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. 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.

Tuesday 12 March 2019

The Mountain (a 200 word campaign)

A distant peak hidden in cloud, a temple tended by silent birdmen.

Further down, crags and caverns. Bitter cold, biting wind. Beware the vultures and regard their holy nests.

In all shadows lurk fiends; worst of all the bogeyman, who can and will eat anything or anyone that is lost.

Monkeys bathe in hot springs. They cannot work the forge; some secret smith must make their weapons. And down further still, it is warm. Where trees grow, there are cunning birds, messengers of weather gods.

A stairway city, palimpsest on some forgotten culture's stone. Houses and stalls like riverbanks to its 108 steps, banners and lanterns as bridges. That pilgrim path leads up to a fat statue, the bounds of civilisation. Buy a talisman, a snack for the road, and the grateful vendor will tell you: pass on the idol's left side for luck.

On slopes, thick jungle cleared for farming. Rice grows well in clear pools. Goats are steeds, cartpulls, a feast.

The foot of the world is endless mist.

Take this sword, my son, our family's shame. Forged in sin from the shinbone of a dragon calf.

Return it to the temple and beg forgiveness from the sky.

Thursday 7 March 2019

Design Doc 1.1: Mood Board

~Patreon peeps, check out my last post on there for an update :)~

Just started work on a new project. I'm going to be recording bits of the design process in a new series of posts - this is me working stuff out, tinkering, building a game from scratch.

Every project is very different, but this is essentially all the kind of stuff I do normally, codified into something readable. Not sure how interesting it'll be but hey, this is a game design blog - let's design a game!

some notes so far for this game -
hopefully these posts will be slightly more legible
In the last blogosphere post I linked Dan D's Core Themes post, and I thought it would be a good start to this series if I did something similar.

Let's make a mood board.

(What? Why? Well... tl;dr: This is good design work because it solidifies ideas into usable material, begins the process of Actual Work out of idle speculation, and starts a foundation from which to more reliably make creative choices during development.)

A screenshot from the upcoming Astral Chain.
I already had a skeleton of this game's underlying system shelved in my head, but this trailer was what rekindled me into making it A Thing. Look at it!
Where to Begin?

We start with one idea - often for me, this idea is made up of a few smaller ones clumped together.

It doesn't really matter to me what that first idea is - some people say to never start with a mechanic, for instance, but that's kind of where this game started, and the last game I made too.

Don't worry about ideas. Ideas are cheap and easy, we all have them, all the time. The ~mood board~ is about picking and choosing which ideas are going into this pot - that's not cheap, that's work.

So, the idea here: a cyberpunk world based on ubiquitous modern tech and my generation's relationship to it, rather than the 80s-ish genre default. Specifically, a game world completely connected by wireless internet.

Blade Runner: Blackout 2020. This world defines cyberpunk for a lot of people, and was always going to be an inspiration - but an anime version from the Cowboy Bebop creator? Absolutely.
(They're making a series, too!)
What's a Mood Board?

The form a mOoD bOaRd takes depends on the creator, the project... the time of day. Last game I made, it was a 1-page google doc with some bullet points, a single image link and a list of adjectives.

This time, it's a few google image search results and maybe some music. It's all super arbitrary, but that's fine. If I think it fits, it goes in. We can trim later if necessary.

As far as this series goes, I'm only really nailing down visual aesthetics for now, plus a few bits of written fluff. I'll avoid number-y, dice-y mechanics talk if I can help it, that comes later - here I'm concerned with an image, a tone, a "feel" of what this thing is in my head. Then, I'll know what it is I'm making, and I can make it. Design Goals.

I still haven't seen 2049! (I'll get a DVD, write it off as research material).
What I have seen of it are all those lovely, arresting images from the trailers. The overlap of virtual and physical here, the colours, that neon AR look - that's definite mood board material.
These images aren't necessarily art reference for potential illustrations - though they could be - they're just visual stimuli that put me in the right mindset. They also don't have to be from thematically relevant properties - though, again, many are. This bit is a purely visual exercise.

All the game is right now is a nebulous clump of ideas somewhere in my noggin, so I'm just adding some definition, giving myself a quick shortcut back to that headspace through some pretty pictures.

SMT: Soul Hackers. On my to-play list, next time I feel like a clunky old dungeon crawler.
These characters, those colours, that gun! Plus, what I know of the gameplay is certainly relevant. This fits.
Why Make a Mood Board?

OK, this is all getting a bit holistic. How exactly is this practical game design stuff?

Well, design goals, like we mentioned. But on that purely practical level, this is a really crucial part of the process I'm getting out of the way - decision making.

Remember, ideas are cheap and easy. I'm going to have a lot of them while making this. By referring back to the mood board, any future tough decisions on which of those ideas make the cut are already made for me.

"Should I add in this new mechanic?" Well, does it make the game feel more or less like the mood board?

"Which of these two equally valid design options should I go for?" Answer: whichever feels more like it belongs on the mood board.

I think "kill your darlings" is a little dramatic, but any creative process is going to involve those tough calls. Let the mood board ease your pain.

More things I, uh, haven't actually seen. I know Psycho-Pass is neo-noir, like Blade Runner, so it's kinda relevant.
But purely visually: neon blue, chunky gun-tech, cool anime city. I like.
Expanding the Mood Board: Fluff

So we've got some art. Time for some words.

We may call fiction "fluff" in this hobby, but don't underestimate it. Especially not in tabletop RPGs, when the mechanics are made of both fiction and numbers - "vampires hate sunlight", for instance, is as much a mechanic as "add your STR bonus to your ATK rolls".

So to start, I'm going to pitch the game world - and in a way, this is the beginning of pitching the mechanics. If I decide that werewolves exist in this world, f'rinstance, and that they can be controlled by silver collars, that's a mechanic the players might end up using, even if it's "just fluff" and never codified in the nitty-gritty numbers bit of the rulebook.

No werewolves here though.

More Astral Chain. I don't think mine is a monster-y game, but the style being evoked here is a big influence I want to draw from: Japanese tokusatsu. As well as the "live action anime" visuals, a common concept in toku is people augmented by the cutting-edge tech of a big, evil corporation using their new powers to fight back. BIG MOOD.

After buying majority shares in local government, the megacorporation Pantheon built and designed the Ether, the city's hyperspeed wireless network. Every piece of technology - including people, through corporate-mandated neural implants - is hooked up, a steady stream of data being fed into Pantheon's central processors for constant algorithmic analysis.

Despite the conspiracy theories, Pantheon's dataminers don't keep extensive biological records, read minds or even collaborate with law enforcement, except in extreme cases. They just want to know how they can make more money. Targeted ads for subsidiary products, paywalled essentials and subscription-model housing. The city is a controlled petri dish for market testing.

Players are outcasts and rebels known as Zeroes, citizens who have illegally modified their own neural chips. Defected security personnel, career hackers, and those few whose malfunctioning chips caused amplified, even supernatural, mental abilities.

Pantheon has bought your city. Time to take it back.


All details, proper nouns etc, subject to change. It's unlikely any of the actual text I wrote here will make it into the final game - I really don't like lore in my recipe books - but if I know this stuff, and have it written somewhere to reference, then I have a foundation for the bits that do go in the book - the practical, gameable bits we can use in play.

The cover for the JPN release of the Dirty Pair game on the Famicom Disk System. The art itself, sure - but also the old clunky tech with its lil mascot, the mix of kana and romanji, even the grain of this particular image scan, are all a fit.
Concrete Design Goals

Still too vague? Let's get even more practical. As part of the mood board, let's decide what kind of game this is.

(I'll note at this point that all projects change as they develop, and any bit of this could end up being scrapped. A lot of what's in this post is very different to the game as I initially conceived it! The wisdom of what stays and what goes comes only with experience, but this whole exercise is a great way to start training that skill.)

Again, all of this is pretty arbitrary - but hey, what isn't. I've decided that I want this game to be:

- light and simple. duh.
- challenge-based. or an adventure game, or "trad" or whatever it's called now
- tactical. not something I've done before! but I reckon it fits.
- easy on the GM. I'm big on this in general, but I'm writing it here to remind myself it's a focus

And I know the mechanics I'm using already, but if I didn't I'd put some guidance here, ready for when I was wrangling with them later. Intuitive, readable, mathless, player-facing.

There's gonna be a soupcon of Cowboy Bebop in there, for sure.
But what I'm more into here is the vaporwave edit on this image. The neon and clunk and virtual aspects of that aesthetic make it a definite consideration for the mood board. Vaporwave can be our modern replacement for the "punk" part of cyberpunk, the countercultural update.
【lo fi beats to study and relax to】
More Stuff for the Mood Board

Anything that helps you pin this thing down and begin to give it structure can go on the mood board. A playlist, a doodle, a quote. Sometimes I'll think up suggestions for names for the finished game. (Hmm... "Splinternet"? "Overload"? We'll see.)

One thing I like to do is a short blurb, almost like a prototype Kickstarter pitch. This can be a good place to start a mood board, then go back once you're done and change it if needed.

Let's see...

"A lightweight RPG of hacking and tactical espionage, set in a cloud-connected world inspired by cyberpunk anime and tokusatsu."

Lookin' good so far. I'd back it!

Part of the vaporwave thing I'm particularly digging here, along with the 90s anime vibes, is the kind of auxiliary subculture of post-ironic reappraisal of 80s Japanese citypop. It's so bittersweet: the optimistic warmth of days gone by presented with cold intangibility, the naive yet effusive joy of a short-lived capitalist "utopia" from the enlightened perspective of a harsh, modern world.
Not entirely sure how that's going to surface in the actual game, but on the mood board she goes!
And that's it for now. The only other thing I'd add is to keep a mood board short and sweet. Don't turn making one into a task in and of itself. Slap some ideas around and then move on.

I know that what we've covered here are very simple concepts, likely nothing new if you have any experience with design or GMing, but if you read all that I hope you found something useful.

We haven't really touched much on actual game design stuff yet, but we've built a good square one to set off from.

Next time, mechanics.

to close: Fuck Visual Realism. If this does get pictures, I want illustrations, not concept art. Like Gurenn Lagann's lovely, cool as heck interstitial art. Stuff like Jet Set Radio, too,.
Give me angles and colour and style over substance. I want the PCs looking like characters from a fighting game.

awww yeah, now we're talkin'

Tuesday 5 March 2019

The Seven Seas

Campaign setting for any fantasy game - pulp adventure would be best. Remove any teleport/plane shift abilities: if you want to get somewhere, you sail there.

The Seven Seas are listed in reverse order, top to bottom. Rolling a d6 on the first few tells you where your characters are from.


The Seventh Sea: The Sea of Fire

Eternal darkness above, lit from below. Flame and molten metal, fierce red and brilliant orange.

Islands: Blood-black stone. Craggy, sharp here and smooth there, sooty and twisted.
The Locals: Skin of any colour seen in flames - deep red, pale yellow, muted indigo. Horns, the occasional tail. Passionate and devoted in all things.
Beasts: Few. Large, slow, rocky and terrible - probably invincible.
The Holy Orb: The Red Stone. Deep within a cave, it is given as the grand prize in a tournament of strength, combat, poetry and all other worthy skills. Consume it to gain the ability to grow in size and stature to match your massive, unconquerable spirit. Must be regurgitated and returned within the year as the prize for the next contest.
The Sage: A famed beauty, their words as silky and sharp as their blade. Learn a snicker-snack of the sword that can carve stone and steel and set the cutting edge alight.

Going Down: Nothing.
Going Up: A risky endeavour; the Black Sea is like a wall with the weight of an ocean. You will need a drill to pierce the heavens - local smiths are able to upgrade your ship into something resembling a helldozer, but such favours are serious things here, paid in mighty deeds.


The Sixth Sea: The Sea of Darkness; The Black Sea

Ink, murk. Any light is diffused and quickly swallowed, refracted on clouds of silt. Sound dies, breath fails.

Islands: Tunnels, spires, catacombs. Twisted reefs and mass graves. The derelicts of all upward seas.
The Locals: Whether they are shy, ethereal or simply do not exist is the subject of debate only among drunken sailors when all other topics have run dry. Who would want to stay here long enough to say hello?
Beasts: Shifting shapes in the dark, some small, some monstrously vast. Lights that blink alluringly then disappear. Muffled screams, plaintive pleas - these are warily dismissed as lures to a quiet doom.
The Holy Orb: The White Pearl, in the clutches of some monster. Swallow it and see - truly see - for the first time. Invisible becomes visible, illusions hold no sway, blinding light or crushing darkness are no match. All script is legible, though you must learn the grammar or code yourself, and the spirits of the dead that drift up through the seas towards the hereafter can be seen in great streams across the skies.
The Sage: Somewhere, in the carapace of a long-sunk cathedral, a white-haired fish sleeps in a bubble. Wake it, learn how to hear its words, and it will teach you how to find your way to land while lost on any sea.

Going Down: Falling through silt. Horrendously claustrophobic, but very doable.
Going Up: Keep going, even though nothing seems to come closer. Push through the despair, black out from exhaustion, and wake up on a shore in the Deep Blue.


The Fifth Sea: The Deep Blue Sea

Roiling and churning, yet changeable. Blue, yes, but green, black, grey. Goes through phases - brightly lit, with the Fourth Sea above reflecting its blue waters, then deep dark, with piercing lights from the Second Sea twinkling down.

Islands: Mud, lush with greenery. Occasional sand or mountains - sometimes ice.
The Locals: Various shades of brown, somewhat hairy. Nice enough but intensely tribal - ingratiating yourself into a community is simple, but be careful you don't find yourself allying to one side of a deeply knotted inter-generational feud. They are all storymongers, with myriad legends telling half-glimpsed truths of the other seas.
Beasts: So many! Bugs and fish, mostly, and the land is teeming with little hairy things like cats and pigs. Each island will often have some variant bird or special local creature.
The Holy Orb: The Round Stone. Old and dull grey, revered by each tribe for its supposed part in various folk tales. They are always stealing it from each other and placing it in ever more elaborate temples. Eat it and learn to speak and hear any language - the tongues of mortals, of the animals, of clouds and stars and ancestral ghosts.
The Sage: Skin like a nut-shell, beard like sea-foam. Cantankerous, giving little away. Follow him and study well, and you too can learn to fly.

Going Down: Hold your breath and dive under. Taking your ship along will require some upgrades, but the three mechanical parts you need are all made by different tribes that were once a single group.
Going Up: A flying machine?! Don't be preposterous... You sound like that one tribe who live in the jungle crater yonder and all worship birds. There's a really tall mountain somewhere, you can climb if you're desperate.


The Fourth Sea: The Pale Blue Sea; The Sea of Sky

Colourless, glassy and prismatic yet in motion. Far below and far above, distant seas are visible.

Islands: A single mountaintop, some fallen clouds - the rest of them, people made with clockwork and driftwood.
The Locals: Inoffensive pastel skin tones. Nomadic, free spirited, individualists.
Beasts: This is the home of dragons - stratospheric serpents that embody the weather. They, like the strange birds and flying fish that dwell here, never need to land.
The Holy Orb: The Bright Star. Intense white light, too bright to bear. Races across the sky each day like a rocket, then sinks down to extinguish itself in the Deep Blue below, where it disappears into vapour, only to be reborn again with the dawn. Eat it and you can walk on this sea, or any other - but if you do gobble it up, you'd better find the folk downstairs a new Sun.
The Sage: A young adventurer like yourselves, wandering in a flying greenhouseboat. She knows how to raise plants and animals from each sea in any of the others.

Going Down: Fall. Or, begin the long trek down the mountain.
Going Up: Make a deal with the dragons and they'll let you pass.


The Third Sea: The White Sea; The Sea of Cloud

Brilliant, pure white. Lit seemingly from everywhere. Has topography: pillars, chasms.

Islands: Architecturally beautiful, each wisp or mass of cloud like a different material.
The Locals: Very tall and beautiful, with white-feathered wings. Unless you can prove you've earned the right to be here, they'll assume you made your way up by some cruel trick of nature; something for them to pity, to remind them how well they have it.
Beasts: Winged horses and porcelain pigs, many-plumed songbirds and solid gold grasshoppers. Like your animals, but good.
The Holy Orb: The Cloud Heart. Deep in a bureaucratic labyrinth. Consume it, and this entire sea bends to your will - they'll beg you to keep it afloat. Will you be a tyrant or a benevolent god? In any case, nab some little cloud-balls while you're here that you and your friends can zip around on.
The Sage: It's a long and boring process, but you can learn how to manifest magic powers within your genitals to be passed on to your progeny. Now your kid can change their face or breathe fire or something.

Going Down: One of the many gaps - this is the smallest sea, and you can see through the transparent Third into the Fourth far below, down at the bottom of great chasms through which starlight shines from the Second above.
Going Up: Cloud rivers.


The Second Sea: The Astral Sea; The Sea of Stars

The vantablack void utterly spoiled with stars. Nebulae, galaxies, clouds of cosmic matter. The Moon.

Islands: Not here. Planets, perhaps, if you somehow navigate the endless expanse.
The Locals: Starthings, crystal chimes, tentacled ectomorphs, gas giants and red dwarves. Each on a ship or vessel of some wondrous design.
Beasts: There are star whales, sure, and alien monsters, but here it is intelligent life that rules.
The Holy Orb: The Smallest Planet. A little pink sphere with a yellow ring floating around its equator. Eat it, and you can become many - one naked clone of yourself born from light per star cycle, dying at day's end.
The Sage: A moon elf looking to go back home to one of the trillion other moons here. If you take them back, they can unlock their people's holy vaults, and give you the universe's greatest secret - a spell of teleportation.

Going Down: One of these directions is probably down.
Going Up: Not "up", per se - we've reached the end points of the universe's sense of relative positioning. But there are scholars and mystics on lower seas who know the way. Or just die - your soul will see the First Sea on its way out.


The First Sea: The Sea of Dreams

Every colour. Distance and form are forgotten. All seems close, embracing. A... "place"? Maybe.

Islands: I don't understand the question.
The Locals: All of you, in a way.
Beasts: Hmm... pass.
The Holy Orb: If you somehow do find it, it's probably God. (Or, the GM says nothing about it until your characters get there, then when you ask they just look at you, smile, and hand you a d20.)
The Sage: There are a few who dwell here, if "here" is anywhere. All know the secret of reincarnation.

Going Down: Wake up.
Going Up: ...?