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Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

Archive for the category “Design Philosophy”

No review, but plenty of other stuff to talk about…

Well, that fell through disastrously. The promised review isn’t done. I simply haven’t had the time. I apologize, but it has since occurred to me that maybe my brother’s review blog isn’t the right format for an indy RPG review in any case. I mean, it’s a great format; I wish more in-depth reviews used it, but going over some of his stuff I have come to the conclusion that maybe… just maybe… it’s a format that works better for visual media. More specifically, I could see using it for TV and Movies… but less so for books or video games. Maybe I should try to find a format of my own to use…

In development news, I got more work done last night on my Essence system than in the preceding week all together, and it looks like I may pull off much the same thing tonight, which is fantastic. I have the basic task resolution mechanic in place, and have begun constructing character creation rules, along with everything that will appear on a character. Which brings me to a question.

I’m looking at dividing the combat mechanic up, essentially making two different combat systems for the game. The idea runs like this:

  1. Standard Combat: This combat system eschews battle maps and the related tactical side of combat. The idea is to have a simple, quick to run system for folks who don’t want to spend a lot of time on combat, or who like their combat map-free.
  2. Art of War: This is the map combat system for Essence, with a focus on tactical movement. Art of War requires players to make a sort of sub-character, derived from the main character sheet, that has information specific to Art of War combat. The eventual idea would be to make it so you could just make the Art of War sheet, allowing groups to have fun little skirmish battles and run pvp tournies if that’s what they’re into without getting into a full-on game.
So yeah, in a way, the Art of War combat system is a game within a game. It’s all very complicated, tautological, and Hamlet-esque.
At any rate, keeping in mind the two modes of running combat above, I’m wondering if things like defense (i.e. what a character does to avoid getting tagged in combat) should be separate derived abilities, or if they should be based directly on Skills (the Essence system is a Skill based one – did I forget to mention that?). That is to say, should characters have a separate sub-stat  that works sort of like a Challenge rating for how hard they are to hit, or should Characters be expected to buy up skills for use in defense or default to an Agility stat for a defense check?

I’m not really asking anyone in particular this question, you understand. I mean, I welcome any and all opinions on the matter – and would be more than happy to clarify the conundrum if you need me to… but mostly I’m talking about it here so that I can get my brain wrapped around the problem. I guess it comes down to this: how much complexity do I want in the Standard Combat system? The whole purpose of dividing the combat systems into two different methods is so that a game group can choose between a simple, streamlined, relatively quick combat system (if their game is combat light, or they don’t want to deal with the complexity of battle-map based tactical combat) and a more in-depth tactical skirmish system that uses minis and so on (if the game has a lot of combat, or the group enjoys full tactical combat similar to what’s found in the more recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons).

I want groups to have that choice. Of course, groups always have that choice – nothing stops you from ignoring tactical map-based combat rules in any game you play. I want the choice up-front and supported either way by the system. Is that too much to hope for?

As a final note: as of this writing, in about two hours, the sixth series of the new Doctor Who (or the thirty-sixth season of Doctor Who, if you prefer to think of it that way) will air in England. Here in the States, of course, we have to wait another 12 hours or so to see it, but I just wanted to let everyone know how excited I am that it’s finally here (YAY!!). Everyone got their scarfs, sonic screwdrivers, and TARDIS keys ready? Fantastic. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post a few thoughts on the episode tonight. If not, look forward to a post about the episode tomorrow.
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Of Campaign Worlds and Game Systems

Huh. I seem to be picking up daily views with only bi-monthly content. I wonder how much more views I would get if I published more often… Which is very meta-site and entirely off the point, which, outside of the title of the post, I haven’t even gotten to yet.

While tooling away at Elements, I’ve become more and more distracted by campaign settings of Game Masterings past. Two settings in particular: The Essence Setting and my 1,000 Storms setting. I don’t view these distractions as a bad thing. I’m trying to design a game system where both of these very different settings can be used equally. I’m not sure it’s possible, for a number of reasons I’ll eventually get to, but I sorta want to try. The real problem I’m facing is that I’m not sure if I should.

I suppose I should talk a bit about the settings and their differences before I dive in. They’re both fantasy settings, and neither one is set on Earth (I find I enjoy having geographical freedom when designing campaign settings), although 1,000 Storms is similar to a dystopia cyber/diesel/Martial Arts-punk Earth, and Essence is… well, complicated, these days. So, before I get into my issues, here, then, are (sadly very brief) overviews of two of the campaign settings I’ve run games in in the past.


This one is kind of tough to summarize… It evolved out of some of my earliest gaming, and reached its apotheosis (so far) while I was in High School, gaming with friends, most of whom I still keep in touch with to this day, some 17 years later (wow… I’m getting older…) Back then, Essence was pretty straightforward. It was a non-standard High Fantasy setting. Although it missed out on the Elf/Dwarf/Halfling/Orc paradigm, it contained (and still contains) several other fantastic races, from the aquatic Myralnyr to the fae Daoine Sidhe to many, many others. A lot of the world content came from that age-old campaign, ans involved a great deal of player input.

Now, Essence has grown to monstrous proportions in my mind. It has become a genre and epoch crossing setting, divided into time periods that, within them, cover just about every genre of play except any sort of Earth Historical. The time period we were playing in back in those old high school days has shifted towards Dark Fantasy crossed with Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider-esque exploration. A lot of mythology has developed, mostly based on ideas that came up while sitting around a pool table in our friend Joe’s basement.

Basically, it’s a Fantasy setting that contains within it many other genre with greater or lesser degrees of Fantasy attached to it. The Essence Heroes of the original game have become permanent Historical (even Mythological) fixtures in the game in much the way characters like Eliminster and Mordenkinen and scimitar-wielding Dark Elves became fixtures in other, more commercially successful fantasy settings I could mention. Meanwhile, if only in my mind, the setting has continued to grow.

One of the underpinnings of the setting is the Essence – various different energies that act sort of like a combination of the classical Elements of Alchemy and The Force from Star Wars – they are a source of power to the talented and/or trained, and suffuse everything. Essences come in flavors, some familiar (Earth, Wind, Water) some less familiar (Sun, Moon, Life, Death), and some that I think are fairly unique or at least very rare.  Essence suffuses the setting whether the time period calls for High Fantasy, Magipunk, Super Heroes, or what have you. Were a mage plucked from one point in history and placed down in another, his or her magic would still work, since it’s all based on the same energies. Thus, even cross genre play is made fairly easy.

The Essence Setting started out as an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons setting, but the classic games were played in GURPS. I have also used 3e and 4e Dungeons and Dragons for the fantasy portions of the game.

1,000 Storms

This setting is very different, and was partially inspired by the Final Fantasy game series. Well, sort of.

The world it takes place on – Storm – is a fallen one. People hide from the ravages of the wild in domed city-states living under strict population controls in a caste system. Only one sport – Blood Ball, which has weekly body counts in the low teens – is played. All forms of martial training are outlawed and vilified, but some few families still train their children in secret, and some rare wandering masters still take students under their wings. The price for getting caught is dear.

1,000 Storms has a lot of themes: Lying just to Live, Opressive Government, Conspiracy, Privacy (or the lack thereof). The setting is part J.R.R. Tolkien, part George Orwell, and part William Gibson, with a healthy dose of Jet Li. Or something like that.

1,000 Storms was originally run using a diceless game system that I had come up with that I don’t think I ever came up with a name for. It was very story driven, and the system itself involved developing characters from childhood. Character Creation was integrated into the game, and it was supposed to be tough to tell when you were done making your character; in a very real sense, you never did finish character creation.

1,000 Storms could work in another system – that’s not the issue – but I really wish I could find, dust-off, and try again with that old homebrew. I think it had a lot of potential.

Should I go On?

So, here’s the thing I’ve been grappling with: should I go on trying to create a single, universal system? Or should I skip the single universal system idea and get more… specific? I want a universal game system, but it has occurred to me that there really is no such thing; will any system that runs Essence well also run 1,000 Storms well? Is it even reasonable to hope that it could? Probably not.

I maintain that gaming is essentially System Agnostic – you can play any sort of game you want with any sort of system you want. That said, some systems are better suited to some things rather than others. You can, for instance, do completely story-driven, combat-free play using the full ruleset of GURPS, with 500 point characters, well defined super powers, and all the combat stats you could want, but it isn’t the right tool for the job. You’d be better off with a system that was a lot simpler in structure.  Truth & Justice, maybe.

So, I don’t know. I’m seriously considering trying a campaign setting specific system. Any comments?

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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…

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