Monday, 7 June 2021

GRAVEROBBERS: Odds

 In the upcoming 0.4 update to the Bare Bones of GRAVEROBBERS (I’ll edit this when it’s out!) the system is getting its biggest mechanical change in a while, so I thought I’d go over some of the reasoning there rather than just sticking something in the patch notes. This is inside baseball, nerdy design talk, but hopefully it’s of use to someone!

(Ok so i say mechanical update but it’s really a semantic one, none of the numbers are changing - but then again in a medium made of words, semantics are mechanics, so…)

Up until now the Odds were a PC’s “stats”: Finesse, Fortitude, Violence and Will. After the update these will be reworked into Death, Detection, Detriment and Despair.

as I said the dice/numbers side functions the same way as before, roll for values in character generation, roll xd6 in relevant situations, success means you’re safe and loss means you lose 1 Luck (“HP”). It’s not a resolution mechanic because you don’t “fail” the attempted fictional action (although that’s a valid interpretation) but it brings you closer to the failstate. I went over the rationale and the behaviours it encourages here, some details have changed since then but I think that’s a good explanation.

I’ve already explained the rolls in GRAVEROBBERS as being “more like Saves than Checks”, and this new version makes that more explicit. Characters no longer have things they’re good at! you don’t get to be strong or quick. You get your Odds of Death, in black and white. Good luck.

It’s been said many times that combat is a fail state in adventure/OSR games, or that the answer is not on your character sheet, or that a combat roll or skill check is a last resort rather than a button to press or a key for one of the game’s various locks. It’s my hope with this design choice to “enforce” that somewhat, put it in writing. Imagine OD&D with only Wands, Petrification, Death etc. “Oh are these the cool things you can do?” “No those are all the things that can kill you”. You don’t want to roll!

That’s not all that’s left on the character sheet of course, you still have your items and your notes, character details, in-universe stuff - the things that adventure gamers want to use to overcome obstacles, so why not make that our only option?

GRAVEROBBERS is a harsh, scary (in a fun way!) game, let’s make the character sheet harsh and scary. Of course on the flip side, having the odds written out means there’s always a chance! It’s not all doom and gloom, you know you have these safety nets. Just maybe don’t rely on them too much.

Anyway hopefully some of that makes sense and my intent is clear! Let’s go over the four new Odds - why these, what’s the deal, etc

Death. This is basically the exact same as Save vs Death/Poison in OD&D. The function of a death save has been well established, I’m not exactly doing anything new here! Also on a purely aesthetic level it’s wonderful to have Odds of Death: X written out on your sheet, perfect tone setter

Detection. It’s a stealth game after all! The old rolls triggered on a “caught or hurt”, so here’s the “caught”. I like things this way round more I think! Feels like the logic flows a bit better. And between this and the card system for the House I’ve managed to completely abstract/mechanise the stealth aspects - the idea is that this will have the same function as HP, attack rolls, AC et al have on fighting: Too much fictional positioning in one little moment? tough decision that isn’t as fun if we get to make it ourselves? let’s play a minigame instead. Hide and seek has enough “I saw you!” “No you didn’t” without being played by made up characters in a fictional world! This should take all that out of the players’ hands in a way I hope folks find freeing. You really don’t need to RP or even account for guards and stuff at all, what with the card system automating it all - but I’ll probably talk about that more in future

Detriment. yes I could have just called it Damage but style is substance! This replaces the traditional use of an HP system by accounting for/abstracting all non-lethal damage. So that’s falls and bumps and bruises, but also combat - this is the new Violence roll. Violence already felt nicely bitey and dangerous, now you don’t even get to sound cool, you just roll for “do i get hurt”. Whether you’re attacking or being attacked, as before! All combat is just a Save vs Pain. Can I ward players away from using violence any further?! (maybe, we’ll see lol)

Despair. This replaces Will, but since the saves now trigger based on their individual namesakes rather than a universal “caught or hurt”, this one can show up any time PCs dare countenance the setting’s horrors! Fans of Call of Cthulhu and Mothership will recognise this as a Fear or Sanity save, kind of. Also a nice stand in for save vs Magic. I like that there’s now this explicit supernatural pillar to the game.

In fact, as four pillars of play, the Four Things That Might End You, I think overall we’re getting across the message of GRAVEROBBERS pretty nicely! I like to believe someone unfamiliar with the game can see these four things and get a decent idea of what perils, and what sort of game, to expect right off the bat. Also as touched on above these are the four things that the Dealer and other players won’t have to worry about “running”, decisions they won’t be able to - or have to - make themselves.

You will face the terrible risk of Death, Detection, Detriment and Despair, graverobbers, whether you wish to or not… what will you do?

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

3-Part Tachyon Detainment Solution

 I came up with this idea for a Mothership module but as you might’ve guessed from the lack of posts here I’ve got a decent bit on my plate - like Journeylands! - as well as a bunch of Mothership projects already (more on all that in due time I’m sure).

Sidenote - never too busy to talk about new projects tho hire me! Graverobbersguide at g’mail dot com

Anyway I don’t feel like I can do much with this concept right now so you can have it, here:

3-Part Tachyon Detainment Solution

-        Lodestone. Monolith found in deep space. Emits a tachyon pulse once per planetary cycle which permeates normal spacetime.

-        Cuffs. Affixed to prisoners’ necks. Calibrated to the lodestone. If activated they time travel, along with the wearer, to the time and place they were in when the lodestone’s last pulse was emitted.

-        Activators. Carried by guards. Activate cuffs from range with electrical signal. Fire as pistol. A lens on the barrel records tachyon emissions and keeps record of successful activations through altered timelines.

 

Notes on Time Travel

When a cuff is hit by an activator, the wearer’s current personal timeline is aborted and their mind returns to their body as it was at 1200 local time. Travellers exist in a new, separate timeline branching from that point.

 

Events taking place after 1200 in any previous timelines no longer exist in a new timeline, though travellers retain memories. Cuffs from the same aborted timeline transport their wearers to the same new timeline.

Travellers make a Sanity save after each timeline reset vs 1d10 Stress. Players do not need to roll checks if their characters successfully performed the exact same action in a previous timeline. Running time travel can be confusing, but your game will work as long as the rules you use remain consistent.


All you’ve gotta do is write a prison break module, simples. I’m sure you’ve seen enough movies. ideas to get you started:

- This is MoSh, so it’s a private prison. Come up with a security corp that made this tech and give them a catchy slogan (I had one but uhh... spoilers)

- Pepper your prison liberally with details, give lots of points of access/opportunities - players will be attempting the escape over and over. Here’s an excellent video by Mark Brown that’ll guide you through the concepts.

- What might be in a prison? security passes, non-lethal weapons, food, cleaning chemicals, identical uniforms, contraband,

- What might be in a MoSh prison? Weird prisoners, secret alien prisoners, clunky security, sci fi contraband,

- 1d10 important locations is plenty, plus now you have a random location table if needed. That’s what i did for Ypsilon 14 (which btw Vi at Collabs Without Permission did a lovely video about here, also definitely watch their Mothership review here)


There ya go



I had this silly anime adventure idea while playing a silly anime game! 13 Sentinels was on my to-play list since release last year and I finally got the chance to get my hands on it. So just like my GM’s Oracle article was an excuse to talk about another Vanillaware game...


(Btw since then Chris McDowall of Bastionland fame has done great things with the concept, not saying he was inspired by me at all haha but check it out for sure)


So 13 Sentinels is a visual novel done as a classic V’ware hand-painted sidescroller. Also there is an RTS kinda side-mode that’s simple and... ok? The main focus though is the story - 13 of them, each with branching paths, each focused around a main character’s daily life interesecting with some sci fi weirdness. Each character also pilots a Sentinel (mech) in the RTS mode, but absolutely nothing here is presented in chronological order - so how and why and when and... what is going on??


There are two moments in good mystery stories, which i will call:

- “Omoshiroi”: Japanese for “interesting”, like how we’d say “...IN-teresting...” with a stroke of the beard. Those moments where something happens you don’t understand yet, but you understand enough for it to pique your interest. A new wrinkle. A clue?

- “Naruhodo”: means like “I see”/“Ah, gotcha!”. Revelations, pieces falling into place.


Anyway - if you can get into it, the story of 13 Sentinels has more of both these kinds of moments in each 15 minutes of gameplay than some of the best mysteries have in a whole movie, or season of TV. The narrative presentation allowed by an interactive medium is used deliciously, but it’s not overly conceptual - very standard controls and mechanics.


It’s one big concept album love letter to the last 100 years of sci fi’s greatest hits. A lot to follow, a lot to read, but if this is your thing then... yeah. Wow. This got a Game Awards nom out of the blue among a lot of AAA western titles for a reason.


Go in blind! Have fun x


(...Hmm... what video game will I find an excuse to talk about next time... :P)

Monday, 5 April 2021

Monster Hunter and Play Culture

 In most video games, pushing a button on your controller makes the character on screen do a thing. When you press the Jump button, for instance, Mario jumps.

There’s an elusive sensation called “gamefeel” which sounds like a meaningless buzzword - and it kind of is - but is considered a real and pretty important thing to aim for in game development. There are proper academic books about it and everything. Basically, that press button to jump flowchart has got to feel right every step of the way, various parts working together to make a single, smooth, cohesive action. So, the physical button has to feel good to press. The jump animation has to look right, feel proportional. Sound design has to reflect what’s happening on screen and what the player expects.

And speaking of player expectations, one of the biggest parts of gamefeel is latency. Essentially, the less delay there is between “button pressed” and “Mario in the air”, the more responsive and good-gamefeel-y the action is. In highly technical systems like fighting games where every frame of animation counts, this is extra important - this breakdown by a professional animator touches on how a game like Smash has to translate the classic animation principle of anticipation to only a few fractions of a second in pursuit of gamefeel. Too much latency and a game feels sluggish and unresponsive. Unplayable.

And then there’s Monster Hunter.

When wielding the game’s iconic greatsword, the time between button press and monster getting hit can be whole entire actual seconds. That’s not even mentioning the recovery animation after a hit, or the fact that inputting a follow-up attack commits to further lost moments - because this game has no animation cancelling.

In a fighting game, a punch is over in a few frames, and if you want to do something else before that punch is over, you just press another button and the character (most of the time) will stop the punch animation and go right into the next move. Instances where that doesn’t happen are specific, a known factor. Otherwise it’s zero frames between the two, a hard cut. In Monster Hunter, if you press a button, you are going to watch that attack’s long, slow animation from beginning to end, every time. And that’s whether or not the attack hits its target - your prey may well have moved out of the way, or started attacking you back, by the time you’re done.

This, understandably, causes frustration in new players. Monster Hunter refuses to act like almost every other video game, seemingly deliberately choosing the opposite of what conventional wisdom says feels good to play.

But the biggest hurdle is that Monster Hunter does not tell you any of this.

The games are filled with tutorial text boxes explaining its various menus, options, and the ins and outs of the game’s hunt-carve-craft gameplay loop. The Hunters Notes in the pause menu is an extensive manual that details every aspect of the game experience with screenshots and clear explanations. Tutorial text boxes may be outdated design, but these cover everything you could wish to know about the game... everything except how to actually play it. That second-to-second action, the fact that every attack requires your little caveman to hoist his dinosaur-jawbone sword over his shoulder and drop it, painfully slowly, onto whatever happens to be in his path by the time he’s done swingin’ without any hope of stopping that momentum, is never mentioned, explained, reasoned out or tutorialised. You will simply try it, feel how wrong it is, look for some meaning behind it, find nothing, and give up.

Ok. Got all that?

Now then.

A YouTuber recently tried out the demo for the series’ newest title, Monster Hunter Rise. He gave it a fair shake but, again, understandably, had pretty much the exact experience I just described. This game is sluggish and slow. It feels bad to play. The attacks are unresponsive, and it feels unfair that I can’t make the character just do things by pressing buttons. Isn’t that how video games are meant to work?

His video, “Why I’m Not Buying Monster Hunter Rise” explained these frustrations pretty reasonably. What I’m interested in here is what happened next.

If you look at the comments for that video - a dangerous proposition at the best of times, but bear with me - you’ll see an outpouring of support and reassurance from Monster Hunter fans. Rather than the “git gud” mentality of a lot of online gaming spaces, people shared their own histories of frustration with the series. Jay’s experiences were valid. Others had also bounced off these games. They really are that confusing and hard! But the comments came with advice, suggestions, and mostly just implored the guy to please, please try again. Because all these people had hated the game at first too, but they’d somehow found something there they’d grown to love, and they wanted to share that.

You can watch the next few videos on Jay’s channel if you want to know what happened next, from his follow up “Why I AM Buying Monster Hunter Rise” video to the two let’s play series he’s currently running on two different entries in the franchise. He tried again, took the lessons the community had given him, and found what they found. He’s now a devoted fan.

So.

I could go into how and why Monster Hunter games actually are good, what the trick is to getting that gameplay to finally click, but that’s not really the point here.

How many of us read an RPG book for the first time and just... didn’t quite get it? How many of us were introduced to what these games even were not by the texts themselves but by our community - an older relative, a friend who’d already cracked the code, our first GM, an actual play stream or podcast. How many of us were taught, wholly or in part, how to get an actual game out of these esoteric messes of rules rather than somehow figuring it all out on our own?

Does that make the texts bad? ...Kind of, yes! Couldn’t D&D books do a better job of explaining their purpose up front? Isn’t that why every indie darling begins with a What Is An RPG section after all, to just try and teach? We desperately want people to understand, we know it’s hard at first but we’re trying so hard.

Couldn’t Monster Hunter, or Dark Souls, or games like those, just... do better? Be up front, explain themselves? Surely that would help all these people who bounce off the game at first actually get into them easier. Surely a game shouldn’t have to rely on a community of fellow sufferers to convey its basic play concepts?

After all... this must limit the player base, right? For every HeyJay there must be thousands more who tried the Monster Hunter demo and swore to never touch it again. For every one of us with a kindly DM to show the way, there must be thousands who muddled through the PHB, bounced off the wall of text or attempted a game and just gave up. If games could just teach themselves, wouldn’t that be a better system than relying on randos to maybe, hopefully, get through their initial dislike, somehow become experts and, after all that, spontaneously volunteer their time to teach what the hell is even going on here?

Right?

Monster Hunter is the biggest selling game franchise in Japan, frequently beating out both Mario and Pokemon domestically. The last big entry, World, was its biggest seller yet, and publisher Capcom’s single biggest selling game of all time. Yes, that Capcom. Rise has just come out, selling approximately 5 million in its first week - almost as much as World did in the same time frame, and Rise is only available on one console. And 5th Edition D&D’s sales have grown year on year since its release, making it the biggest selling game of its kind in history and parent company Hasbro’s biggest seller since Magic the Gathering. Yes, that Hasbro - yes, that Magic the Gathering.

Far be it from me to equate capitalist success with any kind of moral victory, but... clearly, the system works.

More important than good rules or a “good game”, whatever that is - more important than those rules being accessible, well-structured or clearly explained - is play culture. If people want to play your game, they will learn it and teach it, and people will want to play your game, and so on. Apparently, you don’t have to do a thing.

Well... These games must be doing something right... right?

There are tons of factors here, but the biggest one is baked in at a design level - cooperation. Monster Hunter has no in-built competitive play. This is a co-op game, with almost all content playable with friends locally or online. Players want and need more players to play with, and will do the work themselves to make that happen.

Tabletop RPGs, likewise, need a group to function. If you promise people the gaming experience of their lives, a game of pure imagination, as long as they gather friends into the fold, they’ll rally those friends. Groups beget more groups, no zealot like a convert. The games require word of mouth to even be played, and word of mouth perpetuates itself. It’s the most effective marketing tool - ugh, I know, but... it is, because it isn’t marketing at all. It’s friends playing games.

And at the end of the day...

Nobody cares, at least not initially before brand loyalty has taken its evil roots to their brain soil, what the game is. They just need a problem to tackle with their friends, a fun new thing to share with their friends, an excuse to get together with their friends. And that could be anyone’s weird, bad, “unplayable” game. Maybe it’s better to have that initial struggle, just enough jank, so that people can take on the challenge together.

Some people might like watching Citizen Kane, some people might like laughing at The Room. Some people genuinely don’t like Citizen Kane, or unironically enjoy The Room.

...Who cares? The point is having something to talk about afterwards. Something to share.

this one is more on the “the room” end

So what’s the takeaway here? We make convoluted, weird, even “bad” games and expect people to find them, somehow understand and then propagate them of their own volition?

...Kind of, yeah!

I don’t think RPG play culture can be effectively explained to every potential player in the same way and get an equal reaction. So why bother trying? Instead of writing an explanation, write something that their friends will have to, want to, explain to them for you. Engender excitement and curiosity, offer tools, and... let it go.

And idk, maybe that’s the takeaway? Play culture will grow on its own, wherever we stop interfering. People already have the main ingredient - friends - we’re just supplying the seasoning, maybe the cutlery. (Don’t look into that metaphor too hard.)

With the right conditions in the Petri dish - a decent design, an initial push, some challenge or ambiguity in the way of direct interpretation, and a whole lot of luck and probably even more money, the culture takes care of itself.

And it might take bold new shapes, might grow into something separate from your initial seed. But, like... so what? Sure, they might “get it wrong”, but who are you to decide that? If you stop someone using the bits from your spaceship model kit to make a robot, you’re not teaching or guiding at all, you’re just stopping their game. At that point you’re basically just - spoilers - the bad guy from the LEGO movie. And if people do play D&D “wrong” and start teaching that “wrong” game to others... again, so what? They’re joining a lineage of designers that starts with and includes Gygax.

I think we make toys, and it would be the height of arrogance to try and decide how anyone else should play with them.

(Does system matter? Well, whether I take my ball or my scooter to Jerry’s house we’re going to have fun playing, and we’d probably still find a way to have fun even if I took neither, and oh look I’ve spent too long theorising and now Jerry doesn’t want to be my friend any more.)

The best we can do is offer possibilities. The fun is in seeing what happens next.


(EDIT: I’m liking MHRise so far! Aknosom is my boy but the biggest surprise to me so far was Bishaten, what a fun fight. GL main and proud. Hit me up and we’ll hunt together 💪)

Friday, 19 March 2021

March Update!

Heya,

Lots going on behind the scenes, which is great but leaves very little time for bloggery, so I thought I’d do a little rundown.

- Journeylands is coming together nicely! After funding about a month ago, I had to wait for Kickstarter to process everything - so a couple of weeks ago we were finally able to get started.

Progress has been great already! I love being able to pay people to do good work. I’m doing visual development, bringing on artists and fine-tuning the text. The mechanics are all good, but the way they’re presented and explained in the final book is just as important. If not more so, haha.

So, early days, but good progress is being made. I’d say something drastic like “it’ll definitely arrive before next year!” But after how last year turned out... I can’t be quite that confident about the future. But yes, it’s doing well.

- I’m working on other projects! Did you know that if you like my stuff you can just hire me? :0 The pamphlet adventure I’m doing for Dying Hard On Hardlight Station is going to be good, hope all you Mothership fans managed to back that one. It’s cool to be part of someone else’s ZineQuest, would be cool to maybe do even more next year

- Other ongoing projects - GRAVEROBBERS is always happening. People seem to like that, every week or so it gets a new download! Well, it’s gonna be A Thing at some point, but I want it to be always free to everyone so there’s 0 budget - work will be slow. DEADLINE is paused but I know what that’s going to be, it’s still happening at some point.

- Always working on new things - I really hope I’ll be able to put out a new Paradice Arcade game this year, those are so so much fun. There’s a game I’ve been working on longer than any other project that is finally coming into what may well be its final form, and it’s looking quite Paradice-y. I have finished games from last year that just need the right artist too.

- I’ve been slowly gathering bargain-basement minis and making terrain out of recycling in order to play a game of Chris McDowall’s GRIMLITE. Just a home game for fun but it’s hobby-related so I thought I’d mention it I guess? I mostly keep non-work stuff to myself but I’m proud of this and having fun so I might share it on twitter at some point, idk

I’m finding a better work-life balance these days, and being hired for things and funding projects allows me room to breathe. All my art is going to benefit. This blog will be quieter, but think of it as a calm before a storm.

Happy gaming!

Friday, 12 February 2021

Zinequest Ahoy!

 Just thought I’d make a quick wee post reminding folks that ZineQuest is very much underway!

I don’t suppose there are many people who read this blog and don’t already know about zq, but just in case - it’s a bunch of tiny indie RPG projects, all on Kickstarter at the same time. You can put your money where your mouth is and support artists making bold, useful and ridiculous new game stuff - for cheap!

This is as much gameable material as you’ll need for the rest of the year - or indeed for much longer - for a fraction of the price of the big brands, and your donations help new and small creatives burst onto the scene in style.

My own project Journeylands is already overfunded with just a day or two left on the clock, and I’m over the moon with all the support so far. Click here to browse the wide range of other projects looking for your help!

And hey - now is as good a time as any to start planning for next year if you want to be involved in ZineQuest 2022! Myself and all the other creators who’ve done it before are always happy to help and give advice if it’s something you’re considering. The rate of projects that meet their goal soars during zq, so it’s a great time to debut your stuff and get a cool-ass zine made!

Peace x

Edit: And I’ve just been announced as a contributor on the ZQ project DYING HARD ON HARDLIGHT STATION! It’s a Mothership module based on Die Hard... I think that’s reason enough to go and check it out. 

Monday, 1 February 2021

Journeylands Is Go!

Journeylands #1 is live on Kickstarter as part of zinequest 2021!

Check it out and support if you can!

Uhh... That's it!

Thank you! x


Saturday, 16 January 2021

Journeylands Solo Play Report

Record of a solo playtest of Journeylands #1: Coral Canyons. 100% procedurally generated using the material and mechanics available in the zine.

*

Set out at 5pm. Using the PsyNav for the first time is... weird, but I soon settle into it. I know where I need to go.

A couple of minutes of driving and I’m getting the hang of that too. Think I can go a little faster. Saw a rock that, uh... Well let’s just say I won’t forget its shape if i see it again. Will make a good landmark on my way back to Mack’s.

17:05, saw a whale! Just for a second. It came down, still too far above to touch but I could see it clearly.

Came across a stretch of soft coral reef. I’d heard about these things, they’ll sting you if you’re not careful. I... wasn’t careful. Was already going pretty fast so figured I could just breeze through and avoid the worst of it, but they zapped the SABA 2.0 and damaged her a little. If I come back this way I’ll try going slower. Or use the shield.

Don’t know why I’m in such a rush. Still got plenty of time. But wow it feels good to go fast. The sun shining, fish swimming...

17:12, I saw what looked like an old hut. Huh. Whizzed right by it, but it seemed empty. Good to know it’s there, I guess? Wonder who built it. If anyone lives there.

Woo! This thing can really go! I’m shooting through the canyons like a sailfish now. Just leapt a gorge or a ravine or something - didn’t look down, probably a good idea. Felt like i was flying as I went across it though. Time now is quarter past 5... making good tracks.

I can see why they call this the coral canyons. Just passed through all this pink-purple stuff, looked like rippling waves. Or brains, haha. Slowed down a bit to appreciate the views.

... And, the PsyNav started calmly humming at me. Sure enough, right up ahead was the junk collector I was looking for. It feels weird how accurate it is... But strangely peaceful as I reach my destination.

The collector doesn’t say much. I explain what Mack needs and he happily hands it over. I guess people just share here in the Journeylands.

Time now is about 17:18. Got a while before sunset.

I think I’ll take the long way back.

*

Click here to be notified when Journeylands #1 launches on Kickstarter as part of ZineQuest 3.