elements or derived scores, a player will be inclined to take this into account when making their character but it won't be forced on them.

Hopefully the next post will be a complete rule set, ready for alpha critiques by the outside world.   

The Problem of Race

"Lovecraft was a racist"..."but he was just a product of his time"..."but he was overtly racist, even beyond other authors of the era. His stuff is problematic, was problematic, and as long as he is idolised always will be problematic"..."so you're saying he helped fuel the pulp-era's equivalent of the alt-right"..."no, maybe, sort of".

Identifying factors for characters can be descriptive or prescriptive. By my definiton here, prescriptive factors are applied to the character before the story occurs, such factors guide the intended actions of the characters, and in some cases a character's actions are even bound and limited by the identifying factor. Descriptive factors manifest as a result of the actions taken, a character who has a tendency to act in a certain way or repeat certain types of activities can be described as possessing traots associated with those acts.

A soldier, who has been trained to show courage under fire and remain loyal, has a prescriptive set of guidelines that shape their actions. A person who chooses to dress in team colours and attend sporting events screaming for the team corresponding to those colours to win can have a descriptive element of "sports fan" added to them.

One of those many splits I see between old-school gaming and newer forms is the attachment of character traits by prescriptive or descriptive means. Gaming in the old-school defines attributes, classes, races, and in some cases requires amy equipment to be prescribed along with "alignment" and other factors that may guide a character's course of action. Newer gaming forms lets the story guide things, or even let the characters guide things, with minimal definition at the start of play, but as the events unfold a depth and richness is added to the avatars in the imagined space. Freeform roleplaying (in the non-Australian context of the term) doesn't apply formal traits at all, we don't have any connection between the way the story plays out and any development of the characters within it (beyond an unwritten social contract).

I prefer a mix of prescriptive and descriptive play, I guess a lot of people do, but they all draw the balancing line at different points, and favour different games that define certain elements while allowing others to be discovered through play. Too much prescription feels railroady, too much description and it feels like there's no focus.


In the earliest forms of D&D, and games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, there's too much prescription in the rules as written for my liking. Even to the point that the traditional fantasy races, such as elves, dwarves, and halflings are prescribed entire stereotypes based purely on their genetic heritage... A human can follow a class or profession, or even multi-class as changes in their story allow shifts in their direction, but these racial groups are pre-defined in the path that their journey will take, and in some cases are limited in the length of that journey through level caps. Virtually all of Palladium's games did the same thing, and that was something that locled them into the past when they were unwilling (or unable) to innovate.

Apocalypse World is also hugely prescriptive in its means of defining characters, to the point that certain means of modifying the flow of the story are completely off limits to characters who don't "have those moves checked off in their playbook".

I listened to a podcast where John Harper went through the iterations of development that underpinned Blades in the Dark. At one point in the game's development there were going to be prescriptive skills or other traits associated with specific cultures in the game, but it seems that this was deemed akin to racial profiling, and hence a bad sociological construct to integrate as an inherent part of the system.

(Race) "You're an elf, so you're expected to be good at archery."
(Gender) "She's female, so she must be naturally good at cooking."
(Race, or at least skin colouring) "He's black, so he must play bass guitar."
(Culture) "She's Chinese, she's obviously good at martial arts."
(Class) "He's lower class, he obviously has no idea about classical music or good art."
(Religion) "She's a Muslim, she must be a terrorist."

Profiling has been debunked in many psychological circles, but it remains a trope in lazy writing, so it remains in the collective public consciousness. The various elements that make up a person's identity are less about binary switches determining what can't be done and what must be done and what can't be done, and more about a menu and repertoire of inclinations. A member of a group of people is exposed more often to the types of traits that a specific group values...in order to gain value in their group, they see that it is in their interest to also manifest those traits. Outsiders who admire or ally with the group preach the virtues and positive sides of the group's traits  while those opposed to them focus on the negative sides of those traits.

The problem I find with race in most games is that cultural and social elements are often conflated with genetic traits. An elf might have more nuanced cells in their retinas, allowing better nightvision, finer resolution, and an ability to see into parts of the light spectrum assocoated with "magic". Such vision may make it easier to access magical abilities because they are  more sensitive to them, and the higher resolution might lead to easier targeting for ranged attacks, but it guarantees neither of those things. The character needs to take advantage of their racial heritage to gain it's benefits.

It's one of the things I've been struggling with in both my magical game about social inequality driving change at a metaphysical level, and this revisited project about miniatures. They both come at it from different angles, but it feels like the same stumbling block.

02 July, 2018

Bring Your Own Miniatures (Part 3)


As I work further on this project, I realise that I need to properly formalise the rules before I start turning them into further pixel art frames. As it stands, I've rewritten game combat rules a half dozen times, and it's like writing for the 200 Word RPG Contest... the pixel art really limits the word count, and I need to find an economy of what is written, but also need the rules to be as clear as possible. 

The final version of the game will probably now be a booklet, or even a more substantial book, with plenty of photos and example situations, while the pixel art will serve as "cheat sheets" and cut down reminders of how to play while a game is happening.

I'm working on the layout of a first draft now.


01 July, 2018

Bring Your Own Miniatures (Part 2)

I always thought it would be cool to run a miniatures game where a team of grunt space marines faces off against an entrenched squad of traditional fantasy dwarves, or a platoon of roman legionnaires. Or maybe even a single master assassin from the pages of history confronts a rag-tag gang of post apocalyptic survivors.

Yes, you can just substitute miniatures into other games...yes, you can probably ad-hoc some rules to make it work... yes, there are probably a few decent sets of rules that handle this (the Warhammer Historical Battle books come to mind, but they tend to deal with big armies rather than small missions or skirmish level stuff. You could also play out a game of Rifts using miniatures if you're a massive masochist, but that's also not quite what I'm after. So this idea has sat in the back of my head, and scattered across various notebooks, for decades.

The aim is to have relatively balanced forces competing in exploration and scenario based missions, rather than simply pounding the crud out of one another. A single moderately detailed leader, and a bunch of companions who might help to fight, scout, repair/heal, or assist in specific types of objectives. In the vein of Mordheim and Necromunda, the hero would advance regularly while the companions would either remain static, or might increase at a slower rate.

The whole game concept needs to be something quick to learn, but with enough depth and strategic options that different lead characters and team types actually feel different to play.

Here's a few more images I've been working on.

 

      
To keep things simple during character generation, all the elements are intended to be fairly evenly balanced. But I noticed two immediate problems. 

The Problem with Water

First the water element grants skills (where fire is passion and violence; water is rational thought, logic and focus), but the skills were fairly potent in the rules. This made the water element far more powerful than most of the others. 

Since the water element grants a pools of points to allow the purchase of skills, my first option was to halve the water element and say that this was the number of starting skills a character possessed, while the full element score became the maximum number of skills they could gain. This meant half the number of skills, which was also good because less skills mean less things for new players to keep track of during play. But then we ran into the problem of an odd numbered elemental value. It becomes less valuable to increase the element from 6 to 7, than it is to increase from 7 to 8. Other values associated with water might gain a boost on the odd numbers, but on the even numbers extra skills are gained in addition to those other boosts. This also didn't account for bonus skills and abilities that could be used to differentiate between different types of character. 

My next option was to have two tiers of skills, with basic skills costing one point, and more powerful skills costing two. This sort of worked, but still didn't feel quite right because I'd been trying to balance the skills against one another, and had already started developing a system of skill prerequisites.

My current remedy to the problem is to have specific skills associated with different cultures and races, and then a bunch of general skills. Racial mandatory skills tend to be things granted by biological means, such as huge size, nightvision, armoured hide, natural regeneration, etc. A race will have no more than two of these mandatory skills (most will only have one, and many races will not have any). Cultural mandatory skills tend to be things that everyone is a specific cultural group possesses, where examples might include a relgious faith that grants a minor boost in resistance to magic, or a teamwork advantage due to rigorous military boot-camp training. A culture will have a single mandatory skill. The reason for the caps on mandatory skills is due to the minimum Water element level of 3...there's an inherent contradiction when you have more mandatory skills than can be feasibly purchased. Each race and culture will be given two or three common skills associated with them, these reflect the typical stereotypes associated with the groups, and cost a single point each. Then there are the general skills and other skills, these costs two points each so that players will have a tendency to pick skills that follow the stereotype more.

Skills are intended to be balanced in such a way that if they are commonly useful (such as an armour benefit that could be used every turn, or even multiple times in a turn), they provide a benefit roughly equal to that of an increased attribute point. If they have a more narrow versatility, then they have a more powerful benefit to offset that (a bonus to use a specific category of ranged weapons might have two or three times the benefit, because ranged weapons are a specific subtype within overall attacks, and a specific class of ranged weaponry is an even narrower selection of options). More powerful abilities might use a weaker ability as a prerequisite because the lesser ability becomes superseded by the new ability, and the cost offset by the loss of that lesser ability becomes bundled into the more powerful version.  Of course, all of this will probably need to be playtested out to refine the balance.  

The Problem with Air

The other element that has been causing me problems has been Air. This has been for similar reasons to Water. If Earth is all about strength, stamina, internal focus, and remaining still, Air is all about movement and ephemeral things. The fundamental mechanism of play driven by Air is a character's movement. Note that I'm looking at something like Heroquest, or Warhammer Quest as an inspiration for the game.


The basic rules state that a character moves a number of squares equal to their Air value, which could feasibly be as low as 3 squares or as high as 9 squares. Having one set of characters able to move triple the distance of others feels like it could be problematic, especially when I'm planning to use my 7x7 square-tiled dungeon geomorphs to go with this game. 

My first solution here was to say characters could walk a minimum of 1 square plus an extra square for every 4 points of Air, and they could run 1 square plus an extra square for every 2 points of Air (all rounded down).

This gave us...

Air 3 = 1 square walk, 2 squares run. 
Air 4 = 2 squares walk, 3 squares run.
Air 5 = 2 squares walk, 3 squares run.
Air 6 = 2 squares walk, 4 squares run.
Air 7 = 2 squares walk, 4 squares run.
Air 8 = 3 squares walk, 5 squares run.
Air 9 = 3 squares walk, 5 squares run.

So the levels at 4 and 8 become really valuable upgrades, level 6 is also an upgrade, but all those odd numbered levels don't do anything. It also makes for fiddly, annoying mathematics during character generation which isn't reflected in the other elemental scores.

My second solution was to have characters roll a die to determine their movement at the start of each round. A player would roll a number of dice equal to their number of active figures on the board, then distribute the die results between the figures. Each figure would gain a number of movement points equal to either their allocated die, or their Air score (whichever was lower). This some odd side effect as elemental scores got higher.

Hypothetical characters with Air scores of 3, 5, 7, and 9.
Die rolls of 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10.
Air 3: Roll of 2 = 2 movement, Roll of 4 (or anything higher) = reduced to 3 movement
Air 5: Roll of 2 = 2 movement, Roll of 4 = 4 movement, Roll of 6 (or anything higher) = reduced to 5 movement
Air 7: Roll of 2 = 2 movement, Roll of 4 = 4 movement, Roll of 6 = 6 movement, Roll of 8 (or anything higher) = reduced to 7 movement
Air 9: Roll of 2 = 2 movement, Roll of 4 = 4 movement, Roll of 6 = 6 Movement, Roll of 8 = 8 Movement, Roll of 10 = reduced to 9 movement

The low elemental score has a higher chance of hobbling the movement of the character, but the high elemental scores only come into their own if the player has good die rolls.

It's interesting, and possibly thematically appropriate if we're talking about a game where there are obstacles and covering fire, and we don't know from turn to turn how the situation will be changing, but I'm not entirely certain it's good for this game.

A third solution was to simply allow characters to move as far as their air score, but moving a single square would count as a cautious movement (with no penalties to most actions, unless the action specifically mentioned no movement was allowed), moving a distance less than half of the Air element counted as a walk (with extra actions permitted after the walk had completed), while moving more than half (but up to the full Air element) counted as a run (with no extra actions permitted). Under this iteration, I'd suggest that there would be open squares that effectively use up one movement unit to enter, unstable and difficult squares that might cost two points to enter, and maybe even treacherous squares that cost three points to enter. If you don't have the points, you can make the move but your movement stops there. I'd also consider adding in an increase in movement cost when moving up staircases or climbing over things.

Maybe keeping the full range of movement points due to the Air element score is a good thing, it gives scope to play with other parts of the system.

(Note that I'll be including a "sprint" skill which allows characters to add half of their Fire element score to move even further)