Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Simple Complex City Generator

No real city is a monolith, but too many fantasy cities are cut from whole cloth - just a bigger town, plus a bazaar or a slum or something suitably urban. I say this as much in admonishment of my own efforts as a callout for anyone else's. I grew up in a city where digging tunnels for the subway unearths Roman remains. No street matches its neighbour - there is always something so new that it's still being built, while some houses are older than many modern countries. Some trees are older still. On one of the hills near my old school, a queen was said to have rested beneath an oak and thereby blessed it - the tree died centuries ago, and in its place is a foundation for an anti-aircraft cannon, grown over with age, now a hangout for teens and the homeless. There is another hill that is rumoured to be not a hill at all, but a mass grave of bubonic plague victims, piled high and composted by time. A freeway cuts across it, and the field often plays host to a circus. That's a city to me. Let's do better, shall we?
Write 6 important places in your fantasy city. An entire area can be just one of the six, but specific major landmarks get their own entry. (If you do more, change the die you roll for the next steps to match.) Roll 1d6. Fate or the gods or simple luck smile upon that place in its current form, for good or ill - draw a little symbol next to it. Do this once or twice, or more if you want. Symbols can stack. Now, roll 1d6. Cross out the entry you rolled (unless it has a symbol, then cross out the symbol). When you cross something out make sure you can still read what it once said - then replace it with something new. Inspiration for what the new thing is and why the old thing is gone can come from a reading of your GM's Oracle, or these tables: Scale of upheaval: 1. Neighbourhood 2. City-wide 3. National 4. International 5. Worldwide 6. Cosmic Nature of upheaval: 1. Immigration 2. War 3. Patronage of the arts 4. Steady political progress 5. Plague 6. Magic Keep going until nobody alive could remember how and why all these changes happened. Forget all the crossed-out bits until they become relevant to your players

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Building a GM's Oracle

The GM is arbiter and referee, making decisions on how rules are executed. We tend to call these "rulings"; some, often dismissively, call it "fiat".

(I'm saying GM because it's the familiar paradigm; this all encompasses solo or GM-less games too, the role is just shared or has new context.)

The GM also makes decisions on a fictional level. They're not just telling you to roll double damage against the orc-chief cos a die came up 20, they're also deciding how the orc-chief's untimely demise will affect the world around you.

When a player asks a question or their character does a thing, the GM must have a response, just as the players respond to the world put in front of them.

The GM's job, chiefly, is answers.

An illustration from one of the helpful diagrams in GoGoGolf
(what, did you miss last week's post? get on it!)
Human beings are brilliant at questions, but not very good at answers. We're just not that smart.

So, a GM defers. They may not have all the answers they need, but they're not expected to. They can consult their rulebook, notes, the adventure module. Some ask the players, take suggestions.
They're still making up their own mind in the end, but with these foundations the process is eased. The fact that any given decision is not all on one mind, but also guided by a set of rules and established ideas, means it's possible to make hard and fast decisions in a meaningful and effective way: just leave it to the dice.
Decisions we defer, consult for, have gravitas. We like consensus, we like The Rules, we like coming down from the mountain with a stone tablet from on high saying "this is How Things Should Work". That's why, say, mechanically enforced lethality (an HP system f'rinstace) is good. Death has weight, becomes an effective antagonist and motivator, when it is an answer given not by the human at the table, but an uncaring god.
(Of course, in this neck of the game design woods we want our stone tablets to be concise doctrine over bloated dogma - if Maze Rats is the ten commandments, something like Pathfinder is all that stuff about wearing mixed fabrics or having to pronounce your Latin right so the demons don't take your bad prayers down to Hell.)
the demons in question! called a "tutivillus".
i like how one has pants.
Deferral of decision making is not only good for rulings, but that "fictional level" stuff as well.

This is why we love a random table (if you don't yet, try starting here). It's like a horoscope or tarot reading; no higher power truly exists, but when we play pretend at deferring to some greater wisdom, we find said wisdom in our own imagination. The power was inside you all along ya dingus.
So, to wit: the game is the people, the mechanics are an Oracle, random tables are horoscopes and Maze Rats is a damn good game.
(Further reading: Luka elaborating on the dice as an Oracle.)
With all that in mind...
Let's make a GM's Oracle. Basically, a randomiser to consult for inspiration. (I'm not coining the term or idea btw, just going through my own process. Ironsworn is just one game that already does this with random tables; the new Skyjacks podcast from Campaign uses Illimat cards in a similar way.)

First off, we need some raw materials for the random generation. Dice are classic, tarot would be a fun gimmick - but hey, any opportunity to use something really weird instead, right?
So I recently got Dragon's Crown on PS4... (Yes, this is the bit of the recipe blog where I tell you all about my travels and how I fell in love with food; skip to the next image break if you want.)
The fancy Special Deluxe Collector's Edition was going cheap and it comes with seven cards, these royal-card-meets-tarot-looking dealies that are kinda cute. There's one for each of the game's archetypes, plus a "common" card.
Also, me and my partner have been listening to the audiobooks of His Dark Materials, and if you haven't read them, oracles are a biiiiig thing in the trilogy. There's a cool steampunk ouija/tarot pocket watch, and it's got a bunch of symbols like the Major Arcana, but this is fantasyland so they're all like The Beehive and The Anchor and The Chameleon. I love that kinda bullshit.
I'd tried to make an Oracle before using the royals from a playing card deck, worked OK but I wasn't super into it and it got shelved. Not weird enough for me probably.
Now that I have these funky lil game cards though... It's on.

So basically I'm making up a fortune telling system using these weird video game merch cards.
This is the heart of RPGs for me. That LEGO-set feeling of taking raw mechanics and ideas, tools from whatever I have to hand, and repurposing things to my own ends for the joy of not only the creation process but a playable end result.
Playable how? The crux of it is a bit like that mood board we did last month, in a roundabout way - deferring creative decision making. I'll be assigning meaning to these cards as if they were constellations or entrails, then constructing gameable systems of procedural idea generation.
OK enough preamble, I'm just gonna do it. You'll get the idea.
Hopefully this'll make you want to make your own GM's Oracle! If you want to use the one I made but don't have these cards, take seven ordinary face cards and, if they're symmetrical, mark one side so you can tell which is the inverse.

First off let's consider some higher-level meanings for each card. All the Major Arcana, for instance, have broad connotations about different Big Concepts - facets of the world, the soul, human nature, love, life and death - and between them they sort of cover all the bases.

Our cards don't come with any attached meanings, but their names and images are archetypal enough that they can evoke certain themes or ideas, which is a good place to start for making up our own connotations. Think broad and general.

Now's also a great time to introduce the coolest aspect of this process - the in-universality (or "thematic resonance" if you wanna get nasty) that you can incorporate into your oracle.

Take for example our Elf card. When considering meanings the first idea that might come up is probably "nature". A bit more thinking and stretching of the imagination may yield "age" or "beauty", because of the LotR/D&D default elf that is our modern cultural archetype.

But! Consider your world, your game - what is an elf to those people? What is an elf, in its essence, in your mythology and across your various cultures? This can yield meanings you wouldn't've thought of otherwise.

And! This can be a great way to decide what an "elf", as a concept, means in your game. It's almost a worldbuilding exercise. Throw in a random meaning - "reflections" or "fire" or "bad weather" - and then think backwards to work out why your world associates that meaning with The Elf.

And I'm not just talking about how your in-game cultures think about things. Remember that gods and fortunes and all that are immutable truths, as real to a fantasyland as the laws of physics - the associations your cards make are facets of reality on a cosmic level. Each of my cards could be one of the gods, f'rinstance.

Pick obscure meanings, or ones that don't make sense at first or contradict one another. Not too many of these; reading your oracle still has to be intuitive, not an exercise in "hmm, hang on, which of these did I say means "disaster" again...?". But mixing things up at this early stage, throwing in your silliest ideas or your most weirdly specific connections, will imbue uniqueness into your Oracle and your world. (Also: separating similar concepts across different cards calls their subtle contrasts into focus.)

Nobody else will make associations between ideas in the exact same way you do - that is your advantage, in this as in all things.

Here are the "high-level" meanings I came up with for my set of seven cards. If you have more, these concepts might get more specific or more spread out.

I didn't have a world in mind when I started this, so I built ideas out of the cards and their art rather than matching them to existing notions - although I did lean into the base worldbuilding assumptions I tend to use in my D&D games, so this should mesh ok with any other fantasy content on my blog if you want to use it in parallel.

Each card has a different face depending on which way up you turn it, so I gave them all "inverted" meanings, kinda like in tarot. As long as I remember which face I chose to be the inverted one I'm peachy.

Amazon: Challenge, honour, sex, summer. Inverted: Passion, wrath, instinct, the 6th day. Common: Luck, change, death, autumn. Inverted: Greed, omens, spirits, the 7th day. Dwarf: Plenty, art, discipline, patience. Inverted: Gluttony, masculinity, jealousy, the 1st day. Elf: Nature, water, defiance, spring. Inverted: Time, sloth, loneliness, the 2nd day. Fighter: Family, humanity, past, fire. Inverted: Recklessness, wrath, lust, the 3rd day. Sorceress: Magic, femininity, community, love Inverted: Illusion, envy, apathy, the 4th day. Wizard: Knowledge, travel, winter, discovery. Inverted: Hubris, teaching, future, the 5th day.

These aren't set in stone, and this isn't the stuff we're actually going to be using most of the time, but it helps to have these general concepts sketched out in your mind.

You'll notice parallels within mine, like how each has a connotation with a particular Deadly Sin. This is good and can make the later steps easier. Since there are seven I also gave each one a day of the week, which I dunno, might be useful for something. Clearly what day it is has some cosmic or magical importance in my setting; I'll decide what later.

It's perhaps important to note these Big Ideas should never be a constraint, and you can always extrapolate to get more concepts - entries for masculinity and femininity doesn't mean androgyny isn't a concept in this world, just that it straddles those two cards.

There are also no judgement values here; Gluttony sits alongside Masculinity because the Dwarf represents both, not necessarily because they're linked to each other, and most of these concepts are meant to be read as ambiguous rather than inherently good or bad. Likewise, the "inverted" side of a card is not the "evil" version.

Look, just... just study tarot and steal ideas tbh.

Mainly just for fun, at this point I'm going to play fortune-teller and make up a way to do a reading. I don't tend to do prophecies and fortunes and things in D&D games because what even is fate in a game where you roll a 20-sided die for the outcome of any important event, but this is an exercise to help me think about my oracle so far and get in the zone.

Let's say a fortune is 3 cards - what will happen, what change it will bring, and what can be done.

I draw... Amazon Inverted, Fighter Inverted, and Sorceress.

Now just do some improv or bullshitting or storytelling or whatever your preferred term is. Hmm... looks like following my instincts will lead to recklessness, and the solution is to remain apathetic? Or perhaps my passions will incite lust, but someone involved will become envious?

Ha! it already sounds like the right kind of bullshit. Love it.

Ok, a more gameable version - my players are headed into some woods and I have no ideas for what might be there! Let's draw two cards to spark inspiration.

I draw... Elf Inverted and Amazon Inverted.

That's enough inspo for an encounter, right? Maybe a wandering knight, lost in the fey wood, has become mad with loneliness and accosts the party?

Or let's take the Time and Instinct meanings - if the player wait too long in one place here, they'll become like animals, slowly transforming (that's gameable too - many a PC would risk it trying to hang around for just long enough to get some cool beast ability.)

Ok, we're getting somewhere.

But it's not gameable enough yet! Having a wishy-washy mood board for ideas is all well and good, but at the table I want results, dammit!

Let's get results - random table results.

Make some random tables - the kind you would in any game. If you like making tables for strangers encountered on the road, do one of those. If you need a wandering monster table for a dungeon, do that. Festivals happening in town, quest generators, weather tables, NPC name lists, whatever.

The only difference - and this is the cool bit of this whole idea, not whatever I said was the cool bit before - is that each entry will be thematically linked to the oracle. We're not rolling dice for numbers, we're drawing cards, and now that we've decided these cards mean things, we can tailor our entries to those meanings.

This a) makes it easier to fill in your tables in the first place, b) ensures each has a variety of disparate entries, and c) links every aspect of your world back to its core themes and concepts. If every draw on a random table could be the Sorceress, that means every randomly determined thing in your world has a chance of pertaining to, say, magic or illusion or femininity. This solidifies these as themes inherent to your game.

You can do single entries, or tables that cross-reference different card combos. The inverted thing also means I can do tables with either 7 or 14 entries, which I like. (Ooh... I could run an OSR game where each card is a character class... hmm...)

Anyway, let's try all this theory out in practice! Here's an example table (again, worldbuilding on the fly, here. It's the only way to go.)

Encounters in the Woods
A fey prince, furious at your trespass in his grove, challenges one of you to a contest (whoever most looks like a leader). He is feeble but sly; win and the fairy maid reluctantly betrothed to him will, blushing, request you take her favour (be careful - love and the fey realm a potent mix).
Common: This tree grows chattering skulls like fruit. Each was a warrior who fell here and now repeatedly whispers their life's last words - only one had her wits about her at the moment she fell, and tells the way to some treasure in a nearby bathhouse.
Dwarf: Goblin-men have set up something resembling a gallery, taking turns to display useless trinkets and appraise them through stolen monocles, nodding sagely. They are angry at your approach, unless you act like their art has some value to you. They will trade for fruit, of which they already have much (beware the fruits of goblin-men).
Elf: A gang of elf-children live in a tree, recalcitrant squatters disobeying the fat local fairy lord, whose obsession with cultivating and expanding his lush garden is upsetting the woods' wild heart. (Elf-children are not young elves, as elves are all full-grown; they are actually a type of fairy.)
Fighter: A human youth, troubled deeply behind his wan but handsome features, has fled to live in these woods but is unable to cope and close to starving. He does not wish to go through with the wedding his rich father has arranged.
Sorceress: A witch lives here, they say. Disturb her dawn walks as she sings to the plants, or interrupt her dancing naked beneath a full moon, and she will enact a quick, cold sentence upon you - death, or perhaps transforming you into a toad if she's feeling playful. However, knock on her cabin door while she is home and she welcomes you to stay and rest. Or, enter the cabin while she is away - there are many odd things to steal.
Wizard: Travelling your way is a wizened old hermit with only an owl for company. Ask him to join you, show him kindness and give him time to grow comfortable, and he will divulge that the owl is really a transformed monarch from a strange land. He is on a quest for the spell that will restore his companion's form - or perhaps he is a madman with an owl.

I like the feel that's emerging, classic D&D with a kinda gonzo-Arthurian meets Angela Carter does Grimm-ness to it.

And that's what, under 10 minutes' work for 7 whole quests? And it'll only get easier the more you use your oracle over time; fleshing out more and more gameable content for your campaign, keeping it all thematically linked and havin' fun doin' it.

Try it out! Any other ideas on how to make or use one? Try those out too!

Sidebar - Dragon's Crown is fun so far. I know I'm not a video game blog but it's pretty OSR actually (there's even xp for treasure!) so I thought I'd share my thoughts.
If you'll recall, Japanese fantasy owes its lifeblood to D&D, and the lineage here is something like: D&D > Wizardry! > Dragon Quest > Fantasy hits Japan > D&D books reillustrated for Japanese market to ape Toriyama's style > D&D arcade games from Japan like Shadows Over Mystara use said style > this game is a tribute to those games. OSR af.
Anyway, it's got a cool art style, almost Frank Frazetta meets Kinu Nishimura - two of my fave art icons so I'm a happy duck. Everything is hand drawn, 2d graphics on parallax planes like intricate cardboard cutouts - it's all v v stylish.

The characters are fun, hyperstylised fantasy tropes; I've tried and enjoyed playing both the beginner-level Fighter with his wardrobe-wide shoulders, and the more complex playstyle of the willowy goth-boy Wizard, while my partner gravitated toward the Amazon's chainmail bikini and thunderous thighs. Each uses a fairly simple control scheme, similar but different enough to the others to feel fresh.

Gameplay is very much like those old arcade beat-em-ups but also an RPG kind of. It's got drop in co-op both online and off - I love couch co op options! My feeble wizard can better hold his own when he's got an Amazon taking the front lines (there are NPC allies too, but that system works a little differently).

Negatives: - All the hallmarks that make this a solid arcade game could be seen as negatives if that's not what you're looking for - this game makes no bones about what it is, like it or lump it. - Although its sexualised aspects are mostly fun and campy, and there are cool female characters with agency, things still feel quite, uh, old-fashioned. - The translation is largely fine but has moments that really needed proofreading - although the patchiness makes it almost more endearing?

Worth a look!

Cool concept art, right?
Except this is the *in-game character select screen*.
This game is gorgeous.

Monday, 1 April 2019


Finally, the world's most boring sport meets the kitschy esoterica of tabletop roleplaying.

GoGoGolf! is available for download now.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Drow Redux

I know, I know, it's my week off...

Here's a piece of short fiction I wrote late last night as a Twitter thread. I tried to keep it gameable, so should be relevant.

Big announcement on Monday x

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Design Doc 1.4: Action Scenes

I'm examining various bits of the game design process, through the lens of making an RPG from scratch. Welcome to Design Doc!

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Last time we covered our game's classes. I actually wasn't totally happy with the results, I've already gone back and started tweaking them, but the point is to have something solid to start things off with, something to work from.

Anyways, this game's looking pretty playable at this point, right? I mean, we have character creation, a resolution mechanic, and enough bits and pieces to be getting on with.

One thing's missing though - our combat is still all virtual. Our characters are hackers, but the rest of the world isn't - so when our PCs draw their Troubleshooters, wouldn't the guards just pull out real guns? Our system can't yet resolve physical danger, one of the most important things the rules should govern in this type of game.

But we're not sticking on an HP system or saving throws - we've got enough of that already. Here's the mechanics I'm using to resolve danger and tension in Action Scenes.

(I feel like these posts are getting shorter?)

Why Mechanics?

We resolve so much in RPGs through simple conversation. You don't need mechanics for everything, and in a light, OSR-esque game like this one, the fewer rules the better.

So why am I adding more mechanics just to resolve one type of scene? Well, I touched on it waaaaay back in this post, but lethality is something games like this need. Death is part of the stakes, it's important to the setting and the tone of the game, and HP loss leading to death is a great mechanic. Fuck up and you lose your guy! Try again.

We can't just rely on "pew pew" "i hit you" "no you didn't", we need rules to take this decision out of the hands of the players or the GM. The game itself has to be lethal, because death is a wonderful antagonist that the group can all rally around together, and a logical consequence of the game's fiction.

What Mechanics?

Like I said, I don't want a whole combat system here. It's too complex, and besides, we have one already, built into the core resolution mechanic.

Here's what I'm going with, using a term I first put into Journeylands that I like very much.

When the players enter a situation in which they are in physical danger, the GM may choose to declare an Action Scene. In an Action Scene, each player takes turns describing what their characters do from moment to moment as a situation progresses. The GM decides when these scenes begin and end, based on what occurs in the game.

A player gets one significant action on their turn, which may or may not involve a roll - if it does, they may roll only once. Action Scenes are divided into rounds. When each player has taken a turn, the round ends, and a new one begins if the scene has not yet resolved. Each player gets one turn per round, in any order they choose.

If a player fails a roll, their character is considered to be Endangered. The nature of the danger depends on the situation and the action being attempted. If a character - their own or another player's - does not use their turn to resolve the immediate threat that an Endangered character is under by the end of the character's next turn, the character loses 1 point of their Physical stat.

A character whose Physical stat is reduced to 0 is dead. Characters may restore lost points in their Physical stat during the downtime between missions.

It looks a little complex in its current wording, but it's really very simple. I'll word it more nicely in the book. "Endangered" probably needs to be called something else too, they're not porpoises.

I think it'll play ok. I can picture the scenes that come out of this being nicely cinematic:

Lulu barrels through the heavy metal door and scrambles out onto the rooftop. The starless haze of night above, the infinite lights of the city below. Across a gap is another rooftop, slightly lower down. The others, just ahead of her, have already had the same idea, and are running towards the edge. Behind her in the stairwell, she hears the clang of footsteps approaching fast.

This is an action scene. The important thing here is that it's trouble the players got themselves into - whatever they did while on their mission alerted the guards. The game is now structuring the consequences.

The GM decides it'll take a turn to reach the edge of the roof, and that there's going to be a Physical roll to see whether Lulu is fast enough or if the guards reach the door in time and start shooting. The player rolls and succeeds. No danger yet!

She sprints across the roof, then leaps.

A roll... Oof. That's a fail. Unlucky. The GM decides what that means:

Cold night air rushing past, and for a moment it seems as if the world is silent - then Lulu feels her heart skip as she starts to fall too soon, the next building not yet under her, the street so far below but rushing closer... In desperation she reaches out, teeth gritted, and grabs the edge of the building. Her body slams into the wall, her arms ache with the impact, but she hangs on. Barely.

Now Lulu is endangered. Someone has to use their turn to get her out of danger before her next turn ends. So she could try and save herself - but if she fails, that's the end of her turn, and she takes the penalty to her Physical stat. Better have another player sacrifice their turn's action to step in.

She looks up and sees G, the older woman smirking and extending a hand. "Nice jump." She pulls Lulu up. Across the gap, the guards are beginning to reach the roof. Sirens blare from below. G cocks a head towards a fire escape, descending into a dark alley. "Shall we?"

Lulu nods, and they run.

I mean, it's just an example, but it seems nice and solid and straightforward. I like how danger only gets to be a real problem when players get themselves in deep and start failing rolls.

I imagine that if, earlier in the mission, they'd snuck past those guards somehow, used another tactic, there wouldn't have been any rolls to escape as they quietly left via the front door or something.

But! This is all conjecture, really. What we need is actual playtesting!

And, uh... I think we're done? With this post, and with the series for now. That's all the mechanics we need to play - so let's not waste any more time with theory! The play's the thing!

I'll be doing playtests with my friends and also probably in a play-by-post over on my Patreon, so consider donating $1 a month to help me make games if you'd like to participate.

This series of Design Doc will likely pick up again if and when the game develops further. Stay tuned to the blog for news on the finished game coming out at some point! It'll either be a Big Deal and I'll get art done and stuff, or I'll pop a word doc up for free on the Patreon and announce it here. Or both.
I'm taking next week off since my birthday's coming up - taking time off the blog, at least, I'll still be working hard behind the scenes as ever! Something very exciting to be announced upon my return...

If you've read this whole series up to now, thank you! Hope you gleaned at least one useful nugget from my ramblings. It's pretty nerve-wracking for me to put everything out there like this, so I appreciate your support :) x

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Design Doc 1.3: Class Design

Design Doc is a series of rambles about game design, loosely connected by the theme of me making a game apparently.

Here's Part 1, and here's Part 2.

This time, we're looking at class design.

Before we start:

- As we make progress on this project, concepts and lessons are likely to become less generally applicable, as the game starts to take shape and we work on it specifically, rather than pondering the more oblique, conceptual stuff that is Game Design as a whole. For those of you following along, I hope there are still ideas and inspiration to be found!

- Oh hey, I wrote a "design doc" about class design before! Check that out here. I also did another short post on class design a while back, more just thinking out loud: that's right here.

A "Model"

I touched on the game's classes in the core mechanic post, so let's pick up there: classes in this game give skills that allow you to add dice to a roll, at the cost of any 1s rolled potentially bringing you closer to danger.

If you're here, reading this, I think it's safe to assume you've homebrewed a class for an RPG before. You likely looked at existing classes and tweaked them, or used the maths you found in the base game to construct your own ideas. Same deal here - except we don't have an original to base ours on, so that's our first step. We need a "model". What does a class look like in this game?

We've got the model of our classes pretty well defined here through the core mechanic alone. Bonus skills that are powerful but risky to use and enhance standard die rolls, inherently linked to the game's fictional technology. And we've decided what our player characters do, which is crucial.

That's a good place to start. Another option, maybe the more common one, is making one class, then using that as the model for the others. (Or, doing each one totally individually based on its own model - I mean, if you want to make things difficult, then sure. DCC I think is the only game to do this well.)

The Character Sheet: Stats

The games I like treat the character sheet as a quick rules reference. 95% of the game is looking up at eye level and talking - occasionally, you look down to check something, roll dice or do maths, and then it's back to the real game.

Let's sketch out what is probably ending up on our game's sheet. (This is actually where I started designing, or at least where I began when I put pen to paper. It's a good place to begin, provided you have a strong grasp of your ideas - that's what the last two entries have been about really, brainstorming. Now, we build.)

Stats cover the things the player defers to their character to do, so we're excluding skills that we want the players themselves to use, like problem solving or socialising. I've tended towards three base stats for a while now - 3 is a good number for choices, and we can cover all the bases we need to with 3, I reckon. Plus, 1d3 system - we have the means to roll for stats! J'adore.

I won't walk you through every step and iteration and reconceptualising, but here's where I ended up: the 3 stats are Physical, Technical and Mental, and each is rated 1, 2 or 3. For character creation, each starts at 1; roll 3d3 and assign points to each (a 1 and two 3s means a point in Phys and two in Mental). Reroll triples.

Physical covers strength, endurance and movement; Technical is computer skills, vehicles and all that; and Mental is will and fortitude, includes brain-chip stuff, and can also cover social or knowledge rolls if the GM really wants. All the bases covered, I reckon.

Fucking Probability

Does this dice concept work mathematically? Ah, my least favourite question... I can do numbers, just about, but I don't like 'em. Don't trust 'em. Words, I know where I'm at - you can wrangle words to do any old bullshit. but numbers, they're... cold. Inflexible, factual. They have rules.

Anydice.com and google are your allies here. I personally find anydice's interface too opaque for anything but the simplest equations, but if you're not as numerologically adverse as me it's a great resource. Me, I just googled "what are the odds of at least a six on xd6", found an answer that was clear enough for my minute attention span, and fudged the numbers around.

On 1d3, there's a 1/3 chance, duh, of each result. So a 33% chance of success if you have a 1 in your stat and add no dice - fictionally speaking, if your guy sucks at the thing. That's a fine number imo.

(How do we decide what's a "fine number" and what isn't? Intuition, mainly. Playtesting is the key, but we can't do that with the bits and bones we have so far, so go with something that sounds plausible for now and amend it later.)

With 3d6, the best you can be at a thing without adding class stuff, there's a 70%-ish chance of getting a 3. That might not seem like enough for our super skilled hero, but I'm thinking in OSR terms - you're rolling because you already fucked up, or you're trying something inherently risky and dangerous. The stuff you can do, you just do. So, 70% success rate when your back's against the wall seems a-ok to me or a highly skilled character.

That's it for the basic rolls. Let's add a new section to our character sheet.

The Character Sheet: Skills

Basically, doing the maths on that "model" we worked out earlier - how do we build it into something that functions with our established mechanics? Let's get a basic concept down at least, then we can start iterating and designing each class.

Again, I'm not going to go into detail on every small creative decision and iteration of this. Ideas are cheap and easy, remember? What I ended up with is:

Each class gives 3 Skills that add 1 or 2 dice to a pool when used. A skill is tied to a specific stat, and details its effects and any fictional-positioning prerequisites to utilising it. At character creation, roll 3d3 to put 1 or 2 points in each (skills numbered 1-3), rerolling triples. And as detailed in the core mechanic - adding dice to a roll using a skill risks Overload.

I could've mirrored the stats and had a base 1 in each skill going up to 3, but the probability increase from 5 dice to 6 didn't feel worth it, and I like the idea of each skill being inert until points are put into it - not every member of X class has all three X skills.

We also need to know how Overload works, so: Tally all accumulated Overload points. Exceed 9 total and your character shuts down. 9 is a good number, I think - beware the double digits is easy to remember, works with the game's theme of 3s. Not too low, allowing for some fun skill use, but low enough that every roll is risky.

Oof. There's the numbers done. Let's not stay here any longer than we have to.

Class #1: The Enforcer

Time for the fun stuff. This is why you came here, right?

I loosely based the three class concepts on the classic fantasy RPG trio of Fighter, Wizard and Rogue. It's a solid spread of options, makes sci fi concepts more recognisable, and is relevant to our interests with this classic, "trad" adventure game.

The Enforcer is our Fighter analogue. The fiction puts them as retired or defected supersoldiers, the "definitely not a military" security forces of Pantheon. They can also just be mercenaries or gang members, or anything else really - we'll leave the fiction open ended enough to allow whatever.

Let's look at the Enforcer's skills. (Anything in quotes is a placeholder name. Also remember that using a skill requires adding 1 or 2 dice to a roll in its relevant stat, and not every character gets all 3 skills.)

Passive Skill - Crowd Control: Split additional successes on any Overloading roll between any targets within range.

Oh, forgot to mention! Passive Skills. Each class comes with one off these - fairly self-explanatory. If the Enforcer attacks and get extra 3s, they can use each one on a separate target - no other class can do this in any context.

Each "hit" becomes its own successful attack - take out a guard then hit the security laser with another quick shot; open fire on a room of enemies with blinding speed; hit one guy and shoot straight through him to the guy behind; get into melee, get surrounded and then take em all out with a flurry of blows. Hot stuff.

"Upgrades" - Physical skill. Use with any non-Overloading Physical roll.

This skill is nuts. Anything that the Enforcer does (aside from "Overloading", or "attack" rolls) can be done better through their augmented cyborg limbs or special gear or whatever fiction the player chooses. Of course, there's the tradeoff of risking Overload each time you do, but with this skill you've got the heavy lifting covered, plus endurance and... all the physical things. Definitely our Fighter.

"Martial Law" - Physical skill. Use with any Overloading Physical roll using melee weapons.

Yeah, there are melee Troubleshooters - I'm thinking like Power Gloves. Adding dice to an "attack" roll is a skill most classes get, but that Physical thing makes the Enforcer a unique melee hacker. This is separated from the "Upgrades" mainly because I like having combat skills separate - various reasons but it gives more variation and encourages different lines of thinking.

Sharpshooter - Technical skill. Use with to any Overloading Technical roll using ranged weapons.

I mean... it's a Fighter. It Fights. Using a Troubleshooter is a Technical roll, so this lets your beefy boi flex their gun skills. Fiction-wise, they could have a cybernetic eye for aiming, or be "linked" to their gun or summat. Plus, imagine using this or the "Martial Law" skill in conjunction with Crowd Control.

You may have noticed: All classes have two skill options in one Stat, and one in another - this edges indecisive players towards a specific class based on their stat rolls, but doesn't force their hand. Or, y'know, there are 3 classes - just roll for it.

Class #2: The Hijack

"Hijack" rather than "Hijacker" because it sounds cooler, also "jack" like "of all trades", as with Numenera's Rogue-analogue.

Yup, this is our Rogue. We're getting progressively more anime as we go - the Hijack has a virtual avatar, kinda like a Stand or Persona, that floats around in VR and does their hack-attacks for them. They're the infiltrator class, get in, get out, no questions asked.

Passive Skill - "Jack In": Using your avatar, animate and take control of any Overloaded technology.

The Hijack's passive defines them - it's a core conceit of their character rather than an occasional helpful boost like the other classes. It's like my favourite D&D spells - endless utility and shenanigan potential. The world is full of technology, including its people. All you need is a successful roll to Overload something, and the situation radically changes.

"Avatar" - Technical skill. Command your avatar to virtually interface with technology. (Weapon Skill: Overloading, Range 2.)

The "weapon" bit means you can use this skill to enable an Overloading or "attack roll", instead of needing a bit of gear like a Troubleshooter. More dice too. "Range 2" just means nearby or line of sight - Range 1 is melee/engaged, and Range 3 is remote. The avatar is virtual, so can't do anything physically, but can hack, attack and, most importantly has your back.

"Tech Wizard" - Technical skill. Physically interface with, repair or sabotage technology.

The Hijack is the only class that can actually use computers, knows how they're put together, instead of just firing hackbullets at them to force shutdown. This skill might not seem as cool since it can't cause Overload, but it covers all tech, which in this world that means limitless potential. Since Technical covers all gear/tech interfacing, it also counts as a vehicle skill - handy.

"Masquerade" - Mental skill. Fool scanners, sensors and systems into believing you to be someone else or no one at all.

Your virtual Hat of Disguise. Why hack a database when you can just log in and leave no trace? Online meetings become less dangerous too, since you can simply appear as someone else. Or, this skill's most enticing application - fake and plant evidence by stealing identities. More niche than the other skills, but very fun in the right hands.

Class #3: Psychic

The third and final. Let's go Full Anime. This is our Wizard equivalent... ish. Not so much spells as what fantasy games like to call "psionics", but it has the same reality-altering vibe.

Your mental chip broke in just the right way to unlock the secrets of the cosmos, or maybe you're the result of secret experiments. You can use the latent energy of the Ether to literally bend space. A utility class that you get the most out of with creative thinking.

Passive Skill - "Mind Boost": Add 3 additional dice to any roll using a Skill. Increase the Skill's range to 3.

Not sure about this one, tbh. Don't like how mechanical it is, plus it's heckin' OP. Might change it to some kind of dowsing or telepathy thing, smaller scope and more utility-based.

"Mind Blast" - Mental skill. Deal direct Overload with sheer willpower. (Weapon Skill: Overloading, Range 2.)

Mind bullets! Gives the Psychic their own unique attack skill based on their prized mental stat. Pretty cool, does what it says on the tin.

Telekinesis - Mental skill. Move an object within Range 2.

I mean, what more do you need?

Teleport - Physical skill. Reduce your body to pure Ether, and reappear somewhere within Range 2.

Again, the potential is clear. As with all the Psychic's skills, the concept is straightforward, and it's up to the player to think creatively and get the most out of it.

Aaand there they are, our 3 basic classes! We also have our character sheet partly designed, and all our core mechanics set up and ready to go. I'll end on a reminder: constant referral back to earlier stages of the design process is a good foundation for all this stuff.

Time for the all-important step of playtesting!

Well, almost. The game can't quite cover all the situations we want it to yet. We know how Overload works, but what about real damage and attack rolls? Guns that aren't Troubleshooters? There's not just the virtual world to consider.

Next time, more mechanics, and some of my favourites: action scenes.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Design Doc 1.2: Core Mechanics

Design Doc is a series where I design a tabletop RPG from scratch, in public.

I guess the idea is to get myself thinking about how I work and codify some design principles - hopefully into useful tidbits that you can take away and glean something from for your own design and/or GMing :)


Last time, we made a mood board. Now we have a solid stylistic foundation from which to make creative decisions going forward.

This time: We're coming up with core mechanics by first asking Big Questions about what mechanics are, why we need them, and what this game even is.

Before we start, I'll reiterate some things I've implicitly or outright said so far:
- this is just one way to make a game
- it's not even the way I always make games, but it's how I'm doing this one
- I don't really know what I'm doing and neither should you
- all creative decisions are ultimately down to my own arbitrary whim

We good? Good.

Let's make a game!

FATE dice?! In my OSR? It's more likely than you think... More on that story, after this.
What's a Core Mechanic?

I mean... simple question, simple answer. There are mechanics that make up the game - these are the core ones. These, along with the fiction, help define the system.

What are mechanics? "The Rules" is certainly a term for it, but in tabletop they're more like tools that are at the GM's and group's disposal. We talked last time about how these can be numbers and things to do with dice, but also words and fictional concepts.

What are these tools used for, then? Well, they're "for" whatever the players want them to be for, in the same way a hammer can be "for" carpentry or setting up a tent or blood sport. I'm just writing a recipe - it's up to the hypothetical chef to adjust to taste, incorporate their own ideas, and entertain their guests.

Having said that, of course a hammer has an implied use - bashing in nails. Different games "want" you to use their mechanics in different ways: storygames want you to use them to give structure to a piece of collaborative fiction; crunchy tactical combat games want you to learn and master them to gain advantage in battle.

This game, in the tradition of the OSR/DIY circuit and the original TRPGs before them, wants the GM to use the rules to help govern decisions - and often make those decisions outright, by consulting the dice as an oracle - as they interpret the outcomes of player character actions within a fictional space. These are the kinds of games I most often tend to play and make, and the best fit for our current ideas.
some of the best RPG mechanics I know
Note: Mechanics on their own don't actually do anything. We're not *actually* making a game after all, that's the job of the people who end up running the system, but we're equipping them with things to make their game out of. Mechanics are the tools we give them, the game-bits.

So, making those tools. Where do we start? I mean, we've confined ourselves to the aesthetic bounds of our mood board so the options aren't completely limitless, but there's a lot of scope. Dice, cards, tokens, dominoes? Let's say dice - ah, but which kinds of dice, used in what way - do we add numbers or make pools or use different die types or put them in a tower and dance around the table?

All solid options. I don't really have an answer here - I just go with whatever feels right. Don't forget your mood board if you need reference for what "feels right" means in the context of your game.

Also don't be shy about iterating: nothing will be right first try, guaranteed. Stick with an idea for now, then change it when you inevitably come up with a better one. Your game is the sum of its parts - scrapping something, even something big like a core mechanic, is totally fine and normal.

making lil baby dice mechanics 
General Overview of ~The Process~ (This Time)

I mentioned I already had a skeleton of a system to work from. The process of coming up with something like that is boring and not useful info for you guys imo so I'll run through it quickly:

- Idea: dice pool where you add dice to be more likely to succeed but also more likely to incur negative side effects
- let's say d6, keep it simple
- putting more effort or energy into something and therefore succeeding but feeling the backlash is a good theme
- let's say the players are psychics, and adding more dice is like using more power/focus
- vague idea of them being psychic because of wi-fi and fighting computer viruses or something
- I'm bored of this game and don't know what to do with it
- work on other projects for several months
- oh yeah that thing
- change around some basic concepts (d3 now, cyberpunk setting)
- remember I can't do maths so check google to see if the probability works ok
- yeah sure, looks good, I guess, I mean what do I want a medal
- iterate, iterate, test, wing it, test
- core mechanic

The main question at every stage is never mathematical for me, I'm writing a book not assembling a machine. The only question that matters is "does it feel right?". Again, no one answer here. Use your mood board for guidance. Play games, enjoy them (or not) and think about why, study them, hack them, take them apart and look at the pieces.

If you've GM'd an RPG before, you're already a game designer and have all the necessary skills to make your own. Trust those instincts.

The Players, here represented by the cast of everyone's favourite d&d show, "talky white friends"
Big Picture Stuff

So, our mechanic. I'll get to it. First we're going to zoom out a bit.

The dice roll or whatever being a "core mechanic" is actually a bit of a misnomer, I think - the true core mechanic of any tabletop RPG is the group playing it. Their brains, their imaginations, their interpretations. Their interpersonal relationships and collective communication skills.

The book is just a set of language tools you give them to use. Whatever mechanics we end up with will be just another tool in the arsenal of the actual engine driving the play experience: people. RPGs are people games. Don't lose sight of that.

So before we go further, let's address the real core of the game: the players. Who are the players in your game? How do they play? Why do they play this game?

For most RPGs, the answers to these questions are very similar. If we get specific and look at traditional, challenge-based RPGs (the genre we're working in - remember the mood board), the answers will be almost identical across all games.

Who are the players? A group of friends. (I'm not just writing this for my own group, so I'll specify - not necessarily my friends. I don't know them, but they should know each other.)

How do they play? They have a conversation. One person describes a fictional reality, and the others each control a character within that world. They act, the GM reacts, and the situation progresses.

Why do they play this game? To have fun imagining and solving problems using creative thinking, within the confines of a fictional world.

This is super conceptual shit, I know! Basically, all I'm doing is asking "why" to everything and going with the answer that I like best, until I get a model in my head of how I reckon these games function. That model is then a useful reference for making my own.

Ask yourself these questions if you want. Form your own opinions and you'll have your own model to work from.

Let's talk characters. Like this guy, from 5e D&D
From Players to PCs

Ok, we're really zoomed out right now. That was some fairly umbrella-level Game Design stuff.

Let's ask some more game-genre-specific questions about our players. Two questions in particular actually, and the most important things to know when designing this kind of game.

Q1: What do the player characters do?

Not being able to answer this question was actually why I lost interest in the system initially. It's such an obvious, big thing - all of this stuff should be pretty obvious - but if you don't have answers to these questions then neither will anyone else, and your game won't work.

Q2: How do they do it?

Both these questions are inextricably tied to your game's fiction. If you don't have that mood board nailed down, your answers are going to be vague, noncommittal and incoherent, and, again - your game won't work.

Make sure you're in a position to answer these questions, and by and large stick to your answers throughout development, before continuing.

Our hypothetical player character. What's he up to?
Core Gameplay

Let's answer those questions then.

What do the player characters do? As I said - this was a struggle for a while. I settled on a tried and true classic - they're skilled mercenaries, looking to survive. This was touched on in the fluff on the ol' mood board - it's standard RPG fare.

Player characters have unique talents and abilities that make them valuable in solving many of the dangerous problems the world around them presents, and so - by choice or no - they take it upon themselves to do so.

Basically, they "adventure".

How do they do it? The fun bit. This is the behaviour we're going to be expecting (and therefore should try encouraging) from our players as they act through their PCs.

First, I'll introduce you to a fictional concept that sprang from the mood board. As I've said, what order the ideas come in - fiction, mechanics - doesn't matter, and the lines are blurred. Mechanics came first here. I just think it'll be easier to explain it fiction first.

This needs its own section actually. More after the jump.

it's-a me, a legacy of ingenious game design
Recall our fluff. Everything is connected wirelessly, and so by logic - at least by movie logic, my favourite kind - everything can be hacked. I mean... cyberpunk. The method most commonly at our PCs disposal, as well as special class abilities, is the Troubleshooter. Basically it's a fictional excuse to use two of my favourite mechanic types, Hit Points and attack rolls - albeit in a new context, with some significant changes.

So, uh, these are guns that shoot... "bullets of hack". Like, you need to learn how to use them in-fiction, tune them up in the manner one toys with a sonic screwdriver or taps panels on the Star Trek bridge, to align them with the tech you're aiming at. Then you shoot, and on a hit, you overload its wireless receiver, kinda DDOSing the chip and forcing shutdown while it waits for reboot. You use Pantheon's method of control - wireless signal - against them.


I like the idea, and it's fun. It's also hugely gameable. This is the meat of our recipe.

Sidebar: "gameable"? Qu'est-ce que c'est? A favourite vocab nugget of the DIY contingent. Here's a crash course if you're unfamiliar: consider Mario. Mario can walk, or run, or jump. Basically, he can move. That's the mechanic - the only mechanic, actually.

Is Mario's movement a "gameable" mechanic? Yes - incredibly so. His movement can get him across the level towards the goal. His movement is how he avoids obstacles. His movement can get him into specific spot to grab collectables and powerups. His movement gets him on top of enemies, which are designed to be defeated from above.

So, the Troubleshooter then. Gameable? Well, I'm no Nintendo, but I like to think this is a good idea. A cyberpunk city, full of tech including its residents, with everything wirelessly connected. The primary mechanical interaction being a gun that shuts down tech? That's pretty darn gameable:

- Door's locked! Shoot it.
- Laser grid! Find the control panel, shoot it.
- Armed guards! People all have neural chips, remember? Shoot 'em. (It's like a stun gun - they drop unconscious while the tech part of their brain restores its backups.)

That's not even getting into class abilities - but I'll save those for later. The bell's about to go. You've been good and sat quietly throughout class, so here's that mechanic you wanted. It's our "attack roll" for the Troubleshooter, and a unified skill check too, because I love you and want your life to be easy.

Look at me. Reduced to memes.
"When a player character attempts an action that has a chance of both success and failure, and either would develop the current situation in a way the group finds interesting, the GM calls for a roll. Roll a pool of d3 (1-3, based on skill level in task). Any number of 3s is a success - a roll without 3s is a failure. Players can add additional dice based on class abilities - but when doing so, any 1s cause Overload. The player notes accumulated Overload points on their sheet - break the character's threshold and they shut down."

See? Pretty boring in the end. Roll some dice, they do a thing. The fun bit is all that work we did to get here - and that's what will come across in play.

So, yeah - next time, more mechanics: Class Design.