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Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

Archive for the month “July, 2010”

Combaty Goodness and Sanity Saving Side Projects

I know it’s been a long time since my last post – way to long to be really forgivable. It seems that this blog is slipping into the same territory as all my blogs of the past, which is upsetting. I need to get back into a schedule. My older brother posts at his blog on an almost daily basis – maybe I should try that. It’s harder to get into a weekly habit than it is a daily one, I guess. In any case, I suppose I should get on with it, rather than bemoaning my lack of posts. Self pity isn’t the most healthy thing in the world to indulge in.

Today, we’re going to cover two things – the basics of combat in Elements, and a side-project I started recently to help deal with the headaches that Elements causes me. I guess that creating a second tabletop RPG system might sound like a psychotic way to relieve stress cause by creating a tabletop RPG system, but this side project – 16 Bit Heroes by name – is lighter, simpler, and it lets me look at Element’s more complicated rules in a different light.

I’m going to try dividing this post into multiple pages. You know, with this part here and Combaty Goodness as one page, and the Sanity Saving Side Project as the next page. I’ve never done this before for any blog I’ve ever written, but I’ve noticed that my posts are absurdly long, and I thought this might help make them look more readable. Let’s see if it works…

Combaty Goodness

All Role Playing Games need some way to resolve physical conflict. It’s crazy not to. I don’t care if the game is about high level court intrigue, or about the goings on at a monastery, there’s a high probability that, at some point, someone is going to hit someone, and battle will ensue. In role playing games, combat of one form or another happens; it is only the frequency with which it occurs that changes from game to game, and let’s be honest – it changes more from one game group to another more than from one game to another. Some game groups like combat, and want a battle or two every session. Other groups prefer combat to be rare or completely non-existent. Most groups fall somewhere in between the extremes, and that’s as it should be.

There are a lot of theories running around out there concerning how various games treat combat in their rules. A lot of people take the view that if a system spends a lot of time with combat, creating a complicated method for beating folks up, that means that the game should appeal more to people who like combat in games, and less to people who don’t. That’s a pretty good point as far as it goes, but I personally don’t think it’s entirely true.

I think that combat systems should be present and well made, with making combat fun and tactical in mind. To me, a combat system is like a pipe wrench: no matter how often you use it, it’s a really useful thing to keep in your toolbox. Games with poor or ill-defined combat systems seem just lazy to me; whether they’re going to get a lot of use or not, they should be done and done well. Rules for tactical movement, taking advantage of opponent inattention, and doing really cool stuff should all be there. A group can use the complexities of combat or not – if there’s a skill system of some kind, you can always simplify combat to just a few skill checks if you don’t like the more tactical stuff, but the more in-depth version should be available. Having a tabletop RPG without a decent combat system is like having a toolbox without a pipe wrench.

With that having been said, I enjoy combat in RPGs, whether a tactical map and minis are used or not. The Elements combat system is designed with both combat map use and not in mind, with plenty of opportunity for tactical strategy and doing "cool stuff" along the way. Like most of the system, combat is customizable; there is a system (untested as yet) for making up new Maneuvers (see below) that is being used to design the Maneuvers for the book.

Combat in Elements is a step-by-step process, just as it is in most games. As combat begins, an initiative order is determined by making an Initiative Effort – by default, you roll a Steadiness effort, although there are Qualities that allow you to substitute other Conditions, and there are ways to add Bonus Dice to your Initiative Effort. Initiative Effort Checks aren’t bound by the 50 result limit of other checks, so Bounce Dice are even more useful than usual here. Highest result goes first, second highest goes second and so on. NPCs have a set Initiative Value (there’s not much dice rolling for GMs in Elements; this is intended to prevent accidental TPK because the GM has a string of good luck rolls) that replaces their Initiative roll. Anyone who has a Initiative Effort more than twenty more than the lowest Initiative gets to participate in a Surprise Round. After that, combat proceeds as follows:

  1. Surprise Actions: If there is a Surprise Round, all participants in that round act in order of Initiative, receiving 3 Action Points (AP – see below) to act with when their turn comes up. During the Surprise round, no one can take Off Turn Actions (OTAs; see below). Once the Surprise Round is over, the rest of the battle proceeds with all combatants participating; see below.
  2. Getting AP: Once the battle begins, each PC receives 5 Action Points (AP) at the start of his or her turn. AP are used to pay for actions the character takes, most often in the form of Maneuvers. Maneuvers typically cost from 0 to 5 AP , and all have a specific defined effect. Most also require an Effort check, either against a static Challenge number or against a Challenge established by the target. Characters can choose to spend some, none, or all of their AP during their turn. Any AP not spent are held in reserve.
  3. Using Maneuvers: During a PC’s turn, they can use any Maneuver they know, following the rules of that Maneuver to create the desired result – this may be inflicting damage, leveling a State on a target, or moving around the battlefield. PCs all receive certain default Maneuvers allowing for quick movement, tactical movement, basic dodging, and punching someone in the face. Other maneuvers are gained during character generation, through experience, or by using Tools (weapons, magic wand, what have you). For instance, daggers have a "Stabbity" maneuver that anyone with a dagger can use, whether they’re trained in its use or not.
  4. Extended Actions: When you’re done spending off your AP, you declare the end of your turn. If you wanted to start doing something, but didn’t have the AP to finish, you can start an Extended Action; this leaves you with no AP until the start of your turn, but makes it so that you only have to spend the difference between the AP spent on your last turn and the cost of the Maneuver to take that action on your next turn (so, if you have a 4 AP Maneuver, and you spend 2 AP on it at the end of your turn, you can perform that Maneuver on your next turn by spending the 2 leftover AP, instead of its total 4 AP cost). All AP for an Extended Action must be spent in a row, so you must spend the rest of your AP on your turn starting it, and then the AP to finish the action at the start of your next turn. If you do anything else in between (such as spending AP on something else at the start of your next turn), any AP spent on the Extended Action are lost, and so is the Extended Action.
  5. Off Turn Actions: If you have at least 1 AP left at the end of your turn, you can take Off Turn Actions (OTA) if they are available. AN OTA has an AP cost, just like any other Maneuver, and if you don’t have enough AP, you can’t take the OTA. Even if a Maneuver has an AP cost of 0, you must have at least 1 AP to use it; it just doesn’t spend that 1 AP. OTAs come in two basic types – Counters and Reactions. Counters are triggered by another character’s actions, and take place before that action is resolved. Reactions can be done after just about anything, or at any time you like, but take place after the last action taken by anyone else is resolved. Either way, OTAs require that the Maneuver you’re using be a Counter or Reaction Maneuver… You can’t use just any Maneuver!
  6. NPC Turns: NPCs use slightly different rules; NPCs have a list of available Maneuvers, and are typically allowed to choose any two on their turn. NPCs can only take Extended Actions if their Maneuver is specifically described as being an Extended Action. NPCs also do not have AP – they have their specific number of Maneuvers per round, and that’s it. If an NPC has an OTA, it is always available to them, but not all NPCs will have this option. NPCs also do not make attack Effort checks – instead, they have an Attack Value for each Maneuver that sets the Challenge for the targeted PC’s Defense Effort. For folks that prefer a little more random in their battles, drop the Attack Value by 5, and roll 1d10, adding the result to determine the Challenge.
  7. Extra Turns: Once all the characters have had their actions, a new round begins at the top of the Initiative Order. Characters who had a Surprise Round action can, at the end of any round, voluntarily lower their Initiative by 20 to gain an Extra Turn. During an Extra Turn, the character gains 2 additional AP to spend, and do not loose any AP they had left over from their earlier turn (see below); an Extra Turn otherwise functions like any other turn.
  8. The New Round: Once all Extra Turns are resolved, the new Round begins, at the top of the Initiative Order (which may have changed if characters have taken Extra Turns). When a character’s next turn comes up, they loose any AP they have not yet spent and gain 5 fresh, new AP to spend. Any Extended Actions left from their last turn are take care of right away. This procedure moves from round to round until one side or the other of the battle wins.

And that’s about that. There are a lot of other things that modify the ebb and flow of Combat – being Open to Attack, States, and so on, but those are best left as the subject of another post. The Elements System, by default, utilizes miniatures on a 1” square combat grid, but I plan on including modified rules for mapless combat and hexgrid combat, for folks that prefer that sort of thing.

For the record, for my next post, I plan to talk about States and the Overcome Efforts used to get rid of them. States are things like paralysis, fear, blood loss, and so on that have an adverse effect on a character. There are also positive States, like being Energized or Regeneration… so it should be an interesting post.

In the mean time, click on the little “more…” at the bottom there to read about 16 Bit Heroes, my side project RPG that I’m designing as a pressure-valve to keep Elements from burning me out or driving me insane. (not that driving me insane is all that long of a trip. It’s more of a short walk than a cross-country excursion, if you know what I mean).

Read more…


Tron Legacy (Off Topic)

Anyone else know exactly what they’re doing on December 17th?

Elements in Detail

This post (a continuation of the last one) is concerned with providing more specific details on Elements, and the associated abilities of Maneuvers and Processes. I don’t want to ramble on about this, so I’m just going to dive into the info.

Elements represent the stuff a character knows how to do – things like training, skill, talent, special abilities (like magic, super powers, or cybernetics), and so on. Elements are, in a very real way, the meat of a character, and the place where the differences between one character and another really show up.

This entry really needs to be divided up into three sections – details on Elements, details on Maneuvers, and details on Processes. If I have time, I’ll also go over Specialization and Qualities – two other important aspects of an Element.

Details on Elements

As previously described, Elements represent what a character knows, where their talents lie, and so on. The Elements System is named after them because they make up the meat of the system, and are also one of the more unique aspects of the system; not so much in what they are (most game systems have a “skill system” that could be considered comparable), but in how they are utilized and what all they can do and what they represent.

In the last post, I discussed ho Elements are rated (through the use of special Bonus Dice). To use an Element, you combine it’s Bonus Dice with the Base Effort Dice of a Condition that best represents how you’re using the Element. For instance, if you had an Interrogation Element, you could combine it with Fatigue to apply physical pressure to your subject; you could use it with the Passion Condition to appeal to your subject’s better nature or to plea with your heart; you could use it with Insight to “read” your subject during the interrogation: you could use it with Steadiness to make accurate use of implements of torture (or to make it look like you could, if you wanted to; the CIA says that’s more effective, anyway).

Elements also provide access to more specific abilities – Maneuvers, Processes, and Qualities. All three of these provide a specific effect related to  the Element in question. It is also possible to limit how a character can use an Element, thereby reducing it’s cost during character generation and when improving through experience; this is called Specialization.

Details on Maneuvers

The following comes from the Character Generation chapter of the rulebook. I think it does a pretty good job of summing things up:

“Maneuvers are special ways of using Elements when in combat. Using a Maneuver creates a specific, predefined effect, and costs a specific number of Actions. Most of the time, Maneuvers are about combative movement, maneuver, quick-fix healing of self and allies, and special attacks (e.g. inflicting States or dealing out more damage than usual – or both), and aren’t all that useful out of combat; when you’re not in a fight, you’ll probably want to use Processes (see below).”

In short, Maneuvers are special, specific applications of an Element that pertain directly to Combat. A Maneuver is predefined: it lists which Condition is used to gain Base Effort Dice for the check, what defines the Challenge of the Effort, and so on. To use a Maneuver, you spend the indicated number of Actions and make an Effort check with the Element in question. If you meet or exceed the Challenge, you succeed.

Maneuvers that deal damage can be specially improved to deal more than their listed damage. In this way, a Character can be built to concept without regard to things like selecting the best weapon, super power, or spell path. Of course, if your game group doesn’t care about optimization, and your Game Master is running the game right, such tactics are unneeded – Elements simply makes allowances for them.

Details on Processes

Once again, a direct quote from the rule book will get the job done here:

“Processes are essentially the non-combative equivalent of a Maneuver. Processes generally take at least several seconds – if not minutes or hours – to perform, making them more or less useless in combat. There are circumstances when you might need to use a Process in combat – the rules for this are found in the Combat chapter.”

A Process is a specific, defined, non-combative use of an Element.They are essentially the same thing, with only two differences – Processes take longer to perform, and they do not deal damage directly to a target (generally speaking). To use a Process, you declare that you are using it, and when the indicated amount of in-game time passes, you make an Effort Check based on the Element the Process is associated with.

Unlike Maneuvers, even if a Process did deal direct damage to a target, there is no method for improving that damage beyond what is listed in the Process. This shouldn’t be a big deal; Processes aren’t really meant to be used in a fight anyway, and are mostly used when the characters have time on their hands – meaning that dealing damage quickly is largely inconsequential. If you’re at the point where you need to put out a lot of hurt in a hurry, you should probably be using an Maneuver anyway.

Details on Qualities and Specialization

A Quality is an ability derived from an Element that a character always has access to, and is essentially always in effect. For instance, a Character might have a Outdoor Survival Element that allows them to gain a Direction Sense Quality. Instead of making an Effort Check to determine North, or follow a path they were just on, the character would simply know which way was North, and how to follow the path back to where they began. Qualities can provide abilities that most people with an Element simply don’t have, but generally speaking, Qualities make it so that basic uses of the Element no longer require an Effort Check to perform.

Sometimes, people are incredibly focused in how they study something; this is where Specialization comes in. A Specialized Element can only be used in combination with a single predefined Condition. To extend the Interrogation example above, a brutish fellow might only know how to get information out of people by using physical force, and Specialize their Interrogation Element as Fatigue Only. Any Maneuvers, Processes, or Qualities related to other Conditions would be out of their reach, and applications of the Element using other Conditions would be made as if the Character didn’t know the Condition at all. In return, however, the character pays significantly less for the Element during Character Generation and when improving through experience. To learn the other ways of using the Element, the Character needs to essentially start over, buying up the Element in an Unspecialized version. While learning the Element in this new, more versatile form, they  still know and can use their specific brand of that Element.

Wrapping Up

Wow – that took a lot less time than I thought. Which is good, because I want to get back to working on the game, and my time is limited tonight.

The next post will go into some other specifics of the game. I think that we’ll go over Effort Checks and Challenges in more detail, and cover the special applications of those things – maybe including the Getting By on Competence method of succeeding at an Effort Check. But don’t quote me – I might decide to discuss Combat or the difference between a Player’s Character and a NPC instead.

In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed this basic primer on how things work. I’ve enjoyed writing them ,and I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t start doing this sooner. Until next post (I’m guessing later this week to make up for the lateness of this post); I really need to stick to my schedule…


Details, details…

It has come to my attention (thanks to a good friend) that I actually haven’t provided anything resembling a mechanical summary of the Elements system – I’ve posted a lot of vague details, and even excerpts, but the overall picture hasn’t materialized. Worse, I haven’t posted anything detailing goals or anything like that. Ahh, well – none of us are perfect, all of us have fallen short, et al, et cetera, and so it goes.

So, with this post, I thought I’d outline a few things – the basics of Elements mechanics, and a few of the things I’m shooting for. I’m going to make this post as short as such a thing can be – this is meant to be a summary, and that’s it. If this page goes over well, a revised version of it will become available in the “About Elements” page.

Basic Mechanics – Effort and Challenge

At it’s heart, Elements works like this: Players gain Effort dice (a number of ten sided dice) from their Conditions (see below), add in special “bonus dice” from the Element they are using, and roll. The result (their “Effort) is compared to a Challenge number. If the Effort exceeds the Challenge, the character succeeds. If the Effort is exactly the same as the Challenge number, the success is Epic.

Now, that’s all well and good, but there are a few pieces of missing information in there:

  1. What exactly are Conditions?
  2. What are Elements?
  3. What are Bonus Dice?

Which is fair enough to ask. In order:

Conditions – How are you doing?

Conditions represent different things about the character that form the basics of their abilities. Conditions are about things like how much punishment one can take, how clever a character is, and so on. Conditions provide Base Effort Dice (BED) for Effort Checks: for every 10 points in a  Condition, you gain 1BED for all checks related to that Conditions. In Elements, we round up, so someone with a Passion Condition of 8 would get 1BED, and a character with 23 would get 3BED when they used their Passion Condition.

Conditions can be damaged by a variety of means, from exotic super-powers to a punch in the face. As a Condition goes down, you loose BED, making it harder and harder to use Elements associated with that Condition. The base Conditions are:

  • Fatigue, representing brute physical force and endurance when used for BED, and representing how worn out a character is in general.
  • Insight, representing intellect, reasoning, memory, and that sort of thing when used for BED, and representing a character’s cunning, cleverness, alertness, and sensory acuity in general.
  • Passion, representing desire for victory, force of will, and dedication to a cause when used for BED, and representing how strongly a character feels about what they are doing in general.
  • Steadiness, representing a character’s precision motor skills like agility, manual dexterity, and balance when used for BED, and representing a character’s physical precision in general.
  • Wounds, representing all of the above when used for BED (but at a cost), and representing how much physical punishment a character can endure in general. Unlike other Conditions, Wounds isn’t “bought” during character generation; instead, a character’s max Wounds value is equal to an average of the other Conditions (Fatigue+Insight+Passion+Steadiness/4).

What are Elements?

Elements make up the details of a character’s abilities – what they’re good at, the kind of things they know, and so on. Levels in Elements are bought as “Bonus Dice”, as described below. Elements are things like skills, talents, and special abilities. When making an Effort Check, you combine the BED from the appropriate Condition with the Bonus Dice from the Element you’re using. For instance, if you had the Weapon: Longsword Element, you could combine it with Fatigue to make a power strike, Steadiness for a parry, Insight for general longsword knowledge (is this a good price? What’s the quality level of this sword? What’s the difference between a longsword made of bronze, iron, and steel?), or Passion when striking out at a hated enemy or when defending your honor.

Because you can – at least in theory – combine any Element with Fatigue, Insight, Passion, or Steadiness, each Element is kind of like four different abilities. These different combinations aren’t always practical – trying to combine a Science – Botany Element with Fatigue would require some creativity. If the situation comes up, however, you have the tools.

Elements also allow you to purchase Maneuvers and Processes. These two special applications of Elements allow you to pull off special things both in and out of combat. Maneuvers take a moment or two to perform, while Processes can take quite a bit longer. Both are a special application of the Element tied to a specific Condition that has a specific outcome when successful.

What are Bonus Dice?

Bonus Dice allow you to manipulate the outcome of your Effort Checks. There are three different kinds of Bonus Dice, each of which operates in its own way and represents a different sort of “mastery”. The three types are Drop Dice, Bounce Dice, and Mastery Dice.

  • Drop dice are extra dice you actually roll when you make an Effort Check – each Drop Die is an additional die rolled. When the roll is made, you select a number of dice equal to your BED for the check, and then ignore the rest. Drop Dice – even just one – allow you a much better chance of Epic Success.
  • Bounce Dice allow you to re-roll 10 results on dice, keeping the 10 result and adding in the new roll. You can re-roll a number of 10 results equal to your total number of Bounce Dice. Bounce Dice allow for results in excess of the maximum your BED could normally achieve.
  • Mastery Dice provide protection from penalties for your other Bonus Dice and your BED. The primary form of penalty in Elements is the Penalty Die, which destroys other dice at a one-for-one rate. The primary use of Mastery Dice is to protect your other dice by eating Penalty Dice before they can affect your other dice.

Wow. This is taking longer to do than I thought…. Okay, next post will cover more information about Elements, Maneuvers, Processes, and, hopefully, the goals of the system. I’d keep going, but I need to make dinner (or go out to dinner. I’m not sure which we’re doing tonight…), and this entry is already pretty long. In any case, more to come.

Moving = Hard to Work on Games…

Big frowny-face for the past week. I’ve had little time to do much in the way of work on Elements – or anything else that doesn’t involve boxing, loading, or unboxing. Such is life I suppose, but it sucks nonetheless.

I do have a little to report. I’ve changed the names of the Conditions to Fatigue, Insight, Passion, Steadiness, and Wounds. I dropped “Will” and replaced it with “Insight” because I was having trouble coming up with a description for Will that didn’t sound like a re-worded description of Passion. And for those in the peanut gallery wondering why I didn’t stick with Will and change Passion, there are two reasons:

  1. Will, as some sort of ability or stat or point pool exists in so many RPGs – almost always meaning the exact same thing or something close to it – that it’s almost become an industry trope.
  2. Passion sounds cool, and the word itself comes closer to what I want the Condition to mean than Will does.
  3. Passion came first alphabetically; since that’s the order I was working in, the problem became clear only after I had finished writing about Passion and got to Will… so that’s where I made the change. Dumb, but true.

To pose a question for my readers: I’m contemplating making the Wounds Condition an average of the others. So, base Wounds = Fatigue+Insight+Passion+Steadiness/4… If I did that, chances are Wounds wouldn’t be separately buyable, and in order to get another point in Wounds, you’d need to get 4 points worth of improvement among the other Conditions. Since Wounds isn’t actually used for BED, I don’t see much of a problem with the mechanics, and it would make one less thing that players would have to spend their FATE on. Moreover, I’m not really seeing any drawbacks to the change.

Anyone got an opinion? Let me know. I’m working on how one buys up Conditions now, but the change (either to or back from the averaging method) would be a pretty simple, since (like I said) most other mechanics would be unaffected. And if you’ve spotted a flaw in my logic (difficult, considering how little of the system I’ve actually let out there), it would be nice to know that, too.

Oh – and if anyone just hates the Passion and Insight change, that would be good to know, too… although I am, at this point, fairly attached to both of them.

At any rate, that’s it for this Thursday’s post. See you next week, or in the comments section!

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