Wednesday, June 27, 2012

90's Flashback! Capitalized Game Terms

I am cursing myself for following the 1990's RPG tradition of capitalizing Game Terms. I am now having to go back and fix all the capitalized Game Terms in the SBRPG document for the SRD release, and it is annoying to say the least. Why I ever thought doing this to every Game Term I don't know, only that many other games written in the time did it as well. One can't simply find and replace, since that will hose paragraph starts when a Game Term appears there.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rules Light and SBRPG SRD

Two thoughts. One of the goals in producing SBRPG 2.0 is to create a rules-light version that is fast, easy, and fun to play. We live in an iPad world nowadays, and there is no reason RPGs should read like a textbook. I have a mock-up for a page describing the character card that would be cool to share. The final version of the game will originate from this document, since it will be graphically compelling, visual, and look cool.

Speaking of that, I want to also product a SBRPG SRD - basically a text-only version of the rules that reads like a textbook. This should be the definitive rules-resource for the game, and be the DNA all SBRPG documents are created from, including the rules-light version. A SRD can be produced faster, since there is less layout and graphic design work. A SRD will also serve as the beta-test document for the game.

I also need to put together a beta-test agreement, or just put the "all rules feedback is property of us" type message in the preamble of this blog. We love our players, but this sort of thing is needed nowadays and protects everyone. In return, we will think of a way to give back to a number of our top contributors (when the beta ends), like a copy of the printed game or something nice like that. More on what we come up with later.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Limiting the Multiverse

"There are not infinite worlds and times, there are just five."

One problem with many "cross dimension campaigns" is the entire "infinite universes" theory. In DnD, and many other multi-universe games, it is assumed there are infinite Earths, fantasy worlds, sci-fi worlds, and every other period of time multiplied by infinity number of worlds out there. For every Earth, there are infinite Earths; and for every moment of time, there are infinite moments of time across infinite worlds.

It's a mess of a campaign structure once cross-dimensional travelers start opening gates, meeting people from different dimensions, and transferring technology and powers. SBRPG was written to handle this type of play, as yours truly ran a game like this. It is a fun and engaging concept, but one that can spiral out of control and feel like a mess. It is literally he "infinite buffet" of RPG settings, and it can give someone just a bad a stomachache trying to make it all work together.

Time for an alternate solution! Let's limit the number of alternate worlds drastically, to say just five. How do you explain that? The answer is, you don't. If light breaks apart into a finite number of colors, than time breaks down into a finite set of universes. This is like playing SBRPG with a set number of parallel sandboxes on different worlds. Each sandbox has factions, ripples, and everything else; and the possibility exists for cross-sandbox factions and ripples. Let's lay out a sample Pentaverse to play in, and also break up power systems to be unique in each.

World #1: Arcanium. Let's make this a pretty standard fantasy world, with knights, dragons, lost civilizations, and secret magics of yore. We can base this off an alternate Earth, perhaps a Panganea type arrangement of continents, or even Earth itself where the lands we know today are infested by monsters and creatures of wicked chaos, and the only safe lands are giant Atlantis type islands in the oceans. We can use standard arcane and divine power systems in this world, based upon the normal magic and power of the gods style sources.

World #2: Noir. Let's base this on a 1920's to 1950's film noir style world, where totalitarian empires overseas world on fantastic world-destroying weapons, and heroic gumshoes and practitioners of the mystic arts save the world with bare fists and brainpower. If we can base the fantastic powers here on psionics, like the mind altering powers of Xandu the Magician or The Shadow, we are in for a good time.

World #3: Modern Earth. Today's world, with no power systems, just technology and a healthy disbelief in the fantastical.

World #4: Genetic Earth 2120. For fun, let's make a genetically altered superhero world in the future, sort of like The Avengers meets Blade Runner. We will use superpowers in this world, flavored with genetic manipulation type powers, and evil mutant masterminds using their powers to take over the world.

World #5: Terror Space. Earth was destroyed by creatures from beyond, and the scattered star travelers of colonies and planets beyond struggle to understand the ancient terrors from beyond the stars. We can make this world like Cthulhu meets Prometheus, with plenty of alien species and laser pistols. Have fun with it, or make your own.

With our five worlds, we can now establish ground rules for travel between them, like through short-lasting gates, by astral travel, or high-energy machines capable of dimension travel. Treat dimension travel like a white elephant out of the book, and you will be sure it is not abused. Keeping players from creating "gate central station" will eliminate a lot of headaches, and force dimension hopping players to establish safe bases of operation in each universe.

Now the tricky part is establishing why all this dimension traveling is going on, and who knows how to do it? Maybe the players start out in one world, and discover a now-destroyed government project to hop dimensions. It's possible a villainous super-powered group from one of the worlds gets the ball rolling, and players are scooped up into the fight. In most cases, it is good to start the players out in the real world, and slowly uncover the secrets as play goes on.

Don't forget to throw players for a loop once in a while, like stranding them in one world for who-knows-how-long, attacks by other dimensional hopping factions, or any number of other crazy schemes. With the number of visitable worlds limited, each one becomes more important, and the only source of a certain power, like magic items in the fantasy world, or superpower devices on future Earth. Limiting an once-unlimited campaign now opens up new possibilities for fun, and gets players thinking, "Where could I find that?"

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Plan

I am working on gathering together basic playtest documents for SBRPG 2.0, and coming up with a plan for their release. Part of the problem is the original game is so large, and pulling everything out and organizing takes time. The plan is to create a series of version 2.0 documents covering the basics of what's needed to play, and releasing them on the blog as PDFs. We need to cover:
  • Character Creation, Skills, and Special Moves
  • Class Design
  • Race Design
  • Power Systems and Power Design
  • Game Rules (Rolls, Tasks, Movement, Hazards, and Travel)
  • Combat and Damage
  • Vehicles, Equipment, and Weapons
  • The World (Game Worlds, NPCs, and Factions)
These are the eight main sections to the game, and the PDFs will be released as they get completed. I want to simplify a lot of what's there, boiling the game down into the essential pieces, and creating areas where the gaming group fills in the rest. Weapon lists, gear, power lists, and most all the hard data will be pulled out and put into web supplements - they do not need to take up space in the rules beyond a basic list of getting started gear.

It is a fair bit of work revising a game, and it makes me appreciate efforts to update other RPGs. Starting fresh is always cool, but sorting through an established game and figuring out what works, what needs improvement, and areas the game needs expansion is a lot of work. In upcoming posts, I want to talk about areas the game could be improved, and also drop hints of a couple cool ideas we have for the future.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Funny Little Charts

Another playtest of Delta happened last night, and a funny thing happened. In Delta, we aim to being a fun miniatures game, with a couple MMO-isms thrown in for fun. One of these is trade-skilling, and gathering raw materials. In the game, we have a fun mini-game where you wander a map, and gather raw material nodes. With each node flipped, you have a chance of getting some mats, encountering a hazard, or tripping a random monster encounter. It's a bit gamey, but fun stuff.

Well, the charts got horribly out of whack last night, along with the per-turn encounter chances. Bad roll after bad roll sent wave after wave of monsters onto the map, and the poor party felt like they were on the front lines of some war somewhere, and not out happily gathering ore and flowers. I have never seen so many waves of goblins and wolves enter the map in such a short time, and to have wolves fighting goblins, goblins fighting the party, and wolves massing to chomp down on party members was a sight to see. We play these things straight, because if we make a bad rule, we have to play through and live with the results - it makes the fixes obvious, and gives us something to laugh about.

It brought up a realization that sometimes all the little random charts in games can sometimes throw things terribly out of whack. Random charts are fun and cool, but they can destroy a game, even in in-obvious ways. In our game, the encounters were stretching out a normal 30-miniute gather and fight romp into a 4 hour mega miniature combat ordeal. Our little fun mini-game started to take up a night's play, and become a serious effort. We will need to fix those charts, simplify them down to something manageable, and streamline the game tomorrow.

SBRPG has its fair share of charts, but none that would impact what happens on the board, or the items you can find during play. Pre-DnD4 has plenty of magic item charts, with random rolls for all sorts of items pre-assumed to be in the game world. The huge list of spells, monsters, and items in DnD across all editions makes every DnD world like another, so much so DnD itself is a genre of fantasy all its own. The random charts and the items on them are very difficult to change, and the rolls on them impact a game world for the good and bad with every throw.

Stepping back, this is part of why we made SBRPG the way we did, all magic items are custom designs, along with the powers and classes, and we didn't provide charts to put any of them on. When you entered a world, the players got it rolling, but past that point, nobody knew what was around the next corner, or what that strange new item could do. Part of the fun was not knowing, and finding things out for yourself.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


A small note about a pet peeve of ours, game designers. Please don't 'blow out' your dice range with huge modifiers, it's just crazy. When you start adding modifiers higher than the highest roll of your dice, your original curve or dice range becomes meaningless. It is like rolling 1d6+100, sure it is a valid way to generate 101-106, but the random part of that roll is insignificant compared to the magnitude of the number.

SBRPG's highest negative modifier was about -30 on a 3d6 scale, so we come close. Consider you are adding up to +20 for level, and another +10 for ability DRMs, and you are at about 50% for the best of the best versus an impossible challenge. Good games are good math, but we did edge towards blowing out our 3-18 range at the high levels. At low levels, the modifiers are competitive and fun, and it made for a good game.

I think back to the old DnD3 "Epic Level Handbook" where skills capped out at a +100 modifier on a d20 scale, with difficulties for all sorts of craziness, like walking on air, surviving in a vacuum, and all other sorts of stuff that just goes way outside the realm of traditional fantasy, and would be better handled in a superhero game. The modifiers blew out the maximum roll by five times, and it is not too difficult to get skills past +20 in DnD3.

A good limit is half your total dice range, say a maximum of +10 on a d20 roll. You can go up to the maximum number rolled, say +20, but this should only be for the edge cases. Any modifier higher than what you can roll on the dice makes the roll less significant, and the modifier more important. Luck and the dice marginalized, and it becomes more about stacking numbers.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dungeons and Rules Skinnerism

George and I were playtesting another round of his Project Delta fantasy miniatures game last night, and we ran across an interesting observation. For the uninitated, Project Delta is intended to be the ultimate BYOB fantasy miniatures game, and is cool in its own right, replacing the need for many tabletop miniature games, including DnD, Warhammer, and their cousins and extended relatives. More on that rules set later.

Up until now, Delta had been played on city maps, wilderness maps, open tabletops, and all sorts of outdoor locations. Last night's playtests focused on a group of adventurers captured by pirates, and forced to escape a dungeon. Everyone was locked in a central room, and the heroic escape began.

All of a sudden, strange rules arguments started appearing, and even minor actions became huge sticking points. The tight quarters of the dungeon intensified the need for rules covering even minor actions, like listening at doors, disarming guards, and what certain skills could be used for. The close-quarters fight increased the pressure on us to handle everything, write more rules, and make sure every ruling was fair and every situation covered by a rule. A giant pressure cooker had been put around the game, the one-turn-and-you're-dead environment placed a lot of stress on the rules, and the players involved.


I am reminded of B.F. Skinner and his studies of an environment on the role it has in modifying people's behavior. Up until last night, the rules were open and loose, the fights were on large open maps, and the rules could be fast and loose without too many problems. Take that same set of rules, and use it for close quarters battle in a tight dungeon, and all of a sudden you are writing rules for mundane actions, the success of which could be a life-or-death outcome. The intense environment changed the players (and monsters) behavior, and changed the rules we needed to handle those behaviors.

Shift focus to DnD and Pathfinder, and the huge volumes of rules with both games. Seeing what we went through last night, it is understandable these two games are filled with special case rules for all sorts of actions, condition lists covering dozens of maladies and environmental factors, feats covering hundreds of specific combat maneuvers, and all sorts of other minutia. The games seem like collections of years of specific events and special cases, rather than an overall vision and design.

DnD4 tried the 'new design' and rethink route, with pretty good success, but quickly mired down into minutia with dozens of expansion books. The original beautiful design was lost in a sea of expansion product, because the designers could not say no. I will go back to Apple and their design team, and Steve Jobs was once quoted as he was proud of all the things his team said no to, because it would shift the focus of the company, clutter the designs, and make the company a mess of services, ideas, and products.

Back to the dungeon playtest, and what did we do? Well, our rules held up quite well, and it highlighted the need to be clear on a couple sections, such as combat and skill checks. We decided to alter the scenario setup rules to make dungeon scenarios play more like the overland scenarios, and stick to the theme of the game better, instead of dragging down into a detailed man-to-man simulation. We are sticking to our core fun concept, and saying no to turning the game into a simulator.

We will see how things turn out.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Design and Legacy Systems

Continuing the theme of design inspired by Apple's designers, Apple put out a video describing the reasoning behind the decisions they made behind the new Mac Pro notebook with retina support. You can watch the video over on Apple's side on the product page, but one statement stood out more than the rest.

They talked about throwing out support for legacy items, and redesigning the notebook with a balance of power and lightweight form. They threw out the DVD drive, a Firewire port, the IR sensor, and a bunch of other stuff so they could concentrate on what they wanted:
  • Retina Screen
  • SSD
  • Battery Life
  • Lightweight and Thin
The ports were kept to the minimum, they made a next-gen no-noise cooling system, and kept the weight and thickness down to a minimum. There were trade-offs, for sure, but they wanted to make a next-gen notebook, and by all counts, they made an impressive machine.

Apply these principles of design to roleplaying games. You would start the process by asking, "What is important to pen-and-paper gamers?" In my thoughts, they would be:
  • Ease of Play
  • Creating Worlds
  • Customizability
  • Character Builds
  • Lightweight and Thin
Games deriving from DnD3 and 4, such as DnD4 and Pathfinder are clearly heavyweight games which support every legacy spell, magic item, character build, feat, and power from previous editions. In 4th Ed's case, the system itself spans an entire bookshelf, with a computer program (with patches)  needed to build characters. Both are extremely heavyweight games, following the 'more is better' design mantra. If we just put every legacy VGA, Serial Port, USB 1, 2, and 3 port, mic ports, video out, HDMI, etc - this will be the ultimate laptop. You literally get roleplaying games like Homer Simpson's car, with so many options and comforts the entire design crashes under its own weight.

SBRPG 1.0 was guilty of this too, the game was as large as a phone book. Part of the reason is the game was so expandable, and was meant to cover everything. Part of the solution of this is the Internet, and making that expansion material available online, instead of in the book. Apple talks of moving your data to the cloud, and data for roleplaying games should be free and move online.

Still, there is a larger issue with making the core game simple, stripping out every unneeded subsystem and streamlining the game into a 64-page work of art, like the old TSR box games. This little book is all you should need to play - and understand. The cost of learning and maintaining rules for edge cases and once-in-a-lifetime events better ruled by a referee on the spot is too great, and leads to bloat and collections of books filled with rule after unused rule.

Nobody tells today's game designers, "You write a rule, you have to support it later." Writing games is a lot like writing computer code, and the amount of bugs increases exponentially the more and more lines of code you write. Some games are so large they are unsupportable, and the set of rules as written will never be understood by one person. Being able to understand a game's rules in your head is a critical support item, and something all games should strive towards.

I dream of the day where the next version of DnD is simple like the old boxed games, though it will probably never come. The next best thing is to replace the need for such a heavy game, and build a better mousetrap - or notebook.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Danger Level and PC Survivability

The "danger at first level" subject has been hot around various blogs, especially in relation to DnD5 and the playtest materials. A large group of players (and apparently, one designer) feel the power of first level characters is a bit too high at the moment, and it needs to be pared down. Another group likes "tough first level PCs" and enjoys the high-adventure aspect a tough starting character possesses.

With weak starting PCs, players have to be more imaginative and tricky. Going into a room of six orcs with an evenly matches party is a foolish thing, and you don't start fights without an advantage (if you have the choice). A huge part of old-school gaming involves crafting unfair fights, solving puzzles and traps without die rolls and rules intervention, and surviving in a hostile world.

Flip-side, let us look at the "capable starting PC" side of things. A large group of players like being a hero, and being able to take down a roomful of orcs, even when outnumbered. This fulfills a "heroic fantasy" desire in a lot of players, the type that didn't come here to solve puzzles, but to kick butt and be a hero. This style of play is just as valid as the "solve the deadly puzzle" play style, and is quite enjoyable too.

I like refereeing both styles of game, and often mix back and forth between the styles during a session. Players should feel like heroes when the situation calls for it, and also slow down to think through a situation. I also like running "pure " games along both play styles when the feeling suits me and the players.

SBRPG attempted to solve this by World Mood and letting players adjust Hits/level based on the type of game they wanted to play. If you want realism, simply adjust your class designs to have less Hits/level. If you want greater heroism and survivability, adjust these numbers up. World mood comes into play here too, as "the worst thing that can happen" comes up in taking any sort of damage, and the final effect is ruled by the referee. In SBRPG, there can be worlds that mimic TV shows where no one dies perfectly, like a cartoon or kid's action show.

Watching the two sides fight it out over DnD5 is kind of depressing, because both sides can have what they want. A set of options to simulate "survival play" versus "heroic play" can be written in the rules, and the group can agree on what style of game they want to play. I agree it is hard for a commercial product as large as DnD5 to be this open, since a goal of a big commercial release is to standardize play. With smaller games, it is a lot more easy to be flexible, and support play styles players want.