A Beginner’s RPG

RPGs are often designed for the expert player’s experience. An RPG game designer is likely to have had many experiences playing games and already has a concept of how the game “should” work. It would be great to see a board game designer who has no experience with RPGs be asked to make one. A game for beginners by a beginner that knows how to make a game, just not “our” game.

The reason I find that situation intriguing is that it would seem like it would produce a game that is much more beginner friendly. It would probably ignore ideas that an experienced RPG designer would think of as important. Like knocking out chunks of DNA and seeing what happens to an organism, we could learn immeasurable lessons about what it takes to make an RPG.

So what are things that you find in almost every RPG? Character sheets come to mind. What if you didn’t have them? How would you track who your character is and what they can do? Cards might be a way of keeping track of who your character is. Simple things like a special ability or equipment. Maybe if there were only a few attributes, you could simply remember what your character could do? Would a board game designer even use attributes?

I think it’s fairly obvious that a board game designer would not have a big beefy game book. If anything, they might make some kind of board for tracking game states. Things like hit points, would easily be managed by on a board with tokens. If you want a record of a game that’s interrupted, take a picture of the board.

Things like initiative might not even come to mind or if they did, might not show up like we’re used to. Either you take turns in the order you sit around the table, or it might be tracked on a board by how many rolls you’ve made in something like a racetrack.

Although most game makers would be familiar with the idea of experience points from things like video games, someone who was truly starting fresh would probably not come up with that idea. It’s more likely that if there was some kind of advancement, that you’d draw from a reward deck. As that deck depleted, the chances of advancement reduce because the player’s keep the advancement cards while the other rewards cycle in and out of the deck. This would also cap the total possible advancement so you don’t see overpowered characters. It would require a very large reward deck though.

Now, what about a “win” state? Most games have some kind of an end state that tells you that you’ve won. RPGs don’t do well with that because they’re supposed to be open ended. I’ve seen “arena world” RPGs that no one wants to play because there’s not enough of a story to them. They have a clear goal and a clear win state, but it’s not interesting. What if each player got a card that said what their “win” state was? Maybe the character is retired after that? Maybe the “win” is that you get to take one of the reward cards?

What about for the GM? Maybe the game board would track enemies in very simple terms. Maybe the game board also acts as a kind of random encounter table for generating games on the fly.

The real question is story, and how is it treated? I think there needs to be a specific world for the players to act in. A universal game engine is not beginner friendly because it’s not specific enough for the GM or even the players. It has to be open enough so that each player can pursue their own interests, but the main way to get what you want is usually via one path (traditionally this is slaying monsters). This also has to be communicated quickly and simply.

I’d like to make a free version of this game. A game tracking piece of paper for 1 to 4 players (if you have more players, print off another page). A printable deck of cards (printable decks are not my favorite, but it’s a workable solution). A small game book, under four pages describing how to play. A boxed version of this game would be a nice upgrade.

Game Making To Do List

I’ve got way to many pans in the fire. I need to select a target and finish it off one by one so that I can clean up my backlog of projects. The following list is more for me than for anyone else to read through. I just thought it’d be fun to share.

  1. Artwork for Protector.
  2. Artwork for Jump Temp.
  3. Edit and finish Eat the Meappets and then make artwork for it.
  4. Re-write the last sourcebook for The Artifact-Imbalance of Power and update it’s art.
  5. Write another chapter for The Imbalance (An Artifact based novel)
  6. Finish my goofy shark tank like game Apparatus Dominant
  7. Make an expansion pack for I Didn’t Do It! murder mystery card game
  8. Work on my sci-fi random story generator, a project I dropped a while ago but looking back, made some real progress on.
  9. A revamp and clarified version of Bubs the Robot.

Honestly that list is shorter than I expected it to be. A lot of it is waiting on artwork that I just haven’t felt like doing, but not all of it. There’s a bit there I can get moving on without art.

Although I do have a bunch of non-Store32 things I’m trying to do, I’m taking programming courses, I have two books I want to read, etc. The point of this is to try and tick off a few of these items so that I don’t feel like I’m so far behind in all my projects.

I’m hoping to buy a new digitizer tablet for art soon. I’ve recently discovered that there’s a lot of options that are far less expensive than I thought. I’m hoping that the art malaise I’ve been feeling is due to my underperforming Fujitsu tablet making art less than enjoyable to produce. I guess I’ll throw $400 at the problem and hope it goes away.

RPGs need a Keurig

I like drinking coffee when role playing, but what I mean is that there needs to be a way of taking the complicated rules and choices of an RPG and encapsulating them into an easy to use package.

A coffee capsule cost more but it’s easier to process when you want coffee. It also comes in smaller doses.

Can you tell I just woke up and made coffee?

I’m really not sure how to apply this yet, it just seems like it could work if someone tried.

What Does The Energy System Do?

My two new RPGs both use my Energy System (ES), why am I using it and what is the system good for?

ES is designed to play a game that tells the story of characters exerting themselves. The core of the system is that each character (or really any entity) has a certain amount of energy to exert on the world. Traits say what the character is good at and makes the energy they spend more effective.

Why ES and not some other system?

ES handles a number of things organically that other systems need special rules for. It was developed with the question of “What might an RPG look like if they didn’t stem from war-games?” For example, there are no Hit Points, a staple of war games. The closest thing a character gets to hit points is their Energy Dice. There are no separate rules for combat or other skill challenges. They’re all handled the same way. This results in a game that handles any type of in game challenge using the same rules. The only special cases are more like examples of how to use the core rules in specific situations.

What is different about playing ES?

One main difference is the approach to storytelling. This is not a storytelling game as some RPGs have sold themselves. The game dictates what happens in mechanical terms, then the player interprets the game result and tells the story from that. Players are free to tell exciting and impressive tales about their character, but are constrained to make the tales fit the game result. This is a very different experience that some love but others find alien.

Another big difference is in the pacing of the game. Often many dice are rolled at once for each turn. One of the original design criteria was that my players wanted to use a range of dice types so ES obliges them. The important thing to remember is that, rolling the dice is not telling about a single action, but is a stage of a challenge. A character in the ES doesn’t swing a sword, they enter a duel. They don’t dodge an attack, they engage in defensive maneuvers. If players try and explain their rolls in terms of single actions as most RPGs do, the story of what goes on in game will seem very short. If the explain the game results in broader efforts and tell the story of how those efforts went, the game is fuller and will feel properly paced.

At it’s core ES has two main elements to the rules, Agents and Traits. Player Characters are not referred to as an Agent, but are in fact special instances of an Agent. NPCs are Agents but so is equipment, vehicles, and even things like super powers. An agent is anything that has it’s own pool of energy dice. Traits make the dice the player will roll bigger, making the numbers larger and the results higher (on average). There are different kinds of Agents and Traits, but the whole system boils down to those two elements. In play, this sometimes takes players a little bit of getting used to, mostly to unlearn all the baggage that many games require.

ES simulates a large number of situations and interactions with it’s simple ruleset. For vehicles, fuel tracking is handled by their Energy Dice. Weapons ammunition are handled by their Energy Dice. A gun jamming is handled by the Energy Dice. Encumbrance is handled by Energy Dice. At the same time Energy Dice are how the characters get things done so they aren’t tracking several different values, it’s all managed the same way. Social conflict, survival situations and combat are all handled in the same manner.

Is the ES a universal system?

The ES is flexible, but it’s not universal. In each application, the ES needs adjustment to set the proper tone. In most cases, specific types of Agents are considered special to the setting and get special rules. Character creation also has to happen differently to handle different genres.

Mad Scientist Invention Game

I still don’t have a name for it, but we playtested a new card game the other day and had a lot of fun. The players get five cards that say what their invention does. Some cards are good, some are bad.

The players show off the good things their invention does and hide the bad. They do a little elevator pitch for their invention and try and describe it. The fun part is the descriptions are really goofy when they’re all mashed together. We were giggling through the whole playtest.

Next the players pick if they want to be an early adopter and invest heavily in someone else’s invention, make a small investment in an invention, or not invest at all. Early adopters get to see all the bad cards, investors only get to see one bad card of the inventor’s choosing (naturally the least bad card).

Now everyone votes what invention they would actually buy. There are monetary rewards for having your invention picked and rewards for investing wisely, but bad cards cut down on the rewards. The player with the most money at the end of the game is the winner.

Except. . .

There is an “Ends Civilization” card. If an inventor can get an invention with this card in it’s stack to be purchased by the other players, they automatically win the game!

Balancing Function With Simplicity

I’m a simulationist. When I make a game, I want it to handle the situations that I throw at it and I want the whole thing to be elegant. The problem I have is, I’m always adding more situations that I want my games to work under.

For example, in the Energy System (the system that is powering Protector and Jump Temp) the function of things like vehicles is pretty simple. The problem I’ve been having is how many passengers a vehicle can carry. On the one hand, I could just say “use common sense.” A motorcycle can carry one or two people and a car can carry four or five and be done with it.

But then I wanted to throw a light airplane in the equipment list. How many people does it carry? One? Four? Twelve? How big is a “light” airplane?

That’s a bit of a minor issue, but not simulating things like passengers properly leads to weird issues. For example, a motorcycle is probably a little faster than a car, but the car can probably travel further. As things are, they kind of balance each other out and motorcycles cost about the same as a car, which is an odd result.

That kind of thing really bugs me. There are structures in place to handle this kind of problem, but the system handles everything in terms of challenges and I’m not sure what kind of challenge “passengers” are and if I want to spend time in game even handling that.

I could write it off and say “Adding one passenger costs one die” and that could work. The problem with that is it’s one more rule to add to the system.

I had to half add a rule for money. In reality, all I did was explain how to handle money in the existing framework, but it had to called out and explained. I’d rather not have to add a special rule for passengers.

I’ll work on it. . .

Aliens In Jump Temp

Yep, it's ugly

You can have your bumpy headed aliens that you’re likely to see on shows like Star Trek, but if you’re serious about your science fiction, you want to have alien aliens.

With that in mind, the aliens in Jump Temp are not humans with bumpy heads. Not only do they look weird, they’re darn hard to communicate with. Considering an alien is likely to have very different thinking than humans, it would seem unlikely that they would speak languages that we’d easily translate. The closest thing we have to an alien language on earth is whale song. So if it’s hard to talk to a creature that breaths air like we do, imagine how hard it would be to understand a creature that breaths ammonia at pressures that would crush our lungs.

There are three races established in the Jump Temp book. Two were discovered before they achieved space flight (no prime directive here!). One, the Neamasta, have their own starships and maybe a different FTL technology. They’re being very secretive and although humans have allowed them into our space, they have not returned the favor. What are they up to? What are they hiding? The book leaves that up to you. I know what I’m going to have happen in our gaming group, but the idea is to establish the world and then let the players find their own way.

Jump Temp Starmap

central starmap

I realized it would be very helpful to have a star map for Jump Temp so I started looking for a real map of stars. I ran into Winchell Chung’s HabHYG maps and though, “Perfect!” only I realized his warning about the 30 parsec maps being accurate, that they were unusable due to the number of stars in them. I then realized I needed to reduce the number of inhabited stars in the map but I couldn’t do that without re-drawing the map. I also wanted to indicate where alien worlds were. I resolved to re-draw the map for myself. Which proved to be far harder than I thought, which is saying something because I thought it would be pretty difficult.

I ended up getting a new web server running (my old development one died a bit ago) and fired up the ol’ PHP code to read the HabHYG dataset and draw the maps for me. I’m very happy with the results even though there’s a lot of crowding going on. I’ve never used PHP to create an image so this was really new to me. It took way less time than I thought it would. The above picture is the central region, about 15 parsecs square.

I still can’t show the whole map in one image. If I make the text bigger, the stars start to crowd each other so I split the map into regions.

Thanks to Winchell for the dataset!

Drive

I was leaping down the rabbit hole that the internet is, and found a comic called Drive that has some very similar ideas to the game I’m working on Jump Temp.

The comic story and the game story are actually very different, but there are key elements that show a similarity. The drive tech is discovered by accident and while it can be modified and recreated, no one knows why they work. The other is a class of characters that are very short lived, are big and strong. And there are no shields.

Okay so other than that, the two stories are very different. I just thought it was a little weird. And you should check out Drive if you haven’t already because it’s funny and well done.

Jump Temp and Protector

We’ve been playing two games that run on the Energy System lately. Jump Temp is a space opera that’s near future maybe 50-100 years from now. Protector is alternate history where aliens attack earth and super heroes save the world, are idolized, take over the world and then are hated.

We’re having fun in both. Jump Temp had the players transporting an alien government official which I would have loved to spend more time on but it was getting late after character generation. In Protector, the heroes were investigating a newly formed volcano off the coast of Scotland and found a giant lava snake and lava coated robots. Pure fun! I’m looking forward to continuing both games.

My last post was about getting larger numbers represented in the system and that’s really opened things up as far as functionality. It’s also brought a lot of clarity to the system. The thing is that the Energy System just plays differently than any other system I’ve played. As GM I have to keep reminding myself that small challenges are ok. The idea that a hero is invulnerable to small fries hasn’t happened yet. I have a feeling that we’ll get there, so I’m working on tweaking the system so that it doesn’t.

It also paces itself differently and I’ve been struggling to not fall into old habits formed from every other game I’ve played. I’m starting to feel the system’s flow a bit now and that’s good. I wonder how other GM’s would handle it though.

Although I tried to keep the concepts in the game to a minimum, they are a bit alien to players but after a play or two they’re starting to get the ideas. Heck, I’m trying to write the games using the simple concepts and I don’t always get it right. Things like money are a challenge to handle but I’m getting that nailed down.

All in all, the game takes adjustment, but it does things that I’ve always wanted in a game. It organically handles normal RPG fare like combat, but also deals with something like a space flight being mentally fatiguing. Most of our last Jump Temp game was the new crew dealing with two transits they had to make. The interesting thing is, the players enjoyed it! The Artificial Intelligence character wasn’t challenged by the trip though and the player lamented that he wasn’t getting in on the action.

So we’re having fun and the Energy System is maturing. Watch this space!