Thursday, March 28, 2013

SBRPG2 Testing Continues: Powers and Talents


Powers are always the tricky part of designing any game, along with the paths these powers take. Anyone can bang out a quickie set of roleplaying rules covering combat and movement, but when it comes to talents and powers, this is where the real design work comes in. You want to provide a sense of progression with both powers and talents, a gradual sense of getting better and more competent. A number of games fail in this regard, or are so stuck to what came before they will never improve.

With D&D3 and Pathfinder, the name of the game is placing powers and unlocks on a Christmas tree called a character class - the same classes that existed way back in D&D1. The class roles are still strictly defined, that choice you made when picking a class at level 1 defines who you are for the most part until level 20. In Pathfinder, this is more pronounced, since it pays to stick with one class. With D&D3, you are supposed to weave and dodge your way up several classes until you find a prestige class you like, and stick with that. They are two different games, but your progression for the most part is predetermined. There are a limited number of options based on the first choice you make.

D&D4 was good when they introduced the second round of multi-classing, you were this interesting mix of two very distinct classes that had strange synergies and power combos. They quickly buried this cool system under a dump truck of errata and add-on books, to the point where designing a character required the online character generator, and you had a shelf full of out of date and worthless books that couldn't be used to play the game. Design-wise, you were still limited by the set of classes you picked, you could synergize in that buid, but if you decided to take your character in a new direction at level 10 you were stuck.

We are trying to take a different spin with SBRPG2. All powers and all talents are open from the start, though your starting stats will help or hurt the choices you make. You are classless, which is a huge change from SBRPG1, but then again, we have a different goal here, this is a different time in history, and we are shooting for a game that provides the ultimate expression of character design and flow as you level up. It is an organic goal, one more suited to exploring power frameworks, making choices, and developing your character as they live through various situations.

The ultimate goal is to reflect your story, your progression, and to let you make choices based on how you feel your character is learning and unlocking powers - without penalizing your progression in other areas. If your mage is fighting and chooses to improve physical toughness and combat ability, you can improve that and put your magical studies on hold for a while as you become a better survivor. If you want to improve social skills through roleplaying, that won't hold you back in other areas, and you can just focus on that exclusively for as long as you would like.

With D&D3.x and its related games, when you get a level, you have to make a choice that punishes your progression in other areas. Picking 5 levels in fighter means you lose 5 levels of progression as a mage. It affects your end-game power incredibly, and a mixed design like a 3/3/3 fighter/mage/thief really suffers in combat power - in no way is that character like a full level 9 anything, and they fall far behind in terms of usefulness to the party. With SBRPG2, we have solved that problem.

Regardless, sorting out powers and design paths takes a long time, and this is something we continue to work on. We are blocking out a system for you to design your own, but keeping things simple at first will allow more people to understand the system, so something like power and power framework design may be left for later to work on. It is a great design, one came through after five years of experimenting, designing, throwing things away,and redesigning a simple system until we had a great base.

That core 'the way things should work' is key here, it is easy to copy another system's progression, but it is unoriginal, and you inherit all of the limitations and flaws of the original. When you set out to do something new, it is always cool, but a very hard road. Finding what the system should do, what it supports, and most importantly, how the system supports the notion of a character story or epic is what we wanted to do here. The idea hit us, and it is more than a simple concept. Thigns have to be carefully worked through and thought of, in order to make the whole greater than sum of its parts.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

DNDClassics and the OGR

Victory, of a sorts.

Wizards and DriveThrueRPG have launched a new PDF store, This doesn't look to be a one-time thing, as they will be having rolling releases every so often. Check the press release for more info. The prices are great, only $5 for a D&D rulebook, and there are sales, which shows an active effort to maintain and drive interest in the store. Wizards deserves kudos for supporting one of the largest PDF distributors, DriveThruRPG, that is great to see them working with the third-party community, and noted and appreciated.

Overall, very nice, and thank you again Wizards for supporting players in the iPad and Android era. This is long overdue, and wonderful to see. I call out the good moves when I see them, and this is a great one, just like the re-release of the D&D 3.5 hardcovers. Hats off to you guys again for doing a great thing.

A couple issues come up because of this. Firstly, I hope D&D Next follows a similar release model with a PDF version being available on Day 0. I know Wizards needs to support its retailers, but that can always be done in other ways, like physical-only copies of modules, special box sets, and other deals. Give me a reason to drop by the game store and I will, but core rules products need to be available in PDF to strengthen the brand.

Another issue that I have read on various OGR forums is that old-school retro-clones are dead, such as Basic Fantasy and Labyrinth Lord. With the release of the original rulebooks in PDF form, why play the retro-clones? Some are saying, the battle is won but the war is lost. I will agree with the elephant in the room, and say yes, the OGR is dead - at least how we knew it before.

These sort of things happen in the computer world all along, people flock to an alternative operating system because of some compatibility or workflow improvement, and then the big guys (Apple and Microsoft) copy it in their own way, and all of a sudden, everybody has this capability and there is no reason to stay with the old system. Same thing here, the original rules were out-of-print and locked away for the longest time, and the only way people could enjoy them were through the retro-clones. Now, Wizards releases the old material via PDF, and the reason to stick with the old systems is gone - right?

Not entirely. Remember, the old copies of D&D are still locked up behind a great copyright wall, third party producers still can't support 'old D&D' directly, say a module is compatible with it, or produce any material for it. If you support the OGL market, you have plenty of reasons to stick with Labyrinth Lord and other old-school clones. If Wizards starts tweaking licensing for the old books to support third-party publishers, things will really start to get interesting.

Let's call the new OGR the OGR2.0, and eliminate any notion of playing this because the old games are not available. What are our strongest reasons to play? As noted, the freedom for third-party publishers to publish and express themselves is important, and one of the great things that came out of the D&D3.0 era. Our new OGR2.0 should absorb the best qualities of why people should support it, and stick to those fundamental rights of game players. We may come to a time where the SRD and OGL is moved aside for more free and configurable licensing system such as the Creative Commons, and the electronic rights to play these games is protected and encouraged by third party developers. We live in the digital, portable world nowadays - what sense it it to play games that have such onerous electronic licensing restrictions?

In a way, D&D Classics is a great thing to happen, because it will force everybody to 'up their game.' Being the only source of old-school gaming isn't good enough anymore, quality has to improve, communicating 'the message' has to improve, and the core concept of freedom and third-party support needs to be spoken loud and clear. While I love the old games, in a way, they are not good enough to support the 'evergreen ecosystem' we desire in the digital age.

A revolution does need to happen, and while I love my copies of D&D, and Wizards, please get around to releasing Top Secret, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers and the other greats - the OGR needs to retool, rebuild, and recreate games built around freedom, quality, and openness. It is possible a new open-source 'operating system' needs to be created, and released for third party teams to support, sort of like 'The Android OS of Roleplaying'. While Android can be put of some crap hardware, it can be put on the best hardware as well, and it continues to grow daily.

The challenge both Wizards and the OGR community needs to think about is the 'Android problem,' and how to get revenue off a system such as that. You need an open-source gaming system, with hooks back home. Google does it electronically, by linking the OS to its search and advertising revenues. It could be as easy as making the D&D Next license free and open to use, but requiring every player to go through a free-to-use portal for rules downloads, character sheets, games, and the like. Free-to-play and freemium is the model to support, so subscription fees need to go away. The 'next RPG' should be as easy to play as creating an account, using the online character creator, picking a rules module, bringing up one of your character sheets, and playing. Once they are in the door, then charge for expansions and options.

You see, a fundamental shift is happening, a change in the market, and the new RPG market is waiting out there to be captured and owned. We are in a time of change, the old OGR needs to change, and someone needs to step up and own this opportunity. The new way of playing RPGs is out there and carried around in people's pockets and backpacks every day, and while PDFs address one piece of the puzzle, who is going to fill in the rest with that 'new way to play?'

Saturday, March 23, 2013

SBRPG2 Playtesting

We are busy writing the fifth revision to the SBRPG2 rules this morning, and prepping another playtest of the rules. It is turning out to be fun to take other games and just play them through with our rules. We have played Arkham Horror, various D&D modules, Pathfinder adventure paths, and we are now gearing up for a Descent playthrough this weekend. It is fun to see the differences the rules system brings to the table, and then tweak that for the experience.

The experience is key, you want to have that go-to game, that rules system that invites you to experiment and play. It is like finally finding that phone you can't live without, or that laptop that becomes the central part of your workflow. All of a sudden it is not about making compromises anymore, there are no limits, and you can express yourself instead of fighting your tools. Roleplaying becomes expression, and the situation becomes the driving motivation, not 'I am playing X'.

It is transformational, and enlightening. Complicated rules systems choose to bind you, to limit you, and are so heavy they become the only thing you could ever know and think within. They seek to limit, not expand and explore your experience. I want a game that does everything, and like that phone or like that laptop, enables my creativity, not limits it.

This is where so many games get it wrong, they want you to celebrate Paizo's or Wizard's game design teams as the game design superstars. I want to create a game that lets you be the superstar designer, and celebrates what you create.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


We have merged the SBRPG2 and Project Delta games, and we are working on some sort of beta. There is a lot of work to do, so stay tuned. There is a new goal, merge the any-play and sandbox of the original SBRPG, while integrating the rules-light and simple pick-up-and-play of Delta. From our testing, it is a very unique and interesting game. Stay tuned.